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‘Cheeky Nando’s’

Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

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As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Am…

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A Really Bad Spell

bad_spellingThere are bad spellers, and then there are really bad spellers. Most of the time when we gripe about bad spellers we mean the first kind, who are actually for the most part pretty good.

It’s like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, with its motto “Wretched writers welcome.” Wretched they may be, but they actually have to be  pretty skillful to come up with parodies of Bulwer-Lytton’s fulsome 19th-century prose. Here’s the 2014 contest winner, by Betsy Doorman:

“When the dead moose floated into vi…

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Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technolo…

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The End of Irony. Or Not.

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David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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How Much Do We Curse?

cursing copyTwo Sundays ago, a graph in The New York Times Magazine caught my eye. The title was “Dear Reader: Are You Prone to Profanity?” The graph captured the results of an online study conducted by the newspaper’s research-and-analytics department in January. In this case, the question was: “How often, if at all, do you swear or curse in conversation?”

Of the 3,244 New York Times subscribers who responded, the majority (61 percent) went with “occasionally,” which seems like a fairly safe response f…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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George Eliot, Currer Bell, Clara Gazul, and Me

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Clara Gazul

You will recognize the first name as that of one of our greatest novelists, known privately as Mary Ann Evans, author of the immensely satisfying Middlemarch as well as things you were forced to read in high school, like Silas Marner.

Currer Bell requires a bit more familiarity with 19th-century fiction, though hardly a secret. The work published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography is, so the title page proclaims, “edited by Currer Bell.”  Charlotte Bronte embedded her initials — …

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…