In praise of a reference book: MWDEU

March 30, 2009

My enthusiasm for The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which I hereby declare, will make immediate sense to those who refer to it in their own investigations of English usage. To the majority, who are more likely never to have heard of it, or then only in passing, such enthusiasm may seem idiosyncratic or downright nerdy. So be it.

The uninitiated can, if it helps, think of MWDEU as a classic of its kind, though its profile is much lower than that of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which are often iconically shortened to Strunk & White and Fowler, respectively. To summarise what MWDEU offers I can do no better than its editor E. Ward Gilman, whose preface says it:

examines and evaluates common problems of confused or disputed usage from two perspectives: that of historical background, especially as shown in the great historical dictionaries, and that of present-day usage, chiefly as shown by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.

mwdeu-sThat it does this in such a thorough and unbiased way is what elevates MWDEU so far above the ordinary. Each entry is presented in a much broader context than is typically the case in books that advise on English usage and style. Take for example its short entry on insightful:

This relatively new adjective (first recorded in 1907) has lately become something of a minor irritant to a few usage commentators, who have described it variously as ‘journalese’ (Zinsser 1976), ‘a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive”’ (Strunk & White 1979) and ‘jargon’ (Janis 1984). Dictionaries, on the other hand, routinely treat it as an ordinary, inoffensive word. Its use is common and has been for several decades. Here is a representative sampling of the ways in which it is used…

All language reference books have their blind spots, prejudices and unconscious axioms, and MWDEU has been criticised for being too liberal, too prevaricating, too descriptivist. These criticisms are fair, but they pale in comparison to what the book supplies: great and balanced content in abundance, and no dogmatic prohibitions or intolerant admonishments. Alongside each word and phrase we get a historical overview of its usage, interpretation and application; clear and astute analysis; and repeated advice to judge for oneself.

The lasting impression is of being treated without condescension as a person with the good sense to assess the evidence and arguments and to make up one’s own mind. MWDEU does not hector its readers with shoulds, oughts, musts and don’t-even-think-about-its. There are neither emotional outbursts nor emotive appeals. Since English usage is, has been and is likely to remain a hotbed of contention, MWDEU’s polite and level tone is as refreshing as its broadminded counsel is constructive.

study-in-scarletTo paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, beware the grammarian of one reference book – especially if that book is The Elements of Style. In any edition, EoS is an eminently useful book: it is short, direct and efficient, and it has plenty of good advice. It is also rather simplistic and occasionally self-contradictory. It positively quivers with imperious finger wagging, which has helped fuel decades of ill-judged fussiness. Its tight, parsimonious rules, useful in their way, have unfortunately been adopted by some readers as universal commandments.

In a sense it is unfair to compare EoS, a short style guide, with MWDEU, a hefty usage dictionary. But the former remains so popular, and the latter so comparatively unknown, that I wanted to do my bit to redress the balance; and I find their antithetical attitudes interesting and worthy of examination.

If in writing something you are racing the clock, consulting MWDEU might not be in your best interest, since it doesn’t provide yes/no answers but rather opens one can of worms after another. For this reason it is less likely to be favoured by journalists, or anyone who prefers a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Those with more time on their hands, and indeed anyone with an interest in the history of the English language, could not fail to appreciate its contents, which are lucid, informative and entertaining.

To appeal to authority I’ll cite Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the Language Log blog, who described MWDEU as “the finest work of scholarship on English grammar and usage I have ever seen, in thirty years of doing research on English grammar”. The book also comes in concise and pocket editions, which are shorter but newer; i.e., they are not just abridged editions. Best of all, at least for those of you persuaded by my zeal, MWDEU is now online. Should you prefer a physical book, you are likely to find it excellent value. Happy reading!

[image source]

Saints, censors and satire

March 27, 2009

This post has little directly to do with the English language, except that it uses it, and that it’s about the freedom of expression. If you came for grammar and English usage, you will find some further down, or in your preferred category on the right-hand side.

Most Irish writers and artists — i.e. most of the country — are well aware of the state’s history of censorship, be it the banning of books, the cutting of films, or the more generalised self-censorship that accompanied our passage from paganism through earthy Christianity to a starker form of Catholicism. Lately the repressive spirit pounced on a couple of nude portraits of the Taoiseach (head of government) Brian Cowen, which were briefly and unofficially hung in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy.  It is not my aim to recount the story, since it has been done well and exhaustively elsewhere; for background on the “Cowengate” (or “picturegate”) farce, you will find links at the end of this post, or go here if you use Twitter. However, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to some historical matters – because they interest me, and because I’m not on Twitter. [Edit: I am now.]

