A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. 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.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

Read the rest of this entry »

Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

Read the rest of this entry »

Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

Read the rest of this entry »

Strange rules, strange spellings

June 12, 2014

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about strange rules and strange spellings. First up, How many ‘alternatives’ can there be? revisits a recent list of usage peeves from Simon Heffer, focusing on the false idea that there can only be two alternatives:

this dubious rule has little support among experts. Even back in 1965, Ernest Gowers’ revision of Fowler called it a ‘fetish’. It seems to originate in the word’s Latin ancestor, which specified a choice between two. But English is not Latin, and this is the etymological fallacy – the belief that a word’s older or original meaning must be more correct or solely correct. It is a misconception that underlies many false beliefs about words. . . .

No one can uphold the etymological fallacy consistently and still hope to communicate with people. Because so many words drift semantically, the purists must pick and choose a few examples and forget all the rest.

So why do pedants risk what credibility they might have, or seek, for the sake of these shibboleths? I think it has to do with the politics of language, and I elaborate on this a little in the post.

For more discussion of this, see Gretchen McCulloch’s excellent recent article in Slate on linguistic authority (which quotes me on the subject).


That’s the strange rule; now the strange spelling.

Kind’ve a strange phrase examines the item kind’ve, which I saw in two detective novels recently. Kind’ve is a common spelling in informal writing, such as Twitter, but quite rare in edited writing. So what motivates it in each sphere?

You can kind of see why [Michael] Connelly might have used the spelling kind’ve, even if you don’t approve of it. It’s pronounced identically to the standard phrase kind of, at least when the vowel sound in of is unstressed . . . .

I’ve seen non-standard kind’ve in published prose before, albeit only in detective fiction so far: Connelly again, and also Robert Crais. It seems unlikely these capable authors (and their editors) are unaware of the issue and assume kind’ve is formally correct. Rather, I imagine they know the spelling is improper but are using it in dialogue for effect – something writers have always done.

The post goes on to address whether the phrase’s pros in a book, such as they are, are worth the cons. Though I’m (kind’ve) getting used to seeing it, I would still tend to edit it to kind of or kinda – or at least flag it for the writer and hear their case for it.

See also my older post on spelling kind of as kind’ve, and my archive of language posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog if you feel like browsing.

Parallelism, pedantry, and prescriptivist purism

May 22, 2014

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post – mainly because I’ve been very busy editing and proofreading, and because I just needed a break. But I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which I’d like to excerpt here and point you towards.

Parallelism, precision, and pedantry looks at the importance of parallelism: how its observance can bring polish (and correctness) to your style, but also how it’s not as vital as some pedants – and the phrase faulty parallelism – might have you believe. Faulty parallelism:

can appear when we use coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but, or pairs of correlative conjunctions such as either… or, neither… nor, both… and, and not only… but also.

How strictly parallelism should be observed depends on whose advice you take. Pedants can be absolute in their expectations. Referring to either… or, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage insisted that “the division must be made with logical precision”. Either this is true or not. I mean: This is either true or not; or: Either this is true or it is not.

I say not. Some usage dictionaries cite prescriptivist authorities who are strict on parallelism yet whose own prose doesn’t adhere to the rule.

Read the rest for more analysis of parallelism, and some good discussion in the comments.


My next piece, Who’s the boss of English?, takes issue with a recent article (or: list of peeves slash PR stunt) from journalist Simon Heffer, and shows why anyone claiming authority in language usage needs to look at the evidence in order to keep pace with language change:

Heffer’s list of peeves, like most such lists, abounds in misinformation and etymological fallacy: a futile insistence that we use a word this way, not that way; that it can mean only this, never that. Here and there it makes useful points, but by mixing good sense with so much demonstrable wrongness, the whole package becomes untrustworthy, as the wise John E. McIntyre points out. Especially, I think, if the aim of these non-rules is to maintain anachronistic shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on knowing them. . . .

Language has no ultimate authority except its users, from whose collective efforts it derives its conventions and power.

I’ll be returning to this topic next week, with particular focus on one peeve. In the meantime, my latest post has brief criticism, relevant links, good comments, and what I’ve called ‘the Lebowski defence’ against a certain usage proscription.

Older articles are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive. Comments are welcome in either location.