May 10, 2013
Caxton is a new blog about language from Barrie England, an Oxford graduate who has studied English literature, foreign languages, and older varieties of English. It is named after printing pioneer William Caxton, who, as Barrie writes, “by using technology to reach a wider public . . . can be seen as the progenitor of the digital age”.
Barrie wrote Real Grammar before its host pulled the plug; I’ve linked to it here in the past, most recently to his post on the rise of Swiss German dialect. Some of you may also know him from his insightful comments at Sentence first.
Since setting up Caxton and importing his old posts, Barrie has been blogging regularly, offering astute and balanced observations on such subjects as the value of linguistics, the early shapers of English, education, reflexive pronouns, dialects, grammar, and Jacques Brel. Rummage around and you’ll find all sorts of good material.
If you’re interested in the usage, history, politics, and beauty of English – or language generally – I recommend visiting and bookmarking Caxton. I’ve also added it to the links in the sidebar of this blog.
Updates: More thoughts on Caxton: Language Hat wishes it a “long and prosperous career”, while You Don’t Say celebrates “a new voice of sense and informed judgment”.
February 14, 2013
A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to “correct” their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.
As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – “[show] what a live issue” it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.
Read the rest of this entry »
January 8, 2013
I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?’
The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.
Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.
You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!
February 18, 2012
From Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961):
Meanwhile Miss Brodie said:
‘And Mrs Lloyd — is she a woman, would you say, in her prime?’
‘Perhaps not yet,’ said Sandy.
‘Well, Mrs Lloyd may be past it,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s difficult to say with her hair being long on her shoulders. It makes her look young although she may not be.’
‘She looks really like as if she won’t have any prime,’ Sandy said.
‘The word “like” is redundant in that sentence. What is Mrs Lloyd’s Christian name?’
‘Deirdre,’ said Jenny, and Miss Brodie considered the name as if it were new to her . . .
Like is indeed redundant in that sentence, and you could equally say as if is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with like as if, but it has too colloquial a feel for the formal register Miss Brodie encourages in her students — more “proper” speech being advantageous in conservative society. COHA shows like as if used mostly in casual language.
Note also the recurrent use of said to report dialogue. Some writers are suspicious of its ordinariness, readily replacing it with such words as replied, spoke, enquired and exclaimed, but these draw more attention to themselves and hence away from the story.
Omit needless criticisms of redundancy
Jessica Love on quotative like
November 8, 2011
I received an email lately about an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of “interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices”.
It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices. (The project was also motivated by “unadulterated nerdiness”, something language enthusiasts will identify with.)
The portal offers a great range of categories, both familiar and obscure. Under hyperbole, for example, I found entertaining examples from Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Flann O’Brien, and others. Imagery, smell has a solitary example from Annie Proulx, so that tag would benefit from readers’ submissions.
To get a feel for how it works, click around and see what happens. If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying. David would love to hear comments and suggestions, and he invites readers to use and share the site and contribute examples to its database. As he says: the bigger it becomes, the more valuable it can be.
July 21, 2011
This post is in three parts: the first comments on the Queen’s English Society (QES) and the Academy of Contemporary English formed under its auspices; the second introduces two groups set up to oppose them; the third makes some general remarks. It’s a long post, but not as long (or cranky) as my earlier “The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities“, which you might like to read first, for context.
Wikipedia has a few basic facts about the QES and its Academy. You probably know that Wikipedia is a portmanteau word created by blending wiki with encyclopedia. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend asking the people at the Academy what portmanteau words are, because they do not know:
And this, we are told, “is where the Academy is in its element”. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a “[reason] why English is being debased”. Though you could, if you were so inclined, make the case that English is debased by hopelessly muddled definitions.
Behind the QES’s dubious claims to authority and good judgement in English usage lies an ignorance of how language works and an ignoble attitude to non-standard expression. My earlier post has many examples. This one has some more.
Read the rest of this entry »
July 20, 2011
Melody Dye has a very interesting article in Scientific American on why it’s so difficult for kids to learn words for colours, and how it can be made easier for them:
psychologists have found that even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the other things that children at that age can do
Different cultures divide the colour spectrum differently – sometimes subtly so, sometimes drastically. This means that learning colour terms requires children to learn not just the words but the particular colour map that obtains in their culture. And since colours are ubiquitous and blend into one another, it naturally takes a while to sort it all out.
This process might be particularly tricky in English because
we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”
Dye explains why this matters: it has to do with how our attention works. Understanding this means we can help children learn colours more quickly by adjusting our syntax slightly in a way that will direct their attention in a particular way.
The article is well worth reading, and there are many links for the curious. [Edit: It was published about a year ago, so some of you will have already read it. Somehow I saw it only recently.]
Update: The same principle also applies to number learning.