Category Archives: Language

Standards? What Standards?

There are those who delight in telling us that standards of written English are falling, and that it’s all the fault of the wicked internet and texting. What they don’t tell us is in what past golden age standards were supposed to have been at their zenith. Do they, perhaps, have in mind examples such as this, a letter which Charles Dickens commented on in ‘Household Words’ in the issue of 24 August, 1850?

Deer mother and father ad sisters i root thes few lines hooping to find you All well for I arr in gudd halth my self and I wood root befor onley i wos very un setled and now i have root I houp you will rite back as soon as you can and send how you all arr and likewise our frends and I am hired my self for a sheeprd 12 munts for 19 pound and my keep too for it was to soun for our work when I arrive in the country it is a plesent and helthay cuntry and most peple dows well in it as liks onley it is a grait country for durnkerds . . .


Filed under English Language

Grammar Basics: Nouns

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A noun is often described as a word representing a person, such as child, an animal, such as goat, a thing, such as house or an idea, such as inevitability. We can refer to the meanings of nouns as their semantic properties, but words have other properties too. To revert to morphology, we can see that certain word endings are typically found in nouns. The -ability ending of inevitability is one. Others areness, as in kindness, and  -ion, as in relation. We can also see that when a word ends in -s it might possibly be the plural form of a noun, and that when it ends in -‘s or –s’ it will normally be the form of a noun that indicates possession or attribution. A third indicator of the class to which a word belongs is its syntactic role, the way it behaves in a sentence. A noun can be preceded by a definite or indefinite article, an adjective or by other determiners. Most noticeably, if a word is the subject or object of a sentence it will typically be a noun (or a pronoun). To summarize, a noun can be identified by its semantic, morphological and syntactic properties.

Nouns, once identified as such, can be countable or uncountable. Table, boy, book, mountain and house are countable. They can be preceded by either the definite or indefinite article (that’s the, or a or an) or by words like your or this. Countable nouns also have the characteristic of being able to form plurals. Weather, thoughtfulness, gold, Arctic and music, on the other hand, are uncountable. They cannot be preceded by the indefinite article, and do not normally have plurals. Occasionally, however, nouns can be countable in one context and uncountable in another. When we refer to beer in general it’s uncountable, but when we want some we can say Let’s go and have a beer.

Nouns can also be abstract or concrete. From the examples given, it’s easy to see that table, say, is concrete: a table is something we can touch and bump into. Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, is not something we can touch and bump into, because it’s abstract.

Finally, we distinguish between common nouns and proper nouns. Proper nouns describe things or people that are unique, such as Africa, the United Nations or Elizabeth II. By contrast, there are several continents, organizations and monarchs, so continent, organization and monarch are common nouns.

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Grammar Basics: Morphemes

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The smallest building blocks of meaning in a language are called morphemes. Walk, for example, the basic form of the verb, is a morpheme. We can’t break it down any further in terms of meaning. Wal, for example, doesn’t mean anything in Modern English, and nor does alk. The basic form, walk, is what you’d look up in a dictionary, and it’s used when we say I walk, you walk, we walk, and they walk, and also when there’s no particular person attached to the verb, as in He prefers to walk. When we’re talking about someone other than you and me or you and us or several other people, we add -s to the basic form to produce he walks and she walks.

If we add ed we can create the past tense, they walked. That ending also forms the past participle that allows us to say things like we have walked. Finally, we can add ing and get walking, and that allows us to make constructions like we were walking. It also means we can say things like Walking is good for your health.

So walk can occur in four different forms. Because it can stand on its own it’s called a free morpheme. It contrasts with the morphemes -s, -ed and ing which are of no use on their own. To make any sense they have to be tied, or bound, to a free morpheme, and so they’re known as bound morphemes.

