Category Archives: Style


Over and Over Again


King AEthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, c.895-939. The Laws of AEthelstan included “over” meaning “more than” back in the 10th century. Illuminated manuscript, c.930, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the most part, a newspaper stylebook aims to fly under the radar, directing journalists to use the least obtrusive terminology and forms, so readers will not be distracted from the reporter’s message. But the stylebook is put together by individuals (editors) who have strong feelings about ri…


The Latest Style

ap (7)Just as California offers the most neutral and unobtrusive variety of American English (we don’t think of someone having a “California accent”), so The Associated Press Stylebook offers the most neutral, unobtrusive, and inoffensive choices in spelling, punctuation, and usage. For this reason both are worthy of note as reflecting the norm, the unmarked version of American English.

They come to their roles for different reasons. East of the Mississippi, American dialects are layered north to sout…


In Style


Entries in the 2007 AP Stylebook

Style usually stands out, hoping to catch your attention. But not newspaper style. It has the opposite goal: to be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to distract the reader from paying attention to the message.

Without a stylebook prescribing usage, the natural variation of language would be a red herring, leading readers off the trail. For example, if one newspaper story uses the spelling OK while another uses okay, a reader is likely to notice the difference…


Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …



Electronic technology has had an impact on our language. And one of the greatest impacts, like that of an asteroid smashing into the Yucatan peninsula, is the way we greet each other: Hello!

Most greetings, in English or other languages, involve respect (Sir), the day (Good morning), health (How do you do, Howdy), or the like. Informally nowadays we say Hey or Hi, which might be condensations of How are you.

But none of these is the case with Hello. It has nothing to do with the day or the heal…


Garden-Variety Clichés


The poet Bunthorne, courtesy Blackburn Gilbert & Sullivan Society

Clichés are something else. By definition, they are weeds in the gardens of language. No more, no less.

And there’s the rub. Clichés are a whole different ballgame.

No plants are weeds by nature or by definition. They are weeds if and only if a particular gardener doesn’t want them around. One man’s uprooted dandelion is another man’s dandelion soup.

Likewise, no words or phrases are clichés by definition. They are clichés if an…


Verbal Tee-Ups: A More Positive Spin

Golf copy“Politeness is another word for deception,” James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, is quoted as saying in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. The statement brought me up short because it is so different from how I discuss politeness in my courses.

As I say to students, living together is hard. And I don’t mean “living together” in the sense of sharing an apartment or home with roommates or romantic partners. I mean “living t…


Politeness in Refereeing Favor Requests


Dog walker
by revolution cycle via Wikimedia Commons

Early one weekday morning you are at work in your study when the front doorbell interrupts you. On the doorstep you find a total stranger who hands you two dog leashes, a small container of kibble, and some keys. He states brusquely that you’ll need these later. You stare blankly as he walks away.

Five minutes later the phone rings, and someone from down the street whom you barely know explains that her dog-walker has canceled at short notice. …


Spot the Captain


Nemanja Vidic playing for Manchester United
(via Wikimedia Commons)

The sports section of the The Guardian last week carried an article by Jamie Jackson about developments in the Manchester United soccer team, where a number of players are apparently not sure they will stay. The article cited the opinions of one player who is probably not coming back from Fiorentina, where he is currently on loan; and then it continued with this shockingly uninformative sentence:

The futures of several senior pla…


Best Regards


G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831); steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers
(via Wikimedia Commons)

This week in his superb, extraordinary, unparalleled, remarkable Lingua Franca post on the “tenure code” (I hope I’ve included enough superlatives to properly sustain his reputation at Amherst), Ilan Stavans wrote, “What I don’t know, where I’m in the dark (as other outside reviewers surely are, too), is in regards to particular institutional codes.”

When a usage change oc…