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.

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The prescriptivism is coming from inside the house

September 30, 2017

Still playing catch-up on Michael Connelly’s books, I recently read his novel The Drop, which features his usual protagonist, LA-based police detective Harry Bosch. Bosch is at home watching a security tape (well, a DVD), on his teenage daughter’s laptop. She asks him what it’s about. Bosch says to her:

‘This guy checking in, he goes up to his room on the seventh floor last night and this morning he’s found on the sidewalk below. I have to figure out if he jumped or if he got dropped.’

She stopped the playback.

‘If he was dropped, Dad. Please. You sound like a palooka when you talk like that.’

‘Sorry. How do you know what a “palooka” is, anyway?’

‘Tennessee Williams. I read. A palooka is an old fighter who’s like a lout. You don’t want to be like that.’

It’s not the first time Madeline has corrected her father. In ‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’ I reported how (in Connelly’s The Reversal) she upbraided him for using nonstandard grammar: a dialect usage of the form I’m done my work. Me, I’d rather be a palooka than a peever, but Madeline is young; she’ll come round yet.

Connelly’s books are usually well edited, but The Drop has a few questionable items worth a look – not to find fault, but out of editorial and readerly interest. First:

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Bewondered by obsolete be- words

September 25, 2017

The prefix be- has a wide range of meanings and applications. It can be added, forming transitive verbs, to nouns (befriend), adjectives (belittle), and other verbs (bespeak) and it can help turn nouns into participial adjectives (witch bewitched; suit besuited).

Prefixing a word with be- often lends the sense ‘about, around, all over’ or ‘completely’. It can also intensify it, as in the line ‘Snails, much despised, bekicked, and becrushed’ in George Kearley’s natural history book Links in the Chain (1863). Or it can suggest affecting or afflicting something greatly, as in bestench (1568) ‘to afflict with stench’.

The prefix was common in Old English, appearing in words like befealdan ‘fold round’ and behātan ‘promise’ (examples are from Burchfield’s The English Language) and becoming part of prepositions like before, behind, below, beneath, and beyond. In Middle English be- continued to spread, being added also to imports from French and other Romance languages: becalm, beguile, belabour, besiege.

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Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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‘I’m done my homework’, part II

May 15, 2017

In February I discussed a usage item that popped up in a crime novel by Michael Connelly (‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’). In fact there were a couple of related items: the use of done for finished (‘I’m done eating’), and the use of done in phrases like I’m done my work, as opposed to I’ve done my work or I’m done with my work.

The first of these is really a non-issue, peeved about only by peevers who love peeving peevily. The second one is more interesting, as it’s a dialectal usage apparently little known beyond those areas where it’s perfectly normal. I’m done my homework may grate on ears unused to it, but it’s in no way wrong: it’s just nonstandard.

The next month, by complete coincidence, I encountered the construction again, this time in non-fiction. Even better, it came with lexicographic expertise and sociolinguistic commentary, because the source was Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, a writer and editor of dictionaries at Merriam-Webster.

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Link love: language (69)

May 9, 2017

As usual I’ve left it late to do a linkfest, so I have a bumper crop of 50 language links for you this month. There are more podcasts than usual, so you can spare your eyes and treat your ears between reads.

54 Irish curses.

Slang family trees.

The tragedy of Google Books.

Interactive speech synthesiser.

How etymology can help your spelling.

Podcasts about language and linguistics.

The thing is is that ‘is is’ is surprisingly common.

Free e-book (PDF): Applied Sociolinguistics (1984), ed. Peter Trudgill.

Language use and names in classical Rome (podcast).

‘Good grammar’ comes from privilege, not virtue.

Samtaims ai vonder if inglis spiiking piipöl…

Language and feral children (podcast).

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Fowler, the ‘instinctive grammatical moralizer’

May 3, 2017

Shortly before H. W. Fowler’s renowned Dictionary of Modern English Usage appeared, almost a century ago, excerpts from it were published in the tracts of the Society for Pure English (Fowler was a member) and subject to critical commentary. One entry proved especially contentious, sparking a lively exchange with linguist Otto Jespersen.

These two grammatical heavyweights disagreed over what Fowler called the fused participle (aka possessive with gerund, or genitive before a gerund): a phrase like it led to us deciding, instead of the possessive form that Fowler would insist on: it led to our deciding.

When Fowler scorned the construction as ‘grammatically indefensible’, Jespersen (also in the tracts) defended it on historical principles and called Fowler’s piece ‘a typical specimen of the method of what I call the instinctive grammatical moralizer’.

Fowler’s reaction is described in The Warden of English, Jenny McMorris’s enjoyable and solidly researched account of the lexicographer’s life and work:

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