Now, take a word like recalculation. That happens to be a noun, but at the heart of it there’s the verb calculate. We can’t break that down any further in terms of meaning, so we can conclude that calculate is a morpheme, and, because it makes sense on its own, it’s a free morpheme. But we can create a noun from it by dropping the e and adding ation to give us calculation. -ation cannot be further broken down in terms of meaning, so we can conclude that it, too, is a morpheme, and, because it cannot stand alone, it’s a bound morpheme. If the process of calculation happens more than once we can place re- , another bound morpheme, in front and get recalculation.

A final note on bound morphemes. The bound morphemes -s, -ed  and -ing can be added to a verb to show how we want the verb to be understood, but they don’t change its basic meaning. They’re called suffixes because they come at the end of the verb, and because they merely modify the verb, they’re called inflectional suffixes. They contrast with a morpheme like ation, which creates a new kind of word, a noun. Because they allow us to derive one word from another, suffixes like that are called derivational suffixes. When bound morphemes occur at the beginning of a word, like re-, they’re called derivational prefixes.

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Filed under Grammar Basics, Morphology

Another Stupid Grammar Quiz

The office supplies company Staples has now entered the grammar market with a quiz that, like all the others in the same style, is ill-informed and promotes false ideas about grammar. Most of the questions are not about grammar at all, but about spelling, punctuation and vocabulary. Those that are about grammar trot out the same old phoney advice. Here are three examples.

Question 5 asks us to choose the right pronoun in the sentences The car beeped at Jon and I / me and  Karen and I / me went on holiday. Well, of course, they want us to choose me in the first and I in the second. The explanation given for the first is the same old unthinking one about what you would say if you removed Jon and. Well, yes, you’d say me, but, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write, ‘why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun?’ Elsewhere they write that the construction with and I is ‘used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should therefore be regarded as a variant Standard English form.’ The second sentence that the quizzers want us to produce is Karen and I went on holiday, disregarding the fact that for many speakers of Standard English the informal construction will be Me and Karen went on holiday.

Question 7 wants us to write Phones that have cameras are generally more expensive rather than Phones which have cameras are generally more expensive, giving the inadequate and misleading explanation ‘You can remove the clause containing which from a sentence without changing the meaning. That, however, is necessary’. What’s behind this is the shibboleth that a defining relative clause must begin with that, not which. This is simply untrue.

Question 14 invites us to agree that saying Whom did you see in the bar last night? is normal English. It isn’t. Whom is reserved for formal contexts, and to use it in informal contexts such as this is to be insensitive to the way in which language adapts itself to the social situations in which we use it.

You can read about most of the points raised in the quiz, and more, in my series of posts about the Negative Canon. Better still, consult  a proper grammar book.


Filed under English Language, Language

Oh No They Don’t

‘Business Insider’, we are told, ‘is a fast-growing business site with deep financial, media, tech, and other industry verticals.’ It may well be that industry verticals are exactly what today’s business person needs to read about, and it may well be that ‘Business Insider’ is unsurpassed in its ability to provide such information. What it doesn’t seem well equipped to do is to provide information about English, at least not in the way in which a certain Christina Sterbenz presents it here. Her article says ‘These 11 examples always come out incorrectly’.  Well, actually, they don’t. Here are the records in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for 9 of her examples:


for all intensive purposes (3)
for all intents and purposes (259)


nip it in the butt (0)
nip it in the bud (30)


one in the same (46)
one and the same (594)


in accident (28)
by accident (1,531)


case and point (4)
case in point (1,436)


should of (76)
should have (31,750)

could of (176)
could have (43.518)

would of (212)
would have (11.0277)


wreak havoc (425)
wreck havoc (8)


try to (65,498)
try and (6,777)


supposably (4)
supposedly (6,159)

The records for two of Ms Sterbenz’s pairs, it is true, seem at first glance to support her otherwise extremely shaky case. There are 4 records for ‘you’ve got another think coming’ in the COCA and 8 for ‘you’ve got another thing coming’, but the number of example is too small to draw any firm conclusions from them, and this seems in any case to be no more than elision. There are also 88 records for ‘I could care less’, against 83 for ‘I couldn’t care less’. The former seems to have established itself, for whatever reason, as part of informal American speech, and I have already posted about it here.

