October 17, 2011, 7:05 pm
Warning: For mature audiences only. Language and some sexual content.
What’s really destroying family values in the United States? Some sincere but misguided souls think it’s the institution of same-sex marriage, as if what other couples might do would have any effect on one’s own bigendered nuclear marriage. No, the real threat comes from the language we allow in our homes, even in earshot of the vulnerable minds of little children.
We need a Defense of Prepositions Act to prevent blatant immorality among those promiscuous little words. Not only do they skip out on their responsibilities to the phrases that they are attached to (there goes one right now, shame on you, to!), but they even become transgendered, as it were (transpartofspeeched, to be exact), and run off (stop it, off!) with verbs. O tempora, o mores!
It’s bad enough that respectable nouns turn into verbs, …
October 16, 2011, 2:23 pm
Redundancy and usage have been on my mind since one commenter pointed out that I used “advocate for” and “advocate against” in a previous post. This grammarian pointed out, correctly, that the verb “to advocate” is defined purely as transitive. Thus, one should either advocate a thing or oppose it. Without such distinctions, my worthy respondent proclaimed, “Civilization is over, it’s all Goths and Visigoths.”
I took this question to a group of clever nonacademic friends. When I tried out the phrase, “I advocate universal day care,” one of them frowned and said, “You don’t want to talk that way. You’ll sound weird.”
One could write a book, I imagine, about the ways in which language evolves to become less rather than more precise. In the short time since I began to ponder the intransitive use of “advocate,” I’ve run across umpteen uses of…
October 14, 2011, 9:42 am
The TV program Dragons’ Den features inventors being challenged by a team of skeptical venture capitalists known as the Dragons. One recent show featured an oven-glove with fingers, which the inventor called a gloven. The assembled Dragons demurred. When a new noun is coined through phonetic fusion of two already existing word roots X and Y, they said (in effect: I paraphrase), people expect the thing named to be both sort of like an X and sort of like a Y. Thus brunch is both sort of like breakfast and sort of like lunch. A spork is a kind of combination spoon-fork, with properties of each. (Rarely, words are formed from more than two roots: the Lakeland kitchenware company sells a combination scraper-scooper-ladle called the Scrudle. Good luck with that word, Lakeland: After two years it’s only getting 3,000 hits on Google, and given the size of the Web that is approximately none…
October 12, 2011, 7:15 pm
(We're still not talking about this "like")
This past week, I was reading a fascinating piece in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, one of those extraordinary scientists who are blessed with the ability to write engaging prose, when I was stopped by this sentence:
- He didn’t know if other instrumentalists relied on coaching, but he suspected that many find help like he did.
“As!” I almost shouted at the page. “’Like’ is a preposition! It takes an object! ‘As’ is a conjunction! It takes a clause!”
Most of us are familiar with this grammatical correction. The most famous error lies in the old cigarette slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” The correct construction, of course, is “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should,” with the remainder of the dependent…
October 11, 2011, 6:42 pm
A language is like a mouthful of teeth, right?
The individual teeth are the words. And those who would improve the language are like dentists. Extraction here, filling there, braces to align the words nicely.
Chew on that for a while. Because my concern here is whether modern ortholinguistry, for better or worse, is actually capable of changing a language.
In particular, there is the question of gaps. It’s easy for even unlicensed amateurs to notice that any language, including ours, has gaps aching to be filled. And there is no lack of would-be language menders—call them ortholinguists—ready to provide the filling.
Take the most notorious gap in English, the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. That has been a concern for centuries, but especially since we have become aware of the sexist bias of using he for both genders. As long as there has been a concern, so…
October 10, 2011, 8:57 pm
Buster Bluth: "Army had a half day today."
The Wall Street Journal has an amusing article about a new marketing trend of dropping the the before product names, especially (for some reason) technological gizmos. Thus there is a strong push from makers to refer to
the Kindle, the Nook, and the Wii. The piece quotes Research In Motion Ltd.’s internal style guide, which mandates, puzzlingly, that “BlackBerry” should be used “as an adjective and not as a noun or verb.” A very BlackBerry Christmas?
Apparently, Sean “Napster” Parker once advised Mark Zuckerberg to drop “the awkward article” before the name of the social media site he’d invented. And then the sans-the Facebook took off. Coincidence? Maybe.
This is certainly a wider phenomenon. For some time, movie titles have conspicuously eschewed an…
October 9, 2011, 3:16 pm
Big load of logs, 1903. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, image no. 82796.
My colleague Geoffrey Pullum’s musings on our tendency to see motes in the writing of others while ignoring logs in our own raises the question of how writers are supposed to edit themselves in the first place.
Reading your own work objectively is a trick that some master more easily than others. The best-known tactic is highly effective: Put your paper away for as long as you’re able and then read it with a fresh eye. Unfortunately, that trick is available only to those who work ahead, have no deadlines, or research in fields that change slowly. Most writers don’t have the luxury of putting their work in a drawer for a month.
As a copy editor, I’ve noticed some glitches that writers often fail to see in…
October 6, 2011, 7:27 pm
I’m founding a new school of literary criticism. You read it here first!
It’s easy, and anybody can do it. So I expect a big following.
I’m calling it Tefcro. Or perhaps TefcroTM so I can get rich and famous from it. You think?
Anyhow, here it is:
Some writing is TeflonTM, some is VelcroTM.
No, the writing is not made of either Teflon or Velcro. This is literature we’re talking about, so I’m using a MetaphorTM.
Teflon writing is smooth, polished, gemlike. You can admire it, but it doesn’t reach out to you. It leaves you in peace.
Velcro writing, on the other hand, grabs you, sticks with you, changes you. It isn’t necessarily pretty to look at, but it gets hold of you and shakes you up.
Who is a Teflon writer? Edgar Allan Poe, to take an obvious example. Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” explains how he coolly designed “The Raven” to evoke…
October 5, 2011, 7:32 pm
Actor posing as lawyer
If you answered “True,” would you also say that all pizzas are not edible, or that all editors are not sticklers, or that all peeves are not justified?
As you know very well, you would be wrong in every case. It’s not true that all lawyers are not liars, because some lawyers are liars. To accurately express what you probably believe to be true, you should write “Not all lawyers are liars”—although the first construction has become so commonplace that even though I’m an editor, and even though not all editors are sticklers, I feel a little stickler-y making a fuss over it.
And yet this particular gaffe is worth some fuss. Some seemingly similar errors—like the misplacing of only—are easier to forgive because everyone knows what you mean by them. I only*…
October 4, 2011, 7:25 pm
U2 called one of their albums "A Sort of Homecoming," after a poem by Paul Celan
I fired up my e-mail this morning to find a note containing the following blurb for a collection of poems:
I was made silent and watchful by the continuing poetry here. I kept reading, sort of mesmerized by the consistent achievement, watching out for the occasional weakness. Surely the level couldn’t be maintained. But the weakness never showed.
One phrase jumped out at me. The phrase was sort of. A couple of years ago, my daughter Maria, then and now a college student (and a sharp observer of linguistic trends), commented to me that these two words were crack cocaine to her professors: irresistible and deadly. Note that she didn’t say “sort of crack cocaine”; she recognized that the qualifier would have sort of ruined…