A lost cause?

Alex Salmond at polling station

Yesterday Scotland has voted and decided to stay within the United Kingdom. Today newspapers are filled with punchy and informative headlines analysing the outcome of the Scottish referendum. When I was reading an article in The Independent, my eyes fell immediately on two little words: concede defeat.
You may ask yourself now what’s the big deal or what’s wrong with this expression. And you are rightly doing so. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with concede defeat. But a related expression, concede victory, is found troublesome by a few. In my research on the BBC I have come across the ‘usage problem’ of using concede victory instead of concede defeat. The BBC style guide declares the use of “concede defeat” as “wrong” and favours the use of concede victory. Intrigued by this issue, I have decided to see how concede is actually used in the reporting on the referendum vote in the online media.

Doing a simple google search for “Salmond concedes defeat” and “Salmond has conceded defeat” results in 4,030 and 412 hits respectively*, while the same search with “Salmond concedes victory”  and “Salmond has conceded victory” show a completely different picture. The search including the present tense of concede remained fruitless, while the later search resulted in a meagre 8 hits.  What was striking from these results is not only the low numbers for concede victory, but also the fact that concede victory does not seem to be a British problem. It was found only on the Irish RTE.com and wn.com homepages**. This is surprising as I was expecting to find some results from the BBC News homepage. What does the BBC use then? Have they changed their mind about the use of concede victory?

The OED states in his entry on concede that concede means to admit defeat, to acknowledge that an election is lost. If you take the search further and investigate the BNC, you will see the same pattern as in the online media search. Concede defeat occurs more frequently than concede victory.


click to enlarge

A simple glance at the BBC homepage instantly answers the question concerning the BBC’s stance on concede. Instead of using concede altogether, the journalist smartly used accept defeat. The BBC style guide also advises on this usage in order to avoid “the problem”. It seems that the BBC is aware of the controversy about the use of concede victory, which still raises the follwowing questions. Why does the BBC advises its journalists to use concede victory if concede defeat is more frequently used? Is the BBC fighting a long lost cause?

* Google searches were conducted in the morning of the 19/9/2014, so the numbers of hits are subject to change.

** wn.com: Shows results in google search, but cannot be retrieved from the news provider itself.

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The language of The Catcher in the Rye

We are moving house this summer, and while packing up the books in my study I came across an article I wrote nearly thirty years ago but that I had completely forgotten about. It is about usage problems and their function in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). (Prescriptivism has clearly been one of my lifelong academic interests!)

I had written it as part of a Festschrift for Sarah Betsky-Zweig (1923-1999) when she retired from the chair of American literature at the Leiden English Department in 1986. The article deals with double negation, subject pronouns in object position, between you and I, and he/she/it don’t, and it argues that Salinger used features like these (there are many more in Holden’s language) to depict different types of speakers in a sociolinguistically highly convincing way. All these features, with the exception of he/she/it don’t, are dealt with in English usage guides, as anyone consulting our HUGE database will be able to see for themselves.

With Salinger (1919-2010) having been so much in the news recently (a biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno came out a year ago and five new novels are expected to be published posthumously) I thought I’d revive the article, to confirm Salinger’s brilliance as a writer, and I slightly updated it in the process. So here it is: “Between you and I: Non-standard grammar and The Catcher in the Rye“.

Plain Sense of Things

Salinger is no longer alive, nor is Sarah Betsky. But my copy of the book also contained her thank-you note, in which she made an interesting comment:

You made me remember the strange censorship of Catcher. In the 1950s we were forbidden (upon pain of being fired) to teach Catcher at the university in the U.S.A. Imagine! It would corrupt student language!

Hard to imagine these days that books would be forbidden just because they make a character confuse lie and lay, use like as if, singular they and that’s for whose!

