All posts by Ben Yagoda

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You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso …

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik

“Weirdest” because, compared with less-fewer, literally, could care less, and Weird Al’s othe…

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Agree to Disagree

Robert W. Service was right.

Robert W. Service was right.

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working…

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…

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‘Quality’ Time

Strolling about London on a recent vacation, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

quality

The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective …

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Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the…

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List With Legs

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

In March 2013, I wrote a short article for an online publication called The Week. Following the current mode, I composed it in the form of a list: “7 Bogus Grammar ‘Errors’ You Don’t Need to Worry About.” I explained why the following “rules” are no longer supportable, if they ever were:

  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use “which” as a relative pronoun.
  • Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don’t use the passive voice.
  • Don’t neglect t…
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Report From the Front

Ka-ching!

Ka-ching!

A couple of months ago, I was at a party, talking to a couple of lawyers, and the conversation got around to the fact that I write books. The topic of e-books came up, and one of these guys said to me, in essence, “You should love e-books! I could take out my smartphone, and buy everything you’ve ever written with a couple of clicks. It’s so easy to sell your stuff!”

I said it was more complicated than that, but not until now have I realized how true that statement is. About a week ago…

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It’s a Grand Old Bargain

Keeler and Powell: "It was grand of you to come!"

Keeler and Powell: “It was grand of you to come!”

I read in USA Today  on Tuesday that Detroit’s Big Three auto makers have “committed $26-million to the grand bargain on which much of the city’s exit from bankruptcy is based.” The “grand bargain,” the newspaper went on to explain, is a complicated arrangement in which the Detroit Institute of Arts “and its masterworks will be spun off to a nonprofit trust for the equivalent of $816-million, with proceeds set aside to help reduce pension reducti…

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Splice Girl

You can get Samuel Beckett's most famous comma splice (without commas) on a t-shirt or coffee mug

You can get Samuel Beckett’s most famous comma splice (absent commas) on a T-shirt or coffee mug

Because the conventions for their use are so variable, commas can provide a quick sense of a writer’s personal style. Or a publication’s: As I wrote a few weeks ago, part of The New Yorker‘s distinctive voice is the way, whenever standard punctuation rules allow for a comma or not, it always votes “yes.”

Things really get interesting when artful writers choose to flout those rules. Take the comma spl…

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Fun City

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, "We'll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away."

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, “We’ll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away.”

When a friend in his thirties came up to me at a party the other day and said, “I have a question about fun,” I knew he wasn’t going to ask about whether the word could be used as an adjective. That would be like asking if iced tea could be used as a beverage. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Barbara Wallraff described Steven Pinker as remarking that “he can tell whether people are …