Author Archive

  • This ever-changing language in which we live in

    Posted by on May 11, 2015

    In a recent post on double negatives I said we make allowances for non-standard grammar in song lyrics – or most of us do, most of the time. But some lines still give us pause. One source of frequent dispute is the Paul and Linda McCartney song ‘Live and Let Die’, famously used in a […]

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  • Litotes is no small matter

    Posted by on April 27, 2015

    In a recent defence of double negatives I mentioned litotes in passing; this post will look at it in greater detail. Since the word is more often read than heard, and its appearance may mislead, we should start with pronunciation. Litotes has three syllables and is normally pronounced either /laɪˈtəʊtiːz/ ‘lie-TOE-teez’ or /ˈlaɪtəʊtiːz/ ‘LIE-toe-teez’, with […]

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  • Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives

    Posted by on April 13, 2015

    When Mick Jagger sings that he ‘can’t get no satisfaction’, there’s no confusion over what he means – we know he’s not saying he can get some satisfaction. In a different context, ‘can’t get any satisfaction’ might be better, but we give singers poetic licence when it comes to grammar. We should, anyway. But we […]

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  • Grammar at cross purposes

    Posted by on March 30, 2015

    A recurring theme in Macmillan Dictionary’s Real Grammar series is the difference between actual rules in English grammar and misconceptions or ill-founded assumptions about what constitutes such a rule. Some of the issues addressed, like split infinitives and singular they, are familiar from decades or even centuries of usage debate; others, like bored of, are […]

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  • Is ‘invite’ acceptable as a noun?

    Posted by on March 16, 2015

    Last week a friend told me to expect ‘an invite’ to something. This was unremarkable in the context, but I know people who would insist on saying invitation even when it might sound inappropriately formal. Invite is a word whose use as a noun seems destined to always raise hackles. For some people it depends […]

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  • On behalf of this fossilised phrase

    Posted by on March 02, 2015

    We often refer to something being done on behalf of someone, but the word behalf appears only in this set phrase and variations on it. In other words it’s not linguistically productive, so it can be described as a fossil. But what is a behalf, and where does it come from? On someone’s behalf, etymologically […]

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  • Numb-headed numbnuts, ninnies and Numskulls

    Posted by on February 16, 2015

    Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary is a great place to keep an eye on new words and niche vocabulary. It has a marvellous variety of novel phrases, slang, specialist terms, vogue words, regionalisms and other items not used often enough or widely enough to be considered core vocabulary – though any that shift towards mainstream use […]

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  • Refuting allegations of incorrectness

    Posted by on February 02, 2015

    A common bugbear of language critics is the use of refute to mean ‘reject’. A politician might claim to refute allegations of wrongdoing, meaning reject or deny (but not disprove) them. Or a news organisation might phrase the politician’s denial that way; both are common sources of the usage. But because refute traditionally means ‘disprove’, […]

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  • #Blacklivesmatter and words of the year

    Posted by on January 19, 2015

    The final, and foremost, Word of the Year selection in language lovers’ winter calendar is the American Dialect Society’s, which took place in Portland earlier this month. With no clear front-runner for its overall WOTY, it was open to surprises – like last year’s winner because. And a surprise duly occurred: the word of 2014 […]

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  • Accent prejudice in the mainstream

    Posted by on January 05, 2015

    The rules of TV-watching change at Christmas, with the result that even a habitual tube-avoider like me can end up seeing shows like Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year. I didn’t expect it to contain material of any great sociolinguistic interest, but it did, and it wasn’t good. On at least three occasions […]

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