How to Better Write Letters


This is a copy of a book I accidentally found in the Leiden Free Bookshop the other day. It reminded me of eighteenth-century letter writing manuals, so I picked it up. And very much like Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, its final chapter is devoted to usage problems, which added to my interest in the book.

Because I’m in the process of making an inventory of usage problems, I went through the chapter. It largely deals with punctuation marks and spelling problems, including confusion of your and you’re, there’s and theirs and of course its and it’s. The chapter also includes a grammatical feature, one only though: the split infinitive (pp. 242-3). But why on earth should the author have picked on this particular usage problem? Why not preposition stranding, the placement of only or any others, and why not preposition stranding and the placement of only in addition to the split infinitive?

But that isn’t all. Look at how Cherry Chappell describes the split infinitive:

“Splitting an inifitive means putting an adverb (or adverbial phrase) [so far so good] between the auxiliary verb (to) and the verb (sing), for example”.

To an auxiliary verb? Penguin, if you need a copy editor, please contact us: I know of quite a few good people I would happily recommend for this job.



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The future of English

At the turn of the calendar year, we are usually making (soon-to-be-broken) resolutions and speculating about the future. It comes as no surprise that linguists have been exchanging their views on the future of English in the previous weeks, John H. McWhorter in his widely shared article, What the World Will Speak in 2115, and Bas Aarts and Laura Wright, together with an evolutionary biologist, Mark Pagel, in an episode of the BBC’s Word of Mouth, How is English going to change in the future.


To predict the future, as we might expect, the linguists turn to the past and the present changes affecting the English language. They all agree on certain aspects of the future evolution of the language: English is going to be more simplified, informal and regularised.

For a more nuanced description, we can take a look at some of the changes which are likely to occur based on the ongoing developments. As Mark Pagel describes, certain words are changing rather slowly, such as pronouns and numbers, whereas lexical words, such as nouns and verbs are changing considerably more rapidly. Bas Aarts is among the researchers analysing the changes in English through the use of corpora of naturally-occurring language by tracking the increase and decline in the frequency of words and phrases. One such well-described change in the work of the late Geoffrey Leech is the decline in the usage of modal verbs (shall, may, must, ought to) and the increase in the usage of semi-modals (be going to, have to, be to, need to, be supposed to).

As a learner of English as a foreign language, I was taught (almost) never to use stative verbs in the progressive. It seems things are not so straightforward in spoken usage; to be believing, wanting, wishing, and notoriously loving it is on the rise due to colloquialisation and the function of progressives in hedging: “You’re being unreasonable” seems less harsh and face-threatening than “You are unreasonable”.

These examples along with “the doom of whom” do sound quite familiar. Some relatively newly emerging topics also include the development of comment clauses (such as I think) to pragmatic markers, and the perceived change in the usage of present perfect in spoken British English, also known as the emergence of the “footballer’s perfect”,

“They’ve been brilliant, they were absolutely brilliant.” Paul Lambert (manager Norwich Town).

Many of these changes stem from spoken language and are likely to infiltrate written language over time. Whether they “make it” into the written and standard varieties and whether the perceived changes are truly new and widely occurring phenomena, such as the “footballer’s perfect”, remains to be seen.

During my recent stay at the University of Freiburg, I was introduced to a number of studies on frequency effects in language which might offer insights to major processes influencing language change such as obsolescence, grammaticalisation and lexicalisation.

Considering the growing number of studies and interesting findings in this field, one thing is clear, the future certainly does not look boring.

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How careful can you be …

I’m going through the final chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (2014) to find out how many old chestnuts he discusses in his overview of usage problems. I’m always hoping to find new chestnuts, so we’ll wait and see.

Of course he mentions the split infinitive, and lists several “major guides” that discuss the problem (pp. 119-200). Some of these major guides I would not classify as usage guides because they are dictionaries (a different genre altogether), but one of them seems to come into the category I’m interested in, Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1965).

(image source: Amazon)

(But how major is “major”? I’d never heard of it before.) What I like about the quotation from this book, because I’m also interested in myths about usage guides and usage problems, is that Bernstein is another example of an author who seems to have thought that Robert Lowth (1762) was the first grammarian to condemn the split infinitive. Admittedly, he doesn’t mention Lowth by name, but the reference can’t be missed:

There is nothing wrong [Bernstein is quoted by Pinker as saying] with splitting an infinitive … except that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians, for one reason or another, frowned on it.

