Category Archives: Style


American Stars and Hearts

(Image from

(image from

If Twitter users want to respond to a tweet, they have three options: reply to it, retweet it, or mark it with a symbol of approval. Over the past couple of weeks, Twitter has begun changing that symbol from a star to a heart, and the word the symbol represents from “Favorite” to “Like.”

On its blog, the company gave an explanation for the momentous shift:

We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, es…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…


In Search of Needless Words

In a 1918 version of his tract The Elements of Style, the Cornell English professor William Strunk wrote, under the heading “Omit Needless Words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, bu…


The Structure of University Names

UC Berkeley SealProper names for colleges and universities are of three main types, syntactically. The first, which I’ll call the XU type (for simplicity I limit discussion here to names with the head noun University) has a modifier preceding the head noun, as in Harvard University. The second, the UX type, has a postnominal complement, usually a preposition phrase headed by the preposition of and almost always specifying a location, as in the University of California (UC). The third, the the XUY type, has both…


Artisans and Crafts


Pre-artisanal cheese

Unless you were there, it’s hard to imagine how different the United States was back in, say, the 1950s.

No, I don’t mean the differences that computers, smartphones, and the Internet have made since then, though they are considerable. And I don’t mean the civil rights movement and affirmation of rights and respect for diversity, though those have really made a difference.

But our everyday lives have been transformed. We are privileged to live in artisanal times, in the era …


Conversation Piece

Henry James, it is said, wrote like he talked, in long, involved sentences.

“Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne

“The great struggle of a writer is to learn to write as he would talk.”–Lincoln Steffens.

“The greatest [writers] give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.”–Thornton Wilder

“Good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man.”…


Hyphenation, Carbonation, and X-Rays

The catcher and sage Yogi Berra was allegedly once asked if the name of the bottled chocolate beverage he endorsed was hyphenated. “No ma’am,” he is said to have replied. “It’s not even carbonated.”

Yogi was wrong on the first point, as you can see from this image.


But his confusion is understandable, so thorny can the subject of hyphens be. Even the Yoo-hoo folks appear to be hedging their bets, judging from the tininess of the hyphen on the label.

Hyphens are on my mind because a physician fr…


Revealing American Speech


Sojourner Truth’s first language was Dutch.

If you want to become an expert on the English language in North America, and maybe teach it too, a good place to start is with the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech. The latest issue is Volume 90, Number 2, dated May 2015.

From its beginnings nearly a century ago (H.L. Mencken was one of the founders), American Speech has been accessible to readers with no special training in linguistics — at least in many of its article…


Secondhand Emotion

388772-ba3bc018-b54b-11e3-961d-5192f6c25a65Not being a big user of emoticons or emoji, I usually have to pause to arrive at the difference between them. So I hadn’t given any thought to their function in the sentence until I came across Gretchen McCullough’s post querying how these little gremlins infesting our written language ought to be punctuated. She combines the two, as do most people who write about them. Emoji, after all, began as a colorful and labor-saving alternative to stacking up pieces of punctuation in order to create an i…


Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…