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An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictiona…

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Food Story

When Steve Easterbrook, the new chief executive of McDonald’s, recently announced his plans to adjust the chain’s offerings and operating assumptions, he couched his message in terms of the need to “align our food story around the consumer’s definition of quality and value.”

The locution food story is one kettle of fish, with or without tartar sauce and fries.

Is Easterbrook enjoining his executives to get their story straight, as one might want covert operatives to be all on the same page? Or s…

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Whose Monday? Your Monday!

7206615_GA concerned Lingua Franca reader writes:

Perhaps it is just here in Gainesville, but I find that the radio reporters, especially those reporting weather, use the possessive pronoun when referring to time periods: “Your Friday will be sunny.” “It will be below freezing on your Monday night.” Is this modern usage? Does it happen in other places as well? Is it acceptable?

I’d noticed this particularly in robocalls and fund appeals from local arts charities—Support your Hartford Symphony! Support yo…

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On Writing Well About Passives

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“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

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To Space or Not to Space

two_spaces_badMy friend Robb Forman Dew, who won the National Book Award for her first novel, Dale Loves Sophie to Death, recently received more than 50 comments on her Facebook post:

I’m weary of the sudden and peculiar crowing about not being so old that you would be ignorant enough to double space after a marking the end of a sentence with a period. And now people are complaining about “double periods.” If you’ve been composing prose since the moment you could hold a crayon, and then you used a pencil to p…

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Iwo Jima Letter

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On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I gue…

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Me and I, Sailing to Skye

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), of “Outlander.”

Why me? Why I?

That’s the grammatical puzzle posed by a newly popular Scottish ballad. It’s a strange song, as well as a haunting one, that begins every episode of the Starz series Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling novels, the TV series is an impressively realistic  re-creation of life in Scotland in the 1740s, to which the 20th-century heroine, Claire Beauchamp, finds herself transported. This happe…

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Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not …

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Monday Is OK Day

Monday is the anniversary of the birth of the expression OK, 176 years ago, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post for Saturday, March 23, 1839. OK began as a joke, a deliberately misspelled abbreviation of “all correct.” And it remained a joke for the better part of a century, even as it was being put to serious use in OK-ing documents, train departures and arrivals, and wholesome products like Pyle’s O.K. Soap.

But that’s not the most important reason for celebrating OK. In all seriousn…

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Must We Mean What We Quote?

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Jonas Tarm, composer; Photo by Elena Snow.

The recent controversy over the young composer Jonas Tarm turns on the eleventh-hour discovery, or recognition, that his “March to Oblivion” (“Marsh u Nebuttya,” in a transliteration from Ukrainian) incorporates unplayable music — unplayable not because of its difficulty but because of its use of musical quotation.

The New York Youth Symphony canceled its performance of the work at Carnegie Hall,  reportedly in response to its quotation of a Nazi tune.