Category Archives: language and linguistics

They made a podcast. I know, right?

Sometimes when the weather gets so summery I just get so busy summering that I forget things I did a while ago and sent off. I know right? Well, here’s one: a podcast version of my article on “I know, right?” It’s a nice reminder of how much of what we say is verbal gesture rather than literal denotation.

‘I know, right?’: The anatomy of a wonderfully nonsensical phrase

Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

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

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,” declared a New York Times headline. Noted linguist David Crystal had made some comments noting that the period is not requisite in text messages, and as such is used only “to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression,” as article author Dan Bilefsky paraphrased Crystal. From this, Bilefsky – who, just to be cute, left the period off the end of every paragraph in the article – drew the conclusion that the period is going out of style in English generally. As did (obviously) the headline writer.

Which is rather ironic. Tell me: how often are periods used at the ends of newspaper headlines? (Rarely, in case you’re not sure.) And yet this insistent omission has not, over the course of the past century, ushered in the demise of periods in the language generally, or even in newspaper articles in particular. (Bilefsky’s is an ostentatious exception, but that is not because its headline doesn’t end in a period.) Nor has the programmatic omission of forms of ‘be’ in headlines led to their omission elsewhere, although they are left out in other forms that are equally “telegraphic” – for the same reason: economy of space trumps smoothness.

And there is the point. Not all occasions of use of English (or any other language) are the same. Different occasions of communication for different purposes use different components, structure, vocabulary, grammar, and – yes – puncutation. In short, different purposes use different genres. Of course they do! You don’t write a shopping list like a personal letter (“Dear Me: It has been a while since I’ve been shopping, hasn’t it? Could I by any chance manage to pick up some eggs, milk, onions, celery, and fenugreek? That would be splendid if I could. Thanks so much, Yours, Me”). You use what you need, add things as befits the occasion (for politeness, clarity, ornament, what have you), and leave things out for the sake of effect or efficiency.

And if you have declared a particular item unnecessary for the run-of-the-mill functioning of the text, you have it available to use for special effect. Your full name on a government form is a simple requirement of the genre; your full name when spoken by your mother is not required, so it can carry a connotation of concern or disapproval. Poetry, with its line breaks, has less need for capitals and punctuation, so their use and omission can have stylistic significance.

And so it is with periods in text messages. As they are superfluous to the needs of the genre, they have gained expressive potential. Since a simple “end of message” is conveyed by (wait for it) the end of the message, a period can be extra firm, pointedly conclusive. Wilf Popoff has recently given us some instruction in this and similar details of the text message genre, and Frances Peck has addressed the related sub-genre of email salutations. These genre-specific recastings of pieces of punctuation are not losses to the language or even the genre – how can an increase in expressive potential be a loss? But it is also unlikely to spread to genres that need periods to separate sentences in paragraphs, such as the body of news articles… even if it has long since been a feature of headlines.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.


“It’s not the scenicest day,” I said to Aina, looking out the train window at a cloudy sky as we headed to Niagara for some wine and walking.*

Or perhaps I should spell that scenic-est, so you know I wasn’t saying it like “see nicest,” even though what is scenicest is nicest to see.

“Is that a word?” you may be thinking – or perhaps typing in an email to me. Well, I used it and you understood it, so yes. But is it a well attested word? No. You can find a couple hundred hits for it on Google, but it’s a safe bet most of them are – as I was – self-consciously using it as an awkward construction rather as Lewis Carroll used curiouser.

Why wouldn’t I just say most scenic? Because I like playing with words. Now it’s your turn: Tell me why scenicest shouldn’t be allowed. It’s a two-syllable word, after all, and it’s quite common to append –er and –est to one- and two-syllable words. The selection of those for which more and most are reserved is almost random-seeming. At the very least, the distinction is not black and white. For some words, it is a matter of personal taste which to use: beautifuller and beautifullest were formerly common enough, but now it seems we see the two-word version as the more beautiful.

I do think that what we see is part of the problem here. For assorted historical reasons (mostly to do with palatalization before front vowels in Latin and Romance languages), c “softens” before e and i. But the sound /k/ does not have an actual allophonic alternation with /s/ in modern English. We just retain the rule about c because of our borrowings from French and Latin. This makes a problem when we have something that sounds fine but runs into a spelling issue. Take chic. Lovely word, stylish, smart. Borrowed from French. By borrowed I mean adopted – actually I mean stolen. Anyway, it’s treated like an English word: it’s one syllable, so instead of saying most chic we often just add the –est and make it chicest.

