Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style:
slinging around insults like simplistic , naïve , or vulgar , does not prove that the things the person is saying are false. Nor is the point of disagreement or criticism to show that you are smarter or nobler than your target.Steven Pinker in The Atlantic :
Nathan Heller’s an ignoramus.Again with the name-calling. This epithet joins a lengthy catalogue of epithets that appear in The Sense of Style: “anal-retentives,” “faultfinders,” “the Gotcha! Gang,” ”grammar nannies,” and so on.
What Heller says (about the sentence “It was he”) is mistaken. Pinker is right about that. But again with the name-calling, which violates The Sense of Style ’s fifth and final piece of advice about what’s really important in writing.
I have no idea if Pinker has read my review of his book. If he has, he hasn’t called me an ignoramus, at least not publicly. But then unlike Heller, I don’t write for The New Yorker. (Also, I’m not an ignoramus.)
I’ll quote my post on bad advice and misinformation: “It’s easier to persuade someone that what you’re saying is true and useful if you can keep from calling them stupid.” Or better still: “It’s easier to persuade someone that what you’re saying is true and useful if you can keep from thinking that they’re stupid.”
Bad advice and misinformation
Pinker on Strunk and White
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style
[Yes, I realize that the post title is an instance of name-calling.]
By Michael Leddy at 5:08 PM
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
To mark the remastered release of The Wire, McDonald’s has added an item to its menu: the McNulty. I quote from the press release, which describes the ingredients like so: “a generous helping of horseshit and testosterone, served on a bed of broken promises, garnished with red ribbon and Jameson’s.”
Overtime not included.
A related post
“Day at a time”
By Michael Leddy at 5:17 PM
The noun salve (“a healing ointment for application to wounds or sores”): even though the l is silent, the word must come from the Latin salvāre , no? Some idea of saving, healing, making whole, no?
No. The OED, source of the definition above, explains:
Old English sealf (feminine) = Old Saxon salƀa , Middle Low German salve (whence Middle Swedish salva , Swedish salfva , Danish salve ), Middle Dutch salve , salf (Dutch zalf ), Old High German salpa , salba (feminine), salb , salp neuter (Middle High German, German salbe feminine) < Germanic *salbā strong feminine < pre-Germanic *solpā , cognate with Sanskrit sarpís clarified butter, sṛpra greasy, and Albanian ǵalpe butter; perhaps also with Greek ὄλπη , ὄλπις oil-flask.Yes, it came up in conversation.
By Michael Leddy at 3:31 PM
Coming in January on ECM, Made in Chicago, a recording of a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert with Jack DeJohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Henry Threadgill. I’m excited to hear this music again: I’ve never before attended a performance that made it to disc.
Correction: I don’t know that I’ve ever attended a performance that made it to disc. I may have been in the audience for one or more of the tracks on Miles Davis’s We Want Miles. Not remembering which night of Miles’s three-night Boston 1981 run I was there for, I’ve never been able to figure it out. And besides, there were two shows each night —
But I know I was at the Jack DeJohnette concert.
How about you? Have you ever attended a performance that ended up on disc?
January 13, 2015: The release date has been reset as March 10.
A related post
Jack DeJohnette in Chicago
By Michael Leddy at 8:47 AM
Monday, December 29, 2014
The trombonist Jack Teagarden loved model trains. Here is how Barney Bigard told it. Bigard, who played clarinet and tenor saxophone for many years with Duke Ellington, played alongside Teagarden as members of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars:
If we played a long engagement somewhere and you went into Jack’s hotel room, you’d see nothing but all kinds of wires, little whistles and steam engine things. He told me that he learned about all that stuff when he was a kid. One time, we were checking into a hotel and he had this great big trunk like a sailing trunk. He had all his contraptions in there, all this iron and steel stuff. So the bus driver helped him put this trunk on the sidewalk and here came the bellboys. “Which one is yours, Mr. Teagarden?” “This one, this one and this trunk.” Do you know, those bellboys had to send for help to get that thing up to his room. He was quite a man.A related post
The girls all used to flock around Jack. He had that sort of personality where they would want to “mother” him; to take care of him. They all thought they were on to something big when he would ask them to come up to see the steam engines in his hotel room after the show. Those poor chicks would just sit on the bed waiting for something to happen, while Jack laid out on the floor blowing the whistles and making the engines work.
With Louis and the Duke: The Autobiography of a Jazz Clarinetist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Bix to Yoko in three or four
[This story makes me think of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and uncle Toby’s interest in military fortifications.]
By Michael Leddy at 7:40 AM
Sunday, December 28, 2014
[Henry, December 28, 2014.]
It may appear that Henry is questioning. In truth he is preparing a disguise with which to launch a snowball attack. Either way, one can never have too many streetside gum machines.
More gum machines
Henry : Henry : Henry : Perry Mason : Henry : Henry : Henry
By Michael Leddy at 11:58 AM
Saturday, December 27, 2014
[“Santa Claus School”. Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt. 1961. From the Life Photo Archive.]
The November 17, 1961 issue of Life ran a two-page photo essay on Charles Howard’s Santa Claus school in Albion, New York. The photograph above did not appear, but another one did, with this caption:
John Ray holds the diploma naming him a Santa’s helper. Next year he can work for B.S.C. degree. To get it he will have to present recommendations from customers and write 1,500-word thesis.Charles Howard’s school, now based in Michigan, goes on.
[For The Crow: yes, Martha, there really is a Santa Claus School. I thought Elaine in Arkansas was wondering about that. No, it was Martha.]
