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Lessons From ‘Stoner’

John-Williams-StonerWhen the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:

“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”

I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

spam

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)…

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Poetically Punctuating

stanleyquotepoetrypunctuationAt last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fanta…

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Instant Readability

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Lincoln at Gettysburg

No, the age of miracles hasn’t passed. I’m about to give you a free tool that will make you an instant expert on readability.

Readability? What’s that?

It’s the ability of a text to be read and understood. It’s vital to measure readability, for example, in choosing texts that will be understood by elementary or high-school students at their appropriate grade levels. And it’s also vital in court, for another example, to determine whether a typical consumer could understand t…

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Hillary Who?

Hillary-60-minutesNoting that I’ve written about the hip-hop/youth/New York trend of glottalizing (that is, “swallowing” the t before the last syllable) such words as important, button, and Manhattan, a reader recently e-mailed me, “I was intrigued by how Hillary Clinton glottalized her last name … as early as 1992. Not surprisingly, she changed it back to Clin’T’on in her campaign video last year.”

The reader included links to two YouTube videos. The first, a fairly amazing comedy bit at a 1992 roast of Ron Brow…

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Never Underestimating

thumbMaybe George W. Bush’s neologism misunderestimate isn’t such a bad candidate for adoption into the lexicon. That’s what I decided shortly after reading the following passage in a New York Times article about the various adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho:

Mr. Bale’s role in Bateman’s liftoff is impossible to underestimate. You can trace the character’s ascent along the arc of the actor’s career. (Bateman, Batman, Bale, baleful — there’s a malevolent linguistic r…

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Sidestepping the Semicolon

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Illustration courtesy of Helen Gräwert*

If a struggling writer is having trouble with apostrophe’s, too bad. Spoken English doesnt use them and doesnt give the slightest hint about where they might be needed in writing, but youd better put them in, or the writing will look like this paragraph. Cant do that.

On the  other hand, there’s one thing you can do if you’re a struggling writer: avoid semicolons. Entirely.

We all know the looks of the semicolon: a comma with a dot on top. But what good i…

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Don’t Speak!

In the funniest scene in Woody Allen’s last funny movie, Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the aspiring playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) tries to communicate his feelings to the stage diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest).

Throughout history, at various moments and by various people, not speaking has been recognized as an appropriate and perhaps necessary course of action. After being raped at the age of 8, Maya Angelou was mute for almost five years. In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the chi…

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Got Texture?

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Granular and unsweet.

When did comprehension become something you could rub your fingers over? When, in other words, did we begin to talk about textured understanding? When I think of texture I think of oatmeal, or good beach sand, or chenille bedspreads.

Writing in The New York Times about the Hewlett-Packard career of Carly Fiorina last fall, Michael Barbaro leaned on this now reliable modifier. “But lost in those dramatic accounts,” he observed, “is a textured understanding of how Mrs. Fiorin…

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Being an Antecedent

On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t…