Category Archives: language and linguistics

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading



I learned today from Bryan Gividen on Twitter (@BryanGivi) that ginormous has been used for the first time in a US federal judge’s written opinion, and for the first time in any US judicial opinion not quoting a party. The passage, from J Thompson (CA1): “But by the early to mid-2000s, competition with ginormous retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Toys ‘R’ Us caused Old K’s financial distress.”

I’m sure that has a few people dumbfounded. It will undoubtedly give many others something to snark about over brunch – and prompt a few emoticons on the internet. Is it bodacious? Or craptacular? A trial is not a sitcom, after all, and while the opinion in question was on a commercial case, you can sense an impending dread that it will be used in sentencing someone for, say, a carjacking – or even condemning someone to electrocution (“The murder was a ginormous shock to the family, but not as ginormous as the shock you will receive to end your days”).

The word clearly has something undignified about it, more fitting to a motel room than some workaholic’s office. But I am not with those who see it as so much lexical smog. It’s been with us for at least 65 years – and don’t say that means it’s ready for retirement! Its usage has been increasing steeply since the 1980s, and it can be seen in fitting occasions in fiction and in magazine articles – and now in the law.

It’s not a small thing to have a word enter the formal records of the law. Legal English, stiff and verbose as it can be, sets a standard, and always has. The formal standard for English was first set centuries ago by law clerks in England. After all, if there’s one place you need things not only written down but written down in an exact and careful form, it’s legal matters!

Why does ginormous seem unseemly, undignified, to so many of us? There is a certain adolescent something to overemphasis of magnitudes – you can almost hear the carbuncular voice shouting “Ginooooormous!” In mannered formal speech we might say large or quite large or even of considerable magnitude before we get to huge, let alone enormous. Giant is not quite as undignified, somehow – but jam it together with enormous and you have wordmash that is almost bionic in its artificiality and strength. And yet now, it seems, it is as likely to earn a peruke as a rebuke in a court of law. It has made its way into polite company. That’s a ginormous step for a word.

It’s not as though such formations are inevitably undignifed, low-grade, and adolescent, anyway. Ginormous is what is called a portmanteau word (a coinage by Lewis Carroll) or a blend (a plainer way of saying it for linguists): take part of one word and part of another and glue them together without regard for the parts they were originally made from. Thus, for instance, workaholic comes from work plus alcoholic even though alcoholic is absolutely not formed from alc plus oholic.

The origins of ginormous are not intrinsically a bar to formal use. While portmanteau words may seem sloppy or unrestrained or otherwise ill-conceived, there are quite a few of them in regular use, and not all of them are looked at askance. Examples you may be familiar with include dumbfounded (dumb + confounded), snark (snide + remark), brunch (breakfast + lunch), emoticon (emotion + icon), internet (international + network), bodacious (bold + audacious), craptacular (crap + spectacular), sitcom (situation + comedy), carjacking (car + hijacking), electrocution (electronic + execution), motel (motor + hotel), smog (smoke + fog), and bionic (biological + electronic). An exhaustive list of them would be ginormous.

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.


Who is at the frontline of language change?

Sorry, should that be front line? I think it should. If you are at the foremost front, you are at the forefront, not the fore front, but the line that forms the front of a battle – or, more figuratively, any other advance (especially in conflict situations) – is the front line, according to, well, every dictionary you look in.

But a lot of those dictionaries have frontline too. Not as a noun, though: as an adjective. Staff who are dealing directly with customers are front-line staff or frontline staff. If they were written as front line staff, there could be confusion over whether they were line staff at the front rather than staff at the front line. So we hyphenate. And, over time, as with this adjective, we may merge.

Or we may not. Mergers happen sometimes and not other times. You can be a healthcare professional working in health care – or working in healthcare, because that noun has a closed-up version now too. And you’re reading this on a website – or, to be old-fashioned, a web site. But you can have an ice cream float or an ice-cream float, but if you had an icecream float you risk having some pedant with a marker draw a couple of lines to indicate that there should be a space there, implying that you need grammatical trainingwheels.

The front lines, in language change as in war, are very uneven, meandering up and down and in and out, and the main thing that keeps them from moving is just if they get really entrenched (yes, when you think about it, front line and entrenched both call to mind the ghastly battles of World War I – both predate it by centuries, but both have military origins).

So… could frontline become the noun form too? Some people want it to be – a colleague mentioned to me that one of the people he works with is pushing for that change in their published text. Mind you, his coworker isn’t saying “I know that front line is standard, but I think we are making a good move forward to close up this compound. We may be in the, erm, vanguard, but we can take the fire.” No, his coworker is saying “I looked in the dictionary and it has frontline as a form so I’m going to use it everywhere.” His coworker is heedless of the noun-adjective distinction.

Which is how language change so often happens: reanalysis, or what members of preceding generations tend to call mistake. The English language isn’t really an ongoing battle – if there is an enemy, they are us. It’s more like a complex game that gets passed on from one family to another, and it doesn’t have a rulebook, and each new group of players pick up a few things from the previous players but mostly figure things out for themselves, resulting in some shift of the rules over time. We hear our parents talk, and we work things out for ourselves, and they don’t correct all of our reconstruals.

So, yeah, you could say that the front line in language change is the battle between the older generation, wanting to preserve what it knows, and the younger generation, wanting to do what suits them best. But from another perspective, the battle is as much like explorers having to put up with previous people – who didn’t get as far – shouting at them “No, you fools! You’ll fall off the edge of the planet!”

Fine, fine. The question remains: is frontline taking over from front line as a noun? Is it heading the way of healthcare and forefront? Will we soon see not only the frontline but the frontlines just as we see the headlines? Or is it like icecream and trainingwheels? Let’s have a look at a Google Ngram:

frontline_NOUN is way below front line_NOUN and both adjective forms, and not gaining very much

Hmm. Nope. Anyone who uses frontline as a noun is going to be awfully far in front of everyone else, exposed and prone to being shot at… from behind. And the general usage may not ever come close to catching up. It looks pretty well entrenched.

Addendum: I neglected to consider one important vector for change in this. Google ngrams are case-sensitive, and I only surveyed lower-case. But take a look at this:


So Frontline is increasing in usage much more than frontline. Why is that? I’ll tell you one reason. Since 1983, PBS has had a documentary series called Frontline. TV shows are important vectors for language change.

But that doesn’t mean the branding of the show is spreading the one-word noun throughout the language rapidly. A brand is a brand and may stay as such. Let’s put this in perspective:


After all, it’s on PBS, not NBC, ABC, or CBS. Public broadcasting is at the front line of knowledge, but most people don’t actually like to get too close to the front line. At least not intentionally.

Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.


The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.

What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.


The lexis of our language is like a coral reef, full of wonders rich and strange. And, as with coral reefs, one of the threats to its diversity is bleaching.

Coral bleaching is a result of coral shedding algae due to rising sea temperatures. Semantic bleaching is a result of words shedding distinctions of meaning due to overuse, over-broad use, what one might call thesaurusitis: treating all words in a section of Roget’s as fungible. The words are still in use, but they lose much of their distinction of sense, thereby reducing the expressive power of the language. And modern electronic media can amplify this effect.

Expressive power and electronic amplification have much to do with the word of which I sing today, croon. It’s not a new word; it dates back half a millennium in Scotland and northern England, where it has for that long had the sense of a low sound, either (particularly in Scotland) a low, deep, loud, steady sound, or (more broadly) a low murmuring sound or soft quiet singing. It sounds like it should mean what it means. In singing, it’s the opposite of belting. Belting is the kind of singing you do when you have a noisy room and poor (or no) amplification. Once you have a good microphone and good speakers, you can draw the audience in with quiet, smooth singing. You can croon.

Which is what happened in jazz in the late 1920s onward. The first truly famous crooner was Rudy Vallée. His soft voice crept like a lover into millions of living rooms through the radio. Many others followed; the one probably most often thought of as a crooner was Bing Crosby. They all had a gentle, quiet singing style that worked closely with the microphone.

But as one technology giveth, another helpeth take away. Newspapers are written by people who are trained to be allergic to repetition. They seek different words for the same thing to make their prose seem more varied and expressive. We can never forget that a pumpkin is a gourd thanks to them; we are given the idea that every promise, however solemn and formal or not, is a vow; food writers talk of people munching even the softest, smoothest, quietest foods (ice cream? oatmeal?). And every act of singing may be called crooning.

It’s not that the word is always used over-broadly; it has not been utterly bleached. But a quick look through recent New York Times articles finds gospel choirs “crooning” more than once and a jazz singer who “crooned over the trio, belting the 1941 Duke Ellington classic” – yes, crooning and belting as the same act. Even non-singers, we are told, have sometimes “crooned”: soccer fans, en masse in a stadium, “crooned” “We’re not going home”; Donald Trump, at a rally, “crooned” “I love you! I love you!” to his supporters. Every one of these uses is amplified to an unlimited number of eyeballs through the wonder of the world wide web.

As a linguist, I can look at this and just write it down as instances of semantic broadening due to an evident desire for more expressive-sounding vocabulary (with the likely long-term effect of reducing the expressive value it draws on). As an editor and user of the language, however, I would rather resist it, because it ultimately reduces the expressive power. And there can be quite a lot of expressive power in the soft, quiet, focused, and amplified sound of crooning.