The Usage Panel is dead, long live the Usage Panel!

December 5, 2018

If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?

The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.

There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.

For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.

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An odd word from Ivy Compton-Burnett

November 10, 2018

Filmmaker John Waters, in his memoir of sorts Role Models, writes that he has all of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels but has kept one unread – because when he reads it ‘there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself’.

When I read this a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with the ‘adorably sour’ Compton-Burnett, but Waters painted a picture of her as fiercely exacting about words:

Front cover of 'A House and Its Head', NYRB Classics edition: on a close-up of an off-white door is a blue near-square with the book's title and author's name in yellow and ight blueAccording to the great biography Ivy, by Hilary Spurling, an old friend came to visit Ivy and she woke from a catnap and snapped, “I’m not tired, I’m sleepy. They are different things. And I’m surprised that you should say tired when you mean sleepy.” That Ivy! She was a real laff-riot.

Now, having read A House and Its Head recently, I know what Waters meant. It’s a vicious black comedy about a wealthy family in Victorian England infighting mercilessly over power. It is written almost entirely in dialogue. Slight spoilers follow.

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Book review: ‘Talk on the Wild Side’ by Lane Greene

September 21, 2018

Language today is partly tame and partly wild, and the two will always be in tension. —Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side

It’s funny how many people profess to love the English language yet express this mostly by moaning about how others use it. Turns out they only love one dialect: the formal English they were taught at school. Other varieties receive their scorn and condescension. Everyday developments like dropped sounds or shifts in meaning are taken as signs of imminent linguistic ruin.

To fear that change could so corrupt English that it would slip into terminal decline is to misunderstand what language is and how we use it. No language in recorded history has ever devolved into grunts, but that hasn’t stopped people worrying that English will, if their favourite scapegoat – young people, managers, Americans, northerners, anyone not white and middle-class – carries on ‘mangling’ it the way they do.

If you have concerns about English being degraded, grab yourself a copy of Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene, newly published by Profile Books (who kindly sent me a copy). In fact, if you’re at all interested in language change and the remarkable efforts people have made to thwart or control that change, you’ll find much to enjoy in Greene’s book.

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Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

July 21, 2018

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

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Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

July 16, 2018

George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.

The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.

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Talk with your mouth full: the literary game of mouth-filled speech

June 29, 2018

In 2011 a reader wrote to linguist David Crystal with an interesting question. Having tried recently to brush their teeth and talk at the same time, they wondered how such ‘approximations of real words’ might factor into language – and whether authors had ever exploited this form of speech ‘for inventive literary purposes’.

In his post on what he calls ‘mouth-filled speech’, Crystal looked at phonetics, politeness, etiquette, risks, and frequency (‘really rather common’), but found scant examples in literature or language corpora. My intention here is to share a few from books I’ve read in the meantime – mostly novels but one non-fiction.

We may talk with all sorts of things in our mouth, such as food, pens, pins, fingers (our own or other people’s), tongues (just other people’s), dentist’s instruments, gum shields, gags, and of course toothbrushes. Crystal lists various other possibilities.

Transcribed, the utterance may be transparent or heavily obscured, depending on the writer’s strategy and skill in treating the phenomenon. Context can help readers infer the muddled words, or the author may convey it through repetition. When there’s no narrative reason to have characters speak unclearly, it can be a nod to realism or verisimilitude or perhaps serve as a linguistic game or challenge.

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The Speech Community

June 8, 2018

I recently enjoyed Language and Social Context: Selected Readings (Penguin, 1972), edited by Pier Paolo Giglioli. It includes some articles so famous that even a non-linguist like me knew them (John Searle on speech acts, William Labov on nonstandard English), along with many that I didn’t.

One article I especially liked is ‘The Speech Community’ (1968) by linguistic anthropologist John J. Gumperz, in which he describes that unit as ‘any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage’.

The idea of a speech community is very useful when discussing and thinking about language: we easily forget how highly social and context-dependent are the linguistic rules and norms we observe more or less unconsciously. Gumperz goes on:

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