What kind of grammar nerd are you?

Today is National Grammar Day in the US and to celebrate this joyful occasion, Grammarly, a company providing a spell checker and grammar checker with the same title, has published a quiz: What kind of grammar nerd are you?

It contains questions on usage problems, such as preposition stranding and the split infinitive, as well as on your attitudes towards textspeak and other usage conventions. For those of you who always wanted to know whether you are a Pedant’s Grammarian or Enlightened Grammarian, simply take the quiz and find it out!

Happy Grammar Day!


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Usage poll #10

And here is another usage poll, with sentences 46-50 from Mittins et al. (only one more to go!). Remember that multiple answers are allowed. And feel free to leave comments on the sentences as well. Enjoy!


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Grammar pedants online

Catherine Bennett

In the Bridging the Unbridgeable project we’ve been trying to find out what people’s pet hates are. So far, we’ve done so directly by asking them in attitudes surveys, both online and face-to face, but another great source is to look at comments on language columns that deal with usage problems. I just went through all 84 comments that arrived within about 14 hours since Catherine Bennett produced her piece  “Modern Tribes: the grammar pedant” in The Guardian Online.

In the column, Catherine mentions eight what we call usage problems: less/fewer, historic/historical, disinterested/uninterested, refute/reply, who/whom, comprise of, split infinitives and the greengrocer’s apostrophe (like the plural potato’s).

The Guardian

None of these are new: we are particularly interested in finding out about new usage problems. So what about the 84 comments? Not many new ones here either: of/have, off of, verbs made from nouns (dooring, versing), initial And, obsess as a verb (?), confusables like loth/loathe and lose/loose, between you and I/me, gunna, tire/tyre, should of wentmore than he/him, between/among, amongST, preposition stranding, hopefully, team as a plural noun, invite as a noun, hung/hanged … .

There were some though which  I hadn’t come across before: the literal meaning of working in “How’s your working day?”; pre-book; gift for give; get/have a kid; me so happy, as used by foreigners; born and bred/raised; at either end of the room. Are any of these really new problems or merely writers’ pet peeves?

There were a couple of things in the list of comments I was struck by: there seemed a lot of Australians reacting to the column; people are worried by the autocorrect function ruining grammar; the prescriptive jokes (like the one about Sir John Ive having to change his name to Sir John I’ve); and that Catherine Bennett was taken to task for not spelling wouldst correctly. And of course the split infinitive was believed to have originated in the eighteenth century. My favourite comment was: “I tell greengrocers/take-away shops if their signage is misspelt/mispelled? Advocadoes’!”

(Thanks once again for the link, Joan!)

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No it didn’t: heighth as a usage problem

Last week, the book Transatlantic Perspectives on Late Modern English came out, edited by Marina Dossena. It includes two papers that are of interest to this project, one by Ulrich Busse, which deals with the usage guides by Alford (1864) and White (1871), and the other one is by myself, on one of the earliest American English usage guides, Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (1856).

Five Hundred Mistakes doesn’t include 500 but 499 errors, or usage problems in our project’s sense of the term: the result of a typesetting error! But there are many additional instances in the introduction, so the actual tally amounts to many more.

It is a curious book, but a usage guide, as I argue in the paper, all the same. And since it is a usage guide, it contains usage problems. One of these is heighth (for height), a curious instance, since some people consider it a spelling error, others a pronunciation mistake. I think it is a feature of grammar (morphology), since as a variant (see the headword in the OED!) it would appear to be formed on the basis of analogy with words like breadth and length.

Anne Curzan refers to heighth in her wonderful new book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History, published last year, and what she says about it is that though its pronunciation (!) “could easily enough be stigmatized as nonstandard, [it] has escaped prescriptive attention” (p. 31). No, it didn’t! It was already criticised in the earliest days of the American usage guide tradition. And it is also listed in Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, who regards it as a misspelling. These were just spot checks, so there may well be many more guides that list it.

The question is why it became a usage problem, since the OED still lists it as a variant, with many printed examples dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The OED entry has not as yet been updated, so it’ll be exciting to see what the editors are going to do with it by the time the reach this word.