Ms Sterbenz’s article is typical of the effusions of those who like to claim, as she does, that ‘we’ve totally bastardized parts of the English language’. I’m not even sure what that might mean, but what is certain is that such articles, with no evidence for their assertions, no research and no understanding of how language works, mislead their readers and create a sense of linguistic insecurity among the vulnerable.


Filed under English Language, Language

I’m Going To Report You

Many comments on the use of English amount to little more than the expression of personal preferences and dislikes. We are all, of course, entitled to have them, but it’s a different matter when those who express them insist that their predilections represent The Only True Way, and try to impose them on the rest of us.

I, too, have my irrational prejudices, but I don’t pretend they’re holy writ. I’m not alone. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Steven Pinker confesses his distaste for the use of disinterested to mean ‘apathetic’ (see Caxton’s discussion here). But he redems himself with:

Every component of a language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But since the human mind does not change over time, the richness of a language is always being replenished.’

I have already mentioned one of my bugaboos, the use of ‘deliver’ to mean ‘provide’. I have taken care to record that my objection to it has no basis in etymology or usage (oh, if only others would do the same).

Here’s another, and it’s in the ‘I was always taught’ category. When direct speech is reported, certain changes occur. If someone says I’m tired, another person reporting what was said will turn it into She said she was tired. I becomes she and ‘m becomes was. The first person pronoun becomes the third person pronoun, and the tense is shifted backwards. As the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ (LSGSWE) has it:

The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the reports.

It continues:

Notice that the circumstances may still be continuing even though past tense is used.

Precisely. In my example, although was is past tense, she may actually still be tired at the time I’m speaking, so we don’t need to say She said she’s tired.

But lo, the LSGSWE also says:

Although this use of past tense in reported speech is common, reported speech also occurs with other tenses. Consider these examples:

She said she feels good now.

Graham said the owls’ messy habit makes them the ideal bird for the study.

Here, the reporting verb (said) is in the past tense, but the verb in the indirect quote remains in the present tense, emphasizing that the circumstances expressed by feels and makes are still continuing.

Hm, perhaps.


Filed under Grammar

Grose Words

I’ve been reading Francis Grose’s ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’, published in 1811. It’s available free from Kindle, but here’s a selection.

ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him.

VICE ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. A drunken man that pisses under the table into his companions’ shoes.

BARBER’S CHAIR. She is as common as a barber’s chair, in which a whole parish sit to be trimmed; said of a prostitute.

BEARD SPLITTER. A man much given to wenching.

BED-MAKER. Women employed at Cambridge to attend on the Students, sweep his room, &c. They will put their hands to any thing, and are generally blest with a pretty family of daughters: who unmake the beds, as fast as they are made by their mothers.

TO BOX THE JESUIT, AND GET COCK ROACHES. A sea term for masturbation; a crime, it is said, much practised by the reverend fathers of that society.

FART CATCHER. A valet or footman from his walking behind his master or mistress.

FINGER POST. A parson: so called, because he points out a way to others which he never goes himself. Like the finger post, he points out a way he has never been, and probably will never go, i.e. the way to heaven.

GANDER MONTH. That month in which a man’s wife lies in: wherefore, during that time, husbands plead a sort of  indulgence in matters of gallantry.

HUGOTONTHEONBIQUIFFINARIANS. A society existing in 1748.

IRISH BEAUTY. A woman with two black eyes.



MELTING MOMENTS. A fat man and woman in the amorous congress.

MONEY. A girl’s private parts, commonly applied to little children: as, Take care, Miss, or you will shew your money. (Hence, I suppose, Keep yer ‘and on yer ‘apenny.)

