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A Problem with Problematize

By Erika Suffern

Though some writers still consider it jargon, the word problematize has gained general acceptance, at least in academic writing. However, it has a particular meaning, and writers should take pains to use it correctly.

When a writer says that her argument “problematizes the concept of power in postcolonial discourse,” she means that she is going to question the assumptions that underlie a certain concept of power. This is an appropriate use of problematize. It means throwing doubt on the core understanding of something that is taken as established truth or calling into question the status of something that is considered unproblematic. It can also mean taking a hard look at who or what is included or excluded in a discipline or a discourse and the reasons behind those inclusions and exclusions.

But when a writer says that her argument “problematizes the infringement of free speech in democracies,” problematize isn’t the right word if the writer is simply identifying, or pointing out, infringement of free speech as a problem. She’s not questioning fundamental truths about the status of free speech in democracies. And she’s probably assuming that her audience already agrees with her that the curtailment of free speech is a problem.

Here’s another example I encountered recently: a review of “journalism that problematizes torture,” which examined journalistic writing addressing cases of torture. Journalism looking at the problem, or issue, of torture does not necessarily “problematize” the issue. But problematize could well be the right word when making a case for or against the justness of torture or, say, its effectiveness in intelligence gathering.

The difference may be subtle, but it’s important. If torture is already considered, well, problematic, it’s difficult to problematize it. But you could problematize assumptions about torture—like the assumption I just made that most people think torture is a problem.

To use problematize correctly, be sure that you mean “to make a problem” of something—usually something that is accepted as truth or considered unproblematic—rather than “to point out a problem” or “to shed light on a problem.”

Published 8 June 2017

Adverbs to Avoid

By Erika Suffern

If you were taught to avoid using adverbs in your writing, the title of this piece might be making you nervous. True, in many cases you can eliminate an adverb by choosing a more apt verb—why walk slowly if you can stroll? But I’m not going to tell you to cut adverbs out of your prose entirely. Instead, I’m going to review a particular category of adverbs that you can easily avoid and thereby tighten your prose.

In Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook recommends that writers avoid “intensive” adverbs, such as very, truly, really, actually, and extremely (15–16). These words have an effect opposite to the one intended, in two ways. First, they are so overused that readers skirt past them. Second, intensive adverbs often weaken instead of intensify the words they modify. A “really important meeting” doesn’t sound more consequential than an “important” one, and a person described as “extremely brilliant” would be just as impressive if described as “brilliant.”

When attached to words that are already absolutes, intensive adverbs can create redundancy. A “truly perfect evening” cannot be more flawless than a “perfect” one, and an “entirely complete set” is missing exactly no more items than a “complete set.”

If you’re tempted to use an adverb like very, try replacing the word you’re modifying: instead of very calm, choose serene, tranquil, or hushed. Or delete the intensive adverb and read the resulting sentence. Chances are you won’t miss the added emphasis, which wasn’t adding much.

Work Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Published 22 March 2017

The Danger of Deploy

By Michael Kandel

Deploy is not a good synonym for use, utilize, or employ, because it has a narrower sense and specific associations. The word appears in the context of military preparation (“deploy troops”); suggests a purposeful arrangement, often spatial, to make something possible (“deploy a parachute”); or stresses instrumentality, making use of something to achieve an end (“deploy resources”). See the definitions and examples given in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries.

Caution: if you choose a term that blurs or compromises your meaning for the sake of sounding more learned, important, or scientific, you run the risk of falling into the embarrassment of “windyfoggery” (Bernstein 480–82).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

“Deploy.” Merriam-Webster,

“Deploy.” Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford UP,

Published 8 March 2017

It is . . . that; or, How Not to Edit Jane Austen

By Barney Latimer

The formula it is . . . that is one of the most common rhetorical tics in academic writing. This formula also provides a great opportunity to edit for concision, since it can usually be removed easily from a sentence without changing the meaning.

Often, one can simply remove “It is” and “that” and leave the sentence otherwise untouched.


It is this ambivalence that gives the poem its power.

Edited version:

This ambivalence gives the poem its power.

Sometimes, it may work better to place the phrase that follows “It is” at the end of the sentence.


It is in the light of this discovery that we should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems.

Edited version A:

We should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems in the light of this discovery.

Some sentences, like this one, lend themselves to a more radical overhaul. Here is one way to make this sentence even more concise and dynamic.

Edited version B:

This discovery compels us to look at T. S. Eliot’s early poems in a new light.

This formula, however, is not intrinsically bad. Used sparingly, “it is . . . that” can be an effective rhetorical tool. A writer can use it to pluck an otherwise unremarkable phrase from the surrounding prose and unveil it before the reader with a flourish. Jane Austen comes to mind:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Few readers have ever wished that Austen had begun Pride and Prejudice this way instead:

We all know that a single man with a lot of money must need a wife.

Published 8 February 2017

President’s Day: A Singular Holiday?

