Category Archives: Writing

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Electronic Innovation >>>

600px-Smiley.svg copyMy expertise in the conventions of texting and Twitter and Instagram, compared with the expertise of the undergraduate students I work with, is <.

Actually, it is <<<<<.

A couple of weeks ago,  Carlina Duan, a senior at the University of Michigan, dropped me an email to see if I had heard of a new(ish) bit of language use, which she was suddenly noticing everywhere in social media: to use her words, “the use of ‘>’ or ‘<’ in text as a way to compare an experience or item/mark an experience or …

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The Rules for Essay Exams

bluebksAt my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would proba…

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Is That a Real Novel or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?

ItBNnDhR3tjwAMx0vEwj“Is your novel fiction, or did any of it really happen?”

I’ve started doing readings of my new novel, A Sister to Honor, and sure enough, the question came from one of the attentive listeners waiting in line to buy a signed copy.  I can’t blame her for her confusion. I’d like to blame Truman Capote, who came up with the term nonfiction novel to describe his new-journalism book In Cold Blood:

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfict…

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Less Is More Better

10_items_or_less

You got a problem with that?

The email came in with the heading “Ben! How could you!?” The message read, in its entirety:

“How Not to Write Bad,” page 26: “As for state names, never abbreviate when they’re four letters or less, or when they’re standing alone.”

Less? You mean fewer, right? Or did the rules change? Please advise.

(Before proceeding to the question, I’ll note that, unsurprisingly, my correspondent misstated the title of my book, which is How to Not Write Bad.)

As virtually everyone…

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Renée Zellweger as a Verb? I Don’t Think So.

I’ve written here before about locutions like “art is a verb.” But although I am familiar with the popular nontechnical use of the predicate “is a verb,” I was nonplused by the following remark in Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post opinion piece in November about the cult of youth:*

We’ve always been a culture that worships youth, but it’s been taken to whole new extremes in recent years. Renée Zellweger has become a verb for those women who surgically transform themselves into completely differen…

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The Snowden Emails

edward-snowden-e1392785377635I’m holding Ed Snowden up as an example. Not of a patriot, or a whistle-blower, or a scoundrel, or traitor. But as an example of what I’ve been telling students and fellow teachers for years: that if you have something to express in your writing, you believe it wholeheartedly, and it carries the urgency of original thought, it will come out by way of elegant syntax and more or less error-free construction. We can yammer on about dangling modifiers and passive voice and incongruity and topic …

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George Curme, 21st-Century Grammarian

A century ago this year, just before the First World War began, the grammarian George O. Curme published a short but remarkable paper entitled “Origin and Force of the Split Infinitive” (Modern Language Notes 29 (2), 41–45). It has deep roots in the 19th-century tradition of critical analysis of English grammar. And it is sobering to compare his paper’s meaty content with the thin gruel that passes for discussion of English grammar today.

Curme is following up works such as the splendidly acrid

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People Who Died

220px-Elaine_May_and_Mike_Nichols_1960

Elaine May and Mike Nichols

“Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died.”

—Jim Carroll, “People Who Died”

I am getting so sick of people dying. I don’t speak of my friends—as Jim Carroll (1949-2009) so unflinchingly and memorably did in his 1980 song—but of writers, artists, musicians, actors,  journalists,  broadcasters, and other public figures whose work and prese…

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Pediaphilia

Narcissus2

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” The encyclopedia made us look outward.

No, it’s not what you think. It’s the creeping insistence that everything needs its own encyclopedia.

Older readers of Lingua Franca will remember the era of multivolume encyclopedias. Some of you may have grown up with classy sets of Britannicas. Others may have had their parents acquire a humbler set of Funk & Wagnalls, one volume at a time, at the grocery store, as mine did. The books were offered week by week, letter by letter,…

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …