Category Archives: Writing

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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.”…

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On @Tejucole and #Prompts

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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 …

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What Did You Say?

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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.”

“Posit.”

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

“Let’s unpack this a bit.”

etc.

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

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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…

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Existential Questions

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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 …

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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’…

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Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

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Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…

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Secondhand Emotion

388772-ba3bc018-b54b-11e3-961d-5192f6c25a65Not being a big user of emoticons or emoji, I usually have to pause to arrive at the difference between them. So I hadn’t given any thought to their function in the sentence until I came across Gretchen McCullough’s post querying how these little gremlins infesting our written language ought to be punctuated. She combines the two, as do most people who write about them. Emoji, after all, began as a colorful and labor-saving alternative to stacking up pieces of punctuation in order to create an i…

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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As Dull as a Torpedo

penThe ongoing White House v. Congress struggle has recently involved the charge that one side wants to torpedo the other’s plan. That sounds violent, even metaphorically speaking, but torpedo has a more complicated usage history.

In his account of Dr. Johnson’s life, James Boswell reports the Great Cham’s remarking that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs his faculties.”

The passage occurs in Bo…