Category Archives: Style Points

Blagojevich Contest Winner!


“Go hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things, I am
not of your element. You shall know more hereafter.”

And the winner of the Blagojevich Literary Comparison Contest is…Holloway McCandless, whose apt comparison of the governor to Twelfth Night‘s Malvolio came the closest to satisfying our nagging sense that Blago emerged fully-formed from a book somewhere. As justification, she cited “the preening and the poetic overreaching, the overestimating of one’s position at court”; we’d also mention Blago’s attitude of wounded dignity (more hypocritical in his case than in Malvolio’s). The analogy may not be perfect, but it’s close enough to earn Holloway our Stylish Reader of the Week Award. Huzzah! As a grand prize, we are recommending Holloway’s own site, the newly-launched Litagogo: A Guide to Literary Podcasts—and are happy to do so, because the writing on it so far has been first-rate. Bonus style points to Ms. McCandless for working the phrases “sub-Dickens,” “beribboned aperçu,” and “how-we-live-now signifiers” into a single post; it’s always nice to find a kindred spirit on the Web.

Also deserving of mention (especially as he was, effectively, the only other contest participant) is “Governor Blago Shakespeare,” a merry prankster whose site, called Illinois Poet Laureate, features supposedly Blago-penned verse in the style of Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, and Lewis Carroll, among others. Well worth checking out before the governor tragically fades from the collective memory (at least until the publication of his groundbreaking oeuvre, that is).

And speaking of website recommendations, an announcement: we are hereby retiring the category head “Marginalia,” in deference to The Elegant Variation. We had been using the term for many months, congratulating ourselves on our cleverness, before finding TEV and realizing that Mark Sarvas was using it in essentially the same context—and had thought of it long before we did. Rather sheepishly, we’ve continued calling our recommendations “Marginalia” until now, but today we are proclaiming the birth of a replacement term: “See Also.” We will be titling new posts and emending old ones accordingly. We’ll miss “Marginalia” a bit, but we think the new term is, to coin a phrase, an elegant variation.

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Style Points: Public Editing

Ambling around the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day, two of our Arbiters of Style happened upon an unusual road sign. Unfortunately, we neglected to snap a photo, but perhaps some of our readers have seen it as well. Orange and mounted close to street level, it reads, “DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. PROHIBITED.” It also contains, above the apostrophe in the first word, an indignantly scrawled graffito: “PLURAL NOT POSSESSIVE.”

Now, as editors in a city full of misspelled, mispunctuated, and otherwise misguided signs and advertisements, we certainly understand the impulse to draw one’s pen and unleash furious proofreading marks all over the offending words. But there’s a difference between impulse and action: once you actually whip out that pen, you’re walking a fine line between respect for the language and pedantic boobery. If you want to avoid crossing that line, you’d better at least make sure your “correction” is correct.

Needless to say, our vandal’s wasn’t. He or she assumed that the only valid reading of the abridged sentence was: “DRIVERS [WHO ARE] IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [ARE] PROHIBITED.” In fact, an equally valid, if slightly more awkward, reading would be: “[A] DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [IS] PROHIBITED.” Since the second reading conveys the intended meaning as well as the first, the apostrophe is entirely justifed—and smug, anonymous criticisms are not.

A sobering lesson in the dangers of vigilante editing—and perhaps, since we spotted the graffito near a stretch of popular bars (Jake’s Dilemma, etc.) on New Year’s Day, in the dangers of drunken editing as well. We’re guessing someone in his cups began fancying himself God’s chosen avenger against grammatical sins, only to discover in the cold light of morning that he was no more an editor than the gin-soaked sorority sister riding a mechanical bull is a cowgirl.


Filed under New York, Style Points

Regarding Snark


Henry Holiday, illustration from “The Hunting of the Snark”

In recent months we’ve received a number of kind compliments on this site, but none that pleases us quite so much as the left-handed compliment we haven’t gotten: “snarky.” “Snarky” is clearly one of our cultural words du jour, and it gets applied to blogs as readily and unthinkingly as “crushing” gets paired with “blow” or “veritable” gets tacked on to “smorgasbord.” (Honestly, are there no approximate smorgasbords? No smorgasbords in full?) So automatic is the label that it’s a wonder we’ve been able to duck it; but then, we’ve tried hard to resist the term “blog” as well.

