November 30, 2011, 4:13 am
Academics love to quote—as evidence, as embellishment, as filler. Snippets and long blocks. Quotations within quotations. It’s a pity that so many do it so poorly. Here is Part 1 of some advice from a copy editor experienced in tidying up quotations.
—On accuracy. Long quotations in the manuscripts I read seem more error-free than in years past, which I attribute to easy cutting and pasting from online sources (as opposed to inexpert typing). Unfortunately, easy pasting also increases the rate at which published typos are replicated. So read what you paste, and if anything looks amiss, investigate further.
—On syntax. Some writers have a tin ear when it comes to sliding a quotation nicely into a sentence. It’s OK to borrow a word or two from the quotation in order to avoid chopping “it into a quoted phrase” of ugliness. As long as the actual quotation is accurate, no …
November 29, 2011, 4:00 am
It’s that time of year again when night encroaches on day and winter looms. Time for a tribute to our linguistic ancestors, the Angles and Saxons and Jutes who brought “Angle-ish” to Britain some 1,500 years ago. Without the consolation of central heating or sunlamps, they knew night and winter.
The Old English language they spoke differs from the English of today like night and day. In fact, the difference is night and day. And winter.
In these northerly regions, long nights in the midst of long winters made such an impression on them that they often reckoned by nights and winters rather than by days and years.
It came from their Germanic linguistic heritage, stretching back to times before their language was written down. Nearly two millennia ago the Roman historian Tacitus noted of the Germanic tribes, who spoke a language that was the ancestor of present-day English: “…
November 28, 2011, 12:01 am
There’s a lot of talk about home over the holidays—about travel, about roots, about family. Add the tendency of family gatherings to conjure emotional arguments about nothing, and you have the makings of a homing/honing debate. It was at a family gathering, about a quarter century ago, that I was informed that my idea of “honing in on” a new idea for a book was nonsense because the proper phrase was “homing in on.” After a lot of bluster and a trip to some dictionary or other, I corrected my speech. But it’s nagged at me since, and to forestall any such arguments at your homes, I’ll indulge in a little etymology here.
For birds, “to home” has a mid-length history, having been used first in the mid-19th century as an intransitive verb with “from,” “at,” or “to,” depending on where the bird is in its flight or at rest. In 1920, as aviation allowed us to…
November 23, 2011, 4:06 am
It’s Thanksgiving. Time for a tribute to that centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, the mexico.
The mexico is so important that it even provides a nickname for Thanksgiving Day itself: Mexico Day. It’s the day when throughout the United States we gather with families and friends to give nondenominational thanks and dine on mexico.
During the rest of the year we don’t seem to care so much for mexico (maybe we eat too much at Thanksgiving), but on Thanksgiving Day it’s roast mexico, fried mexico, grilled mexico, brined mexico, deep fried mexico—any way we cook it, mexico is the feature of our feast.
And what’s a Thanksgiving dinner without leftovers? For the next few days, we make the most of the aftermath in the form of mexico sandwiches, mexico soup, mexico casserole, mexico pot pie, even mexico à la king.
The word and the bird go back a long time in our history,…
November 22, 2011, 4:37 am
Hakuna Matata: "It means no worries for the rest of your days."
In this holiday run-up, let’s give, not only thanks, but some attention to what one says after being thanked. My observation is that the traditional you’re welcome is as passé as turducken with canned gravy. The roster of alternatives has an Eskimos-words-for-snow-level capaciousness. (And yes, I know this notion is an apocryphal urban legend, but I just can’t quit it, so deal.) Just off the top of my head, there’s:
Sure thing/sure, you bet/you betcha, you got it, that’s why I’m here (shout-out to James Taylor), my pleasure/the pleasure is mine, don’t mention it, not at all, no biggie, no problem/no problema/no probs, of course!, and the all-time favorite of NPR interviewees, thank YOU!
It intrigues me that we have so …
November 21, 2011, 4:22 am
It’s Thanksgiving this week. For many Americans, the most important time of the year for gathering with those you love. And my friend Susie Bright sent me a thoughtful gift: a list of the top 10 relationship words that cannot be translated into English.
Now, you may be aware that untranslatable-word stories usually bring out my grouchy-linguist persona (my recent Eskimo lexicography post offered a hint). But this list stayed with me and didn’t just go in the trash. There are certain special reasons why I warmed to Susie’s gift (I’ll explain later; trust me).
I’ve seen most of the words before, of course: People love these lists of “untranslatable words,” and pass them around endlessly like chain letters. The lexicography is unchecked, sometimes uncheckable. For example, Yagán is claimed to have a word mamihlapinatapai denoting a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two…
November 17, 2011, 8:42 pm
Phono- pheno- what???
Don’t worry, this isn’t about philosophy. It’s about error—grammatical, usage, spelling error—matters on which we all are self-proclaimed experts.
But where does phono- phenomenology come in?
It happens that “The Phenomenology of Error” is the best article I’ve ever read about those errors. It’s the article you have to read if you want to make sense of why we fight so furiously over minutiae of grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like.
It was published 30 years ago, but it’s surprising how little has changed in questions of usage since then. We’ve been embroiled in a Hundred Years War. (Several hundred, actually.)
Fortunately, the article isn’t from a philosophy journal, but from a publication aimed at college teachers of freshman composition. You don’t have to know a thing about phenomenology (got it right that time!) to …
November 16, 2011, 9:10 pm
A confession: I love Roget’s Thesaurus. Mine is not a popular position to avow. Most writers I know, asked if they use a thesaurus to discover more interesting vocabulary for their essays or stories, bristle with resistance. Haven’t those who look up “say” in the Thesaurus and consequently force characters to “utter,” “breathe,” “pour forth,” “state,” “declare,” “assert,” “aver,” “relate” “murmur,” “mutter,” or “gasp” ruined countless reading experiences? Haven’t students who looked up “refute” and found “confute” next on the list composed arguments that got off on the wrong track, only to be further derailed when they decided that “apodixis” suited them better than “proof”? Whatever folks think of Stephen King, most would agree with his advice, in On Writing:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing …
November 15, 2011, 10:00 pm
It seems impossible to stop people babbling on about how the Eskimoan languages have huge numbers of distinct word roots denoting different types of snow, and trying to squeeze conclusions about cognition and culture out of this tired turnip of a factoid. Recently I ran into it again on the Web site of Miller McCune, a magazine based in Santa Barbara. “SMART JOURNALISM. REAL SOLUTIONS.”, says the masthead. (Authoritative periods. After each phrase. Might try that.)
And what sort of smart journalism do we actually get? A limp article about endangered languages and “endangered ideas” that once again hands us the old myth about Yup’ik and Inuit vocabulary:
As the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call “snow” and “ice.” This suggests language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode…
November 14, 2011, 5:50 pm
Poster for a University of Delaware event about issues raised by the execution of Troy Davis
In the days after the Penn State sex-abuse scandal broke, students gathered outside the house of then-coach Joe Paterno. The coach stepped outside to thank them for their support, after which, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Paterno then twice shouted the customary ‘We are!’ and got a roaring of “Penn State!’” Interviewed by the Inquirer, a student in the crowd said, “This brings us together and really shows our Penn State pride. It really is the epitome of ‘We are.’”
“We are … Penn State” has been hard to avoid over the past couple of weeks, with students and supporters hauling it out at every opportunity, but it’s far from new. According to an article in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, …