Great to have a copy!

The HUGE database contains only a selection of usage guides. On the one hand, because there are so many of them, but on the other because it wasn’t always possible to lay our hands on a copy that could be scanned and included. So imagine my immense pleasure when Maaike, one of my students in the course Early Modern Everyday English, came up to me earlier this week and showed me  a copy of a usage guide called Deskbook of Correct English: A Dictionary of Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar and Usage.  And, as she said, it was mine to keep! She knew about our project from the History of the Language course I taught last semester, and has now made her own singular contribution to it.

The book was published in 1957, and Maaike had come across it in her grandma’s book case. The authors are Michael West and P.F. Kimber. Thanks to the information on the back of the title-page we now know that West held an MA as well as a PhD degree from Oxford and that he had previously published two dictionaries as well as “numerous textbooks for the teaching of English abroad and at home”. A linguist, in other words. And Kimber is described as a long-standing “press-corrector on the staff of The Times“. Both are therefore language professionals, and they would have scored high on the scale of usage guide writers’ authority which I developed for my book on the genre. (Nearly finished now.)

Another interesting feature about the book is the foreword by C.L. Wrenn (1895-1969) who I remember from my early days in the history of English as an Anglo-Saxonist. Wrenn admits to having had doubts about the book (something we frequently encounter among linguists), but adding that he “quickly came to the conclusion that – whether we like it or not – we all do in fact understand very well the meaning and purpose of a ‘Deskbook of Correct English'”. But he had another reason for complying with what appears to have been West’s request for a preface: “We have worked together in places as distant as Oxford and India; and never have I seen in one man so effective a combination of a quick mind and what my grandmother used to call a ‘practical headpiece'”. That, then, makes two grandmothers in this story. Thank you, Maaike, what a wonderful addition to our project’s collection!

Posted in news | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Well I never! My … was …

I was reading the UK Autocar this week-end, and came across this:

“My ghast is well and truly flabbered.”

This stopped me in my tracks on two counts: (i) I could never say it, let alone write it; and (ii) where did that h in ghast come from? I couldn’t say it because what I would say is My flabber is/was well and truly gasted. Obviously. But what if my native-speaker intuition was at odds with actual usage?

A search for flabbergasted in the OED Online takes me to flabbergast, as verb and noun, with the only spelling options being flaba- and flaber-, along with the derivative flabbergastation. There is no separate entry for flabber, but there are noun, verb and adjective entries for gast, largely with the meaning of “fright” or “fear”. The only entry for ghast was as an archaic or poetic form of ghastly.

A search at on its GloWbE (Global Web-Based English) corpus of 1.9 billion words (from 2012–2013) yields my, ghasted and gasted, as the top three collocates of flabber, and flabber, my and was as the top three collocates of gasted; flabber and my (and the exclamation mark) were the top three collocates for ghasted. However, even the most frequent collocate occurred only three times in this huge corpus.

So, I thought I would do a Google search on the four possible strings based on my flabber was gasted, which yielded the following:

my flabber was gasted       =  325

my flabber was ghasted     =  109

                                    T          =  434

my gast was flabbered       =  184

my ghast was flabbered     =  850

                                    T          = 1034

(I’m assuming that the duplication of results that you get in a Google search would apply to all four listings.)

So we have a 2.4:1 ratio in favour of the nominal being gast/ghast, and a 1.9:1 ratio in favour of the spelling ghast.

So, do we simply have here more variants than I am familiar with, or are they, all, simply, errors? And where does this leave the standing of my native-speaker intuitions?

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

There/their/they’re confusion: something of all times

In discussing new usage problems discussed on the internet, Hylke Vriesendorp recently noted that there/their/they’re spellings were among the five most commented upon features listed in a Facebook group survey he carried out. Reading an early 17th-century text for the course Early Modern Everyday English which I’m teaching, one of my students spotted a similar error in a tailor’s account for three dresses he made for Sir Robert Spencer’s daughters:

iiij s for lace to binde all there bodies [bodices] and for sowinge silcke

The writer, a tailor called Richard Warwick, is literate enough (as well as numerate, an important requirement to be able to make up accounts like this), so it may have been a simple oversight. It happens to us all any time as well. Very well spotted, Joyce!

Posted in news | Tagged | 1 Comment

Dialects vs. Standard English

And here is Emmy Stevens’s second blog post already! She also invites you to participate in her survey. Please do so: your input will be very useful for the paper she is writing for the course.