As much as we dislike it and the tone it’s come to stand for, the word “snarky” is actually quite firmly entrenched in the language, as John McIntyre pointed out recently. Evidently there was a recorded usage in E. Nesbitt’s 1906 classic The Railway Children: “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It wasn’t our fault.” We would add, although this is probably a stretch, that the word may date back even further—to Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (1874), a poem whose joys everyone should experience if they haven’t already, and whose opening lines strike a note of absurdly misplaced confidence that we do try to emulate:

“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

The connection between Carroll’s “inconceivable creature” and modern-day Gawker may be tenuous at best, but it seems clear in any case that snark, or snarkiness, was once charming and idiomatically British, and not the annoying buzzword of an entire generation.

We’ll admit that we do veer dangerously close to snark at times (cf. yesterday’s post), but we think we largely steer clear in the end. Occasionally we strive for cynical wit, which is a bit like snark, only less relentlessly pop-culture-informed and less willing to kill its own joke. A devastating putdown is wit; a cheap putdown followed by “Ha.” is snark. We also try to blend the cynicism with a cheerful, if possibly tongue-in-cheek, celebration of fine taste and luxury—what a friend nicely described as “pseudo-priggishness.” If Ambrose Bierce and Lady Bracknell could somehow have had a love child, we would want to sound like it. That style may carry its own set of risks, but it isn’t snark. Finally, as we hope this post will demonstrate, we hold an earnest love and appreciation for books and art, which we try to convey at every possible opportunity. That kind of sincerity, if nothing else, proves us innocent of snarkiness. What we tell you three times is true.


Filed under Books and Publishing, Style Points

New York Times Grammar Quiz

Here on this site we like to do epic battle with The Chicago Manual of Style, but sometimes it’s fun to spar with another opponent instead. That’s why we were happy to see this recent quiz in the New York Times, which challenged smart-aleck readers to spot mistakes overlooked by the harried Times editors:

We passed with flying colors, naturally, though we have to admit we didn’t catch the spelling lapse in #8. We also noticed that along with the word usage error they copped to in #6, their use of “peripatetically” in that sentence is equally weak. It’s hard for an art exhibit to be peripatetic, since that word usually retains some of its literal sense of journeying on foot. “Discursively” would have been a better choice.

How well did you do? Let us know in the Comments section. 50 bonus points if you can name an error of grammar, usage, or style that we’ve ever made. We double-dog dare you.


Filed under Events, Style Points

Poll Results; FAQ Page

The results of last week’s poll are in, and it is our knock-down drag-out mano a mano battles with the Chicago Manual of Style that have emerged as our readers’ favorite feature. Apparently all of you like to see that big orange palooka take a hit almost as much as we do. Fair enough; we will be treating you to another Abbeville vs. Chicago bout later this week. Less popular features included our “witty, civilized discussions of art” (see if we ever fish for a compliment again) and our interviews with noted art and publishing figures (we’re hoping the next interview subject we’ve got lined up will change some minds on that one). The people have spoken—or at least, resoundingly clicked—and we will be incorporating this feedback into our future content. Thanks to everyone who voted, and even though we know it’ll be anticlimactic after the excitement of an Abbeville poll, don’t forget to vote on November 4 also.

One last Monday tidbit: as you can see, site redesign is underway, and we are playing with fonts and color schemes like a fifth-grader jazzing up a book report. Apologies if the result is a bit unattractive at times, but we’re confident everything will look stylish in the end. Among the new features we’ve added is a FAQ section (see tab at top of page), so that you may quench the thirst for Abbeville Manual of  Style knowledge that has so long parched your soul.

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Filed under Polls, Style Points

Cosmetic Changes

Perceptive followers of this site will notice that we’ve organized our once-slovenly array of sidebar links into four new categories: Arts and Culture Links, Book and Publishing Links, Library and Bookstore Links, and Yachting Links. Why Yachting? Reader, it is not enough for the true gentleman or gentlewoman of style merely to have exceptional taste in the arts; he or she must also cultivate at least one other rarefied, completely unrelated area of expertise. We have chosen yachting as but a token example; you may prefer philately or the steeplechase. (Other ideas can be found by browsing the Travel, Sports & Automobiles, or Interior Design & Lifestyle sections of Anyway, under Yachting Links you will find several fine online sources for nautical news, including the homepage of Gary Jobson, our occasional guest contributor, and the popular Ask the Boater, which posted a short item about us just yesterday.

In addition to tidying up the links we will be tweaking the look and feel of this site in the coming weeks. It is our hope that these adjustments will help make the Abbeville Manual more stylish than even we dreamed possible.

