Category Archives: language and linguistics

That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

Linguistics is great for making you aware of things you were already doing consistently but weren’t consciously aware of. In fact, that’s the basic point of several subfields of linguistics. There are a few particularly memorable examples that one learns in the course of an education in linguistics. One of these is the order of adjectives: we have a standard order for adjectives when there are several before a noun. We may not be analytically aware of it, but if someone says “a red big balloon” it will sound wrong.

If you’re a linguistics student, you take that as more data, and the point of such data is to use it to help you figure out why we tend to do that, and to do that you have to see what exceptions there are and sort out what the various inputs and influences are. It’s explanation-seeking behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a linguist but an ordinary English speaker, you may approach English with an eye to finding out what is right and what is wrong. We learn that good grammar is the great sorter, and we treat errors as evidence of flawed character and intellect. And so when you encounter a new fact about the language, you may well be inclined to turn that fact into a rule. It’s rule-seeking behaviour.

So when, recently, a book came out pointing out (in passing) the standard order of adjectives to the lay masses, many people were all “mind=blown” about it. The author, Mark Forsyth, stated confidently that the order absolutely has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun, and “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Linguists, of course, quickly critiqued this overstatement; read Language Log for some responses. But non-linguists didn’t just say “Wow, I didn’t know I was doing that”; many of them were writing down that order and determining that any deviation from it must be wrong. I didn’t see any instances of people telling other people “You didn’t put it in this order, so you’re wrong,” but I did see instances of “What’s the correct order? I don’t want to get this wrong!” English speakers, you see, are in general convinced that they’re always making mistakes and doing things wrong, and they want to know the right way to do them for those instances where they’re going to be judged. (Ironically, many of them think one of those instances is when they’re talking to a linguist. Listen, honey, whatever you say or don’t say is great with us; it’s all data.)

So I feel I need to say this: There is no official correct order of adjectives you must adhere to. If something sounds wrong, then adjust it, but if it doesn’t sound wrong, it’s not wrong.

In fact, we vary the order depending on context, priority, and sets of words that we’re used to having together in a certain order. Consider a nice big old round red Spanish silk riding hood. Try moving any of the words and it may sound wrong (but not like a maniac!), although big old nice Spanish red round silk riding hood doesn’t sound awful to me. You might also get away with Spanish red silk. Some orders are more weighted than others. But change nice in the original phrase to good. Suddenly it doesn’t work as well: not good big old but good old big will sound better because of collocation – good old travels together. Also, any compound noun will defeat the word order. You have a tawny giant tortoise, for instance, because giant tortoise is a thing. And it will be different in what it can convey than giant tawny tortoise. We can even vary the order to adjust the sense: a little dumb ass is different from a dumb little ass because dumb ass is a common collocation.

So if you come up with a string of adjectives and it doesn’t sound right, just change the order so it sounds right. Make things that go together go together. Do not start overthinking it: don’t say “this one must go before that one because that is more common or more essential,” as is a common explanation for the ordering. Go with what sounds right. Afterwards, you can use that as interesting data to tell you what you see as more essential, but do not arrange the order by asking yourself which is more essential, because you could be wrong. For instance, we would all say big red building and not red big building, even though the building can be repainted more easily than it can have its size changed. And yet even that order can be changed in some circumstances: for instance, we use little closer to the noun to express an attitude towards it: I’m not gonna drive that purple little car of yours all over town communicates something not altogether the same as I’m not gonna drive that little purple car of yours all over town.

The number one thing we should learn from this, then, is that in general people aren’t fully aware of how their language works and yet they make it work, and when people start trying to analyze it and come up with prescriptions they very often miss things and get things wrong. The most poplar grammatical cudgels are based on thick-headed simple-minded misunderstandings of how and why we do things, and on grotesque overapplication of rules. That’s why they’re used as cudgels: not everyone follows them because they aren’t real rules, they’re made up.

Mistrust imposed rules, especially inflexible ones. You’ve been using English your whole life. If someone tells you that something that sounds right to you is wrong, and that something that sounds odd to you is right, they’re probably just wrong. And if your analysis tells you that a sentence that sounds awkward to you is right while one that sounds good is wrong, question your analysis. If you love the language and want to understand how it works and use it effectively, engage in explanation-seeking behaviour, not rule-seeking behaviour.

About this sentence that you’re reading

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

About this sentence that you’re reading…

Should that be “About this sentence, which you’re reading”? After all, you’re not reading any other sentence, are you? So it’s not restrictive, so it must be non-restrictive, meaning it should have a comma and use which. Right?

I was talking to my wife Aina and a friend about this the other day…


What do you mean, how many wives do I have? Look, if I set it off in commas, it would be “I was talking to my wife, Aina, and a friend about this the other day,” and you would be saying “So that’s three people? Who’s your wife if not Aina?”

Since you’re an editor, you’ve heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is like a little Santa Claus in the sentence: it gives the reader a gift, with a comma or two as tiny ribbons.

The cakes are served warm.

The cakes, which are kept in the refrigerator but carried under the waiters’ arms, are served warm.

