Category Archives: Writing


Proven Winners

Does it matter if things have been proved or proven? I ask this as a grammatical question, not a philosophical one about the nature of evidence. Does it matter if one uses proved or proven as the past participle of the verb prove?

If you’re in the it-doesn’t-matter camp, you’re not alone. But the it-does-matter camp is not deserted (yet).

Bryan Garner is one of the folks in the latter camp. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition), he writes, “Proved has long been the preferred past par…


Who That?


“By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!”

Last week, referring to Ben Carson’s (supposedly) terrible temper, Donald Trump said, “I don’t want a person that’s got a pathological disease.”

What caught my eye was that he didn’t say, “… a person who’s got a pathological disease.” For some years, I have been noticing that my students favor the choice of that over who as a relative pronoun; I did some grumbling about it here, lumping it with other popular usages (“one-year anniversary” inste…


Broadcast(ed) News

An astute indexlanguage observer I know emailed me a few weeks back with the subject heading: “changing past tense form?” I was intrigued before I even opened the email. He knows how to hook a language geek.

The verbs at issue were cast-verbs, including cast, broadcast, fly-cast, and the like. The bit of journalism that had sparked the question was from a blurb on the Skimm from September 24, 2015:

Yesterday, Egypt’s president woke up and said ‘today’s a good day to pardon prisoners.’ He released 100…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…


Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…


Midwifing Emojis

1-s1P3JIBwuxsbq2lAD8SOOAI ignore a lot of messages on my computer. Life is easier that way. Recently I ignored an update about texting on my phone that had to do with emojis. For years, I’ve been ignoring the little note when I’m replying to certain emails: “This message must be sent as Unicode.” Go ahead, I tell the computer. Send it that way. Whoever wrote me must have done something in Unicode; it’s not my fault.

But now a connection arises between the emoji-related messages and the Unicode-related messages, and the…


Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realizatio…


In Search of Needless Words

In a 1918 version of his tract The Elements of Style, the Cornell English professor William Strunk wrote, under the heading “Omit Needless Words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, bu…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.