MOON RAKERS. Wiltshire men: because it is said that some men of that county, seeing the reflection of the moon in a pond, endeavoured to pull it out with a rake.

PRISCIAN. To break Priscian’s head; to write or speak false grammar. Priscian was a famous grammarian, who flourished at Constantinople in the year 525; and who was so devoted to his favourite study, that to speak false Latin in his company, was as disagreeable to him as to break his head.

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Filed under English Language, Vocabulary

The Negative Canon: Final Reflections

This post is the final one in a series about The Negative Canon.

That’s about it on the Negative Canon. I don’t suppose it’s comprehensive, and there have perhaps been some items I shouldn’t have included. I’m also aware that this little exercise has not got even close to tracing the origin of each candidate and analysing why it is singled out. I can only suggest that the reason that the examples which the Negative Canon contains are so selective is that those who peddle them find them easy to understand. Few any longer object to due to instead of owing to because, I suspect, it’s just too difficult to appreciate any difference. Having instead a handful of banal points that you can confidently trot out as having the truth of holy writ can make you feel a superior being to those naive enough to believe you.

Many of these items are aired frequently and at great length in several Facebook groups and elsewhere. They are even – God help us – featured on a set of mugs. Mugs for mugs, you might say. Those who comment have typically done no research, cite no references, don’t seem to have consulted a reputable dictionary or examined a corpus or ever picked up an introductory  book on linguistics. They are long on opinion and short on fact, yet they consider themselves to be greater authorities than those who have spent their careers researching, teaching and writing about the subject. As Geoffrey Pullum has written:

Metallurgical claims are treated as needing at least some kind of fact-checking with metallurgists: you can’t just assert that lead is highly brittle at room temperature or that vanadium explodes if put in contact with water. But linguistic claims are left to the same sort of uncontrolled mouthing-off as totally subjective opinions about food or fashion.

The basic misapprehension seems to arise from a failure to understand that English comes in many varieties, and that even a single variety can vary according to the context in which it is being used. All varieties of the language, whether regional or social, have a consistent grammatical system and their own vocabulary. When native speakers of English are accused of using ‘poor grammar’, what they are normally doing is using one of the many varieties of English, of which most are nonstandard. It shows a fundamental ignorance of the facts to think that Standard English is some kind of idealised form of the language and that all other varieties are corruptions of it. The dialect we know as Standard English was adopted as the most prestigious not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. Had history been different, what we call Standard English, if it had survived at all, would now itself be the object of scorn.

Joyless souls, the self-appointed guardians of the language appear to take no delight in the language of which they claim to be such proud and vigilant speakers. But those who are convinced enough of their own righteousness to go into print are, to quote Geoffrey Pullum again, hopeless at making their own case:

I’d say the problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others by writing books on how to write is that they are so bad at it . . . they actually don’t know how they do what they do, and they are clueless about the grammar of the language in which they do it, and they offer recommendations on how you should write that are unfollowed, unfollowable, or utterly insane.

What, ultimately, is being judged is not language at all, but the socio-economic status which language represents. To judge someone by their use of language is no different from judging them from their clothes, where they live, how they spend their leisure time, what they do for a living, and how they use their knives and forks. We are all entitled to do that, of course, however unworthy it may be, and no doubt we do all do it. But we should be in no doubt that those who use language differently from us are, within a given context, communicating no more and no less competently than we do.

Organisations which have presumably paid large sums of money for their less than felicitous corporate publicity material are perhaps fair game. More often, however, jibes about language use are directed at those who may have had little education and as a result are among society’s disadvantaged. They often seem to include those who don’t have English as their native language. Such attacks are deeply unappealing and reminiscent of social, racial and sexual discrimination. They deserve the same contempt, particularly when it is suggested that those who express themselves differently are mentally deficient.

Next time you come across someone who thinks they know what’s wrong with English and how to put it right, ask them these questions:

  • What are your linguistic qualifications?
  • How will you go about accomplishing your mission?
  • Do you think anyone will take any notice?


