Category Archives: Grammar

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An Honor and a Horror

beckham

Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…

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Apostrophe Where Is Thy Comma?

pyramus-and-thisbeMy hunch is that the case of the missing comma began with email. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend’s dilemma over email salutations, wherein the preferred casual “Hi” at the beginning is followed by a person’s name and then a comma, rendering the grammatically standard vocative comma (“Hi, Jane,”) perhaps superfluous and at least funny-looking. I’ve been counting, and of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from students since that post appeared, none — and I mean zer…

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Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

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A Certain Closeness

Do you see any grammatical mistake in the sentence “He had developed a closeness to his recent suffering”? A classics teacher married to an author wrote to me a while ago to ask me this:

I am doing some editing on my wife’s new book (really, it’s just an excuse for me to get to read it a few times!), and she has a fairly consistent usage that Word (and the Internet) find to be completely unacceptable.

His wife was using phrases like a closeness, and Word was reporting that the first of those wor…

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Singular ‘They,’ Again

they copyThis week, I was at a dinner party with a dozen or so accomplished journalists. There are many things I enjoy about hanging out with journalists, including (but in no way limited to): (a) they ask interesting and surprising questions, and (b) they really care about language. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the host asked me, “What would you say is the most contentious grammatical issue in recent history?”

On a different evening, while I think I would have come to the same answer, …

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…