All posts by Ben Yagoda


Who That?


“By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!”

Last week, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” inste…


American Stars and Hearts

(Image from

(image from

If Twitter users want to respond to a tweet, they have three options: reply to it, retweet it, or mark it with a symbol of approval. Over the past couple of weeks, Twitter has begun changing that symbol from a star to a heart, and the word the symbol represents from “Favorite” to “Like.”

On its blog, the company gave an explanation for the momentous shift:

We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, es…


So, NPR Voice, Ya Know …


Ira Glass at Carnegie Hall
(Photo by Brighterorange via Wikimedia Commons)

I was frankly a little disappointed to read Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times piece “‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves.” Not that I’m not obsessed with the way people talk on the programs carried by National Public Radio stations. (If you have any doubt on that point, you can read my extensive reflections on the matter here.) The problem — suggested by the singular in the title — is that there isn’t just one NPR vo…


The Great Punkin Controversy

tumblr_nus05pehML1tg0kfio1_500Starbucks watchers were taken aback last month when the company made a surprise announcement about its standard-bearing fall beverage. This year, for the first time in its 12-year history, a Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin, instead of merely spices associated with pumpkin pie.

I will not be able to report on the difference, regrettably. I never tasted the pumpkinless Pumpkin Spice Latte, so vile did it sound to me.

The PSL, as it’s affectionately known, has a cultlike following, …


Such Good Friends


Are these friends of Dorothy or friends of Dorothy’s?

On Saturday, Flavia Pennetta of Italy defeated her countrywoman, longtime doubles partner, and onetime roommate Roberta Vinci to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and gracious, but what caught my ear was one sentence, which you can hear at about the 7:58 mark in this YouTube clip:

I could be wrong, but what I think she is saying is, “It’s so nice to play with a friend of my.”

When I heard it, my thought…


In Search of Needless Words

In a 1918 version of his tract The Elements of Style, the Cornell English professor William Strunk wrote, under the heading “Omit Needless Words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, bu…


Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.


Conversation Piece

Henry James, it is said, wrote like he talked, in long, involved sentences.

“Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne

“The great struggle of a writer is to learn to write as he would talk.”–Lincoln Steffens.

“The greatest [writers] give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.”–Thornton Wilder

“Good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man.”…


These 3 Words Are the Telltale Sign of a Rubbish Script


“South Park” used the catchphrase before it became a hopeless cliché.

There are actually, in my experience, two giveaways for crummy screenplays or teleplays. The first is the extent to which characters address each other by name. If  you’re writing dialogue with no ear for actual speech, it sort of makes sense to put down lines like “This isn’t about the money, Brian,” or “I long to see you, Ellen,” or “Let’s get one thing straight, Henry,” but that’s not the way real people talk.

The other tel…


The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere…