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.

Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.

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.


Ghostly fetches and dialect features

November 7, 2013

This should have gone out at Halloween, but anyway. Based on my regard for Daniel Woodrell I was given a copy of The Cove by Ron Rash, and the recommendation was fully justified: the story is engrossing and poetic, lingering in memory. Set in rural North Carolina, it’s also rich in local dialect, and contains an unusual sense of the word fetch:

There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.

I had to look it up to remember it. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s a ghost, apparition, or doppelgänger, calling it chiefly British, while the OED defines it more narrowly as “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person”. Its etymology is uncertain, though it may derive from the older compound fetch-life, which referred to a messenger that came to fetch a dying person’s soul.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing

February 10, 2013

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is the memorable name of a new book by Constance Hale; its subtitle, Let Verbs Power Your Writing, reveals it to be a handbook for the craft. In its introduction Hale sets out her primary aim – to teach “the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango” by shining a light on what “pulses . . . at the heart of English”: verbs.

The smoochworthy title, we soon learn, is not just a list of fetching verbs but a structural device. Each chapter has a Vex section that lays out a problem, dipping into history, linguistics and grammar; a Hex section that addresses and dismantles myths; a Smash section that analyses bad writing habits; and a Smooch section that showcases writing “so good you’ll want to kiss its creator”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who (be) takin’ it to the man

December 3, 2012

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – without getting into its terminological complications – has a versatile and distinctive grammar for conveying aspect.* For one thing, it can omit the copula be in some situations: She is working todayShe working today.

This is known as copula deletion, zero copula, or zero auxiliary. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “even more characteristic of AAVE than is invariant habitual be”. The latter, as in She be working, differs from zero copula in that it refers mainly to habitual or prolonged action.

The two constructions – zero copula and habitual/invariant be – are sometimes confused by people unfamiliar with AAVE’s syntactic subtleties, as the dictionary’s fifth edition reports:

In place of the inflected forms of be, such as is and are, used in Standard English, [AAVE] and some varieties of Southern American English may use zero copula, as in He working, or an invariant be, as in He be working, instead of the Standard English He is working. As an identifying feature of the vernacular of many African Americans, invariant be has been frequently seized on by writers and commentators trying to imitate or parody black speech. However, most imitators use it simply as a substitute for is, as in John be sitting in that chair now, without realizing that within AAVE, invariant be is used primarily for habitual or extended actions set in the present.

You can read more about the usages here, and via the previous link, both of which point to an earlier edition of the AHD.

George Pelecanos - King Suckerman book coverThe distinction gets a nice mention in George Pelecanos’s crime novel King Suckerman. Two characters, Rasheed and Cheek, are talking about the eponymous (fictional) blaxploitation film showing in their city:

“What new one?” said Rasheed.

King Suckerman,” said Cheek.

Rasheed looked up. “That the one about the pimp?”

“Not any old pimp. The baddest player ever was. ‘The Man with the Master Plan Who Be Takin’ It to the Man.’”

Who be. That’s what the ad says, huh? I bet some white man wrote that movie; produced it, too. Even wrote that line about ‘the Man’ that’s gonna get you in the theatre.”

King Suckerman hasn’t always been “takin’ it to the man” – at least not in a way worth making a film about – but he is doing so now. Who be takin’ it to the man indicates ongoing rebellion; who takin’ it to the man would imply more immediate (and hence cinematic) events. So we infer that whoever was responsible for the tagline is not a native AAVE speaker.

John Rickford says the invariant habitual be construction “has clear parallels with and possible derivations from creole ‘does be’”. Does be is a feature of Hiberno-English too, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage summarises:

The ability of a verb form or auxiliary to indicate continuation or duration of an action is called by grammarians and linguists aspect. Since English is somewhat deficient in aspect, compared to some other languages, these dialectal forms [Black English and Hiberno-English] do constitute an enrichment of the language. But they are not yet available to the writer of ordinary standard English, and no one knows if they ever will be.


* Grammatical aspect is defined by Huddleston and Pullum as “a verbal category mainly indicating the speaker’s view of the temporal structure of the situation the clause describes, such as whether it is habitual or complete”. For more, see SIL and Glottopedia.

Would of, could of, might of, must of

October 23, 2012

When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)

Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.

The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,803 other followers