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.

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Notes on language from Steve Martin

October 14, 2015

Yes, that Steve Martin. I just read Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, his engaging account of his early years as a stand-up comedian and gag writer for TV, and I’d like to share a few short passages that relate to language.

On one of his endless trips around America as an aspiring freelance comic, Martin began taping his shows with a cassette recorder ‘in case I ad-libbed something wonderful’. This led to his abandoning a routine in which he drank a couple of glasses of wine, because when listening to the tape later he could hear himself slurring. He never drank alcohol before or during a show again.

He also made another significant change based on reviewing the tapes:

Texas-born and California-raised, I realized I was dropping my “ings” – runnin’, walkin’, and talkin’ – and I worked like Eliza Doolittle to elevate my speech. It was a struggle; at first I thought I sounded pretentious and unnatural. But I did it, though now and then I slip back into my natural way of speakin’.

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Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

May 12, 2015

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

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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.

Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

March 13, 2015

She be’s out on that bike every Sunday

They do be up late chatting

Everyone knows about grammatical tense – it involves placing a situation in time, using inflections and auxiliaries to mark temporal location in the past, present, future, etc. Aspect, though less familiar, also concerns time: specifically, how a speaker views the temporal structure or properties of an action or situation, such as whether it’s complete, habitual, or still in progress.

So for example, in the progressive aspect an action is, was, or will be in progress: am walking, was writing, will be singing. It pairs auxiliary be with a gerund-participle complement (__ing). The terminology can be forbidding, but the structure is familiar.

Then there’s habitual aspect for habitual or repeated events or states. In the past tense, English can use would (She would make tea when we called) or used to (We used to meet daily). In English present tense, habitual aspect is not marked, and is often indicated with adverbs or adverbials: We go there [regularly / all the time].

Irish English, also called Hiberno-English, can express habitual aspect in present tense by enlisting Irish (Gaelic) grammar. In Irish, tá mé (which can contract to táim) means ‘I am’, literally ‘is me’. But bíonn mé (→ bím) means ‘I (habitually) am’ – a different sense of be. The distinction is so intrinsic to Irish that our ancestors refashioned English to incorporate it.

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German-speaking-proficiency shame

February 2, 2015

The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:

The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.

That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”

Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.

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’.


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