Category Archives: Writing

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I Am So Uber You

Action_Comics_1It began with Nietzsche. Now it’s about taxicabs.

We have entered the world of uberness, or possibly Überness. The Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is an alternative to divine authority, a model for living beyond what he regarded acidly as the restrictive values of organized religion.

Nietzsche’s early translators struggled to English the term Übermensch, and we’re still not really there. Overman, Superman — neither feels quite right. Both feel awfully 1938. On the …

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Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

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Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

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Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…

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Dashing Through

Dash copyOnce you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.

I started wondering the other day whether — and how badly — one can misuse the dash. Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did …

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The ‘Au Revoir’ Problem

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Serena Williams after winning the world No. 1 title for the sixth time in 2013. A tennis genius’s instincts may be preternaturally aligned with best practices, but the rest of us need a lot of help.

Way back when I was taking “Introduction to French” during my freshman year in college, we were given a quiz a month or so into the term. At one point, the professor spoke some French words and we were asked to spell them. One of the words was the French phrase for “goodbye.”

This is what I wrote dow…

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Ars Poetica

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Jake Adam York reading one of his poems in 2007. York died of a stroke in 2012 at age 40.

I like listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac with my daughter. She is in seventh grade. We catch the day’s broadcast on my phone while waiting in the morning at the bus stop. Keillor first offers a bit of literary history, listing the name of writers whose birthday falls that day, and he ends by reading a poem.

I wait for my daughter to say, on occasion, “I liked the poem.” The moment tha…

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Capital Punishment

28vetoThe New York Times reported recently that the National Weather Service has decided to stop yelling at us, at least typographically. FLOODING will now be flooding, and 9.2 ON THE RICHTER SCALE will be smaller, if only in appearance.

In the digital world, all caps are important for writing code, but the long-familiar convention may be becoming less welcome in journalism. It’s certainly not the way to make friends on email.

Capital letters are, of course, a boon to legibility, and have been since a…

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Transadaptation

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Emily Dickinson

Efforts to translate a text within the same language, from, say, the French of Molière to the present-day language of immigrants in Paris, are common today. Not long ago, I got a copy of  Andrés Trapiello’s faithful modernization of the entire Don Quixote, all 126 chapters. His argument is that today’s readers, especially young ones, no longer read Cervantes’s novel. Since its antiquated language might be one of the causes, why not render it it in 21st-century Iberian Spanish?

Ev…

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Readability, Understandability, and ETS

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference

Donald Trump’s speech to Aipac scored above a grade-level 6 in readability.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the formulas available for estimating readability are less than foolproof. It doesn’t even take a linguist to notice that things are missing from the formulas.

Last week I offered a link to the website Readability Score, where you can take any text and paste it in for an instant estimate by half-a-dozen different formulas, all purporting to determine the grade level o…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

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You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…