April 30, 2012, 12:01 am
Let’s start the week off with a little quiz! Who first wrote or uttered the following statements?
- “If you make it here, you make it anywhere.”
- “Follow the money.”
- “A ball game is never over till it’s over.”
- “In the long run, we are all dead.”
- “Give peace a chance.”
- “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
- “Old age is not for sissies.”
I’ll give the answers in a minute, but it would ruin the fun if they appeared so close to the questions, so first a few words about the soon-to-be-published book I cribbed them from: The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (Yale University Press), by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro. It’s a fabulous book, certainly the most enjoyable one I’ve read this year. (Of course, you’re taking this from someone who dips into Mencken’s The American Language for beach reading, so buyer beware.)
The authors define…
April 27, 2012, 12:01 am
Photo courtesy of Enokson.
When I hang out with writers or editors, conversation inevitably touches on working with music in the background. There are always listeners and nonlisteners, but the most passionate are those who never work while listening. I think I understand—they read and write “by ear,” so their “music” is on the page; additional music clashes and distracts. Those who work more visually, on the other hand, can afford to add a music track. They might listen or not; it’s optional.
Both groups seem a little defensive: Listeners seem pleased to have music as a resource that helps inform their reading and writing, that they have the brainpower to multitask, that they can take a laptop or tablet to a cafe and either ignore the Muzak or tap along with it. Nonlisteners seem to think …
April 26, 2012, 12:01 am
Hoo boy, did I goof. In a piece I recently wrote about commas for the online New York Times, I made a mistake that was seized on and adumbrated by Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Awl, Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and The Huffington Post, whose headline was “Is This the Funniest Newspaper Correction Ever?” (I was gratified that most of the comments agreed with the person who said, “No it’s not really that funny at all.”) I provide no links, except for Regret the Error, which is a very entertaining and instructive site devoted to journalistic errors and corrections. Otherwise, if you’re interested, you can find it all yourself.
The episode got me to mentally reviewing my own Greatest Misses, a loop tape that is mercifully not very long but is definitely cringe-inducing. At my first job, as an editor with a small magazine called The New Leader, a piece came in that…
April 25, 2012, 12:01 am
What is it with people who, because they know a language, presume that they know exactly how the language works?
They are like those who, because they can drive a car, presume that they know how the engine works. Except in that case, we all know better. You can be an expert driver without knowing the parts and connections that make the car go.
Similarly, you can be an expert user of a language without knowing the parts and connections—at least, not knowing how to explain them. But in the case of language, that doesn’t stop expert users from making the logical fallacy of assuming If X, then Y, X being knowledge of a language and Y being how that language works. It’s like someone who knows how to build a campfire telling a chemist that phlogiston accounts for the phenomenon of fire.
This is nothing new. In fact, it’s the subject of a famous article by a famous America…
April 24, 2012, 12:01 am
Most people I know don’t want to like Stanley Fish. They cite with manufactured displeasure his unctuous blog post on Sarah Palin, as if his praise of her autobiography were the greatest betrayal of liberal values since David Mamet came out as a conservative. But I fell in love with form in seventh grade, when I diagrammed a sentence from Silas Marner that covered four blackboards and came out perfect. And so I avidly followed Fish’s New York Times series on using syntax, rather than self-expression, to teach writing. I broke with several rhet-comp friends over his chastisement of their free-writing practices. I can fill your ears with the ways my beloved Blake sentence, “For we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” works through eye-rhyme, alliteration, aphorismus, aposeipesis, hypallage, and transposition—not to mention iambic…
April 23, 2012, 12:01 am
In the annals of prescriptivist poppycock, a century is not very long, and a development spanning only 50 years from beginning to end counts as speedy. Let me describe one such incident, which concerns a small and very natural syntactic change in the use of a single adverb.
Many adverbs are used as manner adjuncts: He saw her clearly uses clearly as a modifier specifying the manner of the seeing. Some are used as what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls modal adjuncts, necessarily and possibly being the most basic and familiar ones. Clearly happens to have both a manner use and a modal use: Clearly he saw her is an example of the latter (modal adjuncts are often placed at the beginning of the clause; notice that this sentence doesn’t comment on the clarity of the glimpse, it says that given the evidence it’s indubitable that he saw her).
Nobody worries about these…
April 20, 2012, 12:01 am
It was in Robert MacNeil’s TV series The Story of English that I first heard the rumor of Shakespearean English being alive and well on certain islands off the coast of the southeastern United States. MacNeil went there, as I recall, and several locals declaimed in the Bard’s language, all of them sounding fairly colorful and convincing—and a whole lot less respectable than the upper-class accents we had cultivated for my high-school production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Now the estimable British Library has released a set of scenes and speeches on CD that claim to be performed as Shakespeare would have intended. How do they know? To learn the answer, I had to work my way past the clips from the CD release that can be found on the Web or downloaded from the British Library—for instance, this snippet from Macbeth.
To me, this audio sounds, first, like someone whose jaw has …
April 19, 2012, 12:01 am
Photo courtesy of marlèned
In book publishing, each project begins with a financial projection that takes into account everything that affects costs and revenues: the number of words and illustrations in the manuscript, author royalties, subventions from financing bodies, printing costs, estimated sales, and so on. The trick is to juggle all these data until the math adds up to at least the minimum acceptable profit.
If it doesn’t, the editor must tinker, adjusting anything that can be adjusted while still meeting the publisher’s standards. Maybe the color insert can go. The print run might be reduced.
One cost-cutting measure that can make sense is to put ancillary materials online, directing readers of the printed book to the URL. University Presses have been doing this for quite some time…
April 18, 2012, 12:01 am
Ben Yagoda, who knows me only from my writing, imagines me as “a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage“—the target of my fiery temper being stupid grammatical claims rather than pesky rabbits.
Well, I’m proud to be a cartoon character in the vivid dreamworld of a linguistically savvy colleague like Ben, but it ain’t true about the rage, pardner. I’m a calm, contented, and happy man. I hope people haven’t been reading the simulated towering fury at gol’darned prescriptivist varmints that I just occasionally affect for the purposes of writing entertaining posts, and mistaking it for the real me.
No, it doesn’t actually make me angry to see the prescriptive poppycock and grammatical misinformation that is spouted in journalistic and blogospheric sources every day. But a modicum of fear sometimes chills me a little. Fear at working in …
April 17, 2012, 12:01 am
Sam: "Be you the mean hombre that's a-hankerin' for a heap of trouble, stranger? Well, be ya?"
Sometimes I would like to channel my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum. Not because of his support and sage counsel, which I have long valued, but because of the way he is perpetually ready, willing, and able to fulminate. I have never met Geoff face to face, and I sometimes imagine him as a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage by some dim editor or prescriptivist.
The trouble is, I haven’t really had anything to fulminate against. Until now. Last week I wrote a piece for an online New York Times series called “Draft.” My topic was the comma–use and misuse of–and it got a lot of reaction. This included at least two people who e-mailed me to say they we…