All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…

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Language Shrapnel

fbomb-e1378933217819When Joe Biden famously muttered an f-bomb-modified plaudit for the Affordable Care Act, many news outlets left his exact phrasing to readers’ imaginations. The New York Times reported his saying, “Mr. President, this is a big [expletive] deal.” The Atlantic referred to Biden’s “accidentally audible profanity” and mentioned T-shirts sporting the slogan, “Health Reform Is a BFD.” But the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and New York Magazine reported the gaffe exactly as uttered.

Where do we…

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The Versatile Octothorpe

octothorpeNot being a tweeter, I rarely think about the octothorpe, now known more commonly as a hashtag. I do mark students’ papers by hand, though, and one thing I tend to insert — when no one is spelled as one word, or when a fictional story leaps from one block of time or point of view to another — is a mark for space, indicated by #. Then, just yesterday, I had to submit a prescription number over to the phone to my local pharmacy and was instructed to press pound when I was done.

Hashtag. Pound sign…

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Lucifer in the Flesh

satan_cruzAs a Luciferian from birth, I listened with interest when word of John Boehner’s recent characterization of the Republican candidate Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh” got out. Apparently, there’s no worse insult. The Internet exploded after Boehner made his comment, accompanied by the apparently tamer “miserable son of a bitch,” at an interview at Stanford University. Satanists were consulted and properly expressed their horror at being compared with Ted Cruz; the word incarnate, rare among pol…

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How ’Bout That As?

Logo_AsEnglish offers plenty of opportunities for repeating words. A perennial favorite, maxing out at five instances, is “I think that that that that that man used should have been a which.” The sentence cheats a bit, in my view, because like President Clinton’s famous utterance, “It depends what the meaning of is is,” one instance of the word must be set apart as word-qua-word. Still, that that is a common repetition, with is is not far behind. As my colleague Ben Yagoda has pointed out, the repetiti…

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The Narratee and the Typo

enhanced-buzz-822-1378391228-4A long, earnest study has been knocking around at Lingua Franca regarding so-called grammos and typos in social media. As argued by a psychologist and a linguist at the University of Michigan, the response to “actual written errors” (as opposed to social-media conventions like elided punctuation or nonstandard abbreviations) depends on the personality of the reader more than any other criterion. I find this idea, in a word, weird.

For many years, a debate raged in the field of narratology over w…

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Poetically Punctuating

stanleyquotepoetrypunctuationAt last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fanta…

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Never Underestimating

thumbMaybe George W. Bush’s neologism misunderestimate isn’t such a bad candidate for adoption into the lexicon. That’s what I decided shortly after reading the following passage in a New York Times article about the various adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho:

Mr. Bale’s role in Bateman’s liftoff is impossible to underestimate. You can trace the character’s ascent along the arc of the actor’s career. (Bateman, Batman, Bale, baleful — there’s a malevolent linguistic r…

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Pentimento: the Saxon Genitive

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent part of spring break serendipitously immersed in language. We were on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (the “Rich Coast,” as Puerto Rico is the “Rich Port,” neither of which description seems apt these days), among a group of international visitors. I resuscitated my flagging Spanish, interpreted for language-challenged French and German tourists, and tried out my toddler-level Italian with several restaurant proprietors who had relocated from Sicily. I’m not gifted at languag…

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Good on Us

19th_century_slangLike others in this forum, I try to keep abreast of changes in idiom over time. We notice the emergence of vocal fry, the increasing acceptance of singular they, and so on. But for the most part, our observations are those of the disinterested listener. We may note, as I have, our tendency to cling to expressions now considered old-fashioned or stiff. But what of the ways in which we find the expressions of the zeitgeist coming out of our own mouths?

I can’t recall what my husband and I were t…