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Literacy Declines; The Semicolon Trembles

We were amused by this Guardian article about the uproar over the decline of semicolon use in French; we have been similarly amused by the many recent elegies for the semicolon in English; we believe, however, that rumors of this particular death have been grossly exaggerated. People aren’t worried about the point-virgule per se; what they fear is the decline of written literacy in the digital age, of which the disappearance of sophisticated punctuation is taken to be a symptom. It’s true that, Hemingwayesque style effects aside, the semicolon is indispensable to the construction of complex sentences; it’s true that if it ever really were to vanish, the passages it left in its wake would be either boringly staccato or appallingly ungrammatical (or both). Yet as an editor, I see at least as many writers who are inclined to overuse the semicolon as to eschew it; I myself am one of those writers, to the extent that, so long as I’m alive, I can assure the world that semicolon usage will never fall completely into desuetude. If Philippe Djian, the author quoted by The Guardian as saying that he wants history to remember him as “the exterminating angel of the point-virgule” (only the French could raise grammatical pedantry to the level of the biblical), wants a battle to the death, so be it; he will have my sentences to contend with; he will have to pry out their semicolons one by one, like so many nails across which the festoons of my glorious clauses are strung.

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Armin Brott Video on iParenting

This year, longtime Abbeville author Armin Brott—a.k.a. America’s “Mr. Dad”—was the proud recipient of not one but two iParenting Media Awards, both for his volume Fathering Your School-Age Child and for his Father Knows Best: The Expectant Father boxed set. Having heard the good news, he gladly agreed to do a video interview for the iParenting website, because, well, America’s Mr. Dad isn’t the type to grouchily turn down an interview. And now his gracious compliance is your good fortune, because you get to watch the video here!

As you listen to Brott discuss the genesis of his book series and dispense his fatherly advice, we defy you not to feel a warm filial glow. By the time the video was over, we had to restrain ourselves from calling him up and asking him to come out to the backyard to toss the old pigskin around for a while. That was silly; it’s a workday—but maybe he will later, when he’s not so busy? M-Mr. Dad?

Style Points


1.1. So we split one in the second sentence. Sue us. It’s an outdated rule anyway.

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Courbet Review and Contest at ABBB

In keeping with our newly-established summer tradition of deals and giveaways, our Courbet Giveaway Contest is officially live over at Art Blog By Bob. (Bob has aptly called it The Most Arrogant Contest in Blogging—a joke about Courbet, of course, but we like to think he had us in mind as well.) Also up at ABBB is a terrific review of our Courbet book itself, wrapped up inside a larger meditation on the great painter and his work. The book he calls “a scenic tour” with “critically engaged, yet highly accessible and beautifully written prose”; the artist “an epistemological bar of soap,” persistently eluding the grasp of easy characterization. (We had a similar reaction to Courbet back in the spring, when we visited and reviewed the Met’s colossal exhibition.) Many thanks to Bob for posting the review and hosting the contest, and kudos to ABBB for remaining one of the most stylish sites we know.

Also, in breaking with our long-established tradition of not working on weekends, we will have a post up sometime Saturday or Sunday to make up for our absence tomorrow (July 4). Think of it as our duty to you and our belated birthday gift to America. Check back soon and enjoy the holiday!

Style Points

Pyrotechnical Appreciation

1.1. A true Arbiter of Style doesn’t “oooh” and “ahhh” at every firework in a fireworks show. To the smaller ones at the beginning, he or she gives a judgment-reserving “hmmm.”

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Filed under Abbeville News, Style Points


Even our most stylish readers may never have heard of Whiskipedia, the online resource for whiskey connoisseurs that launched this year as a spot-on, tongue-in-cheek imitation of that other famous online encyclopedia. But once word of it came our way, we naturally posted an entry on our own definitive whiskey resource: Whisk(e)y, by Stefan Gabányi, an Abbeville classic from back in 1997. The entry is pretty short, owing to the site administrator’s stern directive to commercial types like us that we “confine [ourselves] to matters of fact and historical record.” In other words, if we heap the book with lavish tributes, Wikignomes will come in the night and delete them—and possibly boot us off the site as well. (Although we suspect that after a couple tumblerfuls of Scotch, they’d loosen up about that kind of thing.) Anyway, you should check out the entry, the site, and of course, the book page on

Oh yeah, and we have an actual Wikipedia entry, too.

Coming up next week: Abbeville’s Eye on India, a special discount on one of our new titles, and our intrepid traveler’s final musings on his recent trip to Rome and Florence. See you Monday!

Style Points


1.1. We take ours neat, of course. We recommend you do the same.

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