Category Archives: Writing

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Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

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Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…

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Secondhand Emotion

388772-ba3bc018-b54b-11e3-961d-5192f6c25a65Not being a big user of emoticons or emoji, I usually have to pause to arrive at the difference between them. So I hadn’t given any thought to their function in the sentence until I came across Gretchen McCullough’s post querying how these little gremlins infesting our written language ought to be punctuated. She combines the two, as do most people who write about them. Emoji, after all, began as a colorful and labor-saving alternative to stacking up pieces of punctuation in order to create an i…

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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As Dull as a Torpedo

penThe ongoing White House v. Congress struggle has recently involved the charge that one side wants to torpedo the other’s plan. That sounds violent, even metaphorically speaking, but torpedo has a more complicated usage history.

In his account of Dr. Johnson’s life, James Boswell reports the Great Cham’s remarking that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs his faculties.”

The passage occurs in Bo…

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36 Words

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You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when young…

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Simile When You Say That, Partner

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Patsy Cline’s voice inspired a memorable simile.

When I lived in New York City as a young man, I used to like to wander over to Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, on summer evenings. What I found there—and what drew me there, it now occurs to me—was virtuosity.  The Frisbee players catching the disk in fancy ways, the skateboarders and roller skaters doing their tricks, and street musicians improvising with their instruments and voices were all, not to put too fine a point on it,…

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Spelling Out the Consequences

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In Shakespeare’s day, one could get by with spelling variations; not any more.
Image: Oli Scarff/Getty

A language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once supposedly said. We could update that to say a language is a dialect with an army, navy, and Silicon Valley, and it’s that, not any intrinsic merit, that makes English the dominant language of the world so far this century.

English certainly didn’t get there on the strength of its spelling system. On the con…

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The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little dig…

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An Honor and a Horror

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Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technolo…