Category Archives: language and linguistics

In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake

A recent cartoon from Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which is the most intelligent cartoon in existence, has been brought to my attention. You can see it at but, since Munroe gives permission, I’ll reproduce it here for ease of reference:

This interpretation is not just pedantry and not just a turn-off. It’s a callow mistake.

It’s callow because it transgresses standard expectations of interpersonal decency in conversation – if the other person is using a common turn of phrase and you understand what they mean, don’t be a dick about it (or, as I put it in a haiku for the ACES Grammar Day haiku contest, Which do you prefer: / keeping your friends’ grammar right / or keeping your friends?). But it’s also callow because it imposes an inappropriate misreading, the sort of simple-minded overbroad application of a rule that is characteristic of an immature understanding of grammar. The clause in question, you see, only looks like a conditional.

I’m put in mind of an anecdote I recall from the actor Simon Callow. When he was first trying to make it in theatre, he worked in the box office of a theatre. Later on, when he was becoming established as an actor, he was in the cast of a play that happened to be performing in the same theatre. One evening before a performance, one of the box office staff saw him and, thinking he still worked in the box office, asked him to come help with some box office function.

Thinking this if you want to hang out is a conditional is like thinking Simon Callow still works at the box office. It’s the same clause, but it’s been elevated. It’s a sentence adverbial.

In case the term isn’t familiar, a sentence adverbial is a word or phrase that, within the ambit of a verb phrase, could serve to modify the action of the verb, but that is instead applied to the entire sentence to frame it within a discursive context such as the attitude of the speaker or writer towards the utterance. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” uses Frankly to mean ‘I speak to you frankly and say…’; “Among other things, this book explores the concept of silliness” uses Among other things to position the following statement within a larger possible set of observations (‘There are various things this book does; one of them is that…’); “Going forward, we’ll do it this way” uses Going forward to mean ‘I am making a prescription that applies to future instances when I say…’. They do not mean, respectively, that Rhett doesn’t give a damn frankly but he may give one covertly; that the book only explores silliness when the book is among other things; or that we will do it this way only when we are progressing ahead. And In case the term isn’t familiar doesn’t mean the preceding applies only in the case where the term is unfamiliar. It means I’m saying it in anticipation of the possibility of unfamiliarity.

Because sentence adverbials use words and phrases that can be used to different effect at lower levels, they are like candy to immature minds who are eager to pounce on other people’s “errors” to show their superior knowledge. But, as with so many rigid “rules” propounded by people who claim to care about grammar but really care mainly about demonstrating superiority, the “pedantic” interpretation is founded on a simple-minded misunderstanding. We have no difficulty understanding the sentences as they are intended – the pedants don’t even have the excuse that the box-office employee (who evidently didn’t read the programmes) had. The most they can argue is that the sentences are ambiguous. That can be something worth fixing, but it’s not a grammatical error. And they’re not always ambiguous, either. We usually understand them with no risk of confusion.

To add another analogy: When I was in New Zealand, I rented two different cars on separate occasions. In New Zealand they drive on the left, and so some of the driver’s controls are also the reverse of what I’m used to. With the first car, I managed to get used to the turn signal being on the opposite side from what I expected. Then when I rented the next car it was a model with the turn signal on the North American side. So I had to get used to it again and not keep turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn left or right. But in all of that, I did not say that the controls were wrong and I was right and stick to my preferred sides. I did not insist on turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn off the highway – or on signaling a turn when I wanted to wipe the windshield – because those were the correct sides for the controls to be on. I did what worked. When my expectations did not correspond with the results, I corrected my perspective. Which is what those who care about understanding language must do if they do not wish to be wrong.

So this pedantry is both a turn-off and a callow error.

Which, of course, Randall Munroe knows. He also knows that linguistics isn’t his area of expertise, and I’m not going to hold it against him for missing the analysis. He’s not the only one.

More honoured in the breach or the observance?

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

It is tempting to say that getting classical quotations right is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But if we did, we’d be guilty too. In the original, Hamlet is telling Horatio about the tradition of drinking sprees in the Danish court; he says it makes Danes look bad to other nations. So when he says

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance

he doesn’t mean they don’t do it; he means they shouldn’t do it. Honour’d here means ‘honourable’, not ‘complied with’.

