Charles Harrington Elster

Copyright © 2003-2018
by Charles Harrington Elster

Note: Every article on this blog page, and on this website, is protected by copyright. Reproduction of any kind without permission is prohibited.

"Give me my typewriter and my dictionary, and just let me suffer!"
— Robertson Davies

"Writing is at the mercy of the largest number of amateurs—almost the entire population."
— Jacques Barzun

"Nearly every fiction writer in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom."
— Roald Dahl


Below are ten abbreviations of Latin terms. Do you know what they stand for in Latin and in English?

1. MS or ms.
2. PS or P.S.
3. i.e.
4. e.g.
5. N.B. or n.b.
6. c. or ca.
7. et al.
8. cf.
9. q.v.
10. ibid.

Answers are on the
Comments page, in the left sidebar.

To Err Is Inhuman

“I’m afraid that surprise, shock, and regret is the fate of authors when they finally see themselves on the page. . . . Seeing one’s inadequate English frozen into type is a humiliating experience.” — Julia Child, My Life in France

“I think of it as it could have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied.”
— From the dedication page of
H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926)

The Accidents of Style is a crash course in careful usage.

The Accidents of Style is in USA Today.

One Writer's Ravings

A Logogogue's Blog for Language Lovers

If It Ain't Hard to Do, You're Not Doing It Right

August 29, 2017

"I've been working hard to improve my writing skills," writes a fan and aspiring writer. "But the harder I work at it, the harder it gets, and the more I realize how arduous it is to write one good sentence. It is as if I cannot write well without exerting myself. And that exertion sometimes stifles my thought and causes me to quit. Is this how it's supposed to be, Charlie? Does every writer struggle to write well?" (more…)

Should Everyone Get Their Lunch?

August 29, 2017

"Hello, Charlie," writes Roman, a fan of my Verbal Advantage. "Throughout the program you use the noun person with such possessive pronouns as his or her depending on the context. I was wondering if it wouldn't be better to use their instead?

That's not an easy question to answer, I replied. (more…)

Why no "be" verbs in broadcast news?

March 17, 2017

Tags: Letitbe

Why do broadcast news journalists scrupulously avoid any form of the verb to "be"? And why do they use present participles (-ing forms of verbs), or gerunds (-ing forms of verbs that function as nouns), to accomplish that avoidance? A curious question becoming a big problem: newscasters sounding like headlines. That not good, as this excellent article shows:

Talk Is the Enemy of Writing

March 7, 2016

Tags: William Zinnser, Jacques Barzun, William F. Buckley Jr., Verbal Advantage, The Accidents of Style

Some time ago I received this query from a reader: "Recently, I made my brother mad advocating that I don't use words in my writing if I don't use them comfortably in my conversation. I was following William Zinsser's plea from his book On Writing Well. However, in Glenda Winders' feature on your book The Accidents of Style you said that 'too many writers think they are supposed to write the way they speak, and what happens is they come out sounding silly, lazy, and full of accidents of style.' I'm confused."

This was my answer: (more…)

Think Global(ly), Act Local(ly)? Some Adverbial Advice

March 24, 2015

"To you alone can I turn, Mr. Elster," writes Andrew Chaveriat of New York City, adding — as is always prudent when asking for free advice — a bit of welcome flattery: "But first let me thank you for your excellent and matchless Verbal Advantage . . . which I greatly esteem.

"I was wondering if you have a moment to shed some light on the title to a business magazine article published by my bank,” he went on. “The article is about retail banking and is entitled 'Think global, act local.' I informed the editor of our fine magazine that this was nonstandard usage and that the adverbial version of the phrase should have been used: 'Think globally, act locally.' (more…)

Writers Are Made, Not Born

January 7, 2014

The turning of a new year often makes us look back to evaluate what we've done, and then look forward to what we hope to do. This holiday season gave me an opportunity to dig up some of my childhood memorabilia. Among the many paper artifacts of my youth (both handwritten and typed on ancient manual typewriters) was this pencil-scrawled letter from August 3, 1965, when I was eight years old and away at summer camp in Connecticut. I reproduce it here exactly as it was written: (more…)

LIT CRIT 101: The Art of the Putdown

October 16, 2013

Tags: Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Ben Jonson; Samuel Johnson; Thomas Gray; Mark Twain; Jane Austen; E. A. Poe; Socrates; Thomas Babington Macaulay; William Lamb; Henry James; Frank McCourt; William Faulkner; Virginia Woolf; Edith Sitwell; Edmund Wilson; Evelyn Waugh; Raymond Chandler; Ezra Pound; Amy Lowell; Dorothy Parker; Ernest Hemingway; Norman Mailer; J. D. Salinger; Gloria Steinem; Jacqueline Susann; James Dickey; Robert Frost; Jack Kerouac; Truman Capote; Gore Vidal; Mary McCarthy; Lillian Hellman

Writers are generally not known for their social grace. In fact, many are flat-out antisocial, sometimes to the point of misanthropy. Envy, egotism, selfishness, self-indulgence, and downright nastiness are just a few of the pleasant traits often associated with writers—along with the ability to be mean-spirited in epigrammatic prose laced with trenchant wit. (more…)

Take Me Out to the Name Game: A Postscript

July 31, 2013

Tags: Hispanic given names, baseball, revisited

The second half of the major-league baseball season is now in full swing, so to speak, and I've been keeping up not only with the stats but also with the oddball first names of Hispanic ballplayers. Every week, it seems, I run across one or two more rare specimens in the sports pages. (more…)

Inkhorn's Erotonomicon

May 13, 2013

Tags: Paul Convery

Paul Convery, a hardworking fellow lexicomane from Glasgow, Scotland, contacted me recently to ejaculate with pride over his latest labor of illicit love, Inkhorn's Erotonomicon: An Advanced Sexual Vocabulary for Verbivores and Vulgarians. It's the most verbally engorged example of lubricious lexicography since J. E. Schmidt's Lecher's Lexicon, guaranteed to give wordlovers of all persuasions a safe-lex frisson. Here is what Mr. Convery has to say about it in his introduction: (more…)

Take Me Out to the Name Game

May 7, 2013

Tags: Hispanic given names, baseball

I am a longtime fan of baseball. If you are too, then you know that part of the fun of being a fan is following the “stats” of the players and seeing how many categories and subcategories can be created from baseball-related information. From RBI (runs batted in) to ERA (earned-run average), baseball wonks have a way of keeping track of everything pertaining to the game. But one thing I’ve been following lately seems to have been overlooked by lovers of all-things-baseball: the extremely weird first names of Hispanic ballplayers. (more…)

Selected Works

Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.