‘History Is Happening’


“Hamilton,” a grammatically creative musical

The first line of the third paragraph of Ben Brantley’s review of the new hit Broadway play Hamilton delighted and shocked me. Following up on a line from the play, “History is happening in Manhattan,” he writes: “’Happening’ qualifies as both an adjective and a verb in this instance.”

Wow. Just wow.

For those who don’t get Brantley’s observation or my reaction, a quick lesson. The verb to be, followed by a present participle, often means some form of…


Mewling Quim



It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post…


Coming and Going

GrizzlyThe complexity of language mirrors the complexity of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called deictic words, those that connect a particular situation in language directly to a situation in life. Consider this and that, for example. This is something closer to the speaker or writer; that  is something more distant.

Similarly, here and there depend on who or what’s closer, whether to the speaker or to something the speaker is discussing. Now and then require decisions about time. 


Attending to Gender

plane copyI’ve been doing a lot of flying recently, which has me thinking about the term flight attendant. It is undeniably clunky. And yet here it is—an odd little success story in the larger narrative of nonsexist language reform.

Given overall trends in  these reform efforts, I don’t think it’s odd that American English speakers have found a gender-neutral alternative to stewardess and steward (the latter being relatively uncommon but possible). We’ve opted for gender-neutral terms over gender-specif…


Lain, the Whom of the Verb World


The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…


This. Is. Really. Important.

I know I’m not the only one who’s noticing display text—advertising, announcements, and the like—angling for the reader’s attention by placing a period after each word. So that you have to read it slowly. And feel the importance. Of every word. Of. Every. Word.

This is, I hope, a momentary infatuation with the beleaguered full stop, which typographers and art directors are enlisting to add emphasis to anything, provided the anything is brief, and preferably composed of words not in excess of two…


The International Phonetic Alphabet


In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating kn…


Yolo, Try to Be on Fleek

on-fleek2They drop into our In boxes like mad, twitching flies, these contests apparently designed to make us feel either startlingly young or hopelessly old and out of it. It’s either “How many of these ancient pieces of technology did you use?” or “How well do you know 2014 Pop Culture?” I pass on most of them, but when our editor sent me The New York Times’s Language Quiz, I took the bait.

Designed to test “how linguistically en vogue you are,” the quiz provides multiple-choice definitions for var…


Comma Maven Meets Comma Queen

If the phrase “copy-editing memoir” quickens your heart, then you’re in store for a treat: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton), by Mary Norris of The New Yorker. One of the many tasty tidbits in the book is that Norris’s title at the magazine actually isn’t copy editor, but rather “page OK’er”—

a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go …


OK: Konspicuous, Kurious, Komical

single-k-letter-green-mdAt last it’s March, a month to celebrate the arrival of spring and the anniversary of America’s greatest word. On March 23, three days after the vernal equinox, comes the 176th anniversary of the birth of that word: OK.

Among the many unusual qualities of OK is the fact that we know exactly when and where it was created, thanks to the indefatigable research of Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. It came from the pen and the newspaper of Charles Gordon Greene. On Page 2 of the Saturday, Mar…