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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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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Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.

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As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


Adverbial ‘deep’ and Shakespearean ‘do’

June 1, 2016

For my regular column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about flat adverbs and how our use of the word do has changed since Early Modern English.

I’ll start with the latter. Much ado about ‘do’ summarises the main uses of this complicated verb, then considers how modern usage compares with Shakespeare’s. Here’s a short excerpt:

Sometimes auxiliary do is inessential but included anyway. In ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is semantically superfluous, since the meaning of Conscience makes cowards of us all is basically the same. But do in this position was common in Shakespeare’s time, as Lane Greene notes. Nowadays it often serves to emphasise the verb following it – see sense 3 in Macmillan’s entry.

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Next up: Is adverbial ‘deep’ used wrong? is a defence of flat adverbs – adverbs that look just like their associated adjectives, such as deep and wrong. The resemblance leads to some muddled thinking and misguided claims:

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Passive voice peeving and ignorance

May 13, 2016

Despite all the solid, readily available information on the passive voice, there remains a great deal of misinformation and confusion about it. This confusion, far from being limited to non-specialists, pervades professional circles too – journalists, for example, but also journalism professors and authors of writing manuals.

A case in point is Essential English: For Journalists, Editors and Writers by Sir Harold Evans. First published as Newsman’s English in 1972, book one of a five-volume manual of newspaper writing and design, it was fully revised by Crawford Gillan and published by Pimlico in 2000, also incorporating book three, News Headlines (1974).

Essential English first wades into the passive-voice swamp in Chapter 2, in a section titled ‘Be Active’:

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New slang and old prescriptions

January 11, 2016

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I review a list of ‘words you’re using wrong’ from – unusually for this sort of thing – a linguist.

Appraising Pinker’s prescriptions shows that Stephen Pinker has good advice on foreign plurals and some confusable pairs of words. But on other items his guidance seems unduly strict. For example:

The article insists that begs the question ‘does not mean raises the question’. But outside of philosophical contexts, it nearly always does – whether you like it or not. And it says literally ‘does not mean figuratively’ – but people seldom if ever use it that way: the disputed use is when literally intensifies something that may be figurative.

The article says fulsome ‘does not mean full or copious’ – but it can. It says refute ‘does not mean to allege to be false’ – but this is a preference, not an accurate description of how refute is used. Disinterested, we’re told, ‘means unbiased and does not mean uninterested’, but in fact the word commonly has both meanings – and despite claims of ambiguity, these multiple senses don’t generally interfere with clear communication.

Read the rest for further analysis and my conclusions and recommendations.

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In today’s post at Macmillan, Your new favourite slang rebuts the knee-jerk reaction against slang and other new informal usages, advising tolerance and patience with people’s language.

It also looks at what new words and phrases people (including me) have been adding to their everyday speech:

I haven’t added bae or fleek to my active vocabulary, and have no immediate plans to, but I have added other new usages. I find hangry (and the related noun hanger) a handy jocular word to describe the feeling of irritation due to hunger. Other relatively new additions to my idiolect include because X and throw shade – though on the occasions I use these I do so chiefly online, where they’re more familiar to people.

Curious about what new usages other people have adopted, especially in speech, I asked on Twitter and got lots of interesting replies . . .

You can click through to read them and offer your own suggestions. Older posts can be browsed in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Due to Alice in Blenderland

December 16, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Due to general usage, this phrase is fine looks at the compound preposition due to, my use of which in the post title would be considered ungrammatical by some prescriptivists:

They say due must function as an adjective, which it commonly does after a linking verb. So they would accept a phrase like: ‘Our delay was due to traffic’, but not: ‘We were delayed due to traffic’. Fowler considered the latter usage ‘illiterate’ and ‘impossible’, while Eric Partridge said it was ‘not acceptable’.

These judgements, which have been inherited by some of today’s critics, may seem unnecessarily restrictive to you. They certainly do to me, and to the millions of English speakers who for centuries have ignored the ‘rule’. Writers, too.

The post goes on to show a change in attitudes in favour of the usage, and why there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it anyway.

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Humpty Dumpty and Alice through the looking-glass portmanteau - John TennielAlice in Blenderland completes my series of posts on Alice in Wonderland to mark the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication by Macmillan in 1865. It reviews the portmanteau words (aka blends) that Lewis Carroll coined:

Carroll’s famous nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, which features in Through the Looking-Glass, supplies several examples. Some have entered general use: chortle, for instance, is an expressive term blending chuckle and snort; galumph (appearing in the poem as galumphing) may derive from gallop and triumphant; and burble combines bleat, murmur, and warble – though Carroll could not recall creating it this way, and burble has also been a variant spelling of bubble since the fourteenth century.

I then look at some of Carroll’s lesser known portmanteaus and some lesser liked ones that he had nothing to do with – at least not directly.

My older posts on words and language for Macmillan Dictionary can be viewed here.