English Usage (Guides) Symposium page

The page for the English Usage (Guides) Symposium at the University of Cambridge is now live! The page (see menu bar) gives has the programme, abstracts and information on how to register.


Registration for the Symposium is now open: please don’t wait too long before registering, since available places are limited. The registration fee is £30 only.

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What makes a usage guide? 

During the construction of the HUGE database, I have been thinking about the genre of usage guides a lot for the simple, practical purpose of determining which titles would be put in the database, and which would not. Edmund Weiner asked himself 25 years ago…

What are we to make of that neglected genre, the Usage Guide?

source: mixedbagart.tumblr.com/ photo by: chadmize (instagram.com/chadmize)

source: mixedbagart.tumblr.com
photo by: chadmize (instagram.com/chadmize)

As a genre, the usage guide is somewhat of a mixed bag. Weiner notes that although a usage guide covers all parts of the language, it doesn’t describe all of it. A usage guide gives the meaning of words, but it is not a dictionary (altough it can be set up like one). A usage guide discusses grammatical structures, but it is not a grammar. According to Tieken-Boon van Ostade, the usage guide “aims to point out and correct linguistic errors” instead of “focusing on actual grammar”, while offering “some entertainment in the process”. Weiner says that it covers all parts of the language, and while this is generally true, it doesn’t cover every part equally.

To help define the usage guides as a genre, I have made came up with a number of other genres that cover parts of the language which are also addressed in usage guides: dictionaries, style guides, handbooks on writing, spelling & punctuation guides, descriptive grammars, language acquisition textbooks, and popular works on language. What kind of work do you think of when you think about a usage guide? Share your thoughts by taking the poll!

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The Correct and Improving Major Byron F. Caws

This is Richard Bond’s second blog post.

The Story So Far

At Dr. Johnson’s House in London there is a plaque that reads “Castigavit et emendavit” (“he corrected and improved) suggesting that these are H. W. Fowler’s words in recognition of Major Byron F. Caws’ contribution to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Major Cawss’ grandson, Richard Byron Caws, erected the plaque in 1997.

What was Fowler’s major reason for making this inscription to Major Caws?

Dr. Johnson’s House Trust suggested the possibility that Major Caws might have been related in some way to Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. They advised that the City of London Corporation, a possible option for further information, maintains the statue with the plaque, but they suggested I contact the OED. I did so and am waiting for the reply.

I continued by consulting Jenny McMorris’ biography of H.W. Fowler. As there was no reference to Major Caws in the index, I read through the sections where the Fowlers may possibly have met a major, that is their time spent in service during the First World War, and also sections on when H.W. Fowler was writing the COD. There is no mention of Major Caws but there are possible clues.

McMorris mentions a kindly CO who helped the Fowlers in a non-language related capacity during the war, but no name is given. I wonder whether a Major would have filled a CO position during the First World War, but taken in conjunction with the meaning of the inscription, it is unlikely that this CO was Major Caws. Later on in the book, a retired army surgeon is mentioned who provided some assistance to Fowler and also a military correspondent in Jamaica. Again, no names.

A memoir of H.W. Fowler by George Gordon Coulton might possibly have some information, but I haven’t found a copy yet. (Drop us a line if you find anything!)

Ingrid Tieken suggested that Major Caws might have been cited with a quotation in the OED online, so I OEDed Major Byron F. Caws and all permutations of his name but did not find any results. I also found Richard Byron Caws’s family tree online but no links to the Major nor toSir James Murray so far. Investigations continue and any insights are welcome!

Introducing Major Byron F Caws

Recent research has turned up a post on the alt.usage.english website that seems to tie everything together. User ‘Mike’ says that he found Major Caws name mentioned in earlier drafts of the COD. I located a first edition online, but did not see any reference there to Major Caws.

In response to Mike’s post one user “Bartie” wrote: “Byron Frank Caws born Seaview Isle of Wight 1863 died Jamacia (sic) 19 April 1943“. Mike Barnes added more information he had found:

The [Jamaica Garrison] church is built just outside the entrance to the
main guardroom of Lathbury Barracks and immediately opposite to the
Obelisk erected in memory of those officers, men and families who
perished in the great calamity of 1907. It was built by S.R. Eustace
Fielding Esq., and the work was supervised by Lieutenant Colonel R.
Carey Commander Royal Engineers and Major B.F. Caws, R.E. while QMS V.
Sponsor was the military foreman of works. Incidentally, the late Miss
Phyllis Caws, daughter of Major Caws, maintained a constant link with
the church up to the time of her death on 4 January 1968. She was for
many years Sunday school teacher. Miss Caws’ funeral service was held in
the church with which she was connected for over fifty years.

