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Lingua Franca

Why We Speak

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.


The title of this post is not the name of a new cop show, but an acronym I just invented. It stands for “Changing Usage Impulse,” and it refers to the urge you (or at least I) get to perpetrate a usage that isn’t standard yet but, because it’s popular and fills a need, is well on its way to becoming so. Another name for the phenomenon might be Ergative Yearning, the ergative being the kind of verb used when one says “the car drives smoothly” or “the wine drinks well.” These expressions and words just want to be used.

I don’t use them, because I know they’re wrong, at least according to the

Never Abolish the To-Die-For Sentence

Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.

I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to

The Comic Stylings of POTUS


At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughter and applause.) We’re changing things around here a little bit. (Laughter.) Actually, my advisers were a little worried about the new rap entrance music.

Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present

Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with So or ending them with right?

You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:

• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of the arrest process. It pops up in a database.” (The New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, talking on NPR’s On the Media about a recent Supreme Court case)

• “Four months