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.


Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

November 19, 2018

Misnegation is an obscure word for a common phenomenon. You won’t find it in dictionaries, but you can probably figure out that it means some kind of ‘incorrect negation’ – not to be confused with double negatives (‘multiple negation’), criticism of which tends to be dubious.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

Misnegation is where we say something with negatives in it that don’t add up the way we intend. We lose track of the logic and reverse it inadvertently. For example, I might say that the likelihood of misnegation cannot be understated, when I mean it cannot be overstated – it is, in fact, easily understated.

Misnegation often occurs with overstate or understate, overestimate or underestimate, but it can take many, many forms. It pops up in all sorts of places, including large print on official signs, as this example from Helen Stevens shows. Even Hägar the Horrible once said, ‘I miss not having’ when he really meant ‘I miss having’:

Hägar the Horrible cartoon with two panels. Panel 1: Hägar and friend are walking in a snowy landscape. Hägar says, "This is the only time of year when I miss not having a nine-to-five job!" His friend asks why. Panel 2, panned back showing evergreen trees, and undulating landscape, and more snow. Hägar says: "I never get to go to an office Christmas party!"

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The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

October 14, 2018

The process of writing is in large part a rewriting and an editing process. After the process of getting some text down, you begin the rearranging process and the snipping process. This process is—

Wait, let me try that again.

Writing is in large part rewriting and editing. After getting some text down, you begin rearranging and snipping. This is…

Much better.

In my work as a copy-editor, especially with academic and business texts, I see superfluous process a lot. It’s a popular crutch word, established among writers’ unconscious bad habits.

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Irishisms in City of Bohane

March 11, 2018

He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.

This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.

Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.

Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.

Divil is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his territory’.

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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‘I’m done my homework’, part II

May 15, 2017

In February I discussed a usage item that popped up in a crime novel by Michael Connelly (‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’). In fact there were a couple of related items: the use of done for finished (‘I’m done eating’), and the use of done in phrases like I’m done my work, as opposed to I’ve done my work or I’m done with my work.

The first of these is really a non-issue, peeved about only by peevers who love peeving peevily. The second one is more interesting, as it’s a dialectal usage apparently little known beyond those areas where it’s perfectly normal. I’m done my homework may grate on ears unused to it, but it’s in no way wrong: it’s just nonstandard.

The next month, by complete coincidence, I encountered the construction again, this time in non-fiction. Even better, it came with lexicographic expertise and sociolinguistic commentary, because the source was Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, a writer and editor of dictionaries at Merriam-Webster.

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Fowler, the ‘instinctive grammatical moralizer’

May 3, 2017

Shortly before H. W. Fowler’s renowned Dictionary of Modern English Usage appeared, almost a century ago, excerpts from it were published in the tracts of the Society for Pure English (Fowler was a member) and subject to critical commentary. One entry proved especially contentious, sparking a lively exchange with linguist Otto Jespersen.

These two grammatical heavyweights disagreed over what Fowler called the fused participle (aka possessive with gerund, or genitive before a gerund): a phrase like it led to us deciding, instead of the possessive form that Fowler would insist on: it led to our deciding.

When Fowler scorned the construction as ‘grammatically indefensible’, Jespersen (also in the tracts) defended it on historical principles and called Fowler’s piece ‘a typical specimen of the method of what I call the instinctive grammatical moralizer’.

Fowler’s reaction is described in The Warden of English, Jenny McMorris’s enjoyable and solidly researched account of the lexicographer’s life and work:

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