The sentence would be coherent without it, but it’s there as a special bonus of information. It’s also called a nonrestrictive relative, which works because it’s not really Santa Claus giving you gifts, it’s your relatives. (The rules apply similarly to non-clause modifiers as well, such as the name of my wife, Aina.)

A restrictive clause or relative (or modifier) is like your aunt who says “I’m giving you anything you want as long as it’s this sweater!” It no sooner gives than it starts to take away.

The tea is served cold.

The tea that is carried by Pat is served cold; the tea that is carried by Alex is served warm.

But where there is a Claus, there may be a Grinch. What is a restrictive Grinch? It’s one of those people who carp at things that are perfectly clear to reasonable people. Consider:

He went to a famous school called Eton.

The restrictive Grinch might say “Oh, so there are multiple famous schools called Eton?” In fact, the sentence does not necessarily imply that there are multiple famous schools called Eton (although it does imply that there are multiple famous schools), and ambiguity is not automatically a grammatical error – although it can be worth avoiding… when a reasonable person might reasonably misread it, or when too many people might deliberately (and unreasonably) misread it for their own entertainment.

Reasonableness is important. Communication normally (outside of contracts and courts of law) depends on people being reasonable. We make inferences on the basis of what’s reasonable, given our knowledge of the world. If we have some new data, such as a sentence,* and we choose among different interpretations on the basis of what we already know to be the case, we’re using a loose form of Bayesian inference.

Let’s take a Bayesian look at “my wife Aina and a friend” versus “my wife, Aina, and a friend.” In the version with commas, if we don’t know my wife’s name, we need to conjecture or determine whether I use the serial comma; if I don’t, it’s clearly two people, but if I do, it may be three. In the version without commas, the possibilities are (1) that I have more than one wife or (2) that I am disregarding the usual rule about setting off nonrestrictives with commas. Why would I disregard it? To avoid interrupting the flow or causing ambiguity with the extra commas. Given that bigamy is illegal in our society, option 2 is far more likely. Indeed, only a restrictive Grinch would raise the objection that the comma-free version must mean option 1.

There are, of course, many cases where proper use of commas is necessary to set off nonrestrictive clauses for clarity or legal defensibility. But there are also cases where the commas make no difference to the meaning but may make a difference to the flow or tone. The moon, which orbits the earth, is also the moon that orbits the earth (since there are many moons but there is one we call the moon); the sun, which we orbit, is also the sun that we orbit (for the same reason). This sentence that you’re reading is this sentence, which you’re reading, and the different possible uses of this make both defensible, but flow and tone may make one a better choice than the other.

So, when we are faced with a modifier such as a relative clause and we’re not confident about whether it’s restrictive or unrestrictive, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Will the commas help or hurt the flow?
  2. How likely is it to be misread accidentally?
  3. How likely is it to be misread deliberately?
    1. By which readers?
      1. And do they really matter?


*Or some new data such as a sentence – equally true.

The ongoing demise of English

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

English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be. As people who have to deal every day with the abuses of common users, we will surely all agree with this sentiment: “our unfortunate ears are doomed not only to excruciate in the torments of bad grammar, but to agonize under the torture of a viciousness of expression and a corruption of phraseology, the ridiculousness of which alone saves us from the death with which we are frequently threatened.”

Does that seem just a touch overstated and stiff? Well, it’s from The Vulgarisms and Improprieties of the English Language, published in 1833 by W.H. Savage, so we have to allow for minor changes in common phraseology. But look, here’s an author not from the 1800s who agrees: “the English language, as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of the most approved authors, often offends against every part of grammar.”

That was Robert Lowth, writing in 1762, and standards have obviously degraded since then without our noticing. Even in Lowth’s time things had gone downhill over the preceding half century; compare Jonathan Swift in 1712 telling us “that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; … and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Surely we can agree that it is better, and more consistent, to capitalize all Nouns, as Swift and his Contemporaries did.

Too late on that. Our language has been sliding, sliding, sliding. We could have heeded the advice of the pseudonymous author of Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech in 1885, and we would not now say “transpire” when we mean “occur,” or “fix” instead of “make fast” to mean “put in order, repair,” or “smart” to express “cleverness, brightness, or capability.”

We would also, in heeding other style guides of a mere century ago, know better than to write such a monstrosity as “The suspect was planning to use a car to raid the warehouse.” We would know that “suspect” should be “suspicious person,” that “plan” and “raid” are not verbs, and that “car” does not mean “automobile.” But, alas, we have fallen too far.

Or we have grown too far. Growing pains are felt more sharply by some than by others. Just as many of my generation will swear that the best music was written before 1990, quite a few people will insist that the best English is the kind they remember having learned as children. We don’t know, of course, how reliable their memories are, and we may wonder why they haven’t put childish things away, but so it goes. Stern voices over the centuries have taught us that English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be… and it never has been.

