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A year or so ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, and other musicals, in connection with my book-in-progress, The B Side: The Fall of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. I asked him about "Do You Love Me?" a Fiddler duet between Tevye (Zero Mostel in the original cast) and his wife,...

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Tonight (January 21, 2014), PBS's "American Masters" series is airing "Six Degrees of Salinger," Shane Salerno's J.D. Salinger documentary. When the film was released in theaters, a few months back, I wrote this piece about my participation in it for the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

It was about five years ago that I got a phone call from Paul Alexander, a biographer of several writers, including, most significantly, J.D. Salinger. I’d later come to understand that he called, rather than e-mailed, because the latter would have been too public and traceable. Anyway, Paul said that a Hollywood screenwriter named Shane Salerno was making a documentary about Salinger. Would I be willing to talk to him?

My connection was that I had written a history of The New Yorker, a magazine that was very important to Salinger throughout his career. His...

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There is a finite number of things that I possess and love. "Love" may be too strong a word. The objects I refer to please me. They do a significant job and do it well, they have lasted a long time, and most of them, it turns out, didn't cost very much. Some months back, I wrote about my Merrell Jungle Mocs (which, by the way, are still going strong). I propose to regularly feature some of these things in this space; I welcome comments and suggestions.

First up is something whose manufacturer and brand name I can't tell you. I have had it so long (ten years? fifteen?) and used it so much, leaving so much grime (ironically) on it that any words that were originally inscribed have been rubbed off. Here it is:

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Sometimes you wonder if that whole language thing might not have been the best idea. I’m referring not to when people say “Best. [Blank.] Ever.” or misuse literally, but to when they use words to dissemble, bully, obfuscate, self-aggrandize, proudly display their ignorance, or and/or snarf up airtime like an imperial power having its way with a virgin land. Other times, though, you really understand the whole concept. One of those occasions, for me, came last week, when I heard excerpts of the telephone conversation between Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper in a DeKalb, Ga., elementary school, and a DeKalb police dispatcher. Tuff called the police because a...

I am a university student (a very mature student), studying Modern Languages and Second Language Education. I find it odd that I feel like I am getting less confident in my language skills the more I study language (in fact, I am feeling self-conscious as I write to you now--I hope this feeling will eventually go away). Anyway, I wonder about using the preposition at instead of in.  Please consider this example:  "We are living at a time when almost anyone can obtain a university degree." I have spoken this way, and heard others do the same, but is it correct? Another example is, "I am a student at university." I do not think it is, but it nags at me, and I am too embarrassed to ask one of my professors.

"Correctness" of prepositions is a notoriously dicey proposition (no pun intended), so please don't be embarrassed! That is, a lot of the time, their use is purely idiomatic, with no particular relation to the meaning of the word. One example is the...

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