Saint Columbanus (540–615), an Irish missionary, wrote letters to popes in which he expressed devotion, offered constructive criticism, and made light-hearted jokes about the popes’ names. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, historian Thomas Cahill writes that “to Columbanus, the pope was one of the brothers, a father abbot worthy of respect, by all means — but also in need, like any man, of an occasional jab in the ribs.” According to Cahill, the popes did not deign to respond to Columbanus’s jabs. In the same era, the scribe who added Ireland’s early vernacular masterpiece Táin Bó Cúailnge to the Book of Leinster took the trouble to register his distaste – but he still wrote the epic down, and his personal feelings about it were but a footnote.

Skip to late March 2009, when the Irish Taoiseach received a jab in the ribs in the form of the aforementioned nude portraits. Rather than maintain an inscrutable silence, or express disapproval and carry on with more important matters, the government reacted so vigorously that the curious little incident quickly reached Father Ted levels of absurdity, and was reported as far afield as the New York Times and the China Daily. There was intimidation, a criminal investigation, confiscation of art, and a grovelling apology by the state broadcaster for daring to report the news. It is instructive to compare this attitude with that of the dutiful Christian scribes, who overcame their aesthetic qualms for the general good, and with Columbanus, whose saintliness accommodated a healthy irreverence for authority.

casablanca1In 2007 the Irish Times reported the popularity of Casablanca among most of the major political parties in Ireland — with the exceptions of Fianna Fail and the Green Party (both currently in government). I would not read too much into this, but it is worth considering that Casablanca was initially banned in Ireland, for political reasons, then cut for puritanical reasons; neither news of war nor implications of adultery were tolerated in neutral, prudish Ireland. A comedy called I Want a Divorce was renamed The Tragedy of Divorce. There’s a tragedy there all right, but it has nothing to do with divorce.

My beloved Ireland and its misguided moral guardians! Ireland, whose censors banned works by James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Faolain, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Oliver St John Gogarty, Walter Macken, John McGahern, and J P Donleavy, among others. Ireland, whose cultural nannies banned or cut films by Eisenstein, Fellini, Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, Ophuls, Polanski, Welles, Antonioni, and Kubrick, among others. C. S. Lewis said that “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” More recently, John McGahern wrote that the Censorship Board was regarded as a joke and that the banned books worth reading “could easily be found”.

Just as easily found, nowadays, is evidence of public displeasure and disgust with the way Ireland is being run. Dissent and satire are democratic imperatives and will keep the government on the back foot for a while. But the best form of defence is attack, and who better to attack than a teacher who paints pictures? The repressive urge, which the government made sharply manifest, reveals deep insecurity about what other people are or are not capable of processing with good sense, judgement and intelligence — including the government’s behaviour.

cowen-roll1But whatever the government’s reasons for its actions, the nature of censorship has changed drastically. Nothing on the internet ever quite disappears, and sometimes a shush begets a shout. Efforts to clamp down on discomfiting material result not in frustrated acquiescence but in renewed assaults on the self-importance that lies behind knee-jerk censorial action. Already there are t-shirts, a photoshop extravaganza, and a forthcoming exhibition, to name just a few spin-offs in the immediate wake of the fiasco.

In short, the Irish online community had a field day. Political criticism and satire are in evident good health in Ireland. While the original paintings struck me as fond, if unflattering, some of the subsequent material, both visual and textual, has been merciless, even cruel — but with good reason. If Irish citizens stood back and indulged the government’s precious fragility, what would we swallow next? And if a pope can withstand the satire of a saint, what hope is there for a government that cannot endure a gentle caricature?

* * *

A small sample of related blog and media coverage: Eoin O’Dell, Suzy Byrne, Tuppenceworth, Bock, Damien Mulley, Alexia Golez, Twenty Major, Caricatures Ireland, Irish Times, The Tribune, The Guardian, The Times, the Ray D’Arcy Show (mp3), and the aggregated reports on

Image sources: Columbanus; Casablanca; Cowen (with thanks to the artist).

Information is always everywhere

March 26, 2009

Stan Carey - information sign

Since white is a colour, blank space is minimal design, and “empty” space seems to consist of a constantly fluctuating field of subatomic particles, then even an apparent lack of information is itself a kind of information. How useful it is depends on what happens to it.

Speaking of which, here is the difference between misinformation and disinformation.

Nouns of multitude

March 23, 2009

This is quite a long and technical post so I have divided it into three sections (What; Which and why; So) and have included a lot of examples.


Nouns of multitude are wholes that comprise similar parts. They are a type of collective noun; examples include committee, team, government, jury, Ministry, army, group, party, crowd, flock, generation, mob, department, family, crew, clergy, herd, syndicate, faculty, audience, public, company, Congress, orchestra, firm, and Parliament.

There is confusion over whether nouns of multitude are singular (the collective entity) or plural (the individuals in it). In fact they are both, or rather they can be either. This ambiguity means that there are better and worse ways to use them – but there is no definitive right and wrong way. To tease out the details we must look more closely at how they are used.

When using nouns of multitude with verbs and pronouns, the main thing is to be consistent. The following examples are not:

After the jury returns with their verdict…
The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

These lines are missing what is known as “notional agreement” or “notional concord”. They are unlikely to bother the casual reader, but they are likely to be revised in edited prose. More conspicuously aberrant is an example I read over the weekend:

Stan Carey - nouns of multitude in RTE rugby story

From: Ireland crowned grand slam champions, RTÉ News, 21 March 2009. The Minister’s original statement (“They are deserving winners…”) was fine; RTÉ introduced the incongruence of making team both singular and plural in the same clause.

Which and why

So if a noun of multitude can be singular or plural, which should it be, and why? The team was, or the team were? The jury finds, or the jury find? Your decision depends first on whether you are writing U.S. or British English. The plural form is more common in British English (The press have reacted swiftly), though the singular form is also standard (The Government anticipates). The singular form is more common in U.S. English (The press has reacted swiftly). But these are mere generalities; there is considerable variation.

Your decision also depends on what you want to emphasise. To stress a group’s plurality, use the plural; to stress the group as a unit, use the singular:

The department is prepared for cutbacks (the department as a whole is prepared)
The department are to be praised for their efforts (all individuals in the department deserve praise)

Sports teams usually take the plural in British English (the team were deserving winners; Liverpool are beating United), but in business contexts and U.S. English they can just as suitably take the singular (Manchester United is a wealthy club; Baltimore beats Browns).

If you are still unsure, a pronoun might help you decide. You would not write: “the board fought among itself” because it takes at least two to fight; this implication immediately suggests the plural: “The board fought among themselves”. (It is perhaps easier to succumb to contradictions when speaking than when writing, and easier to ignore contradictions when listening than when reading.)


With these conventions and principles in mind we look again at earlier examples:

After the jury returns with their verdict…

Singular and plural forms (returns and its, or return and their, respectively) are both standard in British English; the singular form dominates in the U.S. Both are fine.

The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

The singular (has and its) is acceptable, but suggests a unit agreeing with itself, whereas the plural (have and their) suggests round-the-table agreement by all the members of the committee. This connotation makes the plural the better choice. Subtle distinctions sometimes accompany the verb, and might help you decide whether singular or plural is preferable.

If it does not clutter your syntax, you can elaborate for the sake of accuracy and clarity, e.g. by referring to the Cabinet as the Cabinet members, or the members of the Cabinet, both of which are plainly plural. This tactic is less likely to work if the collective noun appears frequently, because it would lead to the aforementioned clutter. And you won’t see it in a headline, where economy is paramount.

Finally, using a collective noun as both singular and plural in the same context is inadvisable if you want to maintain notional agreement, but in casual or colloquial usage it presents no problem. To borrow an example from Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage:

The family is well and send their regards.

The family as a whole is [are] well, and the people in it send their regards. Were the family to send its regards, it would seem less personal.

Ducks, dragons, and dictionaries

March 19, 2009

Stan Carey - mallards on boat

On my wanderings today I saw a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, and a sord of mallards on a boat (pictured); and although I saw a heron, it was unaccompanied so I can’t truthfully say I saw a siege of them. Nor did I see a charm of finches or an unkindness of ravens, but the day is still young.

Living on the Atlantic coast brings me into regular contact with a variety of sea and city birds. In the case of the more timid birds “contact” is an exaggeration, but a gentle tread and a zoom lens help shorten the distance.

Other birds are more sociable. Last year I met a swan so sociable it almost ate my thumb along with the slice of wholewheat loaf I offered it. Maybe it had a craving for a meat sandwich. That was in Swantown, better known as The Claddagh:

Stan Carey - swantown AKA The Claddagh, Galway

With its human-swan metamorphoses, The Children of Lir (versions here and here) was one of many Irish legends that entranced me in childhood. Back then such stories felt more real and historical, and were not quickly classified as “mere fiction”. Far from it: I remember feeling fierce disappointment upon learning that dragons did not exist. If that’s so, I thought, how does everyone know what they are? Needless to say, I was too young for Jung.