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Farewell to Geoffrey Leech

This month, Geoffrey Leech, the eminent Professor and the founder of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University, passed away. Due to his major contributions to the fields of corpus linguistics, stylistics, pragmatics and semantics, as well as his work on several renowned descriptive grammars of the English language, the phrase “Old professor never die, they simply fade away” is more than suitable in this particular case. Several years ago Geoffrey wrote an academic autobiography where you can read about his academic journey, interests, experiences, colleagues and the numerous projects he was involved in the course of his career.


Since Geoffrey’s interests have several overlaps with our ongoing project, I would here like to mention just a few of his many contributions to the investigations of English grammar and language change. Geoffrey was one of the first scholars to recognize the potential of studying naturally occurring language and one of the pioneers in corpus linguistics. His work on the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus (LOB Corpus), the British English equivalent of the American Brown Corpus (later also including the Brown family corpora) led to many relevant discoveries in corpus tagging methods, and also to many studies dealing with diachronic grammatical changes in English and with differences between British and American English.

Geoffrey contributed to three highly influential descriptive English grammars, A Grammar of Contemporary English (1972), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) and the Longman Grammar or Spoken and Written English (1999). They all used innovative approaches based on describing language use and were seen as the main authorities on English grammar.

grammarsSome of the changes in English language Geoffrey was dealing with included concepts such as colloquialization, the adaptation of written towards spoken norms, an example of which is the increased use of contractions in writing (can’t, won’t, it’s, we’re). He also did work on  grammaticalization, the process of turning lexical material into grammatical, and he described the increase in the use of semi-modals (such as gonna, gotta and wanna) in English which are slowly assuming the role of the modal verbs.  Geoffrey also described the process of Americanization, or adopting American linguistic habits and conventions to the British context (another one of the recurring topics on our blog). In one of our older posts, we also wrote about Geoffrey’s plenary lecture at the Helsinki Corpus Festival where he described the decline in the usage of the passive construction in English, which is partly influenced by the prescriptivist tradition.

And the list goes on, we could hardly fit all of Geoffrey’s valuable contributions in this post. To find out a bit more about his legacy from the man himself, you can here see Geoffrey in conversation with Tony McEnery in 2013 at Lancaster University.

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Help us out: journal suggestions?

helpWe are looking for scholarly secondary works dealing with prescriptivism/descriptivism with an emphasis on usage guides and usage problems for the HUGE-database. So far, we have looked at journals such as American Speech, English Studies, English Today, The English Journal and Language in Society.

Do you have any suggestions for journals that regularly publish articles on one (or all) of these topics? Please help us out. Thanks!

Robin & Emily 

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You Guys or Y’all?

Okay, you guys, I’ve got a little more written… are you ready? —Joey Tribbiani (Friends)

To me it seems as if plural you is a little bit lost these days. Sitcoms and television series such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory, South Park and True Blood address multiple persons with plural second-person pronoun forms such as you guys or yall. On social media I more than often come across sentences such as “how are you guys doing?”. Although as a linguist I know why these forms exist, I must admit that these new plurals forms are one of my pet peeves. This pet peeve inspired my study to what extent regional plural forms have taken over the place of plural you in daily speech and which regional plural is the favourite among its users. Although I just mentioned television series as examples where these forms often occur, for my study I used Twitter because often we tweet the way we talk (Zayner 2014).

grammar correction guyIn the course of the history of the English language you, which originated as a plural pronoun, came to be used as a singular form as well as a plural form. With the rise of this all-purpose you, the number contrast in the second-person pronoun system was lost, making the pronoun you sometimes quite ambiguous. Different varieties of English tried to remedy the perceived gap in the pronoun system by introducing new plural forms, such as you all and yall (Americanisms), yous(e), you-uns, you lot and many other forms (my favourite among these is alls yalls as it is over the top pluralised).

