‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

Of course, madder is neither a neologism nor a word of questionable status: the complaints about it are therefore all the more strange. (Stranger, if you want to risk it.) Given how accessible dictionaries are, people can be impressively quick to label something as “not a [real] word”. I recently saw an editor asserting that disorientating was not a word, and urging upper-case shame on whoever thought it was.

Pro tip: if you see or hear a short, continuous string of letters or sounds more than once, and you know what it means and how it’s used, chances are it’s real. As Jonathon Owen wrote, “words get their wordhood not from etymology or logic or some cultural institution granting them official status, but by convention.”

A few years ago, in a hastily written polemic called ‘Not a word’ is not an argument, I think I erred on the side of leniency. Typos can become real words, as teh and pwn did, but more usually production errors are too infrequent to become even quasi-normal. A string like, say, errorw is not a proper word, and whether it’s “real” is a semantic/ontological side-issue. Qkrghrbgyw is not a word and is unlikely ever to be.

But I stand by much of the post, chiefly the rejection of not-a-word claims made simply because someone doesn’t like a word or because it’s not suited to formal English, such as irregardless or ain’t:

If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s “not a word”, you can reasonably assume that they mean it’s not a word they like, not a word they would use, not a word in standard usage, not a word in a certain dictionary, not a suitable word for the context, and so on. There’s a difference, and it matters. . . .

Word aversion and word hatred are an aesthetic indulgence; word denial is a different beast. Why the cranky resolve to outlaw disliked words? From what imaginary realm do people conjure the authority to decide what’s acceptable?

And boy, do they conjure it. My first tweet above mentions @nixicon, a Twitter account James Callan created to share not-a-word claims and musings he finds on Twitter. It offers an insight into what words people commonly reject and the manner in which they do so, or in which they react if it’s a third-party claim, such as a teacher’s.

They’re sometimes right and often wrong. Many non-standard words recur, such as ain’t, irregardless, alot, funner, finna, mines, K, anyways, bae, prolly, and conversate. Some cluster around events (Xmas) or current affairs (Obama’s use of madder). Popular misspellings abound, as do neologisms and slangy inflections and derivations.

The tone of “not a word” tweets may be amused, bemused, irritated, enraged, disappointed, surprised, scornful, triumphant, neutral. As an unofficial sociolinguistic survey it makes for interesting browsing:

There are hundreds (hunnids!), even thousands of tweets like this. Many of them show how readily people defer to any hint of authority, from hunches and hearsay to abridged dictionary apps, or how naturally they assume that pseudo-authority for themselves.

On the Nixicon Tumblr blog, James explains its origin and that of the word itself: a portmanteau of nix (‘no’) and lexicon. He mentions a potential not-a-word taxonomy, which I’d like to see. If you’re on Twitter, interested in attitudes to usage, and don’t mind bad language, it’s worth a follow. You can find me there too.

In the meantime, I recommend default scepticism of claims that a given word is “not a word”. There are more words in prose and speech than are licensed in our lexicons.

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37 Responses to ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

  1. JP Mercado says:

    This is great timing! Because of a certain non-news event that’s been unfolding here in the Philippines, pedants have been questioning the “wordness” of “foods”. I’ve been thinking of a way to frame my argument, but this puts it infinitely more eloquently and authoritatively than I ever could!

    This also reminds me of the time when Apple came up with their “This is the funnest iPod yet” slogan. Boy, grammarians were everywhere to be seen!

  2. marc leavitt says:


    I dunno about you, but this sort orf nonsense makes me call for “madder music and more wine.” It’s an eye-roller that nearly makes me speechless, and believe me, I’ve never been speechless about anything.

  3. *wipes brow* thought only Germans have this “schoolmaster” attitude – we even have a “Association to save German language” of people who dislike how much English influences German; they “fight anglicism” so to speak.

    You´d visit “Animal Kingdom” on Twitter, where instead of LOL cats MOL (meow out loud), dogs BOL (bark out loud), ducks QOL (quack out loud) and guinea pigs WOL (wheek out loud) Oh, and you can meet a lot of anipals at pawsome pawties. Not a word? To me it fits purrfect :)

  4. Stan says:

    JP: I wonder what the problem with foods is. Something to do with it being a mass noun? Because it’s also a count noun; some words (cloth, paper, talk, wine) have a foot in both camps.
    Fritinancy has a good post on funnest, funner-er and co.

    Marc: I’ll take speechlessness over senselessness any day. Too early for wine here, though!

    Janis: What you call the “schoolmater attitude” is very prevalent in English. As an editor I think there’s room for informed prescriptions in usage, but such restrictions have their place. In informal contexts people are entitled to do what they like with the language. If that means wheeking and QOLing, so be it. :-)

    • JP Mercado says:

      I guess it’s mainly because of that? What could reinforce the “stigma” against it is that, in school, we’re taught that a noun is either a count noun or a mass noun, never both. “Foodstuffs” and [noun] “stuffs” are equally maligned.

