An Insider’s Thoughts on Commas and Style

I read a very interesting article in this week’s New Yorker written by Mary Norris, who’s worked on the copy editing end of that magazine for a long time. I find pieces like this fascinating (the New York Times also runs a regular column where they discuss stylistic choices made in the newspaper) because they give us an insider’s view into how decisions about grammar and style are made in popular venues. Most importantly, in my opinion, they give us further evidence that many of the “rules” we think govern our language (especially when it comes to punctuation) are not nearly as black-and-white or easily discernible as we might assume. (Which should come as a huge relief to those of us who worry about our own abilities when we can’t easily discern the rules on our own.)

Some will read Norris’ piece and do lots of eye-rolling (if they even make it through the whole thing) at her proclivity to look for (and find) grammatical “errors” or typos while reading–even though such a talent certainly helps in her chosen career. Their eyes will likely roll even more near the end of the piece when she engages in some deep analysis of some comma choices made by the author James Salter. (more…)

Thoughts on Diagramming

You may have seen links to this NPR piece drifting around Facebook lately, or perhaps a friend or colleague has pointed it out to you. The lead image is from a PopChart poster that I have in my office where the opening lines to a handful of classic novels are diagrammed in classic Reed-Kellogg fashion.

The NPR piece waxes a bit nostalgic about sentence diagramming and seems to extoll the virtues of this method of visualizing a sentence’s structure. If you scroll down to the comments, you’ll see a number of commenters claiming that their writing today is vastly improved because of the efforts of their teachers to have them diagram sentences (no matter how much they disliked it). But, you might say, how do we reconcile this with my own admonitions against teaching diagramming in the classroom?


Appositives in Online Writing

I was getting my daily news fix the other day and came across an article about the current state of immigration reform in Congress. As I read, I came across this sentence:

“They’re willing to treat people who simply want to make a better way of life for themselves and their families inhumanely and use their Tea Party ideology to beat the president into submission if they don’t get their way,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

What I find interesting about this article is the use of appositive after the name of this representative. There’s nothing unusual about the appositive itself, and phrases like these (to clarify the credentials or position of the speaker) are common in journalistic writing. But it does add some heft to the sentence and may trip up some readers (or annoy others who know who Wasserman is).

Which all led me to wonder why we’re using appositives like this in online writing? (more…)

New Words Added to OED

The Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most respected lexical collections in the English-speaking world, recently issued an update (they do this monthly, in case you’re interested) describing some of the new words that have been added to the dictionary. You can read about all the additions in the article linked in the previous, sentence, but here are some of my favorites:

  • “Binge watch” is now recognized by the dictionary as a term to describe viewing multiple episodes of a TV series in one sitting (or nearly one sitting). This is a great example of a term that arises as technology shifts the way we live our lives and, in this case, consume media/entertainment. Binge watching would have been more difficult in the days before Netflix and other streaming services; although you could binge watch a series with DVDs (and some of have), something about the wide accessibility and ease prompted by services like Netflix has allowed this practice to become more widely practiced, leading to the need for a term that describes it. As is common in our language, we took pre-exiting words and combined them in a new, descriptive way.
  • “Mansplain” is a word that I’ve never heard in usage myself, but is one that I definitely like and hope to hear more of. A gendered term, the word is used to refer to the way a man is explaining something to another (usually a woman) in a condescending tone. This term seems to have emerged from the online realm.
  • I’ve heard (and read) the term “brick” quite a bit in the blogs and discussion forums that I follow and in casual conversations about mobile phones and other devices, so I’m surprised that it’s just now making it’s way into the OED. (To “brick” a mobile phone is to make it unusable, often by modifying the phone’s software in an unsupported way.) The OED also describes the noun form, although I more often hear the adjective form used to describe unusable phones (i.e., “my bricked phone”).


A Grammar Rant of a Different Stripe

So we’ve talked in class about grammar rants, which most often (today, at least) appear online in blogs or discussion boards or comment streams after articles with errors. Here’s a rant that takes on a different form, but focuses still on some of the same pet peeves that many ranters do. After watching it a couple of times, I’m curious whether it conveys still some of the (often smoldering) anger that underlies many of these rants. It certainly reflects the prescriptivist attitude that dominates these texts. Give it a watch and see what you think.


