Category Archives: language and linguistics

Who let that word into the dictionary?

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

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.

Because language

First published on BoldFace, the official blog of EAC’s Toronto branch. Copyedited by Valerie Borden.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.


Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because.

Take a sentence. Any sentence. Even something that is used as a sentence but has no verb. Hey! There were some right there! Yes, we can and do use expressions such as “No” and “Hey, free candy!” and “The higher, the fewer” and “CAR!” in place of complete sentences. Since we can normally turn a complete sentence into a subordinate or coordinate clause, we should be able to use those other expressions the same way, right? Well, let’s just stick them in and see what happens: “I thought I could do it, but no.” “I’m dieting today, except hey, free candy!” “I climbed and discovered that the higher, the fewer.” “We scampered off the street because CAR!”

Do some of those seem more jarring than others? They well may. But for that very reason, they are more humorously effective. Consider this bit from a 1987 Saturday Night Live episode: “If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.” That appears to have been one of the seeds of the because [expression] trend that is increasingly popular because jarringly humorous: “I was wired last night because mmm sugar.” “They want to bomb it to the Stone Age because FREEDOM!”

This is not the same as the literary usage seen in “increasingly popular because jarring”—that’s an established predicative usage with an implied “it is”—but that may have had a slight influence. Rather, the current use seems to take the whole expression and plop it in as a substitute for a structured clause, and to do so as a deliberate syntactic mirroring of the leap of logic that it presents. It does not actually turn because into a preposition; the noun is what is converted. We see similar structures with other conjunctions—“We are hungry, therefore PIZZA!” and a favourite of mine from more than a decade ago, “You make good points but have failed to consider that bite me.”

What does turn because into a preposition is the reanalysis of this construction by newer, naïve users. This is, in fact, how syntactic change tends to happen: for fun or convenience, speakers of a language modify a structure or turn of phrase; then a subsequent generation reinterprets that usage as a different, easier-to-assimilate structure. You will probably agree that because as a preposition is easier to assimilate into a standard grammar of English than a noun as a complete subordinate clause. So now we can see children using because where their parents would have used because of: “I liked it because the ponies.” And this usage does not seem to draw on the substitute-for-reasoning effect.

You may not like this new usage; it’s not what you’re used to. But it’s language change, and you’re seeing it in action. It will be a while before it is accepted in formal usage, though. Expect sticklers to be routinely purple in the face about it by, say, AD 2050.

There’s much more to be said and read on this topic. I direct your attention to the following fine articles:

No such thing as “American English”?

I received this afternoon the following email in response to my latest article for the BBC, “Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?”:


I am surprised by your article at today. First of all, there is no country by the name of America. Secondly, if you wish to refer to Americans, you are including everyone who lives anywhere in North or South America. Here in Canada we have many English dialects, as they do in the U.S.A., but ours align with the British English usage. Yes, that U.S.A. stands for United States OF America, as it is a republic within North America. I am a Canadian who is also an American, as Canada is in North America.

Therefore your article is specious. There is no such language as “American English”. The habit of US citizens calling themselves ‘Americans’ is hubris at its finest. One well known example is the ‘World Series’ which is anything but.

However, you are entitled to your misguided views, as I am mine. {;-)

Gordon W. Sharpe

As you may expect, I did not agree with his line of reasoning. Here is the response I sent to him:

A good day to you, Mr. Sharpe. I have a few points to make in response to your email.

First of all: I am a Canadian. I was born here, I grew up here, and I am sitting in my residence in Toronto as I type this.

Second: In my world, a Canadian is not an American. Call me a North American. Every Canadian I know (I do not count you among my acquaintances) bristles at being taken for an American – we all grew up resenting the USA, just as you evidently did. You are, in fact, the very first actual Canadian I recall seeing insist that Canadians are “Americans” tout court; everyone else I recall who has said that has been from the USA or Europe. The word “American” by itself is well established as referring only to a citizen of that country to the south of us, and Canadians rarely want to be confused with them, as you demonstrate. The rest of us on this land mass are North Americans and South Americans.

Third: The short form for “United States of America,” established virtually from its inception and accepted around the world – and in Canada, among Canadians, as you cannot avoid hearing – is “America.” The globally accepted demonym is “Americans.” A few people have attempted to call citizens of the USA “USians,” but it has not caught on. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia are called Micronesians, even though the region Micronesia includes other countries; citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are called Congolese, even though citizens of the Republic of the Congo are as well; citizens of the Republic of Ireland are called Irish, Northern Ireland notwithstanding; and so forth. Back when our country was the Dominion of Canada – I am sure you remember when it was stripped down to one word, in 1982 – we were nonetheless Canadians and our general standard dialect was Canadian English.

Fourth: I am a linguist with substantial education in dialects and variation, and I know quite well – and said so in the article – that there is considerable variation in American English. Notwithstanding that, American English as a whole is quite distinct from British English as a whole, and each of the two has a standard variety that is the basis of dictionaries, usage guides, and textbooks. I made reference to that in the article as well, but perhaps you didn’t finish reading it before you started typing.

Fifth: I make the larger part of my living as an editor and expert on Canadian English, and I must correct you on your belief that Canadian English aligns with British English usage. In fact, although we prefer certain British-style spellings, the larger part of our vocabulary hews to the American. We do not have boots and bonnets on our cars, or park the cars in carparks; we do not send unruly chavs to gaol or eat ices at the weekend; we recognize “centre” and “colour” but usually not “recognise”; our accents are closer to American accents – in fact, the non-Canadian accent closest to a standard Toronto accent is from California. I had originally intended to make mention of Canadian in the article, but the BBC has tight length limits, so that was one of a few things I trimmed out in the final draft.

I won’t argue with you about the hubris of “Word Series,” nor about American cultural self-centredness in general. But they were being called “Americans” well before they had their own country. As far as I’m concerned, they can keep it. Amerigo Vespucci was no one really worth commemorating so much anyway.

If you are wondering why I, a Canadian, wrote an article on American English for the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is because (a) they asked me to do so, (b) they paid me to do so, (c) I know the subject, and (d) I enjoy writing about it. Should Canadian English merit a mention? I’d like to think it is worth an article of its own. We shall see whether I can convince the BBC of that. :)


James Harbeck.

America’s liberties with English

My latest article for the BBC is about how American English came to be so different from British English – and why it didn’t come to be more different:

Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?


When to Use Bad English

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada “Editing Goes Global” conference in Toronto on June 12, 2015. Headings are PowerPoint slides.

Title slide

As editors, we’re here to make sure the text doesn’t look sloppy or uneducated. We’re expected to uphold standards of good grammar, and – no matter what the text – keep it from using bad English. Right?

Rhett Butler

Frankly, sometimes we shouldn’t give a damn. And, more importantly, sometimes we should give a damn. And a shit. And a colloquialism. And maybe even a grammatical error.

Really? Yes. Our job is to make sure that the English in the document is appropriate, certainly. But there’s a difference between bad English and inappropriate English. English that is too informal is inappropriate in many places, but English that is too formal is inappropriate in many others.

What we want to do is this: Continue reading

Hello, Ireland!

My latest article for the BBC, on how our messy English spelling is the result of greed, laziness, and snobbery, got me a live interview with an Irish radio talk show this week: the Moncrieff show on Newstalk. It’s on line now, so you can give it a listen. Go to part 2 of the June 10 show and I’m about 1/3 of the way in (there’s a thin red-on-grey progress bar near the top; just click about a third of the way from the left, and drag right or left as necessary). The link, for those who prefer copying and pasting to clicking, is

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.