New Blog

I no longer post here, but I have a new blog I have called The Trivial Round.


Filed under Language

Be Careful What You Wish For

Some comments on social media sites claim that English is irrational and lacks consistency. Like Jonathan Swift, those who air these views seek order, and complain:

. . . that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities and, that in many instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar’.

Swift felt that ‘some Method should be thought on for Ascertaining and Fixing our Language for ever, after such Alterations are made in it as shall be thought requisite.’

Like Swift, Daniel Defoe wanted to establish an Academy on French lines:

. . . to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d.

Swift and Defoe were concerned, as most commentators before the mid-twentieth century were, with the written language, and, to be fair to them, they were unable to analyse speech in the ways that have since become possible. Today’s naysayers have no such excuse. Whether Swift’s and Defoe’s views would have been any different if they had been able to do so is unknowable, but at least their contemporary Samuel Johnson saw that:

. . . sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash [tie down] the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

What Swift and Defoe failed to appreciate, and what their successors today fail to appreciate, is that there are variants and inconsistencies in language because there are variants and inconsistencies in people and in the ways they interact. As Michael Halliday put it:

The particular form taken by the grammatical system of language is closely related to the social and personal needs that language is required to serve.

In George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the purpose of the fictional language Newspeak was:

. . . not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that . . . a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

Those who want to control language might like to think on’t.


Filed under English Language, Language

Prêt à Analyser

The humblest text can be a fruitful hunting ground. To wit:

This napkin is 100% recyclable (Pret’s sustainability department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not’

It’s from the paper napkin given to customers of the sandwich restaurant chain Pret a Manger


The first syllable of napkin is from nape, a tablecloth, which by a circuitous route, is from map, probably because maps were first drawn on pieces of cloth. The suffix -kin is a diminutive. In Professor Ross’s terms, napkin is the U word, serviette the non-U word. The word apron is from the same root, but its n got transposed to the definite article by a process known as metanalysis.

Recyclable is a much newer word, first attested in 1969. The first syllable carries the sense of again. The verb recycle first occurs in 1925 with the sense ‘To reuse (material) in an industrial process; to return (material) to a previous stage of a cyclic process.’

Prêt is a French word meaning ‘ready’, but it is found in English as early as the sixteenth century. The circumflex (^) represents a missing s, and pres is found meaning ‘ready for action or use; at hand; prepared; in proper order’ in the fourteenth century. Prêt à manger echoes prêt-à-porter, used to describe clothes that are ready to wear. The French name gives a degree of perceived sophistication to the restaurants, as well as describing the readiness of the food for consumption. The omission of the two diacritics is perhaps forgivable in a trade name.

Sustainability in the sense ‘the quality of being sustainable by argument; the capacity to be upheld or defended as valid, correct, or true’ is first attested in 1835, but in the sense ‘the property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources’, it occurs for the first time only in 1980.

Militant meaning ‘engaged in warfare, warring. Also: disposed towards war; warlike’ has a long history from the fifteenth century onwards, but in the sense ‘combative; aggressively persistent; strongly espousing a cause; entrenched, adamant’ it is found as early as 1603. In the sense ‘aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause, and often favouring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods’ it first occurs in 1893, but that is probably not the sense which the restaurant has in mind.

Conventional grammar

Some might want to question the use of a comma to separate the two clauses Pret’s sustainability department is militant and we’re making headway. This is known as a comma splice, and seems to be a feature that particularly bothers speakers of American English, but it didn’t bother Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven . . .

Given the informal nature of the text, and the fact that the sentence occurs as an aside, the anti-splicers might perhaps be a little indulgent.


Ronald Carter argues in ‘Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk’ that pretty much any text will be creative in one way or another. There’s evidence of that here. Militant is not a word you’d normally associate with restaurant workers, unless they were of the striking kind. Serviette-ish could well be the first instance of the word. There is figurative language in the nautical making headway, and bunches of napkins suggests a bouquet of flowers. Evil eye presses into service a concept from ancient cultures, and the alliterative and proverbial Waste not want not creates a sense of solidarity by appealing to a piece of common folk wisdom.

1 Comment

Filed under Language

Eliot, Kipling and Intertextuality

Those familiar with T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ will know that many of its lines echo earlier writers. For example,

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring

recalls Marvell’s

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Indeed, Eliot helpfully provides notes to the poem identifying his sources, and he writes in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that:

. . . the most individual parts of his (the poet’s) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

This is a special case of what Julia Kristeva, drawing on the work of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, has termed intertextuality, to refer to the ways in which all utterances form part of a ‘chain of speech communication’. Bakhtin himself used the term heteroglossia to describe the way in which the language we all use is made up of voices and texts associated with different contexts and different social groups. Bakhtin also introduced the notion of double-voicing, in which language is recycled and used in new contexts. ‘The Waste Land’ illustrates this explicitly in the section entitled ‘A Game of Chess’, where the dialogue includes this example of speech in a London pub:

If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

The scene ends with the landlord calling time, but the speech ends with a nod to Ophelia’s speech in Act IV, Scene v of ‘Hamet’:

Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that, in recently reading the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography ‘An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist’, I came across these lines from Kipling’s ‘The Long Trail’:

There’s a whisper down the field where the year has shot her yield,
And the ricks stand grey to the sun,
Singing: ‘Over then, come over, for the bee has quit the clover,
And your English summer’s done.

Readers of Eliot might find it has a familiar ring. Remember the opening of ‘Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat’?

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying “Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.

Similar metre and syntax. It can hardly be a coincidence.


Filed under Language, Literature


I happen to have drafted the following before John McIntyre posted a typically trenchant piece about rules on his blog. I hope the following will act as a complement (and as a compliment).