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David vs Goliath: Oliver Kamm’s take on English usage

I have to admit that reading usage guides can get somewhat boring. Their authors, most of them prescriptivists and literally old-school, frequently use a similar set of usage problems discussing them in a similar manner and expressing similar attitudes. If you read one prescriptive usage guide, your second will most probably not rock your world. On my visit to Oxford last week, I discovered however a rather peculiar usage guide, whose title immediately caught my attention: Accidence will happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage.

Written by Oliver Kamm, leader writer and columnist for The Times, this usage guide was only recently published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and thus dethrones Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style as the most recent usage guide. What intrigued me was Kamm’s point of view on language, which definitely struck a chord with me. He emphasises how native speakers of English need to be reassured of being masters of their language and highlights the importance of knowing when to apply which register. This notion of appropriateness has already been discussed by Henry W. Mittins and his colleagues of the Attitudes to English Usage survey in the late 1960s who would have liked to see it replace the notion of correctness when it came to teaching. More than four decades later, Kamm advocates this view as well.

Oliver Kamm

On 280 pages Kamm debunks the one or the other myth on language usage and highlights the areas where the sticklocracy – pedants, purists and sticklers alike – is wrong in its approach to language. His advice is straightforward and breathes new life into the usage debate. The sticklocracy’s vociferous outrage over allegedly falling standards and the subsequent demise of society has met an interesting and defiant opponent whose view on language usage will most probably galvanise the usage debate once again.



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New in English Today: A Fuss about the Octopus

The March issue of English Today includes the latest feature article from our project in which I discuss the options English has to refer to more than one ‘octopus’ as well as a usage rhyme written on this specific topic.

Four of the main points addressed in the article A Fuss about the Octopus are:

  • What do usage guide authors advise regarding the plural of ‘octopus’?
  • According to three corpora, what plural appears to be used by people most often? Which plural would you use?
  • Do you think that rhymes about usage can be a useful memory aid?
  • Do you know any rhymes about usage?

Check out the English Today feature on this blog to find some answers to these questions. Also, feel free to share your ideas and personal answers to the questions I pose here in the comments below.

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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Halting language change: Wikipedia Grammar Vigilante

Grammar vigilantes are not a novelty. Perhaps one of the best-publicized grammar crusades was the Great Typo Hunt, a nationwide mission by two young Americans who corrected hundreds of public typos during a three-month road trip and were imprisoned as a consequence. They describe their adventure in this book.

Nowadays grammar wars are largely waged online, as the recent example of the Wikipedia vigilante shows. Although people often complain about and comment on online usage, wikis – the collaborative online platforms with their editing-for-all options – allow individuals to do something about it and correct their pet peeves. A Wikipedia editor, Bryan Henderson, thus corrected 47,000 instances of ‘comprised of’ on the grounds of the expression’s redundancy, as he explains in detail in his Wikipedia essay. Better alternatives, Henderson suggests, are ‘composed of’ and ‘consist of’.


According to the HUGE database, there are a number of usage problems that make it on the redundancy list (redundant words underlined), such as ‘equally as’, ‘meet up with’, ‘the reason is because’, double comparatives/superlatives such as ‘more warmer’, etc.

David Shariatmadari from the Guardian comments* on the crusade and concludes that personal preferences should not be imposed on everyone and that logical inconsistencies can’t be applied rigorously to natural languages.
However, the usage of ‘comprised of’ has moved beyond personal preferences.
Looking at the COHA corpus it is obvious that ‘{comprise/V} of’ is on the rise.

compriseAlthough linguistic change is often related to the less formal genres and spoken language, the case of ‘to be comprised of’ is among the exceptions, it is most commonly found in academic writing. There are obvious differences in usage between ‘comprise’ and ‘comprise of’. ‘Comprise of’ appears in the majority of instances in passive constructions ‘to be comprised of’ – and its active counterpart is not followed by a preposition:

‘The study comprised 451 persons’

‘The U.S. is comprised of many different cultural and linguistic groups’.

In spite of Henderson’s efforts to prevent this usage and halt ongoing linguistic change, it seems that the evidence from real language use in corpora is working against him.

The Telegraph featured a poll asking its readers if they considered Henderson to be a pedant or a hero. The majority (56%) decided on hero. Would you agree?

*Special thanks to Joan Beal for forwarding the article!

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