Category Archives: Writing


On Clarity


What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educat…


Just Call Me …

Email_Names2 copyIn any given week, I typically write several emails to other academics I do not know or do not know well. As I decide what greeting to use, I am reminded of the politics of names and the subtle—or sometimes not so subtle—power dynamics at play in everyday conversations, often in even the smallest conversational choices.

For example, when writing to a colleague I’ve never met, do I have the right to assume we’re on a first name basis, despite the fact we don’t know each other? Or do I go wi…


No Language for Lottie


People sometimes take my skeptical comments on animal-language news stories (“Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity,” for example) as evidence that I regard animals as inferiors. Jeremy Hawker complained on Language Log that I showed no interest in animal communication, and that linguists “cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language.”

In truth, the only animals I had showed contempt for were the bipedal primates who write science stories for newspapers. Back in …


Life-Saving Punctuation


Image courtesy The Semicolon Project

You can tell that a semicolon is a dangerous tool in unskilled hands. That bullet on top, that sharp curved blade on the bottom portend trouble. It’s “the most feared punctuation on earth,” The Oatmeal website warns, before explaining how to use it.

And it isn’t really needed anyhow; you can always find some other punctuation to do the job. Put a semicolon in the wrong place, and it shatters a sentence into fragments. No wonder some authorities advise amate…


Chiming In on ‘Chiming With’

Bell copySee if anything strikes your ear as odd in the following sentence: “A fact like this [that Obama plays golf more with an aide than with John Boehner] can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama. …”

This sentence appeared on Page 49 of the January 27 issue of The New Yorker, in David Remnick’s profile of President Obama, “Going the Distance.” It was pointed out to me by the careful language observer Dave Carlyon, who wrote to me about it because the “chiming” s…


Brevity and Attractiveness: Misreporting Linguistic Science

The Daily Telegraph recently carried a science report suggesting that logorrhea might damage men’s sexual chances. “Why silent types get the girl,” said the headline: “Study finds that men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences are preferred, while men who use verbose language are deemed less attractive.”

Apparently the “Hollywood cliché that the strong, silent type always gets the girl” has been scientifically validated. The most appealing guys are “men who use shorter avera…



“Can I be spermed?” a student asked in an email last year, requesting to forgo an extra assignment. I laughed. At the bottom of the message, it read: “Sent from my iPhone.”

In less than five minutes, the student wrote back. “Apologies, Prof. It wasn’t me but A-C. I really meant ‘spared’.” And she added: “It won’t happy again.”

This time I just smiled.

The complications brought on by technology are countless. And in them, the opportunities for Freudian slips never stop. Are we in charge, or has a…


Garden-Variety Clichés


The poet Bunthorne, courtesy Blackburn Gilbert & Sullivan Society

Clichés are something else. By definition, they are weeds in the gardens of language. No more, no less.

And there’s the rub. Clichés are a whole different ballgame.

No plants are weeds by nature or by definition. They are weeds if and only if a particular gardener doesn’t want them around. One man’s uprooted dandelion is another man’s dandelion soup.

Likewise, no words or phrases are clichés by definition. They are clichés if an…


Real-Time Automated Essay Writing?

When I first tried EssayTyper, for just a moment it chilled my blood. Of course, it’s just a little joke; but I hope students everywhere will be sophisticated enough to see that, because a person who was unusually naive, lazy, and ignorant just might mistake it for a computer program that will enable you to type out custom-designed essays on selected academic topics, even topics you know nothing about, even if you can’t type. The EssayTyper home page presents a box saying:

Oh, no! It’s finals we…


Only Connect—or Don’t, for a Change

When working with my students—Germans and other nonnative English speakers—on papers and theses, I can often spot those who have taken an academic writing class by the number of conjunctive adverbs that litter the work. My impulse is to cut all these therefores, consequentlys, and additionallys, though I recognize their appeal. When I’m working as a journalist, I often need to write quick articles that rely heavily on conjunctive adverbs and conjunctions (but, nor) to pull readers through the tw…