When Huckleberry Finn “snuck” out of a house, he was acting according to his character—and dialect. This is one of many cases in which people’s humorously self-conscious use of dialect has influenced others to adopt it as standard and it is now often seen even in sophisticated writing in the U.S. But it is safer to use the traditional form: “sneaked.” (Brians 2003: 192)

Several usage guides  in the HUGE-database (Hyper Usage Guide of English) discuss dialectal and non-standard language features. An example of such a feature is ain’t, on which Practical English Usage states the following: ‘[a]in’t is not used in standard (“correct”) English, but it is a very common word in dialects and “uneducated” forms of British and American English’ (Swan 1980: 34). This discussion is rather descriptive, but there are other usage guides in which negative evaluations of dialectal and non-standard usage are very explicit. The following example on the distinction between may  and might is taken from Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English (2001):

A past-tense verb-form can normally only be followed by might, and not by may. So, the required form is Susie said that she might be here, and not *Susie said that she may be here. (…) The use of may in such sentences is decidedly non-standard, and it will cause many readers to grind their teeth. (Trask 2001: 183; emphasis mine)

The example shows that some usage guide authors do not adopt a descriptive perspective, but are more likely to condemn the language they find non-standard, and thus unacceptable.

The examples illustrate that quite a few usage guides discuss dialectal and non-standard language use. It is interesting to investigate which dialectal and non-standard language features are pinpointed as such, since such an investigation gives insights into which usage problems arise from contact between dialects and other non-standard varieties with Standard English. To this end, I searched in HUGE for all language features that are described as either dialectal or non-standard. These searches yielded some interesting results. HUGE includes 123 usage problems, and for 21 of these, dialectal forms were given (such as snuck and ain’t). Non-standard language features are discussed even more frequently: this was the case for 29 usage problems. Besides these usage problems, there are several other instances that are described in terms of dialectal or non-standard usage. Examples are my for me, quotative like, and the confusion between lend and borrow.

Several usage guide authors discuss usage problems that are related to dialectal or non-standard usage. HUGE contains 77 different usage guides, and dialectal usage features appear in 28 and non-standard features in 20 of them. Some of the dialectal and non-standard language features are more prominent in the usage guides than others. Which usage problems are then most often related to dialectal and non-standard usage? The following table shows a top five for both of them.

snuck and dove (especially snuck)
*irregular verb forms (such as friz for froze and swoll for swelled)
double negatives
double negatives
snuck and dove (especially snuck)
*zero adverbs

*These usage problems were identified by me, as they were not listed as such in HUGE.

The table above shows how usage guide authors classify features into dialectal non-standard usage. For my course paper, I would like to know how other people think about them, and I am especially curious to know how you evaluate such dialectal or non-standard language use. If you’d like to contribute to my research, please fill in my survey here. Your help would be greatly appreciated!

Source: Grammarly


  • Brians, P., 2003. Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville (Oregon): William, James & Co.
  • Swan, M., 1980. Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Trask, R.L., 2001. Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English. London: Penguin Books.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Singular they and women

Back and forth to Berlin last week, for the Wild Publics conference organised by Theresa Heyd and Britta Schneider. There were two papers on prescriptivism, my own (Codification – prescription – prescriptivism: The authority of the lay-person) and one by Anne Curzan, called How linguistics gets lost in public debates about language, as well as a host of other very interesting papers and presentations. Well done, Theresa and Britta!

Taking the train seemed more ecologically sound, so there was plenty of time to read Masami Nakayama’s new book, Grammatical Variation of Pronouns in Nineteenth-Century English Novels, just out and a gift from the author. Pronouns, it seems, make up quite a few usage problems: It is I/me, than I/me, as tall as I/me, me/myself, between you and I, who/whom, whose/of which, and … singular they, chosen as word of the year 2015 by the American Dialect Society. All these can be found in the HUGE database, and all were meticulously analysed by Masami Nakayama for their occurrence in twenty 19th-century novels, ranging in time from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) to H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897).

My most interesting finding? That singular they was used more frequently by female than male characters in the novels but also that the pronoun was found more frequently in the novels of female than male authors, at an overwhelming ratio of  9 instances to 1. So, Masami argues, it is thanks to women that singular they survived during the 19th century, despite heavy proscription from grammarians as well as an Act of Parliament imposing sex-indefinite he in 1850. And just as well, since it now comes in very handy as a gender neutral pronoun. So thanks to you too, Masami, for providing us with these fascinating data!