Sometimes our errors come from shifts in culture. In a time when fires were the main source of heat, for instance, a fire that burnt bright but didn’t give off much heat was not much use. So when Polonius advises Ophelia to watch out for the ardor of young men (such as Hamlet), he uses this metaphor:

I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

These days, we use light as a positive metaphor in conversation, and heat more often as a negative one, so people often say a topic generates “more heat than light” – quite the reversal from the original.

We may look on such misinterpretations and say “Now is the winter of our discontent” with cultural knowledge. But we would be stopping short; here’s the whole opening sentence of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

So he’s saying that their unhappy period is now made happy by the new king. (Admittedly, the man who is saying this is not happy about the state of affairs.)

Sometimes we just get a word wrong, perhaps because another word seems to go better with it (and another author, perhaps). We play our cats to sleep and say “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” – and think it’s from Shakespeare – when the original is from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride, and it’s “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Now, why not use a popular variation when appropriate, right? But we’re editors, and part of our job is to keep writers from looking bad, which means we have to take a do-or-die approach to quotations. Or, um, well… Tennyson’s original in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is as follows:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Do and die? Perhaps we would do better to quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just as long as we get the wording right.

Assimilation by the mutants

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”

The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.

What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison).

Why does the vowel push up? Is it an uprising, a prison break? No: it is an assimilation. Welcome to the machine. Here is how it works: a word has a vowel that is low or back in the mouth (or both), and then—just on the other side of a consonant—it gets a suffix with a vowel that is high in the front of the mouth (i, generally, though ü could do it too). And that i in the suffix, that secret agent for the mutants, exerts a mysterious force on the vowel that was already there in the root. The root vowel wants to be more like that i. It moves towards it.

It’s not really such a mysterious force, actually. It’s just economy of effort. (“Laziness” is what your grandma probably called it.) If your tongue is going to have to be up there anyway, why not get there a little sooner? If you think about it, you’ll realize we do this all the time with all sorts of letters. For example, we move the n in think back to the same place as the k.

So where is the suffix-causing mutation in all these words: feet, teeth, geese, and so on? It’s long gone now. We lost many suffixes over time. But a long time ago, they were there. And the vowels moved towards them. And then moved some more. There was fót (foot), plural fóti, which moved the o forwards to assimilate and become fœti. Then it lost the i—and the agent of assimilation disappeared! And, over time, the œ unrounded and became a long e. And then the Great Vowel Shift occurred and long e moved up and became just like the old long i. The imitation of the lost i was complete. The mutation took over. It did not affect the singular, but there is danger in numbers: where there are two or more, the mutation takes over. Footfeetgoosegeesetoothteethman, menbook,beek.

Only not beek. But in the past it was! Yes, in Old English, a millennium ago, book pluralized the same way: bóc (the form of the word at that time) became béc. But between then and now, it regularized to books. Many other words that had this mutation also regularized. The mutation is curable, you see. It has to be taught at each new generation, in fact: all those parents saying, “It’s not foots. It’s feet.” (There was never hice, though; it wasn’t in the noun class that the mutant agents infiltrated. And moose was taken in the 1600s from a North American language, so it missed the mutant plague altogether.)

But wait! There’s more. Plural nouns are not the only things subject to i-mutation. Think about strength, length, and filth: they’re formed from strong, long, and foul (yes, foul, which in Old English was fúl). How does –th cause this assimilation mutation? (For clarity, I’m using th in place of the old runic-derived character þ that was actually used.) It was once, a long time ago, –ithu. So strongithu became strengithu, which became strength when the provocative agent i disappeared (and so did u).

There’s even more. Some verbs formed from nouns or adjectives, and the verb ending had—you guessed it—an in it that disappeared once it had done its job. So fóda (food) plus the –ian suffix became fédan (feed). The same thing gave us tell from talefill from fulldeem from doom, and even heal—originally hælan—from hál, the source of modern hale and whole. Causative verbs could also be formed from the past tenses of other verbs: for instance, drincan (drink), past tense dranc, got this mutating agent on it to make it drencan (drench). It’s even where we got lay from lie…but the difference between the past-tense læg and the causative lecgan disappeared over time and they merged as lay.

