Better late than never: election language

“What is the difference between ballot, vote and poll?” Carlos Serrano from Colombia e-mailed over the weekend in preparation for election night. “How should I use each of these words?” Great questions, Carlos, and thanks for asking. The seemingly endless presidential campaign of 2014, 2015 and 2016 finally ends tomorrow — we hope (cf. 2000). […]

Faith, hope and clarity

“I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.” “What was the name of his other leg?” When I first saw “Mary Poppins” as a 9-year-old, those two lines struck me as nothing more than a silly joke, though they do turn out to be a plot point. When I saw it again in […]

Feeling fragmented

Like other English words derived from the same Latin root, fragment has to do with breaking. Fracture, as a noun or verb,means break (a fractured skull); a fraction is a “broken” number, less than a whole; a fragile object is easily broken; diffract means to break apart or bend — for example, light. A fragment is a piece […]

Legal language

The Chelsea bombing Saturday night is not just a textbook case of breaking-news reporting (and police work). It’s also a handy news peg — a compelling reason to do a particular story right now — for an explainer on basic legal terminology. First-semester students are already turning in stories involving the police, crime and the […]

‘One of’: the most common problems

Milana Vinn, a first-semester student from Russia, e-mailed to ask: “What is the correct grammar for this sentence? Syria is one of the countries that are in a war zone.” “That is absolutely CORRECT!” I wrote back, and thank you for asking. In subject/verb agreement (for a quick review, click here), one of the trickiest cases […]

Welcome to English

In “Love in Translation,” in the Aug. 8 and 15 New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote about learning to live in French after moving to Switzerland with her French husband. But she makes an astute observation about her native English: Grammar offers few clues as to the parts of speech that are not so much idioms as loose […]

Self service

I’ll go my way by myself, this is the end of romance. I’ll go my way by myself, love is only a dance. I’ll try to apply myself and teach my heart how to sing. I’ll go my way by myself like a bird on the wing, I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world […]

Running on at the mouth

A student working on two stories this week was quoting a lot of sources but having trouble rendering those quotes correctly. Three examples: “It is not the responsibility of the city to enforce an immigration policy, that is the responsibility of the federal government.” “Even for the businesses here, they have to start paying the […]

Block that metaphor!

The New Yorker may be a bastion of long-form journalism, but some of its funniest content is very short: those column-fillers whose headline this post has borrowed in homage. They’re poorly edited quotations from small-town (and sometimes big-city) newspapers, government documents, police blotters and such, collected with one purpose: to make readers laugh. From the […]