Category Archives: Writing

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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…

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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Report From the Front

Ka-ching!

Ka-ching!

A couple of months ago, I was at a party, talking to a couple of lawyers, and the conversation got around to the fact that I write books. The topic of e-books came up, and one of these guys said to me, in essence, “You should love e-books! I could take out my smartphone, and buy everything you’ve ever written with a couple of clicks. It’s so easy to sell your stuff!”

I said it was more complicated than that, but not until now have I realized how true that statement is. About a week ago…

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The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

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Title page of Bullions

I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m ho…

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Yesterday’s Errors

Last week I listened to a conversation on “All Things Considered” between National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel and author Ammon Shea about his new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. It was fundamentally a discussion of language change and attitudes about language change, running the gamut from—to quote Siegel—“linguistic scolds to the most permissive writers on language.”

Shea, who puts himself at the permissive end of the spectrum, explained how some words that we now cons…

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Story Time

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Copyright MousePlanet Inc.

I’ve been working recently with a Romanian-German engineering student with business-school aspirations who is trying to improve his English writing skills. My student’s spoken English is excellent, and he can write fluently when talking about himself (in particular, about his rather impressive tennis career; the kid’s multitalented to say the least). But whenever he shows me a report, a formal letter, or a research paper, the work is a mess: The grammar falls apart und…

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Splice Girl

You can get Samuel Beckett's most famous comma splice (without commas) on a t-shirt or coffee mug

You can get Samuel Beckett’s most famous comma splice (absent commas) on a T-shirt or coffee mug

Because the conventions for their use are so variable, commas can provide a quick sense of a writer’s personal style. Or a publication’s: As I wrote a few weeks ago, part of The New Yorker‘s distinctive voice is the way, whenever standard punctuation rules allow for a comma or not, it always votes “yes.”

Things really get interesting when artful writers choose to flout those rules. Take the comma spl…

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Questionable Style in the News

office-chairAn article about the benefits of standing desks in last week’s Washington Post highlighted a problem, and I’m not talking about the problem of sitting too long in a chair at the office (although this is a real problem). I’m talking about a different kind of chair.

My friend Barbara Beaton pointed out to me that the article refers to Loretta DiPietro, a pioneering advocate for standing desks, as “chairman of the department of exercise science” at the Milken Institute School of Public Health a…

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The Vague Main Clause of the Second Amendment

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I have often reflected on the problematic vagueness of the initial absolute adjunct clause of the Second Amendment. Reading about yet another university massacre last week, the topic came to mind again. But this time I realized that the worst thing about the amendment may be the main-clause syntax.

The absolute adjunct clause (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state”) has been much discussed. Its comma is extraneous under modern punctuation rules (an unmotiva…

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Questionable Behavior

Wallace Shawn and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (1995)

You should have been reading this post yesterday. That, at least, was the plan a week ago, before William Germano and I traded slots—a move our editor forgot, because she sent an email on Thursday politely prodding me for copy. At first, I panicked: Could I rearrange my busy Friday schedule to get her something before the weekend? If not, would she mind editing it out-of-hours? Then I remembered the switch, and so wrote back: “I thought…