Whose only passive

October 29, 2019

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.


Lingthusiasm: a new podcast about linguistics

January 2, 2017

Two of my favourite linguabloggers, Lauren Gawne of Superlinguo and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic, have teamed up to create a podcast called Lingthusiasm – so named because they’re enthusiastic about linguistics. If you share this enthusiasm and interest, you’re sure to enjoy their new show.

lingthusiasm-linguistics-podcastSo far there are three episodes: on languages constructed to expedite world peace, and why they’re destined to fail; on the many types and functions of pronouns; and on the fine sci-fi film Arrival (2016), whose protagonist is a linguist encountering an alien language. At 30–35 minutes long, discussions stray into related topics without losing sight of the main current.

All the shows to date have been fun and illuminating, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they talk about next. Lauren and Gretchen know their stuff, have an easy rapport, and are skilled at pitching linguistic concepts to a general audience. I also like the mix of Australian and Canadian dialects.

You can tune in to Lingthusiasm on Tumblr, iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, or you can use this RSS feed to download mp3s directly, as I’ve been doing. Happy listening!


The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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How gender-neutral is ‘guys’, you guys?

February 22, 2016

Guy has followed an improbable path from its origin as an eponym for Guy Fawkes to its common and versatile use today. It’s increasingly popular as a term to address mixed-gender and all-female groups, but not everyone welcomes this development (see video below). So how gender-neutral is guys, you guys?

Instead of a simple answer there’s a spectrum that depends heavily on context. But we can draw some general conclusions, as I did in an article at Slate’s Lexicon Valley on guy(s) as a gender-neutral word:

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Ye, youse and yiz in Irish English speech

January 25, 2016

In modern standard English, you as second person pronoun serves a multitude of purposes: singular and plural, subject and object, formal and informal. It wasn’t always so.

Centuries ago the language had singular thou and thee, plural ye and you. The numerical distinction then changed to one of register: thou and thee for familiar use and for speaking to children or people of lower social standing; ye and you for marking courtesy or respect.

Gradually ye and you shifted to the default position, supplanting thou and thee, which were marginalised to regional, religious, and archaic use. Then ye began to wane, for a variety of reasons, until you had taken centre stage as the pronoun of choice in singular and plural uses in all registers – but not all dialects.

Hiberno-English is one dialect where ye is found: I grew up using it in the west of Ireland, and I find it extremely useful. Ye behaves much like you: we have yeer ‘your’, yeers ‘yours’, ye’ll ‘you’ll’, ye’d ‘you’d’, ye’ve ‘you’ve’, ye’re ‘you’re’, and yeerselves ‘yourselves’ (all plural).

These are far more often spoken than written, so they’re less codified than the standard paradigm for you. But I would still consider ye’re ‘your’ in this Irish Examiner article an error (yere without the apostrophe is less wayward):

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He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Annals of animals which get ‘who’

May 27, 2015

In a local newspaper some time ago I read about ‘dormice . . . who nest in shrubs and hedgerows’. The grammar of this phrase struck me enough to write a brief post on the different kinds of antecedent for which we use the relative pronouns who, that, and which.

When referring to animals we usually use that or which, reserving who for people, or entities that comprise people. But who may also be used for animate entities with personality or the implication thereof, and this includes non-human animals – even dormice, I was pleased to see.

As the table below shows, who is especially likely to be used with pets, companion animals, or domesticated or very familiar animals. If the creature has been personalized with a name or by establishing its sex, there’s a good chance it will warrant who.

I read another example recently in the very first entry in Paul Anthony Jones’s book Word Drops:

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