By Michael Leddy at 1:15 PM
Friday, December 26, 2014
Thursday, December 25, 2014
[“THOUSANDS SING IN STREET. Throng in Broadway Joins St. Paul’s Choir in Carol Service.” The New York Times, December 25, 1914.]
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it.
[St. Paul’s Chapel still stands at 209 Broadway, across from the site of the World Trade Center. Elaine and I went there in 2008 with our friends Luanne and Jim.]
By Michael Leddy at 7:20 AM
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
[From the Lassie episode “Yochim’s Christmas,” December 24, 1961. Hugh Reilly, June Lockhart, Ellen Corby, Billy E. Hughes, Jon Provost. Cinematography by Charles Van Enger. Click for a larger view.]
Here’s more deep-focus Lassie. And still more.
[It’s like Citizen Kane in Calverton. Or just outside Calverton.]
By Michael Leddy at 6:43 PM
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
[Mayor Everett D. Noble (Raymond Walburn) and son Forrest (Bill Edwards). Click for larger views.]
Bill, taking dictation, has explained to his father that one cannot say “a sense of both humility, satisfaction, and gratitude.” Three things, not two. But father knows best.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is a wonderful sample of Preston Sturges lunacy.
[Horny : “Callous or hardened so as to be horn-like in texture” (1693). Thanks, OED. The mayor’s paired synecdoches have a history. The earliest example I can find, via Google Books: “Our committee consists of working-men, our appeal is to the horny hands but honest hearts of toil”: Ernest Jones, Notes to the People (1851). I wonder if Sturges appealed to that history to get this dialogue past the censors.]
By Michael Leddy at 8:11 AM
Monday, December 22, 2014
[Coda to a post about Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style .]
Steven Pinker’s catalogue of epithets for the misinformed — schoolmarms, snoots, usage nannies, and so on — is unlikely to win many converts from their ranks. (Who wants to be called names?) A better way to win converts might be to take the approach of some college instructors. When I teach a writing class and dispel various imaginary (and ultimately unhelpful) rules, I tell my students (several times) something like this:
“When it comes to writing instruction, there is a lot of bad advice out there, and a lot of misinformation. Some of it is a matter of made-up rules that might, early on, serve a purpose, like the rule not to begin a sentence with and or but. A ban on those words might reduce the number of sentence fragments a teacher has to correct. But it’s better to learn, at some point, how to use the words correctly and have them in your toolkit of ways to start sentences. Otherwise, you’re limited, like someone who can drive only under thirty miles an hour. You can never get on the highway.And I make a point of showing my students that the instruction I’m offering is “not me” — that all of it can be found, again and again, in sources with far greater authority than mine. The Oxford comma: it’s recommended in all contexts beyond journalism. Placing a new idea at the start of a paragraph: countless guides to writing recommend putting it there, and not in the form of the awkward end-of-paragraph transition that many teachers require of high-school students.
“Why there should be so much bad advice and misinformation about writing is an important question. I think the answer has a lot to do with teachers’ fears and and feelings of inadequacy about their own writing, and of course with misinformation that their teachers passed on to them. It’s unfortunate, but a large part of getting better at writing is unlearning what you were taught earlier on.”
It’s easier to persuade someone that what you’re saying is true and useful if you can keep from calling them stupid.
[It bears repeating: ill-founded prohibitions against split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions and the like are derided by the very authorities on usage whom Pinker disparages.]
By Michael Leddy at 7:46 AM
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2014. $27.95. 359 pages.
In the last three pages of The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker offers advice about what’s genuinely important in writing, the principles “that govern critical thinking and factual diligence”: “First, look things up.” “Second, be sure your arguments are sound.” “Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world.” “Fourth, beware of false dichotomies.” “Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.” Would that Pinker had taken his own advice.
The Sense of Style is a disappointing book. It presents its author as a figure of urbane intelligence — witty, knowing, calmly superior — doing battle against agitated, deluded, self-styled experts. But the enemy in this book is a straw man or woman, or a whole army of straw folk. And the non-imaginary writer whose work poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Pinker’s own claim to authority is nowhere to be found in these pages.
First, look things up.
“We are blessed to live in an age in which no subject has gone unresearched by scholars, scientists, and journalists,” Pinker writes. “The fruits of their research are available within seconds to anyone with a laptop or a smartphone, and within minutes to anyone who can get to a library.” Thus it is remarkable how Pinker gets things wrong. Consider his treatment of — what else? — The Elements of Style. As in a 2012 lecture at MIT, Pinker presents Strunk and White as prohibiting the passive voice: “telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice.” But that’s not what Strunk and White tell writers to do. Their more nuanced advice appears in a discussion of the virtues of the active voice:
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . . This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary . . . . The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard. [Examples appear at each ellipsis.]Pinker follows Geoffrey Pullum in presenting the four pairs of sentences that follow this passage as evidence that Strunk and White did not understand the passive voice. And it’s true that one of their sentences involves a mistake: in “The cock’s crow came with dawn,” the verb is intransitive. But the pairs of sentences are meant to illustrate, as Strunk and White say, the advantages of “substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard .” In other words, the sentences are not presented as examples of passive to active. Even Pullum, who’s been hating on The Elements of Style for years, acknowledges that the book does not prohibit the use of the passive voice. In claiming that Strunk and White tell writers to avoid the passive voice, Pinker goes Pullum one better, or one worse.
