I have long attempted to be aware and sensitive in my writing. I have a copy on my shelf of Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. It was published in 1980, and I have a paperback edition published in 1981. Perhaps parts of it are dated, but it shows that consciousness and inclusiveness in writing is not a new topic. As the world has become aware that gender identity is not always a binary matter the subject has become more visible. No doubt the pandemic lockdown gave this a boost when we were all on Zoom and many of us put our preferred pronouns next to our name. That has become a convention on LinkedIn as well.
I discovered that writing in a conscious manner is not necessarily as easy as it might seem. I recently reviewed the book How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Imbler identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/their/them. I attempted to respect that in my review. I thought I had done a pretty good job but searched on “she” and “her” just to be sure. Was I wrong! The review contained female pronouns throughout that I had to correct. I even wrote, “Imbler identifies as nonbinary and I use her pronouns of choice.” (And yes, I fixed that as well before hitting the Publish button).
Some people still get their knickers in a knot about singular they, but for many of us that ship has sailed. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.” and “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” But Chicago hedges its bets. Section 5 is the “Style and Usage” section written by Bryan A. Garner. Garner writes, “For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” Garner does, to his credit, repeat the assertion that a person’s preference is to be honored.
In the fifth edition of his Modern English Usage, published just last November, Garner provides a detailed history and analysis of the singular they. He concludes with some rather circumspect advice:
How future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, careful writers using the singular they must take care to avoid ambiguities, miscues, and awkwardness.
Of course, I’m not making any revelations in saying that singular they is nothing new. Grammarians and linguists have been making this point for a very long time. An article on the Oxford English Dictionary web site states that the usage goes back to at least 1375. I have seen it mentioned many times that Shakespeare used singular they and that he used it more than once. For example, an essay on the old Language Log web site at the University of Pennsylvania cites two examples, including this one:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
There are plenty of other examples throughout literature, and much ink has been spilled (or many electrons rearranged) on the subject, so I won’t go on beating a horse that should be dead.
In a world filled with people like Ron DeSantis, where we are fighting battles that should have long ago been won, the least we can do is honor the wishes of our nonbinary
brothers and sisters siblings.
And if I slip up kindly let me know.
One would think that it would be a simple thing to order and receive a copy of the new fifth edition of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage, wouldn’t one? Guess not.
I was looking forward to the release of the book, which I had preordered. It was published on November 17, and as an Amazon Prime member I expected it within a day or two of publication. I had wanted the Kindle edition, but Amazon did not show it available in that format. November 14 arrived and Amazon told me I could expect the book on November 29. Say what? At that point it also showed a Kindle edition. I tried to cancel my hardcover order, but Amazon responded by telling me, “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cancel the items you requested and these items will soon be shipped.”
Their claim of “will soon be shipped” notwithstanding, Amazon took its time getting the book into the pipeline. Eventually it made its way from Chambersburg, PA and Baltimore, MD on the East Coast to San Bernardino and then San Diego, CA here on the West Coast, where Amazon handed it over to the United States Postal Service, and thence to my local Hemet post office.
From here the post office took its time. Tracking showed that it was “Out for Delivery” on Saturday, November 26, but the postman never delivered it; it ended up back at the post office that same day with a status of “Ready for Pickup.” Again, say what? I completed the provided online redelivery request and the book showed up in my mailbox on Monday, after our regular mail delivery.
I have it now, though, and I’m happy to have the latest edition of Garner there on my shelf. I look forward to making good use of it, both for reference and for browsing.
Translating Myself and Others
Princeton University Press (May 17, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $9.44, Amazon hardcover $19.79
When I read several years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri was moving to Italy and was going to start writing in Italian I had a couple of reactions. I wondered whether we were being deprived of one of our best storytellers in English. And I scratched my head, thinking that this was a rather odd decision. In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri fills us in on why she made that decision.
The specific dates across the introduction and the various essays don’t sync up and had me somewhat confused, but the sequence of events is still clear. Lahiri decided she was in love with the Italian language so she moved there and began to write in Italian. She also became friendly with Italian authors whose work she later translated into English. At some point she returned to the United States to teach translation at Princeton but returned to Rome whenever academic holidays or sabbatical permitted.
