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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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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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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Introducing Indo-European Jones

January 6, 2014

It started on Twitter, as these things often do. I read a comment about linguists and lexicographers being to language “what grave robbers are to archeology” (the context: hatred of the newly popular because X phrase), and I tweeted it with a raised eyebrow.

Jonathon Owen replied that he wished he’d been given a “leather jacket, bullwhip, and fedora” upon graduation, James Callan said he wanted to see an “Indiana Jones pastiche focused on a linguist”, and I felt it was a meme waiting to happen. So without further ado, let me introduce Indo-European Jones (or Indy for short).

James got the giant boulder ball rolling (click on images to enlarge):

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - this belongs in the OED - James Callan

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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.

Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.


What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


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