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Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.

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Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe

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Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th…

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What’s a Passive?

passive-voice-demonstrated-by-zombiesI am not prepared to engage in the Passive Wars. As with any dispute, however, it behooves us to know what the heck it is we’re fighting about. As my colleague Geoffrey Pullum and others have observed, verb constructions described as passive often aren’t any such thing, and the very word passive suggests a kind of prose that lacks get-up-and-go, or whatever it is our sentences ought to have. Here, though, I want to draw our attention to a point of confusion that plagues even the most committed p…

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Take It Away

fishtakeawayBack in the day, the take away  we knew was a verb plus adverb combination that had something to do with subtraction — six take away three is three. In the 21st century, however, take away  has been compressed into a noun, like  carbon into a diamond. It’s now a sparkling word that has something to do with addition — something you get from a lecture, a performance, a meeting, a séance — some sort of event. No takeaway? No good.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest example of takeaway …

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The Structure of University Names

UC Berkeley SealProper names for colleges and universities are of three main types, syntactically. The first, which I’ll call the XU type (for simplicity I limit discussion here to names with the head noun University) has a modifier preceding the head noun, as in Harvard University. The second, the UX type, has a postnominal complement, usually a preposition phrase headed by the preposition of and almost always specifying a location, as in the University of California (UC). The third, the the XUY type, has both…

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Parenting, 1 and 2

1439911231007-300x169I hadn’t given Parent 1 and Parent 2 a thought before I saw the headline on Tennessee’s “reversal” of its “ban on ‘mother’ and ‘father.’” Huh, I thought. How had I missed news of a state’s banning mothers?

In terms of language, there’s a small, esoterically interesting story here that I’ll claim as part of what’s become sort of my bailiwick, writing about gender-neutral language. But the larger story has to do with the venues in which something becomes, or fails to become, news.

Here’s the dea…

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Artisans and Crafts

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Pre-artisanal cheese

Unless you were there, it’s hard to imagine how different the United States was back in, say, the 1950s.

No, I don’t mean the differences that computers, smartphones, and the Internet have made since then, though they are considerable. And I don’t mean the civil rights movement and affirmation of rights and respect for diversity, though those have really made a difference.

But our everyday lives have been transformed. We are privileged to live in artisanal times, in the era …

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Trump, Card

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“Donald August 19″ by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to read any standard definition of the word trump and not feel that the lexicographers had an eye on the contemporary political moment.

The word may have never been on our lips as often as in the past year. The Google Ngram Viewer demonstrates an enthusiasm for the word trump as peaking in the 1890s, back in America’s Gilded Age, after which it went into decline until the beginning of this century. Now it seems that the m…

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Conversation Piece

Henry James, it is said, wrote like he talked, in long, involved sentences.

“Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne

“The great struggle of a writer is to learn to write as he would talk.”–Lincoln Steffens.

“The greatest [writers] give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.”–Thornton Wilder

“Good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man.”…

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Theatricals

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Sign from the Franklin Theatre, Franklin, Tenn.

What’s the difference between a theater and a theatre?

At one city’s convention and visitors bureau, it’s not an academic question.

Recently a computer programmer at the bureau objected to the spelling “Movie Theaters” on the bureau’s website. “Theater is a made-up word,” he told the marketing manager. She explained that they use both spellings, “theatre for performing arts and theater for the place where one views a movie.” The programmer replied …