Ideas of nomenclature and definition fascinated me and took me on random pursuits of meaning through the pages of my pocket English dictionary. I puzzled over the inevitable cul-de-sacs and epistemological ambiguities, though that’s not what I called them. The end section of the book opened up further avenues of intrigue, not least its geographical and natural lists. I knew the heights of the highest mountains and the lengths of the longest rivers.

But the list that tickled me most was the one of collective nouns for animals and birds. How odd and evocative these terms were! Who ever thought of a shrewdness of apes, or an exaltation of larks, and why? There’s no short answer, but you can read lists compiled by Narena Olliver and the Oxford University Press, and commentary from Terry Ross and Michael Quinion.

Stan Carey - male and female stonechats

A quick note on stonechats before I disappear outdoors again. They are small birds of 11.5–13cm length, about the size of a robin. They are named after their alarm call, which sounds like two small stones clacking together. They also sing.

Stonechats build nests of moss and grass on or near the ground, then they make them cosier with wool and feathers. To protect themselves from predation they like rough land such as heathland, and coastal terrain with good cover, such as that provided by furze (gorse) and other dense shrubbery.

The male (above, right) is a colourful fellow, especially in summer, with a black head, orange-red breast, and white patches on his neck, wings, lower belly and rump. The female (above, left) looks similar but with a brown head, less bold breast colour, and less clearly defined white patches on her neck.

They’re beautiful creatures, don’t you think? I took those photos on separate days, so for those of you wondering, I don’t know whether there is a romantic connection between the subjects. More to the point, I haven’t found a collective noun for them. Any suggestions? If I hear one I like, I’ll start using it!


March 19, 2009

This week I received a comment saying “Hi this blog is great I will be recommending it to friends.” May the gods forgive me, but something about the message didn’t quite ring true. Indeed, it was so lacking in even the slightest flavour of human personality that I doubted it would pass the Turing test.

But surely its writer took the time and made the effort out of a genuine sense of global community, a willingness to connect with humanity for its greater good and for its ongoing integration and moral development. Or at least just to say hello and mean it.

Yet for all my attempts to give him or her the benefit of the doubt, I had a niggling suspicion that my visitor was, well, a lying spammer. A quick search on Google revealed a plethora of identical messages strewn across blogs everywhere, from New York to Tokyo, from the South Pacific to a place called Planet Cazmo. The commenter’s own URLs were similarly diverse, and linked to all sorts of commercial enterprises of uncertain repute.

Something tells me this poor misguided spammer isn’t getting the most out of life.

Jargon and the economic recession

March 18, 2009

According to the UK’s Local Government Association (LGA), ditching jargon can “help people during the recession”. I propose that ditching jargon can help people almost any time, anywhere, and that dressing it up as an economic matter smacks of opportunism. But it’s in a good cause, so I’ll move on.

Today the LGA published a blacklist of 200 words and phrases that public sector workers are to avoid when talking about their work and services. The BBC have a summary here. The LGA has also supplied alternatives for most of the terms in their list.

Although this effort is welcome and potentially useful, the list itself is quite baffling. Some of the rejected terms seem fine to me: client and customer often cannot be replaced by person, while sustainable is quite different to long term – though there is some overlap in meaning. Client, customer and sustainable may be prone to overuse or inappropriate use, but that is no reason to ban them.

Many of the blacklisted terms are followed by the phrase “why use at all?” It’s a fair question to ask of rebaselining, holistic governance and – are you sitting down? – predictors of beaconicity, but what’s wrong with compact? Some of the suggested alternatives, meanwhile, are as bad as the terms they are meant to replace. Is coterminosity worse than all singing from the same hymn sheet? Can’t we destroy both?

Other alternatives listed have limited synonymity. Tough has significantly different connotations to robust, an initiative is not an idea, multi-disciplinary does not mean many, and a challenge is not necessarily a problem (neither is an issue).

Nor are word types sustained. If you want to replace transparency, the list says you need clear. Not clarity? Enabler could become helper, but not helps. Thematic derives from theme; you cannot simply swap one for the other. Some alternatives are better, e.g. in the future substitutes for going forward. But except for a few cases, the replacement terms seem more like rough notes than usable alternatives.


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