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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How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

March 3, 2017

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-1

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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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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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Prefixes and pearl clutchers

January 31, 2017

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about a prefix going independent and a slew of new insults.

Familiar as a prefix of negation, dis- can also tell us less obvious things about some of the words it modifies, as I explore in Don’t dis this prefix:

Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.

The post goes on to discuss how dis- broke free of its bound status to become the standalone verb dis or diss, meaning ‘disrespect’.

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Pearl clutchers, snowflakes, elites and SJWs examines some insults currently in vogue in political debates and online arguments. It begins with elite:

Though the word’s traditional meaning and connotations are positive – elite sportsperson, elite team of astronauts – nowadays it’s often used pejoratively, much as the derived words elitist and elitism usually are. Discussing elite as her word of the week, Nancy Friedman noted that while it is ‘ubiquitous and positive’ in branding, in political discourse it has ‘become a term of opprobrium’. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry presents the difference neatly.

You can read the whole thing for more on these weaponized words, and catch up on older posts in my Macmillan Dictionary archive.


12 words peculiar to Irish English

January 18, 2017

Irish people are known for having a way with words. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it isn’t, but either way we first need the words to have a chance of having our way with them. And some words, like amn’t and fooster, are distinctive and beloved features of the dialect.

The post title exaggerates a little: by words I mean words or usages, and some of the items below appear in other dialects too. But all are characteristic of Irish English (aka Hiberno-English), whether integral to its grammar or produced on occasions of unalloyed Irishness.

Each entry links to a blog post all about the word or usage in question, so click through if you want more detail on pronunciation, etymology, examples, variations, and so on. Off we go:

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1. Plámás is an Irish word borrowed into Irish English meaning ‘empty flattery or wheedling’. It’s sometimes used witheringly in reference to political speech, for some reason.

2. Sleeveen is more strongly political, a scathing phonosemantic word for a sly, smooth-tongued operator who will say anything to advance their private agenda. Again it’s from Irish, anglicised from slíbhín.

3. Amn’t, short for am not, is a national grammatical treasure. Though criticised by prescriptivists, it’s common throughout Ireland, and, in interrogative syntax, is more logical than the standard but irregular aren’t I.

4. Notions in Ireland means either amorous behaviour, sexual inclinations; or pretentious affectation, ideas above one’s station. Pray that you interpret it right if you hear it.

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Lingthusiasm: a new podcast about linguistics

January 2, 2017

Two of my favourite linguabloggers, Lauren Gawne of Superlinguo and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic, have teamed up to create a podcast called Lingthusiasm – so named because they’re enthusiastic about linguistics. If you share this enthusiasm and interest, you’re sure to enjoy their new show.

lingthusiasm-linguistics-podcastSo far there are three episodes: on languages constructed to expedite world peace, and why they’re destined to fail; on the many types and functions of pronouns; and on the fine sci-fi film Arrival (2016), whose protagonist is a linguist encountering an alien language. At 30–35 minutes long, discussions stray into related topics without losing sight of the main current.

All the shows to date have been fun and illuminating, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they talk about next. Lauren and Gretchen know their stuff, have an easy rapport, and are skilled at pitching linguistic concepts to a general audience. I also like the mix of Australian and Canadian dialects.

You can tune in to Lingthusiasm on Tumblr, iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, or you can use this RSS feed to download mp3s directly, as I’ve been doing. Happy listening!