Don’t sweat it: “Who” and “That”

One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using “that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out…

In defense of plain English

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a…

“Playing” English: Grammar rules and when to break them

Writing can be like playing the piano. To get good at the piano, first you need to learn scales and chords and technique. Then you learn how notes fit together and form compositions. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to get a…

Usage: Doing it right

Recently — and this is not the first time this has happened — I wrote something along the lines of “do it right” and  someone “corrected” the word “right” to the word “correctly.” Apparently some people somewhere are laboring under the idea that “right” in the sense of “correct” can only be an an adjective….

Let’s stop perpetuating grammar myths

I’ll admit, I’m an easy target for “grammar mistakes you need to stop making” lists, but they’re starting to get on my nerves. The latest one I saw — 15 Common Grammatical Errors That Drive You Completely Insane (on Buzzfeed, of course) — started strong, with “your/you’re” and subject-verb disagreement. But then, at No. 3, was…

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Today, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.) Punctuation is like road signs for writing….

Mixed (or mangled) metaphors muddle writing

Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a…

Lessons from the Associated Press

The Associated Press is “the best creative writing school in the world. They have branches in every major city on the globe. They will teach you something that no creative writing school at Stanford or Iowa or anyplace else will ever teach you: Write it down. Do it fast. Keep it simple. Keep it short.”…

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

Vociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a…

You still need a person

A recent post on the Economist’s language blog about a sign on a New York shop window discussed the inadequacy of relying solely on a computer or bilingual dictionary for translation. All the shop owner — admirably — wanted to do was welcome tourists in their own language (some of them, anyway, and I still…