Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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State of ‘Lay’

As Robert Frost might have put it, something there is that doesn’t want to say lie. I refer to the present tense of the verb meaning to assume or be in a recumbent position, figuratively or literally. So: I want to lay down. He had to lay low. Don’t just lay there. And so on. I have weighed in on the topic before, as have my Lingua Franca colleagues Anne Curzan and Geoffrey Pullum. But I feel that a tipping point has been reached.

This Google Ngram Viewer shows that in American books (the sub-da…

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Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

 

Some of the teachers who discussed the quest…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

spam

You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

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Never Underestimating

thumbMaybe George W. Bush’s neologism misunderestimate isn’t such a bad candidate for adoption into the lexicon. That’s what I decided shortly after reading the following passage in a New York Times article about the various adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho:

Mr. Bale’s role in Bateman’s liftoff is impossible to underestimate. You can trace the character’s ascent along the arc of the actor’s career. (Bateman, Batman, Bale, baleful — there’s a malevolent linguistic r…

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Being an Antecedent

On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t…

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Being a Subjunctive

buddyHolly

Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…