By Jennifer Rappaport

When it comes to styling the holiday variously known as President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Presidents Day, authorities disagree not only about what to call the holiday but also about what the holiday celebrates.

The Federal Holiday

If you look up “Presidents’ Day” in Webster’s, you are directed to the entry “Washington’s Birthday,” the name of the federal holiday according to the National Archives (“Federal Holidays”). Webster’s notes that the holiday—celebrating George Washington, the first president of the United States—was previously celebrated on 22 February, Washington’s actual birthday (“George Washington’s Birthday”). It is now observed the third Monday in February, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Law, established to designate Monday as the day to observe most federal holidays (Arbelbide).

The Holiday State by State

Although most states shifted the day of the holiday to Monday, not all took on the official federal holiday name (Arbelbide). For example, Minnesota calls the holiday “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday,” celebrating both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Minnesota State, Legislature). The official state calendar for Alabama lists the holiday as “George Washington / Thomas Jefferson Birthday,” commemorating Thomas Jefferson as well as Washington (“2017 Holiday Schedule”). Washington State calls the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” “celebrated as the anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington” (Washington State, Legislature).

The Holiday in Advertising

When the Uniform Monday Holiday Law took effect in 1971, “only two days separated Abraham Lincoln’s Friday birthday of February 12 from the Washington’s Birthday holiday that fell on February 15—the third Monday in February” (Arbelbide). Ever since, advertisers have taken advantage of the proximity of the two days to promote sales, referring to the holiday as “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “Presidents Day.”

The Holiday in Your Prose

So the correct way to refer to the holiday in your prose depends on your subject. If you are writing about the federal holiday, call it “Washington’s Birthday.” If you are writing about the holiday as it is observed in a particular state, consult the state’s official Web site. In other contexts, you might use one of the forms with “President” in the name. “President’s Day” uses the singular possessive, so you would likely use this form if you want to refer to a holiday celebrating Washington. “Presidents’ Day,” in the plural possessive, is the form recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style, so in our publications, we would generally use this spelling, which indicates a holiday celebrating Washington and at least one other president (“Holidays”). “Presidents Day” uses “Presidents” as an attributive noun—that is, a noun that acts like an adjective. A noun is attributive “when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’”—for example, a teachers college is a college for teachers (Einsohn 137). If you want to refer to a holiday that is a day for celebrating all presidents of the United States, you might use this form.

Whatever you choose to call the holiday, 2017 is a good year to learn more about the American presidency and how “the personal, public, ceremonial and executive actions” of our presidents “have had a huge impact on the course of history” (“American Presidency”).

Works Cited

“The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian,

Arbelbide, C. L. “By George, It Is Washington’s Birthday!” Prologue Magazine, vol. 31, no. 4, Winter 2004. National Archives,

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 2nd ed., U of California P, 2006.

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017,

“George Washington’s Birthday.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 24 Aug. 2016,

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec. 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010,

Minnesota State, Legislature. 2016 Minnesota Statutes. Ch. 645, sec., subdivision 5. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes, 2016,

“Presidents’ Day.”, 2017,

“2017 Holiday Schedule.”, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Washington’s Birthday.”, 2017,’s+birthday.

Washington State, Legislature. Revised Code of Washington. Ch. 1.16, sec. 050d. Washington State Legislature, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

Published 17 February 2017

MLK Day the MLA Way

By Jennifer Rappaport

Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? MLK Day? There seems to be no consensus on how to style the name of this federal holiday, established to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In deciding how to treat the name of the holiday, you should consider your audience and the purpose of your reference.

Consider also the consistent treatment of King’s name in your work. Both “Martin Luther King Jr.” (without a comma before the suffix) and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (with a comma) are acceptable variations, but in MLA style, a comma always precedes Jr. (read more about suffixes and names in an earlier post).

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Archives calls the holiday “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” following the federal policy to use “the name designated by the law” that established the holiday (“Federal Holidays”). If your goal is to consistently and accurately refer to the text of the legislation, for legal, historical, or archival reasons, use this version.

Martin Luther King Day

Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary both omit Jr. in the name of the holiday, calling it “Martin Luther King Day,” but not in their entries for the man whom the holiday commemorates. If you want to avoid a discrepancy between King’s name and the holiday celebrating his birthday, you might use a different treatment. Treating the suffix as a parenthetical in the title of the holiday (e.g., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day”) would not be acceptable—this formulation not only looks awkward but also illogically muddies the distinction between a personal name and a holiday name.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Chicago Manual of Style, used by many book publishers, lists the holiday in its “Holidays” section as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” If you can handle inconsistency in the treatment of personal names and holidays, use this formulation to refer to the holiday—even when styling King’s name with a comma before the suffix, per MLA style.

MLK Day / MLK Jr. Day

Apparently the federally run Corporation for National and Community Service, which uses “MLK Day” on its Web site about King’s birthday, didn’t get the same memo as the National Archives about using the name designated by law for federal holidays. That’s OK: the goal of this site is community outreach, not documenting archival records. In casual contexts, you might use either of these formulations (note: see the title of this blog post).