The title of the book is an exact description of its contents. She writes about overcoming the fear of translating her own work from Italian into English, and she discusses translating the work of others, in particular novelist Domenico Starnone. Having lived in Italy, Lahiri has a fascination with the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphoses. She refers to passages from Ovid throughout the book and describes how she is working on a new translation with a Princeton classicist.
Lahiri is open to the criticism of her work. She writes that critics said that her Italian was not idiomatic. That is not the word they used, but that was the essence of their evaluation. She describes how American critics thought she was arrogant to write introductions to her translations of Starnone.
When she writes about the process of translation Lahiri includes the passage in its original language before providing the English version. She really wants the reader to understand what she is doing.
About translation Lahiri writes:
Translation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original — that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another.
When I read those words this seemed like a rather narrow perspective, but if I am honest I know I can be guilty of taking such a view. Maybe that’s why most of what I read are books originally written in English. That is limiting, however. One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I very much liked the writing, but the book I read was a translation into English from the original Polish. I do not know how well translator Klara Glowczewska reflected Kapuscinski’s Polish, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.
Another case in point: Isabel Allende. I know she writes in Spanish and her books are translated into English. I don’t know if she translates any of her work herself or if a translator is responsible for the English versions. What I know is that her literary fiction meets with high regard and that I am missing out on some good reading by overthinking these questions.
So, about translation: If the topic interests you be sure to read Translating Myself and Others. You’ll be glad you did.
Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Mariner Books (July 19, 2022), 396 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.29
I believe that I first encountered Ellen Jovin on LinkedIn where she posted a photo of her grammar table. Ellen is a language educator who took conversations about grammar to the city street. She set up a table in New York City with a sign offering to answer grammar questions. From there she took her table around the country. Her husband joined her, making video recordings of her conversations. She took those conversations and made them into a book.
Jovin is brave. Her first chapter discusses the Oxford comma. There is nothing more likely to tie the knickers of grammar nerds into a knot than the Oxford (or serial) comma. To my disappointment, Jovin is only lukewarm in her support of the Oxford comma. She writes that she once had a job with an organization that did not use the Oxford comma, and though she has since begun to use it she does not feel strongly that others use it. I’m very aware that neither the Associated Press Stylebook nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage use the Oxford comma, but I am a Chicago Manual of Style guy myself and they support it.
My favorite example in support of the Oxford comma is in a book dedication, probably apocryphal, in which it is omitted:
I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
I had originally inserted a snarky comment here, but I’ll let the example speak for itself. Discussions about both Ayn Rand and God can stir up potent emotions.
In another chapter Jovin discusses the appositive, where a noun or noun phrase further identifies the subject of the sentence:
WH Auden, my favorite poet, captured the spirit of his time.
The phrase “my favorite poet” is the appositive. Jovin then combines appositives with the Oxford comma, and things really get gnarly. I’m not going to try to explain that here; you’ll need to read the book.
Jovin devotes a chapter to singular “they,” something else that gets people’s knickers in a knot, not all of them grammar nerds. While sometimes it is better to recast the sentence, there are times when it makes sense to use it. Chicago in its latest edition, the seventeenth, began allowing this.
In a chapter on lie/lay confusion, Jovin goes to a great deal of trouble to set the visitors to her table straight. She always keeps a notepad at her table and she reproduces a diagram she would sometimes draw to clarify all the various forms. She seems to be something of a stickler on this point, though things get rather arcane, especially with tenses like the present perfect of lie (which is lain). I tend to agree with linguist John McWhorter who in a recent podcast suggested that in this case we should probably let sleeping dogs lay. I mean lie.
Jovin covers a variety of topics: the book has forty-nine chapters. She discusses affect/effect, adverbs, semicolons, commas, apostrophes, and many other topics about which the visitors to her table brought questions. What’s great about Ellen Jovin is that she is always congenial, she is never confrontational or dogmatic. If she brings her table to your town stop by and visit.
