Variant usages are plenty

March 22, 2018

My monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this year, and I haven’t reported on it since November. So here are the latest four items I’ve written there, with excerpts to give you a flavour:

1. Macmillan’s thesaurus is a bit different, unusual, special, and unique: This post showcases unique features of the site’s thesaurus:

Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. … These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.

2. Disagreements are plenty: What can dictionary entries tell us about linguistic attitudes? I examine Samuel Johnson’s reaction to a certain use of plenty:

‘It is used, I think barbarously, for plentiful.’ The usage is supported with two citations, one of them from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘If reasons were as plenty as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.’ ‘I think barbarously’ is an interesting aside. It shows how personal feelings can override impartiality. Johnson held Shakespeare in great esteem, but even with Johnson’s command of poetry and his knowledge of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius and innovation, he cannot accept the playwright’s use of plenty to mean ‘plentiful’. In his view, it is ‘barbarous’. But […] the phrase ‘I think’ is a telling concession.

3. Loath(e) to get it wrong: Even native English speakers are often unsure of the difference between loath and loathe. Does it matter? I take a look:

Pronunciation helps to distinguish the two words, at least in most cases. In their Macmillan Dictionary entries, audio files and IPA tell us that loath is pronounced /ləʊθ/ (UK) or /loʊθ/ (US), to rhyme with ‘both’, and loathe is pronounced /ləʊð/ (UK) or /loʊð/ (US), to rhyme with ‘clothe’. This follows a phonological pattern in English, where words ending in –the take a voiced syllable: breathe, soothe, lithe, bathe, and so on, while those ending in –th are usually unvoiced. The reality is a bit messier.

4. Would you like an espresso – or an expresso? I review the status of a much-used, and much-loathed, variant pronunciation:

A half-full (or half-empty) cup of espresso on a saucer with a spoonAnother reason for the popularity of expresso is that it looks and sounds more like an English word than espresso does – albeit an imported one, with that ‘o’ at the end. Aside from esprit, another Romance-language borrowing, espresso is the only word in common use in English that begins with espr-, whereas expr- is very familiar from words like express and expression. So people unconcerned with etymology are unlikely to notice anything wrong with expresso. … Usage purists are not happy about expresso being in common use. To them, it’s wrong, end of story, and anyone who uses the word is making a careless linguistic error and a social faux pas.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Comments are welcome at either location.

[Photo © Nevit Dilmen licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

Use ‘said’ and ‘wrote’, the editor highlighted

February 18, 2015

Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.

Cartoon by Edward Steed for the New Yorker

Cartoon by Edward Steed for the New Yorker

Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had a good reason for his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:

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Writing tips from Teilhard de Chardin

June 17, 2013

Lately I read a collection of letters by the priest, palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during World War I, where he acted as stretcher-bearer on the front lines and won several medals for bravery and service.

The letters were translated from the French by René Hague and published in English as The Making of a Mind: Letters from a SoldierPriest 1914–1919. They show a side of Teilhard I had not previously seen, having read only some of his books on evolution and theology.

Teilhard’s letters include this passage of writing advice he offered his cousin, who had sent him one of her lectures for comment:

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Perfunctory paradox

April 19, 2010

Perfunctory is one of those words I learned as a teenager and find a use for maybe once or twice a year. It’s an adjective meaning “done out of duty or routine; done cursorily or mechanically, without care, interest, or enthusiasm”:

Cycling by at speed, she offered a perfunctory wave.
The spectators were distracted, their applause perfunctory.
The doorman smiled perfunctorily as the guests entered.
In the foyer she read a perfunctory summary of the emergency rules.

For some reason I recently ran a search for perfunctory on Here’s what happened:

And I thought, “How did you know!?”

It seems to be working now, but at the time I was quite taken aback by the paradox. Luckily it was just a perfunctory search.