Author Archive

  • Agreeing with grammatical concord

    Posted by on February 01, 2016

    In a post last month about neither was vs. neither were, Liz Potter looked at hundreds of real-life examples from the British National Corpus and found that neither in singular and plural uses occurred about equally often. Reviewing more recent corpus data led her to conclude that the plural use could be gaining the upper […]

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  • Your new favourite slang

    Posted by on January 11, 2016

    When people peeve about words they hate, the same kinds of words crop up repeatedly, such as business jargon, colloquialisms, and slang. Young people are often the main creators and distributors of these new words and phrases. They may use them to signal group identity, as John E. McIntyre writes, or to express themselves or […]

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  • Appraising Pinker’s prescriptions

    Posted by on December 21, 2015

    In September I took the UK Independent to task for publishing a misleading set of ‘words you’re using wrong’. These listicles usually mix legitimate facts with myths, misinformation and pet peeves without much basis in the evidence of how people use English. Instead they rely on fallacy, fancy, bogus rules and dogma to tell people […]

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  • Alice in Blenderland

    Posted by on December 07, 2015

    Lewis Carroll’s fiction abounds in puns, paradoxes, and plays on logic, but among the most enduring of its linguistic pleasures are the portmanteau words he invented. Portmanteau words, also called blends, are words that ‘combine the sound and meaning of two words’, for example brunch, which blends breakfast and lunch, and Wikipedia, formed from wiki […]

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  • Due to general usage, this phrase is fine

    Posted by on November 23, 2015

    In his short story collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris begins a paragraph with this line: ‘Due to his ear and his almost maniacal sense of discipline, I always thought my father would have made an excellent musician.’ To many readers – probably an overwhelming majority – there’s nothing wrong with it. But […]

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  • Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?

    Posted by on November 09, 2015

    The phrase grin like a Cheshire cat has become synonymous with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But while Carroll was no slouch when it came to inventive language, the expression predates his book and was in general use at the time. The enduring success of his comic fantasy helped to popularise the simile. A […]

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  • Does a jive jibe with a gibe?

    Posted by on October 26, 2015

    Some words seem almost designed for confusion. Ronald Pineda told me on Twitter that he sees jive, jibe and gibe used interchangeably, and suggested I disentangle them. So I will, but first I should say that certain variations and overlaps in their usage are legitimate, while others are generally considered non-standard or incorrect. The usual […]

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  • The dodo is dead, long live the dodo

    Posted by on October 12, 2015

    The dodo evolved on the island of Mauritius in the absence of serious predators, so it was no match for the dogs, rats and people that landed there in the 16th and 17th centuries. But though this large, flightless bird was extinct by the late 17thC, it lives on in language – paradoxically in the […]

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  • 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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