Grammatical doorstop

Since I first read about the new Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I’ve wanted a copy. The authors are Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum (with some chapters written by others), and it’s an 1,800-page doorstop of a book. Just lately, having had some small discussion with my proofreader about a hyphen he wanted to put in a place where I thought no hyphen ought to be, I decided this was the time, and was fortunate enough to find a used (barely opened, I think) copy for under $100 — list price is $205.

So it now resides on the little table by my reading & laptop chair, and I am slogging through it. When I finish with the chapter on verbs (only about 40 pages to go), nouns are next, at about 200 pages.

If that sounds like more than you really want to know about English grammar, you can read a summary chapter online. Pullum wrote on the linguistics blog Language Log, “The chapter we chose for making searchable online is a particularly useful one, in that it is largely free-standing: it is chapter 2, called “Syntactic overview”, in which Rodney Huddleston surveys the structure and terminology of the entire book, giving a capsule version of the analysis that is elaborated in the following chapters.”

If you’re still in thrall to your eighth-grade English teacher and her pet peeves, or you’re hanging on to the tattered copy of Strunk and White you had to buy for freshman comp, have a look, to see what linguists have been up to the last half-century or so. And if you are much troubled with peevologists, you can always use the book to swat them.

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Michael Bellesiles: back in print, and back in trouble

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an essay by Michael Bellesiles, the disgraced former Emory professor and author of Arming America, who lost his job (and his Bancroft prize) after bloggers revealed extensive fabrications in the book, which purported to show that guns were rare in early American history.

Bellesiles is now an adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University, and his essay is about a student in his class in military history whose brother, the student told Bellesiles, was shot by a sniper while serving in Iraq and died.

The essay raised red flags for many readers, not only because of Bellesiles’ record, but because they couldn’t verify the details (casualty records are public, and none matched the story the student told Bellesiles).

Eventually, The Chronicle checked the story and couldn’t verify it either (their account is now appended to the essay). Their conclusion: the story was made up, but by the student, not Bellesiles.

Picking up the idea that the student was the one at fault, Megan McArdle at the Atlantic writes, “Of course, maybe the student thought it would help him pass the class; in fact, maybe it did. Whatever the motivation, Bellesiles was taken in. Stupid, yes, but not exactly incomprehensible. You’d feel like a monstrous jerk if you added to the pain of someone whose brother had just died in Iraq by demanding that he prove he wasn’t lying.”

One of her commenters, JamieMc, said, “But this isn’t a scholarly article or journalism. It’s a personal essay. I’m not sure why anybody would expect him to research it. . . . My point is that the genre he’s working in here doesn’t really call for the kind of fact checking that some folks seem to be outraged that he didn’t do. He isn’t a journalist.”

JamieMc is wrong about the obligations of journalism. I replied:

Even “personal essays” are expected to be factually correct if they are submitted to, and appear in, a reputable and prestigious academic publication. At that point, such essays become journalism, whether or not the author can otherwise be described as a journalist. (Heck, blog posts are expected to be factually correct, however seldom that expectation is met.)

I edited many such pieces in nearly 20 years as a journalist, at several different daily newspapers, and you’d better believe it was part of my job to reject submissions that didn’t check out, and to display a healthy skepticism about which ones needed to be checked out. This essay invited skepticism because it was just too pat; and given who it came from (The Chronicle had been burned by Bellesiles before, you know), it demanded skepticism, if not instant rejection.

Any professional editor should have expected him to provide evidence that the story was essentially true.

I wrote a column on Bellesiles and Arming America in 2002, when Emory’s investigation was just gathering steam; since the paper I wrote it for closed in 2009, here’s a Google cache.

Bellesiles has a book coming out shortly; you have to wonder why any publisher would take such a chance.

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An editor again

Mensagenda, the monthly newsletter of Minnesota Mensa, will have a new editor starting with the May issue, and I’m it. The chaper’s board approved the appointment at its meeting Monday (Feb. 1)

I’m very pleased to have this opportunity. There’s no money involved, but it’s a way to keep my hand in, and to learn some new skills about layout programs (I have a copy of Pages for my MacBook). The current editor uses PageMaker, on a PC, but that program hasn’t been supported for several years and there’s no version that will run on my laptop. So I’ve been learning as I go, but that’s fun.

Up to a point, anyway, and only so long as it works.

Thanks to the board members for their vote of confidence.

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Berkeley science labs

I did a piece on a proposal to reduce funding for additional lab periods for science students  at Berkeley High School, and was no end pleased when the Breitbart site posted it Wednesday (Jan 27). Take a look and let me know what you think.

