Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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Broiling Over

If you reinterpret “in fetal position” as “in feeble position” or use “hunger pains” rather than “hunger pangs,” you’ve got yourself an eggcorn. The word eggcorn itself is an eggcorn (a reshaping of a word—in this case, acorn—based on a new and plausible understanding of its parts and/or meaning). Geoff Pullum picked up on Mark Liberman’s Language Log post on eggcorns to coin the term as a way to refer to this phenomenon; and it has found its way into several dictionaries with this meaning.

Ther…

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Garage Sociolinguistics

Read the above title aloud before you continue. I have a real problem about pronouncing it. Let me explain. In the fall I was quite unexpectedly forced to move house. my_garage_3 My new home has not only an off-street parking spot but also a standalone structure (pictured at left) intended for storing an automobile (but actually occupied by garden tools, boxes, unused furniture–you know how it goes). Uttering the name for this outbuilding plunges me into a sociolinguistic minefield.

The suffix -age that te…

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The Rules for Essay Exams

bluebksAt my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would proba…

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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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Is That a Real Novel or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?

ItBNnDhR3tjwAMx0vEwj“Is your novel fiction, or did any of it really happen?”

I’ve started doing readings of my new novel, A Sister to Honor, and sure enough, the question came from one of the attentive listeners waiting in line to buy a signed copy.  I can’t blame her for her confusion. I’d like to blame Truman Capote, who came up with the term nonfiction novel to describe his new-journalism book In Cold Blood:

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfict…

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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 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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What’s Interesting About ‘Disinterested’

how-to-handle-a-disinterested-husbandHistory is so annoying.

Just when you gird your loins to pen an eloquent article about the fine distinctions of language, threading your way among the thickets of the prescriptivist debate to request that we all pause to acknowledge what might be lost when such distinctions collapse, history comes along and thumbs its snotty nose at you. I refer to the difference in meaning accorded the adjectives disinterested and uninterested, of which the noun forms are (or should be) disinterest and unintere…

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If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …