Category Archives: language and linguistics

Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.

The lord, the bishop, and the harlot: an etymological fallacy

This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog,

“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”

There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”

Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.

Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”

But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:

Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.

“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”

“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”

As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”

The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.

At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.

Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.

A more delectable dictionary

Imagine a cookbook that only gave the ingredients for each recipe, with no instructions on how to put them together. Many dictionaries are like that: nothing but bare-bones denotative definitions for the words.

Now imagine a cookbook that included not just the instructions, not just different variants on how you can make the recipe, not even just menu suggestions and beverage matching suggestions, but also other recipes it would go with or remind you of or definitely not go with, and even things the food could or would make you think of – other dishes it would remind you of, other times and places and people.

I would like to have a dictionary that does all that for words.

Of course much of that is individual. Every word is one of Proust’s Madeleines, a key to places you have heard it and seen it and used it before. The way it sounds and how you feel about those sounds will provoke you differently from how it provokes others. But there are several aspects of a word’s extended meaning that users will have in common. Most of them show up in one kind of dictionary or another, but not all, and not all in the same place. Let’s look at how a dictionary that covers a fuller ambit of meaning and effect would handle… let’s say the words dude and fellow.


An important dimension of words is what they say about the speaker, the hearer, the subject, and the relation between them – what effect the speaker is trying to have on the hearer and what he or she is saying about what’s going on between them and any third party spoken of.

dude: Casual, informal. Friendly or mildly contemptuous, depending on overall relationship constructed. As an emphatic vocative, expressing some kind of amazement within a pointedly informal frame. (Read this good article by J.J. Gould for more.)

fellow: Intended to be neutral, but can be more formal, often with a taste of condescension.


Register is a key concept in sociolinguistics: your choice of vocabulary and syntax bespeaks a specific situation – it’s like putting on different clothes for different places and activities: clubbing, visiting family, working at the office, working in a hospital, etc. Words are known by the company they keep. Most dictionaries won’t go beyond saying something is formal, or colloquial, or medical jargon, if they go that far. But there is always more that can be said.

dude: Tends to be laddish, often with a sense of drug, surfer, or frat-boy culture; cowboy speech is also possible. Cannot be used for formal registers, except in archaic senses (meaning dandy or greenhorn).

fellow: Broadly usable, but in youthful and casual contexts may sound old-fashioned or formal. Suitable for friendly or pseudo-friendly versions of more formal speech. As a title (e.g., Fellow of the Royal Society), suitable for the most formal speech.


Many words have well-known travelling companions – common collocations, as linguists say. These are a word’s circle of close friends. There are dictionaries of collocations, often meant for students of English to help them know how to match their ties and socks, so to speak; there are also corpus databases that list words that tend to show up more often with them. Here are some results (mutatis mutandis) taken from

dude: cool, fucking, sorry, funny, awesome, skinny, tall, like, weird, straight, ranch, dude, surfer, shit, fuck, chick, Chicano

fellow: senior, young, old, little, poor, visiting, postdoctoral, fine, nice, honorary, research, craft

Cultural references (including quotations)

Some words have the ability to call forth films or books or historical moments. Berliner can make a person think of Kennedy; cheeseburger can make many people think of endearing kittens with captions; frankly can call up Gone with the Wind. Traditional sources such as Bartlett’s should be complemented with current culture resources such as and the auto-complete in Google searches (which can also be good for collocations). Note that fellow (noun) may arguably call forth references to fellow (adjective).

dude: Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (quote: “The Dude abides”); Dude, Where’s My Car? (movie); “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (song)

fellow: “Hail fellow, well met” (Jonathan Swift); “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Shakespeare); “fellow traveller” (mid-20th-century euphemism for Communist sympathizer); “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men” (Leigh Hunt, “Abou Ben Adhem”); “my fellow Americans” (standard in US political speeches)


Etymology is not inherent in our experience of a word; many people are quite oblivious to where their words come from, even as many – often some of the same – have the mistaken idea that a word’s “true” meaning is determined by its “original” meaning. But if you have an idea of a word’s origins, it will influence how you think of the word. This is true whether your idea is accurate or inaccurate. The words picnic and nitty-gritty are poisoned for many people who have false beliefs about their origins; the same people would never use bulldoze again if they knew where it came from – but most of them don’t. Many dictionaries supply etymological information, so I invite you to look it up on your own! And you will find that sometimes not all that much is known.

Rhymes and other echoes

Words will make us think of other words. Not just synonyms, which thesauruses and some dictionaries handily provide. And not just rhymes, which have their own dictionaries. There are other echoes that may contribute in some measure to the effect of a word – words that the word has some resemblance to in sound or appearance. Some non-rhyme examples:

dude: dud, dead, dad, deed, pube, dada, dildo, doobie, redo, stupid

fellow: fallow, follow, fuller, filler, fell, fail, allow, hello, willow, well, low, flow, cellophane


And then there’s the issue of the aesthetic effects of sound qualities, still a bit controversial, but some effects are well known, such as the association of high front vowels with smaller things.

dude: The main vowel sound is a low, hollow sound (it has the lowest resonances of all the vowel sounds), often associated with dullness and stupidity; the d sounds are not as crisp as t sounds but are on the tip of the tongue, which makes them comparatively light.

fellow: The e is fairly open and bright, while the l is soft and liquid, and the f is the quietest of the fricatives; the final ow is darker and more withdrawn but allows sustain.

Obviously a dictionary that included all of this would be rather thick, and would take a long time to put together. Some of it might benefit to some extent from a wiki-style approach, though one does have to be careful. But any added attention to these aspects of how a word communicated would help us all be more fully conscious and engaged users of the language – and would surely make our words more delectable.

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?

Iva Cheung has done up a nice, cogent, accurate summary of my presentation at the 2014 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. You can read it at

The PowerPoint I used for the presentation can be downloaded from

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitiveeat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little sis left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

Mind your idioms

Originally published in Active Voice, the national magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English has many quaint and curious phrases, clichés, and idioms, and we quite often see them misconstrued. Ours can be a very unforgiving game. You don’t have free reign to pawn off whatever one-of usages will tie you over, or do just any linguistic slight of hand (or vocal chords). No, you have to tow the line and stick to the straight and narrow, or your straight-laced readers will develop a deep-seeded dislike for you and give you short shift – they will wait with baited breath to see you get your just desserts and be hoisted on your own petard without further adieu, and the value of what you have to say will be a mute point.

Heh heh. Let me put that right:

You don’t have free rein to palm off whatever one-off usages will tide you over, or do just any linguistic sleight of hand (or vocal cords). No, you have to toe the line and stick to the strait and narrow, or your strait-laced readers will develop a deep-seated dislike for you and give you short shrift – they will wait with bated breath to see you get your just deserts and be hoist with your own petard without further ado, and the value of what you have to say will be a moot point.

Of course, that’s all well and good as long as we’re all playing the same game. But when we’re dealing with international audiences, the phrasing we use in hopes of striking a home run with our readers (or even just stealing a base) may seem to them to be not just cricket, and you won’t strike out – you will be dismissed.

We Canadian editors may be a bit smug about our position seemingly straddling the British-American fence. After all, we all know about our/or and re/er and ise/ize, and we may feel that, having mastered aluminium with an i and orientate with the ate and perhaps revise for study, estate agent for real estate agent, and some food terms – rocket (arugula), courgette (zucchini), marrow (summer squash), swede (rutabaga) – we can count on our intuitions with British.

But we run the risk of taking something for an error or typo when it’s really the correct British form. A bit over a decade ago, Orrin Hargraves came out with an excellent guide to British-American differences, Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; let me share with you some of the benefit of that smart volume: If you want to make a home from home in British English, and make a good job of it, don’t take the attitude of the know-all; know when to leave well alone if you want to cater for your readers and get on with them. Knowing your phrasal idioms can make the world of difference and give you a new lease of life – and if you don’t know them, you can rub your readers up the wrong way, and they might have a go at you and want to get shot of you. It will be more than a storm in a teacup; you will end up down at heel.

Which means, first of all, you will not render the above in a Canadian way: do not change it to home away from home, do a good job, know-it-all, leave well enough alone, cater to, get along with, make a world of difference, a new lease on life, rub your readers the wrong way, give you a tongue-lashing, get rid of you, tempest in a teacup, or down at the heels.

The best idea, of course, is to get a native British speaker – or, as occasion demands, an American speaker to add American idioms and weed out Canadianisms: don’t slip up and start talking about writing the odd test in pencil crayon, for instance (“Ohhhh, you mean taking the occasional test using a colored pencil! What was that other weird stuff you said?”). But at the very least, always look twice before crossing the idiom.

Noun your fabulous

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote an article for – I’ve been overdue. But I’d like to think my latest somewhat makes up for the gap. It’s a look at the popular practice in marketing of using an adjective as a noun:

How advertisers trick your brain by turning adjectives into nouns

I actually forgot to mention the anthimeric qualities of doge-speak, another currently popular trend, though not marketing driven. That would have been a good connection to add. Oh well. Such forgetful. Very annoyance. Wow.