Author Archive

  • The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’

    Posted by on September 29, 2014

    Imagine you’re involved in a project outdoors, busy doing your whack of the work, and suddenly you get a whack of a branch, or you whack your leg off a gate. That would be totally wack, right? Or is it whack? If the semantic tangle of these words leaves you feeling a little out of […]

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  • Can you twig it?

    Posted by on September 15, 2014

    Given how close Ireland and Britain are geographically, standard English has surprisingly few words that originated in Irish (less surprising when politics and social history are taken into account). Examples include banshee, galore, shamrock, and perhaps smithereens. Informal English has a few more, one of which may be twig, meaning ‘realise’ or ‘understand’. But its […]

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  • A critique of ‘criticism’

    Posted by on September 01, 2014

    If I told you a mutual acquaintance of ours had criticised your new hairdo, you might well take offence. But if I said I’d be happy to criticise something you’d written, you might infer a different meaning of the word. The related noun criticism  shows a similar dichotomy. The two senses of these words – […]

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  • Broadcast(ed) and forecast(ed)

    Posted by on August 18, 2014

    Children learning language for the first time tend to regularise irregular verbs, saying things like ‘I goed’ instead of ‘I went’ and ‘we runned’ instead of ‘we ran’. If English inflection were more consistent, these utterances would be normal practice, not errors – though it’s worth noting that children may be more aware of words’ […]

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  • Hail-phrase-well-met

    Posted by on August 04, 2014

    I was ploughing through a legal thriller recently (Limitations by Scott Turow) when I came across a line that brought me up short: ‘“Nathan!” George cries, hail fellow well met, as he strides out.’ Hail fellow well met. I’ve been encountering this expression on and off over the years, but never properly examined it. What […]

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  • Why heed the language cranks?

    Posted by on July 21, 2014

    Disputes over English usage are full of familiar items. Split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions, words like [you might prefer such as] hopefully and decimate – the same issues keep showing up, despite convincing arguments that there’s seldom a problem with any of them, leaving aside the question of register. It feels as though these are battles […]

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  • Laying down the lie of the land

    Posted by on July 07, 2014

    A recent comment by Isobel on my post ‘Who’s the boss of English?’ raised the vexed question of lay vs. lie. I felt this would be worth a post in its own right – not so much to lay down the law as to give the lie to the idea that it’s a simple matter […]

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  • You’re the one for me, phatic

    Posted by on June 23, 2014

    What is language for? A common answer is that it allows us to communicate ideas, but this is only part of the story. In her book A Woman Speaks, French author Anaïs Nin says we forget that language uses ‘a million transmissions far more subtle than explicit direct statements’. This poetic description includes what in […]

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  • Kind’ve a strange phrase

    Posted by on June 09, 2014

    I’ve been on a binge of detective fiction lately, catching up on Michael Connelly’s back catalogue. His L.A.-based crime novels are a good source of police jargon, slang, and abbreviations, but it was a different type of linguistic item that caught my eye this time. In The Concrete Blonde, a news reporter tells the protagonist, […]

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  • How many ‘alternatives’ can there be?

    Posted by on May 26, 2014

    In my post ‘Who’s the boss of English?’, I refuted several prescriptivist rules about English usage asserted by the journalist Simon Heffer. One was his insistence that when it comes to alternatives ‘there can only ever be two’ – that any more than two means they are ‘options’. This curious belief is worth a closer […]

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