Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

July 21, 2018

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

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English 3.0, a short film about digital language use

November 16, 2014

English 3.0’ is a 20-minute video (embedded below) from documentary filmmaker Joe Gilbert about the effects of digital culture on language use and change, particularly English. The introductory voice-over asks:

Will abbreviations, crudely spelled words and a lack of consideration for grammar become the norm, or are these anxieties simply great plumes of hot air manifesting out of fear – fear of the new?

This question is addressed from various angles by a series of talking heads whose comments are for the most part informed and level-headed: in order of appearance, David Crystal, Fiona McPherson, Robert McCrum,* Tom Chatfield, and Simon Horobin.


English 3.0 by Joe Gilbert, a short documentary film about digital language use


Crystal, for example, reports on children’s use of abbreviations in text messages, which he analyses when visiting schools. Back in 2004 the abbreviation count was only about 10% on average; on a recent visit there were none at all. The students tell him they “used to do that” but it’s not cool anymore; one child, tellingly, stopped when his parents started.

Chatfield (whose excellent book Netymology I reviewed here) talks lucidly about various conventions in informal digital communication, characterising them as innovations which, like any technology, can be used skilfully or not. He believes talking about a decline in English “lets us off the hook, because it stops us from asking what it means to use new opportunities well or badly”:

We really need to be a little bit more sophisticated about this, and partly recognise that what people are doing is bending screen-based language to be more expressive rather than less. When you don’t have a human face there in person to convey emotional text and subtext, you tend to go above and beyond conventional standard English, conventional good grammar, in order to get your meaning across. You draw smiley or sad human faces out of punctuation; you use lots of exclamation marks; you use irony marks and asides; on Twitter you use hashtags. Now this isn’t for me bad grammar so much as good innovation when it’s done well.

The video could have done with more female voices – one woman out of five participants is not a very good balance – and subtitles would be a welcome addition especially for non-native-English speakers.

But compared with the last video about language that I featured on Sentence first, Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’, ‘English 3.0’ is a dose of fresh air, common sense, insight, and tolerance, and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.



* Not McCrumb, as the video caption has it. This is why we need proofreaders.

‘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.

And I’m like, Quotative ‘like’ isn’t just for quoting

August 1, 2013

A few tweets from earlier today, to introduce and summarise the topic:

[An interesting discussion ensued that I’ll assemble on Storify later. Update: Here’s the Storify chat.]

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Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

April 23, 2013

Last month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift from straightforward initialism (“laughing out loud”) to pragmatic particle marking empathy and shared experience.*

One of McWhorter’s talks was not online at the time, but it appeared yesterday and is well worth watching if you’re interested in texting as a form of communication:

What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk.

McWhorter discusses the differences between speech and writing and how they bleed into one another, and he demonstrates some of texting’s emerging structures and innovations, for instance slash as a “new information marker”.

He also tackles the myth that texting implies a decline in our linguistic abilities (an argument developed in more detail in David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8). Says McWhorter:

What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills – and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, and it’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today – not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.

Here is “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”:


* My post was since translated into Chinese,  if anyone would like to read it that way.

The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

March 5, 2013

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

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Two linguistic questions

June 14, 2012

1. By email, Colm O’Brien asks:

Where I used to say things like

“I think this is a good video:”

in IM conversations/on Twitter/etc, I’m now finding myself more likely to phrase it as

“I think is a good video.”

Is there a name for this kind of substitution — for using a link as a noun? I think it’s interesting because it can’t really be read out loud (especially for longer, more elaborate urls), and also because (unless I’m overlooking something) it only really works with yer moderd’n shtyle of electronic communication. I’m sure there’s probably some kind of older equivalent, mind, just not one I can think of. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

The question interests me, but alas, I didn’t have much of an answer for Colm. I said it was a kind of embedded direct referral, but that this was just me throwing words together and was not a technical term.

When we include a web link in online text, we can embed it in different ways and to varying degrees. For example:

A. I think this is a good video:
B. I think this is a good video
C. I think is a good video
D. I think this is a good video

Obviously D is what’s commonly known as hyperlinking. C is the construction Colm was wondering about. If anyone can suggest (or invent) terms for the practice, or describe what’s going on grammatically, I’d love to hear it.


2. An artist friend, Annie Silverman, regularly visits Ireland and Denmark, and spent a few years living in the latter country. She asks:

Do you know if there is a name for that small intake of breath that I have noticed some Irish people make and also Danish people make when they are listening and agree and want you to continue talking? At first it sounds like the person is surprised, but it is an affirmation that might be called a “completion probe” like a nod or “ah ha”.

I think I know what she’s referring to, but it’s not something I can remember hearing in a while. It sounds like something I’d call a prompt rather than a probe (and I would transcribe her “ah ha” as “uh-huh”).

On a Language Hat post about click consonants, AJP Crown made the following comment about the same or a similar phenomenon:

I wonder if it [the click] falls in the same linguistic category as the short loud intake of breath that some German & Scandinavian women (but hardly ever men) use, sometimes habitually, instead of saying “yes”.


Your thoughts on either matter would be much appreciated.

Update: Computational linguist Robert Eklund has a useful website about ingressive phonation and has described pulmonic ingressive speech as a ‘neglected universal’ (PDF).