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“Penpointing” and Other Near-Misses in the Media

Penpointing for pinpointing In my part of the world, many speakers have a hard time hearing the difference between the vowel sounds in pen (rhymes with Ben) and pin (rhymes with sin). The usual reversal is to pronounce pen as pin—not the other way round. For that reason, I was puzzled when I started finding examples of the spelling penpointing. I...

Proofreading and Its Pitfalls

Every writer has had the experience of submitting a piece of writing in the certainty that it is free of error, only to find at least one embarrassing typo or other fault in it as soon as it has been published. Sometimes I could swear that the errors that survive numerous proofreadings must be the result of spontaneous generation. Tom Stafford, a...

Calques: Linguistic Immigrants in English

English vocabulary includes thousands of words that originated in languages other than Old English. Some of these linguistic immigrants never quite acculturate. They continue to sound foreign, but some English-speakers find them useful in particular contexts. Schadenfreude (German) taking delight in the misfortune of others. bon vivant (French)...

Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious

Reader ApK has asked for a discussion of the words sarcastic, sardonic, and facetious— all examples of verbal irony. verbal irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. Sarcastic derives from the noun sarcasm. sarcasm: a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression...

Epistemology vs Agnotology

Once upon a time, I encountered the word epistemology and its forms only in academic writing. Lately, I’ve been seeing it all over the place, often unaccompanied by any definition. Election-deniers are said to exist in a “parallel epistemological bubble.” David Brooks writes about an “epistemological crisis,” the “epistemic regime,” and the “epistemic...

“Become” and a Question of Syntax

A sentence in a biographical piece in the Washington Post about the gifted librettist Randy Rainbow got me thinking about syntax and linking verbs: His closest friend became his caustically funny maternal grandmother. The writer may have chosen the verb became in order to avoid overused was, but, although numerous grammar resources assert that become...

Code-switching Is Not Cultural Oppression

Until recently, I thought that most English teachers shared my view that mastering a standard form of English is the acquisition of a desirable skill that is as much a basic of a general education as learning the four math functions. I never viewed acquiring a second dialect as a betrayal of one’s home dialect and cultural values. Home dialects—and...

Autogolpe —Another Word for Seizing Power

During the recent unsettled times, I have come across a new word (new to me) to describe an extralegal maneuver to seize power in a country that has an established government: autogolpe. autogolpe (noun): a situation in which a nation’s leader, who came to power by way of legal means, retains a hold on office by unlawfully assuming extraordinary powers....

“To Cow” and “To Kow-tow”

Although the idiom to be cowed has nothing to do with Elsie the Cow, the use of corralled in a review of The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov in the Washington Post suggests a connection: The culturati who would, could or should challenge it are cowed and corralled. The transitive verb cow, meaning “‘To depress with fear’ (Johnson); to dispirit,...

Addicted “to,” not “with”

Some verbs and participle adjectives are followed by a specific preposition. Different from phrasal verbs, which can be replaced by a single word, prepositional verbs are verbs that stand alone, but are followed by a particular preposition. The verb addict (and its related forms) is one of these. Its signature preposition is to. For example: Back...

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