Category Archives: Grammar

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The Snowden Emails

edward-snowden-e1392785377635I’m holding Ed Snowden up as an example. Not of a patriot, or a whistle-blower, or a scoundrel, or traitor. But as an example of what I’ve been telling students and fellow teachers for years: that if you have something to express in your writing, you believe it wholeheartedly, and it carries the urgency of original thought, it will come out by way of elegant syntax and more or less error-free construction. We can yammer on about dangling modifiers and passive voice and incongruity and topic …

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George Curme: Orthographic Radical

As I promised last week, let me briefly discuss a further noteworthy fact about an interesting 1914 paper by George O. Curme. When I first saw the paper I thought there was a PDF encoding bug, or my eyes were playing tricks, but not so. It turns out that Curme was a radical reformer in one respect: He published his paper using an extensively revised spelling system. (My quotations from him last week regularized his spellings to current practice.)

Curme was apparently following proposals made ove…

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George Curme, 21st-Century Grammarian

A century ago this year, just before the First World War began, the grammarian George O. Curme published a short but remarkable paper entitled “Origin and Force of the Split Infinitive” (Modern Language Notes 29 (2), 41–45). It has deep roots in the 19th-century tradition of critical analysis of English grammar. And it is sobering to compare his paper’s meaty content with the thin gruel that passes for discussion of English grammar today.

Curme is following up works such as the splendidly acrid

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Ain’t It Awful?

Recently I was at a dinner party where people were using the words awful  and awesome, possibly as antonyms. Awful  was, I thought, used to describe something very bad, awesome something very good.

The words awesome and awful have been doing do-si-do with one another for a while. So are they the same word? And if so, what word is that, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary records awful as medieval. Since the ninth century, it’s been the high-toned term of choice meaning “awe-inspiring,” in…

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A Postcard From Vienna

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Vienna, Austria—I don’t think any lecturing visit has left me quite as awestruck as my visit this week to the University of Vienna. The mind boggles both at the roster of former faculty (Adorno, Boltzmann, Brentano, Freud, Hayek, Kaposi, Lorenz, Luick, von Mises, Schleicher, Schrödinger, Schumpeter…) and at the list of notable alumni (Bettelheim, Doppler, Feyerabend, Gödel, Husserl, Koestler, Mahler, Mendel, Popper, Preminger…).

It was here in the 1920s that Moritz Schlick organized the Ernst M…

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Disputing Linguistic Myths

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I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probabl…

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Passivity and Other Afflictions

call-to-actionLast week, I suggested that we got ourselves into trouble trying to distinguish between disinterest and uninterest because multiple meanings of the word interest put both prefixes at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing bright, clear lines of meaning. Now I’ll wade into muddier waters. Much ink has been spilt over the use or abuse of the passive voice in English. I’d like to propose two notions that, held in balance, might decrease our level of apoplexy:

  1. The term passive voice is a term of a…
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The Decline of Grammar Education

exam-f-grade-480x250_1024Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was… The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick cal…