May 16, 2013, 12:01 am
Quickly, now, without checking any dictionaries or usage guides: which of the following expressions is original, standard usage?
- Once and awhile
- Set and stone
- Try and get
- Spit and image
- All and all
- Hand and hand
- Tongue and cheek
I’ve run into all of these recently, mostly in student papers, but also in published work. So many of our habitual expressions have lost their connection to the original meaning that students—and sometimes professional writers—set them down as they sound without regard to whatever sense they might make. Given the aural similarity of and, in, and -ing, it’s no surprise that malapropisms like in this day in age crop up—for how often do we actually think about something being common in this day and also in this age, or era? And why would we?
If we think carefully or have background knowledge, of course, we can and do make some sense…
May 15, 2013, 12:01 am
Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.
I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to be too small a sample to yield each week five sentences worthy of collecting: that is to say, sentences which you cannot think of a way to improve and which might have a chance of living on when the immediate circumstances of their publication are long forgotten. Here, for example, is…
May 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Over the past two decades, the use of they as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.
I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and…
May 7, 2013, 12:01 am
We may be seeing the death spasms of lol, and few will mourn its passing. Emerging a couple of decades ago as an initialism for laugh[ing] out loud, it suffered misuse through most of its brief life by well-meaning parental units who construed it as lots of love. Since the millennium it has devolved through irony to sarcasm until it arrived, as Katie Hearney at Buzzfeed points out, at meaninglessness.
What’s brought lol into prominence recently is its appearance in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s e-communications, in situations where the supposed meaning of the term renders the accused bomber eerily heartless: Lol those people are cooked and the like. As it turns out, Tsarnaev was most likely referring, not to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, but to members of Westboro Baptist Church who picket funerals; and the word cooked here most likely means “crazy” or “high from…
May 3, 2013, 12:01 am
As we approach the annual rites, the degree of dudgeon rises again. Obama may say it; Barbara Walters may say it; our beloved children, on whom we have showered more than half our income annually over four years of university education, may crow it, but we as a nation of tut-tutters get the heebie-jeebies when we hear it: She graduated college. “I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick,” wrote one online commenter about hearing the term on a news broadcast. Another suggested that one can graduate college only by measuring it out as portions, as in the OED’s 1834 example, “Graduate that tangent, and place the crest of the traverse on a parallel plane ten feet above it.”
True, that august reference tool does not use the verb “to graduate” transitively except as the obverse of the usage to which the tut-tutters object. That is, Oxford can graduate you, and you can be…
April 26, 2013, 12:01 am
A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:
The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?
The article is about combating the very unpleasant practice that in India is casually called “Eve-teasing”: sexual harassment and assault targeted on young women. It is presupposed that the users of the electric taser-cum-brassiere are going to be female. The article could thus easily have used the feminine: So how can the …
April 23, 2013, 12:01 am
The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage
Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with So or ending them with right?
You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:
• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of the arrest process. It pops up in a database.” (The New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, talking on NPR’s On the Media about a recent Supreme Court case)
• “Four months after the opening gala, the company that built PH Towers sues Westgate for unpaid bills. David Siegel is forced to lay off thousands of employees.”…
April 10, 2013, 12:01 am
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
As a result,…
April 8, 2013, 12:01 am
In my April 4 post I called George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (P&EL) “A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational.” I couldn’t substantiate all these charges in one post; I dealt with just one specific piece of silliness. Let me now explain why I charge P&EL not just with silliness but with intellectual dishonesty.
Orwell affects to believe that we users of English could improve the state of the language, “if enough people would interest themselves in the job.” For example, we should be able “to laugh the not un- formation out of existence.”
He means phrases like seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley (which he quotes from an essay by Harold Laski as a typical example of…
April 5, 2013, 12:01 am
“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”
I’ve heard that line hundreds of times, and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.
With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.
The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from the imagined presence of the recipient. Across the great age of letter writing, closers have been one of the ornamental marvels of those things on paper that people sent to one other.
Even today, the French remain—ça va sans dire—the masters of formal exits, having taken epistolary bowing and scraping to the level of science. I love French closes, with their odd verb forms and in…