Category Archives: Editing

by

Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

Economist_building,_London,_1959-1964

Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

by

Dashing Through

Dash copyOnce you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.

I started wondering the other day whether — and how badly — one can misuse the dash. Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did …

by

Let Us Edit Your Article

spam

You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

by

‘Room’ With a Point of View

room-1

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in the film version of Room.

If you heard I had posted on Lingua Franca about Emma Donoghue’s Room, you might justifiably expect that I’d written about the way  the narrator of the novel, 5-year-old Jack, uses language. Jack’s entire life has taken place in an 11-by-11 foot room, where he is confined with his mother. (That situation becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book, so this is not a spoiler.) And I could well have written such a post, as Don…

by

All the Changes We Do Not Notice

3d47d20b2d9db0e4f86cbab4a5c19fbbI have been thinking a lot about button-down shirts recently. This is after many years of giving them — or at least giving the word for them — very little thought at all.

My mulling was sparked by an email from Dave Carlyon, an astute observer of language, who pointed out that something seems to be afoot with the term button-down shirt. Does the description refer to the collar or the entire shirt? The answer: Originally it was about whether the collar buttoned down, but now for many of us, it is…

by

Editor Needed

squirrelIn a junior-high-school grammar lesson about misplaced and dangling modifiers, I was given this memorable sentence to correct: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw the starfish.” Poor Mary. It is exhausting to be asked to hang onto an aquarium wall that way.

I was thinking about that sentence recently when my sister, a lawyer, sent me a provision from the New Jersey Administrative Code. She and her husband are trying to deal with the squirrels in the attic, and so she had checked the …

by

Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

They mugI have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by the graduate students in the Joint Program in English and Education (JPEE) and celebrates my advocacy of singular they—with the explanatory footnote.

But when can we stop including the footnote?

We got one step closer two weeks ago, when Bill Walsh, chief of the night copy desk at The Washington Post, sent an email to the newsroom announcing some changes in the style guidelines. In addition to eliminating the hyphen in email and endorsing the spel…

by

Proven Winners

Does it matter if things have been proved or proven? I ask this as a grammatical question, not a philosophical one about the nature of evidence. Does it matter if one uses proved or proven as the past participle of the verb prove?

If you’re in the it-doesn’t-matter camp, you’re not alone. But the it-does-matter camp is not deserted (yet).

Bryan Garner is one of the folks in the latter camp. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition), he writes, “Proved has long been the preferred past par…

by

A Day in the Life of a Lexicographer

David Barnhart comes from a lexicographical dynasty. He and his late brother, Robert, have both been in the profession of making dictionaries, following in the footsteps of their famous father Clarence L. Barnhart, author of the Thorndike-Barnhart series of dictionaries. David now works at home and in the local libraries, finding and defining words for his quarterly journal, The Barnhart Dictionary Companion.

So what is his day like? He starts by reading the paper and listening to news on the r…

by

Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…