China Miéville’s new conjunction

January 5, 2018

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

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English is not pure or in peril

November 25, 2017

On Twitter yesterday, Bryan Garner shared a quote by Arthur Schlesinger on language usage that I hadn’t come across before; it seems to be from Schlesinger’s 1974 essay ‘Politics and the American Language’:

The purity of language is under unrelenting attack from every side – from professors as well as from politicians … and not least from those indulgent compilers of modern dictionaries who propound the suicidal thesis that all usages are equal and all are correct.

There’s a lot going on there, so I’ll break it down a bit. The elided material after ‘politicians’, by the way, clunkily extends the list of attackers to include newspapermen, advertising men, men of the cloth, and men of the sword.

While we can blame men for many things, this ain’t one of them. Politically Schlesinger may have leant liberal, but linguistically he was reactionary, if that line is any indication. Its points are ignorant and extremist (‘attack’, ‘suicidal’? Come on), and laden with false premises and invidious doom-mongering.

As the Pet Shop Boys sang, I’ve got a different point of view:

To elaborate: If English were not so gloriously impure, so amenable to borrowing willy-nilly from other tongues from the year dot, we may not be speaking it today. If it survived at all, its reach – geographically and expressively – would be more provincial.

This capacity to absorb bits of other languages is a feature, not a bug. Anyone banging on about a language’s ‘purity’, unless it’s a computer language, or a constructed language that has never been used in conversation, needs a history lesson, stat.

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Getting ratioed for your bad take

November 16, 2017

Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.

Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):

Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.

And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter. (If you’ve seen it elsewhere, let me know.)

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Verbings, superlatives, and film catchphrases

November 7, 2017

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about various aspects of language use and innovation. Here are excerpts from the latest three posts, in chronological order. Click the titles to read the rest:

Verbing weirds language – but in a good way

When contact gained popular use as a verb (‘Please contact us later’), critics rejected it as a corruption and a ‘hideous vulgarism’. Nowadays most people are unaware it was ever a problem. But the same controversy has clung to the verbs impact and architect – even though both have been around for centuries. At major athletics events, there is always ‘harrumphing from the stickler brigade’, as Liz Potter reports, over the verbing of podium, medal, final and gold. For some, it’s still a tough ask.

Party on, film catchphrases!

Some films are so popular and linguistically memorable that their lines enter widespread use. It can happen with a line in a classic film, such as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (Gone with the Wind), ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (The Wizard of Oz), ‘I’ll be back’ (The Terminator), and ‘Play it again, Sam’ (Casablanca – even though that line is never used in the film). Sometimes it’s not a catchphrase but a new word that enters the language indirectly: gaslight from the 1944 film is a good example.

Good, better and best rules for comparatives and superlatives

Easyeasier and easiest illustrates another rule, one of spelling. When the adjective ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i (heavy heavier, not *heavyer). There are two other spelling rules. When the adjective ends in a mute e, add –r or –st, not –er or –est (latelater, not *lateer). And when it ends in a consonant after a stressed, single-letter vowel, double the consonant (fit fitter, not *fiter). Once we learn these rules, we can apply them broadly.


Adding a comma between the subject and predicate, is inadvisable

November 1, 2017

In his classic short book on punctuation, Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey says of the comma: ‘The writer who handles this puny little stop correctly and sensibly can probably punctuate as well as need be.’ My work as a copy-editor generally bears this out, but such proficiency is unusual. It’s a tricky mark to master.

One of the first things we learn implicitly about commas is that they’re not normally used between a subject and predicate: Jane cycles, not *Jane, cycles. They may, of course, be needed in pair form if the subject is followed by an appositive phrase (Jane, a city girl, cycles) or a non-restrictive clause (Jane, who is a city girl, cycles).

Jane, cycles is perhaps a misleading example in that the subject is short and simple, and such a mistake would be unlikely from a native-English speaker with basic education. Lengthen or complicate the subject, though, and commas begin to materialise.

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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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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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