A to Z of English usage myths

October 3, 2017

English usage lore is full of myths and hobgoblins. Some have the status of zombie rules, heeded by millions despite being bogus and illegitimate since forever (split infinitives, preposition-stranding). Other myths attach to particular words and make people unsure how to use them ‘properly’ (decimate, hopefully), leading in some cases to what linguists call ‘nervous cluelessness’ about language use.

These myths spread and survive for various reasons. On one side is the appeal of superiority. On the other is fear of embarrassment: We play it safe rather than risk ridicule and ‘correction’. We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.*

So if a self-appointed expert on English asserts a rule, some will lap it up no matter its validity. The unedifying results are laid bare in reference works like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which, with rigour and wit, summarises centuries of confusion and argument over whether A or B is correct when often both are or each is appropriate in a different variety of English.

Condescending Wonka meme, with text: 'Oh, you use formal English all the time? How satisfying for you'Huge effort is wasted on such trivialities. So, as a quick exercise in myth-busting (and amusing myself), I posted an A to Z of English usage myths on Twitter last week. Reactions were mostly positive, but some items inevitably proved contentious, as we’ll see.

You can click through on this initial tweet for the full A–Z plus supplements on Twitter, or you can read the lightly edited version below, followed by extra notes and quotes now that the 140-character limit doesn’t apply.

Read the rest of this entry »


“Whom”: to reprise

August 1, 2016

Here’s a curious incident at the NYT, courtesy of author and economist Paul Krugman. On Twitter yesterday, Krugman mentioned an upcoming article and attempted to forestall criticism of its headline’s grammar:

The implication was that the headline would include, per Krugman’s preference, the word who where traditionalists would insist on whom. The rule mandating whom as object pronoun is relatively recent and often ignorable, but style guides are necessarily conservative.

NYT style upholds the rule, as you’d expect, but its writers (or copy editors) repeatedly get confused, often hypercorrecting who to whom in a misguided effort to be formally grammatical. In short, it’s a mess, and much of the confusion results from people’s belief (or nervous suspicion) that whom must always be used where it’s grammatically possible.

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What should we call ‘Grammar Nazis’?

December 1, 2015

For some people the answer is in the question. Certainly Grammar Nazi is a popular and catchy phrase for referring to people who decry errors of grammar – or what they think are errors, or grammar – and who correct other people’s language unsolicited.

This looser, more general sense of nazi is well established in informal English. I’m not trying to outlaw it – that would make me a ‘nazi’ nazi. But personally I don’t like the term unless it’s used with heavy irony, because it cheapens and trivialises the horrific historical events that it blithely hijacks for rhetorical effect.

This comic by Kris Wilson slyly turns the tables:

cyanide and happiness - explosm - grammar nazi comic strip

Whatever about using Nazi hyperbolically in political contexts to refer to a non-actual-Nazi behaving in a way that may be construed as fascist, I can’t quite get my head around its casual use to refer to attitudes to language use. It has become conventional to the point where many people self-identify, even proudly, as a ‘grammar Nazi’.

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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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A–Z of linguistics in rhyming couplets

July 2, 2015

Here’s a self-explanatory bit of silliness from Twitter yesterday. There were requests to assemble it somewhere, for convenience and posterity, so I thought I’d reproduce it on Sentence first.

I’ve replaced the quotation marks I used on Twitter with italics; other than that it’s identical. The tweets are all linked, so you can also read them by clicking on the date of this introductory one:



A is for ARBITRARY: a sound’s tie to meaning.
B is for BACK-FORMED, like dry-clean from dry-cleaning. Read the rest of this entry »

How do you pronounce ‘neologism’?

May 14, 2015

Neologism, literally ‘new word’, is not a word I hear spoken very often. I’ve always pronounced it /niˈɑləˌdʒɪz(ə)m/ – ‘nee-OL-uh-jiz-m’, more or less – but I’ve been wrong before about words I often see but seldom hear. So when I first heard /ˌniːəʊˈləʊdʒɪzəm / ‘nee-oh-LOW-jiz-um’, I wondered.

That first time was an American speaker. When I heard it again from an Irish person, I figured it for a variant. Finally I looked it up in a bunch of reliable dictionaries, including the OED, Macmillan, Collins, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, ODO, and Cambridge. None of them included the variant.

Some dictionaries mention a slightly different second vowel sound – /ɒ/ or /ɑ:/ – but the stress pattern is always the same: primary stress on syllable 2, ‘OL’, secondary on syllable 4, the rest unstressed. [Edit: A few dictionaries list a variant with stress on syllable 1.] None includes a form with stress on syllable 3, ‘LOW’. Yet I’ve heard it from several native-English speakers, including a linguist, on different continents.

Curious about its distribution and perceived acceptability, I asked Twitter. (Or to use the popular journalistic idiom, I took to Twitter.)

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Numbnuts, hashtags, and refutations

February 20, 2015

I normally report on my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog about once a month. But because I took a short break from blogging here, I have three to share instead of the usual two.

The first reflects on the American Dialect Society’s words of the year (columbusing, even, manspreading, bae, #Blacklivesmatter). These category winners, considered collectively,

testify to the creativity and imagination inherent in language use, each in a different way. #Blacklivesmatter is not lexically innovative, but its selection as word of the year underscores the irresistible rise of hashtags and how they continue to spread into mainstream culture and domains beyond their early use as a way of organising discussions on social media.

It also indicates the broader significance of the hashtags shortlisted: #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed and #blacklivesmatter all point to conversations taking place, on a global scale and in real time, about violence or abuse between different groups of people. Hashtags have facilitated such communication, providing a forum for voices to be heard and opening people’s eyes to others’ experiences.


My next post picks up on a new entry to Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary, numbnuts, and looks at words with a similar sound and meaning, such as ninny and numbskull:

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green dates numbnuts to the late 1960s, and has also recorded numbhead, numbwit and nimwit (by analogy with dimwit) numbass, and other more colourful variants that cluster around similar sounds. There’s also numps, numpty, nimrod and nincompoop, and a little further off we find dumbo, dumb-ass, dunce, dunderhead, chump, schmuck, and Monty Python’s Gumbys. I have a soft spot for numbskull because of the comic strip The Numskulls, which I loved as a child. And I recently dreamt I called someone an ‘ignorant ninny’, which belongs in the same general set (though it doesn’t appear to be an abbreviation of nincompoop, as I originally imagined).


Finally, and topically, I defend the ‘loose’ use of refute by refuting allegations of its incorrectness:

For the first few hundred years of its existence in English [refute] had various related senses having to do with disproving theories, arguments, people, and so on. But its use as a word meaning reject or deny the accuracy or truth of something is no upstart either – it dates to the 19th century, so it’s had time to become established in the common tongue.

This ‘weakened’ usage has been criticised for almost as long as it has been around . . . . Yet the original sense of refute, according to the OED, is ‘To refuse or reject (a thing or person)’.

It’s topical because the UK Telegraph responded to the HSBC scandal this week by ‘utterly refuting’ allegations (from its newly resigned chief political commentator Peter Oborne) that its editorial operations were not distinct from advertising-based income. The BBC went so far as to paraphrase the Telegraph’s statement:

bbc news - telegraph hsbc peter oborne story -refute deny

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Telegraph’s use of refute in its statement. It could be described as unclear, or careless because it contradicts the paper’s own style guide. But it’s not incorrect, and anyone insisting that refute can only mean ‘disprove’ has fallen foul of the etymological fallacy.

Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.