All posts by Allan Metcalf

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Over and Over Again

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King AEthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, c.895-939. The Laws of AEthelstan included “over” meaning “more than” back in the 10th century. Illuminated manuscript, c.930, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the most part, a newspaper stylebook aims to fly under the radar, directing journalists to use the least obtrusive terminology and forms, so readers will not be distracted from the reporter’s message. But the stylebook is put together by individuals (editors) who have strong feelings about ri…

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The Latest Style

ap (7)Just as California offers the most neutral and unobtrusive variety of American English (we don’t think of someone having a “California accent”), so The Associated Press Stylebook offers the most neutral, unobtrusive, and inoffensive choices in spelling, punctuation, and usage. For this reason both are worthy of note as reflecting the norm, the unmarked version of American English.

They come to their roles for different reasons. East of the Mississippi, American dialects are layered north to sout…

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In Style

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Entries in the 2007 AP Stylebook

Style usually stands out, hoping to catch your attention. But not newspaper style. It has the opposite goal: to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to distract the reader from paying attention to the message.

Without a stylebook prescribing usage, the natural variation of language would be a red herring, leading readers off the trail. For example, if one newspaper story uses the spelling OK while another uses okay, a reader is likely to notice the difference…

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Life-Saving Punctuation

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Image courtesy The Semicolon Project

You can tell that a semicolon is a dangerous tool in unskilled hands. That bullet on top, that sharp curved blade on the bottom portend trouble. It’s “the most feared punctuation on earth,” The Oatmeal website warns, before explaining how to use it.

And it isn’t really needed anyhow; you can always find some other punctuation to do the job. Put a semicolon in the wrong place, and it shatters a sentence into fragments. No wonder some authorities advise amate…

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Scripture for OK Day

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Screenshot from the opening credits of the 1957 movie about a fight that took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1881. “O.K.” was less than 50 years old.

In just three days, on March 23, OK will celebrate its birthday, and it’s a milestone one, the 175th. How to celebrate? I’m going to do it with frosted cookies. But the great thing is, any way you celebrate, it’s OK.

Like the 4th of July, it can be an occasion for reading aloud the Urtext, the document that started it all. In this case, …

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Goodbye, Goodbye. . . .

Here’s something we wouldn’t say nowadays. It’s in a “parlor ballad” published in The Social Harp (1855):

Farewell, farewell is a lonely sound,
And always brings a sigh,
But give to me that good old word
That comes from the heart, good-bye.

Adieu, adieu, may do for the gay,
When pleasure’s throng is nigh,
But give to me when lovers part,
That loving word, good-bye.

Farewell, adieu, goodbye—it’s strange that a 19th-century song should ascribe such loving emotion to the latter. We still say goodby…

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Hello!

Electronic technology has had an impact on our language. And one of the greatest impacts, like that of an asteroid smashing into the Yucatan peninsula, is the way we greet each other: Hello!

Most greetings, in English or other languages, involve respect (Sir), the day (Good morning), health (How do you do, Howdy), or the like. Informally nowadays we say Hey or Hi, which might be condensations of How are you.

But none of these is the case with Hello. It has nothing to do with the day or the heal…

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Garden-Variety Clichés

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The poet Bunthorne, courtesy Blackburn Gilbert & Sullivan Society

Clichés are something else. By definition, they are weeds in the gardens of language. No more, no less.

And there’s the rub. Clichés are a whole different ballgame.

No plants are weeds by nature or by definition. They are weeds if and only if a particular gardener doesn’t want them around. One man’s uprooted dandelion is another man’s dandelion soup.

Likewise, no words or phrases are clichés by definition. They are clichés if an…

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175 Years OK

OK. Mark your calendar now for March 23, OK Day. It’s the day we pause to celebrate the birthday of OK in Boston, Hub of the Universe, on March 23, 1839.

OK?

Yes, OK! How can we sufficiently sing the praises of America’s and the world’s greatest word?

Let’s try. OK is the expression we use countless times every day to make arrangements, give approvals, and get by, often with a cascade of OKs:

“How about 2 o’clock? OK?”

“OK.”

“OK then.”

And of course that’s not all. There’s the “OK” that …

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Dry Spell

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Col. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, wanted to simplify English.

The other afternoon I was surprised by a phone call from a concerned citizen who identified himself as Eugene Segar of Detroit, 83 years old. He wanted to talk about reforming English spelling to make it more accessible to students and second-language learners.

His message wasn’t what surprised me. The ineluctable complexity of English spelling has been evoking calls for reform for centuries. No, it was rather…