Can you correct someone without being a language bully?

vevo #WordCrimesOver the past two weeks, the linguistic blogosphere has exploded over ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s latest musical parody Word Crimes. Linguists, editors and others were blogging at break-neck speed to discuss the judgements expressed in the song. On this blog, Viktorija Kostadinova posted about it on the day the video appeared on YouTube.

This all came very timely, as many of these comments touch on something that I wanted to write about for a while. It started about a week earlier, when I was going over some of the blogs on our blogroll, looking for interesting posts. I was going over some of the blogs on our blogroll, looking for interesting posts.

source: Google+ 'grammar monkeys'

I came across an older post on the now seemingly inactive Grammar Monkeys blog. It’s called Corrections with a smile, which seems to deal with the question why correcting other people’s language is often met with resistance and even hostility. The post is a reaction to another post, on Claiborne L.’s blog Proof or Consequences titled In Defense of Language, in which L. asks herself the same questions.

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Bennett’s Wordfinder

This is an index to the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, based on the version revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (1965). Paul Bennett has written elsewhere on this blog, about Fowler’s humour.

Why need an index to a work that is already arranged alphabetically, you might wonder.

The Wordfinder is an amazing document: it consists of 66 densely printed, three-column pages, which provide evidence of the fact that Modern English Usage is far richer then the mere alphabetical list of entries suggest. Paul Bennett has kindly agreed to let us make Bennett’s Wordfinder available here to anyone interested in the work. Let us know what you think of it!

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The New Usage Guide … Television!

All the students in my MA course Testing Prescriptivism had to write two blogposts. So here is Jasper Spierenburg’s second one:

With statistics showing that the average American watches over five hours of television a day, it is hard for prescriptivists to argue against the fact that television is looked at more often than the inside of a usage guide. However, what if it is possible to combine a usage guide and television?

Scripted television shows try to comment on everyday affairs because this creates a link with the audience. A popular series like Game of Thrones is referred to in various shows like Community, New Girl and Parks and Recreation. However, it is not just actual events and character-references that make their appearance in scripted television but also language. An easy way to create humour in SitComs seems to be by showing mistakes in language use by certain characters in the series. When Modern Family’s Claire (played by Julie Bowen) makes a poster to try and stop a speeding neighbour, it doesn’t take long for her family to comment on the message that it actually conveys instead. She wanted the poster to read “slow down” and “your neighbors” to be the senders of this message:

Claire herself is also prone to comment on the faulty language use of others, as the episode titled Fears shows us in a conversation of her daughter that she interrupts:

Haley: And she was, like …

Claire: Like

Haley: Well if you don’t wear it, then you can’t play. And then I was, like, that’s fine by me.

Claire: Honey, like.

Haley: And then she was, like, “Well, if you don’t play–“

Claire: Like! Like!

Haley: Mom! Stop! Stop saying “like” all the time.

Claire: You’re embarrassing me! Stop it! Like, like, like, aah! Hmm.

Like, a word that has inspired much debate and is even dealt with on this blog, seems to be commented on here by Claire simply because it is used too much by her daughter.

It isn’t hard when simply watching any other SitCom to notice that these comments on language use are quite frequent and are almost always meant to have a comical effect. Especially when a so-called laugh track is added, the audience will realise that it is wrong to use these language features in these ways and that using them will not only make you look stupid but will also make the people around you laugh at you. Being the but of a joke is usually not the goal in any normal conversation and I expect that people would want to avoid this whenever possible. This of course then suggests that, simply to not be the centre of attention, we should use language correctly and SitComs can show us the way how to do just that.

Most SitComs aren’t rated PG13 or higher and are thus available to children at an early age. A question that comes to mind is whether this might have any effect on them. Will showing them that something is wrong actually change their usage when it comes to these language features? What do you think? Can television succeed in changing our language use where usage guides have failed?

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When Literally means Literally…

Jasper Spierenburg is another of my MA students working on prescriptivism. Here is his first blogpost:

Literally is an adverb that leaves a lot of listeners in an absolute state of disbelief. Paralyzed and shell-shocked they try to recover from the bomb that was just dropped on what they believe to be their lexical knowledge. With ‘misuse’ of literally reaching a level of annoyance that almost warrants a world-wide lexicon-police, it is television that tries to open a debate. SitComs like The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) and Modern Family (MF) take it upon themselves to correct the wrongness that is literally used in a non-literal manner as the following quotes show (transcripts taken from and

Episode TBBTThe Justice League Recombination:

Zack: Really? I haven’t been to a comic book store in literally a million years.

Sheldon: Literally? Literally a million years?

Episode MFDance Dance Revolution

Bethenny: Thank you so much. This school would literally fall apart without you.

Claire: Well, I don’t know about “literally,” but…

Episode MFSlow Down Your Neighbors

Cameron: All right. I’m going to the hot tub. If I stay here one more minute, my head is literally gonna explode.

Mitchell: Well, I hope not, because if you mean “literally”…

Cameron: I don’t feel safe in my own home!

As the blog post by Robin Straaijer shows, Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory aren’t the only television shows that use literally in this sense and this begs the question: what exactly is the use of this display of literally on television?

To continue on Robin’s post, there usually seems to be one character – or group of characters – that uses literally wrongly. This creates an individual, or group of specific individuals, that the audience can either like or dislike. Often, someone else on the show then corrects these characters as the quotes above show. This dynamic creates a usage-debate on-screen about the correctness of literally and it seems as if the viewer is invited to take a side.