Article in the Jamaica Times 
[Kingston, August 25, 1934]. Unwanted Guests Should Be Spat On. Mr. Marcus Garvey at Meeting of U.N.I.A. Convention Again Attacks


1. Ginger was a pseudonym used by an Englishman named Major Caws, author
of a column called “Pepper Pot” in the Jamaica Times in the 1930s (Ken
Post, Arise Ye Starvelings: The Jamaican Labour Rebellion of 1938 and
its Aftermath [The Hague, Boston, London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978], p.
197, n. 51).

Mike Barnes

One writer indicated that they are the great-grandchild of Major Caws and invites to contact them for further information, so I wrote and received a lovely email in response with two photos of Major Caws. At least we know what he looked like!

So now we are trying to find any of his contributions to the Jamaica Times “Pepper Pot” column in the 1930’s as ‘Ginger’, or any correspondence he may have had with H.W. Fowler.

Do you have anything to share with us to help us continue the story of Major Caws?


McMorris , Jenny (2001). The Warden Of English. Oxford University Press

Coulton, G. G. (1935). H.W. Fowler. Clarendon Press.

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Maar is het fout? (But is it wrong?)

Here is Annemarie Walop‘s second blog post.

While browsing on the internet a few weeks ago, I found a very interesting article on the website of Dutch quality newspaper De Volkskrant about the Dutch coordinating conjunction maar (“but”). The article is called ‘Beter: de maar-ziekte’ and it deals with the fact that maar  is used increasingly often at the beginning of sentences, and that it suggests a contrast with the previous sentence.

Het [woord maar] wordt vaak ten onrechte gebruikt, wanneer de gebruiker een tegenstelling suggereert die er helemaal niet is. (It [the word maar] is often wrongly used, when the writer suggests a contrast that is not really there.)

The author of the article, Jean-Pierre Geelen, provides multiple examples of the wrong use of maar, and indeed, it can be found in virtually any book or article.

Jean-Pierre Geelen

Is the use of maar at the beginning of a sentence really een ziekte (“a disease”), as Geelen claims? Wikipedia seems to think so. It gives the following definition of a coordinating conjunction:

Een nevenschikkend voegwoord verbindt twee zinnen of deelzinnen die even belangrijk zijn… Een nevenschikkend voegwoord staat altijd tussen de deelzinnen in, nooit aan het begin. (A coordinating conjunction links two sentences or clauses of equal importance together… A coordinating conjunction is always placed in between the clauses, never at the beginning [of a sentence].)

Interestingly, Wikipedia gives no references to sources to back their claim. In the absence of a Dutch usage guide tradition, people would have to revert to Dutch books on grammar in order to find out whether it is acceptable to use a coordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence. Finding information on a usage item like this one is very time-consuming, especially if you take into consideration that the answer might not be in the grammar at all. Alternatively, you can try to find the item on the website of Genootschap Onze Taal (Dutch language society), which in this case states that en (“and”) and maar can be used at the beginning of a sentence, but the website does not include information on other coordinating conjunctions (for instance, it does not mention want (“for”/”because”).

What about English coordinating conjunctions, such as but, and, and for? Wikipedia states that “many students are taught that certain conjunctions … should not begin sentences. But authorities such as the Chicago Manual of Style state that this teaching has ‘no historical or grammatical foundation’”. (Notice the but starting the previous sentence!)


The Chicago Manual of Style (2010) claims that “[i]n fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice”. Even though the CMS claims that there is no usage dispute surrounding the use of a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, some people still get quite worked up about it, as is apparent from the following quotation from Charles Allen Lloyd, author of We Who Speak English: and Our Ignorance of Our Mother Tongue (1938):

Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with “but” or “and”. As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves (1938: 257-8)

One of the most popular and best-known English usage guides, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), says about and that “[t]here is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards’, and about but that ‘[t]he widespread public belief that But should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation” (1996: 52, 121). However, MEU writes that for “cannot normally be placed at the beginning of a sentence” (1996: 305).

In English, it seems as if there should not be any confusion: the coordinating conjunction is used at the beginning of a sentence by many people in many contexts, and prescriptivists do not find a problem with its usage as such. In The Netherlands we lack a usage guide tradition, so grammars are used as authorities on language use. Coordinating conjunctions are widely used by the public at the beginning of a sentence, but some people appear to have a problem with it. Perhaps it is time for a Dutch usage guide to be written, which has to include the disputed usage of coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence, among other things.

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NWO Humanities blog

NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the funding agency of our project, recently started a Humanities blog. They asked us to write a couple of blog posts for them, and the first one appeard online yesterday. Though the post itself is in Dutch, you might wish to read it and leave a comment. If you do, you will be the very first!

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Yagoda’s Language Madness

March Madness describes a very American phenomenon: the NCAA college basketball tournament. In this tournament college teams compete against each other and by winning move on to the next round. This process is often visualised in so-called brackets, which apparently has started a mocking trend. You might have asked yourself by now, why I am talking about sports on a language blog. Here is why.

