Category Archives: Style

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Folks, It’s Torture

gordian-knotThere probably is such a thing a scrutinizing a public speaker’s language too carefully—but not on this blog. Our radar screen lit up this past week as the Twittersphere ricocheted responses to President Obama’s August 1 one-liner: “We tortured some folks.”

The We here are the agents of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. And while the words tortured and folks have received most of the attention, the rhetorical use of the first-person plural performs an interesting sleight of hand….

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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Word Pardons

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Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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The Goldfinch and the Stewardess

dv2073195The literary world has been engaged in a hearty dialogue over the merits and deficiencies of Donna Tartt’s massive novel The Goldfinch, which spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Rave reviews of the book’s range and rich plot have confronted scathing condemnations of its cloying stock characters and overstuffed passages. We won’t rehearse the whole controversy. Let’s home in on a single word usage:

“I was asleep almost before the seat belt light went off—missing d…

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A Victory Over Genericide

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914The New York Times has begun a strange new series titled “Verbatim,” mini-docudramas culled from transcripts of court documents. In its inaugural video, the punch line kicks in when the office worker being relentlessly grilled about the presence of a photocopy machine in his office is finally badgered into admitting that a machine exists from which he extracts copies of documents. What is that machine called? “Xerox,” he answers desperately.

To my students, the scene isn’t all that funny, exce…

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Like as the Waves Make Towards the Pebbled Shore

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Una and the Redcross Knight

Whoa, that’s Shakespeare. (Sonnet 60.) But it’s the best description I know of the verse form invented by his contemporary Edmund Spenser for The Fairy Queen, a marathon of a poem set in an allegorical Fairyland full of “fierce wars and faithful loves” (in Spenser’s words) and populated by believable characters. If you get the olde fashyonde spelyng out of the way, and concentrate on the story rather than the complicated allegory, as I have argued in two previou…

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Grammatical Shades of Grey

shutterstock_138339137I responded cautiously when my nonlinguist partner, staring at the wording on a supermarket yogurt container, cried “That’s wrong!”

The words on the label promised that the yogurt was made of cow’s milk. “That’s wrong!” she said; “This yogurt didn’t come from just one cow!” It ought to be spelled cows’ milk, with the genitive plural, she insisted.

We happened to have a carton of a different brand of yogurt in the refrigerator, so we could double-check. Sure enough, down in the small-print list o…

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The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

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Title page of Bullions

I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m ho…

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Splice Girl

You can get Samuel Beckett's most famous comma splice (without commas) on a t-shirt or coffee mug

You can get Samuel Beckett’s most famous comma splice (absent commas) on a T-shirt or coffee mug

Because the conventions for their use are so variable, commas can provide a quick sense of a writer’s personal style. Or a publication’s: As I wrote a few weeks ago, part of The New Yorker‘s distinctive voice is the way, whenever standard punctuation rules allow for a comma or not, it always votes “yes.”

Things really get interesting when artful writers choose to flout those rules. Take the comma spl…