February 28, 2013, 12:01 am
Neuhauser Steet, in Munich. Do Germans save more than English speakers because of grammar?
Keith Chen, an economist at the Yale School of Management, recently gave a TED talk about his claim (in a forthcoming paper in American Economic Review) that certain of people’s prudence-related behaviors are attributable to the grammar of future time-reference in the languages they speak.
English speakers say “It will rain tomorrow” (with the future-marking modal auxiliary will), where German speakers would say Morgen regnet es (literally “Tomorrow rains it”), and Germans turn out to save significantly more of their income than English speakers do. This, Chen claims, is no coincidence: Across the world, speakers of languages with grammatically obligatory future marking tend (according to their own questionnaire responses)…
February 27, 2013, 12:01 am
In the composing room of the “Daily Mail” in 1944, a newspaperman locks the blocks of type into place on the metal frame or “form,” which will be inked and used to print the newspaper page. UK Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.
Newspaper headlines, as I said last week, are prose poetry. Not only do they have distinctive grammar and diction, they also have a tightly constrained form and even more tightly constrained content. Compared with a headline, a sonnet is a piece of cake.
At least that’s how it used to be in the good old days of the mid-20th century, in pre-CNN, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter times, when newspapers felt the burden of conveying the day’s important developments accurately and for the record.
Those were the days when every word written for a newspaper was…
February 26, 2013, 12:01 am
Hard-core discussions of gender have their own lexicon, as do hard-core discussions of anything. Like other vocabularies, this one has made its way into broader discourse as the relevant issue—gender—has entered public discussion. For most of us, terms like intersex, transgender, transsexual, heteronormative, and gender identity disorder have become clearly defined only in the last quarter-century. And it took a fair amount of what seemed, at the time, like ridiculous discussion before such terms were widely accepted in the LGBT community, not to mention among everyone else. So it behooves us to pay attention to a language controversy that some might be tempted to mock, namely the question of what to call a person who experiences a menstrual cycle.
According to Elizabeth Kissling at Ms., talking about “women who menstruate” is incorrect and even offensive. Not only do not all …
February 25, 2013, 12:01 am
In November, a waiter at an Upper West Side deli was thrilled to see sitting down at one of his tables none other than Philip Roth. You see, the waiter, whose name is Julian Tepper, is also a novelist, and had recently published a book called Balls. As Tepper described the encounter in a Paris Review piece, he handed a copy to Roth, who had recently announced his retirement as a fiction writer. “Great title,” the novelist said. “I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.” That was exciting, but then Roth went on to say some other stuff:
“I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my…
February 22, 2013, 12:01 am
I love reading the New York Times editor Philip Corbett’s After Deadline blog, not so much for the gaffes he’s willing to expose in his weekly “newsroom critique” as for the glimpses he provides into the arbitrary nature of style manuals. His examples tend to send me squirreling into the OED or harrumphing over student usages that hadn’t bothered me until that moment. Three were of particular interest last week:
1. Almost one million of these $35 machines have shipped since last February, capturing the imaginations of educators, hobbyists and tinkerers around the world. This intransitive use of “shipped” has a flavor of jargon. Better to say “have been sold” or “have been ordered” or even “have been shipped to stores.”
I ran to the OED on this one. The intransitive definitions of the verb “to ship” actually preceded the transitive ones. More intriguing…
February 21, 2013, 12:01 am
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln
The Academy Awards ceremony is on Sunday, and once again my thoughts turn to the language of film. (And I mean language-language, not the lingo of tracking shots, jump cuts, montage, and such.) Last year in this space I opined that
the tendency in Hollywood is to have [characters] talk in such a profoundly false and uninteresting manner. Screenwriters (pardon me while I grossly generalize) have a poorly thought-out notion of linguistic realism, toward which they reflexively gesticulate while spending most of their attention on advancing the plot or setting up various kinds of commonly accepted payoffs, aka “money shots.”
My biggest dialogue gripes of late have centered not on a film but on Downton Abbey, the recently completed third season of which featured more jarring…
February 20, 2013, 12:01 am
John Lewis ad from ABC Copywriting
Dictionary publishers these days try to maintain Web sites that do more than just advertise books. They offer word-of-the-day features, blog posts, English lessons, hints for teachers, educational technology news, all sorts of things. Macmillan offers Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where a January 17 post on writing asserted that “adverbs are monsters,” and made an explicit recommendation:
Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those “surprisingly”, “interestingly”, “very”, “extremely”, fortunately”, “on the other hand”, “almost invariably”. (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like “we may consider that”, “it is likely that”, “there is a possibility that”.)
February 19, 2013, 12:01 am
It is a rainy, blustery day sometime in the 1950s, and at our little school desks we are preparing for lunchtime recess. Mr McHugh, my grammar school’s principal and a man of priestly aspect, announces in solemn tones that recess will take place indoors “due to inclement weather.”
Inclement weather. Not stormy weather, not a lovely day to be caught in the rain. The phrase “inclement weather” felt then—feels now—mysterious and official.
Looking out my window as snow drifts over Manhattan more than half a century later, I’m still wondering how weather became inclement. And is there any other occurrence of the term in general use?
Some figures in history have come down to us with a reputation for clemency, as Mozart would have it in his opera La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). The Romans thought him a good emperor, the Jews not so much—Titus was responsible for the …
February 18, 2013, 12:01 am
Newspaper headlines are prose poetry. They have a spare grammar of their own, and they are constrained in size and content more strictly than a sonnet.
Indeed, there was a time within living memory, before computers and the Internet, when newspaper headline writing was recognized as an art (and a science) more difficult than writing a sonnet. More about that in another post. Here I just want to celebrate the basics of headline style, the rules for headlines.
1. Use present tense for past events:
NEW ROUTE TO INDIA
2. Use to for future events:
SUN TO BURN OUT
IN 6 BILLION YEARS
3. Omit the, a, an:
COW JUMPS OVER MOON;
DOG WATCHES, LAUGHS
4. Use comma for and
JACK, JILL FALL FROM HILL;
5. Never spell out numbers:
VIRGIL GUIDES DANTE
PAST 9 LEVELS OF HELL
6. Use colon for said or says:
GALILEO: ‘I CONFESS
February 15, 2013, 12:01 am
This will be my last post for Lingua Franca. It’s been a good experience but I need to put my shoulder to some other wheels.
Last month, in Berkeley (at University Press Books), we launched the third issue of Mixed Blood, the national publication I started with two friends at Penn State. (Mixed Blood began auspiciously—it’s the result of a series of late afternoon conversations at Whiskers, the company bar at Penn State. The publication continues to reflect the interests and involvement of its founding editors—Jeffrey T. Nealon, William J. Harris, and me—but its new home is the University of California at Berkeley.)
We’re hoping that Mixed Blood is something different, more than one more literary magazine—we invite poets to the UC campus to give public readings of their work and to give talks as well about the connections (or lack thereof) between the languages of…