Twitter y'allThe results of my study showed that these regional plural forms occurred almost as often as plural you. Often you was ambiguous in the results, i.e. it was not clear from the context whether the Tweets were addressed to one or multiple persons. Especially on Twitter where there is a lack of face-to-face communication people might feel the need to specify the number of persons they are addressing and therefore use regional plurals more often. From the regional forms, you guys and yall were the most popular. Not necessarily surprising as we are quite often exposed to these forms through television. It is also a feature that is often in used in colloquial speech, for example ten years ago you all or yall occurred “around 50 times per million words in British conversation, and 150 times per million words in American conversation” (Biber et al 2004:330). What was surprising was that the results showed a preference towards the use of you all/yall. I expected the preferred regional plural to be you guys instead of you all.

These regional pronouns are on the rise and seem to be contenders for a new plural-singular distinction. But which form will win? There are downsides to both forms. You guys, as Cristina Cumpanasoiu mentioned in her blog post on the pronoun, has the obvious disadvantage that it could be perceived as referring to males exclusively, even though you guys seems to be semantically bleached in the eyes of its users as it is often used to address an audience that largely exists of women as well.

FriendsThe pronoun you all (yall) is frequently associated with Southern American speech. This form as it is regionally marked can be felt to be socially stigmatised, associated with Texas or with ignorant, simple people. It is nowadays often used outside Southern American regions.

Both forms seem to be gaining momentum. I think that yall is neat and short without implications to gender, so it would potentially be a useful new feature to make the singular-plural distinction. Only time will tell if these new, alternative plural forms of the second-person pronoun will have the sanction of dictionaries, grammars and usage guides and will be credited as actual pronouns.

So, what do all y’all use in your daily routine? Do you prefer to be addressed as part of an audience with either yall or you guys or just with you? And will these forms eventually be adopted in the Standard English pronoun paradigm?

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and Edward Finegan (2004). Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Zayner, Josiah Paul (2014). “We Tweet Like We Talk and Other Interesting Observations: An Analysis of English Communication Modalities.” Retrieved May 12, 2014. (Cornell University).
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Read all about it! Our third feature in English Today

In the latest issue of English Today I briefly address the history of the possessive apostrophe, the most notorious punctuation mark in the English language.

Here are some interesting facts from the article:

Did you know

  • that the apostrophe was first introduced to the English language in the sixteenth century
  • that misused apostrophes were mentioned in a usage guide dating back to 1770
  • that the five most frequent grammatical mistakes on Twitter are attributed to apostrophe omission?

Read all about it and more. Tell us what your thoughts are on the potential death of the apostrophe.

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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No hard language feelings?

The use of English, or rather its misuse, has often caused the one or the other to throw up his or her (or their?) hands in horror. Last month I attended the English Grammar Day at the British Library in London and to my surprise even linguistics seem to have harboured strong feelings towards English usage. One question from the audience aimed at identifying the panel’s ‘most hated’ neologisms. Learnings, to uplevel and to gallery one’s ideas were mentioned.

panel english grammar day

The English Grammar Day panel

As part of my survey, I have also been interviewing people, as I am currently doing in Cambridge. One of my questions deals with pet hates. It was no surprise for me to see that everyone had at least one word, usage or phrase they could not stand. The historic present, confusing I and me, like, literally are just a few to mention here. What was surprising though, was that even those who stated to be fine with the way English has been changing did not have to think hard about what they personally did not like in English usage today.

The BBC today reports on the inclusion of new words into the Oxford Online Dictionary. YOLO, an acronym for You only live once, adorbs, a shortening of adorable (read my blog post on similar shortenings), and amazeballs, a modern alteration of amazing, can be found among those. Before you lose your head, these words are only included in the online dictionary, not the paper version.


As a sociolinguist, I am interested in seeing how English is being used and how it is evolving in different parts of the world. Oxford Dictionaries editor Katherine Connor Martin mentions in a blog post the use of a language monitoring programme, which allows them to identify trends in usage. That is how they have been able to identify that adorbs is used four times more frequently in the US than in the UK. Details about their “unique” tool are, however, not mentioned. So what is their secret weapon? Is it merely a corpus?

I am still puzzled, but also amused, to see how people, no matter how descriptive they might be, tend their pet hates. What about yours?

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