Category Archives: Grammar

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Comprise Yourself

wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos…

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‘Ongoing Plethora’? Not What It Appears

I was browsing an article about tomato production in the Sacramento Bee (as one does) when my eye lighted upon the phrase ongoing plethora. It struck me as an oddly inept locution.

Ongoing is a dynamic temporal modifier, expressing the continuation of a present event into the future; and plethora is so static, referring simply to a quantity (more than is needed). Talk of an ongoing plethora seemed to me no more coherent than talk of an onrushing glut, or a hoard in progress.

Moreover, the two wo…

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Hashtags Hammer Grammar (or Not)

The hashtag is a major innovation in language. It was invented just a few years ago, to allow quick and easy categorizing of tweets. And then hashtags became an easy way to comment on the topic of a tweet, as in You had one job: A show about a detective with OCD, and that’s how they designed the box for the last season. #wellplayed Often a hashtag is a comment on a comment: I’m done with science #stopcorrectingparties2k14 Im extremely obsessive about everything I love Fall Out Boy so much #Super…

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He (or Possibly Him?) as Head

4622063623_c3a61fda47_oA commenter on a newspaper article about Prince Charles (the opinionated royal destined to inherit the throne under Britain’s hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

 

“With he at its head?” Not “with him at its head”? Let’s face it: The traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in Standard English are simply a myster…

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Less Is More Better

10_items_or_less

You got a problem with that?

The email came in with the heading “Ben! How could you!?” The message read, in its entirety:

“How Not to Write Bad,” page 26: “As for state names, never abbreviate when they’re four letters or less, or when they’re standing alone.”

Less? You mean fewer, right? Or did the rules change? Please advise.

(Before proceeding to the question, I’ll note that, unsurprisingly, my correspondent misstated the title of my book, which is How to Not Write Bad.)

As virtually everyone…

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Renée Zellweger as a Verb? I Don’t Think So.

I’ve written here before about locutions like “art is a verb.” But although I am familiar with the popular nontechnical use of the predicate “is a verb,” I was nonplused by the following remark in Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post opinion piece in November about the cult of youth:*

We’ve always been a culture that worships youth, but it’s been taken to whole new extremes in recent years. Renée Zellweger has become a verb for those women who surgically transform themselves into completely differen…

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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…