Author Archive

  • Words change, and that’s OK

    Posted by on September 28, 2015

    Many of the bugbears of language purists hinge on what they believe is the incorrect use of particular words. But the meanings and usage of words change all the time: new senses emerge, old ones fade or shift, and senses can vary greatly from one context to another. This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real […]

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  • Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll

    Posted by on September 14, 2015

    One of the joys of reading Lewis Carroll lies in his treatment of logic – the wonderful mixture of care and irreverence with which he manipulates the everyday rules and conventions through which we make sense. As a mathematician who wrote books on logic, Carroll seems to have delighted in playing around with it in […]

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  • Etymology bites back

    Posted by on August 31, 2015

    We’ve all been offered a ‘morsel’ of something – pie, cake, or some other food perhaps – or we may have received a morsel of praise for being the person who offered it. But unless you’re etymologically inclined, you might not have stopped to wonder where the word comes from, and it’s a lot less […]

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  • Bandying the word ‘bandy’ about

    Posted by on August 17, 2015

    Gill Francis’s post on updating the linguistics entries in Macmillan Dictionary described a technical term as ‘not usually bandied about in public’. This got me wondering about the curious word bandy and the different ways we use it. We might say someone is bandy-legged, for example, meaning curved outwards at the knees (bow-legged is a […]

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  • It’s a libfix-aganza!

    Posted by on August 03, 2015

    In his report on the new updates to Macmillan Dictionary, Michael Rundell discussed the increasingly popular and productive term -mageddon, as in carmageddon and snowmageddon. Each such coinage invokes, by analogy with the others and with the original word Armageddon, ‘the idea of something bad occurring on a large scale and causing chaos or destruction’. […]

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  • Finding fault in the right places

    Posted by on July 20, 2015

    A common way to discuss what is correct or appropriate or not in English is by pointing out shortcomings in other people’s usage. This practice has a long tradition in language commentary and pedagogy, and while it can be helpful and enlightening, it’s not always constructive. Not only in the sense that people frequently misidentify […]

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  • Reflections on Real Grammar

    Posted by on July 06, 2015

    Macmillan Dictionary’s recent series on Real Grammar included a quiz that explored people’s attitudes and preferences in English language usage. Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell wrote that the quiz results suggest ‘a sophisticated understanding of how grammatical norms can change over time or can vary according to the social context’, and that most respondents ‘opted for sensible […]

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  • The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes)

    Posted by on June 22, 2015

    In the annals of writing advice the passive voice is subject to much unfair criticism. In non-specialist contexts, such as news journalism and public discussion, the situation is still worse, with misidentification often added to the mix – many people who peremptorily condemn the passive are ignorant of what it is, let alone when it […]

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  • Ludic language and the game of grammar

    Posted by on June 08, 2015

    If asked to name the purpose of language, we might be inclined to say communication, or the imparting of information. But language has many purposes, some of which have nothing to do with sharing ideas or facts. If language were meant to serve solely as a means of exchanging information, why would we talk to […]

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  • ‘Mx’ – a new gender-neutral title

    Posted by on May 25, 2015

    Most people find that they fit readily into one of the common titles Mr, Ms, Mrs or Miss, even if they consider them unnecessary. Ms as a female equivalent of Mr – a title that does not mark marital status – is little more than a century old but is now thoroughly established in standard […]

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