All posts by Ben Yagoda

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But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-sch…

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Existential Questions

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Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. of the U.S. Marine Corps

Testifying before a Senate Committee last week, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.”

If you have had your face buried in philosophy books the last 30 or so years, the phrasing might have seemed odd — “existential threat” more likely calling to mind Kierkegaard or …

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Wanted: Grown-Up Bedtime Stories

productimage-picture-lucky-jim-272Preparing for my vacation next week, I posted a query on Facebook, which read in part: “Looking for suggestions for a couple of novels to really get into on vacation. Am not looking for tales of emotional distress, pain, suffering, etc. I can get that at home.”

I got a lot of recommendations, one of which included a plot summary that began, “Malaya, 1951. Yunking Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the …” Yo, what part of “emotional distress” don’…

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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The Most Beautiful Word of All

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Henry James

Sitting on my patio the other day, listening to the birds, sipping a glass of raspberry seltzer, and admiring the contrast of the orange day lilies with the blue and pink hydrangea, I was reminded of Henry James’s remark that “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

The comment was attributed to him by Edith Wharton. The Master sketched out some of his reasoning in the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:

Under certain circumstances there are few hou…

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Simile When You Say That, Partner

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Patsy Cline’s voice inspired a memorable simile.

When I lived in New York City as a young man, I used to like to wander over to Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, on summer evenings. What I found there—and what drew me there, it now occurs to me—was virtuosity.  The Frisbee players catching the disk in fancy ways, the skateboarders and roller skaters doing their tricks, and street musicians improvising with their instruments and voices were all, not to put too fine a point on it,…

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Pluralism Marches On

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed in this space before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (in…

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Tweeting Prepositions

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Toward the end of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week, the host, Jacob Goldstein, said: “You can tweet at us at ‘planetmoney.’ You can tweet at me at ‘jacobgoldstein.’”

In March, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addressed the U.S. Cyber Command task force and said (I quote from a transcript posted on Lexis-Nexis), “If you do nothing else and get nothing else out of this encounter today, I want you to do one thing, which is to go home tonight or make a call or tweet at your family, or do what…

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‘Cheeky Nando’s’

Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

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As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Am…

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The End of Irony. Or Not.

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David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions