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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Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

November 19, 2018

Misnegation is an obscure word for a common phenomenon. You won’t find it in dictionaries, but you can probably figure out that it means some kind of ‘incorrect negation’ – not to be confused with double negatives (‘multiple negation’), criticism of which tends to be dubious.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

Misnegation is where we say something with negatives in it that don’t add up the way we intend. We lose track of the logic and reverse it inadvertently. For example, I might say that the likelihood of misnegation cannot be understated, when I mean it cannot be overstated – it is, in fact, easily understated.

Misnegation often occurs with overstate or understate, overestimate or underestimate, but it can take many, many forms. It pops up in all sorts of places, including large print on official signs, as this example from Helen Stevens shows. Even Hägar the Horrible once said, ‘I miss not having’ when he really meant ‘I miss having’:

Hägar the Horrible cartoon with two panels. Panel 1: Hägar and friend are walking in a snowy landscape. Hägar says, "This is the only time of year when I miss not having a nine-to-five job!" His friend asks why. Panel 2, panned back showing evergreen trees, and undulating landscape, and more snow. Hägar says: "I never get to go to an office Christmas party!"

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Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

November 19, 2018

In my language column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been writing about whether presently is ambiguous, as some authorities warn, and about the uses of and differences between till, until, and their abbreviations.

Ambiguity is presently unlikely shows my conclusion in the title, but the detail is worth examining. I’m usually reluctant to warn against using certain words or phrases, and so it is with presently in its primary sense of ‘currently’:

Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity. . . .

[But] if I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant.

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The difference between till and until is something I’ve been asked about a few times over the years. In TIL about till and until, I sort out these synonyms and related forms, describing how they differ, how they don’t, where you can use them, and which ones to avoid. There’s also a bit of history:

People often assume that till is simply an abbreviation of until, but in fact till is a few centuries older. It shows up in the runic inscription on the ancient Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, where its original sense was the same as ‘to’.

There is an abbreviation of until: ’til. Some critics reject it, because we already have till. They may even call it incorrect. ’Till is still more disparaged, because the apostrophe is superfluous, and although this form was used by George Washington, of all people, I can’t recommend it. Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.


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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Why do we stand on our tiptoes and not our toetips?

October 3, 2018

Compounds are everywhere in English vocabulary, formed by combining two or more independent elements (‘free morphemes’, in linguistic jargon). They can be nouns (living room), verbs (download), adjectives (fun-loving), and other types. They can also be open, closed, or hyphenated, as shown.

The semantic relationship between the parts of a compound varies from one to another. Many are directly compositional; some require additional knowledge. When one element is part of the other, the main one tends to come first and be phonetically stressed: cliff edge, treetop, shoelaces, and so on.

So if we’re talking about the tip or tips of something, that’s the order we expect. Sure enough, there are fingertips, arrow tips, ear tips, horn tips, leaf tips, nerve tips, wingtips, and many more obscure compounds of the same structure. Which leads me to the present puzzle, which I aired first on Twitter:

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Irregular, elementary, and belittling

September 29, 2018

I have three new posts to report from Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about words and language. Links and excerpts follow.

‘This is highly irregular’ showcases the devilish irregularity of English:

English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.

Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.

‘Elementary error, my dear Watson’ looks at a well-known expression whose provenance proves unexpected:

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.

It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.

‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:

If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.

With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.


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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