Your help is needed, I mean: I need your help!

I’m about to start analysing the results from the Mittins surveys that have been a regular feature on this blog from its earliest days. Many people have let us have their views on the sentences the past few years, for … Continue reading

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10th Bridging the Unbridgeable Lunch Lecture

We are pleased to announce our 10th Bridging the Unbridgeable Lunch Lecture which will take place on 15 April 2015, from 12 to 1 pm at Lipsius, room 227. Our guest speaker, David Lorenz from the University of Freiburg will be giving a talk entitled “to-contraction in American English: The career(s) of a non-standard feature”.

You can find David’s abstract below, and if you decide to attend the event, do not forget to bring your own lunch!

 to-contraction in American English: The career(s) of a non-standard feature

(David Lorenz, University of Freiburg)

 - Abstract -

The pattern of to-contraction has often been noted as a feature of informal, spoken language, producing forms such as wanna, gonna, but also, for example, needa, oughta (cf. Bolinger 1981, Pullum 1997). This study offers a diachronic description of to-contraction from a Construction Grammar perspective, using data from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA, Davies 2010).

While non-standard written representations of to-contraction occur since the 19th century, three specific forms – gonna, wanna and gotta – take a separate development and become increasingly conventional. In this process, their factors of use also change, showing the establishment of a connection across these items that fits the description of a ‘meta-construction’ (Leino & Östman 2005). Thus, the study shows how schematicity emerges in language from what started out as idiosyncratic cases of phonological reduction.


Bolinger, Dwight. 1981. “Consonance, dissonance and grammaticality: The case of wanna”. Language and Communication 1. 189-206.

Davies, Mark. 2010-. The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009.

Leino, Jaakko & Jan-Ola Östman. 2005. “Constructions and variability”. Grammatical Constructions: Back to the Roots, ed. by M. Fried & H. Boas. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.191-213.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1997. “The morpholexical nature of English to-contraction”. Language 73.   79-102.

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Fowler’s Modern English Usage: new but not New

It was February 1997, and Robert Burchfield’s The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage had been out for three months. Just as the 1st and 2nd editions of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage came to be known as ‘Fowler’, The Economist asked itself whether the next edition would be known as ‘Burchfield':

The 1926 Fowler is already a period piece, though no one has ever gone wrong by taking its advice. The same, no doubt, will in time be true of “Burchfield” – as, perhaps, by 2097 the publisher of its latest revision will dare to call it.
The Economist 1 February 1997.

It turns out The Economist didn’t have to wait for 100 years to get an answer, and it is ‘No’.

Ed4-HWF-JBYesterday, the 4th edition of ‘Fowler’ was published: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. It seems that Fowler is still THE name when it comes to guides to modern English usage.

Since I have been writing about Burchfield’s 3rd edition, my attention was immediately drawn to the fact that the publisher left the word New off the title of this new, 4th edition.

When it appeared in 1996, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage received a lot of criticism from conservative reviewers, who accused Burchfield of trading Fowler’s name. The editor, Robert Burchfield, possibly put too much emphasis in his Preface on how the 3rd edition was different to the 1st and 2nd.

In his Preface, Butterfield begins by stating that it is indeed a new edition, but doesn’t emphasise that it is different from what came before, stating its mission in positive terms.


This new, fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage has been thoroughly revised and updated to reflect how English speakers the world over use the language now, in the twenty-first century. (vii)

Those that published The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage underestimated how much of an institution ‘Fowler’ had become (see also the article in English Today by Ulrich Busse and Anne Schröder). OUP seems to know better now. Leaving the word New off the title is another way to reaffirm that this edition is just another ‘Fowler’, not New, but just new.

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Fragment (consider revising)

We’ve all been there. You are writing (what you think is) a perfectly good sentence in a Word document when, suddenly, the MS Word grammar checker tells you that you should consider revising the ‘fragment’, because something is wrong. Very often, it is quite unclear what is wrong or how the grammar checker decides what is a ‘fragment’ or how it spots grammatical or stylistic errors in a document.

Ingrid Tieken wrote recently that reading Anne Curzan’s latest book, Fixing English, prompted her to find out the usage problems that the MS Word grammar checker deals with. Around the same time, I was prompted to do the same thing when, while working on a paper, the MS grammar checker decided (out of the blue) that my passive clause was incorrect, and suggested correcting it into an active one. I don’t remember this happening before. Here’s proof number one:

Correction_Passive 1

A couple of days later, while writing this blog post, and simultaneously working on another document, it happened again! Proof number two:

Correction_Passive 2

So, passive constructions are now flagged in Word as mistakes. I wonder when this error category was introduced to the grammar checker and for what reasons, because passives are perfectly normal – or, in prescriptivist terms ‘correct’ – and it seems to me that it should be the author’s (stylistic) decision to use a passive rather than an active clause. (If you are interested in reading more about the odd obsession with the passive as a grammatical error, I strongly recommend Geoffrey Pullum’s brilliant and thorough discussion of the subject.) What’s even more intriguing, as Ingrid suggested as well, is who makes those decisions and based on what. So, I tried to find out more.