In fact, the larger part of these Old English i-mutants was neutralized by mergers. Remember that Great Vowel Shift I mentioned? In many cases, vowels and diphthongs that were different in Old English ended up sounding—and even being spelled—the same in Modern English. Our old noun léoht (light) and mutant verb líehtan, and thurst (thirst) and thyrstan, and weorc (work) and wyrcan—and oh, so many more—have come back together. Others (like beek) were lost due to regularization, and still others were lost because we just don’t use those words anymore—no frófor and fréfran, meaning “comfort,” noun and verb, respectively. But for the most part, the mutants that were formed by phonology were neutralized by phonology; the power that created them destroyed them. And no new mutants are being created…well, not of this kind, anyway.

This article was copy edited by Savanna Scott Leslie.

Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t:

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.

Wherefore pleaseth archaic English?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

Are these not beautiful English? Doth not such usage of the tongue please thine ears or eyen? And yet, if so they do, wherefore do they?

You’d think if it was such excellent English you’d use it on a daily basis, no? Or at least fully understand what it means. And yet many of those who will recognize “wherefore art thou Romeo” as exalted English don’t know that wherefore means “why,” not “where.” We don’t use exalted literally anymore, and we don’t use yea (pronounced “yay”) as an introductory discourse particle at all, except when making a classical reference. Countless millions who say thou and thee every Sunday think them pronouns of the highest reverence, rather than the familiar forms that they are — reserved in their time for social inferiors and those with whom one is on the most intimate terms. Most modern English speakers don’t even know where (and where not) to use –eth conjugations. The language of King James and Shakespeare does not do as good a job at communicating the sense to us; it is too unfamiliar.

And yet this unfamiliarity is one of the main reasons this kind of English is thought beautiful. We see it only in the most exalted contexts. We know Bible quotations mostly from the King James Bible simply because it had a lock on the non-Catholic English-speaking church for a long time. It’s not nearly as accurate or effective as many modern translations. But, because of this, it is like a stained glass window of words, while more idiomatic and accurate translations are like ordinary photographs. It is what our parents and priests quote and what we learn in school. It has guided our literary traditions.

As have the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors. His plots are often quite nasty, his characters impulsive and abusive, his moral lessons frequently questionable, his body counts excessive; most of his stories would not be considered family viewing in modern renditions. There’s a reason Thomas Bowdler made sanitized (“Bowdlerized”) versions. But Shakespeare does tell some good and compelling stories with insights into the human condition. And his writing — nearly all in blank verse — has been set as a prime exemplar of elegant English. We learn it in school. We are taught that this is what truly good English is.

So Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible are essential texts in English literature. But most people have a hard time understanding them, and the King James Bible is not a good translation, especially for modern readers. Want literature? Want to impose on people with a sense of high majesty? Read the King James. Want to understand the Bible and communicate its message? Use a better, modern translation. Does it seem awfully much like daily life to say “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged” rather than “Judge not that ye be not judged”? That’s because it’s supposed to. Did you really think the man was speaking in archaic verse in his own time?

We also learn that poetry is more elevated than prose. The tortuous syntactic braidings necessary to fit metre and rhyme become marks of distinction. We learn that “else the Puck a liar call” is more exalted than “or call me a liar,” even though the same thing uttered in daily conversation would elicit a “Huh?!”

But that’s just the thing. It’s not daily. It’s what some anthropologists and theatre scholars have called extra-daily: it is a language of a special, privileged time and place. It does not bear the tarnish and grime of the quotidian grind.

We have also learned in English that exceptions to rules are better than consistency. Nearly all the spelling and grammar mistakes we get browbeaten out of us in our young years are matters of failing to know exceptions to the rules: “Not goed. Went.” “It’s spelled e-i-g-h-t, not a-t-e, and g-r-e-a-t, not g-r-a-t-e.” And so on. As linguists put it, we privilege the marked — marked meaning exceptional.

Marked with exception, but also marked with the grime of time. These works may not have the dull dust of daily life, but they have the chimney soot of ages past. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was being cleaned, the soot and dirt of centuries carefully removed to reveal the brilliant colours put there in the first place by Michelangelo, many people complained bitterly about removing all that “beauty and mystery.”

