Compulsive pedantry

March 28, 2018

When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.

A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.

We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)

The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.

Do you remember when

Things were really hummin’.

Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?

Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.

At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.

I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.

As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.

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Here’s two posts on grammatical concord

March 8, 2016

My latest two posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog are about grammatical agreement, also known as concord, and focus on the flexibility of these rules. Agreeing with grammatical concord introduces the subject and briefly explains the important difference between formal and notional agreement:

Formal agreement demands strict numerical agreement: neither of these plans is perfect; four pounds are all I have; the team was successful. Notional agreement is looser, and can correspond to the overall sense rather than the explicit number: neither of these plans are perfect; four pounds is all I have; the team were successful.

Team is like family, staff, government, crowd, audience, public, company, group, jury, and other ‘nouns of multitude’ that have a foot in both singular and plural camps. In a given context, singular or plural may work better than the other by emphasising, respectively, either the collective unit or the individual parts of the subject. Sometimes singular is preferred in one dialect, plural in another.

As my post goes on to show, it can get tricky.


Next I zeroed in on the phrase there is/are, which exemplifies the distinction sketched above. There are plurals, and then there’s plurals:

There are good reasons to obey formal agreement when you use a form of there is. But there’s also reasons not to, sometimes. Using there are with a plural subject, as I did at the start of this paragraph, is formally correct, and appropriate in most situations. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or inappropriate to use there is with a plural subject, and the same goes for the reduced form there’s and the past tense there was.

Some prescriptivists would insist that a line like There’s two patients in the waiting room is wrong, end of discussion. But it’s more accurate and reasonable to just consider it less formal.

angela bourke - by salt water - short storiesTo the irritation of peevers and purists, plural nouns are used with there is (or there’s, there was, there wasn’t, etc.) not only in casual speech but in literature; my post has examples from authors such as Penelope Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, and Edna O’Brien.

A related construction, with that’s, appears in Angela Bourke’s story ‘Majella’s Quilt’ in her collection By Salt Water: ‘They think red and black are awful together, but that’s the colours I want to use.’

The one-right-way brigade may wish to limit your expressive freedom, but – as my post concludes – there’s always options in English.

Older posts can be viewed in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

May 22, 2015

As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.

In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:

The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.

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Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

February 24, 2014

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.


Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.


Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.

Fossil words, usage collisions, and Latin plurals

July 10, 2013

Time for an update on my recent writing for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I have three new articles to report.

Colliding with common sense and usage looks at a language peeve over the word collide (and collision, etc.), which says you can use these words:

only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.

In the article, I summarise the history of this belief, how it was spread by Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, among others, and what usage experts say about it.


Fossil words of yore in the offing is a brief survey and description of lexical fossils. If the term is new to you, let me explain:

we may wait with bated breath for something in the offing, but it’s unlikely that anything else in our experience is ever bated, or that we’ve made any other use of the noun offing. (Unless we’re sailors; offing can mean the part of the deep sea visible from the shore.)

These words are known as fossil words, because although they are no longer productive in the language – their creative capacity is not in fine fettle – they have been preserved in set phrases, idioms and contexts. Like physical fossils, they offer a glimpse of earlier times, throwing a light on language from days of yore.

As I go on to show, it’s not just words and short phrases that get fossilised: entire sentences do too, for example if they’re tied to some popular ritual or tradition.


Finally, The minutiae of Latin plurals addresses the consistently curious nature of English’s curiously inconsistent plurals, specifically Latin imports. I begin with a comparison of personas and personae, and note that:

The two spellings’ coexistence – some call it competition – is not unusual: witness appendixes and appendices, formulas and formulae, millenniums and millennia, referendums and referenda, stadiums and stadia, and thesauruses and thesauri, all used regularly. Neither one in any pair has ousted the other, though some eventually will. Millennia overtook its rival in the 1930s and is likely to maintain its supremacy.

There are no hard and fast rules about which plural to use and when. In certain cases the Latin is more formal or even affected, but not predictably so. Occasionally the two spellings differentiate in meaning.

See if you can think of examples of this last phenomenon, where the Latin plural and the anglicised plural of the same word have diverged semantically. Then read the rest for data on Latin plurals becoming English singulars, and other such fun.

[Archive of my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog]

Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are ‘slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time’. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.


October 25, 2011

On Twitter some time ago, I had a chat with Kory Stamper and Jeremy Kahn about the plural of octopus (octopuses? octopi? octopodes?)

This prompted Jeremy to write a rhyme, Plurals of the many-footed, in which he posed the question: “Would they think us all wusses / not to embrace the octopuses?”

I responded with eight hurried lines of nonsense, reproduced here for the pleasure (or more likely pain) of posterity:

Octopodes, they swim not run,
They have a beak but not a bill.
Larger things they tend to shun,
Littler things they tend ta kill.
But what an octopus might think –
Whether singular or plural –
Is hidden in a cloud of ink
Obscuring all things cephaloneural.

Jeremy’s post links to Kory’s helpful and popular video for Merriam-Webster about the various plurals of octopus, and to an excellent Stæfcræft & Vyākarana post on the same subject.

To these I will add this useful discussion at bradshaw of the future, who notes that “usage trumps etymology every time”.

I prefer the plural octopuses, except where rhyme or rhythm warrant one of the alternatives. An adequate summary of their merits would require several paragraphs, which would be pointless given the links above: all are worth a moment of your time, if the topic interests you.

Wikipedia also has a decent, well-referenced account.