Category Archives: Style

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First-World Problems

Matthew Good

Once upon a time, during the Cold War in the latter part of the 20th century, somebody pointed out that each of the nations of the earth belonged to one of three worlds. The first was ours, the world of the developed and more-or-less-democratic countries. The second was the world of our enemies, the Communist bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and including its European satellites along with China, Cuba, North Vietnam and the like. The third world was the leftovers…

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Better Together for Whom?

yes-no2The organization campaigning for a No vote in the September 18 Scottish independence referendum chose as its name, and initially its primary slogan, the phrase “Better Together.” Recently the campaign has been floundering, and showing signs of panic. Its political missteps have been much discussed in Britain. But the vagueness and evasiveness of the “Better Together” slogan has not occasioned much comment.

Better together is an adjective phrase [or sometimes, as a commenter below reminds me, an …

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What’s Your PGP?

It’s a question we didn’t have to answer in the 20th century. In fact, it’s a question that didn’t exist until recently.

We have this question now because we have a growing menu of gender identity. Last week I discussed it with regard to the abbreviations LGBTQQ2IA and Quiltbag. Nowadays we understand that anatomy isn’t destiny; it’s your choice to be called lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual—or something else.

That’s not a misstatement. It is your ch…

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‘Tis Nieuw to Thee

On August 26, 1664, the urban ancestor of the town in which I live changed its name. The English arrived, only four years after the restoration of their own monarchy, and threw out the Dutch. New York was born, sort of.

That was 350 years ago. On August 25th, the day before the anniversary, The New York Times reported this:

“Finally, on Sept. 8, the largely defenseless settlement tolerated a swift and bloodless regime change: New Amsterdam was immediately renamed New York. It would evolve into…

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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…