The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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Irishly having tea

March 1, 2017

Passing through the pleasingly named town of Gort on my way to the Burren recently, I popped in to a second-hand bookshop and picked up a couple of Brian Moore books I hadn’t read: Catholics and The Doctor’s Wife. Everything I’ve read by Moore has been time well spent, yet most people I ask have not read him, and many have not heard of him.

brian-moore-catholics-books-cover-penguinCatholics (1972) is more novella than novel, around 80 pages long in my Penguin paperback edition. Work won’t allow a single-sitting read today, so I’m taking bites from it on my breaks. The title is straightforwardly descriptive: a young American priest is sent from Rome to a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, where old and new Catholicism square up against each another.

The young priest, Kinsella, has just landed on the island – the first time it hosted a helicopter – and meets with the presiding Abbot in a large parlour. Sitting on rough furniture carved by the local monks, with Atlantic light streaming in through a 13th-century window, they enact a ritual within rituals:

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Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

November 11, 2016

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.


Gender differences in conversational rituals

May 31, 2016

Here is a short clip of Deborah Tannen describing one way boys and girls express themselves differently:

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Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

December 21, 2015

English has no standard punctuation mark or typographic style to show sarcasm or verbal irony. This lack has inspired a whole menagerie of proposals over the centuries, including backwards question marks, upside-down or zigzag exclamation marks, and left-slanting typefaces (‘ironics’, ‘Sartalics’). Some have gained niche usage, while others faded more or less instantly: only the winking smiley ;-) ;) has become widespread, and only in informal text.

I notice the gap sometimes when chatting online, for example when I misinterpret someone’s tone or they misinterpret mine. A tongue-in-cheek statement can easily be taken at face value if the reader doesn’t know the writer well. This happens often on Twitter, where strangers’ statements can spread without much pragmatic context.

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Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

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Non-apologies and their many names

November 21, 2014

Non-apologies are a curious beast. I mean the kind of statement that purports to be an apology – e.g. for bad behaviour or hurtful remarks – but isn’t a sincere apology at all.

Linguistically and psychologically they fascinate me, even as they exasperate. So I wrote about this for Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog:

When guilty people aren’t really sorry (or are worried about the legal implications), they don’t want to make a direct, unqualified admission. This is not a definitive science: Someone might say “I’m very sorry for what I did” and not mean it, or apologize tortuously but with heartfelt intent. Nevertheless, non-apologies tend to ring conspicuously false, being variously couched in ifs, buts, hedges, deflection, qualification, self-absorption, euphemism, defensiveness, obfuscation, and the agentless passive voice (“Mistakes were made”). I’m just sorry I got called out is a common subtext.

Non-apologies also have a lot of names. I tend to use non-apology; it’s concise, transparent, well-formed and cadenced. But I’ve also used nonpology, unapology, fauxpology, pseudo-apology, and sorry not sorry. And there are others: I’ve seen about 20 so far. This is partly because there’s no standard term for them yet, and also because their content and structure vary so much.

You can pop over to Lexicon Valley to see a list, to read more about the nature of non-apologies (and gasp in horror at real-life examples), and to find out what constitutes a genuine apology. The Lexicon Valley blog is excellent, by the way. So is the podcast, but you knew that.

*

false apology cards - Tony Carrillo F minus comics

[F Minus comic by Tony Carillo, via Language Log]

Updates:

If the subject interests you, particularly its psychological aspects, read Rascality’s ‘The difference between explaining & apologizing‘ and his follow-up case study.

A noteworthy example from Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny: “I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is.”