When it comes to the exalted, people want “beauty and mystery,” which consists of what they have learned is beautiful and mysterious because it’s what was handed down to them from ages past, with all its obscurity, in the most exalted extra-daily contexts. The King James Bible is a standout example of English literature precisely because English literature has learned over the ages to treat it as such, and each new generation is shown it as an example. When we judge it exalted, we are judging it by a standard based on … it.

Wherein I talk to Australians about accent shift

I was interviewed a while ago by Anthony Funnell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for his show Future Tense. I was talking about the subject of an article I wrote for The Week: How accents are shifting, and how young women are the best people to look to if you want to know how we will sound in the future. This isn’t ground-breaking research, but it’s something most non-linguists don’t know about. The show that was recorded for has just been broadcast, so you can listen to it now. My segment is at the 10-minute mark, but all three segments are worth a listen:


Contronyms: to sanction or to sanction?

This article originally appeared on BoldFace, the official blog of Editors Toronto.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes.

But then sometimes people change word forms to what they think they’re supposed to be by their resemblance to other word forms. Take the word imprenable. The pren is the same as in the French prener (“take”). But somewhere in the 1500s some writers thought it should have a silent g as in reign and deign (both of which came down from Latin and stopped being pronounced), and so they made it impregnable. Perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), just around the same time, English borrowed the Latin impraegnare (“make pregnant”) and converted it to impregnate.

The seeds of confusion were thus sown on the basis of wanton cleaving to resemblance. This is also what happened in the case of cleofan and clifian, two Old English words. They were pronounced much like clave and cleave, respectively (plus suffixes, of course). Cleofan meant “sever” and clifian meant “adhere.” But over the centuries, the sounds spelled eo and ea shifted. Meanwhile, the pronunciation of clifian, which could have changed to resemble “clive,” stayed the same and the spelling shifted because there was this other word so much like it that had a very closely related sense.

Are opposites closely related? Indeed: differing only in one polarity. Sometimes opposites attract, meeting at the point of commonality and facing opposite directions. Sometimes the confusion comes not from fusion but fission: a nucleus of meaning that splits and heads in opposite directions. Take sanction, for instance. That sanct is the same as in sanctify; a sanction is a decree rendered inviolable – sanctified, given divine authority. But decrees can permit or prohibit. And so you can sanction an activity—expressly allow it—or sanction it—expressly prohibit it. Similarly, dust as a verb, converted from a noun, means to do something with dust, but that something can just as readily be to add dust as to remove it.

Sometimes the cleavage of forms is not so fast; it comes about gradually as the sense does not hold fast. Certain turns of phrase may help make the phrase become less certain and turn away. Take fast for example. Its first sense was “firmly fixed,” and, as an adverb, “in a firmly fixed manner.” But in the adverb sense it came to mean “very near” or “following closely,” as in fast beside and fast by. Shifting to a temporal sense, we came to have as fast as meaning “as soon as.” From that, fast came to have a sense of “quickly, swiftly,” which was then transferred to the adjective form. (Yes, fast meant “rapidly” before it meant “rapid.”) And now the original sense has mostly left and the newer sense is what is left.

That last sentence, by the way, holds the key to the Janus face of left. Leave can be intransitive—“depart”—or transitive—“depart from.” In either case, the one doing the departing is the one that has left; in the transitive, the one departed from is the one that is left: I leave it behind me, so it is left behind me. It’s not a real contradiction; it only seems so when an important word (is or has) is left out.

And sometimes contronyms come about because of sloppiness—they acquire a dusting of another sense because we don’t do the dusting on the original sense. Temper, for instance, has always meant “keep in due proportion, regulate”; it’s the source of temperance and temperature, after all. If you get angry, you lose your temper; just as you can have bad health, you can have a bad temper. But we are sometimes intemperate in our use of partial phrases. Bad temper can become just temper, and temper, temper! may be taken as meaning not “Let’s have some temper,” but “Let’s not have some temper.”

There are, of course, quite a lot more contronyms in the language. You are sure to find more—and the keys to their Janus-faced natures—if you look through a dictionary.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.