All posts by Ben Yagoda

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Write if You Get Work

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as the cranberry grower Ward Smith

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as cranberry grower Ward Smith

“If they like Bob and Ray, they’re OK.”

—David Letterman, on how to tell if someone has a good sense of humor.

Comedy, in addition to being hard, ages faster than unpasteurized milk. No one is a greater admirer of the best comic writers and performers of the past than I, yet I experience their work only with admiration, almost never with actual laughter. The one consistent exception is when I listen to recordings of Bob and R…

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Oh, Commas

As the self-appointed watcher of commas, known to some (OK, known to myself) as The Comma Maven, I naturally was concerned when I saw the provisional title of my friend Craig Pittman’s forthcoming book about the weirdness of Florida. The book grew out of the tweets that Pittman (a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times) has been putting out for some time, like this:

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.40.00 PM

And this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.39.06 PM

 

(Craig is not connected with the person or persons who send out tweets like the following under the handle @_FloridaMan:

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Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…

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Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!

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The tiddly oggie is actually of English origin, but it typifies the Australian penchant for diminutives and abbreviations.

I’ve been in Australia for two weeks now, and all I can say is the people here must be extremely busy. Why else would they feel obliged to abbreviate so incredibly many words? I started to write down examples shortly after I arrived, and already my notebook is almost full.

A lot of the abbreviations are diminutives: Tasmania is Tassie, mosquitoes are mossies, politicians are…

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Our National Anthimeria

6a00d8341c4f9453ef01a73d6f4c92970dThanks, Nancy Friedman. Some time ago, I read a blog post by the naming consultant about the trend of anthimeria in advertising — that is, using a word as a different part of speech than normal, as in Turner Classic Movies’ “Let’s Movie” and Nutella’s “Spread the Happy.” (Movie, a noun, is being used as a verb, and happy, an adjective, as a noun.)  Friedman has collected examples for a long time, and a couple of months ago I started following her lead.

All I can say is, enough already. Ads using…

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‘Hey’ Now

Hey, if you don’t mind, listen to the first 20 seconds or so of this conversation between National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro and Gene Demby:

If you didn’t care to listen, or experienced technical difficulties, here’s the exchange in which I’m interested:

Shapiro: Hey Gene.

Demby: Hey Ari.

hank-kingsley

Hank Kingsley of “The Larry Sanders Show”: “Hey now!”

Ari and Gene are partaking of a meaning for hey that’s not recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines the word as “A call to attract att…

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No. 1965977

51YxgZIvcpL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_Last February I got a typewritten letter from inmate No. 1965977 (not her real number) in a state prison. Authors often get such letters, usually with detailed and hard-to-follow accounts of how the writer of the letter was unjustly accused, convicted, and/or treated. This one was different. It was clearly written (more so than much of my students’ work) and mentioned nothing of jurisprudence. Rather, the writer said she was interested in learning about journalism; she had no access to the Inter…

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‘Shall,’ ‘Should,’ and the Fate of the Earth

Words matter. An obvious proposition, but never so obvious as in the agreement recently adopted in Paris by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Deconstructing Paris, a New Zealand website devoted to analyzing the various drafts leading up to the agreement, noted that the penultimate draft contained more than 1,000 sets of brackets, offering alternative wordings from which the delegates had to choose. Here’s one particularly brackety paragraph:

[Each Party][All Parties] [re…

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Let’s Call the Whole Thing ‘Often’

How did Robert Frost pronounce "often"?

How did Robert Frost pronounce often?

I was listening the other day to “Reply All,” a podcast about the Internet, and P.J. Vogt, the reporter/host, had occasion to say the word often. I was pretty confident that I knew how he was going to pronounce it. After all, Vogt is young (I would judge in his early 30s), and speaks with vocal fry, list lilt, uptalk, and, generally, a pronounced Ira Glass-esque lack of slickness.

In other words, I knew he would say off-ten, pronouncing the t.

And he did.

A …

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Books and Mortar

A memorable (to me) segment on the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was “Share a Little Tea with Goldie,” in which a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out her contact lenses, then wrapped wire around them in such a way that the wire curled around her ears and the lenses were in front of her eyes. She ha…