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The Snowden Emails

edward-snowden-e1392785377635I’m holding Ed Snowden up as an example. Not of a patriot, or a whistle-blower, or a scoundrel, or traitor. But as an example of what I’ve been telling students and fellow teachers for years: that if you have something to express in your writing, you believe it wholeheartedly, and it carries the urgency of original thought, it will come out by way of elegant syntax and more or less error-free construction. We can yammer on about dangling modifiers and passive voice and incongruity and topic …

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Can I Get a Better Way to Order Food?

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

A couple of years ago, the BBC published an essay on that staple of British journalism, the terribleness of Americanisms polluting the mother tongue. The Beeb invited readers to send in their own pet peeves and got such a response that it published a list of the 50 that were sent in most often. The top five, in reverse order, were:

  • Deplane.
  • 24/7.
  • Two-time or three-time, as in “two-time award winner” (though I don’t see how else that could be said).
  • Least worst option.
  • And the N0.1 m…
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Waiting for the Word of 2014

For 2014 there seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year, as I said last week. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of candidates. Just last week, for example, the news from Washington was generously sprinkled with enhanced interrogation techniques, the disputed CIA practice for obtaining information, and cromnibus, the disputed Congressional practice for obtaining government funding.

The lack of an obvious WOTY 2014 doesn’t mean that the American Dialect Society won’…

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George Curme: Orthographic Radical

As I promised last week, let me briefly discuss a further noteworthy fact about an interesting 1914 paper by George O. Curme. When I first saw the paper I thought there was a PDF encoding bug, or my eyes were playing tricks, but not so. It turns out that Curme was a radical reformer in one respect: He published his paper using an extensively revised spelling system. (My quotations from him last week regularized his spellings to current practice.)

Curme was apparently following proposals made ove…

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Vape-ing Till Ready

15495901505_202ae094cf_mSo on a rainy Monday in D.C. last month, at the Pavilion Café in the sculpture garden on the National Mall, I was lunching with Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, and Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. That’s the committee that oversees the society’s annual choice of Word of the Year. And we agreed 2014 hasn’t been the greatest year for a WOT…

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George Curme, 21st-Century Grammarian

A century ago this year, just before the First World War began, the grammarian George O. Curme published a short but remarkable paper entitled “Origin and Force of the Split Infinitive” (Modern Language Notes 29 (2), 41–45). It has deep roots in the 19th-century tradition of critical analysis of English grammar. And it is sobering to compare his paper’s meaty content with the thin gruel that passes for discussion of English grammar today.

Curme is following up works such as the splendidly acrid

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Why I Don’t Use Track Changes on Students’ Papers

icon256They arrive now, in a flood, the end-of term papers. For the most part, they are beyond revision at this point, and the task ahead consists mostly of assessment. Still, I find myself clinging to my Luddite position of accepting papers only in hard copy, regardless of the risk of germ transmission by paper, regardless of deforestation, regardless of the printing costs or the various excuses the demand engenders. The main reason for my old-fashioned insistence is that I still find some students he…

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Ain’t It Awful?

Recently I was at a dinner party where people were using the words awful  and awesome, possibly as antonyms. Awful  was, I thought, used to describe something very bad, awesome something very good.

The words awesome and awful have been doing do-si-do with one another for a while. So are they the same word? And if so, what word is that, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary records awful as medieval. Since the ninth century, it’s been the high-toned term of choice meaning “awe-inspiring,” in…

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New Grub Street

George_Gissing

George Gissing

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The new paradigm for creative folk, that is. Dispense with jobs, with their soul-deadening cubicles and time clocks (metaphorical or literal) and bosses looking over your shoulders—but also, admittedly, with their clockwork paychecks and medical benefits—and become your own brand. That meant establishing yourself online: with a blog or social-media presence or Huffington Post column. None of these offered any remuneration, and mounting a…

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This Transatlantic Life

I’ll grant that it might have been my location at the time—sitting in a university clinic—that made the phrase “winding up in hospital” jump out at me when listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. But I put the jolt down to the lack of an article. This was This American Life, after all, and the speaker, Nancy Updike, sounded as Yankee as they come; shouldn’t it have been “winding up in the hospital”?

Well, yes, according to custom and Google’s Ngram viewer:

That’s looking in the Ame…