The term grammar rules is freely used and often without much thought about what it might mean. Typically it is used as a kind of guide to linguistic good manners. As Harry Ritchie writes in ‘English for the Natives’, grammar itself is assumed to be:

. . . a weird combination of finicky word usage and obscure social etiquette, like knowing how to address a viscount or where to place the sorbet spoons. The whole nebulous subject presided over by stern, scary men, who write books telling us we always get things wrong: ‘One should, of course, say “It is I, your viscountness”. All other forms are grievous errors. Sorbet spoons to the immediate left of fish-knives.’

Those who take such a view are reluctant to tell us where the rules come from, presumably because they don’t know. Those of us who have taken just a little more than cursory glance at the subject know that grammar rules describe how a language works, much as the laws of physics describe how the universe works. Newton didn’t make it up when he claimed that:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

He based his statement on what he had observed. Similarly, if we notice that verbs like might, shall and can behave in a certain way, we can conclude certain things about them: they are are invariable, they form their interrogatives by inversion, and they are followed by an infinitive which is not preceded by the particle to. If we see that a word that takes its meaning from a second word in the same sentence cannot come before that second word if that second word is inside a subordinate clause, we can conclude, as the linguist Lanacker did in 1969, that there is a rule of English grammar that states that an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

By contrast, there is no rule that prevents us from ending sentences with a preposition, using they to refer to just one person, placing an adjunct between to and the verb or using coordinated I as the complement of a preposition. Native English speakers do these things all the time, and have done so for centuries. To say that they speak or write ungrammatically in doing so is as ludicrous as if Newton had said that an object at rest SHOULDN’T stay at rest and an object in motion SHOULDN’T stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.


Filed under English Language, Language

What’s Wrong With Peeving?

It gives me great pleasure to publish the following guest post by Bessel Dekker, a retired lecturer in linguistics at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (University of Applied Sciences). It was he who gave me the idea for my series of posts on the Negative Canon.


Elsewhere, there is a discussion about the “most irritating words and phrases” participants can think of. It has been going on for two years now, it has been liked by over 100 people and contributions exceed 2,000.

One wonders why. Are the grounds for irritation so much more numerous than the linguistic phenomena which deserve our interest, which require being observed or investigated? It seems unlikely. At least that other thread has the virtue of calling a spade a spade: it is quite explicit about its subject, which is irritation.

By contrast, I find that there is something very unpleasant in that recurrent expression “pet peeves”. Apart from the fact that it has become hackneyed, there seems to be something cosy about it. We suggest that there is something personal, even private in our irritations: after all, they are only our pets, so do not mind us. But then we go on to be extremely judgemental and it turns out that we actually do want to be taken seriously. Very much so.

The main attraction in all this, it seems, is the illusion that we are in the right camp. We are the people who fight for correctness, who resist the rot that is setting in, who know what should be said and what should not. We are superior.

In fact, this implies that others are inferior. Others are wrong, or as the usual labels go, lazy, careless, uneducated. It seems obvious that there is a lot of violence in this. We acquire our own inclusion, our sense of being among the fastidious, by excluding others: the ones to be corrected, to be judged and to be labelled negatively.

As likely as not, we depict our own fastidious group as an embattled minority, standing for traditional values, fighting corruption, keeping up standards. In fact, we are not a minority at all: all our “pet” “peeves” have been repeated over and over again, and the repetition is going on on countless websites and elsewhere. We are not even aware of it, but we are victims of the Negative Canon, a highly conventionalised and stereotyped set of well-worn black sheep. If it is not the spelling of “its”, we object to uptalk, to discourse markers such as “so” and “like”, or to singular “they”.

What our petty peevery prevents us from doing is to understand the language. Our false sense of superiority blinds us to actual phenomena and developments in the language: the reasons why there are discourse markers, for instance. Or the fact that some discourse markers are new, while others are very old indeed. Or the reasons for notional agreement both in English and in other languages. Or the interesting phenomenon that in various languages the oblique case appears to be ousting the subject case. Or again, the way change spreads.

As long as we are more interested in being right, in feeling correct, superior and indeed safe than in studying the language as it is, as it shapes itself before our eyes (should we be willing to open those eyes), we are not interested in language but in ourselves. Language is not a personal game of one-upmanship: it is a social institution of astonishing complexity, and any effort to really understand it a little is much more rewarding than the judgementality which ignores other speakers’ motives, reasons and indeed their rights as participants in the social venture.


Filed under English Language, Language

Four Basic Points

1. The grammar of a language is the way its speakers put together units of meaning to form words and the way they put together words to form sentences. It contrasts with style, which is the way in which users of the language choose constructions from the grammatical repertoire and words from the lexical repertoire for their various communicative purposes. Grammar is a matter of fact. Style is a matter of opinion.

2. There is not just one English. There are many varieties and sub-varieties, and they vary according to geographical location and social class. These varieties have internally consistent grammars, and all thus have equal linguistic validity. Within any one variety, including Standard English, there are many styles, such as formal and informal, elegant and inelegant, effective and ineffective, friendly and distant, deferential and egalitarian, male and female.

3. Standard English, although a minority spoken dialect, is extremely important. It is the variety used in most published writing and it is readily understood by disparate geographical and social communities. There is widespread agreement on what constitutes it. The points which are hotly disputed are mostly questions of style such as the informal who set against the formal‘whom.

4. The terms ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are unhelpful in discussing language, except in speaking of infants and foreign learners. Language is best judged on its effectiveness. To say that a particular usage is incorrect is inadequately descriptive and insufficiently damning.


Filed under English Language, Language