Don’t let them bully you!

Posted by on June 03, 2014

© Getty ImagesReaders of our blog will be aware that – despite several decades of serious linguistic research based on the evidence found in corpora – the world is still plagued by self-appointed “experts”, who seem to enjoy lecturing the rest of us on what is wrong with the way we write and speak. Worse still, these people present themselves as the only true defenders of good practice, battling heroically against professional linguists, whose laissez-faire philosophy is responsible for the “sloppy” English that is all around us.

A recent column in a popular UK newspaper makes categorical assertions about what it describes as “acts of violence done to the English language”. Most of these turn out to be perfectly harmless, well-established usages. Yet the writer states with complete confidence that this or that commonly-used expression “is wrong”. With his usual elegance, Stan Carey has shown up these claims up for the nonsense they are. But there is still a public appetite for simplistic “rules”, and no-one ever seems to ask where these rules came from or on whose authority they were made.

This is the subject of a British Council seminar I am giving on 3rd June, and to accompany it we have collected a dozen or so posts on this general theme by members of our blogging team. The posts can be found here, and hopefully (ha!) they will provide plenty of ammunition to respond to the claims of the amateur grammarians.

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Comments (4)
  • About an expression used in this article “worse still” I would like to know if there are differences between worse better still, worse or better yet, and still worse or better. Thanks

    Posted by Sergio Rodrigues on 5th June, 2014
  • Hi Sergio. Good question. All these expressions are used to emphasize that (to quote Macmillan Dictionary) “although something is big, good, bad, etc something else is even bigger, better, worse etc”. My feeling is that “worse/better still” is even more emphatic than “still worse/better”, an effect that is heightened by placing it at the start of a sentence, as in Michael’s post.
    In terms of frequency, “worse/better still” is much more frequent than “still worse/better”.
    The big surprise here to me from the corpus data is that “worse/better yet” is more frequent than either of the others (this is a perfect illustration of why you should always look in a corpus before pronouncing on these matters). Here are a few examples of use for you:

    There are bound to be attractions in towns you’ve never been to, or better yet , never even heard of!
    The number of cases continues to rise year after year; worse still, patients are getting younger and younger.
    Be sure that you take a few seconds to breathe and mentally shift gears. Still better, practice relaxation for 15 minutes twice a day.

    Posted by Macmillan Dictionary on 5th June, 2014
  • From your quiz:

    “The heavy rain has already had an impact on food prices.

    The heavy rain has already impacted on food prices.”

    I’m surprised these were both considered correct, not because I have a problem with using impact as a verb, but because the preposition “on” in the second example seems redundant. “The heavy rain has already impacted food prices” would not strike me as incorrect in the slightest, and the use of impact as a noun was not my reason for picking the other version of the sentence as the correct one.

    Whereas the preposition is necessary in the first example because impact is being used as a noun, when it’s being used as a verb the preposition comes off as tautologous. The meaning of impact when used in this way surely already contains the idea of on, since you can’t have an impact if there’s nothing for the impact to happen to!

    Posted by flootzavut on 8th September, 2014
  • Flootzavut: you make a good point. We did consider both options for the quiz (“the rain impacted food prices” and “the rain impacted *on* food prices”). The evidence shows that both versions are more or less equally frequent: in a 1.6 billion word corpus, there are about 7.1k instances of “impact +on” and about 6.9k of “impact -on” (where “impact” is a verb – its use as a noun is far more common, with over 200k occurrences). The question of whether the preposition is “necessary” is an interesting one, but appeals to what seems logical don’t always help. Compare, for example, “We had a chat about the weather/We chatted about the weather” and “We had a discussion about the weather”, but not “*We discussed about the weather”. It’s not logical, but it works! In the case of “impact”, this particular verbal use is relatively recent and it’s possible that – over time – usage will stabilize, and settle for one version or the other.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 9th September, 2014
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