Category Archives: Writing

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If Not Me Then Who?

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“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…

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

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The Long Game

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Anthony Trollope

I just turned in to the publisher the final version of a book, and have now started on this post. Not exactly a Trollope move, but it’ll have to do. (“Every day for years, Trollope reported in his ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next…

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The Sound on the Page

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David Candow

Last Saturday morning, as is my wont, I was sitting in the club chair in the living room, paging through the newspaper, fitfully checking e-mail, and  listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. My wandering attention was called back home by the sound of host Scott Simon embarking on his weekly essay. I call it an “essay,” but that’s kind of a fussy word for the personal, sometimes quirky, always intelligent commentary I look forward to hearing every week.

On Saturday, it was an obituary f…

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The Vortex of Authorial Avoidance

vortex_artWelcome to the vortex, the tourbillion, where we turn and turn in the widening gyre of authorial avoidance of whatever truly dire error we may have committed in the penning of our novel. Step right into the typeset proofs. There—feel that hot wind blowing at your neck? It’s urging you to seize on something—anything, so long as it is minute, fixable, of no importance to anyone save you and the managing editor, to obsess over until the deadline for returning the galleys. Let it draw you onwa…

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Speaking Geek

Man-Woman-Geek-1920x1200I’ve always envied people born in small countries like Belgium who grow up learning several different languages. And while I remain stumped by languages written in any script other than the Latin alphabet, I still dream of unencumbered months when I can get started on basic Mandarin.

I am also a fiction writer, who believes that there are uses to which language can be put that are different in kind, not just in degree, from the uses of everyday communication; that language, for the poet, is oil …

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The Case of the Sinister Buttocks

The common mature musicians also the recent liturgy providers are looking to satisfy additional Herculean, personalised liturgies to tarry fore of the conflict.

 

The story behind this strange sentence was first told by Times Higher Education and has since been summarized (often inaccurately) by more than 7,000 other news sources. Lucy Ferriss alluded to it here on Lingua Franca last week. Its reference to musicians and liturgies might suggest a musical or religious theme. But no, this se…

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Why Well-Formed Nonsense Doesn’t Matter

I’d like to add one more point on the topic of my post “Computer Says B-Plus.” My modest suggestion was this: If a computer program trained on essays graded by humans could learn enough about the superficial form of academic prose to reliably assign suitable grades to newly presented essays (where “suitable” means “close to what a qualified human grader would have assigned”), that could put a useful tool in the hands of a diligent student who wanted to get anonymous, private, and patient assessm…

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Computer Says B-Plus

The mouth-filling abuse of Kathleen Anderson’s post on automatic grading (“Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?”) is such a delight to read that I’m almost sorry to confess that I disagree with her.

Anderson was approached by an educational publisher’s representative about a plan to (i) gather a corpus of several thousand student essays, (ii) hire experienced instructors to grade them, and then (iii) apply machine-learning techniques to train a computer program that will grade further ess…