Author Archive

  • Much ado about ‘do’

    Posted by on April 04, 2016

    In Act 2, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio enters the stage and asks: ‘Where the devil should this Romeo be? Came he not home tonight?’ Then in the next act, Benvolio urges his cousin Romeo: ‘Begone! Stand not amazed.’ Both quotations are distinctly Shakespearean – we notice there’s something syntactically different about them […]

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  • There are plurals, and then there’s plurals

    Posted by on March 07, 2016

    Last month I gave an overview of grammatical agreement, also called concord, and explained the difference between two main types of it: formal agreement and notional agreement. In this post I focus on a common phrase that exemplifies the difference: there is, where there is known as a dummy, existential, introductory, or anticipatory subject. There […]

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  • 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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