June 17, 2013, 12:01 am
How do senior copy editors at major newspapers, magazines, and publishers react when academics point out to them that their decisions about usage are decisively at odds with the evidence about what is grammatical in Standard English?
They often simply avoid discussing the matter. A copy editor for the academic publisher Lawrence Erlbaum, when asked why all occurrences of though had been changed to although in my prose, said she would allow me to stet them; but she refused to answer my polite inquiries about what could possibly have motivated the alterations.
And a senior editor at Cambridge University Press in New York ignored a courteous letter by Rodney Huddleston and me explaining in detail that the sternly enforced ban on restrictive relative which is due to a century-old misunderstanding. Months later she communicated via a third party that no answer to our letter would be for…
June 13, 2013, 12:01 am
Banja Luka, Bosnia — Here in the administrative entity known as the Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled part of the country properly called Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina, abbreviated “BiH” locally), they wave the Serbian flag in preference to the national flag of the country they reluctantly belong to; and the people pretend that their national language is three different languages. The mystery of the three in one.
Here is what it says on every pack of cigarettes in BiH: Pušenje ubija Pušenje ubija Пyшeњe yбиja
That’s once for the Bosniaks, once for the Croats, and once more for the Serbs. The Bosniaks and Croats use the roman alphabet, and Serbs often do as well, but hardliners like to use Cyrillic. What “Пyшeњe yбиja” says when you romanize it is “Pušenje ubija”—for the third time.
Smoking kills, Smoking kills, Smoking kills: They have said it thrice …
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…
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 17, 2013, 12:01 am
Talking about North Korea with a friend the other day I referred to the country as a monarchy, and my friend looked distinctly puzzled, as if I was misinformed, as if the DPRK was some kind of democratic republic.
It’s funny how some issues of straight political substance are misrepresented as being about word definitions, and sometimes vice versa.
Whether the benefits of marriage should be accorded to same-sex couples seems to me to be a substantive political issue—a civil rights issue—and not (as I argued in a recent post here) about the definition of the term marriage. But the opposite is for a purely linguistic matter—about whether a certain dictionary definition fits—to be wrongly treated as having political substance.
What could make anyone think that North Korea is not a monarchy? It looks to me like one of the cruelest and most corrupt monarchies in human history…
April 5, 2013, 12:01 am
“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”
I’ve heard that line hundreds of times, and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.
With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.
The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from the imagined presence of the recipient. Across the great age of letter writing, closers have been one of the ornamental marvels of those things on paper that people sent to one other.
Even today, the French remain—ça va sans dire—the masters of formal exits, having taken epistolary bowing and scraping to the level of science. I love French closes, with their odd verb forms and in…
April 4, 2013, 12:01 am
George Orwell is well known to have legions of admirers who will leap to the keyboard to attack anyone who criticizes their hero. We academics are all supposed to admire him, and especially to regard his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL) as a deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight, and to urge our students to read it. Two distinguished evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis Spurgin.
Well, apologies in advance to Orwell fans, but I have always found P&EL sickening. A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational. Let me comment on just one of its sillinesses.
Orwell famously instructs you to expunge from your prose every…
March 26, 2013, 12:01 am
I’ve been interested in the linguistic aspects of defamation law for many years. Delving into the history of libel and slander uncovers all sorts of strange facts. Some are discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of my book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, among them a case of a linguistics book that was blocked from publication because lawyers advised that the invented example sentences might be grounds for a libel action.
Under English case law, you can be sued (perhaps even successfully) for the content of interrogatives and imperatives as well as declaratives; for what is presupposed or implied as well as what is said; for statements you don’t yourself regard as defamatory; and even for words of praise if a reasonable person would think you were ironically implying something defamatory.
But there are defenses. Justifiable assertion of a provably true claim will normally not be subject…
March 11, 2013, 12:01 am
You heard it here first. For years, now, language mavens have been discussing the creep of the nominative pronoun in constructions calling for the objective case. Although voices have been raised in favor of “hypercorrection” as an explanation for this deviance, they have been mostly overwhelmed by explanations that rely on coordinate constructions. But I’m here to tell you that we have passed through the wall.
Let’s back up. Initially the concern was focused on phrases like Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “My father John and my mother Moira … migrated to this country with my sister and I.” The “rule of prestigious deviance,” according to some, allowed for the use of the nominative (“I”) for the second member of a coordinate construction. According to this theory, perfectly rational speakers of English would say “with my sister and I” or “with…
March 5, 2013, 12:01 am
I’ve recently discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer. If you haven’t found and played with it yet, you will.
The Ngram Viewer takes a corpus of just over five million library books digitized by Google and, within that arena, instantly searches for terms or phrases you may want to explore, tabulating the frequency of their occurrences over time.
The Ngram algorithm might let you visualize, for example, 20th-century deployments of the words nitpicker, caviller, and momus—to choose more or less at random three epithets that might be applied ungenerously to a writer on language. You may already use nitpicker in this sense. (If you have grade-school children you may have another—more visceral—sense of the word, as well.)
Caviller is a pretty unusual word in contemporary discourse. But if you know the verb to cavil, meaning to insist on making pointlessly small distinctions, you can…