Gove on grammar, again

The former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been appointed Lord Chancellor and Secretary of Justice, has been criticised for ‘patronising’ civil servants with his take on grammar. As an English graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, Gove is known not to play coy when voicing his opinion on correct usage. In 2013, he instructed civil servants in the Department for Education by providing his 10 golden rules. Now, he is back again with his grammatical ‘preferences’ which include avoiding impact as a verb and starting sentences with however, using contractions such as doesn’t or don’t as well as the word ensure. 

Intrigued by this, the Independent looked at some articles which Gove wrote for The Times during his time as a journalist and found that, despite his disapproval of starting sentences with however, Gove doesn’t strictly follow his own rule.(Or should I say does not?)

What is interesting, however, are not just his 10 golden rules, but also the reactions towards these rules, such as a source in Whitehall quoted in the article states: “It does feel like the sort of thing someone would do when they have too much time on their hands.” What do you think about his 10 golden rules? Are they the product of a man with too much time on his hands?

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Literally, too big a fuss about nothing – the latest English Today interactive feature

The sixth installment in the Bridging the Unbridgeable series of interactive features was published in the June 2015 issue of the English Today journal. In this feature, we ask readers to contribute to investigating the issue of the non-literal, intensifier use of literally, one of the most common pet usage peeves nowadays.

Examples such as I’ll literally turn your world upside down, where literally is used to emphasise a metaphorical or hyperbolic expression are seen as problematic by many, and are the subject of numerous articles, memes, and running jokes in popular sitcoms, such as Archer and Parks and Recreation.

Despite proscriptions against its use, the intensifier literally is becoming more and more common and it is increasingly difficult to dismiss the occurrence of such instances merely as language abuse. An important factor in this process of language change, as noted by Claridge, may be the affective component in the intensifier use of literally.

Once we go beyond the proscriptive comments on literally, and focus on the language change aspects of this use, a host of other questions gain relevance, not only because literally is an interesting case semantically, but also because it is prescriptively targeted. Have attitudes to this usage changed under the influence of its increased use? Do speakers associate this usage with particular styles of speech or groups of people? To investigate these and related questions further, I created a short survey included in the English Today feature. Make sure to read the text, available both through the English Today website and on our blog), and let us have your thoughts on the subject!

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How many English usage guides are there?

This is an important question in the context of this project, but it will be one that I have come to decide is impossible to answer. Unfortunately, and (perhaps, for some) frustratingly so.

One important tool (or so I thought originally) to try and answer this question is the ten-page “Timeline of Books on Usage” in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009). But the problem with the list is that everything is lumped together indiscriminately: “dictionaries of usage … discursive treatments of the subject … [books with] usage glossaries within them” (p. 925). Bryan Garner already very helpfully answered my question on whether English As She Is Taught, by Caroline LeRow (New York, 1887) is a usage guide or not (it isn’t, he tweeted: many thanks for the quick answer, Bryan!). But surely I can’t ask him to help me classify the items on his list into usage guides and studies on usage!

I do think this would be a really good idea though for a next edition of the book, for which it is probably about time, as doing a little arithmetic suggests – 1st edition: 1998, 2nd edition: 2003; 3rd edition: 2009; 4th ed.: 2016?.

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Question for Bryan Garner

Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains a lengthy list of works dealing with English usage, studies as well as usage guides. Very useful for our project! There is one item which I can’t quite classify offhand as belonging to either of these categories: English As She Is Taught, by Caroline LeRow (New York, 1887). There is a copy of the book for sale on eBay, but before I order it, I’d like to know if this is a usage guide or not.

The question is really for Bryan Garner, because he may have seen it when he decided to include it in his list. But I’d be happy with an answer from anyone else. And also, if anyone knows more about this writer.

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Rosaline Masson: first female (British) usage guide writer?

Our list of usage guides, which we drew up as a basis for the HUGE database, includes various female authors, and more of them the further we get to modern times. The first woman on our list is Rosaline Masson, whose Use and Abuse of English was published by James Thin from Edinburgh in 1896. We looked for a copy of the book before, but I was only recently alerted to the fact that a copy was for sale from Plurabelle books. (Thanks, Paul, for telling me about it!) The copy is now mine, not of the first edition, but of the fifth revised edition of 1929 – still, I’m happy enough as it is.

Masson 1929Who was Rosaline Masson, and what makes her an authority on English usage? She has no entry in the ODNB, but she does have one in Wikipedia as well as in the online Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction (1997 [2005]). There she is described as the daughter of David Masson, professor of English Literature at University College London and later of English Literature and Rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. The entry doesn’t have a great deal to say about Rosaline (and her year of birth is different from the one in Wikipedia), except that she was a friend of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), that she was the author of several books on Ediburgh and Scotland, that she’d written six novels and had edited several anthologies. The Use and Abuse of English is not mentioned.

WorldCat is more informative: searching for her name produced a lengthy list of titles, including Use and Abuse of English and a book called Elements of English Composition published in the same year (1896). By the time Use and Abuse of English first came out, she had already published Three Centuries of English Poetry: Being Selections from Chaucer to Herrick with her father, in 1876 (London: Macmillan) and a collection of short stories called My Poor Niece: and Other Stories (1893, London: T. Fisher Unwin). Much leter, she published two books on Stevenson (1922, 1924).

