Words and music

Dorothy Hammerstein was not shy about making sure that her husband, Oscar, got credit for his lyrics. There are several variations of an anecdote where she corrected someone who gave Jerome Kern all the credit for writing “Ol’ Man River.” “Mr. Kern did not write ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Oscar wrote ‘Ol’ Man River,’ ” she … More Words and music

Realism vs. reality

  For an exercise in fiction writing, record a few minutes of casual conversation between two people and then type it all out. Very quickly you’ll notice that most people don’t converse in carefully measured prose. No, they interrupt each other. They talk over each other. Speak in fragments. Go off on tangents. They repeat … More Realism vs. reality

Costly commas

Arguments over grammar and punctuation aren’t limited to English faculty parties where the sherry has been flowing too freely. They also have real consequences out in the real world. In Portland, Maine, a missing comma may force the Oakhurst Dairy to pay a bunch of money to its truck drivers. Maine law says companies don’t … More Costly commas

On, off and around

Browsing through some blogs this week, I came across this description of a truck redesign: “Although the cargo bed and chassis were carryovers from previous models, the Champ cab was an all new design based off the Lark…” Well, no. The new design wasn’t “based off” anything. It was based on the Lark. This is … More On, off and around

Orderly voting

As the 2016 election season lurches to a close, millions of voters have already cast their ballots. Most states allow early voting now, though the rules vary. In most cases early voting begins anywhere from 10 to 30 days before Election Day, and stops anywhere from one to three days before Election Day. Sometimes the rules even … More Orderly voting

Riding and writing

My internal copy editor picks strange times to interrupt the rest of my brain. The other day I was looking at a discussion of why members of a particular discussion group seemed to be abandoning their usual politeness and hurling invective at one another. One person suggested that “the need to not be an arsehole … More Riding and writing


Over time, English tends to mash words together into bigger words. “Baseball” used to be “base ball.” We got “toothbrush” the same way. Also “nevertheless” and “commonwealth” and “cheesecake.” You’ll rarely see more than two or three words mashed together in everyday English. Elementary school kids who like to show off their word skills often … More Rhababerbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbar

Point of order

Which should come first, the name of the thing you are talking about, or its qualities? In English, the name of the thing (the noun) usually comes second. In some other languages, it comes first. So while we would say “red stick”, the French would say “baton rouge.” There’s logic in putting the modifiers on the back end. … More Point of order