However, is literally in this non-literal way really wrong? Online guides, like, show how to use literally in a correct way and it isn’t hard to find blog posts commenting on literally used in a figurative way and that again underlines the fact that various people have problems with this non-literal use. The OED tells us the other side of the debate in its entry on literally when it gives the following definition under 1c:

Colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually as good as’ ; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’)

This entry tells us that this irregular use is now one of the most common uses, which confirms how topical  the debate is today. So where does this dislike of the wrong use of literally come from?

Liberman and Pullum comment on literally in their book Far From the Madding Gerund (2006) that many of the words on the list of “most irritating clichés in the English language” aren’t really clichés at all and that most of these words are just words that people have taken an irrational dislike to (p. 48). But, how do ‘normal’ words become words that people dislike in a specific usage?

This question seems to be very difficult to answer and even looking through piles of blogs to explain this, an answer seems hard to find. Most comments are posts of bewilderment wondering how anyone with a basic education can confuse literally for figuratively, but does that really constitute the same meaning in these sentences? To me personally, the use of figuratively instead of literally in any of the examples shown above would turn them into failed attempts at humour when the original intention of literally in these sentences is not at all meant to be funny. Zack, Cameron and Bethenny use literally as the strongest intensifier they can think of and any alternative just doesn’t hit the mark … So, in the end, is this use of literally really that abominable that it makes you cringe or should we be a little more lenient and accept it in this widely used way? I mean: do we really all want to be like Sheldon?

Source: Ragan’s PR Daily

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A parody within a parody?

The latest prescriptive lesson on correct grammar doesn’t come from a usage guide or a grammar blog. It comes from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s latest album called “Mandatory Fun” in the form of a parody of Robin Thicke’s popular song “Blurred Lines”. It’s certainly an unconventional format for prescriptive advice on language, but undoubtedly an entertaining one.

Appropriately dubbed “Word Crimes”, the parody contains quite an extensive account of the most common usage pet peeves covering all sorts of problems from spelling and punctuation to vocabulary and style. Despite the richness of material covered, the presentation is “literally” effortless. The inappropriate use of literally or using quotation marks for emphasis are just two in the whole array of word crimes featured in the song. Others include old chestnuts, such as the who and whom confusion, the improper use of apostrophes, or more recent usage problems, such as the Netspeak forms b for be, or u for you.

Just as I’m writing this post, the video seems to be causing quite a stir on the Internet. It has already been recommended as good language teaching material. This indeed makes a lot of sense as the presentation of rules in the video resembles the negative approach to grammar teaching, a didactic technique focusing on grammar mistakes that has been around since the rise of normative grammars in the 18th century. Slate’s Forrest Wickman already examined some of Yankovic’s rules of usage and how they compare to actual usage and showed that despite Yankovic’s proscriptions against such ‘mistakes’, some of these usages seem to be here to stay.

The parody also gives an inventory of the attitudes most commonly associated with such language mistakes. The link with education, or the lack thereof, is probably the strongest one: “I’ll try to educate you/ Gonna familiarize you/ With the nomenclature/ You’ll learn the definitions/ Of nouns and prepositions/ Literacy’s your mission”, and so on. Others include the common emotional reactions some people have to these mistakes as well as the personal qualities associated with them: “I hate these word crimes/ Like “I could care less”/ That means you do care/ At least a little/ Don’t be a moron”.

There are two things I find quite striking about the parody. One is the knack with which “Weird Al” Yankovich has managed to make a subject such as grammar rules incredibly effective parody material, especially in the context of the primary target of his parody, Thicke’s song. The other is that it is precisely this parody aspect that makes me wonder whether his parody stops there. To my mind, and in the context of  Yankovic’s work, this can just as well be seen as a parody of prescriptivism and grammar nitpicking that can trigger us to question the legitimacy of some of these grammar rules. Whatever the intention, this video can certainly be used not only to teach grammar rules in a fun and entertaining way, but also to inspire students to be critical about those rules and especially the attitudes associated with them.

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Want to write like a spy?

It appears that even the CIA has a style guide. A secret one no less, one that got leaked moreover, according to The Guardian Online yesterday. The Guardian article tells us that the style guide includes well-known “old chestnuts”  like uninterested/disinterested, the dangling participle, and hopefully. And look at the title of the accompanying picture: “whats-a-split-infinitive–009.jpg“! What’s new?

'What's a split infinitive?' Chris Pine as CIA agent Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

The document can be downloaded and printed: thanks, Tony, for telling us that it is back online again. And thanks to John for telling us about it!

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The Fourth of July and 500 Mistakes of Daily Occurrence

Since it is the fourth of July today, I might perhaps draw on the possibility that many people will be Googling for “Independence Day” or indeed “the fourth of July” to invoke their help in identifying a reference.

Lots more pictures where this one came from:

I’ve already referred on this blog to my research on one of the earliest (anonymous) American English usage guides called Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (1856). Having just heard that my paper has been accepted for publication (thank you, Marina!) I was reminded of one the entries in the book:

134. “The Americans said they had no right to pay taxes.” [From a Fourth of July Oration.] They certainly had a right to pay them, if they wished. What the speaker meant was, they were under no obligation to pay, or, they were not bound to pay.

Apart from the fact that I’m not sure if I understand the point made here, I was wondering if anyone can help me identify the source, which I haven’t been able to find. Then again, it may just have been a spoken source (“oration”). Where should I look?

But: even if you are unable to help, American readers of the blog,

Happy Independence Day!

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