May 24, 2013, 12:01 am
In 2011, I wrote a Lingua Franca article called “Article Article,” about how the word the had mysteriously disappeared from such names and expressions as
the prom, the CIA, the Potus, the Yukon, (Yale’s) the Old Campus, and (Amazon’s) the Kindle. I also mentioned a counter-trend,
that is, adding an unexpected definite article. This is often done for ironic effect, as in nicknames like The Donald or The Dude (in The Big Lebowski), the TV show The O.C., and Stephen Colbert’s frequent references to “The USA Today.” Absent irony, this the is dead-solid pretentious. Examples include the whiskey that insists on being called The Glenlivet [and] the tennis tournament that pretty much everybody in the world knows as Wimbledon but is officially The Championships.
Bringing the issue once again to mind is this week’s news that Lincoln University, in my home state of Pennsylvania, has…
May 15, 2013, 12:01 am
Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.
I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to be too small a sample to yield each week five sentences worthy of collecting: that is to say, sentences which you cannot think of a way to improve and which might have a chance of living on when the immediate circumstances of their publication are long forgotten. Here, for example, is…
May 6, 2013, 12:01 am
Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “But I kid Mitch McConnell. … “
At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughter and applause.) We’re changing things around here a little bit. (Laughter.) Actually, my advisers were a little worried about the new rap entrance music. (Laughter.) They are a little more traditional. They suggested that I should start with some jokes at my own expense, just take myself down a peg. I was like, “Guys…
May 2, 2013, 12:01 am
“Literally” humor is common on the internet, as in this Cyanide and Happiness comic strip
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Being an arbiter of language, that is. This one came from a friend via Facebook:
Ben, would you mind adjudicating a grammar dispute?
Here’s the quotation:
“As something as horrifying as this afternoon in Boston is literally unfolding, as we are worrying about loved ones who may be affected, we already have to worry about the consequences of backlash violence.”
I say the events were not literally unfolding. My friend says they were, because “reveal” is a valid definition of “unfold.”
Please put us out of our misery.
Here’s my reply:
I will give you my favorite kind of answer, which is that you’re both wrong! “Unfold” means “reveal” only through metaphor, a figure of…
April 23, 2013, 12:01 am
The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage
Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with So or ending them with right?
You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:
• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of the arrest process. It pops up in a database.” (The New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, talking on NPR’s On the Media about a recent Supreme Court case)
• “Four months after the opening gala, the company that built PH Towers sues Westgate for unpaid bills. David Siegel is forced to lay off thousands of employees.”…
April 18, 2013, 12:01 am
Ad from ‘The New Yorker,’ June 6, 1942
The other day, I got a message on Twitter from the writer Ruth Franklin: “Re. New Yorker book, question for you. Do you have a sense of when hotels stopped advertising as ‘restricted’?”
I didn’t know the answer, but I knew what she was referring to. In researching the prolific New Yorker short-story writer Irwin Shaw, for my 2000 book on the magazine, About Town, I’d come upon a story by Shaw, published in the August 17, 1940, issue, called “Selected Clientele.” It was about an assimilated Jewish writer named Sam who experiences an anti-Semitic incident and reflects,
The disease was growing stronger in the veins and organs of America. All the time there were more hotels you couldn’t go to, apartment houses right in New York you couldn’t live in. Sam sold stories to…
April 11, 2013, 12:01 am
Pullum’s e-mail read, “Most things, yes. It’s a bit of a problem. I have often written pieces that then had to be just tossed in the electronic trash because he published a longer and better discussion before I was finished. And I ought to be five hours ahead of both of you, on UK time.”
He was responding to my own e-mail, which asked, simply, “Does Liberman get to EVERYTHING first?”
“Liberman” would be Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder, along with Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum, of the super-awesome blog Language Log. The sheer number of Mark’s posts demands an adjective that goes well beyond prolific. The upsetting thing is that they’re usually really good, too.
Maddening as well is his nose for what’s in the linguistic wind right now—a quality that I associate more with journalists than…
April 1, 2013, 12:01 am
Youkilis as a Yankee
Today is Opening Day for most teams, and gloryosky for that, but spring training had just begun when Kevin Youkilis rocked my world. Over the winter, the longtime infielder for the Boston Red Sox had signed a contract with that team’s hated rival, the New York Yankees. In an interview with diamond scribes, Youkilis uttered these immortal words:
“I’ll always be a Red Sox.”
What gobsmacked me wasn’t the scandal of Youkilis’s expressing fealty to his old mates, but rather his choice regarding grammatical number. That is, he did not say, “I’ll always be a Red Sock.”
Backing up just a little bit, I have for some time tracked the pluralification of sports-teams names. I am referring not to issues of what to do when the name itself is a singular or collective noun, such as Miami Heat or Utah…
March 28, 2013, 12:01 am
The current issue of The New Yorker contains a very long article by Marc Fisher entitled “The Master.” It is a remarkable, scrupulous, and devastating account of many reprehensible actions of Robert Berman, a former English teacher at Horace Mann, a private school in New York City. The article alleges that in his career at the school, which started in the mid-1960s and ended in 1979, Berman sexually abused at least four of his male students. The parents of a fifth student, who committed suicide, have made similar allegations regarding their son. (The school only began admitting girls in 1975.) Berman, who is in his late 70s, denies the allegations. But the students independently told Fisher credible and strikingly similar accounts, and I cannot see any reason not to believe them.
I went to Horace Mann and Mr. Berman was my teacher. The student who committed suicide and one of the…
March 19, 2013, 12:01 am
Periodically, I experience a sinking sensation roughly verbalized as, “The person who wrote what I’m reading isn’t a writer by trade, but does what I do better than I do. Damn his eyes.” When I had such a reaction to the memoirs of Alec Guinness and Bob Dylan, and the diaries of Richard Burton, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that they are, or were, creative types.
But not so with my most recent sinking feeling. It came a couple of weeks ago, while I was reading Warren Buffett’s annual state-of-Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders. The text had “clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech”—to quote Mark Twain on the memoirs of another nonprofessional writer,…