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: Apostrophe’s

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

As with spelling, a standardised system of punctuation  in English began only with the introduction of printing. For centuries before, English was written with little or no punctuation, and there has always been variability in its use. Whatever its original purpose, it exists now principally not, as some seem to think, to show where the reader should pause, but to help the reader understand the structure of sentences.

There is one punctuation mark above all which the tut-tutters love to point out when it is not placed in accordance with their wishes. It is, of course, the apostrophe, against whose usefulness Peter Harvey has already argued here and here. When James Harbeck’s article in The Week in September claimed that ‘The English language would be better off without apostrophes’, it gave rise to much comment on both sides of the argument, as Louise Barder reported on Glossophilia.

Printers imported the apostrophe from Europe in the sixteenth century as a mark to show that a letter had been omitted, perhaps because there wasn’t space on a line to fit everything in. It was subsequently used to replicate the way contractions were spoken. This is the use we find in don’t, isn’t and I’m (and in French in C’est, l’homme and n’est-ce pas?). Such use isn’t particularly troublesome. Where there is confusion and controversy is in its use in certain plurals and as a genitive marker.

When it is used before the plural inflection -s it is sometimes called ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ because displays of fruit and vegetables are sometimes accompanied by signs inidcating apple’s and cabbage’s. The easily amused like to ask questions like ‘The apple’s what?’ The apostrophe is also found in the plurals of abbreviations (DVD’s) and years (1980’s). This use is arguably unnecessary where the -s appears in lower case. But even those who insist on its absence there acknowledge that it serves a purpose in (admittedly rare) cases like p’s and q’s.

It is, however, the absence of the apostrophe as a genitive marker that most upsets people. In Old English, some, but by no means all, nouns had their genitive singular in es. This became contracted to plain –s with no apostrophe, as in this couplet from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende

I don’t see that shire’s would have been any improvement, but seventeenth century scholars felt a need to indicate the lost letter, even where there was none, and the –’s marker was born.

On current practice, Pam Peters writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, :

As applications of the apostrophe begin to shrink, expert writers and editors are also less certain about its use, hence the many details of this entry. Burchfield [chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971 to 1986], quoted in a 1985 news article,  . . . commented that the apostrophe had probably reached the limits of its usefulness, and might only be retained for contractions. A return to C17 simplicities with the apostrophe might not be a backward step’

There are indications that this is already happening. Pam Peters sets out a number of cases where apostrophes are not now obligatory. They include:

  • plural nouns in phrases which express affiliation, for example, teachers college and senior citizens centre. The trend is widespread in the English-speaking world. Robert Burchfield noted it in corporate names and titles such as Diners Club and Farmers Weekly.
  • plural expressions of time and space, such as five weeks leave (but a week’s leave), and three kilometres distance (but a kilometre’s distance).
  • placenames involving possessive forms.
  • company names such as Harrods. A British book chain fairly recently changed its name to Waterstones.

As confirmation of this trend, I can report that a road near my house bears the sign Sprats Hatch Lane, that a sign in the village points to Doctors surgery, and that at least one branch of a leading British department store has in its restaurant a counter labelled CHILDRENS.

The possessive apostrophe won’t be preserved by the efforts of the likes of the Apostrophe Protection Society, and it won’t be abolished by people saying it should be. It will disappear, as it is already disappearing, when enough writers find that it serves no useful purpose. Its absence in URLs will doubtless have an effect. Those who object are entitled to do so, and they certainly make free use of that entitlement, but they should remember King Canute.


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: More On Singular ‘They’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

In my post of 18 July, I discussed singular they. Mark Liberman had an interesting post on Language Log yesterday, showing that those who take some trouble to avoid singular they then go on to use singular their. Anyone who thinks there are clear rules governing the use of English pronouns is mistaken.


Filed under The Negative Canon