‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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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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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.


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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The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

October 14, 2018

The process of writing is in large part a rewriting and an editing process. After the process of getting some text down, you begin the rearranging process and the snipping process. This process is—

Wait, let me try that again.

Writing is in large part rewriting and editing. After getting some text down, you begin rearranging and snipping. This is…

Much better.

In my work as a copy-editor, especially with academic and business texts, I see superfluous process a lot. It’s a popular crutch word, established among writers’ unconscious bad habits.

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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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