Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Everyday Artificial Stupidity


Monday afternoon. The classroom projector announces: “In 2 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.” After 60 seconds, it changes to: “In 1 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.

Was it really too hard to make that “1 minute”?

Tuesday, early morning. No one else in the building. The elevator wakes as I press the “Up” button. But before the doors open a synthesized voice inside announces: “Lift going up!”

The system has been idle, doors closed and no buttons pressed, all night…


A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


What’s a Passive?

passive-voice-demonstrated-by-zombiesI am not prepared to engage in the Passive Wars. As with any dispute, however, it behooves us to know what the heck it is we’re fighting about. As my colleague Geoffrey Pullum and others have observed, verb constructions described as passive often aren’t any such thing, and the very word passive suggests a kind of prose that lacks get-up-and-go, or whatever it is our sentences ought to have. Here, though, I want to draw our attention to a point of confusion that plagues even the most committed p…


The Grammar of Healthiness

Health-stub copy

Image by Vassia Atanassova, Spiritia, via Wikimedia

Over lunch this past weekend, my father and I were talking about a friend of mine who always seems to have multiple ailments, some diagnosed and some not. My father noted, “At least some are real health issues.” I replied, “Yes, but we know that mental states matter too, and he doesn’t seem to be trying to help himself be, or seem, any more well.”

My father paused. “More well?” he asked skeptically.

I am not sure I have ever tried to make a com…


Do We Really Hate That?


Richard Grant White didn’t like the verb “donate.”

It was the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave about “language pet peeves” (presenting a linguist’s view) a few months ago at a city club. One woman in the audience immediately raised her hand and asked, “Why do people insist on using impact as a verb?” She then added, “I hate that.” There were assenting murmurs around the room: “Ridiculous,” “I hear that all the time,” and, echoing the questioner, “Oh, I hate that.”

Hate? A noun lik…


Laying Low

laying low 2Last week a friend texted to see if I wanted to go out for dinner. I was recovering from some minor surgery and had been told to stay mostly indoors and take it easy. So I texted back a regretful no and added, “I’m just laying low this weekend.”

I stared at the sentence on my phone (having not yet hit send) and thought, “Wait, is it ‘laying low’?”

Another voice in my head responded, “No, it must be ‘lying low.’ It’s clearly intransitive.”

“But,” I protested (in my head), “‘laying low’ …


Derp and ‘tude

Mr. Derp

Paul Krugman’s attempts at being hip end up landing, I suppose, like hipness attempted by any of us blogging here: midway between cute and cringeworthy. A few weeks ago, his column noted an increase in what he called derpitude, “useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.”

Derp had a familiar ring to it, which grew louder as Krugman referenc…


36 Words


You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when young…