However you style the name of the holiday, take a moment to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or find one of the many opportunities for community service taking place to commemorate him.

Works Cited

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017,

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.”, 2017,

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 992.

“Martin Luther King Day.”, 2017,

“Martin Luther King Day.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 1104.

Published 13 January 2017

Celebrate the New Year in (MLA) Style

By Jennifer Rappaport

Should you write, “Happy New Year,” “Happy new year,” or “Happy New Year’s”?

It depends on how much happiness you want to impart. If you want to wish someone happiness for all of 2017, write, “Happy New Year,” following the entry for “New Year” in Webster’s. But if you’re feeling especially parsimonious about the year ahead and want to wish someone happiness for only the first day of it, you would write, “Happy New Year’s Day,” or “Happy New Year’s” for short, since the name of the holiday in Webster’s is “New Year’s Day.”

The entry in Webster’s does not give us license to abandon commonsense rules about capitalization. When using new year generically and preceding it with an article, lowercase the term: It’s a new year. The audit will begin in the new year.

In future posts, we will tackle the styling of other holidays.

In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Works Cited

“New Year.”,

“New Year’s Day.”,’s%20day.

Published 10 January 2017

When Not to Include

By Michael Kandel

Many of the MLA’s authorities on English usage frown on the use of include to mean are (e.g., Bernstein 28; Follett 177). Roy H. Copperud’s explanation for the frown has a peevish snap: “That which includes is not all-inclusive, careless use to the contrary” (198). Bryan A. Garner notes that include “is now coming to be widely misused for consists of” (454). The principle is simple: If you are presenting a list and it is complete—that is, exhaustive—do not use language that suggests otherwise. For example, if you eat dinner at a restaurant that serves only avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk, do not write

The restaurant’s dinner options included avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Instead, to clarify that only these three items are served, write

The restaurant’s dinner options were avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

If you feel that the plain to be verb is inconsistent with your tone, you could reword:

The restaurant’s dinner options consisted of avocado melba toasts, farm-raised pickled ginger, and quinoa-almond milk.

Consisted of is a little stuffy but at least correct. Included avoids stuffiness but isn’t correct.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1965.

Copperud, Roy H. American Usage and Style: The Consensus. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1966.

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd edition, Oxford UP, 2009.

Published 6 January 2017


By Michael KandelKeep an eye out for overhedging. Some writers are timid—or pretend to be—about making a statement, so they hedge: “I believe,” “it seems to me,” “may be,” “suggests that,” et cetera. The problem is that, having hedged, they often worry that they still have been too positive, so they hedge again, often in the same sentence or phrase. The result is redundancy or, worse, a mannerism that becomes conspicuous. A few examples, with suggested editing:
“I would like to suggest” → “I suggest”
It is obvious that the author would like to.
“The implication seems to be” → “The implication is”
“Implication” has already done the work of “seems.”
“The suggestion that it may have little to do with” → “The suggestion that it has little to do with”
“Suggestion” has already done the work of “may.”
When the topic is highly touchy and an author has reason to squirm, a copyeditor should refrain from making such suggestions.

Published 9 December 2016

Former and Latter

By Barney Latimer

There are many stylistic sins worse than using former and latter. But if you’ve ever had to stop and reread a sentence or passage to figure out what former and latter point back to, you know why it’s best to avoid them. Making readers pick their way back through the text will surely frustrate them and delay or inhibit their ability to understand your point.

The following is a good example of a passage that relies on former and latter to create a bridge between two sentences:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—the former was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, the latter an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

So what’s a writer to do? One possibility is to repeat the two things that former and latter refer to so the reader no longer has to scan back over the text:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—Comœdia was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, L’ère nouvelle an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

Doing so, however, introduces the clunky repetition that the writer was looking to avoid in the first place.

A solution will often reveal itself when you look beyond the obvious, quick fix. Step back and try looking at the passage as a kind of puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. By assembling the pieces in different ways, the picture will become either more or less clear. This can be an empowering and even liberating way of thinking about revision.

This approach of reconfiguration means that the writer is not locked in to a choice between the two alternatives above. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask, Does the author even need to refer to each periodical more than once? Can we rework the prose to obviate the need for repetition? When we look again at the passage with these questions in mind, a solution reveals itself:

The announcement of the Congress of Paris in two ideologically different venues—Comœdia, a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, and L’ère nouvelle, an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

This revision allows the names of the periodicals to take the place of former and latter. And, as sometimes happens when you identify one problem and find a creative solution to it, another aspect of the passage improves as well. In the original, “These ideologically different venues” are described as “reveal[ing] the congress’s inclusive goals.” However, it’s not exactly the venues themselves—but, rather, the fact that the congress was announced in two different places—that revealed the congress’s inclusivity.

This kind of happy accident is surprisingly common. When you look beyond the quick fix and approach the passage you are revising as a whole composed of many movable parts, reconfiguring the parts to remove one weakness can yield a structure that is stronger overall.

Published 30 November 2016

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