Lowth did NOT frown upon the split infinitive: he didn’t discuss it in his grammar, didn’t use it himself, and may never have heard of it. Nor did any other eighteen-century grammarian, since the split infinitive according to Richard Bailey in Nineteenth-Century English (1996) was only first frowned upon in 1834, and not yet by a grammarian by the way. I’ve never studied the discussion of the split infinitve by nineteenth-century grammarians, but we are now all able to study this old chestnut as it is discussed in English usage guides, as the feature is included in our HUGE database.

Do let me have more examples like that of Bernstein attributing the split infinitive to the eighteenth-century grammarians: I have quite a collection already.

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Fix Your Grammar

If you are in a grammar or usage dilemma and looking for a clarification, you can find a huge number of useful and informative websites on grammar and usage advice online. Sometimes you come across advice presented in a somewhat different manner. A perfect specimen of such usage advice is a video by Glove and Boots. In Fix Your Grammar, usage issues such as literally as an intensifier and the homophones there, their and they’re are tackled in a humorous way.

Click on the picture to view the video!

As mentioned in the video, the frequent occurrence of such “mistakes” is often attributed to people’s laziness when posting comments online. What do you think? Do you pay attention to correct spelling and grammar offline as well as online?

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Figures from 2014

It’s the start of a new year and thus a good time to rack up some numbers from our presence last year on social media. Here they are:

To start, we presently have more followers than ever: over 800 people now follow us on either this blog, on Facebook or on Twitter.

cropped-img_2071c.jpgWhat happened on this blog in 2014?

  • We put up 91 new posts in the past 12 months
  • We had about 46,000 views this year, which means that we almost doubled our number of views in a single year!
  • The increased traffic to our blog was very noticeable, as the number of daily visitors rose from 77 in 2013 to as many as 125 this year
  • With almost 6,500 visits, August was our busiest month ever since the start of this blog in 2011!
  • People from as many as 160 different countries visited our blog this year, which makes us feel like a truly global project

I’d like to thank all our commenters from outside the project, and especially our top commenters tonyparr2364378528, Marten, Richard Bond, Tim Waller, & Ray Carey, for making our blog truly interactive

FB-f-Logo__blue_1024We stayed active on Facebook and Twitter. We sent many tweets and almost doubled our number of facebook followers in 2014. 80 new people liked our facebook page and we put op 200 Facebook posts last year.Twitter_logo_blue

YouTube-logo-full_colorNew last year was our own Bridging the Unbridgeable channel on YouTube this year. There we have some videos about how the HUGE database was made, as well as videos from people and organisations that we like and that we think you might like.

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HUGE user manual

The user manual for the HUGE database is finished! It can be downloaded as a pdf here. The manual contains a general introduction and information on the construction and content of the HUGE database, as well as example searches of all the parts of the database.


You can request access to the database on the HUGE database pages here, and there is also a link to the manual on the database’s FAQ page.

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2014’s most remarkable events in prescriptivism

It’s new year’s eve, and time to look back on the year that is almost behind us! Several remarkable events happened this year, events that we all reported on in this blog.


First there was the new edition of Sir Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words, by his great-granddaughter, the novelist Rebecca Gowers. The book was praised at the Cambridge Usage (Guides) Symposium which we organised in June and which proved enormously successful, thanks to our excellent speakers.

Next, it turned out that the CIA makes use of a style guide: the document was leaked early in July. The document is more than a style guide, and gives usage advice as well. Why was its existence a secret, we wondered, and will it matter that it now no longer is? Two months later, Steven Pinker published a style guide, The Sense of Style. My colleagues in linguistics think the book extremely successful in its attempts to draw on linguistic theory to help readers produce better prose. The book also contains a good deal of detailed linguistic advice, much in the way of the best usage guides. Robin Straaijer reviewed the book in the Washington Post.

From 2014 onwards, we have a regular feature in English Today, which allows us to interact with readers and people interested in prescriptivism generally. Feedback from readers has proved extremely valuable.

But the event most deserving to be remarked upon in this brief account is the publication of our project’s HUGE database of usage guides and usage problems, compiled by Robin Straaijer. The international launch of this freely accessible database took place during our symposium in Cambridge in June. Emily Maas, our project’s intern, tried to assess how HUGE it actually is. We hope that many people will find the database useful, and we invite you all to share your findings with us here in this blog.

So now it only remains for me to wish our readers all the best for the year to come: let’s hope that there will be even more remarkable events in prescriptivism in the year 2015!


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