by

Apostrophe Where Is Thy Comma?

pyramus-and-thisbeMy hunch is that the case of the missing comma began with email. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend’s dilemma over email salutations, wherein the preferred casual “Hi” at the beginning is followed by a person’s name and then a comma, rendering the grammatically standard vocative comma (“Hi, Jane,”) perhaps superfluous and at least funny-looking. I’ve been counting, and of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from students since that post appeared, none — and I mean zer…

by

Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times…

by

Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

by

Here’s My Truth

5870-i-feel-safe-to-speak-and-live-my-truthI know a guy who wakes up in the night and scrawls candidates for his WBM list. These things don’t necessarily make the cut the next morning. They have to be scrawled night after night, or linger in his head through the day, and eventually they’re added. WBM stands for What’s Bugging Me. If you don’t write “Susy shoes front hall” more than once or twice, Susy’s habit of leaving her galoshes in the middle of the hallway doesn’t really bug you, and you should get over it.

My truth has been making …

by

How ‘Offline’ Came to Mean ‘Online’

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” for…

by

Getting Down to Brass Tacks — and Silver Ones

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and catch up with Comments on Etymology, that unique journal edited and self-published eight times each academic year by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. The journal is on paper only, but you can reach the editor/publisher by email at: gcohen@mst.edu.

So far this year Comments on Etymology has documented in detail the possible or likely origins of abacus, kibosh, ukulele, and jazz. Now brass tacks has its turn. The latest issue…

by

Funiculi, Funicula

Ngram antennaI woke up this morning thinking of larvae. Not the actual creatures, but the word. I moved on from there to hippopatomi and stigmata.

All of these, of course, are Latinate plurals adopted into English. Some are used more than others. What my waking brain was trying to discover was a pattern. Why do we tend to Anglicize some of these plural forms and let others be? And has anyone settled on the pronunciation of ae, and does it disappear at the same rate and the same time as the ligature, æ?

I’m…

by

The Re-Creationist Myth

The journalistic missteps, errors, and omissions in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” began to be exposed shortly after it was published last November. They were exhaustively described in an Columbia School of Journalism report, issued April 5, that’s even longer than the original article–13,000 words versus 9,000.  (Rolling Stone removed the article from its website but it can be viewed courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

The commentary has detailed many poor decisions made by the writer of the…

by

The Double Meaning of ‘Bi-’

Poster by Chris Corneal, Michigan State U.

When we clash about usage, sometimes the arguments are so fierce because the stakes are so small. Does it really matter, for example, whether we say “20 items or fewer” or “20 items or less”? Of course it does, to those who see “less” as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but not much to the rest of us. Either way, there’s no question what the sign means. Count the contents of your cart, and direct it toward the appropriate aisle.

Most other questi…

by

The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…