Category Archives: Writing

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To Co-Author, or Not to Co-Author?

ucscgraphI noticed recently that I now have more than 100 co-authored works on my publications list. It occurs to me that this rather high number might raise questions or even eyebrows: Is it evidence that I am a pathetically dependent hanger-on, joining other people’s research projects because I can’t come up with my own? Or a domineering research-group leader stamping my name on every paper that the group produces? Or merely a gregarious person who enjoys intellectual interaction?

These are reasonable …

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Editor Needed

squirrelIn a junior-high-school grammar lesson about misplaced and dangling modifiers, I was given this memorable sentence to correct: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw the starfish.” Poor Mary. It is exhausting to be asked to hang onto an aquarium wall that way.

I was thinking about that sentence recently when my sister, a lawyer, sent me a provision from the New Jersey Administrative Code. She and her husband are trying to deal with the squirrels in the attic, and so she had checked the …

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The Soul of Wit

twitter_140I am one of thousands of nontweeters on Twitter, people who signed up for one silly reason or another (mine: my publisher told me to) yet have never found much to tweet about. Trying to work up my enthusiasm for this medium of communication, I asked avid tweeters what they loved about it. Their most common answer? “The messages are only 140 characters long.”

Now that Twitter is moving to a higher limit for tweets, let’s pause on this feature, with a nod to poetic form. Why 140 characters? Appa…

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Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…

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They Will Never Forget You …

R-5768580-1402134572-1404.jpegGlenn Frey died in New York on January 18. Viewed from Britain, his death was completely overshadowed by another death in New York eight days earlier, that of David Bowie. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, had been in love with Bowie. You couldn’t tune to the BBC’s Radio 4 (the country’s NPR equivalent) without hearing excerpts of Bowie songs and talk of his endlessly creative self-reinvention. Every radio presenter and journalist seems to have been a lifelong Bowie fan. The Economist did something …

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The Awful Chinese Writing System

biang

Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago.

Don’t hold…

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Thinking Swiftly

Tom_Swift_and_His_Wizard_Camera_(book_cover)Remember Tom Swifties?

I had forgotten that fad of the 1960s that took its inspiration unwittingly from the adverb-laden Tom Swift stories for boys earlier in the century. The challenge was to find an adverb that punned on a character’s remarks, as in these examples from Merriam-Webster:

“I can’t find the oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly.

“Don’t you love sleeping outdoors?” said Tom intently.

“Let’s gather up the rope,” said Tom coyly.

But I was reminded of them memorably when I had the pleasure o…

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The Quiet Certainty of Antedating

PGWodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse in 1904, a few years before coining “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Recently I mentioned the celebratedly spurious Holmesian nonquotation, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I pointed out that The Yale Book of Quotations proposes as the earliest known source The New York Times issue of Tuesday, April 30, 1911.

But after my post appeared I got an email from Oliver Kamm, a columnist and editorial writer working for The Times of London. He says he remembers seeing the phrase in an earlier s…

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No. 1965977

51YxgZIvcpL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_Last February I got a typewritten letter from inmate No. 1965977 (not her real number) in a state prison. Authors often get such letters, usually with detailed and hard-to-follow accounts of how the writer of the letter was unjustly accused, convicted, and/or treated. This one was different. It was clearly written (more so than much of my students’ work) and mentioned nothing of jurisprudence. Rather, the writer said she was interested in learning about journalism; she had no access to the Inter…

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Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

They mugI have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by the graduate students in the Joint Program in English and Education (JPEE) and celebrates my advocacy of singular they—with the explanatory footnote.

But when can we stop including the footnote?

We got one step closer two weeks ago, when Bill Walsh, chief of the night copy desk at The Washington Post, sent an email to the newsroom announcing some changes in the style guidelines. In addition to eliminating the hyphen in email and endorsing the spel…