Category Archives: Editing


Over and Over Again


King AEthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, c.895-939. The Laws of AEthelstan included “over” meaning “more than” back in the 10th century. Illuminated manuscript, c.930, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the most part, a newspaper stylebook aims to fly under the radar, directing journalists to use the least obtrusive terminology and forms, so readers will not be distracted from the reporter’s message. But the stylebook is put together by individuals (editors) who have strong feelings about ri…


The Latest Style

ap (7)Just as California offers the most neutral and unobtrusive variety of American English (we don’t think of someone having a “California accent”), so The Associated Press Stylebook offers the most neutral, unobtrusive, and inoffensive choices in spelling, punctuation, and usage. For this reason both are worthy of note as reflecting the norm, the unmarked version of American English.

They come to their roles for different reasons. East of the Mississippi, American dialects are layered north to sout…


Final Madness

We’ve finally come to the end of Language Madness, and not a moment too soon. Just as Kentucky and Connecticut, two storied programs, will face off tonight in the NCAA men’s basketball finals (finals  instead of final  being another instance of rampant pluralizing), the LM tournament closes out with a classic matchup.

To recap, we started out with 16 “sins against the language.” As many have noted, they were a mixed bowl of wrongs. Some were mistakes or “mistakes” people love to hate, such as th…


In Style


Entries in the 2007 AP Stylebook

Style usually stands out, hoping to catch your attention. But not newspaper style. It has the opposite goal: to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to distract the reader from paying attention to the message.

Without a stylebook prescribing usage, the natural variation of language would be a red herring, leading readers off the trail. For example, if one newspaper story uses the spelling OK while another uses okay, a reader is likely to notice the difference…


Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …


Chiming In on ‘Chiming With’

Bell copySee if anything strikes your ear as odd in the following sentence: “A fact like this [that Obama plays golf more with an aide than with John Boehner] can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama. …”

This sentence appeared on Page 49 of the January 27 issue of The New Yorker, in David Remnick’s profile of President Obama, “Going the Distance.” It was pointed out to me by the careful language observer Dave Carlyon, who wrote to me about it because the “chiming” s…


Brevity and Attractiveness: Misreporting Linguistic Science

The Daily Telegraph recently carried a science report suggesting that logorrhea might damage men’s sexual chances. “Why silent types get the girl,” said the headline: “Study finds that men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences are preferred, while men who use verbose language are deemed less attractive.”

Apparently the “Hollywood cliché that the strong, silent type always gets the girl” has been scientifically validated. The most appealing guys are “men who use shorter avera…



“Can I be spermed?” a student asked in an email last year, requesting to forgo an extra assignment. I laughed. At the bottom of the message, it read: “Sent from my iPhone.”

In less than five minutes, the student wrote back. “Apologies, Prof. It wasn’t me but A-C. I really meant ‘spared’.” And she added: “It won’t happy again.”

This time I just smiled.

The complications brought on by technology are countless. And in them, the opportunities for Freudian slips never stop. Are we in charge, or has a…


Garden-Variety Clichés


The poet Bunthorne, courtesy Blackburn Gilbert & Sullivan Society

Clichés are something else. By definition, they are weeds in the gardens of language. No more, no less.

And there’s the rub. Clichés are a whole different ballgame.

No plants are weeds by nature or by definition. They are weeds if and only if a particular gardener doesn’t want them around. One man’s uprooted dandelion is another man’s dandelion soup.

Likewise, no words or phrases are clichés by definition. They are clichés if an…


Dry Spell


Col. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, wanted to simplify English.

The other afternoon I was surprised by a phone call from a concerned citizen who identified himself as Eugene Segar of Detroit, 83 years old. He wanted to talk about reforming English spelling to make it more accessible to students and second-language learners.

His message wasn’t what surprised me. The ineluctable complexity of English spelling has been evoking calls for reform for centuries. No, it was rather…