New video

There is a new video about creating the HUGE database on our YouTube channel. Watch it here.

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Season’s Greetings and other seasonal pitfalls

Christmas is getting closer and the preparations for the festive season are well under way. If you think that pedants and sticklers will grant you some sort of Christmas amnesty, you are most probably wrong. For  them the Christmas season is yet another occasion to spot their fellow citizens’ alleged abuses of the English language. In order to avoid any confrontation at the dinner table, here is some advice on how to write “pedantproof” Christmas cards.

Seasons Greetings?

The most common mistake on Christmas cards is the misplaced or, God forbid, forgotten apostrophe. In this article on SLATE, Kate Brannen provides a hilarious and personal insight into how Christmas cards can affect the Christmas cheer. Brannen illustrates the struggle and confusion caused by the pluralisation of the family name when writing Christmas cards. Is it the Johnsons? Or the Johnson’s?  Zimmermans? Or Zimmermen? If you are not sure how to make your family name plural, go and check the table Brannen provides. Adding a apostrophe to the family name does not necessarily have to be wrong. If you do add one, it does not make your family name a plural but a possessive. So in case you would like to say that the annual Christmas party is taking place at your place, you could say: The Christmas party will take place at the Johnson’s.

The apostrophe also needs special attention when sending your Christmas wishes. The well-known and cherished  Season’s Greetings are often confused with the apostropheless Seasons Greetings. Similar pitfalls constitute the capitalisation of merry Christmas and happy holidays. As merry, happy and holidays are not proper names, there is no need to capitalise these words, except of course they start a sentence.  Well, at least technically. Capitalising holidays as in ‘Happy Holidays to you and your family’ seems to be a common variant.

What would you use? Do let us know and fill in the poll below!



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The first American usage guide

In the post today: my copy of Seth T. Hurd’s Grammatical Corrector, the first American usage guide, published in 1847, and found on ebay. It is in better condition than the ebay picture suggested: it has a green cover, and a leather spine with gold embossed stripes. And it seems to have been barely used at all: no inscription, no pencil marks. It can be consulted through Google Books as well.

Source: ebay

Source: ebay

Worldcat doesn’t list any later editions, nor have I been able to find out who the author was. Still it is an interesting little book. It is unusual as a usage guide in that it provides a long list of all the books (grammars and dictionaries, British and American ones) that Hurd consulted, and also because he locates the usage items he discusses according to where he had heard them, such as have went (Ohio, Pennsylvania). The word eenamost (also in Jane Austen’s letters!) he labelled as “a gross corruption”. A linguistic goldmine!

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Miracles of Human Language

We are excited to announce the new online linguistics course offered by Prof. Marc van Oostendorp from Leiden University. The course is designed as an introduction for anyone interested in how language works and how it gives insight into the human mind. It features interviews with well-known linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, and speakers of many different languages.

One of our collaborators, the project’s former student assistant, Inge Otto will be taking part in the teaching and moderating activities.


Well done – the course seems very interesting and it will even enable the participants to experience linguistic fieldwork first-hand.

For more information look up the course page on Coursera and sign up!

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Fresh from the English Today press: The dangling participle – a language myth?

The December issue of  English Today contains the latest feature article from our project in which I am discussing the acceptability of the dangling participle. Here are some of the main points addressed in the article The dangling participle – a language myth?:

  • Are usage problems always straightforward and problematic?
  • Can  context compensate for the lack of a suitable subject in the participle clause?
  • Has the acceptability of the dangler compared to Mittins et al.’s study (1970) increased or declined?
  • And last, but not least, what do you think about the dangler and its acceptability?

Read the English Today feature to receive some answers to these questions and help us answer the last question by completing the Proper English Usage online survey.

Note: You can read the full article on the English Today page of this website, or if you have access, download the original pdf from the website Cambridge Journals Online.

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Washington Post review Pinker

On November 7, The Washington Post published my review of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. You can read it on their website here. It also appeared in the print newspaper on the same day under the title ‘The Sense of Style,’ milestone on road to better writing.

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Railway station or train station?

One of the pet peeves of the British English-speaking language pedants has traditionally been the usage of Americanisms, which we have written and surveyed our readers about in our previous posts. In my research of the complaints about language use, I can safely say that criticism of Americanisms constitutes one of the major complaint trends among those who speak or model their speech on British English. “Fall” is replacing “autumn”, “bus” ran over “omnibus”, “Mother’s Day” is celebrated instead of “Mothering Sunday”. Another phrase which seems to be on its way out is “railway station” soon to be replaced by “train station”. The BBC style editor Ian Jolly gives an account here of the BBC’s (accepted) usage of “train station” and the audience’s predominantly negative response to it. “Railway station” predates “train station” and it has been used almost exclusively in both American and British English prior to the 1930s when according to the data taken from the Corpus of Historical American English “train station” first started to occur in wider usage in American English. The increase in frequency of “train station” in American English seems slightly more delayed in the chart taken from the Google Ngram Viewer, but it clearly shows that in 1986 the frequency of “train station” matched “railway station” and its use has been soaring ever since. Ngram railway and train station American English The same phenomenon seems to be now reflected in British English. In the British National Corpus, covering the period between 1980s and 1993, “train station” is used mostly in spoken language, which is the door through which change usually enters language. According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the situation has dramatically changed since then. Those who are opposing the American invasion will be glad to see that “railway station” is still in the lead, however, only by very few instances. Ngram railway and train station One complaint from The Times about the usage of the phrase says:marple

I recently heard Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple instruct a taxi driver to take her to the ‘train station’. Not in 1950s England, I think.

With BBC on board and corpus evidence, I wonder if it will survive in wider usage until 2050.

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