A second example of the failure to look things up: Pinker makes a claim about Strunk and White and some unnamed others: “the orthodox stylebooks,” Pinker says, “are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time.” But The Elements acknowledges that fact:
The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.Pinker’s dismissive presentation of White’s attitude toward change in language is inaccurate and misleading in several ways:
In the last edition published in his lifetime, White did acknowledge some changes to the language, instigated by “youths” who “speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment.” White’s condescension to these “youths” (now in their retirement years) led him to predict the passing of nerd, psyched, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky, all of which have become entrenched in the language.Nothing in White’s observations is a matter of a grudging admission at twilight: a version of the passage Pinker quotes first appeared in the second (1972) edition of The Elements. Its items in a series: uptight, groovy, rap, hangup, vibes, copout, and dig. The third (1979) edition of The Elements was the last published in White’s lifetime. Its list: uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky. The list Pinker quotes is from the fourth edition, published in 1999, fourteen years after White’s death.¹
But consider too what White says about these lists:
By the time this paragraph sees print, [the words of each series] will be the words of yesteryear, and we will be fielding more recent ones that have come bouncing into our speech — some of them into our dictionary as well. A new word is always up for survival. Many do survive. Others grow stale and disappear. Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than to composition.White does not say that these words will disappear. To the contrary: some of them will make it into the dictionary. What White does say is that these words will become “the words of yesteryear,” followed by still newer words. And notice that these observations distinguish between what’s appropriate in “conversation” and what’s appropriate in “composition,” between speech and formal writing. As a teenager, I must have announced hundreds of times that I was psyched. But I’m sure that I never used the word psyched in a term paper. Today, still, no one does.
One more failure to look things up: here, as in his 2012 lecture, Pinker gets The Strunk and White Story wrong, saying that White turned Strunk’s “course notes on writing” into a book. One need not read past the first paragraph of White’s introduction to The Elements of Style to get the gist of things: “A textbook required for the course was a slim volume called The Elements of Style, whose author was the professor himself.” White didn’t turn course notes into a book: he turned a book into a larger book.
Second, be sure your arguments are sound.
The trouble with Pinker’s arguments is that again and again they oppose prohibitions and taboos that no reputable authority endorses. Consider, for instance, Pinker’s advice about infinitives, that it’s acceptable to split them, at least sometimes. Pinker pronounces the prohibition on the split infinitive “a mythical usage rule,” “the quintessential bogus rule.” Mythical and bogus indeed, for where is this rule to be found? Pinker cites seven authorities who sanction the split (he could have added Strunk and White and others). So who is the enemy here? Some straw man or woman, insisting upon some mistaken idea of correctness.
Pinker’s insistence that it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition runs into the same problem. He cites no authority who says otherwise. As with an alleged rule I recently wrote about (never end a sentence with it ), prohibitions against split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are matters of folklore, superstition, derided by the very authorities on usage whom Pinker disparages.
Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world.
Pinker is the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary ’s Usage Panel, an assemblage of 200 writers who fill out questionnaires about language. (A snoot by the name of Wallace was a member.) These writers do not meet to hash out questions of usage together; rather, they record their individual preferences for the AHD ’s consideration. Pinker’s estimate of the panel’s importance is clear: “When it comes to best practices in usage, there is no higher authority.” Imagine, though, how Pinker might cast the work of this group if its conclusions about language were wildly at odds with his own, if it insisted, say, on the snoot-Wallace distinction between nauseous and nauseated: “Rather than look at how people speak and write, the American Heritage Dictionary relies on its own chosen elite, whose tastes and preferences can hardly be said to reflect” — and so on.
The usage authority whose work is conspicuously absent from The Sense of Style is Bryan Garner, whose judgments are based not on personal preference but on extensive surveying of language use. A sample, from the preface to the first (1998) edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage :
When I say, then, that ethicist is 400 times more common than ethician , I have searched vast databases of newspapers and journals to arrive at this round figure. As for those particular terms, the NEXIS databases (as of December 1997) contain 10,138 published documents in which ethicist appears, but only 25 documents in which ethician appears. (The ratio in WESTLAW’S “allnews” database is 7,400 to 6.) So much for the dictionaries that give the main listing under ethician. They’re out of step: the compilers might have 5 or 10 citation slips in their files, but that’s a paltry number when compared with mountains of evidence that the searching of reliable databases can unearth.See the difference? As for language and change: the most recent (2009) edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage makes use of a Language-Change Index, marking five stages in usage.
Garner has sharply criticized Pinker, and I cannot imagine that either man has any great affection for the other. But for Pinker to cite numerous sources on style and usage while writing as if Garner’s work did not exist: that’s intellectually dishonest. I notice too that Pinker has nothing to say about David Foster Wallace’s arch-snoot Harper’s essay “Tense Present,” certainly the best known piece of writing about language and usage in recent years. But of course that essay is in large part a paean to Garner’s work.²
Fourth, beware of false dichotomies.
“There is no dichotomy between describing how people use language and prescribing how they might use it more effectively,” Pinker writes. I agree. Long before this book’s publication, Garner pointed out that Pinker had silently revised his position on prescriptivism:
Rarely have I seen a more agreeable intellectual about-face. But of course he doesn’t acknowledge that he now takes a position that reputable prescriptivists have taken for over a century.In The Sense of Style Pinker establishes a different false dichotomy, between that straw army and himself.
Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.
