That puzzling omission

May 31, 2020

The following line appeared in a recent article in the Guardian:

Researchers who questioned more than 90,000 adults found “complete” compliance with government safety measures, such as physical distancing and staying at home, had dropped in the past two weeks from an average of 70% of people to less than 60%.

Notice the problem? This is a good example of a ‘garden path’ sentence. It leads readers up the garden path before the syntax takes a sudden turn that forces them to rearrange and reprocess what they’ve just read.

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Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

May 11, 2020

An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:

Book titled "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" with text in white all caps on a bright orange background, with a double border of two thin white lines. Smaller text at the bottom reads: "Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013". In the bottom right corner is the Penguin publisher's logo.I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.

This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.

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Eggcorns, complements, and multiple modals

April 21, 2020

For my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about these linguistic items.

Wet your appetite for eggcorns is an overview of that special type of error known by linguists as eggcorns, examples of which include wet your appetite and gun-ho:

Close-up of acorn danging at the end of a thin stem. The acorn is green in a pale-brown cap and points down towards the ground. The background is greenish-grey and out of focus.Whet is not a common or familiar verb, but wet is, and wet suggests the way your mouth waters or your stomach juices flow when you’re about to eat. So wet your appetite seems right. Gung-ho means ‘very enthusiastic, especially about something that might be dangerous’, but gung (from Chinese) is not a familiar morpheme in English, whereas gun is – and gun is strongly associated with danger. Hence gun-ho.

The post shows how eggcorns differ from folk etymologies, malapropisms, and mondegreens. (Inevitably, someone was enraged by the headline and jumped straight to the comments section.)


You might should know about double modals looks at a grammatical feature used in some dialects of English, especially in the USA but also in Scotland and northern England:

Can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought, and dare are modal verbs (aka modal auxiliaries, or just modals for short). Combine them and you get a double modal. The most common forms, at least in American English, are might could, might can, and might would, but many other pairs occur: might should, may can, should ought, must can, may will, and so on. Different combinations will be more or less typical or acceptable for different users.

I came across one just this morning (‘We might could work that together’) in the book I’m reading, Fear Itself by Walter Mosley – who also featured in my earlier post on multiple modals – but I never hear them spoken in Ireland.


A complement of compliments aims to sort out these words and their associated adjectives, complimentary and complementary. Confusable pairs like these are often explained in books and on websites without any help with remembering the difference, which is where the real problem lies. So I offer mnemonics:

Complement probably gives people more difficulty. Its meaning is related to complete, with which it shares the first six letters – including that ‘e’ in the middle, which is our next mnemonic. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the verb, sense 1, has the sample line: ‘The plants are chosen to complement each other’, and for sense 2: ‘This project is intended to complement, not replace, local authority programmes.’ Both convey the sense of something being completed – or supplemented, which, with its medial ‘e’, reinforces the mnemonic.

If you have alternative mnemonics, or even complementary ones, let’s hear them.

[Image cropped from original by Rene Mensen, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.]

The impassable barrier of language

April 10, 2020

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:

Book cover has a thick white border with the title in black all-caps at the top and the author's name at the bottom. Between them is a large photo of a conch shell stuck in a sandy beach, pointy bit down and its open side facing the viewer. The sand is pale brown, and the sea is light blue and blurry in the background. The shell is cream-coloured with brown bands and a deep pink interior.She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately,  impassable.

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Link love: language (74)

March 23, 2020

Language links ahoy. If you’re looking to pass an hour or a few with some linguistic reading and audiovisual material, see what takes your fancy from the selection below (there are lots more after the fold). A couple of them are even about you know what.


Forest dialect words.

Viral language and racism.

What counts as a slur, and why?

The Iron Curtain lives on as an isogloss.

Newly published: the Mother Jones style guide.

Science Diction: a new, bite-sized etymology podcast.

Irish English as the new EU working language [my annotations]

Emoji are to digital messages what gestures are to speech.

Solving the mystery of honeybee dance ‘dialects’.

When translation means editing the machines.

The newly launched Opie Archive.

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Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

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Vocative commas, -ise/-ize, and the -fishing libfix

January 16, 2020

My monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year. Here are the most recent three posts.

In Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix, I report on -fishing, which has been quite productive since originating in catfishing about a decade ago:

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. It comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. . . . Libfix is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated.

Blackfishing and sadfishing are among the more prominent spin-off terms, but many others have been coined by analogy, and ‘all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance’.

Criticizing -ize and -ise explores this suffix, a common source of new verbs in English. After tackling the idea that such neologisms should be minimized (e.g., Garner says they are ‘usually ungainly and often superfluous’), I consider the vexed question of spelling:

The –ise suffix comes from French, ize from the earlier Greek. Popular lore says simplistically that -ize is American and -ise British. American English does mandate -ize, but it’s also standard in British usage and is the default for some publishers, including Macmillan and Oxford. British English also uses -ise, and it is house style for some newspapers and magazines, such as the Guardian and Economist. Englishes around the world use either.

Hello, vocative comma looks at the comma you often see between a greeting word and a name:

Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?

It’s called the vocative comma because these structures are in the vocative case. (The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’.) But the vocative comma is used in many other types of situation, as the post goes on to show.