      Oh, thanks for the link! I’ll check it out! :D

  5. Cinthya says:

    Those not-a-worders. They take all the fun out of the language. IMHO, the reason English is still vibrant is *because* it accepts new words so easily.

  6. sherry says:

    I’m fine with “madder” as a word…I think the bigger issue is “madder than ME.” “Correct” grammar (about which much less debate can occur) dictates that he say “madder than I” or “madder than I am.”

  7. Shaun Hervey says:

    I’m going to think of a meaning for “Qkrghrbgyw” and try to use it in everyday speech. Perhaps as a synomym for “confusion.”

  8. I dispute Sherry’s claim that “madder than me” is incorrect. As for the main point here, I wonder how long something has to be used and how many instances of it there have to be before something gains official acceptance; “ain’t” has certainly been around a long time. It might not lend itself to formal speech, but the same can be said of a great number of words and phrases. I wonder whether contemporaries of Chaucer said to him “you can’t use that, it’s not a real word!”

    • sherry says:

      Dispute all you want. The entire thought of the phrase is “…madder than I am,” and would be incorrect as “madder than me am.” In view of the fact that this was presumably a formal speech by the president of our nation, I think correct grammar would be in order. You can speak as you like among your friends, but when millions of people are listening and hanging on every word, you might want to speak correct English.

      • My point is that it is a choice. EITHER “madder than I am”, which is obviously your preference, OR “madder than me”, with no “am” necessary. Both equally comprehensible, both have been used for a long time. This is not incorrect English, just a different usage.

      • sherry says:

        Everything is a choice. You can choose to be incorrect! I use the same grammatical construction among friends, recognizing that it’s incorrect but choosing to use it anyway. Nobody is going to strike you dead for using it, but it is still not proper English grammar.

      • Obviously, we could go round in circles on this one. Better just to agree to disagree. You believe it to be incorrect – I believe it to be correct. We both have our reasons.

  9. Jan Freeman says:

    You’re arguing about whether “than” can be a preposition, something there is abundant literature on. Here’s a Merriam-Webster usage note for starters. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/than

  10. Stan says:

    Cinthya: It’s certainly one of the reasons for the language’s health and longevity.

    Shaun: Excellent. I look forward to the day when I overhear it in casual conversation.

    alex: It depends on your criteria for “official acceptance”. Many dictionaries resist incorporating new words and usages until there’s sufficient proof of their use in a range of contexts over a number of years. Or a word might be added to a dictionary but labelled informal, non-standard, etc. It can be a grey area; the AHD’s Usage Panel is a particularly interesting way of tracking shifts in a usage’s acceptability.

    Jan: Thanks for the link. As I said on Twitter lately, five minutes with a bunch of usage dictionaries and corpora would undo so many hunches and beliefs.

    sherry: “Madder than me” is not incorrect; it’s just less formal. This is a question of register, not grammaticality. In case you need some convincing, I’ll quote a few authoritative references.

    1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.:

    Than may function either as a conjunction {he’s taller than I [am]} or as a preposition {he’s taller than me}. Traditional grammarians prefer the nominative than I [am] over the objective than me, even though the latter represents common usage.

    2. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

    Than has been a conjunction since Old English, but it has only been a preposition since the 16th century. From the 16th century on, writers have used it as a preposition when it suited their fancy. [...]
    Than is both a preposition and a conjunction. In spite of much opinion to the contrary, the preposition has never been wrong. [...] You have the same choice Shakespeare did—you can use than either way.

    3. The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage:

    Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a preposition, as in She is wiser than me. As subject of the clause introduced by the conjunction than, the pronoun must be nominative, and as object of the preposition than, the following pronoun must be in the objective case. Since the following verb am is often dropped or “understood,” we regularly hear than I and than me. Some commentators believe that the conjunction is currently more frequent than the preposition, but both are unquestionably Standard.

    • sherry says:

      OK fine, all your authorities say that “madder than me” is correct. I don’t have the books at hand and don’t have time to research every source to see how many agree or disagree, the point being that there are reliable sources that say it’s OK, point made. But again, this is the president of the US making a formal speech, not your neighbor talking about your dog peeing in his bushes.

      • Ray Girvan says:

        > this is the president of the US making a formal speech

        That such a well-educated and high-status speaker uses the construction in that situation ought to be evidence that it is, as The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says, unquestionably standard, even in a formal speech.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Indeed, this is yet another piece of evidence that subordinating conjunctions, prepositions, and short adverbs are all the same part of speech. Some of them can take a clause, some a noun phrase, and some nothing at all, and occasionally one of them picks up a new usage, because language changes (or, if you like, because language change).

