November 30, 2012, 12:01 am
“The end of the world will be along shortly,” a friend of mine remarked, after noticing what he thought was an erroneous whom in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker. But the example he pointed me to was an interesting one. It does not by any means imply that we are nearing the end times, though pedants may think otherwise by the time I’m done. The sentence occurred in a book review by Nathan Heller (November 19, 2012, Page 86):
||But what about Sir Isaac Newton, whom some contend was autistic?
Shouldn’t that whom, thought my friend, be who instead?
To answer the question, we have to be precise about the relevant rule. We’re never very sure of ourselves when it comes to whom. Style plays a role: Who are you supposed to trust? is normal style in Standard English, while Whom are you supposed to trust? is almost excessively formal. Purists call the former “a…
November 29, 2012, 12:01 am
For a while, “lady” and “ladies” were a no-no. But they have shot back into prominence.
Another exchange with my 22-year-old daughter Maria.
Maria Yagoda: Just about a year ago, a friend (female, needless to say) texted me suggesting we meet up for coffee. The text started, “Hey Lady!” And then almost immediately, it seemed that Lady had become the most popular way for young women to address other young women, predominantly by electronic means. Just a couple of recent examples from my newsfeed and text inbox:
“Lady! Let’s hang out!”
“Happy birthday pretty lady ”
Well before the singular lady took hold, the plural form was out there—that is, women addressing women, collectively, as “ladies.” Back in 2008, Beyonce recorded “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” There’s a…
November 28, 2012, 12:01 am
A looming crisis for newspaper editors has been averted. Webster’s New World Dictionary is in safe hands again.
It’s the dictionary relied on as alpha reference by the Associated Press, The New York Times, and most other American newspapers. It has been that way for a good half century, ever since it dethroned Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, the 3,000-page, 10-pound “Unabridged,” from its place of honor in America’s newsrooms.
Merriam-Webster shocked editors and pundits with its 1961 third edition, which seemed to condone ain’t with the now-famous usage note, “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.”
Recognizing that civilization would collapse if this lapse in propriety were allowed, editors looked around for a substitute …
November 27, 2012, 12:01 am
A few years ago, following a stunningly silent moment in a class discussion, my creative-writing students let me know that race was indeed a taboo topic on campus, at least in polite conversation. (To be fair, creative-writing classes have often and famously suffered from an overabundance of politeness.) My response was to begin teaching a course I called “Race, [Creative] Writing, and Difference,” the title borrowed from the Kwame Anthony Appiah-Henry Louis Gates Jr. volume. We read some literature of race (Noel Ignatiev, Toni Morrrison, Kenji Yoshino, Mark Twain, many others), but the vehicle for the writing in the course is the personal essay, the most raucous and open-ended and close to poetry of the well-known prose forms. Phillip Lopate’s encyclopedic Art of the Personal Essay is the point of departure here—Lopate directs us toward both intimacy and experiment, he reminds…
November 26, 2012, 12:01 am
In an earlier century, I taught at an exclusive four-year college whose English department had a bang-up reputation for producing fine writers. Elders in the department had produced a style manual that all instructors were to follow. The rule of thumb was to mark papers with the style-manual codes and not to accept final versions until all errors had been taken care of. Such error codes included “wc” for “word choice” (using “like” for “as”); “cg” for “incongruity” (“an example of this is when”); “da” for “dangling”; and so on. I found the practice tiresome and relatively ineffective, particularly when I turned in my first annual report, where I had noted that my research “centered around” a particular topic, and one of my elders had written “cg!” in the margin. We were missing the forest for the trees, I thought then and think now; we were…
November 21, 2012, 12:01 am
Floridians waiting to vote. Credit: the Associated Press
Judging from a spate of recent references, we may soon reach the point where, to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the third world and it is us.
This trend vigorously penetrated my consciousness via press coverage of the ridiculously long voting lines for the presidential election in many areas around the country. A Floridian who was turned away after waiting two hours to cast her vote in early voting told The Miami Herald, “This is America, not a third-world country.” Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman said on MSNBC, also in reference to Florida, “I’ve led delegations around the world to watch voting, and this is the kind of thing you expect in a third-world country, not in the United States of America.” As Mayor Michael Bloomberg of…
November 20, 2012, 12:01 am
Now that 2012 is nearing its end, the first and last and best choice for Words of the Year will be coming soon. It’s the January 4 vote by members and friends of the American Dialect Society at the group’s annual meeting.
It’s first, because it was the first annual vote on WOTY, established back in 1990. It’s last, because it comes after all the other selections that are nowadays announced by practically every dictionary maker and language savant. And it’s best, because ADS waits till the year is completely over, thus allowing for last-minute candidates, and because the ADS choices are the pooled wisdom and wit of well over 200 people who study language.
There’s still time to nominate a word or phrase for the American Dialect Society Word of the Year 2012. Just go to http://www.americandialect.org/woty and click on the link there.
But before the words of 2012…
November 19, 2012, 12:01 am
A recent Chronicle article headed “Language Matters,” by a midwestern professor using the pseudonym Elizabeth Duncan, addressed a situation where I am pretty sure that, contrary to her view, language doesn’t matter.
Her present mood (“disappointed, sullen, self-pitying”) results, she claims, from a failure of grammar. She had been invited to apply for an endowed chair but had not ultimately received the offer. The idea that language was to blame emerged while she was listening to Patricia Williams, critical legal studies scholar and columnist for The Nation, giving a lecture on contemporary political discourse in which “the lost art of the subjunctive” was mentioned. Williams talked about the “wishful immediate” that dominates our discourse about inequality: “We speak [...] of the ‘postfeminist’ or the ‘postracial’ as if each has arrived,” Williams said, meaning apparently nothing…
November 16, 2012, 12:01 am
U.S. election 1916; green=Republican; white=Democrat
A week ago I invited readers to decorate with an effective slogan the bandwagon of a potential 2016 candidate for the U.S. presidency. For any potential candidate, because it’s too soon to know who the candidates will be, and because, like The Chronicle, I wish to remain scrupulously nonpartisan and equal opportunity.
These were my rules:
- No more than 10 words. Fewer is better. It’s a slogan, not a manifesto.
- Not used in previous presidential campaigns. Make it new!
- Available for any candidate, Democrat, Republican, or independent. Equal opportunity!
Thirty-two of you managed to rise to the occasion, even after the exhaustion of the 2012 campaign. One contributor was even so prolific as to offer more than two dozen slogans, like those who buy…
November 15, 2012, 12:01 am
I told myself I was going to take a break from posts about language and politics after the election, but Robert Lehrman’s recent “Draft” column in The New York Times changed my mind. Mr. Lehrman wrote of President Obama’s policies going forward,
Naturally, whether President Obama can bring people together will be determined by more than a speech. Like tennis, it depends on players across the net. For the last four years, Republicans thought they could win with another game. Will Republicans, chastened by defeat, now change?
Though I gather that Michelle Obama plays tennis, Lehrman’s is the first reference I’ve heard to that game in talking about this year’s presidential contest. But we’ve exhausted practically all the others:
- This year’s contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is best explained as the biggest football game ever. … The fourth quarter began…