Category Archives: Academe


Linguistics qua Affliction

I’d like to tell you something about what it’s like to have a training in linguistics, if I may.

The cheap pine boxes used for shipping bottles of wine from vineyards in France, Italy, and Spain make nice storage boxes when cleaned up and oiled. Several are in use in my home. (I am getting to my point; trust me.) One box bears the name MONTRESOR™, together with some lines in Italian:

Egli me riprese il braccio,
e continuammo il cammino.
- Queste cantine – osservò – sono molto estese.
- I Montres…


Real-Time Automated Essay Writing?

When I first tried EssayTyper, for just a moment it chilled my blood. Of course, it’s just a little joke; but I hope students everywhere will be sophisticated enough to see that, because a person who was unusually naive, lazy, and ignorant just might mistake it for a computer program that will enable you to type out custom-designed essays on selected academic topics, even topics you know nothing about, even if you can’t type. The EssayTyper home page presents a box saying:

Oh, no! It’s finals we…


Only Connect—or Don’t, for a Change

When working with my students—Germans and other nonnative English speakers—on papers and theses, I can often spot those who have taken an academic writing class by the number of conjunctive adverbs that litter the work. My impulse is to cut all these therefores, consequentlys, and additionallys, though I recognize their appeal. When I’m working as a journalist, I often need to write quick articles that rely heavily on conjunctive adverbs and conjunctions (but, nor) to pull readers through the tw…


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…