  12. astraya says:

    Exactly what is it about ‘madder’ that makes some people mad? It follows the ‘one syllable adjective + (double letter) + ‘er” rule, which should not cause a problem. Even so, I had to look at the word twice before reluctantly accepting it. Possibly my problem with it is: how does one measure ‘madness’ in order to compare mine with anyone else’s? But then it could be argued ‘how does one measure ‘niceness’ in order to compare mine with anyone else’s?’ but we all accept ‘nicer’ as a word.

  13. Stan says:

    John: Yes, it seems that way; than as either conjunction or preposition was contentious from the word go. The traditional parts-of-speech categorisation may be overdue a rehaul. No doubt you saw Language Log‘s related discussion some weeks ago.

    astraya: I don’t know. Maybe madder is just not a word we use very often, so when it does show up (and repeatedly), it can appear a bit odd or improbable.

  14. astraya says:

    Possibly ‘mad’ is meant to be irregular, like ‘bad’: mad, morse, morst.

  15. John says:

    When I was a kid, my mother used to say someone was “madder than an old wet hen”. It’s an integral part of my vocabulary.

    • Nurn says:

      I’ve heard (and used) “madder than a box of frogs”, “madder than a bag of snakes”, and various similar phrases, too.

  16. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hate to interject a red herring here, but the word “madder” is a legitimate word, irrespective of the present heated debate over its use in the context of escalating anger, or lunacy.

    Rose madder is the name of a particular reddish-hued pigment, originally extracted from the root of the common madder plant… Rubia tinctorum, widely used to color textiles, and as a paint additive since the age of the pharaohs. Who knew?

    Hmm… I’m pondering, if actor Peter Finch as the ‘mad-as-hell’, volatile UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale in the movie “Network” had roared, on air, “I’m madder than hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, rather that “I’m mad as hell…”, whether the peevers of the day would have been outraged, taking umbrage w/ his alleged sloppy grammar? I think NOT.

    Much too powerful, and riveting a scene to quibble over elements of proper language usage, me thinks.

  17. Stan says:

    astraya: Morse? That would be the rorst.

    John: It’s a great image.

    Nurn: Same here. “Mad as my old Aunt Hattie” was another one, based I think on the more familiar hatter expression.

    Alex: Now there’s a film I need to revisit. It’s been a long time. And you’re right: definitely not the time or place to peeve about correct usage.

  18. John Cowan says:

    And of course there’s the other word madder:

    When Titian was painting rose madder,
    With his model on top of a ladder,
         Her position, to Titian,
         Suggested coition—
    So he climbed up the ladder and had her.

  19. […] Revisiting this post a few years later, I find a lot of it holds up but I think I erred on the side of leniency. So I’ve written a little more on the topic, in ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways: […]

  20. […] mere pipsqueaks compared with some chemical names, which are probably not words in a strict sense but are impressively massive all the same: especially the protein Titin, aka […]

  21. Ray Girvan says:

    This has probably been said before, but I’ve noticed that formation of comparatives and superlatives is an area where even individual speakers disagree strongly. There also seems to be a general tendency to believe, for any particular adjective, in a very clear-cut choice between the periphrastic and inflected forms. I wonder if this reflects their having been taught very dogmatic, but differing, rulesets quite early on.

    • Stan says:

      Quite possibly, Ray, and the general conviction that there can be only one correct form, or that variants are necessarily substandard. Going back further I think this misconception may be an inevitable legacy of standardisation. There’s also the common urge to get one over on someone, for whatever minor and leeting satisfaction that yields.

      • Alon Lischinsky says:

        As an EFL learner, I was taught a simple, almost absolute rule: inflection for mono- or bisyllabic terms, periphrasis for polysyllables. No mention was made of zero forms, other than listing ‘fast’ among the highly frequent irregulars. It took me quite a while to realise how deeply misguided the prescription was. I am pretty sure the ‘rules’ native speakers learn at school are no better.

      • Stan says:

        Alon: That’s the normal pattern, but it’s too often contravened to serve as a serious ‘rule’. I didn’t learn anything about this at school, which might be just as well.

  22. […] What is a word? Who determines if a word is “real” or not? And is “not a word” a real argument? (Sentence First) […]

  23. Dylan Stillwood says:

    Interesting post. “Madder” sounds perfectly fine to me. I teach EFL in Brazil, and I teach my students that generally one-syllable words use inflection and words with more than two syllables use periphrasis. Bisyllabic words can go either way; in particular, if they end with -y (happy, ugly, friendly) they tend to use periphrasis. There are exceptions to these rules — for example, adjectives derived from the past participle of verbs tend to use periphrasis even if they are short. But I usually give my students some common examples and tell them that native speakers play this by ear; if in doubt, they should use periphrasis because using inflection with inappropriate words (intelligenter, dangerousest) sounds comical to many speakers.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, Dylan. That seems a sensible approach. With learners it’s often better to err on the side of caution, because they can be more self-conscious about grammar and the social fallout, if any, of simple errors. Learning the common irregulars (good→better, bad→worse, etc.) is an early hurdle.

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