All posts by Allan Metcalf


DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear

DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

The last volume of the c…


The Good Old Teen Years

$_35Alas, where are the years of yesteryear? Gone with the wind, or at least gone with their poetic pronunciations, now that we have moved from the 1900s to the 2000s.

When it comes to the names we give to the years in the English language, the 21st century is simply not as mellifluous as its predecessors.

Try it yourself with the current year, 2016. How do you say it? Two thousand sixteen is clear but ponderous. Twenty sixteen could be momentarily mistaken for 26 when you say the third syllable. An…


Vivat Academia!

NumenLumen.svgAmong the relics of medieval Latin still venerated by modern American colleges and universities are the mottos inscribed or circumscribed on the great seals that adorn their diplomas. Long before mission statements were sine qua non at institutions of higher learning, their seals evoked their aims.

Harvard, of course, leads the pack with a coat of arms reading ve ri tas: One word for “truth,” in a trinity of syllables. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of this trinity, the coat of arms wa…


O Tempora, O Mores!

College_graduate_studentsIt’s that time of year when respectable denizens of colleges and universities don caps and gowns and assemble amid the groves of academe, some to confer academic degrees and some to be conferred upon. Their faux medieval vestments are vestiges of that time in western Europe when Latin was the lingua franca for all serious scholarship.

It isn’t anymore. But other vestiges of Latin remain, connecting the English-speaking colleges of today with their ghostly ancestors in the Middle Ages.

Alas, with…


Readability, Understandability, and ETS

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference

Donald Trump’s speech to Aipac scored above a grade-level 6 in readability.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the formulas available for estimating readability are less than foolproof. It doesn’t even take a linguist to notice that things are missing from the formulas.

Last week I offered a link to the website Readability Score, where you can take any text and paste it in for an instant estimate by half-a-dozen different formulas, all purporting to determine the grade level o…


Instant Readability


Lincoln at Gettysburg

No, the age of miracles hasn’t passed. I’m about to give you a free tool that will make you an instant expert on readability.

Readability? What’s that?

It’s the ability of a text to be read and understood. It’s vital to measure readability, for example, in choosing texts that will be understood by elementary or high-school students at their appropriate grade levels. And it’s also vital in court, for another example, to determine whether a typical consumer could understand t…


Sidestepping the Semicolon


Illustration courtesy of Helen Gräwert*

If a struggling writer is having trouble with apostrophe’s, too bad. Spoken English doesnt use them and doesnt give the slightest hint about where they might be needed in writing, but youd better put them in, or the writing will look like this paragraph. Cant do that.

On the  other hand, there’s one thing you can do if you’re a struggling writer: avoid semicolons. Entirely.

We all know the looks of the semicolon: a comma with a dot on top. But what good i…


Sloganeering for President

jeb-bush-to-donald-trump-im-flattered-that-you-stole-my-tax-planIf you’re running for president, as half a dozen candidates are doing these days, you need money, you need meetings, you need enthusiastic supporters — and last but not least, you need slogans. Right?

Well, maybe. In August 2015, when the campaign was just getting started, the website Tagline Guru conducted a 2016 Campaign Slogan Survey. They asked some 250 “branding, marketing, and advertising professionals” to evaluate the official slogans of the 22 announced candidates in the running then.



OK, Presidential Hopeful? Celebrate Today.

> on July 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Bernie Sanders: “It’s not a question of me being OK.”

Happy 177th birthday to America’s greatest word … OK!

Entirely curved O, entirely straight K — put them together and they are the two-letter, two-syllable combination that confirms agreements, certifies that something works, gives lecturers a way to sum up, and expresses the American philosophy of pragmatism. I could write a book about it (and I did).

For 177 years, ever since OK was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on March  23, 18…


The Trumptionary, Part 2

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 11.44.46 AM

David Barnhart

As the Trumpus continues, our living language stretches to accommodate the new notions and perspectives generated by the Donald’s inimitable political career. The lexicographer David Barnhart, author of the quarterly Barnhart Dictionary Companion, has been quick to keep up with the new vocabulary.

He has written entries in the manner of the Oxford English Dictionary for each term, including the detailed entry for Trumpertantrum that I included in my post last week.

Here are some o…