Category Archives: Academe

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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Story Time

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Copyright MousePlanet Inc.

I’ve been working recently with a Romanian-German engineering student with business-school aspirations who is trying to improve his English writing skills. My student’s spoken English is excellent, and he can write fluently when talking about himself (in particular, about his rather impressive tennis career; the kid’s multitalented to say the least). But whenever he shows me a report, a formal letter, or a research paper, the work is a mess: The grammar falls apart und…

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New Book, Same Old Grammar-Babble

DSC_5529-2A complimentary copy of a popular book on grammar appeared in my mailbox recently, with a personal note from the authors. They express firm agreement with views of mine that they had seen in Tom Chivers’s article about me, and they say they hope I’ll like their book.

I wish I could respond positively. I don’t want to hurt the authors’ feelings, or condemn a well-intentioned project, or look a gift horse in the mouth. I wanted it to be good: I long to see a popular book on English grammar that ge…

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Commencement, Anyone?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So we’ve made it through commencement, many of us, anyway. I had two in May—the graduation of my son, Chris (with honors—hey, I am a parent),  from Northeastern with a double major in computer science and video-game design, which means two fields too difficult for his father. A couple of weeks later I was at Cooper Union’s own graduation rites, where I get to sit on the stage and try not to fidget under hot lights. Janet Napolitano spoke at the Northe…

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Questionable Style in the News

office-chairAn article about the benefits of standing desks in last week’s Washington Post highlighted a problem, and I’m not talking about the problem of sitting too long in a chair at the office (although this is a real problem). I’m talking about a different kind of chair.

My friend Barbara Beaton pointed out to me that the article refers to Loretta DiPietro, a pioneering advocate for standing desks, as “chairman of the department of exercise science” at the Milken Institute School of Public Health a…

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The Vague Main Clause of the Second Amendment

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I have often reflected on the problematic vagueness of the initial absolute adjunct clause of the Second Amendment. Reading about yet another university massacre last week, the topic came to mind again. But this time I realized that the worst thing about the amendment may be the main-clause syntax.

The absolute adjunct clause (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state”) has been much discussed. Its comma is extraneous under modern punctuation rules (an unmotiva…

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The Politics of Taboo Words

sunTwo currently hot news items in Britain involve public figures using controversial language with political consequences. The Chronicle follows strict New York Times style rules about vulgarity, so I must use caution in giving some of the details about the cases I want to contrast.

The first concerns a radio DJ who made the mistake of playing the wrong version of a song: a 1932 recording with lyrics containing a word that today is regarded as an offensive racial slur (though in 1932 it wasn’t). O…

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What’s in a Name?

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet. And Romeo, a few lines later, replies, “My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself.”

Onomatology, also known as onomastics, is the discipline that studies proper names. In the United States, that discipline borders on extravagance, although it never ceases to amaze me how, in spite of the rapid transformation of American society, things remain constant.

Is there something to be said about the names of our students? …

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His Very C’s, His U’s, and His T’s

 

The Shakespeare world has been abuzz recently with news of a 1580 copy of Baret’s Alvearie, a four-language dictionary, heavily annotated and, according to its owners, possibly by Shakespeare’s own hand. There has been much in the press, popular and professional, on the plausibility of the claim.

Jennifer Howard has covered the story in these pages. Adam Gopnik has used the event as the basis of his recent New Yorker meditation on the inexhaustible cult of Shakespeare.

Regarding the Alvearie,