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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‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

November 19, 2013

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced “aitch” /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as “haitch” /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said “a HLA marker”, never “an HLA marker”. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on returned 1,946 hits for “a HSE” and 92 for “an HSE” (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE “the HSE”. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

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Plus, you can use it like this now

October 7, 2013

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

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On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ)

August 15, 2013

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives:

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal.

And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way. Complete omission of the article is more common…

You can read the rest here. Will you be adopting Ћ?


Next up: Could you care less? is about the expression I could care less and the constant cavilling it attracts. In David Mitchell’s entertaining video at the Guardian, he protests that the phrase implies you do care and is “useless as an indicator of how much you care”. I suggest that that’s true only

in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. . . . Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with I could care less. . . . As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like I could give a damn, which is synonymous with I couldn’t give a damn.

Read on if you couldn’t not care more or less about this, or for older articles visit the archive.

Fossil words, usage collisions, and Latin plurals

July 10, 2013

Time for an update on my recent writing for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I have three new articles to report.

Colliding with common sense and usage looks at a language peeve over the word collide (and collision, etc.), which says you can use these words:

only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.

In the article, I summarise the history of this belief, how it was spread by Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, among others, and what usage experts say about it.


Fossil words of yore in the offing is a brief survey and description of lexical fossils. If the term is new to you, let me explain:

we may wait with bated breath for something in the offing, but it’s unlikely that anything else in our experience is ever bated, or that we’ve made any other use of the noun offing. (Unless we’re sailors; offing can mean the part of the deep sea visible from the shore.)

These words are known as fossil words, because although they are no longer productive in the language – their creative capacity is not in fine fettle – they have been preserved in set phrases, idioms and contexts. Like physical fossils, they offer a glimpse of earlier times, throwing a light on language from days of yore.

As I go on to show, it’s not just words and short phrases that get fossilised: entire sentences do too, for example if they’re tied to some popular ritual or tradition.


Finally, The minutiae of Latin plurals addresses the consistently curious nature of English’s curiously inconsistent plurals, specifically Latin imports. I begin with a comparison of personas and personae, and note that:

The two spellings’ coexistence – some call it competition – is not unusual: witness appendixes and appendices, formulas and formulae, millenniums and millennia, referendums and referenda, stadiums and stadia, and thesauruses and thesauri, all used regularly. Neither one in any pair has ousted the other, though some eventually will. Millennia overtook its rival in the 1930s and is likely to maintain its supremacy.

There are no hard and fast rules about which plural to use and when. In certain cases the Latin is more formal or even affected, but not predictably so. Occasionally the two spellings differentiate in meaning.

See if you can think of examples of this last phenomenon, where the Latin plural and the anglicised plural of the same word have diverged semantically. Then read the rest for data on Latin plurals becoming English singulars, and other such fun.

[Archive of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog]

A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

May 27, 2013

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

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