Thursday, June 06, 2013

C'mon, Yoda! No One Says "Let's Get A Hamburger..." They Say, "Let's Get A Burger!"

In his first year of high school (spent in a junior high as a 9th grader), this blogger memorized all 94 of the single-word prepositions (from aboard to worth) and wrote them on the wall of the cave where English class was held. Now, Yoda has raised the damnable question of whether a post appears in or on a blog. Mrs. G., that long-ago English teacher and her preposition-memorization assignment, have brought this blogger face-to-face with prepositions all over again. If this is (fair & balanced) grammatical insolubility, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca Blog]
A Blog About Blog Blogs
By Ben Yagoda

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I got a bang out of Forrest Wickman’s Slate article a couple of weeks ago decrying the trend of calling a blog post or blog entry a “blog.” Haven’t noticed the trend? You will; it’s a thing. Wickman points out that going along with this can make you sound silly. He correctly calls the late Roger Ebert a “terrific writer,” but quotes an unfortunate Ebert tweet from February: “Robin Roberts is back, and Tom Shales hails her ‘rousing return’ in his new blog, just now posted on my blog.” Brings to mind the Bob Loblaw Law Blog from "Arrested Development."

Certainly, it’s not unusual for phrases of the structure modifier-noun to metonomically drop the modifier over time. The accepted term used to be a hamburger sandwich, and one finds this many times in The New York Times from the 1920s through the 50s. But then a hamburger takes over, and dominant it has stayed. Speaking of lunch, at some point the grilled-cheese sandwich of my youth became, simply, a grilled cheese. More recently, a pornographic film or porno film streamlined into a porno.

But the blog deal can’t rightfully claim these as precedents. Until the shifts I’ve described, hamburger was a non-count noun, grilled cheese was a non-count noun phrase, and porno could be either an adjective or a non-count noun. Thus “a hamburger,” “a grilled cheese,” and “a porno” didn’t have any meaning, and in each case the new one could gracefully slide in. By contrast, since blog is a count noun, “a blog” had and has a common and useful denotation, with which the new one clashes. It’s as if people started referring to a newspaper article as “a newspaper.”

Part of the reason for the development, I suspect, lies with the scorned word, post. According to the OED, it was coined no later than 1982, when someone wrote on a Usenet newsgroup, “I hoped people had seen my posts to HUMAN-NETS re the CMU personal computing plans.” (Remember Usenet? Remember newsgroups?) It stuck, but it’s not a great term for what Jen Doll, in an Atlantic... um... meditation on the issue, calls “this thing we do.” Another Slate article, by Farhad Manjoo, talks about how in the post-Usenet online world, when the line between blogs (like Lingua Franca) and online publications (like Slate or has blurred, that so-called blog post might consist of 1,500 well-researched, -reasoned, and -written words, might be read by 150,000 or more readers, and so might better be accorded the traditional terms “article,” “story,” or “piece” (the latter two long favored by journos). Or, dare one suggest, “essay”?

And by the way, where would you say those pieces by Wickman and Manjoo appeared? The precedent of analog journalism, where one would talk about an article “in The New Yorker” or “in The New York Times“—or a chapter “in a book,” for that matter—would suggest “in Slate.” But more and more one hears or reads of someone’s reading something “on” a blog or online journal. Two recent examples: “According to an article on the Huffington Post, 1,196,793 Americans have been casualties of war since the American Revolution” (; “I found an article on Politico that discusses it” (

Thinking about the trend makes you appreciate the impressive subtlety of that maligned part of speech, the preposition. The traditional in has a literal justness: that article is, physically, inside of the newspaper or magazine. (Except when it’s “on” the front or some other page.) But when one reads it via a computer, tablet, or phone, “on” would appear more precise; the very words are “in contact with, upon the surface of (but not specifically on top of)” a screen. (The quote is from an OED definition of on.)

Yet on is still a minority choice for a references to an online article. A Lexis-Nexis search of American newspapers yields 64 hits for “an article in the Huffington Post” and 85 for “an article in Slate” compared with only 40 and 48, respectively for “an article on” those publications. I think that’s because prepositions work metaphorically as well as literally. We still think of Slate or Huffington Post as containing a lot of individual pieces within them, and hence, for most of us, in still feels right.

But it may not stay that way for long. Facebook has adopted on: Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

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