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The Asparagus letter

My son Peter — that would be Seebs — having been sidelined by a badly sprained ankle, has been improving the shining hour by sorting out boxes of stuff. And look what he found!

He explains here:

This is a bit of family history, uncovered while sorting through boxes of paperwork.

My grandfather wrote this letter, to which he actually stapled a piece of asparagus. We have a copy of the letter. I don’t recall the outcome, but I think it was positive.

January 22nd, 1946

E. Pritchard Inc.
Bridgeton, N. J.

We had your cut spears asparagus for dinner tonight and they are
so incredible that I know you could not believe a description of them with-
out a sample before you, and so you may know I do not exaggerate, one of
these faggots is enclosed.
It seems that these must have been especially bred for toughness,
for even ordinary uncooked asparagus does not approximate this in tensile
strength and indestructability. I have never eaten bamboo, but I imagine
it could only be as tough as this if sufficiently aged.
Seriously, we have enjoyed your catsup for years and am taking the
trouble to write you since I am convinced that you must be unaware of this
product which masquerades as a food under your brand name. One can of the
stuff could undo $1000. in good advertising.
Yours very truly,


(This letter was written when the notion of a “faggot” as a strong piece of wood was not an innuendo.)
— Peter Seebach

As I recall, someone showed up on our front porch a few days later with a propitiatory box of groceries. I thought it was Del Monte, but by 1946 Pritchard had been bought by Hunt Foods, now Hunt Wesson.

From Google:

Google Books, Pure Ketchup by Andrew Smith
p. 37 In Red Bank, N.J., Naider and Baird made tomato puree. One its salesmen, Edward Pritchard, began experimenting with making ketchup from puree in about 1878. When Naider an Baird failed, Pritchard opened a factory in New York, selling “Pride of the Farm” and “Eddy’s Brand Catsup.” In 1913 Pritchard purchased B.S. Ayers and Sons and moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey.

p.121 Almost simultaneously with the Del Monte corporation, ketchup production by Hunt Foods dramatically increased after its acquisition of the E. Pritchard Company in Bridgeton, NJ, . . .[exact date not clear from the excerpt, but likely in the 1940s].

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Mary Travers

When I was working at the Los Angeles Daily News, I went to a Peter Paul & Mary concert at Universal Amphitheatre. It must have been 1993 or 1994.

Their politics were as loopy as ever (sorry, I know lots of people agreed with them) and Mary was — well, there’s no other way to say it, she was fat. But it was all magic just the same.

In one section of the program, the members of the trio came out separately, to sing a couple of solos, and to share some personal reflections.

Mary, who grew up in Greenwich Village, recalled the time when the trio was just getting started, in the early 1960′s. Once, she recalled, she rushed home all excited, to tell her mother about the great gig they’d just landed at a Village club.

“Oh, Mary,” said her mother, with weary patience. “Get a real job.”

One of the stories I’ve read in the past couple of days mentioned that the trio had been practicing in the Travers’ home for months before they began to catch on, which may explain Mom’s lack of enthusiasm.

Obviously, being Mary of PP&M was a real job. The trio broke up for a while during the 1970s, but began giving reunion concerts around 1978. I saw them twice more, at Wente’s Vineyard in Livermore, Calif., in 1996 and at Fiddler’s Green in Denver a few years later, after I moved to the Rocky Mountain News. They were still giving concerts as recently as April of this year. A wonderful run for any musician.

I’ve kept my 1960s’ folk LPs, and I even bought a turntable with a USB port so I could listen to them again.


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Misreading the Coleman report

 I am signed up to read the Direct Instruction list, which is both inspiring with its stories of success against great odds — DI is largely limited to special ed situations, although it works like a charm in regular classrooms — and its contrast with the dispiriting reality of public schools in general, which achieve massive failure at great expense even when all the odds favor them.

Recently, someone wrote (as part of a longer post):

I’ve read the entire Coleman report; Coleman makes the distinction that teacher quality is the definitive variable. I think we can deduce from “teacher quality” that what we are really talking about is what the teacher is doing in the classroom, or more simply put: how the teacher is teaching.

However, we cannot deduce any such thing. Coleman explained what he meant, later in life. Here’s my response:

I had the privilege of a slight acquaintance with James Coleman, near the end of his career. I was a (non-traditional age ~ 50) grad student in Linguistics at the University of Minnesota (1988-1992) and working at the student newspaper, so when he came to campus as a visiting scholar I assigned myself to write about him. I had read a talk he gave as his acceptance speech for an award in the Sociology of Education, and he was pleased about that, and was generous with his time for an interview. A couple of years later, speaking at a conference of the National Association of Scholars, he spoke again on the same subject — the extent to which research in sociology, and in education in particular, is distorted by political pressures.

