English is not going to the dogs

November 17, 2015

Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post about descriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year by Intelligence Squared.

The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.

Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.

Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’

Read the rest of this entry »

Reconciling descriptivism with editing

November 10, 2015

A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:

Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).

Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).

Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.

Read the rest of this entry »

Double passives, real grammar, and finding fault

July 22, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about double passives, beliefs about grammar, and usage criticism. Excerpts and links follow.

In The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes), I look at a construction often criticised in writing manuals, reporting on why double passives are (sometimes) problematic, and what writers can do to avoid them:

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.


Reflections on Real Grammar follows up on Macmillan’s recent series on that topic, which included a quiz in which over 13,000 people took part. In a Twitter chat I was asked if the results surprised me. Some did, such as the 24.7% who said they would say Whom did you see at the coffee shop? rather than Who…? in a conversation with their sister:

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.


Finally, in Finding fault in the right places I examine the practice of using examples of people’s language to make a point about correctness, and stress the importance of doing this appropriately:

Criticising language use is a political act. If we say, ‘This is bad English’ or ‘X here should be Y’, then it matters who we use to illustrate our point. There is the option of making up examples, but existing ones can be more meaningful, showing readers how and where someone’s grammar or style went awry in real life.

For centuries grammarians have used examples from books and other printed material to analyse or deplore certain writing practices, often stating that their intent is not to shame but to educate. . . . Edited copy is fair game: criticism goes with the professional territory. But the same high standards should not apply to casual contexts like everyday conversation.

You can also browse my full archive of articles for Macmillan Dictionary.

Mx: a gender-neutral title; and ludic language

June 12, 2015

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first is about a term you might not be familiar with but whose profile seems certain to grow: Mx – a new gender-neutral title.

Mx, which has been in use since at least 1977, made headlines lately because an OED editor said it might be added to that dictionary soon. (So far, Macmillan appears to be the only major dictionary to have done so.) Increasing use of Mx will lead to more recognition of it, both public and official, but since it’s still quite niche I aimed mainly to cover the basics, link to resources, and make the case for its linguistic, political, and cultural value:

To date, Mx has been accepted by various local councils, universities, banks, law societies, the Royal Mail, and government services such as the NHS and HM Revenue and Customs. Clearly it is gaining momentum.

Mx has been adopted by many people who don’t identify as female or male. (Non-binary people can complete a survey on the topic here.) Such preferences should never be assumed – for example, it’s not obligatory for transgender people, but rather an option they may or may not find suitable. Speaking of preferences, Mx is usually pronounced ‘mix’ or ‘mux’, the latter reflecting a sort of stressed schwa, like the options for Ms. When I asked about it on Twitter, Mx-users confirmed both pronunciations.

Or it may be pronounced as an initialism, ‘em ex’. The post also looks briefly at some of the parallels between Mx and Ms, and at the challenges of consciously engineering language.


Ludic language and the game of grammar surveys a subject close to my heart – or rather a cluster of subjects in the intersection of language and play:

Play is something we associate with children, but there’s nothing intrinsically childish about it, and language offers a large and inviting board on which to do it. This aspect of language helps explain the longstanding tradition of verbal play in informal discourse – what we might call ludic language, from the same root (Latin ludus ‘sport, play’) as ludo and ludicrous. And it’s popular in languages around the world – the latest Ling Space video has some great examples.

Structured language games are another feature. Puns and riddles allow for variation atop a familiar template, while Scrabble, rebuses and tongue twisters are perennially popular. Nor is the playful use of language always trivial…

The post lists additional examples of language play of various structural types. This includes recent online fads like doge and can’t even, which seem deliberately ungrammatical, and I speculate on what motivates the subversive element of this linguistic behaviour.

Older posts can be found in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary.

Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

Read the rest of this entry »

Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.


One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.

Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 22,565 other followers