June 11, 2013, 12:01 am
“Never make predictions,” Casey Stengel warned, “especially about the future.” But we can’t help ourselves. Now linguistics professor David Crystal (was his last name a self-fulfilling prophecy?) is telling audiences like the one at the Hay Literary Festival that Google will be changing our spelling habits. This development, he predicts, will be all to the good for the English language—not because we will start spelling with as iwth, but because we will drop all those irritating, unnecessary silent letters cluttering our orthography.
Maybe, maybe not. I’m no prognosticator. What interested me about Professor Crystal’s forecast was not so much the observation that commonly misspelled words receive an autocorrect from Google’s search engine, but rather his first example of a spelling ripe for change: rhubarb. My partner is Canadian, and as we were on a long drive, I me…
June 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Tobias Fünke (David Cross) on “Arrested Development”: “This is ripe for parody. This is ripe!”
Last week I wrote a piece for Slate about how the TV comedy Arrested Development–canceled by Fox in 2006, now streaming a remarkable new season on Netflix–resurrected a long-demeaned sitcom trope, the catchphrase. That’s the tagline we’re always waiting for a character or performer to come out with: Jackie Gleason’s “To the moon!”, the Fonz’s “Ayyy,” Maxwell Smart’s “Sorry about that chief,” and so many more. As the examples suggest, the catchphrase was a trademark of early TV comedy. The modern sitcom (more or less post-Mary Tyler Moore) has tended to dismiss this as too cheap and broad a laugh. Michael Scott’s tagline on The Office–“That’s what she said”–served mainly to illustrate the cheesiness of Michael’s…
June 7, 2013, 12:01 am
As usually happens when anyone in the academy takes seriously the kinds of communication that happen outside the academy, John McWhorter’s recent TED talk on texting as a new language has prompted a storm of controversy and a rush to the barricades. On the one hand, the promoters of new expressions, code-switching, and the democratization of language; on the other, the defenders of clear, concise prose written in standard English, on which the effects of texting become clear as soon as a student writes “1000s of yrs ago” or puts three exclamation points together in an academic paper.
As a novelist and nonlinguist, I had a slightly different reaction to McWhorter’s presentation. It drove me back to fiction. “Texting is fingered speech,” McWhorter said at one point. “Now we can write the way we talk.” Thus emerges the argument for texting, not just as a handy way of…
May 22, 2013, 12:01 am
An author publishes a book containing a sentence beginning with “Even more strikingly, …” His mother points this out to him as “a glaring error,” feeling strongly that the sentence’s main clause should not be introduced with the adverb strikingly but rather with the adjective striking. The son disagrees. The question lands in my e-mail box for arbitration.
The mother is far from alone in her objection, but the objectors’ case is not a strong one.
As I wrote to the mother, it is fine to use either the adverb or the adjective in this sentence: “Even more strikingly, …” or “Even more striking, …” Strikingly functions as a sentence adverb here (modified by even more to make an adverb phrase), expressing the writer’s attitude or stance toward the assertion contained in the main clause. The writer believes that what follows is more striking than what came…
May 15, 2013, 12:01 am
Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.
I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to be too small a sample to yield each week five sentences worthy of collecting: that is to say, sentences which you cannot think of a way to improve and which might have a chance of living on when the immediate circumstances of their publication are long forgotten. Here, for example, is…
May 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Over the past two decades, the use of they as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.
I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and…
April 15, 2013, 12:01 am
When you’re preparing your taxes, you have to get your laughs where you can. I use an online filing tool that has saved my sanity, but it is—like all such programs—one size fits all. When it comes to the income other than my salary, I have picked the category “999999,” which is everything that is not categorizable as food service, freight hauling, and so on, and have described the service for which I am being paid as “writing.” It is, after all, what I do when I’m not teaching, unless you want to list “reading,” which of course figures into the activity in a big way (both reading aloud, as in “giving a reading,” and reading silently, of which the writing is a sort of consequence) but which would probably get me audited.
Being user-friendly, my tax-prep program asks me a series of questions for which my listed activity, like an entry in Mad Libs, provides the…
April 10, 2013, 12:01 am
I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.
For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit—and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.
As a result,…
April 5, 2013, 12:01 am
“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”
I’ve heard that line hundreds of times, and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.
With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.
The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from the imagined presence of the recipient. Across the great age of letter writing, closers have been one of the ornamental marvels of those things on paper that people sent to one other.
Even today, the French remain—ça va sans dire—the masters of formal exits, having taken epistolary bowing and scraping to the level of science. I love French closes, with their odd verb forms and in…
April 2, 2013, 12:01 am
Technology giveth, and technology taketh away. What it gives in instantly accessible information, digital readouts, and spell checkers, it takes away in research and memory skills, the ability to tell clockwise from counterclockwise, and spelling proficiency. And once we have started down the path of any of these innovations, it is hard, if not impossible, to turn back. Thus from a generation reliant on computerized spell checking has emerged a new problem: the ubiquitous homophone. Every professor I know has encountered the problem:
- He retired at the peek of his career.
- The Pilgrims learned to cook maze.
- She soon came to her census.
- What a waist of time!
- For all intense and purposes …
A few of these are genuine spelling errors; most are typos that a spell checker either approved (peek) or offered to correct with the correct spelling of a homophone (offering waist, for…