Category Archives: Writing

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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

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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 …

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All I Want for Christmas …

Even though European shops seem to resist promoting their Christmas products just a bit longer than their American counterparts, living four weeks away in package-delivery time from most of my family gets me planning my gift-giving early. Which is why I spent some time last week investigating the contents of the 2014 editions of The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories—although I don’t know why I bother: The collections are consistently fantastic, and this year’s are no excep…

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Wordsmith Bingo

Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly

My Facebook (and actual) friend Gene Seymour posted this the other day:

Some 40 years ago, Wilfrid Sheed began his post-mortem for Cyril Connolly by asking who the best living writer of English prose is now. His pal John Leonard made a case for Malcolm Muggeridge while Sheed tossed out such eminences of the era as Cheever & E.B. White, concluding that what complicated the cases for both was that neither could likely do what the other could. (I vaguely remember that being the case….

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was… The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick cal…

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If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…