Read all about it! Our third feature in English Today

In the latest issue of English Today I briefly address the history of the possessive apostrophe, the most notorious punctuation mark in the English language.

Here are some interesting facts from the article:

Did you know

  • that the apostrophe was first introduced to the English language in the sixteenth century
  • that misused apostrophes were mentioned in a usage guide dating back to 1770
  • that the five most frequent grammatical mistakes on Twitter are attributed to apostrophe omission?

Read all about it and more. Tell us what your thoughts are on the potential death of the apostrophe.

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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No hard language feelings?

The use of English, or rather its misuse, has often caused the one or the other to throw up his or her (or their?) hands in horror. Last month I attended the English Grammar Day at the British Library in London and to my surprise even linguistics seem to have harboured strong feelings towards English usage. One question from the audience aimed at identifying the panel’s ‘most hated’ neologisms. Learnings, to uplevel and to gallery one’s ideas were mentioned.

panel english grammar day

The English Grammar Day panel

As part of my survey, I have also been interviewing people, as I am currently doing in Cambridge. One of my questions deals with pet hates. It was no surprise for me to see that everyone had at least one word, usage or phrase they could not stand. The historic present, confusing I and me, like, literally are just a few to mention here. What was surprising though, was that even those who stated to be fine with the way English has been changing did not have to think hard about what they personally did not like in English usage today.

The BBC today reports on the inclusion of new words into the Oxford Online Dictionary. YOLO, an acronym for You only live once, adorbs, a shortening of adorable (read my blog post on similar shortenings), and amazeballs, a modern alteration of amazing, can be found among those. Before you lose your head, these words are only included in the online dictionary, not the paper version.


As a sociolinguist, I am interested in seeing how English is being used and how it is evolving in different parts of the world. Oxford Dictionaries editor Katherine Connor Martin mentions in a blog post the use of a language monitoring programme, which allows them to identify trends in usage. That is how they have been able to identify that adorbs is used four times more frequently in the US than in the UK. Details about their “unique” tool are, however, not mentioned. So what is their secret weapon? Is it merely a corpus?

I am still puzzled, but also amused, to see how people, no matter how descriptive they might be, tend their pet hates. What about yours?

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Merriam Webster’s lexicographers

My own copyThe Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) is unusual among the usage guides I have seen in that the work isn’t by a single author, such as Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) or Kingley Amis’s The King’s English (1997). The work is produced by a team, consisting of Stephen J. Perrault, Kathleen M. Doherty, David B. Justice, Madeline L. Novak and E. Ward Gilman (p. 4a).

In our research on usage guides we are interested in the kind of people that wrote usage guides. Fowler, for instance, is described on the Wikipedia website as “an English schoolmaster, lexicographer and commentator on the usage of the English language”, while Amis was a novelist, with 25 novels to his name.

So who are the writers of The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage? In the introduction to the book they are described as lexicographers (p. 11a), but I’d like to know a bit more about them. Can anyone help? Ideally, of course Stephen J. Perrault, Kathleen M. Doherty, David B. Justice, Madeline L. Novak and E. Ward Gilman themselves?

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Begging the question?!

During the past few weeks, two readers of this blog commented on Jasper Spierenburg’s use of the expression “begging the question“. As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with it, so why the comments? To check my (non-native speaker) intuitions, I resorted to Google N-gram, which I set to English generally, searching for both begs the question and prompts the question (the suggested alternative). And look what I found:

Begging the questionSo on the basis of these data, it is clear that begs the question (the blue line) is the most frequent form. (I didn’t find any differences for American or for British English from this general overview.)

What then is going on, why do people object to the use of begging the question when it has always been more frequent than prompting the question? Could it be perhaps that due to its enormous increase since the 1950s or so, people suddenly get critical of the phrase?



