Category Archives: Academe


The Predictive Fallacy

A cool data-visualization website called Information Is Beautiful has a page titled “Rhetological Fallacies: Errors and manipulations of rhetoric and logical thinking.” Here’s a taste:

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 9.12.16 AM

If the creator, David McCandless, ever does Fallacies 2.0, I hereby suggest an addition, “Appeal to Predictability: Purporting to score a blow against an opponent by accurately divining something(s) he or she has said, or predicting what he or she will say.”

The only source I’ve found that has commented on this p…


English for Everyone


Tower of Babel

When I was working as a reporter in London, I witnessed one of those “two countries separated by a common language” moments one soggy spring morning in 2012. A Boeing executive visiting from Seattle had made time ahead of a press conference to chat with the journalists in attendance, and we were all eager to forge the sort of personal connection that can lead to future scoops. The executive gamely opened the small talk with a comment about the weather. “Oh yes,” laughed on…


Politeness in Refereeing Favor Requests


Dog walker
by revolution cycle via Wikimedia Commons

Early one weekday morning you are at work in your study when the front doorbell interrupts you. On the doorstep you find a total stranger who hands you two dog leashes, a small container of kibble, and some keys. He states brusquely that you’ll need these later. You stare blankly as he walks away.

Five minutes later the phone rings, and someone from down the street whom you barely know explains that her dog-walker has canceled at short notice. …


The Tenure Code

At Amherst College, where I’ve taught for more 20 years (oy, gevalt!), a couple of years ago a tenure case was brought down in part because of the word “solid.” I’ve put it in quote marks in part because tenure cases are multiheaded monsters: Their rise or fall as a result of countless factors. In this particular one, one of the factors—and, ultimately, a stumbling block—was this much-contested word.

An outside reviewer had used it to describe a candidate’s publications record. It became a sub…


Not Cricket

Game of Cricket
(by Dave Pearson via flickr)

It is a slow and tedious game of men slowly walking about in long white trousers, and a metaphor for British fair play. As a spectator sport, cricket seems to me about as interesting as watching paint dry, only without the same sense of achievement. Yet Lynne Truss is a smart and funny writer even on that unpromising subject. Some of her essays on the game have had me not just chuckling aloud but actually grasping a few things about the sport.



Moths to the Flame of Meaning

At the end of the English-syntax course I co-taught last semester, my colleague and I set a number of examination questions designed to test students ability to argue points about syntactic structure. This one will serve as an example:

Although the following two sentences exhibit a superficial similarity, they contrast sharply in syntactic terms:

[1] I saw Jane with her new boyfriend in the bar.
[2] I saw Jane and her new boyfriend in the bar.

Show that these two sentences have radically dif…


Blame It on the Sophomores


Freshman orientation, Washington & Jefferson College, 1934: The sophomores inspect socks.
(Photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month in Lingua Franca, Anne Curzan considered the curious case of “freshman,” a word with perceptible gender bias that nevertheless has not been eradicated by efforts to promote gender-free “first year” in its place.

She notes that despite the “man” at the end, “freshman” to many students seems inclusive. The second syllable isn’t pronounced “man,” for example, an…


Summarize Your Thesis (One Line)

The game at is to reduce the main message of your thesis or dissertation down to a single line, ideally one short candid sentence. Much self-deprecating humor can be found on the site, along with occasional signs of cynicism or desperation.

Not many theses in my discipline show up, for linguistics is a minority pursuit. But I did find this one, from the University of Colorado:

“It appears, based on experimental evidence, that vowel perception is pretty much magic.”

I can well bel…




Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m told Don Quixote of La Mancha has a total of 220,939 words. It seems plausible, although every time I read it—about once a year—my impression is that it’s inexhaustible, containing not only the DNA of Hispanic civilization but its whole vocabulary. I’m wrong, of course, for no human endeavor is infinite.

At any rate, there is one word, a single one insidiously attached to it, that is thoroughly absent from its pages. In Spanish that word is…


The Top Word of 2013?


Image courtesy of Kingsway School

What is the most culturally significant word of the year in the English language? Make your bet. “Drone”? Fat chance. “Rape”? Nope. “Wiretapping?” Nah. “Pope”? Shouldda, especially after Time made him Da Man from this planet. But this time the legislators are the folks of Merriam-Webster Inc., and they have just announced the winner: “science.”

Oy, gevalt! According to the laudable lexicographic institution based in Springfield, Mass., the decision is made “by…