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!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Glottal Stop Hotel

February 4, 2012

I am tempted to hoist a /ʔ/ into the gap:

The glottal stop, which you hear between the vowels in uh-oh and in some pronunciations of water, is a sound familiar to most people but seldom referred to outside of linguistic contexts.

David Brett has a helpful introductory page about it, including audio files, while Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium has a lovely example of a glottal stop tattoo.

The glottal stop is not bad for you, and its IPA symbol is attractive, but all things considered the hotel owners would probably prefer a true or flap /t/.

[Photo is from Salthill, Galway, Ireland.]

A contradictory undertaking

February 24, 2011


Will this lead to a state of limbo?

No play, no plurals

May 12, 2010

I should know better than to be surprised by the language used on signs, but the phrase “Ball sports is prohibited” struck me as a remarkable singularisation.

Did the parties responsible start with “The playing of ball sports…” before deciding to reduce the word count? Whatever the explanation, at least this time there’s a minimum of gobbledegook.

The limits of pruning

April 12, 2010

The perimeter of a garden not far from where I live was lined, until recently, with mature evergreen trees. They numbered about a dozen: tall, beautiful, and busy with songbirds and various other life forms. Then they were gone, leaving only a series of pitiful stumps. It happened virtually overnight; the following day, the stumps were reduced further, almost to ground level. (See photo; click to enlarge.)

I’d like to give the landowners the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to think of a justifiable reason for their decision. Even if they had one, it’s still a great shame. Anyway, the company employed to fell the trees and remove the timber had a curious sign, and you know how difficult it is for me to resist writing about curious signs.

That “TREE CARE” is obviously and wildly misleading needs no emphasis or elaboration. “Tree Pruning In Progress” made me wonder if there was a sense in which pruning could mean chopping down. I grew up with the idea that pruning was a kind of cultivation: removing dangerous, dead, or superfluous growth, usually to serve a plant’s best interests — essentially a modest and beneficent reduction of the organism. This kind of pruning is visible and audible as I type (see photo, left).

So off I set for the dictionaries. Here are some relevant findings:

Oxford English Dictionary: 1. Cut down, shorten or abbreviate by cutting, esp. by removing superfluous or unwanted matter. Also, remove as superfluous or unwanted. Marston’s text—judiciously pruned… 2. Trim (a tree, shrub, or plant) by cutting or lopping dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by down. Prune the plants . . . down to the last active growth. 3. Cut or lop (dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots) from a tree or shrub, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by off, away.

Merriam-Webster: transitive verb 1 a : to reduce especially by eliminating superfluous matter <pruned the text> <prune the budget>; b : to remove as superfluous <prune away all ornamentation>; 2 : to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth <prune the branches>; intransitive verb : to cut away what is unwanted or superfluous.

Macmillan: 1. prune or prune back: to remove parts of a tree or plant, for example to make it grow better. We’ll need to prune back the branches this year. 2. to get rid of something that you do not need or want, especially in order to reduce the size or cost of something. Companies must continually prune costs to stay competitive.

American Heritage Dictionary: Transitive. 1. To cut off or remove dead or living parts or branches of (a plant, for example) to improve shape or growth. 2. To remove or cut out as superfluous. 3. To reduce: prune a budget. Intransitive. To remove what is superfluous or undesirable.

It seems, then, that chopping down trees can, at a stretch, be described as pruning. But it’s rather misleading because in a botanical context the word carries the chief and plant-friendly sense I mentioned in paragraph 3 above. And then there’s that phrase “TREE CARE”, which is laughably inaccurate, at least in this instance. It’s the kind of care I associate with organised crime (They took care of Louie, huh?)

Two euphemisms in seven words is an impressive count — more impressive than the paltry 10% tree cover Ireland currently claims, very little of which comprises native species. Call me a tree hugger if you wish — I’ve called myself worse — but I’d like to see more signs like this:

And fewer stumps and eyes of Sauron:

Some Irish-tree-related links: Tree Council, Native Woodland Trust, Notice Nature, Irish Wildlife Trust, Crann, and Woodlands of Ireland.

Grammar to go

March 26, 2010

I saw this sign through the door of a fast food restaurant in Galway:

The use of double negatives to express a single negation (I didn’t do nothin’; I can’t get no satisfaction) is sometimes criticised for being illogical. But although double negatives (aka negative concord) are not Standard English, they’re not illogical; indeed, they are a common feature of some other languages and some non-standard English dialects. So the original construction wasn’t necessarily wrong — just ill-judged. On balance I prefer the revision, if only because it shows a degree of care for clarity that’s unusual in such signs.

Punctuation in these contexts is often piecemeal or entirely absent. In the example above, there are various ways to imagine it. The lines read like bullet points, but we could make prose (if not music) with a well-placed dash, semicolon, comma or full stop. Too many marks might seem fussy, whereas the hands-on amendment has a certain honest charm. If the management are as conscientious about the taste of their special sauce as they are about the readability of their signs, business should be good.

[more signs]

Rare “rere” rears its head in Ireland

March 7, 2010

Here is an unusual spelling: rere for rear. The word probably derives from the Old French rere, rier, from Latin retro (back, behind). The Oxford English Dictionary describes rere as obsolete except in combinations, but this is untrue: it’s a standard variant form in Hiberno-English and is not uncommon on the island, especially in architectural, geographical, and property-related contexts:

to the rere of dwellings on the north side of Rochestown Road (Irish Statute Book)

an old jaunting car proceeding at a slow pace at the rere of the hearse (Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society)

the raised courtyard to the rere of the Irish Film Centre (Archiseek)

At the rere was a massive stone wall (Galway Advertiser, 1883)

they received an allowance of bread or a biscuit, and were dismissed by another door in the rere of the building (The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847)

There is rere service access. (

he keeps his ware house at the rere of his late dwelling-house (Kilkenny Archaeological Society)

return to the hill at the rere of the house (“The Poteen”, from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1832)

This small selection disproves the OED‘s assessment. Many more examples are to be found in both historical and contemporary texts.

Two related notes:

(1) The idiom in the post title, rear its head, is a vivid phrase meaning appear, and is often used to refer to something unpleasant, especially in the form rear its ugly head. The simple form first reared its head around the time of Milton; rear its ugly head came later.

(2) If you happen to be reading this over a midnight feast — rare meat and eggs, perhaps — you could name your meal a rere-supper, a now-archaic term for a (usually sumptuous) late supper. I should warn you, though, that this practice is inadvisable not just for mogwai but for people too: beware of rere sopers!

Edit: On Twitter, @psneeze tells me he was “taught to use it in primary school (late 70s) to distinguish it from rear as in to rear children” [italics added].

[more signs]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,216 other followers