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Usage guides and the Book Club Associates

Yesterday, I wrote a post about my discovery of Harry Blamires’s usage guide, called The Cassell Guide to Common Errors in English (1998). The publisher is mentioned as BCA, which as I now know, thanks to Tim Waller, stands for Book Club Associates. The reason why I did not at first recognize the abbreviation is that I was only familiar with their older logo, as in the edition of Partridge in the image below:

My two copies of Partridge

What made me concede defeat (I know: I shouldn’t use this phrase: it is another usage problem!) was the Wikipedia entry on the Book Club Associates, which shows a different logo, as if the other one never existed:

BCA logo, from Wikipedia

This is indeed the logo (though in colour) that appears on the title page of Blamires’s book.

More interestingly, though, I have now identified two usage guides published by Book Club Associates: Partridge (1947/1975) and Blamires (1998). The copyright of the latter book is stated as 1997, and as Tim Waller writes in his comment below, the BCA version is a reprint of the book originally published by Cassell the year before. Partridge’s original publisher was Hamish Hamilton.

I’d now like to know if there are other usage guides that were originally published or reprinted by book clubs like BCA? This would probably have led to enormous numbers of sales. Does anyone know?


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Who is Harry Blamires?

There, I’ve done it again: I found another usage guide at our local (Dutch!) charity shop Het Warenhuis.

An Amazon image

How did the book end up in the Netherlands? There is no ownership inscription unfortunately, so we won’t know who the former owner was. But more seriously, who is the author, Harry Blamires?

Googling for him brought me to Wikipedia, where it can be read that he was born in 1916, and that he is a (now retired) theologian, literary critic and novelist. And also that he was formerly the headmaster of Winchester College, an elite boys school (attended by Robert Lowth, for instance, to mention a famous former schoolboy there). But the entry doesn’t mention the title of my new book.

An Amazon image

The HUGE database includes another book by Harry Blamires, The Queen’s English, published in 1994 by Bloomsbury. My book came out even later, in 1998, published by BCA (Book Club Associates: thanks to Tim Waller for pointing this out!). Were both books written by the same Harry Blamires whose first publication, according to Wikipedia, was a novel called Devil’s Hunting Ground (1954), who wrote guides through James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, as well publishing a book called Recovering the Christian Mind: Meeting the Challenge of Secularism (1988)?

Please help us identify the author of The Cassell Guide to Common Errors in English and of The Queen’s English. Ideally of course, we would like to get in touch with the author himself.


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Can ‘Cheers!’ be inappropriate? The story of email sign-offs

In one of our previous posts Ingrid Tieken wrote about her analysis of commonly used email sign-offs she found while going through her inbox. (To find out more about the differences she found between American, British and non-native email authors, go here).

Relating to this topic I have recently come across a very entertaining episode of the PRI’s The World in Words podcast in which Alina Simone compares the insecurity many of us feel just before we decide on a suitable email sign-off to the teenage insecurities of longing to fit in and the fear of making a faux pas.

Alina explains the lengths she goes to in order to accommodate to the email recipient, changing her sign-offs depending on whether she is writing to her Russian friends, her colleagues or to the fans of the acclaimed Danish television series Borgen.

This definitely seems like a lot of effort for someone like myself whose variety possibly includes two standard sign-offs ranging from the casual Cheers! to the professional, but not overly formal Best wishes. If you would like to make matters even more complicated, just google ‘email sign-offs’, and you will soon get impressive lists of 57 or more different options ranging from the somewhat try-hard High five from down low to the amusing Sent from a prehistoric stone tablet.

What Alina goes on to discuss in more detail is the search for individualised sign-offs, unique phrases that tell you something about the personality and the interests of the authors themselves. To find out more about her story, listen to the episode here.

Finally, what I found intriguing was the discussion on the word Cheers! when used by Americans, which is addressed both by Alina and Patrick Cox, the host of the podcast.

british_cheers_shot_glassPatrick feels that Cheers! should be off-limits for speakers of American English, especially when they are politely trying to accommodate to the British English speakers in the US. The seemingly welcoming code-switching and the act of adopting British vocabulary, Patrick claims, reminds him of being an outsider.


Who knew that formulating a simple greeting could be this complex? What are your thoughts on British and American sign-off differences? Do you have an individualised sign-off or any that make your list of pet peeves? Leave your comments below.


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