How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

June 24, 2022

Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*

This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:

“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”

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Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

June 1, 2022

This Reuters story about monkeypox, published on 30 May 2022, has an unfortunate ambiguity in its headline:

Beneath the Reuters logo is the headline, in black on white: 'Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic, WHO says'

The same headline appeared on sites syndicating the report, like Yahoo! News and Nasdaq, and with trivial differences at the US’s ABC News, India’s Business Standard, Singapore’s Straits Times, and others.

The problem is the main clause:

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Wordable awareness

April 7, 2022

I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:

‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’

Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:

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We ourself can use this pronoun

March 25, 2022

On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*

Still image from The Warriors. Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright, is shown in close-up wearing a head-dress, saying, 'I think we'd better go have a look for ourself.' It's night time, and the background shows pale blurry lights.

Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.

But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.

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Book review: The Rise of English, by Rosemary Salomone

December 13, 2021

For much of the previous millennium, a pidgin language was used around the Mediterranean for trading, diplomatic, and military purposes. Based originally on Italian and Occitano-Romance languages, it had indirect ties to the Germanic Franks and thus gained the term lingua franca.

Nowadays that phrase tends to be applied to Latin or English. Latin’s time as the default international language of learning ended long ago; English’s status as a lingua franca is still broader but very much in flux – and politically fraught, simultaneously uniting and dividing the world.

Tackling this topic is a new book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language, by Rosemary Salomone, a linguist and law professor in New York. Her impressive book (sent to me by OUP for review) does much to clarify the forces behind English’s position as a lingua franca and what the future might hold.

Having a lingua franca brings great benefits for travel, business, politics, and research: witness the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were developed through international scientific collaboration. But English’s primacy rests on centuries of violence and exploitation. The power dynamics have shifted but remain unbalanced and entangled with complex threads of post-colonial identity.

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Emoji reaction cards

November 24, 2021

Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.

Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.

Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.

I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji:

9 squarish pieces of cardboard, arranged 3x3 on a wooden floor. On each card I've drawn and coloured an emoji. From top left: Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes, Hundred Points, Grinning Squinting Face, Upside-Down Face, Thinking Face, Eyes, Grimacing Face, Pile of Poo, Partying Face.

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How well read should editors be?

October 13, 2021

Asked about their work, experienced copy-editors point to the importance of reading – and reading broadly. It’s well-founded advice. Editors tend to be avid readers, but with biases for and against certain types of books, such as we all have. And any budding editor who isn’t a voracious reader might consider that lack of appetite a red flag.

But just how does diverse and eclectic reading help us edit? Are there books, or types of books, that are essential reading for editors? And what of editors who forgo fiction and would not dream of reading anything ‘unrealistic’ or formally experimental: Are they missing out, even if they edit only non-fiction?

I was invited to explore these questions for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly the SfEP), which has now made my essay freely available: How well read should editors be? In it I write:

Broad reading opens us up to diverse world views, the same way that talking with different kinds of people does, and this informs our work. More directly, it familiarises us with lesser-known words and their habitats and collocations. It trains the ear on different forms of authorial rhythm, narrative, and humour. It accustoms us to different writing styles and devices, metaphors and clichés, norms and lexicons. Reading from different eras and dialects educates us on the inexorable drift of idiom.

The head for my essay, with the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading logo (blue circle, white initialism) in the top right. Under the heading 'Focus', for focus paper, is the essay title ('How well read should editors be?') followed by my name.

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