Unfortunately, my investigation on this hasn’t come to fruition yet, but I did find out that the MS grammar checker gives you two options: grammar and style, and you can decide whether you want to have only grammar errors flagged or both, grammar and style. Details about all this can be found here and you can choose how your grammar and style checkers work here. According to the FAQ page on Word grammar proofing, the style proofing option only appears in versions after 2002, so it’s not all that new. My guess is that the style checker is predominantly based on usage guides discussions of usage problems. This is quite important because, as Curzan points out in her book, the MS grammar (and style) checker is a powerful prescriptive force, not only in grammar, but in style as well. I think a lot of people would want to know what that’s based on. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

In the meantime, stay calm, keep working, and don’t be intimidated by the grammar checker let the grammar checker intimidate you!

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A Dutch letter-to-the-editor: at last!

tamelijk uniek

I have been watching NRC Handelsblad (a quality Dutch daily newspaper) ever since the start of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project for letters to the editor that deal with usage problems, but without any luck. Until last night! And interestingly, it deals with a very similar one to what we are used to finding in English usage guides: fairly unique. Robert Ilson will be pleased, because I can’t think of a neater example of what he calls “cross-cultural prescriptivism“.

The question of the acceptability of very unique was part of one of our usage polls (number 4). At the time Mittins et al. did their attitudes survey (in the late 1960s), very unique scored lowest of all features they examined: only 11% in terms of general acceptability. Since then, acceptability has grown, among our readers anyway, but with 19% only, it still isn’t very high.

And what do our Dutch readers think of tamelijk uniek? Is its general acceptability as low as that for its English counterpart? Let us know by filling in this poll. Dutch readers only, please! I’ll let you know about the results in a few weeks time.

(And here is some news for Gertjan van der Brugge: the complaint is not new at all!)

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Onto doesn’t exist?

Last week, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade published a post on Simon Heffer’s discussion of into on this blog. In his discussion of into in Strictly English, Heffer mentions a closely related usage item, the use of on to versus onto, of which he says the following…

word-does-not-existThere is no such problem in distinguishing when a writer or speaker should use onto and on to, because onto does not exist.

However, this ‘non-existing’ item is discussed in as many as 34 usage guides in the HUGE database, and in most of them onto is accepted (sometimes grudgingly) since the early twentieth century. The OED gives citations for onto dating from the early 18th century onwards.

1715   Duxbury (Mass.) Rec. (1893) 105   [A] place gutted away by the rain down onto Mr. Wiswells land.

And although it appears to be virtually non-existent in American English usage, COHA shows steadily increasing usage of onto in the twentieth century.


use of onto in the Corpus of Historical American English, 1900-2000

Many (most?) online dictionaries (for example Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge, and Collins) accept onto as a word, with a distinct use that is separate from on to. But this is not new. The use of onto was approved of by Henry Fowler, who gave examples in which the ‘non-existing’ onto was allowed, but not on to in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)

Occasions for on or to or onto, but on no account on to: Climbed up on(to) the roof; Was invited (on)to the platform; It struggles (on)to its legs again; They fell 300 ft on(to) a glacier.

Later approvers of onto also include otherwise conservative usage guide writers as Patricia O’Conner in Woe is I (1996) and Bernard Lamb of the Queen’s English Society in The Queen’s English and how to use it (2010).

So the information in Strictly English on this usage problem is not helpful. Heffer’s denial of a use of onto not only fails to take note of the historicity of this usage item, but it also fails to acknowledge a useful distinction. When it comes to onto as a usage problem, it seems we had it sorted out quite some time ago. So let’s go …


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Into or in to, really?

As I wrote earlier on this blog, I’m reading Heffer’s Strictly English (2010). In chapter 4, called Bad Grammar, he discusses the difference between into and in to. I never knew there was such a distinction in English! Is there really? So lets ask our readers, I thought: which of the two would you use when something like the event in the picture happens to you? And if you feel like it, please explain why you preferred one or the other (or perhaps both, or even neither).

Posted in polls and surveys, usage features | Tagged | 7 Comments