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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Is the crew plural? Collective complications

March 16, 2017

Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all his work, it’s a real treat. But one grammar-related item caught my copy-editor’s eye and is worth examining briefly.

En route to Micronesia, Sacks’s plane lands on Johnston atoll, a heavily militarised mini-island then used to store and test nuclear and chemical weapons. A rough landing damages the craft’s tyres, which need repairing. When the passengers go to stretch their legs in the interval, they are told the island is off-limits. Sacks reads and observes while he waits:

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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’


‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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Passive voice peeving and ignorance

May 13, 2016

Despite all the solid, readily available information on the passive voice, there remains a great deal of misinformation and confusion about it. This confusion, far from being limited to non-specialists, pervades professional circles too – journalists, for example, but also journalism professors and authors of writing manuals.

A case in point is Essential English: For Journalists, Editors and Writers by Sir Harold Evans. First published as Newsman’s English in 1972, book one of a five-volume manual of newspaper writing and design, it was fully revised by Crawford Gillan and published by Pimlico in 2000, also incorporating book three, News Headlines (1974).

Essential English first wades into the passive-voice swamp in Chapter 2, in a section titled ‘Be Active’:

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Linguistic hygiene in Sling Blade

March 9, 2016

Last night I watched the film Sling Blade (1996) for the first time in years decades and liked it all over again. It has linguistic appeal too: the characters speak in strong dialects with idiomatic expressions.

More than once the main characters say how much they like how the other one talks, as a way of conveying their mutual fondness and friendship:

sling blade - i like the way you talk

sling blade - he likes the way i talk - billy bob thornton + james hampton

There are two items in particular I want to note here. The first is a moment of mild prescriptivism at a family table.

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What will the future of ‘like’ bilaik?

December 18, 2015

The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.

So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:

If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.

I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.

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‘Because X’ in Finnish and Norwegian, because borrowing

November 20, 2015

Languages often borrow from one another: it’s a common source of linguistic growth and change. Normally what gets borrowed is words, called ‘loans’, ‘loanwords’, or ‘borrowings’ (though the terms suggest eventual return, which isn’t how it works). Any word that isn’t a loanword is a native word.

English is a frequent borrower, being full of loanwords from many other languages. This ability to integrate foreign forms is one reason for its success. And it goes both ways: because of English’s status and reach, it’s a common ‘donor language’ for others. The World Loanword Database is a useful resource on the phenomenon.

Less often, other linguistic elements are borrowed, like grammatical structures or pronunciations. An example of the former is because X, a popular construction in informal English.* I first wrote about because X in 2013, elsewhere picking it as my word of the year (the American Dialect Society later did likewise). Such was its impact that the phrase was discussed not just by linguists but by more mainstream outlets.

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