All posts by Ben Yagoda

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Iwo Jima Letter

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On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I gue…

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And Now ‘This’

I came upon this at an online question-and-answer site:

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The most popular answer was this: “There’s nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with starting a sentence with ‘this.’  It’s essential,  however, that it’s clear what the ‘this’ is referring to.”

This sentiment is widely endorsed by writing authorities. The Penguin Handbook counts “Vague use of this” as a “common error” and counsels: “Always use a noun immediately after this, that, these, those, and some.… Remember: Ask yourself ‘th…

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Mewling Quim

Loki

Loki

It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post…

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Comma Maven Meets Comma Queen

If the phrase “copy-editing memoir” quickens your heart, then you’re in store for a treat: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton), by Mary Norris of The New Yorker. One of the many tasty tidbits in the book is that Norris’s title at the magazine actually isn’t copy editor, but rather “page OK’er”—

a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go …

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That’s Not a Word

My friend Rick Valelly recently ate at a restaurant that used to be the commissary for Paramount Studios in Queens, N.Y. He kindly sent me a photo of half of the back of the menu (all that could fit on his phone, I think):

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The reason he sent it to me is the first word in the third line. There is no definition for intrical in dictionary.com, merriam-webster.com, or The Oxford English Dictionary. However, there is one at Urban Dictionary: “A word that doesn’t exist. Usually used by dumbasses who …

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A Further Piece

FPRB_FeelDiff_4C_VtHt_R02The New York Times obituary last week for the former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith ended with this anecdote:

Matt Doherty, a forward for Smith’s 1982 N.C.A.A. champions and later the head coach at North Carolina, told Sports Illustrated: “In a team meeting once, we were going over a trapping defense, and he referred to ‘the farthest point down the court.’ Then he stopped and said: ‘You know why I said “farthest,” not “furthest”? Because far — F-A-R — deals wit…

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Baaack to the Future

I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer last week and read an article by Jeremy Roebuck about how a judicial ruling had revived the onetime local news anchor Alycia Lane’s long-dormant lawsuit against her former station. Here’s the line my eye was drawn to: “‘We’re back,’ Lane’s attorney Paul R. Rosen singsonged in an interview Friday, giving his best Poltergeist impression.”

You know that singsong. It’s an ascending musical fourth, then a descending third, with the word back elongated into two sy…
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Nice Going, Genius

Scalia: Sarcastic

Scalia: Sarcastic

In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by…

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Spelling (Sometimes) Counts

A tough book to spell

A tough book to spell

Among the things I’m bad at are backing into parking spaces, taking a hint, and grasping what people are saying when they mouth words to me. Among the things I’m good at are finding parking spaces, predicting what sports announcers will say, and spelling. The last mastery, in the digital age, is a bit like having lots of odd facts at your beck and call. They’re great skills if you happen to wander into a spelling bee or Quizzo night, but otherwise, they’re fairly vestigial.

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Not by a Long Chalk

As I have mentioned here before, my hobby is writing and maintaining a blog about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. I know, I know. Listen, it keeps me off the street.

Anyway, not long ago, Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, opened a piece this way:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The opening of the second p…