Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

Read the rest of this entry »


Communicating with the distant future

September 11, 2014

It’s sobering to imagine modern English as an archaic dialect – how the language might evolve and how our version(s) of it might appear from a position many generations into the future. That English will change radically in a few centuries or a thousand years is beyond doubt: read a few lines of Old or Middle English and you’ll get an idea of how much.

This presents a problem when communication with people in the far future is an absolute must. Whatever about literature becoming ever more impenetrable, how do we warn future humans about dangerous contaminants that we’ve buried for safekeeping? It’s not enough to isolate these materials now; they may need to be kept isolated for a very long time.

Read the rest of this entry »


Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

September 3, 2014

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?


BBC News style guide now globally available

July 8, 2014

I do enjoy a good style guide: browsing the alphabetical entries, reading the general advice sections, learning how organisations handle sensitive subjects, and seeing how different publishers treat the same material. What usage fiend doesn’t find this stuff fascinating?

So I was very happy to learn today that the BBC News style guide is now fully and freely available online.  It went public about a year ago but didn’t appear to be accessible outside the UK, except for a PDF which, though generally excellent, dates to March 2003.

The online BBC style guide is searchable and easy to navigate. As well as the usual A–Z it has sections on names, numbers, military, and religion. Its page on grammar, spelling and punctuation offers useful tips on capitalisation, homophones, hyphens, US/UK differences, and timeworn bugbears (“By all means, split the infinitive…”), though it also unhelpfully upholds the dubious that/which rule.

BBC News style guide

So, OK, I have a slightly complicated relationship with style guides. As an editor I greatly value how they help ensure a set of texts is styled consistently to a given standard. But the descriptivist in me recoils at how conservative, arbitrary and wrong-headed they can be. If I had the time and will, I could spend all day refuting certain style guides on Twitter. But that’s a grouch for another day. It’s browsing time.

Tip of the hat to Damien Mulley, whose tweet about the also-newly-freely-available BBC Academy of Journalism alerted me to the BBC’s style guide going public globally. It can also be downloaded as a Word document (44k words in total) at this link.


Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.


Strange rules, strange spellings

June 12, 2014

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about strange rules and strange spellings. First up, How many ‘alternatives’ can there be? revisits a recent list of usage peeves from Simon Heffer, focusing on the false idea that there can only be two alternatives:

this dubious rule has little support among experts. Even back in 1965, Ernest Gowers’ revision of Fowler called it a ‘fetish’. It seems to originate in the word’s Latin ancestor, which specified a choice between two. But English is not Latin, and this is the etymological fallacy – the belief that a word’s older or original meaning must be more correct or solely correct. It is a misconception that underlies many false beliefs about words. . . .

No one can uphold the etymological fallacy consistently and still hope to communicate with people. Because so many words drift semantically, the purists must pick and choose a few examples and forget all the rest.

So why do pedants risk what credibility they might have, or seek, for the sake of these shibboleths? I think it has to do with the politics of language, and I elaborate on this a little in the post.

For more discussion of this, see Gretchen McCulloch’s excellent recent article in Slate on linguistic authority (which quotes me on the subject).

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That’s the strange rule; now the strange spelling.

Kind’ve a strange phrase examines the item kind’ve, which I saw in two detective novels recently. Kind’ve is a common spelling in informal writing, such as Twitter, but quite rare in edited writing. So what motivates it in each sphere?

You can kind of see why [Michael] Connelly might have used the spelling kind’ve, even if you don’t approve of it. It’s pronounced identically to the standard phrase kind of, at least when the vowel sound in of is unstressed . . . .

I’ve seen non-standard kind’ve in published prose before, albeit only in detective fiction so far: Connelly again, and also Robert Crais. It seems unlikely these capable authors (and their editors) are unaware of the issue and assume kind’ve is formally correct. Rather, I imagine they know the spelling is improper but are using it in dialogue for effect – something writers have always done.

The post goes on to address whether the phrase’s pros in a book, such as they are, are worth the cons. Though I’m (kind’ve) getting used to seeing it, I would still tend to edit it to kind of or kinda – or at least flag it for the writer and hear their case for it.

See also my older post on spelling kind of as kind’ve, and my archive of language posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog if you feel like browsing.


Parallelism, pedantry, and prescriptivist purism

May 22, 2014

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post – mainly because I’ve been very busy editing and proofreading, and because I just needed a break. But I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which I’d like to excerpt here and point you towards.

Parallelism, precision, and pedantry looks at the importance of parallelism: how its observance can bring polish (and correctness) to your style, but also how it’s not as vital as some pedants – and the phrase faulty parallelism – might have you believe. Faulty parallelism:

can appear when we use coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but, or pairs of correlative conjunctions such as either… or, neither… nor, both… and, and not only… but also.

How strictly parallelism should be observed depends on whose advice you take. Pedants can be absolute in their expectations. Referring to either… or, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage insisted that “the division must be made with logical precision”. Either this is true or not. I mean: This is either true or not; or: Either this is true or it is not.

I say not. Some usage dictionaries cite prescriptivist authorities who are strict on parallelism yet whose own prose doesn’t adhere to the rule.

Read the rest for more analysis of parallelism, and some good discussion in the comments.

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My next piece, Who’s the boss of English?, takes issue with a recent article (or: list of peeves slash PR stunt) from journalist Simon Heffer, and shows why anyone claiming authority in language usage needs to look at the evidence in order to keep pace with language change:

Heffer’s list of peeves, like most such lists, abounds in misinformation and etymological fallacy: a futile insistence that we use a word this way, not that way; that it can mean only this, never that. Here and there it makes useful points, but by mixing good sense with so much demonstrable wrongness, the whole package becomes untrustworthy, as the wise John E. McIntyre points out. Especially, I think, if the aim of these non-rules is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on knowing them. . . .

Language has no ultimate authority except its users, from whose collective efforts it derives its conventions and power.

I’ll be returning to this topic next week, with particular focus on one peeve. In the meantime, my latest post has brief criticism, relevant links, good comments, and what I’ve called ‘the Lebowski defence’ against a certain usage proscription.

Older articles are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive. Comments are welcome in either location.


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