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!’

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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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Whom’s Law of Hypercorrection

December 6, 2014

I won’t subject readers to another long, rambling post on whom. But I want to note the tendency, strongest among those who are anxious to use whom “correctly”, to use it even when who would be generally considered the grammatically appropriate choice: as subject pronoun.

Ben Zimmer at Language Log recently criticised a book review at the New Yorker in which Nathan Heller wrote: “The glorious thing about the ‘who’ and ‘whom’ distinction is that it’s simple.” This is an easy assumption to make if your grasp of who/whom grammar owes to the oversimplified instructions of the many prescriptive guides that neglect to examine register* or the trickier possible cases.

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Language cranks, hail-fellow-well-met

August 16, 2014

I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:

People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.

You can read the rest here.


Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.

Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

For older articles you can browse the archive.

The problem with Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

July 23, 2014

I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.

First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.

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Phatic communion, and lay vs. lie

July 19, 2014

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts on language matters. You’re the one for me, phatic offers an overview of phatic communion, a useful term from anthropology that refers to speech intended to establish or maintain social relations (as opposed to simply exchanging information):

A familiar example (and subset) is small talk, where people exchange greetings, good wishes, congratulations, and trivialities about the weather, recent sporting events, the state of the world, and so on.

Everyday greetings, such as How’s it going? and How are you doing?, are more about presenting a friendly attitude to someone than extracting answers from them, just as the replies – Fine, thanks, etc. – are usually stereotyped and automatic rather than necessarily being accurate indications of a person’s state. Though disliked by some people, small talk is a valuable social signalling system, as is phatic communion more generally.

The article also notes the origin of the term phatic and describes manifestations of the phenomenon in Ireland.


Laying down the lie of the land addresses a knotty issue in English usage: the difference – and overlap – between lay and lie:

In standard English lay is transitive; that is, it takes a direct object (certain idioms excepted). You don’t just lay – you lay something. But this is a relatively recent rule, and it is very often ignored, especially in speech and informal use, where people frequently talk about laying down, laying on the floor, and so on. . . .

For many people lay meaning ‘lie’ isn’t wrong at all – it’s what comes naturally. But its use in edited prose invites criticism from those who learned the rule and want to see it observed as a mark of proper English. Like many contentious usage issues, it boils down to context and personal preference.

I look briefly at the history of this pair, noting that intransitive lay is over seven centuries old and only relatively recently became a usage to be avoided in careful prose.

Comments are welcome in either location, and older posts are available in the archive.

Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com 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!

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