Category Archives: Style

by

Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

images

Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was … The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick called Plan …

by

Truly, Madly, Deeply Avoiding Adverbs

LY-Adverbs1Pity the lowly adverb. Like the adenoids (I had mine removed, at age 4) or the appendix, it is regarded by rule-mongers as unnecessary, left over from a time when the body of language needed this now-useless organ to process niceties of language that we now handle by way of verbs. Or nouns. Or the effectively placed period.

Only two classes of people, it seems, stick up for the adverb: young adults and members of the bar. A proposal from a student almost never offers to read and scrutinize a par…

by

Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…

by

Smile, Smile, Smile

The centennial commemoration of the start of the First World War has brought to the fore some of the music of that war, including an unsung gem that could well be the greatest fight song of all time.
(Granted, it’s not exactly unsung, since it’s a song. And the BBC recently praised it for its musical qualities.
But the song, “Pack Up Your Troubles,” has yet to be appreciated for its matchless galvanizing effect as pure language. And not really matchless, either, since it calls for a match.)

Here…

by

Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

by

Great Question!

Questions have muscle. That’s what I mentioned last week while praising the strongest question word of all, Why. Even the weakest of questions has strength not found in any declarative sentence: the strength to require a response. If someone makes a statement, you don’t have to do anything. But if someone asks you a question, you must answer.

Why is that?

(See, now I have to answer.) Well, it’s not because anybody passed a law. There are no language police eavesdropping on conversations and wr…

by

6 Likes, Liked and Disliked

index

Like No. 2

Linda Hall writes in The Conversation about strategies for getting students to make less use of the hated monosyllable like. She cites (and admits that she respects) an essay by David Grambs, “The Like Virus,” in the August 2011 edition of The Vocabula Review, a subscription-only online periodical of linguistic peeving (it is reprinted in Exploring Language, edited by Gary Goshgarian, pages 303-310).

Grambs (could that be a clerical error for “Gramps” or “Grumps”?) doesn’t just hate y…

by

First-World Problems

Matthew Good

Once upon a time, during the Cold War in the latter part of the 20th century, somebody pointed out that each of the nations of the earth belonged to one of three worlds. The first was ours, the world of the developed and more-or-less-democratic countries. The second was the world of our enemies, the Communist bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and including its European satellites along with China, Cuba, North Vietnam and the like. The third world was the leftovers…

by

Better Together for Whom?

yes-no2The organization campaigning for a No vote in the September 18 Scottish independence referendum chose as its name, and initially its primary slogan, the phrase “Better Together.” Recently the campaign has been floundering, and showing signs of panic. Its political missteps have been much discussed in Britain. But the vagueness and evasiveness of the “Better Together” slogan has not occasioned much comment.

Better together is an adjective phrase [or sometimes, as a commenter below reminds me, an …

by

What’s Your PGP?

It’s a question we didn’t have to answer in the 20th century. In fact, it’s a question that didn’t exist until recently.

We have this question now because we have a growing menu of gender identity. Last week I discussed it with regard to the abbreviations LGBTQQ2IA and Quiltbag. Nowadays we understand that anatomy isn’t destiny; it’s your choice to be called lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual—or something else.

That’s not a misstatement. It is your ch…