Update (7/26/14): I came across this response to the Weird Al video and its content and tone. It describes nicely some of the attitudes that we discuss in class relative to these rants and to the application of grammar/usage in writing. It’s worth a read.

When a Suffix Becomes A Word

There’s an interesting piece on Slate by Gretchen McCulloch about the growingly common use of the suffix -ish as its own word.  As McCulloch explains:

As a word by itself—which is to say, not as a suffix—ish means more or less the same thing: kind of, thereabouts, in a way. And imagining how it broke free to become syntactically stand-alone isn’t hard. The word “hungry-ish,” say—as in, I guess I could eat. I’m hungry-ish.—often comes out more like “hungry [brief pause] ish.”

This is a great example of the way usage evolves over time, especially towards ways of expression that are more efficient. But this is unique in that while we often attach affixes to words that previously haven’t had affixes attached to them (such as when we attach an affix like –able to a wide variety of words), this is a unique move in that the suffix itself is being used separate from any explicit word. Of course, you need a lot of context to understand what the speaker means by ish, but it’s perfectly intelligible in context.

The Tyranny of the Like Button

Facebook_like_thumbI’ll admit up front that I’m not an avid Facebook-er, so perhaps some of the complaint I’m offering here is due to my naiveté about the medium. I’m also kind of old, and maybe this is the embryonic old codger in me coming out.

I imagine the Like button on Facebook has been around on the social network for nearly as long as Facebook has been on the web. A click of this button, according to Facebook help documents, “is an easy way to let someone know that you enjoy [content], without leaving a comment.” It also (perhaps unbeknownst to some users) advertises your tastes to the rest of your friends via your Timeline, which appears on their Facebook news feeds. Its use has been one way to measure popularity of content; each of us might, without being able to help ourselves, have paid attention to how many “likes” we’ve received for a certain post or update.

The problem I have with the Like button is how limited it is as a form of response but how tempting it is to use this simple button rather than provide a thoughtful or appropriate response to content on Facebook. For instance, I’ve seen numerous occasions when someone posts a heartfelt status update about a friend who died, the loss of their job, or some other sad, tragic event–and I see that a number of people have “liked” the update. What’s the “like” supposed to mean in this case? (more…)

On Appositives and Emphasis

I encountered the use of appositives in two texts that I read this week and both had me thinking about the way we order the elements of an appositive (i.e., the noun and the phrase being used to rename the noun) to achieve a specific emphasis.

The first use comes from the thesis I read through this week. In it, the author is describing a survey she set up and the recruitment letter that went out to potential participants. Part of her description of that letter read:

I included a brief letter co-signed by me; Dr. [Name], the Composition Coordinator; Dr. [Name], the Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator; and Dr. [Name], the Writing Center Coordinator.

What I noticed in this sentence is that the names of the individuals come in the primary position, with their titles being used in the appositive position. I suggested to her that readers of an article that might result from her thesis would probably be less interested in names than in the positions, so it makes sense in this case to switch the order of the two and have the positions in the primary noun position and the names as appositives. (You could also suggest that we strike the names altogether, since readers outside the immediate context would be unlikely to know these people or care about their names.)


Summarizing Movies Concisely and Humorously

It can be tricky to effectively summarize the entire plot of a movie in a short sentence or two, but I came across this gem today while browsing The Atlantic web site:

In the 1992 comedy Encino Man, two California teenagers unearth a frozen caveman while digging a pool in their back yard. With the aid of some space heaters in the garage, he comes back to life, and fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue. 

Perhaps a movie like Encino Man is easier to summarize, given that it’s not what we might call a thought-provoking treatise on life or the human condition. Whatever.

In these two sentences, I appreciate the reliance on the compound adjective and the idiomatic phrase (fish-out-of-water) as a way of concisely, but also humorously, conveying the gist of the movie. It’s writing like this (which appears in the first paragraph of the linked essay) that grabs a reader.