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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…

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Smile, Smile, Smile

The centennial commemoration of the start of the First World War has brought to the fore some of the music of that war, including an unsung gem that could well be the greatest fight song of all time.
(Granted, it’s not exactly unsung, since it’s a song. And the BBC recently praised it for its musical qualities.
But the song, “Pack Up Your Troubles,” has yet to be appreciated for its matchless galvanizing effect as pure language. And not really matchless, either, since it calls for a match.)

Here…

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

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Grammar: The Movie

photo-mainIt’s got an all-star cast: Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McWhorter of Columbia, Geoffrey Nunberg of Berkeley, Noam Chomsky of MIT, Adele Goldberg of Princeton, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, Brad Hoover of Grammarly, Bryan Garner of A Dictionary of American Usage, and dozens of other marquee attractions, including (way down in the credits) yours truly. I’m talking about Grammar Revolution, a quirky feature-length documentary by David and Elizabeth O’Brien, which is intended—I think—to wake …

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Dudgeons and Dragons

High dudgeon. No it’s not a charming village outside of Oxford, but it’s a place all right, and it’s where a lot of us academic types live.

The Google NGram Viewer would suggest that dudgeon, meaning something like a fit of temper, enjoyed its heyday in the century or before World War II, a point at which, perhaps, the scale and language for anger and outrage was recalibrated.

Dudgeon is a lovely word, not to be confused with gudgeon, about which more in a moment.

The OED’s first definition for

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The Long Game

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Anthony Trollope

I just turned in to the publisher the final version of a book, and have now started on this post. Not exactly a Trollope move, but it’ll have to do. (“Every day for years, Trollope reported in his ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next…

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Pausing Over Pronunciation

islet copyA little over a year ago, I found myself standing in front of a class of almost 100 students, staring at a pronunciation conundrum. I was reading aloud a couple of key sentences from a quote on a PowerPoint slide, and my eyes jumped a line ahead and saw the word islet barreling toward me. Not a word I say aloud all that often, let alone one I have to say loudly in front of a roomful of people.

My brain started searching in a panicky way for memories of how to say this word. “Eye-let!” recomm…

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The Sound on the Page

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David Candow

Last Saturday morning, as is my wont, I was sitting in the club chair in the living room, paging through the newspaper, fitfully checking e-mail, and  listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. My wandering attention was called back home by the sound of host Scott Simon embarking on his weekly essay. I call it an “essay,” but that’s kind of a fussy word for the personal, sometimes quirky, always intelligent commentary I look forward to hearing every week.

On Saturday, it was an obituary f…

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Great Question!

Questions have muscle. That’s what I mentioned last week while praising the strongest question word of all, Why. Even the weakest of questions has strength not found in any declarative sentence: the strength to require a response. If someone makes a statement, you don’t have to do anything. But if someone asks you a question, you must answer.

Why is that?

(See, now I have to answer.) Well, it’s not because anybody passed a law. There are no language police eavesdropping on conversations and wr…

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6 Likes, Liked and Disliked

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Like No. 2

Linda Hall writes in The Conversation about strategies for getting students to make less use of the hated monosyllable like. She cites (and admits that she respects) an essay by David Grambs, “The Like Virus,” in the August 2011 edition of The Vocabula Review, a subscription-only online periodical of linguistic peeving (it is reprinted in Exploring Language, edited by Gary Goshgarian, pages 303-310).

Grambs (could that be a clerical error for “Gramps” or “Grumps”?) doesn’t just hate y…