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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Hyphenating my little ass-car

January 16, 2018

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

Read the rest of this entry »


Reading coincidences: geese edition

August 5, 2017

Konrad Lorenz’s books always have wonderful anecdotes about animals, and On Aggression (1963, tr. Marjorie Latzke) is no exception. One chapter describes habit formation in geese, a greylag goose named Martina in particular, whom Lorenz had reared and who had imprinted on him. Lorenz writes:

University Paperback book cover on Konrad Lorenz's 'On Aggression', featuring a large b&w illustration of a snarling tiger's headIn her earliest childhood, Martina had acquired a fixed habit: when she was about a week old I decided to let her walk upstairs to my bedroom instead of carrying her up, as until then had been my custom. Greylag geese resent being touched and it frightens them, so it is better to spare them this indignity if possible.

Pleased by this information, and by how it was phrased, I tweeted it. Later, after sharing another excerpt on geese behaviour, I added a hashtag:

And there the idea would have remained, except that the next book I picked up, Molly Keane’s Loving and Giving, had its own geese tips.

Read the rest of this entry »


Have a sky at this language

February 14, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank (Bloomsbury, 2012), sub-subtitled Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew. It’s a sad and absorbing account, edited by Nic Compton, with about 70 ‘narrators’ plus a few outside experts (such as Ernest Shackleton) who gave evidence at the inquiries after the disaster.

It’s also of no little linguistic interest. One item that struck me was the evocative expression have a sky, meaning ‘have a look’. James Johnson, an English night watchman on the ship, reported:

I had no lifebelt then, so I went down for it after. I thought I might have made a mistake in the boat station list, and I went to look at it again. I said, ‘I will have a sky again.’

nic-compton-titanic-on-trial-the-night-the-titanic-sank-bloomsburyThe line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read. In his introduction, Compton refers to the idiom but changes the verb from have to take. Describing the witness testimonies, he writes:

Not only are they unfiltered by any author, but they are absolutely contemporaneous and are imbued with the character of the times – good and bad. There are wonderful turns of phrase which were once the norm but now sound impossibly poetic – such as ‘I will take a sky’, meaning ‘I will take a look’.

James Johnson was apparently English, aged 41, and his line is the only example of the expression that I found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. It doesn’t appear in the OED. So I’m not convinced that it was once commonplace, but I’d be interested to know if any readers have heard it.

It also prompted me to look up the etymology of sky, and I was rewarded with this lovely discovery:

Read the rest of this entry »


A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

Read the rest of this entry »


Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

August 23, 2016

An area of language acquisition that has attracted considerable scholarly (and lay) interest is the so-called critical period hypothesis. This proposes a critical period in childhood during which people need to acquire a language in order to become fully proficient in it.

Abby Kaplan’s new book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a helpful chapter on this, investigating whether the ability to acquire a language falls sharply or gradually after a certain age, whether the progressive difficulty in acquiring a second language is universal or admits exceptions, and so on.

In examining whether early childhood exposure to language is vital for its acquisition, Kaplan writes that one source of evidence is ‘the very sad cases of people who weren’t exposed to a language as children, usually due to extreme abuse or neglect’.

A famous example is Genie, who was found in 1970 aged 13 having spent most of her life until then in isolation.

Genie - Secret of the Wild Child documentary PBS Nova

Image of Genie from the Nova documentary ‘Secret of the Wild Child’

Read the rest of this entry »


Language dream files: the speech balloon

July 20, 2016

I had another language-related dream a few nights ago. The last time I remember this happening, my sleeping mind conjured a weird connection between raccoons and the word chiefly.

This time, I dreamt I kicked a rubber ball at a door, my grandmother suddenly opened the door, and the ball got pronged on the pointy tail of a speech balloon near her head. Then we laughed, the way you do out of delight when something physically strange happens.

Read the rest of this entry »