Yes, they should be. Pinker cautions that
slinging around insults like simplistic , naïve , or vulgar , does not prove that the things the person is saying are false. Nor is the point of disagreement or criticism to show that you are smarter or nobler than your target.How curious then that The Sense of Style should rely on one disparaging term after another: “anal-retentives,” “faultfinders,” “the Gotcha! Gang,” ”grammar nannies,” “grammar Nazis,” “graybeard sensibilities,” “know-it-alls,” “language grump,” “language police,” “Miss Thistlebottom” (a borrowing from Theodore Bernstein), “Ms. Retentive and her ilk,” “nitpickers,” “pedants,” “peevers,” “Prescriptistan,“ “purists,” “purists, who are often ignoramuses,” “rock-ribbed Yankees,” “schoolmarm,” “self-appointed guardians,” “self-appointed maven,” “self-proclaimed defenders of high standards,” “self-proclaimed purists,” “schoolteachers,” “spinster schoolteacher,” “snobs,” “snoots,” “starchy Englishmen,” “sticklers,” “stuffiest prig,” “style mavens,” “traditionalists,” “the UofAllPeople Club,” and “usage nannies.”
And how curious that in offering high-minded advice, Pinker should still characterize someone on the other side of an argument as “your target.”
The most unusual material in The Sense of Style, a chapter on syntax trees, is likely to leave many readers lost in the woods and turning pages.³ What’s most valuable in the book can be had elsewhere, in Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose and in Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I think highly of Thomas and Turner’s book; I find Williams’s book less than friendly in its design (and because it’s a textbook, it’s ridiculously overpriced). But either book is a better choice than The Sense of Style.
The strangest detail I gleaned from this book: Pinker writes in Microsoft Word, with the grammar checker on.
December 22: I’ve written a coda to this review: Bad advice and misinformation.
¹ “[White] died in October 1985, and the 1979 third edition of The Elements of Style was the last to be published with his oversight”: Mark Garvey, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of “The Elements of Style” (2009). Pinker cites this book elsewhere in The Sense of Style.
² Pinker quotes once, briefly, from Wallace’s essay (on page 300) but gives no indication of its focus or argument.
³ Standard linguistics work. It’s unusual though in a book of writing instruction.
Pinker on Strunk and White
Pullum on Strunk and White
McGrath on Pinker on Strunk and White
Steven Pinker, name-caller
[I use the title Garner’s Modern American Usage for all editions. The first edition was titled A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.]
By Michael Leddy at 10:10 AM
Friday, December 19, 2014
In winter, squirrels hole up in a nest hole, high in a tree. It’s safe. It’s warm. Sometimes eight or nine will snuggle in together. They wrap their tails around themselves like a blanket.What are the squirrels doing all snuggled up? They are watching TV. KNUT, to be precise.
When it’s really cold, say zero degrees Fahrenheit, you don’t see many squirrels around.
Miriam Schlein, Squirrel Watching (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
The winter schedule kicks in on Sunday, December 21.
If you’re puzzled by the six-hour painting block, see here. And yes, the squirrels sometimes paint along. You can guess what they use for brushes.
[Squirrels are too sophisticated to use Comic Sans, at least mostly. But they love Chalkboard SE.]
By Michael Leddy at 8:59 AM
Thursday, December 18, 2014
[Roughly 1½" square. I didn’t think to measure.]
A page from the Kent State Libraries traces the history of the potters’ union. The National Brotherhood of Operative Potters began in 1890. The union went International in 1931. In 1969 “Operative Potters” became “Pottery and Allied Workers.” Several mergers later, the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers International Union took shape.
But what’s an “operative potter”? I thought operative might refer to functional not decorative porcelain. But no. Merriam-Webster explains: “a person who does work that involves using tools, operating machinery, etc.”
In other words, someone doing factory work, not a solitary figure sitting at a wheel in a shed. [See below.]
I took this photograph right before our
toilet plumbing fixture vanished with the rest of our old bathroom. I helped our plumber carry the fixture up a flight of stairs to his truck and got on his authority what I had suspected: there is no good way to carry one of these things. The fixture was likely original to our house, c. 1959.
December 19: An anonymous commenter points out the contrast between operative and speculative in Masonic tradition: practical construction work, spiritual construction work. I would like to know if members of, say, the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association are aware of that distinction.
Old Grote (Inside the old medicine cabinet)
By Michael Leddy at 10:13 AM
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Other posts with orange
Crate art, orange : Orange art, no crate : Orange bookmark art : Orange car art : Orange crate art : Orange crate art (Encyclopedia Brown) : Orange dress art : Orange flag art : Orange manual art : Orange mug art : Orange newspaper art : Orange notebook art : Orange notecard art : Orange peel art : Orange pencil art : Orange soda art : Orange soda-label art : Orange stem art : Orange telephone art : Orange timer art : Orange toothbrush art : Orange train art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange Tweed art
By Michael Leddy at 3:13 PM
I was of “some minds,”No filter on this photograph. It’s a bleakly beautiful day. Black tree, white sky, and “some nests.” For a partial explanation, see here.
Like a tree
In which there are “some nests.”
Wallace Stevens, from an unpublished poem, “‘Some Ways’ of Looking at Ernie Bushmiller.”
All OCA “some” posts (Pinboard)
By Michael Leddy at 11:02 AM
Monday, December 15, 2014
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight” (1798), of his sister Ann: “My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!”
Other posts with orange
Crate art, orange : Orange art, no crate : Orange bookmark art : Orange car art : Orange crate art : Orange crate art (Encyclopedia Brown) : Orange flag art : Orange manual art : Orange mug art : Orange newspaper art : Orange notebook art : Orange notecard art : Orange peel art : Orange pencil art : Orange soda art : Orange soda-label art : Orange stem art : Orange telephone art : Orange timer art : Orange toothbrush art : Orange train art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange Tweed art
[On my Mac and on a Windows machine, the dress is orange. On my iPad and iPhone, it’s brown. Anyone have another color?]
