All posts by Lucy Ferriss


Amid the Amidsts

dont-you-just-hate-the-word-whilstFirst-year undergraduate writing leaves so much to be desired that it seems silly to get stuck on two letters. But as I grade my first set of papers, I’m struck by the sudden ubiquity of –st:

  • It is interesting to note that whilst the character is dreaming …
  • The true nature of his actions is unbeknownst to the reader.
  • Amongst his peers, Melville was the best at this.
  • Whilst we should not overly concern ourselves with that here …

What’s going on? Most language mavens see the –st forms of these w…


A Lesson in ‘Lessen’

quote-no-distance-of-place-or-lapse-of-time-can-lessen-the-friendship-of-those-who-are-thoroughly-robert-southey-174988A few months ago we at Lingua Franca received an email from a suffering reader. His eyes are hurting and his ears are subject to a terrible sound. That sound is the verb lessen. Whatever happened to decrease? our discomfited reader would like to know. And couldn’t we simply ban lessen?

As plenty of other readers remind us, there are more urgent problems in the world. But a complaint like this pushes my curiosity button. Contrary to our writer’s impression, the usage of lessen rather than decreas…



freshman_first_year_school_ornament_roundThis year, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman — oops, first-year — seminar. Right there is the problem. As readers of this blog know, I like to be on top of the latest gender-neutral neologism. For many years, the term freshman has belonged to a class of designations (fireman, policeman, mailman) for which our culture has tried to find gender-neutral alternatives. As my Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan noted in 2013, within colleges — arguably one of the most progressive institut…


The Tennessee Waltz

gender_bending__tennessee_kid_cooper_by_totalzadrfangirl97-d5zdgmrWhat is going on in Tennessee? First we learn that they tried to ban mothers and fathers before coming to their senses. Now we learn that their flagship university tried to ban he and she—before it came to its senses. What senses are these, and how is it that Tennessee keeps losing them?

This week, we’ll look at he and she. At our first faculty meeting, before I’d learned of the issue in Tennessee, I heard a moment of gender awkwardness when the chair of one of our departments stood up to intr…


Love Game

Serena WilliamsOnce a year, Flushing Meadows in New York turns into a 22-ring circus of tennis, and people start asking me, as a lifelong tennis player, what all those words mean. I wasn’t going to write about tennis lingo in this blog, but a new acronym in the sport put me over the edge. So here goes.

The name of the sport itself seems to have come from the French tenez, or “take,” which is purportedly what the server used to shout before firing the ball cross-court to begin the point. The game we play th…


What’s a Passive?

passive-voice-demonstrated-by-zombiesI am not prepared to engage in the Passive Wars. As with any dispute, however, it behooves us to know what the heck it is we’re fighting about. As my colleague Geoffrey Pullum and others have observed, verb constructions described as passive often aren’t any such thing, and the very word passive suggests a kind of prose that lacks get-up-and-go, or whatever it is our sentences ought to have. Here, though, I want to draw our attention to a point of confusion that plagues even the most committed p…


Parenting, 1 and 2

1439911231007-300x169I hadn’t given Parent 1 and Parent 2 a thought before I saw the headline on Tennessee’s “reversal” of its “ban on ‘mother’ and ‘father.’” Huh, I thought. How had I missed news of a state’s banning mothers?

In terms of language, there’s a small, esoterically interesting story here that I’ll claim as part of what’s become sort of my bailiwick, writing about gender-neutral language. But the larger story has to do with the venues in which something becomes, or fails to become, news.

Here’s the dea…


From A to Z

imagesFolk etymologies are not unique to the age of Snopes. I discovered this amusing truth just after I’d signed my fellow writer Doug Preston’s letter to the Justice Department encouraging that arm of government to press forward with an investigation of possible monopolistic practices by Inc. First, I was curious about the opposition to Preston’s initiative, which turns out to comprise a small army of self-publishing authors. Their beneficent view of Jeff Bezos’ giant corporation, diametr…


Be a Lover

haters31Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. What, then, is the opposite of hate? The answer, it seems to me, changes when we accuse the person rather than the hate or the hating. In today’s parlance, a hater is not simply someone who hates — or rather, the variety of hate has become narrower and more specific. In politics, there are Hillary haters. Tom Brady recently called an ESPN commentator a “Patriot hater.” Anyone who writes in a forum, like this one, that i…


Diagramming Trump

According to “steveknows,” commenting on the Slate article “Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!” I have been punked. I don’t care. Gertrude Stein said there was nothing more exciting than diagramming sentences, and she wasn’t all that far from the truth. As with the claim that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump’s explosion of language a sentence stretches the meaning of the word sentence. Verbal speech contains no punctuation,…