Use and Abuse of English opens with a preface by her father, as indeed the cover advertises: presumably, this would give the book greater status. In her own preface she writes: “This little volume was originally compiled at the suggestion of my father” (p. xi). Not her own idea, in other words. The book (108 pages) deals with Punctuation, Common Errors, Scotticisms and other Colloquialisms, Figures of Speech, English Verse and rules for composition. For our work, the chapter on common errors is of particular interest. It contains many of what we now call “old chestnuts”: shall/will, mutual/common,the placement of only and many others. The section on Scotticisms is also worth studying: one feature included there is a comment on the use of likely for very likely, which I always thought was an Americanism.

Still the question remains what made her into an authority on usage. If the lifedates in Wikipedia are correct, 1867-1947 (1949 in the Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction), she would have been in her late twenties when she published the book. Very young for an expert on usage, that is, if we go by the age at which most of “our” usage guide writers published theirs. Writing a usage guide was her father’s idea, so quite possibly he had noticed a well developed linguistic skill in his daughter when working with her on their first book together. And she also published a handbook on composition, in the same year. Were the two publications meant for university students at Edinburgh? James Thin, as the image above shows, was “publisher to the university”.

My copy is of the fifth edition, published in 1929. The fourth edition is described as a revised edition (1924), and three editions had preceded it (1896, 1897, 1909). The book was very cheap:1/6 only, or £2.51 in today’s money, according to the National Archives Currency Converter. Very affordable for students.

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11th Bridging the Unbridgeable Lunch Lecture

We are pleased to announce our 11th Bridging the Unbridgeable Lunch Lecture taking place on 28 May 2015, from 12 to 1 pm at Lipsius, room 148. This time we will be crossing language borders to hear about linguistic metadiscourses in Croatia. Leiden University’s own Dr Tijmen Pronk will give a talk entitled “From National Revival to the Orthography War: Two Centuries of Croatian Spelling Reform”.

We hope you find the topic as interesting as we do! You can now also join the event on Facebook.

From National Revival to the Orthography War: Two Centuries of Croatian Spelling Reform

(Tijmen Pronk, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics)

– Abstract –

Croatian, the standard language of the Republic of Croatia since 1991, has seen the publication of five different orthographies in the scope of twenty years. Although all agree on the main principle of Croatian spelling, viz. “one phoneme ‒ one grapheme”, a number of details remain contested and politically charged. During the lecture, we will follow the history of Croatian orthography from the earliest Croatian secular writings to the national revival in the 19th century and the “orthography war” of the beginning of the 21st century.

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#Fundilymundily the language of the UK general election 2015

With the UK general election just behind us, the talk of the language used in the debates still lies ahead. Last night, on the grammar phone-in of the BBC Radio 5’s Up All Night, the presenter Dotun Adebayo discussed the use of political phrases, buzzwords and clichés in the run-up to the election with his regular guests on the programme, Terry Victor, the co-author of The Concise Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and Nevile Gwynne, the author of the highly prescriptive Gwynne’s Grammar. The programme is a rich source of complaints about perceived grammar mistakes, so it will certainly be a topic of future posts.

general-election-2015-what-you-need-know-100-days-go-before-polling-dayCallers submitted their favourite examples of obfuscating political doublespeak including spare room subsidy (as means of avoiding the word tax), cost of living crisis and the squeezed middle. On the same subject, in comparing the speech of politicians during a televised debate with a corpus of spoken British English,  Tony McEnery and Robbie Love from Lancaster University discuss in an article the large discrepancies between the two. Austerity, for example, became such a high-frequency word in the analysed debate that it matched the frequency of the pronouns your and these in normal speech.

Although public pleas for simpler language and the plain English movement in politics seem to be consistent, some of the Up All Night listeners complained about the usage of colloquial English and slang expressions among politicians. Ed Miliband was criticised for saying “Hell yes” and “That ain’t gonna happen” in a BBC interview, David Cameron was criticised for using the same infamous “non-word” ain’t, and Russel Brand’s speech in political discussions was described as lazy for his “dropping the ts from the English language”.

One of the main goals of the politicians’ public appearances is appealing to the majority of their potential voters. Avoiding giving specifics and making obligations is, however, yet another important goal manifested in obfuscating lingo. This all creates an interesting mixture of occasional colloquialisms, which seem unnatural coming from the (often public-school) educated politicians, and ambiguous muddled jargon.

CaptureThis election showed that politicians can also become linguistic innovators, sometimes inadvertently. The Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy created the word fundilymundily while trying to pronounce fundamentally in a live BBC debate. Since then, an Up All Night caller claims, the word has entered common usage in Scotland. To check the life of this new word and the contexts in which it can be used, search for #fundilymundily on Twitter.

Have you noticed any buzzwords, clichés or grammar mistakes in the political debates? Fundilymundily let us know about them in the comments below!

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