Ben Yagoda

Ben Yagoda, a linguist from the US, transferred the concept of March Madness into linguistics. If you are puzzled by this, give me a chance to explain. On his blog he introduced daily polls including two pet peeves such as for example Wordiness and cliches in the first round of his Language Madness series. Yagoda’s aim was to determine the biggest “sin against language” – the wording should be taken with a pinch of salt of course. Intrigued by this idea, I started to do some research on his Language Madness and discovered his contribution to the book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything published in 2007. In this book he produced a bracket sheet for the “sins against language”. The results of the first round “matches”, which can be seen below, were the basis for this Language Madness polls.

First round results

In an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education, Yagoda comments on his 2007 results:

“Looking back over the winners, I’m OK with all of them, with one exception. Today, I would choose “commas or periods outside quotation marks” (otherwise known as “logical punctuation”), definitely to advance to the second round and possibly a lot farther. My students are wedded to this, and it drives me cuckoo.”

In the end, Yagoda left the choice to the readers of his blog. I recommend reading his entries and tracing back the debate. If you are somewhat impatient and want to go straight to the results, you can find the final bracket here. I’d be curious to see what the readers of this blog think about this results. Do you agree or disagree?

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Overused exclamation marks!!!

In the latest issue of Intelligent Life magazine published by the Economist Group, six writers including Julian Barnes, Claire Messud, and Ali Smith discuss their favourite punctuation marks. We have addressed the topic of punctuation in a number of our posts in the past. The Oxford comma, the possessive apostrophe, and misused dashes all evoke a great amount of criticism. Julian Barnes reminds us in the aforementioned article of another misused and abused punctuation mark, the exclamation mark. Barnes writes:

‘Some of My Best Friends litter their e-mails with “!!!!!!!!”, like lines of poplars by French canals. I’ve even been caught using a few of them in a row myself. And is there anything more depressing than the hand-drawn version, in which the outline of a cigar sits perkily atop a small circle’.


Many usage guides and authors advise against the excessive use of the exclamation mark. The American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard stated in his 10 rules of good writing:

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Some linguists, however, attribute the overwhelming use of exclamation marks to the changing nature of written language, which is (largely due to computer mediated communication) becoming more conversational.

We might be witnessing language change that is affecting punctuation. Instead  of signalling strong feelings or a forceful way of speaking, the exclamation marks are now mere indicators of excitement or positive disposition (Sure, let’s have coffee!, See you later :)!). From the number of articles lately addressing this issue, it seems that the language pedants are not calmly observing the change.

exclamation omb

See the results of the Intelligent Life’s survey on favourite punctuation marks here.

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Koffie’s vs koffies: how to find evidence of Dutch usage problems?

Marten van der Meulen is the next student in my MA course Testing Prescriptivism to write a blog post:

While recently investigating a piece on the greengrocer’s apostrophe, I read an earlier piece on the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog about an occurrence of koffie’s. The writer of the piece tries (succesfully in my opinion) to identify the reason for this usage. Whether variation between plural koffies and koffie’s is perceived as an actual Dutch usage problem is hard to say, because of the apparent lack of Dutch usage guides where we might be able to check this. I am, however, interested to see whether this is a completely accidental case, or if it is part of a larger usage phenomenon. The problem is, though, that finding structural data for Dutch usage is somewhat more complicated than for English . Nevertheless, based on some simple searches I can say that the use of plural koffie’s is far from incidental.

The main reason the search is somewhat difficult is that there are no readily available Dutch corpora online. English has the BNC and COCA, but the Dutch corpora such as the Corpus Gesproken Nederlands (Corpus Spoken Dutch) and various others have limited access. Futhermore, there is no Dutch option available in Google N-gram, which is a shame, since the program is very well suited to perform a comparative search such as koffie’s/koffies.

koffie's: a twitter searchHowever, there are two simple ways in which searches for koffie’s/koffies can be done, both on Twitter as on Google. All you have to know is a simple restriction, namely lang:nl, as in <lang:nl “koffie’s”>. This restricts any queries to only include tweets or pages written in Dutch. And for the question I’m interested in here, this yields some nice results: while a Twitter search does not provide us with a numerical frequency, it does at least show that the usage does occur. Frequency is noted in a similar Google search: lang:nl produced 13,500 hits when I searched for koffie’s, versus 40,900 for koffies.

The problem with these searches is that they do not disambiguate between possessive and plural, or that they don’t observe word boundaries, as in the first hit: the results have to be cleaned up manually. But even a quick look at the top results shows that the query for koffie’s produced mostly plurals. The anecdotal evidence is solidified! There does seem to be structural variation in Dutch between koffie’s and koffies. The next step (on which more later) will be to extend this finding to include more words in Dutch ending in -ie. Let me know if you have come across any words, so I can investigate them.

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