The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

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Link love: language (76)

May 13, 2021

A selection of language-themed links for your listening, viewing, and (mostly) reading pleasure.

 

How to say chorizo.

History of the asterisk.

Emoji time 🕙 is meaningless.

Bookselling in the End Times.

Neopronouns: a beginner’s guide.

New Covid-inspired German words.

The linguistic construction of terrorists.

Boyo-wulf: Beowulf translated into Cork slang.

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Incentivized and mitigated

January 7, 2021

After 10+ years and 215 articles, my language column at Macmillan Dictionary has come to an end – as indeed has the blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog itself, for now. Here are my last two posts.

Militate against mitigate looks at this pair of similar words, setting out how each one is used, why they’re easily confused, and how to remember the difference:

Because mitigate (reduce harmful effects) is sometimes like a subset of militate (have an effect), people often use mitigate when they mean militate. We know this because they write *mitigate against. Usually the writer means militate against, but not necessarily. Readers can’t always figure it out, and it isn’t their responsibility. It’s up to writers and editors to know the difference and militate against the error.

Are you incentivized to use this word? plays devil’s advocate for a much-maligned word, reviewing the usage commentary on it and showing why it’s likely to stick around:

Over time, we get used to new usages. We accept them grudgingly or even enthuse about them. Decades later, the ones that survive have become thoroughly familiar and lack the stigma of novelty. The verb contact, for instance, was loathed a century ago but is perfectly unremarkable today. Until that happens, though, these usages provoke contention, with many people looking askance at them or criticizing them vocally. So it is with incentivize.


Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

Not only but also Naipaul

September 10, 2020

In V. S. Naipaul’s novel Half a Life, a boy is waging a battle, mostly silent, with his father, through stories he writes and leaves lying around strategically at home. One day the boy, Willie, is home from school for lunch and sees his exercise book still untouched.

Willie thought in his head, in English, “He is not only a fraud, but a coward.” The sentence didn’t sound right; there was a break in the logic somewhere. So he did it over. “Not only is he a fraud, but he is also a coward.” The inversion in the beginning of the sentence worried him, and the “but” seemed odd, and the “also.” And then, on the way back to the Canadian mission school, the grammatical fussiness of his composition class took over. He tried out other versions of the sentence in his head, and he found when he got to the school that he had forgotten his father and the occasion.

This passage, even apart from cultural, familial, and psychological complications, is interesting from the point of view of grammar and style. I’m curious about what ‘didn’t sound right’ to Willie in the first formulation of the line. What ‘break in the logic’ does he feel?

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The Trouble with Harry’s grammar

August 21, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller The Trouble with Harry (1955), amidst all its talk of murder and romance, has a fun little exchange of sociolinguistic interest between John Forsythe (‘Sam Marlowe’) and Edmund Gwenn (‘Capt. Albert Wiles’):

John Forsythe sits on the ground, amidst dirt and leaves, wearing a light grey shirt with sleeves rolled up, black waistcoat, and dark grey trousers. He rests his left elbow on his raised left knee, looks up to his right, and says, "I think, Captain Wiles, we're tangled up in a murder."

Edmund Gwenn stands beneath a large tree branch, with leaves covering the space behind it. He wears a black sailing cap, a dark tie, a white shirt and suspenders, and says, "Murder? If it's murder, who done it?"

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