A morsel of logic

September 21, 2015

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive

Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

May 22, 2015

As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.

In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:

The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.

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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.

Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had one 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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Wack v. whack, and choosing enthusing

October 15, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’ looks briefly at these similar (and sometimes overlapping) words with many meanings in informal usage:

Whack meaning ‘hit’, as a noun and verb, is centuries old but remains informal compared to such synonyms as strike, blow, and knock. It may be onomatopoeic in origin, which is why it’s used as a sound effect in comic books and the old Batman TV show. It also has the related meaning ‘kill’, for example in criminal slang.

Wack emerged more recently as a back-formation from wacky. Initially it was a noun used to refer to a crazy or eccentric person – He’s a real wack – with wacko and whacko emerging as slangy offshoots. This was followed by adjectival wack meaning bad, unfashionable, stupid or of low quality, as in the anti-drugs slogan Crack is wack.

I go on to describe some of the ways the two words are used, and the possible limits of their interchangeability.


Enthusing about freedom of usage considers (and defends) the much-maligned back-formation enthuse:

Lots of words and usages are criticised or considered ‘incorrect’ when really they’re just colloquial, relatively new, or unsuited to formal use. As Michael Rundell wrote recently, ‘what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends’. . . .

What one generation finds ignorant or ridiculous, the next might adopt without fuss. Enthuse retains a semblance of impropriety, and is still frowned on by conservative writers and readers. Others, myself included, may have nothing against it but prefer periphrastic alternatives like ‘show enthusiasm’ or ‘be enthusiastic’.

The post details some of the criticism and commentary enthuse has received, and summarises its status in different varieties of English.

Older posts are available in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

Join your child (to the library)

August 8, 2014

I noticed this banner ad on the window of my local city library:


stan carey - galway city library - join your child for free

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Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.

Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.


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