Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix -y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

The glamour of grammar-day haiku

March 12, 2014

In a March 4th post on the use of amn’t in Ireland, I mentioned that it was National Grammar Day – or as I think of it, International Grammar Day.

Among the traditional events on the day is a grammar haiku contest, carried out mostly on Twitter and won this year by Nancy Friedman. Mark Allen has helpfully collected the entries, which are always fun to browse. These three are mine:

Hints at a hidden truth: the
Glamour of grammar.

Grammar essentials
go way back: school just refines
the work of infants.

Editors around
the world have many more than
Forty words for “Phew!”

The glamour of grammar echoes a certain T-shirt, the second is an old refrain for anyone scolded into thinking their native grammar is “bad”, and the third plays on the prototypical snowclone of Eskimos having forty words for snow. (Or even six billion.)

Comments in haiku
Are especially welcome,
But don’t feel obliged.

Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.

I’m on [verb]

January 14, 2014

The English language has no future tense. To refer to the future, we use various strategies with verbs in present tense (some of them auxiliaries):

I will run
I will be running
I shall run
I’m going to run
I am to run next
I’m running tomorrow
I run next Friday

Because we can conceptualise the future and it plays a big role in our lives, we talk about it often. Naturally, then, the ways we talk about it are subject to pressures of economy, resulting in contraction, e.g.:

I will run → I’ll run
I am going to run → I’m gonna/gon’ run
I’m gonna run → I’mna run → I’ma/Imma run

I’ll is acceptable in Standard English; gonna/gon’ and I’mna/I’ma/Imma are not, though you may see them in dialogue or informal writing or use some of them yourself in everyday speech – gonna is especially widespread.

Recently I came across another form: I’m on [verb]. It seems similar to I’ma and I’m gon’, but I don’t know exactly how or when it developed. Here’s the example I saw, in Elmore Leonard’s novel Mr. Paradise:

“You know who put the stuff on you?”

“Somebody close to me, his girlfriend’s punk-ass brother. Is how it goes. But listen, I’m on tell you something, I was scared.”

“I would be too,” Delsa said.

I’m on [verb] doesn’t appear to be common, at least in written English, though Google led me to this line from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: “Today I’m on tell you bout a man from outer space.” And in GloWbE I found: “Law have mercy. I reckon I’m on do it.” (from ‘Entrepreneurs are a first world Phenomenon’ by John Egan).

Based on the few examples I’ve seen, my guess is that I’m on [verb], like I’ma, is originally and still chiefly AAVE. But I’m open to correction, and to other thoughts you might have on it. I’m on wait and see now.


I forgot that Mark Liberman looked at this on Language Log a couple of years ago: ‘Gonna, gone, onna, a — on?‘. He begins with a different example from Elmore Leonard (“I’m on get you to the hospital”, from Raylan), and links to an older post, ‘”on” time’, that deals with the same passage I quote above.

Both posts offer helpful analysis of the construction and its various pronunciations and spellings. Thanks to @f_moncomble for the reminder.



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