An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?

Unlocking the language with Robert Burchfield

March 14, 2014

Unlocking the English Language by Robert Burchfield (Faber & Faber, 1989) had been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long, so I let it jump the queue and am very glad that I did. For readers interested in lexicography and word lore it’s a goldmine, with fascinating facts, anecdotes and esoterica on every page.

Robert Burchfield - Unlocking the English Language (faber & faber 1989)Burchfield was a New Zealand-born philologist who spent much of his life working as a lexicographer in England. From 1957–86 he edited the new four-volume Supplement to the OED, and later wrote an admirable third edition of Fowler, among other works. He championed inclusivity when it came to taboo words and global varieties of English.

Like his earlier book The English Language, Unlocking…, though short, is a rich and expansive work. The first four chapters are based on his T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, the next eight a variety of essays on grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary-making. He assesses grammars as recent as CGEL and as old as Ben Jonson’s; his comments on the latter show his forthrightness and penchant for metaphor:

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In defence of unnecessary words

February 6, 2014

A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are “unnecessary” – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.

Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.

An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.

Tom Gauld - cartoon for the Guardian on neologisms and forgotten words[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]

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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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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.


Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

January 13, 2014

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

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‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win

January 4, 2014

Here’s a fun bit of news. In Minneapolis last night the American Dialect Society (ADS) declared because its Word of the Year 2013. Going up against topical heavyweights like selfie, Bitcoin, Obamacare, and twerk, the humble conjunction-turned-maybe-preposition proved a surprising and emphatic winner with 127 votes.

Well, surprising to some – in a post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog before Christmas, I named because X my word/phrase of the year. I didn’t dwell on it because I’ve already written about it at length, in ‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar, where I described it as a “succinct and expressive” innovation.

That post on because X (the title of which I regret) ended up getting quite a lot of attention, thanks in part to Megan Garber’s follow-up for the Atlantic, which spread to various other news and aggregator sites. It also stoked considerable debate because even linguists disagree about because‘s grammatical identity in the construction.

It’s sometimes called because NOUN, but I avoid this because it also licenses verbs, adjectives, and interjections; see my earlier post for examples. As Ben Zimmer put it, 2013 saw because “[explode] with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use”, while his Word Routes report says it’s “fitting that a bunch of language scholars would celebrate such a linguistically innovative form”.

stan carey - doge meme - wow, such win, because grammar, so amaze, much usage, very language

The American Dialect Society’s WOTY event is the biggie for language nerds, not least because it has a range of interesting categories. A couple of days ago I emailed the ADS with my nominations, which I then posted on Twitter:

A new category this year was Most Productive, which was dominated by affixes and libfixes like –splaining and –shaming. I was glad least untruthful won Most Euphemistic, and disappointed that catfish trumped doge for Most Creative. See the ADS press release for all the nominations and vote counts, and Ben Zimmer’s post for commentary.

Because also won Most Useful, closely beating slash in the latter’s new guise as a coordinating conjunction. I wrote briefly and approvingly about this use of slash last year, and I’d like to have seen the honours shared. But impossible, because temporal asymmetry, so whatever. If this slash keeps spreading, though, its day slash night will come.

I’ll be returning to the subject of ungrammatical wordplay memes – why they appeal, what motivates them, and so on – in a later post. Because such fascinate, and very language.

Update 1: 

I’ve been waiting for someone to analyse the grammar of because X, because there’s a lot of uncertainty over whether it’s acting as a preposition, and I’m not qualified to adjudicate. Also, in my earlier post on because X I noted that it wasn’t just because behaving this way: so, also, but, thus et al. were doing so too.

Now, at All Things Linguistic, Gretchen McCulloch has posted a very helpful deconstruction of the construction [and see the comments on her post for discussion]: Why the new “because” isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler):

It’s not that because is newly a preposition: depending on your definition, it’s either still not a preposition or it always has been. Instead, it’s that subordinating conjunctions as a class are appearing in a new type of construction, that is, with interjectional complements in addition to the prepositional phrases and clauses that we’ve seen for a long time. Harder to explain maybe, but the data’s very robust and the results are pretty cool.

Interjectional complements doesn’t make for snappy headlines like new preposition does, but that’s immaterial. I find Gretchen’s analysis persuasive, and the discussions she’s had with other linguists (some are linked from her post) suggest a degree of consensus. Competing hypotheses might emerge, but I’m gravitating around this one for now.

Update 2:

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum takes polite but firm issue with McCulloch’s interpretation, in a post on the promiscuity of prepositions:

[T]he mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of “preposition” has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else.

Also on this topic, Neal Whitman has a good post at Visual Thesaurus in which he explains why because was awarded WOTY, and how different grammatical schools of thought mean there are different ways of interpreting because X:

So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there’s still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes. . . . The freshest examples of because X don’t fit McCulloch’s rule that X can stand alone, and they’re not used ironically.

At the blog, Jane Solomon summarises reaction to the new construction, ponders its origin and grammar, and wonders what we should call it:

There is currently not any sort of consensus among linguists over the part of speech of this new because, though this might change as the discussion continues. I personally feel that because x is the safest moniker for the time being. As far as the part of speech goes, the grammar classification might further shift as English speakers play with and develop the new uses of because x.

Tyler Schnoebelen at the Idibon blog has done some serious number-crunching on this, analysing twenty-something thousand tweets for patterns of because X (the top X? Yolo). For stats, laughs, and useful academic links, read his post ‘Innovating because innovation.’

More discussion and links at Language Log’s ‘ADS WOTY: “Because”‘; and Language Hat’s ‘Because (Prep).’

Photo of Kabosu by Atsuko Sato, modified because doge.


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