Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

November 11, 2016

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.

Gender differences in conversational rituals

May 31, 2016

Here is a short clip of Deborah Tannen describing one way boys and girls express themselves differently:

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Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

December 21, 2015

English has no standard punctuation mark or typographic style to show sarcasm or verbal irony. This lack has inspired a whole menagerie of proposals over the centuries, including backwards question marks, upside-down or zigzag exclamation marks, and left-slanting typefaces (‘ironics’, ‘Sartalics’). Some have gained niche usage, while others faded more or less instantly: only the winking smiley ;-) ;) has become widespread, and only in informal text.

I notice the gap sometimes when chatting online, for example when I misinterpret someone’s tone or they misinterpret mine. A tongue-in-cheek statement can easily be taken at face value if the reader doesn’t know the writer well. This happens often on Twitter, where strangers’ statements can spread without much pragmatic context.

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A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

July 16, 2015

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.

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’.

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Non-apologies and their many names

November 21, 2014

Non-apologies are a curious beast. I mean the kind of statement that purports to be an apology – e.g. for bad behaviour or hurtful remarks – but isn’t a sincere apology at all.

Linguistically and psychologically they fascinate me, even as they exasperate. So I wrote about this for Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog:

When guilty people aren’t really sorry (or are worried about the legal implications), they don’t want to make a direct, unqualified admission. This is not a definitive science: Someone might say “I’m very sorry for what I did” and not mean it, or apologize tortuously but with heartfelt intent. Nevertheless, non-apologies tend to ring conspicuously false, being variously couched in ifs, buts, hedges, deflection, qualification, self-absorption, euphemism, defensiveness, obfuscation, and the agentless passive voice (“Mistakes were made”). I’m just sorry I got called out is a common subtext.

Non-apologies also have a lot of names. I tend to use non-apology; it’s concise, transparent, well-formed and cadenced. But I’ve also used nonpology, unapology, fauxpology, pseudo-apology, and sorry not sorry. And there are others: I’ve seen about 20 so far. This is partly because there’s no standard term for them yet, and also because their content and structure vary so much.

You can pop over to Lexicon Valley to see a list, to read more about the nature of non-apologies (and gasp in horror at real-life examples), and to find out what constitutes a genuine apology. The Lexicon Valley blog is excellent, by the way. So is the podcast, but you knew that.


false apology cards - Tony Carrillo F minus comics

[F Minus comic by Tony Carillo, via Language Log]


If the subject interests you, particularly its psychological aspects, read Rascality’s ‘The difference between explaining & apologizing‘ and his follow-up case study.

A noteworthy example from Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny: “I take responsibility for this having evolved to what people might imagine it is.”

Broadcast(ed), critical critiques, and twigging

September 23, 2014

Every other Monday I have a new post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. It’s several weeks since I reported on this, so here are excerpts from, and links to, the last three.

Broadcast(ed) and forecast(ed) considers the variation in past tense forms of these sometimes-irregular verbs, and what their users and usage authorities have to say about them:

Most people use the shorter, uninflected past-tense forms forecast and broadcast, just as we say an actor was cast in a role, not *casted. Forecasted and broadcasted surged in popularity in the first half of the 20th century, but they are now minority usages.

Forecast and broadcast arose by adding a prefix to cast, and so the argument goes that we shouldn’t say forecasted or broadcasted any more than we would say *casted. But people who choose them may be verbing the nouns forecast and broadcast, independent of the cast–cast–cast paradigm. This would give them more licence to add the –ed suffix. [Read on]


A critique of ‘criticism’ compares criticise and critique and their associated nouns – words with overlapping meanings but markedly different tones. I begin with criticise and criticism:

The two senses of these words – one judgemental and fault-finding, the other neutral and evaluative – exist side by side in modern English, though the balance is uneven. With set phrases like literary criticism and film criticism, the analytical sense is a given. But more often the word is used negatively (He can’t take criticism), and the same goes for criticise.

When we express an opinion, we usually want to avoid giving offence – and when we offer criticism, the chances of doing so are considerable. So language has many strategies for being polite. . . . Critique probably grew in popularity as a result of criticise gaining pejorative connotations. [Read on]


Finally, Can you twig it? looks at an informal word of uncertain origins, and examines the possibility of an Irish etymology:

At an early age in Ireland I learned the Irish word tuig, meaning ‘understand’, often used in common phrases like An dtuigeann tú? (‘Do you understand?’). You can hear several regional pronunciations of the word at the excellent Irish dictionary website Foclóir.ie. Comparing tuig with twig we find they sound alike and mean similar things. Of course, this could simply be coincidental – but the correspondence, while inconclusive, is certainly suggestive.

Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says this Irish derivation for twig is possible, while Loreto Todd’s Green English says it ‘may well’ be the origin. Bernard Share’s Slanguage is less convinced, indicating instead that the two words have been confused. [Read on]

The full archive of my posts for Macmillan is available here.