Neither talk is available online, as far as I know, though I had copies in my extra-essential stash of articles up until the day I retired, and they’re still packed away in one of those moving boxes. But they were published in the NAS journal Academic Questions,

Coleman, James S.
Response to the Sociology of Education Award
(vol. 2, no. 3; Summer 1989)
The Sidney Hook Memorial Award Address: On the Self-Suppression of Academic Freedom
(vol. 4, no. 1; Winter 1990–1991)

so it is possible to know, what he felt himself unable to say in the Coleman Report, what he meant by “teacher quality” — teachers’ scores on a basic test of spelling and vocabulary.

Those of you who keep up with these matters will immediately recognize this is a proxy for IQ, which was and is radioactive, but it’s bad enough without knowing that. How could he make a recommendation that would drive a highly disproportionate number of black teachers out of their jobs? (Propose hiking the passing score on Praxis tests, and see what happens.) How could he ask grad students and untenured junior faculty to work on a subject that would blight their careers? (Look what happened to Richard Herrnstein Arthur Jensen in 1969, when he candidly answered the question about how much the achievement gap could be reduced. “Not much,” he said.)

So what Coleman said instead was true, but misleading. Black children did better in classrooms where a majority of their classmates were white. Well, duh. Classrooms with a majority of while children didn’t have the barely literate teachers found in black segregated schools. If they had black teachers, which was probably rare, they were likely the best teachers in the school. They had to be.

This well-intentioned misdirection had catastrophic effects. The obvious response, if majority-white classrooms helped minority kids, was to bus kids around like sacks of cement so as many classrooms as possible had white majorities. Parents, both black and white, objected to having their children used as objects in other children’s education, and there was a massive flight of middle-class families out of city schools and out of center cities altogether. Classmates’ race might not matter all that much, but SES did.

(I think I should have said “vocabulary,” rather than including spelling.)

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Counterproductive advertising

I’d been hearing this ad for weeks, and it really bugged me; why would a university deliberately advertise itself in a bad light? Anyway, I finally sent a message to the head ( ) of the communications department (who may not have been responsible, but should certainly know who is), as follows:

I listen to WFMT (streaming on the Web), and recently DePaul has been running ads focusing on a professor in the Chemistry Department named Quinnetta Shelby. She doesn’t stop at just doing her research, the ad gushes; no, she’s on a quest.

She “actively recruits undergraduate students of color, as well as female students, both groups that are underrepresented in graduate schools and careers in chemistry, for her research team.”

I am well aware that race and gender discrimination are widely practiced in higher education. I discontinued support to my college’s alumni fund when they proudly announced they had signed an amicus brief supporting the University of Michigan’s admissions policies. But bragging about it on the radio is still a bit much, don’t you think?

DePaul has no warrant to adopt discriminatory policies of its own in order to engineer social outcomes it prefers, even if it believes that “underrepresentation” is a problem. “Overrepresentation” is not a problem, and you can’t increase one without decreasing the other.

If my son were still of an age where he was choosing a college, I would not permit him to apply to DePaul.

I never received a reply, and then the station went into a pledge period and so I wasn’t listening to it for a week or so. But since I came back, I haven’t heard any ads for DePaul at all. Maybe the recruiting season just came to its natural end. Or just maybe, somebody thought better about advertising that it practices and approves race and gender discrimination in its science programs.

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isolated pedants’ society

John McIntyre, formerly a top copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, and a loser in the downsizing panic, writes about a book he’s just read:

I also note, with professional regret, the numerous typographical errors throughout the book, many of which have been corrected by a previous library patron. Apparently I am not alone in finding them irritating.

I used to do that, but then I felt bad about defacing library books. Can one deface that which is already defaced by error? At least, there is someone else who appreciates the impulse.

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Model letter to the editor

This message received and quoted (absolutely sic) by a member of the editorial writers’ listserve (many of whom double as letters editors)

To the Editor, ,

It is important that you write the letter in your own words. Nothing is more persuasive to the media, lawmakers, and the public than the experiences, opinions, and feelings of concerned citizens. To help get you started, we’ve provided simple talking points to the right (click the talking point once to add it to your letter), but please remember to use the words that mean the most to you.



[Your Name]
Contact Phone: [Your Phone Number(s)]

The listserve member who forwarded this enlightening missive included the name and address of the clueless signatory, but I refrain, to spare his blushes. Not that ()he likely would have them. Somebody who used to send me messages had in his sig line, “think about how stupid the average person is. then remember that half the population is stupider than that.”

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