By Michael Leddy at 1:43 PM
My son Ben has revealed a misunderstanding from his childhood. For some years, I volunteered with a local adult-literacy program. Ben now tells me that when I went to the library to tutor, he thought I was practicing snake charming.
I’m guessing that he must have been three or four, young enough to misunderstand, old enough to remember. Young enough too to think that his dad could do just about anything.
5:07 p.m.: Says Ben, “You CAN do just about anything!”
By Michael Leddy at 7:22 AM
“The adoption of ethnic food words into English is an excellent proxy for the moment our culture embraces these foreign foodstuffs as our own”: How food words join the dictionary (Boston Globe).
I’m not sure what “our culture” means in that sentence, because the article references both American and British dictionaries. But I’m happy to learn from this article that bánh mì (or banh mi ) has entered the American Heritage Dictionary. And I’m surprised to learn that pasta didn’t enter the Merriam-Webster lexicon until 1963.
When Elaine and I moved to downstate Illinois in 1985, pasta was shelved in the supermarket’s “Ethnic Foods” aisle. Exotic stuff, that pasta.
[I can recommend with considerable enthusiasm Los Angeles’s Absolutely Phobulous and Bahn in the USA. Both serve excellent báhn mì.]
By Michael Leddy at 7:13 AM
The BBC reports on the creation of Harris Tweed that smells like Scotch:
The “smart fabric” has been developed for Johnnie Walker Black Label and Harris Tweed Hebrides.And: the smell resists dry cleaning.
The scent called Aqua Alba has been designed to replicate aromas released from a glass of whisky, known as the nose of the liquid.
According to Johnnie Walker, the cloth smells of “rich malt, golden vanilla, red fruit and dark chocolate tones.”
The first of Neil Postman’s six questions is relevant here: “What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?”
By Michael Leddy at 7:04 AM
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Blogger now requires me to prove that I’m not a robot when I’m signed into my account and replying to a comment to my own blog. Sheesh.
December 14: I just discovered that if you’re signed in, you can ignore the CAPTCHA.
[Blogger, as you may already know, is a Google service. Google purchased Pyra Labs, developers of Blogger, in 2003.]
By Michael Leddy at 7:07 PM
Friday, December 12, 2014
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Thank you, Seth.
By Michael Leddy at 10:59 AM
[Der Schrei der Nancy.]
Coming soon to a week near you, perhaps: final examinations. In December 2005, after finding nothing online to my liking, I wrote out some advice for students: How to do well on a final exam. It’s good advice, free for the taking.
And for contrarians: How to do horribly on a final exam.
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)
[Nancy will do just fine on her exam.]
By Michael Leddy at 8:31 AM
[Henry, December 12, 2014.]
Not only do they have a mousehole in the baseboard (as a good cartoon-home should): they have a commercial calendar on the wall. It must be a gift from the coal company, or something.
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)
By Michael Leddy at 8:18 AM
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Jane Freilicher, quoted in the New York Times obituary:
“To strain after innovation, to worry about being on ‘the cutting edge’ (a phrase I hate), reflects a concern for a place in history or one’s career rather than the authenticity of one’s painting.”A related post
Jane Freilicher (1924–2014)
By Michael Leddy at 8:22 AM
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
[Click for a larger view.]
Sad news in my e-mail. The New York Times obituary begins,
Jane Freilicher, a stubbornly independent painter whose brushy, light-saturated still lifes and luminous landscapes set in the marshes of eastern Long Island made her one of the more anomalous figures to emerge from the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan.Is there an artist not in some respect “anomalous”?
A ninetieth-birthday celebration at The Poetry Project will now take place as a memorial.
More about Jane Freilicher
Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets (Tibor de Nagy)
By Michael Leddy at 7:47 PM
Language Log reports ongoing problems with the counter service Site Meter. LL’s Mark Liberman goes so far as to call it malware. The look of the Site Meter website does little to inspire confidence.
A fine alternative to Site Meter is the free service StatCounter. I’ve been using StatCounter for almost ten years, starting with the free version in 2005 and later switching to a paid account. StatCounter is reliable, and its developers respond quickly and courteously to questions and reports of trouble. I recommend StatCounter to anyone who likes stats.
[StatCounter works as a visible or invisible little widget thingamajig. I keep it visible in the sidebar, looking like an odometer: 1437987.]
By Michael Leddy at 12:03 PM
Albert King to Stevie Ray Vaughan : “Most important thing: the better you get, the harder you work.”
Indeed. As one improves, the work gets more difficult, not less. It’s the beginner who slaps something together and thinks it adequate. It’s the 職人 [shokunin ], dedicated to a craft, who is ever intent on making it better.
I am always happy when students come to realize that the work of writing requires greater effort than they had imagined. As they become better writers, they have to work harder. There’s more to think about, more to try to get right.
A related post
Aaron Draplin on “good enough”
By Michael Leddy at 10:07 AM
On NPR earlier this morning, a Morning Edition interviewer spoke of “enhanced interrogation techniques, which many call torture.” Really, NPR? Must you continue to use a state-sponsored euphemism (sans quotation marks) in your reporting?
More appropriate: “so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which many call torture.”
More appropriate: “what the CIA calls ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and what many call torture.”
