Category Archives: Style

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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

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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…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

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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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Leaps in the Dark: the Discourse of Brexit

EUJust when you need maximally careful use of the uniquely human gift of language, everything goes to hell and people start throwing clichés around like ninja stars. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has just called a referendum for June 23 in which the electorate will address this question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

And immediately everything is slogans and fearmongering and soundbites and similes.

The wording of the questi…

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Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…

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They Will Never Forget You …

R-5768580-1402134572-1404.jpegGlenn Frey died in New York on January 18. Viewed from Britain, his death was completely overshadowed by another death in New York eight days earlier, that of David Bowie. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, had been in love with Bowie. You couldn’t tune to the BBC’s Radio 4 (the country’s NPR equivalent) without hearing excerpts of Bowie songs and talk of his endlessly creative self-reinvention. Every radio presenter and journalist seems to have been a lifelong Bowie fan. The Economist did something …