Which looks horrible on the page. And chic-est looks at least as bad. And you can’t add or swap in a k because chikest would look completely wrong and incomprehensible and would conduce to yet another inaccurate pronunciation, and chickest is chick plus est. Somehow the chicest word to say is one of the unchicest (let’s say least chic) words to write.

Well, what do we expect? It should be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

Am I the only one who feels certain that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious should be two words? Normally, morphologically, we can add only other suffixes after a suffix, not a whole new root, let alone a prefix plus a root plus a suffix. And yet that’s what appears to come after the the ic in supercalifragilistic. Another bit of evidence to marshal for its being two words is that the spelling would seem to require a pronunciation like “–listi sexpi–,” which is clearly wrong.

Which takes us back to our problem of the orthographic scenery. Now, –ic words often used to be spelled with a k, as in musick and magick. So could we borrow on that and make it scenickest? Hmm. It looks a bit of a snickerfest. It may also tempt a person to shift the accent onto the second syllable because of the “heavy” consonant ck.

Or we could just keep using it and writing it and people will get used to seeing it and saying it. That’s how a lot of things in English have come to be as they are.

We ought not to be distracted by looks, anyway. A cloudy day may be warm and lovely. Indeed, when the sun is out and it looks most scenic, you are at greater risk of getting burned.


*It was not a reference to the fact that we would not be taking in a play at the Shaw Festival, even though scenic referred to the stage a century before it referred to the natural environment – it comes from a Greek word for a stage.

A whole nother thing

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

As editors, we pay attention to the written form of our language. Its relation to the spoken form is a whole other thing.

The spelling is odd, we know. But even our hyphenation doesn’t really break according to pronunciation. Consider the word breaking. Where do you hyphenate it? Break-ing. But where does the syllable break happen in pronunciation? Before the k. Don’t believe me? Shout it, emphasizing each syllable equally. You’ll shout “Bray! King!” rather than “Break! Ing!” In speech, we automatically shift a consonant at the end of one syllable to the beginning of the next if there isn’t a consonant there already, regardless of how the word is formed. But in writing we reflect the bits the word is made of, because that’s how we think of it.

Except when we don’t. And then it’s a whole nother thing.

Take a word like another. It’s made of two pieces: an and other. Put them together, and the n is automatically said at the beginning of the second syllable, so it sounds like a nother. You’d think we’d still keep it in mind that it’s really an other. You would not inevitably be right.

A whole nother isn’t the only place we’ve done this redivision. Centuries ago, a newt was an ewt and a nickname was an ekename. And speaking of nicknames, Ned and Nan come from mine Edward and mine Ann (we used to alternate my and mine as we still alternate a and an), and in Shakespeare you’ll see nuncle in place of uncle.

It also goes the other way. A poisonous snake, in English, was næddre, which would normally have become nadder, but instead of a nadder we have an adder. Likewise, a naperon gave us an apron. We pronounce them no differently, unless we put another word in between, but we think of them differently. We hear the n said at the start of the next syllable, but since the n in an always does that, we reanalyze it in a way that seems – for one reason or another – more appropriate.

Do you wish you could have someone to make rulings on these kinds of resplittings (also known as rebracketing and false splitting)? Try calling an umpire – as long as you don’t mind that your umpire would once have been a noumpere.

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept a whole nother, of course. A whole other is considered formally correct, although that implies a two-word an other. Since we’ve glued the two parts together, putting whole in the middle is arguably more like what we do in abso-bloody-lutely… except we wouldn’t write a-whole-nother.

Perhaps we should reconsider what we do and don’t think of as inviolable word boundaries. We may dislike alot quite a lot, for instance, but if we can make a word like another, can you think of a truly defensible reason for it not to be another one such? Or is that a… completely different issue?

The old “ye olde”

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of Editors Canada

If you want to make something look, y’know, old, and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta, has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And of course there are all these plain old olde things.

And that’s where we cranky up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in ye olde candy shoppe. And As ye sow, so shall ye reap. And perhaps, at the RancheHouse, ye haw.*

Only those aren’t the same word. And the ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words often kept them, such as þe (the) and þat (that). They would be reduced with the aid of superscripts, like þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ – if he had known to do so.

So. Ye as in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be their problem, but the ye in hear ye is you.

Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.”

Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style. And, now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time, and scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end e, the easiest one, prevailed. And over time it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald and came with the changes of the time to be auld and aud and awd and old – and many other forms – could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see old (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s in spite of coming from Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding. You know, as they do to cattle at ranch houses.


*Calgarians, please do not write to me telling me that it should be yahoo, not yeehaw. I know. I was making a funny.