Accent prejudice and multiple hyphens

January 15, 2015

Time to recap my recent posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Anti-multiple-hyphen tendencies considers the strangely common aversion to ‘hyphenating up’ such compounds as self-driving car fantasists and anti-water protest groups:

The potential for ambiguity varies. The capitals in Paris Principles-compliant mechanism mean the phrase is unlikely to mislead, but in anti-social justice websites the familiarity of anti-social compared to social justice could make readers hesitate. Hyphenating the full compound solves this. . . .

[Washington Post copy editor Bill] Walsh writes that ‘what you must not do is arbitrarily decide to disconnect the unit by using only the most obvious hyphen and ditching the rest. Hyphenation is often an all-or-nothing proposition.’ I tend to agree. Hyphens misused can misdirect. But even when their presence or omission is trivial and non-life-threatening, getting it right (or as right as possible; there are grey areas) matters as a courtesy to readers. It gives them confidence in the writer-editor-publisher team.

The post has further discussion of the problem along with opinions from other editors.


Accent prejudice in the mainstream was prompted by two items: an article by Dr Katie Edwards in the UK Telegraph about the appalling extent of accentism in the academic world; and a Channel 4 quiz show on which a participant had his Scottish accent mocked.

[A]s we grow up we get used to hearing other accents, some like our own, some not, and we see nothing to gain by making fun of them. Quite the contrary: phonetic diversity can be a source of cordial fun and interest regardless of any background in linguistics or dialectology. . . .

Criticising someone’s speech, whether it’s the sound of their vowels or their use of ‘improper’ regionalisms, is often a socially sanctioned way of expressing distaste for their socio-economic status, educational history, or area of origin. It says nothing about the person with the accent except bare facts or probabilities about their background. But it says a lot about the person making the criticism, none of it favourable.

You can read the rest for more on accent prejudice in different domains, or browse older articles in my archive at Macmillan.


Lane Greene at the Economist follows up on what he calls ‘the last acceptable prejudice’.

Tips from professional proofreaders

December 15, 2014

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From:


Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

Read the rest of this entry »

Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix -y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

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.


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