Category Archives: Writing

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The Re-Creationist Myth

The journalistic missteps, errors, and omissions in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” began to be exposed shortly after it was published last November. They were exhaustively described in an Columbia School of Journalism report, issued April 5, that’s even longer than the original article–13,000 words versus 9,000.  (Rolling Stone removed the article from its website but it can be viewed courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

The commentary has detailed many poor decisions made by the writer of the…

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The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…

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A Certain Closeness

Do you see any grammatical mistake in the sentence “He had developed a closeness to his recent suffering”? A classics teacher married to an author wrote to me a while ago to ask me this:

I am doing some editing on my wife’s new book (really, it’s just an excuse for me to get to read it a few times!), and she has a fairly consistent usage that Word (and the Internet) find to be completely unacceptable.

His wife was using phrases like a closeness, and Word was reporting that the first of those wor…

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Singular ‘They,’ Again

they copyThis week, I was at a dinner party with a dozen or so accomplished journalists. There are many things I enjoy about hanging out with journalists, including (but in no way limited to): (a) they ask interesting and surprising questions, and (b) they really care about language. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the host asked me, “What would you say is the most contentious grammatical issue in recent history?”

On a different evening, while I think I would have come to the same answer, …

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…

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Confidence Game

“To write you must have a streak of arrogance.” —Richard Hugo

At a comedy show I was at not long ago, the stand-up was doing a bit about how the main reason he was happy to be married was not having to deal with getting married. In the middle of it, a woman near the front of the audience shouted out, “Him too!” and gestured at the guy next to her.

There was a pause.

Then the comic looked at her and said something to the effect of, “You just messed up my act. But putting that aside, I’m very, ver…

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An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictiona…

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On Writing Well About Passives

passives

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

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Iwo Jima Letter

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On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I gue…

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Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not …