Posted in news, usage features | Tagged | 1 Comment

You say Ke-no-ah and I say Keen-wah

And here is Lizi Richards’s first blogpost (again, it isn’t as far as I know an issue in The Netherlands!): 

Even in 2018, a strong argument can be made that the British general public are obsessed with accents. Lesley Milroy, in an article called “Britain and the United States: Two nations divided by the same language (and different language ideologies)” (Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2001), stated that in Britain it is accent that is used as a measure to decide on whether something is standard or non-standard. For example, last year, BBC programme announcer Russell Evans was criticised for pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘f’, a common pronunciation feature in London and the South East today. In response, Evans said: “The reactions are merely an illustration of some of the limited viewpoints which continue to compound separatism and prevent inclusion in the workforce from becoming a reality.” A few years ago, in 2013, another BBC employee, journalist Steph McGovern, was offered £20 by a viewer “to correct” her Teeside accent. As these cases highlight, despite a concerted effort by organisations such as the BBC to “democratise” attitudes towards accent, a certain section of the British public only wants to listen to Received Pronunciation (RP), particularly on the BBC.

So, what do these two cases have to do with quinoa, popularly perceived as a food of the British middle-classes?  Well, it appears that there is a right and a wrong way to pronounce it. Googling “how to pronounce quinoa” will turn up around 985,000 hits. Videos such as this or this one are clear. It’s “keen-wah”. Mispronouncing it will earn you disappointed shakes of the head and barely hidden tuts from surrounding shoppers in Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, the supermarkets of the middle class. While out shopping one day, my mother was approached by a stranger who felt it was her duty to correct my mother for saying “ke-no-ah”. I should add that my mother has a very RP accent, so it appears that even when your accent is good enough to be a BBC presenter, some Brits like to judge you even further. The pronunciation of quinoa helps classify you as U or non-U. “Ke-no-ah” is perceived as decidedly non-U.

However, there has been a fight back to this prescriptive attitude. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word quinoa  originally derives from Quechua, a pre-Conquest Latin American language. The word travelled to Europe via Spanish, where is it pronounced as “kee-NO-wah”. Therefore, maybe the “keen-wah” prescriptivists need to relax their standards and accept both pronunciations. Language Log (started by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum at the University of Pennsylvania), contains a blog post on this subject, written by Victor Mair. Mair very sensibly concludes: “The ‘correct’ pronunciation of the word is so hotly contested that I have decided not to be vexed about trying to get it ‘right’.” This laissez-fair attitude to quinoa’s pronunciation is also found on the website for the largest importer of quinoa into the UK.

It is fascinating that the group who are already held up as the “ideal” type of speaker in the UK – those having an RP accent – are still looking for ways with which to impose further rules of acceptability.  The swiftness with which an innocuous food, quinoa, has been used to gauge and reinforce class differences (particularly in the UK) shows that nearly 20 years later Milroy is correct, and that accent prescriptivism is still alive and kicking within a certain section of the British public.


Posted in usage features | Tagged , | 4 Comments

On the front page no less

Most of the usage problems studied by Mittins et al. in the late 1960s (Attitudes to English Usage, 1970) have since increased in acceptability. This is what we tested by repeating their survey in the form of usage polls on this blog, and it is what Carmen Ebner and I, for some features at least, reported on in our article ‘Prescriptive attitudes to English usage‘, published last year. To our surprise, though, we found that dangling adjuncts (as in Pulling the trigger, the gun went off) had increased least of all. Why hadn’t it? Good question, but today I want to raise a different question.

My question today has to do with the announcement of an interview with the Dutch writer Esther Gerritsen on the front page of  yesterday’s NRC Weekend, a quality Dutch newspaper. “Als kind was Jezus mijn grote voorbeeld,” it reads. In English: “As a child Jesus was my great example.” Surely this was not right? But the interview actually did cite Esther Gerritsen’s words like this. It must be professional deformation that made me trip over this even in Dutch, but more interestingly, why is there such a difference in attitude to the dangling adjunct between the Dutch and the English? Finding out that he had used a dangling participle in a letter to the editor made Ian McEwan cringe with embarrassment (Mother Tongue), but clearly not Esther Gerritsen or the NRC editors. How come there are such different attitudes to the dangling adjunct between these two languages?

Posted in Uncategorized, usage features | Tagged , , | 4 Comments