Please try to understand: it’s “try to” not “try and”

I’ve often stressed that the observations and advice posted here are primarily about written English, as opposed to spoken English.

For a number of reasons written English and spoken English can almost be thought of as two separate languages, or as two very closely related but distinct branches of the same language family. Of course, thinking of them in that way is extreme — they really are the same language. But to some extent these two forms of English follow different conventions (“rules” is often too strong a word to describe the norms of our language).

Try to do the right thing and click for more

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Indian summer: what and when is it?

We’re not experiencing it yet where I live (outside of Boston), but it’s that time of year when people start talking about “Indian summer.” I’ve seen a few references to this seasonal quirk lately (including one in something I was editing), and it seems an appropriate topic to discuss today.

What is Indian summer and where does this term come from?

Like an Indian summer, there’s more of this post (if you click here)

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Racialism: it’s not the same as racism. Or is it?

The word “racialist” got tossed around in public for a day or two last week after Hillary Clinton used it in a speech.

Here’s what Clinton said:

No one should have any illusions about what’s really going on here. The names may have changed… Racists now call themselves “racialists.” White supremacists now call themselves “white nationalists.” The paranoid fringe now calls itself “alt-right.” But the hate burns just as bright.

She was drawing attention to a certain kind of person, along the lines of what Adam Gopnik referred to in May as crypto-fascists: those folks on the farthest political fringe, who most politicians studiously avoided just a few years ago, but who this year are suddenly part of the equation (and part of the discourse), and which Trump and his campaign, such as it is, have often courted directly or indirectly.

But is it as simple as Clinton describes it? Is racialism just racism with two extra letters? Let’s take a look.

Click to see if those extra two letters matter…

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Panhandler: Its Origins Are Unclear, But Its Meaning Isn’t

Children are experts at uncovering quirks in language use. Most of us, as we get older, become so used to the inconsistencies and the oddball idiomatic expressions that we no longer notice them. Kids, because they haven’t been exposed to as much language, are better at catching seemingly nonsensical turns of phrase, especially in once-common phrases that have faded to only occasional use.

Not long ago I was in a mixed conversation of adults and children when one of the adults used the term “panhandler.” The children had never heard the word before, and we shifted into a brief digression to identify synonyms (“beggar” was put forward, as well as the equally little-known “mendicant“) and speculate on the term’s origin. I knew at least one story, but I didn’t find it satisfying so I decided to dig further.

Let’s go panning (not panhandling) for more

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Posner’s Ruling: Jargon, you’re out of order!

If you’re a writer or editor or someone who follows the latest developments (such as they are) of the English language, you’ve probably spent time on various grammar and vocabulary and writing advice sites. You’ll know some of the popular ones (Grammar Girl) or the elder statesmen (World Wide Words), or your taste might run to the more specialized (Garner’s LawProse blog) or the eclectic (Language Log). There are literally more than I could list.

You might have encountered some of the eccentric groups, such as the Plain English Campaign (PEC) with its awards for outstandingly bad use. An outfit like that can do some good, although their approach and success are limited (and they’re quite rightfully not without critics).

I sympathize with PEC, as most editors probably do: some of us spend a lot of our time simplifying over-wrought writing, and it’s not always easy convincing an author to stop bloviating and just say what they mean. It ever was and ever will be.

So stop bloviating and get to the point already!

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