The practice of “enhanced interrogation” has an interesting history.
A related post
By Michael Leddy at 7:49 AM
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic),” wrote Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.Or in plain language: Don’t put questions in writing.
“Given activities,” “operational guidelines for this activity”: the Agency man writes in abstractions. “Strongly urge,” “be refrained from”: the Agency man writes without a sense of agency. It’s as if he’s read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” backwards.
A related post
Getting the truth (WWII, and a different way to interrogate prisoners)
By Michael Leddy at 12:22 PM
I discovered in my files a Ghostwriter blurb that I wrote in 1994 for my university’s PBS affiliate. I had forgotten all about going to bat for the series:
Ghostwriter shows a world in which children work and play in words, a world in which keeping a journal, reading a novel, revising a letter, making a petition, or composing a song is as everyday and natural as breathing. Reading and writing here are not just “school” — they’re the stuff life is made of. I can’t think of another television show that offers more ways for children — and even their parents — to grow as readers and writers.Or as they said on Ghostwriter, Word!
No Googling: can you name the original six-member Ghostwriter team, fast?
[Ghostwriter logo from Wikipedia.]
By Michael Leddy at 9:13 AM
Monday, December 8, 2014
Leigh Fermor’s prose sometimes tends toward purple. But he can also fashion sentences with sharp, understated wit. Here’s one from A Time of Gifts, about the Barons Schey v. Koromla:
They had once been very rich, but, like everyone else, they were less so now.[If the prose is sometimes purple, at least it’s a good purple.]
By Michael Leddy at 10:19 AM
Štrkovec, Slovakia, March 1934: another gift, in the house of Baron Philipp Schey v. Koromla, aka Pips:
“I’m on the last volume,” Baron Pips said, lifting up a French paper-bound book. It was Le Temps Retrouvé and an ivory paper-knife marked the place three quarters of the way through. “I started the first volume in October and I’ve been reading it all winter.” He put it back on the table by his chair. “I feel so involved in them all, I don’t know what I’ll do when I’ve finished. Have you ever tried it?”Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977).
As one can guess from the tone of my diary, I had only just heard of Proust, but always mentioned in terms of such respect that I was flattered by his question. I took the first volume to bed that night; but it was too dense a wood. When I tried again in Rumania next year, the wood lightened and turned into a forest whose spell has been growing ever since: so, in spite of this hesitant start, Baron Pips was my true initiator.
What’s a reader to do after finishing Proust? In 2006, I wrote a post about finishing for the first time.
Other Leigh Fermor posts
“Footpads and knaves” : From A Time of Gifts : Leigh Fermor’s Brueghel : Leigh Fermor’s eye : “Like rear lamps fading through a fog” : Mich wundert, das ich so frelich bin : One word from A Time of Gifts
[Štrkovec: or in Hungarian, Kövecses.]
By Michael Leddy at 10:12 AM
From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), the first of three volumes recounting the writer’s 1933–1934 walk across Europe. Leigh Fermor has been writing about Prague:
In this late attempt to recapture the town, I seem to have cleared the streets. They are as empty as the thoroughfares in an architectural print. Nothing but a few historical phantoms survive; a muffled drum, a figure from a book and an echo of Utraquists rioting a few squares away — the milling citizens, the rushing traffic vanish and the voices of the bilingual city sink to a whisper. I can just remember a chestnut-woman in a kerchief stamping beside a brazier to keep warm and a hurrying Franciscan with a dozen loaves under his arm. Three cab-drivers nursing their tall whips and drinking schnapps in the outside-bar of a wine cellar materialize for a moment above the sawdust, their noses scarlet from the cold or drink or both, and evaporate again, red noses last, like rear lamps fading through a fog.Related posts
“Footpads and knaves” : From A Time of Gifts : Leigh Fermor’s Brueghel : Leigh Fermor’s eye : Mich wundert, das ich so frelich bin : One word from A Time of Gifts
[Making slow progress: I’ve traveled the final eighty-three pages in two-and-a-half weeks. Utraquists? See here.]
By Michael Leddy at 6:56 AM
Friday, December 5, 2014
A thoughtful student asked today about an alleged rule of writing: “Don’t end a sentence with it.” Whoever thought up the rule probably didn’t see the comedy in that sentence. I’ve been told of other such rules: many students come to college believing that they must never begin a sentence with and, but, or because. The it-rule though is new to me. I suspect that it is not widespread: Garner’s Modern American Usage makes no mention of it, not in its entry about it, not in its entry about superstitions.
I did find the following comment, in Richard Lauchman’s 25 Hiccoughs of Guidance that Ruin Writing Style:
How did this one ever get started? When I was in school, no one ever bothered to tell me that ending a sentence with “it” was wrong. I’ve never been able to learn the basis for this advice. It makes no sense to me.Reader, are you familiar with this rule? Have you heard of it?
But what I can report is that many people have heard this “rule” and thus shy away from writing We have received your proposal and will notify you after we review it. Instead, of course, they feel compelled to write We have received your proposal and will notify you after it has been reviewed. If they have managed to evade the superstition about repeating words but have been exposed to the idea that pronouns are taboo, they write Subject proposal has been received by this office, and notification will follow after said proposal has undergone review. When we read this sort of thing, we have no one to blame but ourselves. After all, for it we asked.
