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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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Sad!

It is no news that the person I call the presumptuous Republican nominee for president likes to use exclamation points in his tweets. Take a look at a tranche of his Twitter feed:

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One might think this would be common punctuation on Twitter. One would be mistaken. Of the 50 most recent non-Trump tweets in my feed, only two contained exclamation points. (More commonly, a sort of humorous emphasis is added through ALL CAPS.) But for Trump, this is not only a trademark bit of Twitter punctuation; h…

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The Versatile Octothorpe

octothorpeNot being a tweeter, I rarely think about the octothorpe, now known more commonly as a hashtag. I do mark students’ papers by hand, though, and one thing I tend to insert — when no one is spelled as one word, or when a fictional story leaps from one block of time or point of view to another — is a mark for space, indicated by #. Then, just yesterday, I had to submit a prescription number over to the phone to my local pharmacy and was instructed to press pound when I was done.

Hashtag. Pound sign…

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The Good Old Teen Years

$_35Alas, where are the years of yesteryear? Gone with the wind, or at least gone with their poetic pronunciations, now that we have moved from the 1900s to the 2000s.

When it comes to the names we give to the years in the English language, the 21st century is simply not as mellifluous as its predecessors.

Try it yourself with the current year, 2016. How do you say it? Two thousand sixteen is clear but ponderous. Twenty sixteen could be momentarily mistaken for 26 when you say the third syllable. An…

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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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Grammar-Test Dispute Resolution

hangulI got an email one morning last week from a complete stranger in South Korea. In the From-line the sender’s name was displayed in hangul (my favorite among the world’s writing systems; I may write about it some other day). The message, in impeccable English, said this (I conceal the sender’s name):

Hello Professor, my name is _____ ____ and I live in the Republic of Korea. Recently I took a test in school and encountered a question that puzzled me. Here it is.

Human beings who are capable of sig…

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The Strange Saga of ‘Gobbledygook’

The other day, the website Futility Closet posted a reproduction of a document from the National Archives.

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Greg Ross, proprietor of the site, observed, “This is the first known usage of gobbledygook to refer to obscure jargon.” He was almost certainly correct. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “Official, professional, or pretentious verbiage or jargon.” It offers as first citation a definition published the month after the memo, in an April 1944 edition of the journal American N…

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Vivat Academia!

NumenLumen.svgAmong the relics of medieval Latin still venerated by modern American colleges and universities are the mottos inscribed or circumscribed on the great seals that adorn their diplomas. Long before mission statements were sine qua non at institutions of higher learning, their seals evoked their aims.

Harvard, of course, leads the pack with a coat of arms reading ve ri tas: One word for “truth,” in a trinity of syllables. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of this trinity, the coat of arms wa…

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Famous Women, Banknotes, and Online Abuse

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Mary Somerville

Oxford, England — Last night, as I dined in Somerville College, my host during a visit to the University of Oxford, a chain of thoughts led me to reflect on the linguistic abuse women endure on social media.

Like Caroline Criado-Perez, for example. She was a victim of highly focused Twitter hostility in 2013.

“Die you worthless piece of crap,” said one tweet. “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do,” wrote a troll; “you’re pathetic, kill yourself befo…