And whether she does or not, consider buying Rebel with a Clause. You’ll enjoy the conversations.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Riverhead Books (July 23, 2019), 334 pages
Kindle edition $4.99, Amazon paperback $14.49
Audiobook edition read by the author
published by Penguin Audio
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I don’t know why I didn’t get to this book when it first came out in 2019. Perhaps because of its (deliberately) ungrammatical title. But that’s no reason not to read (or listen to) this highly informative and entertaining book.
I have never recommended both the audio and print versions of a book before, but that’s the case with Because Internet. One almost needs both to get the full value of the book. Gretchen reads her own work in a lively and engaged manner. She speaks at a fast clip, and I suspect that had a professional voice actor read the book it would have come in at longer than the exactly eight hours in which McCulloch completes her reading. The author enhances much of the content with her intonation and inflection.
On the other hand, there is much in the book that relies not only on spelling, but on sequences of keyboard characters, something that doesn’t translate well into the audiobook version.
The author writes about the evolution of internet language. She describes how users who were limited to the characters on the keyboard would use asterisks, hyphens, and underscores to enhance their messages. She explains how the convention developed that all caps means shouting, but points out that earlier mainframe terminals equipped with only a keyboard and a teletype (without a monitor) used only capital letters. McCulloch describes the evolution of terms like “lol,” which originally meant “laughing out loud,” but has evolved to simply show amusement.
McCulloch tracks the evolution of the emoji, which started as keyboard characters called emoticons and describes how the form evolved into the graphical emoji, with officially supported characters. The cross-platform characters are managed by the Unicode Consortium, “a small committee of people who live at the intersection of tech geek and font nerd, and are mostly employees of major tech companies,” in case you were wondering.
She also follows the evolution of the meme. Meme captions started out explaining the thoughts of the person or animal pictured, but evolved so the captions became labels for the various parts of the picture. One cannot, of course, open Facebook without encountering a meme.
The author also categorizes the generations of internet users, from the earliest adopters to those who never knew a world without the internet. She calls the first group “Old Internet People.” I’m not sure that I like that since I am part of that group, but that’s how she refers to us. I’ll write about my experience as an old internet person sometime soon. McCulloch writes about Full Internet People and Semi-Internet People, both of whom didn’t know a time without the internet, but are distinguished by their level of internet involvement. She discusses Pre Internet people, who were around at the beginning, but did not start using the internet until later.
McCulloch is a professional linguist and did considerable research for Because Internet. In addition to her original research she reviewed the work of other linguists. She does an excellent job of capturing a snapshot of our online world. If you are a word nerd or an internet nerd you’ll thoroughly enjoy McCulloch’s offering.
The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.
Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.
Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.
The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).
If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.
Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, May 04, 2021
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I can’t imagine anyone other than John McWhorter doing the narration for the audio version of a John McWhorter book. I am very familiar with McWhorter’s work, having read a couple of his books, having listened to his podcast, and having completed several of his lecture series from the Great Courses, both audio and video. He has a distinctive voice with a great deal of inflection and cadence. And when it comes to quoting works in Middle English most voice actors couldn’t match his skill.
In the tradition of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” McWhorter discusses the origin and history of nine “dirty” words. In fact, only one word is on both lists, though McWhorter discusses another of Carlin’s words in the epilogue. Of those nine words, I might occasionally use one or two of them in this blog, though there are more that I use in everyday speech, especially when I am angry or frustrated. Then there are words on McWhorter’s list that I would never use either in writing or in casual speech.
Though intended for a general audience, Nine Nasty Words takes the scientific approach of the linguist as McWhorter discusses the origins and evolution of those words. It’s fascinating stuff, all of it. A bonus is that you get the wit and humor throughout the book that are McWhorter trademarks.
If such things interest you, I highly recommend that you get McWhorter’s audio book version rather than the print or e-book edition. You will thoroughly enjoy having him talking with you in your living room or car.
I am a word nerd. I love language. Given that, it should be no surprise that I love dictionaries. (But you likely knew that.)
My favorite dictionary has long been The American Heritage Dictionary. You may have noticed that is the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD) next to me in my profile picture. It was something new and different when it was first published in 1969. The development of the AHD was prompted by what was conceived of as the permissiveness of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. What made the AHD unique was its usage panel. The editors polled a group of writers as to the acceptability of the usage of certain words, and from those responses usage notes were created for certain entries.
