September 29, 2011, 6:22 pm
Photo: New York Times, May 10, 1914, p. 21
Not long ago an author e-mailed us in dismay: An image in his newly published book was wrong.
The book, which I had copy-edited, was so new it was still on my desk: oversized and gorgeous, Edward W. Wolner’s Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago: Architecture, Institutions, and the Making of a Modern Metropolis.
But in Chapter 12, in place of an image of the renovated Times Square Heidelberg Building (1914), a skyscraper of “high slenderness,” there appeared a mystery building, undeniably squat.
Although we all rushed around trying to figure out what had happened, it didn’t matter: It was too late to stop the presses. The best we could do was promise to…
September 28, 2011, 6:48 pm
It’s only September but I’ve already got my nomination for Word of the Year: curate. This transitive verb is a back formation from the venerable noun curator, and is first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary in a 1934 use. From that point till fairly recently, it has been exclusively (or nearly so) used to refer to organizing a museum or art exhibit. However, as Bob Dylan once sang, things have changed. I just searched for curated on The New York Times’ Web site, and only two of the most recent 10 hits (all published in the last month, by the way) have the traditional meaning. The others include.
- “Ms. Morris may not know it, but she is Fresh & Easy’s model customer: someone who appreciates the well-curated selection of a specialty grocer but with the discount prices of a mainstream supermarket.”
- “Start your day with our curated set of grooming products.” (This was the…
September 27, 2011, 7:22 pm
We're not talking about this "like."
A colleague visiting us this summer was engaging in that well-worn pastime, complaining about students, and focused her ire on the verbal tic “like.” Our discussion went back and forth, with me in the devil’s advocate role. “They’ll say, ‘Queen Victoria ruled for like 63 years,’” she said, “and I ask them, ‘Was it like 63 years, or was it 63 years?’”
“And how do they respond?” I asked.
“Well, it shuts them up,” she said.
Which was exactly my point. Students are by their nature a nervous bunch, and their self-consciousness while meeting with a professor may be gauged by the frequency of “like” peppering their speech. By drawing attention to the verbal tic (or, as some would have it, discourse particle) that students exhibit…
September 26, 2011, 5:43 pm
In Chapter 54 of Lee Child’s novel Gone Tomorrow an evil terrorist at an unknown Manhattan location says over the phone to our hero, Jack Reacher: “Tell me where you are.”
“Close to you,” says Reacher, bluffing: “Third Avenue and 56th Street.” The exposition continues thus:
She started to reply, and then she stopped herself immediately. She got no further than an inchoate little th sound. A voiced dental fricative. The start of a sentence that was going to be impatient and querulous and a little smug. Like, That’s not close to me.
Reacher has tricked her into revealing that she’s not near Third and 56th. She’s in some old buildings on 58th between Madison and Park, but never mind the plot: What interested me was that Child is exactly right about the sound that begins the word that — it is indeed a voiced dental fricative.
Typical nonlinguists’ descriptions of speech sounds a…
September 25, 2011, 12:18 pm
OK is the iPad of words.
When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad in January 2010, it wasn’t in response to a call for “filling a gap” in computer technology. There were laptops and smartphones already. Who needed something in between?
It turned out that many people realized that they did. In barely a year and a half, the in-between device has become the main device for millions of people who discovered that they preferred something bigger than a smartphone but lighter than a laptop. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the world of Internet communication without it.
Similarly, when Charles Gordon Greene invented the first “o. k.—all correct” for the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, it wasn’t in response to a call for filling a gap in the English language. There were many ways to indicate approval already. Who needed an expression that would convey acceptance…
September 22, 2011, 6:00 pm
I got a kick out of my fellow Lingua Franca blogger Lucy Ferriss’s observations on how a spell-check error—a word that is approved or offered up by a
For $15.95, you can by, I mean buy, an "Ode to a Spell Checker" mug.
word-processing program, but is very much the wrong word—can produce a sort of verbal serendipity. She writes:
Relying on spell check and its sibling autocorrect, my fiction students have staged countless scenes of family quarrel in the dinning room. Ignoring how a college student can have failed to learn the spelling of “dining,” let’s consider: the dinning room, where families din at one another every evening. Or there’s the scene with the boyfriend who keeps starring at his new girlfriend, amazed by his luck. I love that—I see his eyes full of stars, blinking off and on like…
September 21, 2011, 6:55 pm
Professionally trained linguists, please put your fingers in your ears and say “La-la-la-la-la” for the remainder of this post. Using terms that are no doubt clunky and antiquated, I want to point out a distinction in English that occasionally gives me a flush of pleasure.
Remember the subjunctive and the conditional? We throw these terms around. We bemoan the evaporation of the subjunctive, and we speak of conditional sentences in terms of counterfactuals. But when asked to describe the verbs “were” and “would have” in the sentence, “If I were an elephant, I’d have a long trunk,” most of us will say, “Subjunctive . . . conditional . . . whatever,” and quickly change the subject.
We’re missing the fun. “Were,” in this sentence, is in the subjunctive mood, past tense. In my universe (linguists, keep la-la-ing), there are four moods: indicative, imperative…
September 20, 2011, 6:12 pm
In a quiet square in Edinburgh’s Old Town the other day I came upon a little girl of about 2 or 3, running happily around trying to catch a fairly unperturbed pigeon, and as she ran after it she repeatedly and delightedly chanted: “Chasing me! Chasing me!”
What on earth was going on there? Was she confusing subject with object, getting the roles of chaser and chasee wrong? Was she confusing self and other, visualizing herself in the pigeon’s role and voicing its conjectured thoughts? Was she failing to get that tricky first/second person distinction shifting reference that makes your me my I and your you my me, clear on the roles but wrongly imagining that she was correctly informing the pigeon that she was chasing it?
I do not know. I thought about it during the rest of my walk home. All I will say about it is just this: I’m going to continue being very cautious about…
September 19, 2011, 6:32 pm
Erin Brenner’s recent post at The Writing Resource, “Nine Words to Avoid in Your Writing,” wasn’t about banning words. It was about avoiding the kinds of words that Bryan Garner calls “skunked”: those whose meanings are so controversial they’re guaranteed to provoke reader fury. Bemused, comprise, data, hopefully—you know the type.
Conservative writers might feel that using such words “correctly” (that is, in their traditional sense) is a matter of principle and a way to educate readers. On the other hand, writers with less prescriptivist leanings might enjoy flaunting less accepted usages, maybe even relishing the dust-ups when they are challenged.
Would it be better to avoid such words? After all, being “right” has little value if everyone believes you’re wrong.
Likewise with jargon. One sentence I recently encountered in editing contained five words …
September 18, 2011, 4:27 pm
OK, class, listen up. This lesson is important. It’s about the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary, and how to use it right.
As I said in a previous post, the word is But. And not the little but that pairs items within a sentence, like adjectives (“tired but happy”) or verb phrases (“won the battle but lost the war”), but the big But that connects across sentences and paragraphs, and that begins with a capital letter because it comes at the start of a sentence.
(All right, time out for a chuckle at the fifth-grade humor. Yes, big Buts.)
But is just one of the connectives that indicate contrast. So you the writer need to know when to use But and when to use something else. And the most important something else is though or its variant although. (The choice between though and although is stylistic, not substantive.)
Here’s the distinction: What follows…