You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik Continue reading

Agree to Disagree

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working with a student, I would correct the verb to read “changes.”  Can you give me a quick lesson if I’m incorrect?

Continue reading

When is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dylan: “It was too damn daunting, you were too great.” That’s roughly how I feel about (first-rate) novelists. Continue reading

Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the two men’s complicated political and personal friendship, and (the ostensible subject) an account of the two presidents’ relations with muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and S.S. McClure. Continue reading

From the Archives: Fun City

When a friend in his thirties came up to me at a party the other day and said, “I have a question about fun,” I knew he wasn’t going to ask about whether the word could be used as an adjective. That would be like asking if iced tea could be used as a beverage. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Barbara Wallraff described Steven Pinker as remarking that “he can tell whether people are under or over thirty years old by whether they’re willing to accept fun as a full-fledged adjective.” Today that translates to over or under 47, which seems about right.Indeed, my friend’s question concerned a nuance: he had read a post on the Grammarist blog about the merits of the comparative forms funner and more fun, and wanted to know my thoughts. Before I tell you my answer, a little background.

Continue reading

From the Archives: Elizabeth Yagoda is Hungry for a Hamburger

Where’s the outrage?

People never stop getting upset about changes in the use of pronouns (“thanks for inviting me wife and me/I”), verbs (comprise/compose), and nouns (data is/data are ), but, with the exception of occasional squawks about those who say “different than” (or, in Britain, “different to”) instead of “different from,” they don’t seem to give a hoot about the pervasive phenomenon I call “preposition creep.” Continue reading

Hot off the E-Presses

I have officially entered the brave new world of e-books with a popularly-priced ($3.99!) collection of some of my pieces on language, first published in Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other fine publications.  language pieces . It’s called (take a deep breath) You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of the American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Popularity of “Amongst,” and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language. Continue reading

It’s a Grand Old Bargain

I read in USA Today  on June 9th that Detroit’s Big Three auto makers have “committed $26-million to the grand bargain on which much of the city’s exit from bankruptcy is based.” The “grand bargain,” the newspaper went on to explain, is a complicated arrangement in which the Detroit Institute of Arts “and its masterworks will be spun off to a nonprofit trust for the equivalent of $816-million, with proceeds set aside to help reduce pension reductions for thousands of city workers.”

Continue reading