For example, with respect to the word hopefully meaning “it is to be hoped,” the usage note states:
In 1999, 34 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the sentence “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified.” In 2012, 63 percent accepted this same sentence.
I bought a copy of the first edition of the AHD when I was in high school. During my B. Dalton Bookseller years sales reports showed that I swung sales away from the Merriam Webster Collegiate and to the AHD in whatever store I happened to be working. (That ended up being a total of five.)
Alas, it seems that the days of the American Heritage Dictionary being actively maintained have come to an end. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has made no proactive announcement, but the evidence is clear. The usage panel appears to have been disbanded. The last blog entry was published February 2018, and the most recent list of word additions were announced in January of that year. The most recent print edition is the fifth, published in 2011, with a “50th Anniversary Printing” of the fifth edition published in October 2018.
My first email to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asking them about the status of the AHD went unanswered. The response to the second came several days after I sent the email.
As of January 2020, we do not have any new print editions planned at this time. However, the website is being occasionally updated, including for biographical changes (e.g. death dates/political terms ending), and sensitivity issues (most recently updating the word Black to show the racial/ethnic group sense can be either upper or lowercase and be equally valid).
Note the word “occasionally.” That means no active maintenance. No updates as meanings of words change. No additions of neologisms as they come into common use. No new polls of the usage panel as a particular usage of a given word becomes more common or less frequently used.
That leaves the Merriam-Webster family as the only dictionaries in the United States being actively maintained. Since I began doing freelance work I have subscribed to the online edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary. It is now my go-to reference.
Ah, but American Heritage, we knew you well.
I wrote recently about avoiding words with fluid or ambiguous meanings. I focused on the word “fulsome,” whose usage has changed over the decades and which has conflicting definitions across dictionaries.
Sometimes, however, a word has a very specific meaning and is still used incorrectly. If you’ve seen the movie The Princess Bride you may remember the scene in which the Wallace Shawn character is told he is being followed. He responds more than once saying, “inconceivable!” Finally one of his henchmen says, “I don’t think you know what that word means, boss.”
Even if one feels compelled to use jargon, most jargon terms have specific meanings.
I once had a manager nearly twenty years ago who picked up jargon like a chameleon adapts to its surroundings. We worked with a lot of engineers based in India and he picked up their the phrase, “at the earliest.” That is a highly non-grammatical construct used by engineers whose first language is not English. It means, as you might surmise, “as soon as possible.” Once in my performance review this manager used the phrase “just in time” regarding my providing feedback to an employee. That phrase has to do with the manufacturing process and getting parts to the factory right before assembly, and not any earlier, to save on inventory costs.
That’s obviously not what he meant. He meant I should provide feedback to this employee promptly, and simply stating “prompt feedback” would have made a lot more sense.
A little thought can frequently eliminate such simple errors.
Most people who love words and the English language are familiar with the book Alice in Wonderland and the character Humpty Dumpty. They are well acquainted with Humpty’s arrogant perspective on words:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Most of us are not so presumptuous, but words can be tricky sometimes. I often think of the 2017 column about the word “fulsome” by Ben Yagoda in the Lingua Franca blog. Yagoda writes that the word at one time meant “excessive flattery,” but has now taken on a positive connotation.
Indeed, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the first meaning as “very full and abundant,” providing “copious” as a synonym. The second meaning is “notably or appealingly full or rounded in shape.” Only further down the list do the more negative meanings appear.
The more conservative online American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, lists the first meaning as, “excessively flattering or insincerely earnest,” offering “unctuous” as a synonym. The second meaning is “disgusting or offensive.”
The the approach of the online Oxford Living Dictionaries is to take the middle road, offering “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree” as the first meaning and “of large size or quantity; generous or abundant” for the second definition.
All three dictionaries include usage notes which discuss the changing and ambiguous nature of the word.
My approach in such circumstances: avoid the word altogether. I will find a different word that conveys more precisely what I am trying to express.