February 23, 2015: Here’s more evidence, if anyone needs it, that it is acceptable to end a sentence with it. From Joseph M. Williams’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2003):
A sentence can end flatly if you repeat at its end a word used just a few words before, because the voice we hear in our mind’s ear drops off at the end of the sentence. You can hear that drop if you read aloud this sentence and the previous two sentences. To avoid that kind the flatness, rewrite or use a pronoun instead of repeating the word at the end of the sentence. For example:Not only is it acceptable to end a sentence with it : doing so can be the right thing to do.
A sentence will seem to end flatly if you use a word at its end that you used just a few words before, because when you repeat that word, your voice drops. Instead of repeating the noun, use a pronoun. The reader will at least hear emphasis on the word just before it.
[The words drops, pronoun, and before are in bold to mark emphasis.]
The passage is missing from the 2010 tenth edition of the much longer Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. It may be missing from the 2013 eleventh edition too. No matter: it was and is acceptable to end a sentence with it.
[“Don’t end a sentence with it”: granted, it here doesn’t function in relation to an antecedent. But still. Lauchman Group offers writing workshops for people in the world of work.]
January 19, 2016: I found my way to an influential source for this non-rule: Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners. With an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations for Promoting Perspicuity in Speaking and Writing (1795). Murray (1745–1826) was a lawyer who in retirement began writing books of grammatical instruction, with extraordinary success: Bryan Garner notes that in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, Murray’s books sold more than fifteen and a half million copies.
Murray’s advice about writing is at times remarkably congenial. Here is an observation that might have inspired William Strunk’s exhortation to “Omit needless words”:
[The first rule promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to prune it of all redundant words and members.
It is a general maxim, that any words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence, always injure it. Care should therefore be exercised with respect to synonymous words, expletives, circumlocutions, tautologies, the expression of unnecessary circumstances. The attention becomes remiss, when words are multiplied without a corresponding multiplication of ideas.]
But at other times Murray’s advice is less helpful. Here is the rule against ending a sentence with it:
[The fifth rule for the strength of sentences is, to avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word .]
An example follows:
[Even the pronoun it , should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion: especially when it is joined with some of the prepositions; as, with it , in it , to it . We shall be sensible of this of the following sentence. “There is not, in my opinion, a more pleasing and triumphant consideration in religion, than this, of the perpetual progress which the soul makes toward the perfection of its nature, without ever arriving at a period in it . How much more agreeable to sentence, if it had been so constructed us to close with the word period !]
“Should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion”: the rule is not absolute, and as David Crystal points out, Murray ends a sentence with it just two pages later. It must have been unavoidable, he might have said. In the sample sentence above, though, the problem lies not in the word it but in “words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence”: in it , an unnecessary phrase, needless words. There was and is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with it , or with an adverb, or with a preposition. She threw the ball and I caught it. We danced gracefully. Where did that noise come from?
How strange and sad that a warning — not a prohibition — issued in 1795 should still haunt writers. In the last three months, at least 500 people have wondered or worried enough to visit this post.
[I found my way to Murray’s warning while reading David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (2006): “To maintain the ‘strength’ of sentences, [Murray] says, we must ‘avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word’ — by which he means (from the examples he gives) pronouns such as it .” I have reproduced the more legible text of Murray’s An English Grammar: Comprehending the Principles and Rules of the Language, Illustrated by Appropriate Exercises, and a Key to the Exercises (1808). In both English Grammar and An English Grammar, the rule appears in a discussion of sentence strength (“a disposition and management of the several words and members, as shall bring out the sense to the best advantage.” For the third passage, the earlier English Grammar has a semicolon after conclusion and the word more before especially .]
By Michael Leddy at 2:10 PM
Yet another cybernaut has arrived in search of homework: dialogue writing of orange and strawberry. Well, okay:
“Hello there, strawberry. What the hull is going on?”Please continue this assignment in the comments if you so choose.
“Aah, just the daily rind.”
Many searches for homework in the form of write five sentences have ended up at Orange Crate Art. A post about five sentences from Bleak House started it all.
The cat : Clothes : The driver : My house : Life : Life on the moon : The past (1) : The past (2) : The rabbit : The ship : Smoking : The telephone : The world
By Michael Leddy at 10:41 AM
[As seen in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, earlier this year. Click for a larger view.]
This old fire alarm was on duty last spring. I hope it’s on duty still. Click for the larger view to get a better look at the logo,
which recalls that of the IBEW. [See below.] You might be able to make out the words Fire Alarm Station and The Gamewell Co. Newton Mass., below the 655.
Though no longer based in Newton, the Gamewell Co. is still in business as Gamewell-FCI.
[FCI: Fire Control Instruments.]
December 16: Gamewell forwarded my query to Gary Spohn, an expert on old Gamewell equipment. Gary tells me that this style of box is a “1924 style,” a design patented in that year. This box was made, he says, between 1938 and 1950. A look at the innards would reveal more.
Thank you, Gary.
December 16: Gary dates the first version of the Gamewell logo to 1879. The first IBEW logo appeared in 1891. So it would appear that it is the IBEW logo that recalls the Gamewell logo.
By Michael Leddy at 7:57 AM
Thursday, December 4, 2014
William Faulkner, when asked if he thought it wonderful that a course on his work was to be offered at Harvard:
“I don’t know anything about universities. I ain’t surprised at anything they do.”Quoted in Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974).
By Michael Leddy at 9:01 AM
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
[Poster by Erik Spiekermann.]
I like this poster a lot. It’s an edition of fifty, numbered and signed.
I also like Spiekermann’s “Move fast and get shit done” poster. And his explanation: “It was going to be ‘get stuff done,’ but I only had two f’s.”
And I like what Spiekermann says about looking at type.
