Category Archives: Writing

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Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technolo…

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The Genius Card

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Joseph Mitchell (Image by Anne Hall/Pantheon)

The phone buzzed on a sunny fall day as I was taking a stroll on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College, near my home. I looked at the number—it had New York’s 212 area code, but otherwise I didn’t recognize it. I took a chance that it wasn’t a robo call and answered it.

It wasn’t a robo call. It was Gay Talese, the great nonfiction writer. Nearly the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you know about this new biography of Joseph Mitchell?”

I …

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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…

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Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times…

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Truly Incompetent English

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Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

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The Re-Creationist Myth

The journalistic missteps, errors, and omissions in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” began to be exposed shortly after it was published last November. They were exhaustively described in an Columbia School of Journalism report, issued April 5, that’s even longer than the original article–13,000 words versus 9,000.  (Rolling Stone removed the article from its website but it can be viewed courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

The commentary has detailed many poor decisions made by the writer of the…

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The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…

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A Certain Closeness

Do you see any grammatical mistake in the sentence “He had developed a closeness to his recent suffering”? A classics teacher married to an author wrote to me a while ago to ask me this:

I am doing some editing on my wife’s new book (really, it’s just an excuse for me to get to read it a few times!), and she has a fairly consistent usage that Word (and the Internet) find to be completely unacceptable.

His wife was using phrases like a closeness, and Word was reporting that the first of those wor…

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Singular ‘They,’ Again

they copyThis week, I was at a dinner party with a dozen or so accomplished journalists. There are many things I enjoy about hanging out with journalists, including (but in no way limited to): (a) they ask interesting and surprising questions, and (b) they really care about language. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the host asked me, “What would you say is the most contentious grammatical issue in recent history?”

On a different evening, while I think I would have come to the same answer, …

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…