Words Come and Go...

Because usage is king in English, words come and go all the time. They change their meanings, come into fashion, fall out of fashion and so on. Some people get terribly worked up about words like "presently" when used to mean "now" rather than "soon". But I could quote you any number of excellent writers who have been using presently in that sense for years.

I suppose that having a care for precision in language inclines you to conservatism and a suspicion of change -- or what is perceived as change. Much of it is just silly, but some changes should be resisted. The increasing use of "disinterested" as a synonym for "uninterested" is one case in point. Not only are the two words not synonymous, they mean almost opposite things. To be disinterested is to be interested in something in a manner that brings you no personal gain, as with a hobby.

The key principle here is that I can think of no other word in English that carries quite the s…

Order, order!

Words come in and out of the language all the time -- or they change their meaning, sometimes quite suddenly, sometimes more gradually. But the point is that English is an adaptable language, one based to a considerable extent on street usage, merchants and ordinary social discourse. All attempts to police it too tightly are doomed to fail. In short, usage is king.

That's not to say that there are no rules at all. All languages require grammar, to identify the rules that govern usage. Without any rules, we couldn't understand each other, which kind of defeats the whole purpose.

For instance, English places a particular importance on word order, more so than many other languages. (The other extreme, where word order does not matter so much because case-ending inflections indicate the grammatical function words, is Latin.)

Take this sentence: I went to the shops. Simple. Now jumble the word order: to went I shops the. Well, you might just about figure it out but you'd know t…

How Not To Do It

This is Gladstone, the great Victorian prime minister, as a young man (not yet quite 30) proposing marriage:

"I seek much in a wife in gifts better than those of our human pride, and am also sensible that she can find little in me: sensible that, were you to treat this note as the offspring of utter presumption, I must not be surprised: sensible that the lot I invite you to share, even if it be not attended, as I trust it is not, with peculiar disadvantages of an outward kind, is one, I do not say unequal to your deserts, for that were saying little,but liable at best to changes and perplexities and pains which, for myself, I contemplate without apprehension, but to which it is perhaps selfishness in the main, with the sense of inward dependence counteracting an opposite sense of my too real unworthiness, which would make me contribute to expose another -- and that other!"


This sentence is absolutely genuine, quoted in at least two academic stud…

Common Confusions

Common Confusions

It is generally a bad idea to be too prescriptive about English grammar and usage. Laying down the law, as if you were an authority on whatever point is vexing you, is most likely to flush out someone who can prove that the usage you deplore was used by Shakespeare or Milton.
English is very much a language of the streets and of the marketplace. It is governed principally by usage. This means that if enough people make the same “mistake” often enough, over time the “mistake” becomes the norm and the old usage either becomes archaic or obsolete.
So, while there are rules they are open to review. There is no Acadamie Anglaise trying, as the French try to do, to fix the language fast by adjudicating on what is and is not correct usage. That said, at any given time, there are words and usages in play which go against the grain of what is, for now at least, regarded as the correct form. Here are a few current examples.
The word “fewer” could well disappear from the language, …


Apostrophes: their cause and cure
At the top end of Eyre Square in Galway stands a handsome piece of street furniture. It is the Browne Doorway, part of the frontage of a seventeenth-century house. A plaque nearby explains that “the doorway was relocated from it’s original position in Abbeygate Street…”
Aargh! Apostrophe alert! This matter of when to put the apostrophe in its and when to leave it out causes more trouble than it’s worth. The chap in Galway should have left it out. Here’s why.
Basically, apostrophes serve two functions. Like all punctuation and diacritical marks, their purpose is to clarify meaning, not to confuse or obscure it. First, an apostrophe indicates that something is missing. Look at the previous paragraph, where I wrote “more trouble than it’s worth”. What’s missing is the “i” in “is”, just as what is missing in the first word of this sentence is likewise the “i” in “is”. Spell it out: what is. 
If you are writing “it is” or “what is” in these contracted forms, y…

Academic Publishing

Academic Publishing
For those of you who think that all this grammar and usage stuff isn't important, well you're wrong. Language is slippery by nature -- that's we have confusions, doubles entendres, jokes, puns and cock-ups. But sooner rather than later, one of these will trip you up and you'll find yourself writing something that you didn't really mean to say. It can happen to anyone. Here's a salutary tale.

I recently bought a fairly specialist book on the Habsburg Empire. I'm interested in that kind of thing. The book was an expensive hardback -- €36 -- and published by Princeton University Press, a very good address. Or is it? The presentation of the text -- in short, the editing -- is embarrassing in places. On page 9, we are told that the French 4th republic was sheltering behind the Maginot Line. 'Scuse me, sor! I think that would be the 3rd republic: they were separated by the little spat known as World War II. 

It gets a lot worse.Twice in one p…

Commas and hyphens

Commas and hyphens: little guys do the heavy lifting
The great Clive James has written that “punctuation is not an apparatus of elitist oppression, but a system of information, at the disposal of all.” Couldn’t agree more. Those little dots and squiggles are like motorway signage: they guide you to where you want to go. Or in this case, they guide you to expressing yourself accurately.
It’s amazing how much of a difference even the humblest punctuation marks can make. Take the comma, probably the humblest of the lot. Basically, a comma is the written equivalent of a breath pause in speech. There are no hard-and-fast rules for the deployment of commas. A lot depends on personal preference.
It is true that some people get in a terrible tizzy over the so-called Oxford comma. This is where you have a list of things, each individual item separated from the next by a comma and the last item preceded by the word “and”. Do you or don’t you put a comma before that “and”? If you do, you have used…