Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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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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The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

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Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Is the crew plural? Collective complications

March 16, 2017

Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all his work, it’s a real treat. But one grammar-related item caught my copy-editor’s eye and is worth examining briefly.

En route to Micronesia, Sacks’s plane lands on Johnston atoll, a heavily militarised mini-island then used to store and test nuclear and chemical weapons. A rough landing damages the craft’s tyres, which need repairing. When the passengers go to stretch their legs in the interval, they are told the island is off-limits. Sacks reads and observes while he waits:

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How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

March 3, 2017

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-1

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