Category Archives: Writing


Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realizatio…


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…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.


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.”…


On @Tejucole and #Prompts


Teju Cole
Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

“Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a …


What Did You Say?


Claudia Rankine’s poetry ushers the reader in to an intimacy that comes from acquiring consciousness. (Photograph from Pomona College)

If you are among the 128K followers on Twitter of @AcademicsSay, you have read tweets like the following:

“I have a statement followed by a two-part question.”


“I often get emotional. But when I do, I call it affect.”

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”


I recognize myself — and us — in these tweets. Such self-mocking tweets can be amusing and also, if th…


But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-sch…


Existential Questions


Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. of the U.S. Marine Corps

Testifying before a Senate Committee last week, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.”

If you have had your face buried in philosophy books the last 30 or so years, the phrasing might have seemed odd — “existential threat” more likely calling to mind Kierkegaard or …


Wanted: Grown-Up Bedtime Stories

productimage-picture-lucky-jim-272Preparing for my vacation next week, I posted a query on Facebook, which read in part: “Looking for suggestions for a couple of novels to really get into on vacation. Am not looking for tales of emotional distress, pain, suffering, etc. I can get that at home.”

I got a lot of recommendations, one of which included a plot summary that began, “Malaya, 1951. Yunking Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the …” Yo, what part of “emotional distress” don’…