Category Archives: Style

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And Loving It

5635292On my short list of core principles is this: Only good things can come from giving people (sincere) compliments.

I acted on it the other day, when I commented via email that I admired a friend’s writing. The person responded, in part:

I think that, as with lovemaking, you can’t really do it well unless you love doing it. I really enjoy coming up with an idea — any old idea, to start with — and writing about it, and tweaking what I’ve written until it seems just right, sometimes through dozens of…

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Liars and Snakes: Plumbing New Rhetorical Depths

Boris Johnson visit to the USA - Day 3

Boris Johnson: Trump with a thesaurus?

Britain is now deep into campaigning for the referendum on whether to back out of the political and economic union defining the world’s largest single market. After about eight years here I still feel mostly like one of the many Americans in Edinburgh, and our focus is mainly on the U.S. presidential election campaign; but the referendum struggle is capturing ever more of a share of the news media here.

I came to hate referendums (referenda, if you insist o…

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Triciaisms

tricia_smiling

It would have been Tricia’s 49th birthday today, if cancer had not brought a premature end to her life back in January.*

My thoughts are still of Tricia for several minutes of every hour and several hours of every day. And not just of her dynamic physical presence — her flashing eyes and long legs and lust for life — but of her fast and irreverent wit, and her wonderful way with words.

Often her humor was dark. She would joke even about her own impending death. She knew her cancer was terminal,…

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Bully Pulpits and Pulpit Bullies

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Theodore Roosevelt

Bully is a word that has taken a beating in recent times. Look for its derivative bullying on the Internet and you’ll find a government-sponsored website called stopbullying.gov. The site explains that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”

The site includes recommendations on how to respond to bullying, and how to prevent it in the first place. As it should be.

But a century ago, and more, bull…

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Selfies With Sunnies

Back in the 1980s, the “post-punk” duo calling themselves Timbuk 3 looked like they were headed for popular success. (And they were.) According to Wikipedia, Barbara MacDonald said to her husband, “the future is looking so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses.” Pat MacDonald translated that as “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades,” and in 1986 their ironic hit song was born, which as it happened became their greatest success.

You can still watch their video of it on YouTube.

It begins:

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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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Dashing Through

Dash copyOnce you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.

I started wondering the other day whether — and how badly — one can misuse the dash. Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did …

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Sad!

It is no news that the person I call the presumptuous Republican nominee for president likes to use exclamation points in his tweets. Take a look at a tranche of his Twitter feed:

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One might think this would be common punctuation on Twitter. One would be mistaken. Of the 50 most recent non-Trump tweets in my feed, only two contained exclamation points. (More commonly, a sort of humorous emphasis is added through ALL CAPS.) But for Trump, this is not only a trademark bit of Twitter punctuation; h…

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Capital Punishment

28vetoThe New York Times reported recently that the National Weather Service has decided to stop yelling at us, at least typographically. FLOODING will now be flooding, and 9.2 ON THE RICHTER SCALE will be smaller, if only in appearance.

In the digital world, all caps are important for writing code, but the long-familiar convention may be becoming less welcome in journalism. It’s certainly not the way to make friends on email.

Capital letters are, of course, a boon to legibility, and have been since a…

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The Narratee and the Typo

enhanced-buzz-822-1378391228-4A long, earnest study has been knocking around at Lingua Franca regarding so-called grammos and typos in social media. As argued by a psychologist and a linguist at the University of Michigan, the response to “actual written errors” (as opposed to social-media conventions like elided punctuation or nonstandard abbreviations) depends on the personality of the reader more than any other criterion. I find this idea, in a word, weird.

For many years, a debate raged in the field of narratology over w…