Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

by

Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

by

Being an Auxiliary

primes

“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…

by

Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars

balnews-john-mcintyre-20130507

“The Old Editor,” John McIntyre

A common, maybe the most common, framing of the conflict between language prescriptivists and descriptivists puts it in personal and psychologized terms: anal-retentive schoolmarms on the one side, unkempt hippies (probably raised by Dr. Spock-toting parents) on the other. That view, while not baseless, is reductive and not especially helpful, leading as it usually does to name-calling and bile rather than to a forward path on mutual ground.

Maybe a more useful le…

by

Is This the Right Moment?

speak-no-evil-monkeyLast month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + -al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head …

by

Bring It

headWriting on language shibboleths a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed the idea that one needs to be vigilant about not using bring instead of take, or vice versa. I argued:

No one would ever say “Take me the mail,” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Bring your shoes to the room.” You just … have to imagine the action from the point of view of the room. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says“A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem ex…

by

Direct Objects or Lack Thereof

71pLyLC3SELAs a memento of my visit to the London offices of The Economist I took away a printed copy of the 2013 edition of the magazine’s style book. Its 200 sides of heavy, high-gloss paper are spiral-bound to remain open on the desk at the user’s elbow: The book is intended for daily use.

It has a personality; you can sense it. Take a look, for example, at the beginning of the entry headed “transitive and intransitive verbs”:

The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is often now disreg…

by

My Favorite Shibboleth

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Early in the word-processing era, it was difficult or in some cases impossible to italicize words, and so one underlined them instead. When doing so, a colleague of mine always took special care not to underline the spaces between the words of a title. That is, instead of The Winds of War, he would write The Winds of War. He endured the chore of several additional keystrokes because he felt that a line under a space is meaningless. This was not unreasonable, but may have put too fi…

by

Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

Economist_building,_London,_1959-1964

Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

by

Grammar-Test Dispute Resolution

hangulI got an email one morning last week from a complete stranger in South Korea. In the From-line the sender’s name was displayed in hangul (my favorite among the world’s writing systems; I may write about it some other day). The message, in impeccable English, said this (I conceal the sender’s name):

Hello Professor, my name is _____ ____ and I live in the Republic of Korea. Recently I took a test in school and encountered a question that puzzled me. Here it is.

Human beings who are capable of sig…

by

How ’Bout That As?

Logo_AsEnglish offers plenty of opportunities for repeating words. A perennial favorite, maxing out at five instances, is “I think that that that that that man used should have been a which.” The sentence cheats a bit, in my view, because like President Clinton’s famous utterance, “It depends what the meaning of is is,” one instance of the word must be set apart as word-qua-word. Still, that that is a common repetition, with is is not far behind. As my colleague Ben Yagoda has pointed out, the repetiti…