Category Archives: Words

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The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little dig…

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An Honor and a Horror

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Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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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…

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How Much Do We Curse?

cursing copyTwo Sundays ago, a graph in The New York Times Magazine caught my eye. The title was “Dear Reader: Are You Prone to Profanity?” The graph captured the results of an online study conducted by the newspaper’s research-and-analytics department in January. In this case, the question was: “How often, if at all, do you swear or curse in conversation?”

Of the 3,244 New York Times subscribers who responded, the majority (61 percent) went with “occasionally,” which seems like a fairly safe response f…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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The ‘Winners’

d84a3a1c787b467efef89ae73e08f80b_crop_northI didn’t plan to write a follow-up to my spelling-contest post, but reader response prompted too many thoughts to contain in a footnote.

First, by popular vote, the winners from my lists were loose as a misspelling of lose and definately as a misspelling of definitely. A note on each of these:

Sites abound for the loose/lose problem; there’s even a Facebook page. I admit, I find it odd that so many people truly misspell the common word lose. (By “truly misspell,” I mean I think it’s neither a ty…

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A Kontest for Speling

pages 3-25B FINAL.inddApparently I subscribe to Quora. I don’t know when my subscription began. Mostly, the posts are the sort of trivia I indulge in only when desperate for work avoidance. But the question, “What is the most misspelt word in the English language?” got my attention. Of course, the first response worried the difference between misspelt and misspelled, but then we were off and running.

Spelling, of course, is a convention to which we cling more fiercely when we have dictionaries at the ready. Before Sa…

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Thugs Like Us

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.54.40 AM

A tweet by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots.

In a press conference a couple of days after the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had made rather obnoxiously boastful comments after the game, was asked if he was bothered by being repeatedly referred to as a “thug.” (The sports website Deadspin calculated that thug was uttered 625 times on American television the day following the Seahawks’ win.) Sherman, a Stanford University graduate, said he was,

because i…

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Our Own Devices

From The Scottish Pulpit, 1838, courtesy of Google Books:

“For should He, by whom kings reign and  princes decree justice, withdraw that secret influence by which he directs the thoughts of men to the accomplishment of his own objects; … should he surrender the guidance of our concerns solely to the exercise of mere human talents, at the expense of  the glory due to God, even yet, without the imposition of famine, or pestilence, or sword — those more immediate executioners of divine judgm…

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With Good Reason

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Image from the Tango! project icon set.

The query took me by surprise. A few weeks ago an editor who was reviewing a piece I had submitted (for a publication other than this one) wrote:

You start one paragraph: “There’s good reason we associate. … ” It caught my eye — and I figured I better check! It’s such a subtle little twist, i.e., “There’s good logic to support this idea. … ” vs. “There is a specific reason we think this way. … ” which would require one to insert the “a.” Which one w…