Nonsense words in Rick and Morty

November 26, 2015

A few people have recommended the Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty to me. I haven’t watched it yet, but based on this clip (and glowing reviews) I definitely will. Transcript below the video:


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Jiving with the Cheshire cat

November 19, 2015

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.


john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

English is not going to the dogs

November 17, 2015

Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post about descriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year by Intelligence Squared.

The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.

Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.

Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’

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Tips from professional proofreaders

December 15, 2014

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From:


‘Defiantly’ is the new ‘definitely’

October 24, 2014

If I made a list of words I often see misspelt, definitely would definitely be among them. But while it was once *definately or *definatly I’d read in casual, unedited writing, nowadays it’s more likely to be defiantly. I ran a search on Twitter:

The figure is taken from thin air, but it might not be far wrong: see for yourself. Defiantly is used a couple of times a minute around the world on Twitter, almost always to mean definitely. I suspect that’s also the case in text and instant messaging, but I haven’t looked into it.

In fact, just about the only time we see defiantlydefinitely on Twitter, it’s not because someone is using defiantly to mean defiantly, but because they’re mentioning it to complain about the misspelling.

defiantly used for definitely onTwitter 24 Oct 2014

It could be, as @GramrgednAngel suggested, that people are typing definat… (like in the good ol’ days) and autocorrect is transposing this into defiantly. If so, it’s having a big influence.

I’ve not heard the error in speech, nor yet spotted it in print; for now it seems mainly restricted to informal digital communication. But who’s to say it won’t spread, defiantly.

Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

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Hobby, hobbier, hobbiest hobbyists

October 3, 2014

I’m making my way erratically through Robert Crais’s back catalogue of detective fiction, and today in Demolition Angel (Orion, 2000) happened upon an unusual misspelling:

robert crais - demolition angel - Orion books - hobbyists hobbiests typo

Hobbiests! I almost read right past it. But once a proofreader, etc.

Obviously it should be hobbyists, meaning people devoted to a hobby. Hobbiest looks like a superlative adjective – “the most hobby”. But the two words are pronounced very similarly or identically, and many more words end in –iest than –yist, so you can see how the non-standard form might have materialised.

Although hobbiest has yet to appear as a variant spelling in any of the major dictionaries, a Google search shows it to be common in unedited writing. This is the first time I remember seeing it in a published book. Proofreaders, en garde: lobbiest may be next.

Edit: Here it is again, later in the book, this time in the singular.

robert crais - demolition angel - Orion books - hobbyists hobbiests typo 2


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