Etymology in dire straits

A very common mistake, and source of linguistic misinformation being passed around, is the assumption that because A resembles some apparently older B, B must be the source of A. Such resemblances are suggestive and worth investigating further, of course, but without a historical record, you can’t say A comes from B – and if the historical record pretty clearly indicates something else, then it undermines the initial hunch. It’s true that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when there’s sufficient contradictory evidence, the absence of evidence does gain some weight. (And, as historical linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) At the very least, as the likelihood narrows, your appealing account is in increasingly dire straits.

I’m listening to some Dire Straits right now, not by coincidence. I decided to play them after being forwarded this account:


The Origins of the phrase “In Dire Straits”

In Hebrew “The Three Weeks” is also referred to as Bein ha-Metzarim (בין המצרים), or “Between the Straits” or “In Dire Straits”. It is based onLamentations 1:3: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.” Thus, when you next hear someome refer to being “in dire straits” you’ll know it comes from the exile of Jews from Israel.

What are “The Three Weeks”? I’ll get into that at the end. But first, let’s dive into some dire straits.

The phrase in dire straits – or even just the two words dire straits – is not to be found in the Bible; the passage quoted from Lamentations is one of two uses of dire in the King James Bible (which gives us most of our quotable terms from the Bible), the other being in Job 20:22, “In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: ever hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” Thus a translation of the Hebrew phrase into in dire straits is one using an idiom seemingly not traceable to an English translation of the Bible. Quotes from Shakespeare are often confused with Biblical quotes, but the only use of straits in Shakespeare is from As You Like It, act V scene iii: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” The word straits (plural) doesn’t appear in Bartlett’s Quotations at all! Dire shows up 22 times in Shakespeare but not once in the King James Bible. Its first appearance in English, mutated from Latin dirus, is in the mid-1500s, and it caught on as a useful adjective. Likewise, as we see, straits and in straits and in a strait (and even great straits and desperate straits) were long used figuratively – since the mid-1500s also, in fact. But they don’t show up together until much more recently.

Google ngrams graphs the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. According to a newspaper column from 2000, the first use of dire straits together that can be dug up in anything recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.” But Google Books takes us back a bit farther, giving several hits in the decades around 1900. It finds it in an article about Paganini from 1892; there is one from the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890: “He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still”; there is one from the story “A Masai Adventure” by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888: “he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.” Even then, the phrase seems established.

The earliest hit I can find goes all the way back to the 1700s: the (long) epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780, which has at lines 719–720 “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.” This is clearly a literal use! But could have been a seed for later figurative uses if some of the authors had been educated in the classics in translation. But I can’t find it in a search through a fairly good corpus of English fiction books (novels and collected stories) from 1710 through 1920. It seems to have gained some momentum for a reason uncertain to me in the early 1900s; the Roosevelt speech no doubt helped at least some. The first time the phrase shows up in the Hansard (transcribed debates) of the British Parliament is 1884, and its use accelerates slowly: 1 hit in the 1890s, 2 in the next decade, 5 in the 1910s, 12 in the 1920s, 19 in the 1930s, 14 in the 1940s. There’s no sharp jump as we might expect if it showed up in a single important source.

The term, anyway, according to the Google ngram, rose in usage through the 1900s, peaking in the 1930s and holding fairly steady, but then it started to climb again in the early 1980s… which is when the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene (they were formed in 1977 and had their first hit – “Sultans of Swing” – in 1978, but they became really huge starting in 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations, one of which for Best New Artist). Usage of the term dire straits has been climbing ever since, even as the band Dire Straits has subsided from charts somewhat.

Now for that Hebrew phrase: בין המצרים (bein hamitsrayim) names the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz through roughly the ninth of Av, The Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples, a time of solemnity for observant Jews. I like Wikipedia’s commentary:

The Three Weeks are historically a time of misfortune, since many tragedies and calamities befell the Jewish people at this time. These tragedies include: the breaking of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; the burning of a Sefer Torah by Apostomus during the Second Temple era; the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain shortly before Tisha B’Av 1492; and the outbreak of World War I shortly before Tisha B’Av 1914, which overturned many Jewish communities.

But while Wikipedia puts in a “cf ‘dire straits’” next to the literal “Between the Straits” translation, it just links to the Wiktionary definition. There is no evidence I can find that links the term dire straits historically to this period; the connection appears to be a modern one, made readily enough once the phrase dire straits was common. We don’t much use the term straits outside of names and figures of speech anymore, so when we see it in one place (Between the Straits), it’s unsurprising if we connect it to another common collocation (dire straits). It just doesn’t happen to be the origin as far as the historical evidence I can find goes.

By the way, בין המצרים is, I find, also translatable as “among the Egyptians”: בין (bein) means ‘between, among, amid’; ה (ha) is ‘the’; מצרים (mitsrayim) is ‘Egypt’ – Wiktionary points out that the name of Egypt has a dual ending (–im) perhaps because Egypt was formerly two realms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and it says “Connections have also been drawn to מֶצֶר ‎(métser, “border, limit”) and מיצר \ מֵצַר ‎(meitsár, “sea strait”).” Still, the closest to Egyptians that dire straits seems to come is the Sultans of Swing.

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.