Category Archives: Writing

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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…

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Grammatical Icing on the Political Cake

Elliott Abrams, former State Department official and adviser to three presidents, has a B.A. from Harvard (1969), an M.S. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (1970), and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (1973). You might expect someone with such a fine education to have a fair command of the most fundamental subject of the classical tripartite road to truth known as the trivium. Not so, however.

The Cease Fire That Broke Itself,” a recent post on h…

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All Done Copyediting/Copy Editing/Copy-Editing

copyeditingHallelujah. The copy edits have gone back. Hallelujah.

I’m referring here to the 350-page manuscript for my new novel, A Sister to Honor, forthcoming in January 2015, which I received in copy-edited form 18 days before my wedding date, with a two-week deadline. Between negotiations with the caterer, travel arrangements for various relatives, and the borrowing of baby stuff for my fiancé’s grandkids (the complications of senior nuptials), I cranked on the edits.

These now come, as anyone who has …

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Humanizing Academic Citation

Quote bubble copyThere was an “aha!” moment in my class this week that reminded me just how important it is to talk with students about the human conversation represented by academic citation.

This idea of an academic conversation on the page is far from new. More than 70 years ago, Kenneth Burke used the metaphor of the parlor filled with a heated ongoing discussion that we are choosing to enter and participate in as academic writers. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have structured their valuable book They S…

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Little Help, Please?

John Updike once commented in a letter to his editor William Maxwell, “It occurs to me that the world would not be significantly poorer if I stopped writing altogether. Only a bottomless capacity for envy keeps me going. That, and the pleasure of reading proofs and designing book jackets.”

I know what he meant, though I would never presume to design a book jacket, or, indeed, anything. One exercise I do get pleasure from is fussing with what to call a book. My forthcoming history of American …

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Folks, It’s Torture

gordian-knotThere probably is such a thing a scrutinizing a public speaker’s language too carefully—but not on this blog. Our radar screen lit up this past week as the Twittersphere ricocheted responses to President Obama’s August 1 one-liner: “We tortured some folks.”

The We here are the agents of the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. And while the words tortured and folks have received most of the attention, the rhetorical use of the first-person plural performs an interesting sleight of hand….

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Verb Agreement and Hurdling

Sally Pearson, Australian medalist in the 2012 Olympics

It isn’t easy to admit being wrong in front of thousands of readers, but Ben Yagoda took it on the chin.

He had written this clause (I mark it with the asterisk that linguists use to signal ungrammaticality):

*The meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.

The incident reminded me of one of the worst features of the grammar advice so many university writing instructors hand out to students.

Certainly Ben’s sentence was ungrammatica…

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Overhypoed Typos

To spell-check or not to spell-check? Many people would find this question absurd: Of course you run spell-check on anything longer than a text message. Take some pride in your work! But I wandered away from that moral high ground recently after fiddling around with software called Lingofy that lets you run style-guide checks on your writing using The Associated Press Stylebook (or a style book of your own making).

It was tempting for me because I write for both British and American publications…

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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Word Pardons

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Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…