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:
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’.
November 26, 2015
November 19, 2015
I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:
Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my descriptionjibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.
The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.
Next is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:
That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.
Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion thatCheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.
I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.
November 17, 2015
Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post aboutdescriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year byIntelligence Squared.
The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.
Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.
Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’
August 22, 2014
Everyone came home from England was questioned. (Timothy O’Grady, I Could Read the Sky)
Contact clauses are dependent clauses attached directly to their antecedent, i.e., without any relative pronoun. For example: a book I read;the town we visited; a person you admire. In each case that, which or whomight be added after the noun phrase, but doesn’t have to be.
Otto Jespersen introduced the term, calling them contact clauses “because what characterizes them is the close contact in sound and sense between the clause and what precedes it”.
August 19, 2014
A news story at Reuters last week had a striking bit of syntax in its headline:
This unorthodox grammatical construction is not unusual in headlines, but I didn’t make a note of it before. A quick search online with various headline-friendly verbs shows it to be a regular enough occurrence:
August 16, 2014
I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.
First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:
People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.
I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.
You can read the rest here.
Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:
Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.
Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.
For older articles you can browse the archive.
August 13, 2014
The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.
The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.
To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.
There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymousjust one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verbfind has three stars but the noun has just one.
If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.
¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.
² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.
August 8, 2014
I noticed this banner ad on the window of my local city library:
August 2, 2014
I like the Economist and admire its commitment to a clear, plain style of writing. This makes it harder to excuse its perplexing stance on split infinitives. Its style guide says the rule prohibiting them is pointless, but “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.
This is capitulation to an unfounded fetish. Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, is a tweet from the Economist style guide:¹
There are two things I want to note here.
July 31, 2014
Despite their Whorfian tang I enjoyed these reflections on language learning from Anaïs Nin. They’re from A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin, edited by Evelyn J. Hinz (1975):
Language to me is like the discovery of a new world, really a new state of consciousness. A new word to me was a new sensation. Reading the dictionary, anything at all, can add not only to your knowledge but also to your perceptions.
Do new languages bestow new states of consciousness? The idea that bilingual (and multilingual) people inhabit different personalities in different languages has much anecdotal evidence to support it – many bilinguals report feeling like different people when they speak different tongues.
Researchers who have studied the phenomenon are equivocal about its implications – it probably has far less to do with grammar than with the environments and cultures associated with the languages.
July 23, 2014
I’m late to the story of Weird Al and his word crimes, and I’m too busy to do it justice, but luckily there has been a glut of good commentary already, some of it linked below.
First, the song, in case you’re catching up. ‘Word Crimes’ is a new release from American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, a novelty number about grammar, spelling and usage that borrows the template of a hit song from last year called ‘Blurred Lines’. You might want to watch or listen first, if you haven’t heard it, and you can read the lyrics here.
July 19, 2014
Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts on language matters. You’re the one for me, phatic offers an overview ofphatic communion, a useful term from anthropology that refers to speech intended to establish or maintain social relations (as opposed to simply exchanging information):
A familiar example (and subset) is small talk, where people exchange greetings, good wishes, congratulations, and trivialities about the weather, recent sporting events, the state of the world, and so on.
Everyday greetings, such as How’s it going? and How are you doing?, are more about presenting a friendly attitude to someone than extracting answers from them, just as the replies – Fine, thanks, etc. – are usually stereotyped and automatic rather than necessarily being accurate indications of a person’s state. Though disliked by some people, small talk is a valuable social signalling system, as is phatic communion more generally.
The article also notes the origin of the term phatic and describes manifestations of the phenomenon in Ireland.
Laying down the lie of the land addresses a knotty issue in English usage: the difference – and overlap – between lay and lie:
In standard English lay is transitive; that is, it takes a direct object (certain idioms excepted). You don’t just lay – you laysomething. But this is a relatively recent rule, and it is very often ignored, especially in speech and informal use, where people frequently talk about laying down, laying on the floor, and so on. . . .
For many people lay meaning ‘lie’ isn’t wrong at all – it’s what comes naturally. But its use in edited prose invites criticism from those who learned the rule and want to see it observed as a mark of proper English. Like many contentious usage issues, it boils down to context and personal preference.
I look briefly at the history of this pair, noting that intransitive lay is over seven centuries old and only relatively recently became a usage to be avoided in careful prose.
Comments are welcome in either location, and older posts are available in the archive.
July 11, 2014
At the Galway Film Fleadh this week I saw It Came From Connemara!!, a documentary about the great Roger Corman’s time producing films in the west of Ireland, specifically Connemara in Co. Galway – a short drive west of my adopted city. (Fleadh is Irish for festival or feast.)
It Came From Connemara!! – NSFW trailer here – is a fun, fond look back at that productive and sometimes controversial stint in the late 1990s and the lasting effects of Corman’s presence on the Irish TV and film industry. (The friend I saw it with worked there as an extra, and the audience included many of the crew from those years.)
July 8, 2014
I do enjoy a good style guide: browsing the alphabetical entries, reading the general advice sections, learning how organisations handle sensitive subjects, and seeing how different publishers treat the same material. What usage fiend doesn’t find this stuff fascinating?
So I was very happy to learn today that the BBC News style guide is nowfully and freely available online. It went public about a year ago but didn’t appear to be accessible outside the UK, except for a PDF which, though generally excellent, dates to March 2003.
The online BBC style guide is searchable and easy to navigate. As well as the usual A–Z it has sections on names, numbers, military, and religion. Its page on grammar, spelling and punctuation offers useful tips on capitalisation, homophones, hyphens, US/UK differences, and timeworn bugbears (“By all means, split the infinitive…”), though it also unhelpfully upholds the dubious that/which rule.
So, OK, I have a slightly complicated relationship with style guides. As an editor I greatly value how they help ensure a set of texts is styled consistently to a given standard. But the descriptivist in me recoils at how conservative, arbitrary and wrong-headed they can be. If I had the time and will, I could spend all day refuting certain style guides on Twitter. But that’s a grouch for another day. It’s browsing time.
Tip of the hat to Damien Mulley, whose tweet about the also-newly-freely-available BBC Academy of Journalism alerted me to the BBC’s style guide going public globally. It can also be downloaded as a Word document (44k words in total) at this link.
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.
June 28, 2014
A new book spine poem. My shelves have been nudging me.
Useless Crazy Heart
All about love, the devil I know,
Style, solace, the entwining truth,
Conquest of the useless crazy heart,
The pleasure of finding things out.
Thanks to the authors: bell hooks, Claire Kilroy, Joseph M. Williams, Belinda McKeon, Richard Condon, Peter Temple, Werner Herzog, Thomas Cobb, and Richard Feynman; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.
Want to join in? Do – it’s all sorts of fun. Upload a photo and post a link in the comments, or put it on your own site, etc. If you’d like to see more of these, there are lots in the Sentence first bookmash archive.