By Michael Leddy at 3:13 PM
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Julianna Aucoin, a Harvard undergraduate, has written an essay about reading Moby-Dick (sort of) in one night and discussing it in one two-hour seminar meeting:
Fumbling our way through the discussion, we misunderstood major plot points and mixed up the characters. Queequeg, Ahab, and Ishmael, all rather prominent presences within the work, became “his friend,” “the captain,” and “the narrator.” We leapt over important and edifying details and focused on themes and sweeping generalizations about the prose. By posing questions like “Is that scene homo-erotic?” and overanalyzing the secondary source we had also been assigned, we got through the seminar. The class was over and we never mentioned Moby-Dick again.It’s sad to think of the faux mastery that passes for English studies in this account, and impossible to imagine playing the game, as student or teacher, without losing all intellectual self-respect. I admire Ms. Aucoin’s willingness to question the order of things.
My experience of plowing through Moby-Dick reveals problems deeper than procrastination.
I’m surprised that @English_Harvard is tweeting about this essay. Maybe they’ve only skimmed it. But it doesn’t surprise me that of all possible courses of study at Harvard, Adam Wheeler chose English.
[I’ve corrected Melville’s title in the quoted text.]
By Michael Leddy at 4:39 PM
In The New York Times today, an article about Maurice Sendak’s estate. Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s housekeeper and caretaker, heads a foundation established by Sendak and is one of his executors:
Recently she decided to withdraw more than 10,000 original artworks Mr. Sendak had lent over decades to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where many assumed the bulk of his work would remain. The works are now headed back here, to a house museum being planned by the foundation, a decision that some are questioning. They are also expressing concerns about the ability of Ms. Caponera, 54, who did not attend college and has no formal business training , to shepherd a complex philanthropic foundation worth tens of millions of dollars. [My emphasis.]I think it’s worth pointing out that Maurice Sendak too did not attend college and had no “formal business training.” It was Sendak who chose Caponera as executor and foundation president. And it’s Sendak’s will that stipulates the creation of a house museum in what one publishing person calls “the middle of nowhere.”
Someone always knows better, right? But people are capable of making their own choices, even if they never went to college.
[“The middle of nowhere”: Ridgefield, Connecticut, fifty-odd miles from Manhattan.]
By Michael Leddy at 11:14 AM
I thought this bug was specific to Chrome, but no: Attack of the 50-Foot Save Sheet (Six Colors). The Yosemite bug that I discovered remains unzapped in 10.10.1. It too involves a basic interface element. Sheesh.
I used to suggest to students in need of a new machine, “Buy a Mac. You will be so much happier.” And I still think that’s the case. But it’s more and more difficult to agree that “It just works.”
By Michael Leddy at 9:21 AM
Assistant State’s Attorney Ilene Nathan (Susan Rome) is questioning Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) about his occupation:
“Mr. Little, how does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it?”From The Wire episode “All Prologue” (July 3, 2003).
[Smiling .] “Day at a time, I suppose.”
Elaine and I are deep into The Wire, which I sometimes call Breaking Baltimore.
By Michael Leddy at 8:51 AM
Monday, December 1, 2014
In 1979, International Paper began a print-ad campaign, “The Power of the Printed Word,” a series of fifteen ads offering how-to wisdom from household names. I have a vague memory of these ads: two-page black-and-white magazine spreads with columns of text broken up by silly photographs. Looking for Merriam-Webster ads via Google Books, I spotted a “Power of the Printed Word” spread in Ebony, with George Plimpton’s advice for making a speech. And the chase was on.
It turns out that this campaign was a terrific (and terrifying?) public-relations success, generating twenty-seven million requests for free reprints. International Paper put together selections of ads as “survival guides” (also free) for business people and college students. Thirteen of the fifteen ads became a book, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, edited by advertising man Billings S. Fuess Jr., the Ogilvy & Mather creative director who created the campaign and wrote the first drafts. The complete series:
Steve Allen, “How to enjoy the classics”Here from Info Marketing Blog is an unofficial PDF of the series, nearly complete. And here, from Paper Specs, is one more, also nearly complete. Missing from the first: Simon. Missing from the second: Baker and Cronkite. Missing from both: Bombeck.
Russell Baker, “How to punctuate”
Erma Bombeck, “How to encourage your child to
Bill Cosby, “How to read faster”
Walter Cronkite, “How to read a newspaper”
James Dickey, “How to enjoy poetry”
Malcolm Forbes, “How to write a business letter”
John Irving, “How to spell”
James A. Michener, “How to use a library”
George Plimpton, “How to make a speech”
Jane Bryant Quinn, “How to read an annual report”
Tony Randall, “How to improve your vocabulary”
Jerrold G. Simon, “How to write a resume”
Edward T. Thompson, “How to write clearly”
Kurt Vonnegut, “How to write with style”
I know: it’s advertising. But I like the idea that these ads might have inspired readers to think about punctuation and card catalogs and etymologies. And anyway, I’m a sucker for a free PDF. How about you?
[The details of the campaign’s success come from the introductory pages of the Info Marketing Blog’s PDF. I wish it were Cosby not Bombeck who was missing.]
January 23, 2015: As reader Kayhan Vayuz has noted in a comment, Garrison Keillor’s “How to write a personal letter” is also part of the ad series. It appears to be a late addition: the earliest appearance I can find is from 1987. (Here is a more readable 1988 version.) The essay was republished as “How to write a letter” in Keillor’s book We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters (1989) and has often been anthologized.
By Michael Leddy at 10:43 AM