A new usage guide! Buy one, get one free

Harry Ritchie, the author of the amazing and important book English for the Natives (2013), has just published two new books, e-books this time. They’re called The Secret Passwords of Middle-Class Grammar and The Real Rules – A Quick Guide. You’ll find them announced on his lovely new website TheRulesofEnglish.

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A very timely piece on Dutch “literally”

Thank you, Ewoud Sanders, for choosing to write on Dutch literally just this weekend. A very welcome piece for my comparative paper on the English, Dutch and German usage guide traditions later this week. We’ve written on this topic (from an English perspective) several times in this blog, and in my Augsburg paper (spoiler alert!) I argue that it is time for us to take up Robert Ilson’s suggestion for a project on cross-cultural prescriptivism. It’s definitely time for it!

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The first Dutch usage guide?!

For a paper I’m giving later this month, I was looking for the beginning of the Dutch usage guide tradition, and in particular for the first usage guide to have been published. Not every book on language qualifies as a usage guide according to the definition of the genre in Weiner (1988): such publications should deal with all aspects of language, i.e. “spelling, punctuation, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexis, and involving sociolinguistic considerations” (1988: 173). Busse and Schröder (2009) describe usage guides as “all-in-one reference works”. This definition was the basis of my analysis of usage guides and usage problems in my book Describing Prescriptivism (Routledge, 2020).

For an earlier paper on the Dutch usage guide tradition, I focused on a work called Is dat goed Nederlands? by Charivarius (1940), which has been highlighted by Wim Daniëls in his introduction to the book’s reprint in 1998 as a precursor of the many language advice manuals that were published subsequently. A precursor, but was it the first?

To find out I checked the list of titles in an article by Marten van der Meulen in the book Language Prescription: Values, Ideologies and Identity, edited by Don Chapman and Jacob D. Rawlins (Multilingual Matters, 2020). The list does not merely comprise usage guides, but it is helpful in that it provides a variety of titles dealing with language advice – including one that may well have been the very first Dutch usage guide!

Ch.F. Haje’s book came out in 1932, and it was dedicated to … Charivarius, who was, like him, writing about language problems in the newspaper De Groene Amsterdammer. The book (like Charivarius’s later publication) was based on these pieces.

Information on Haje may be found on DBNL (though the book itself is not mentioned), such as his life dates (1873–1938), a raving review of his book in (of all places) a Dutch medical journal, and an obituary in the popular language magazine Onze Taal (1938). Some of Haje s views about linguistic correctness, the obituary reads, may have been not uncontroversial, but his commendable efforts to preserve linguistic purity are acknowledged. WorldCat only mentions a posthumous 2nd edition, published in 1945.

So – with the first English usage guide dating from 1770 and the first Dutch one, it seems, from 1932, it remains for me to find the first German publication in the field. Suggestions will be greatly appreciated!


Busse, Ulrich and Anne Schröder. 2009. Fowler’s Modern English Usage at the interface of lexis and grammar. In U. Römer and R. Schulze (eds.), Exploring the Lexis-Grammar Interface. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 69–87.

Weiner, Edmund. 1988. On editing a usage guide. In E.G. Stanley and T.F. Hoad (eds.), Words for Robert Burchfield’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. 171–183.

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Is different from really correct?

The reference is to the title of an article from 1 January 2022 on the Guardian online, by subeditor Susan McDonald. With an amazing 4194 comments in three days, the opportunity to add another one is now unfortunately closed. I would have liked to suggest to Susan MacDonald that she might want to read our blog, or my book Describing Prescriptivism about the topic. She would have learnt something really useful.

Of course she mentions the who/whom issue as an example of one of her “personal bugbears”, and one commenter picks up the gauntlet:

‘Whom’ can die a death, and I’m sure it’s used more often to correct people than it is used correctly in the first place. It’s dead, guys. Let it rest in peace.

Interesting point of view, and probably quite right. I’m working on the subject for a paper, so thanks, Susan!

(Thanks to Joan Beal and Adrian Stenton for calling my attention to the article.)

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A very unlikely British phrase

Watching the final episode of the BBC mini-series A Very British Scandal last night I was struck by the Duke of Argyll saying “This battle between you and I …”. It would have been highly unlikely for a man of his upbringing and social class to have produced this linguistic shibboleth, particularly at this time in the history of English. So why would the script writers have put it in, I wonder?

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Is there a German complaint tradition?

Milroy and Milroy, in Authority in Language (first published in 1985, but with a fourth edition in 2012), argue that English has a complaint tradition, with people writing Letters to the Editor about linguistic problems they encounter and usage guides dealing with the same issues seeing the light of day year after year, from 1770 onwards. See my recent book Describing Prescriptivism (2020).

By English, Milroy and Milroy probably mean the variety of the language as spoken in England (perhaps even Britain as a whole), because Morana Lukač found that writing such letters to the editor seems rather more a British than an American phenomenon (see her book Grassroots Prescriptivism, 2018).

About six months before the COVID pandemic severely restricted travelling abroad, I presented a paper at the British Library on the question of whether The Netherlands has a similar complaint tradition, which in my view we don’t. We do have a usage guide tradition, and people do write Letters to the Editor of NRC Handelsblad, but they rarely get published. We have the Taaladviesdienst, I was told when I inquired, where language advice is provided online. But what about Germany?

For a paper I’m preparing for a talk in Augsburg in January, I’m interested in the question whether German has a similar complaint tradition to the UK, whether people write and complain to newspapers about usage probales and if they are able to mention off-hand the title of usage guides like Fowler’s iconic Modern English Usage. I don’t mean Bastian Sick’s Der Dativ ist Dem Genitiv sein Tod, which is not a usage guide but a collection of newspaper columns on subjects like those in the title, called Zwiebelfisch.

If there are any German readers of this blog, or if you are familiar with the German language situation in this respect: I’d welcome your thoughts and comments!

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The work of copy-editors

Today, 10 December 2021, Morana Lukač and Adrian Stenton, both of them working within the context of the (former) Bridging the Unbridgeable project, will be giving the final talk this calendar year of the LUCL Sociolinguistics Series, from 4 pm to 5 pm (CET).

The talk is called “Why we need to investigate the work of copy editors”, and will be presented online.

Further information from the organisers:

“You can check the abstract on our website (https://leidensociolinguistics.wordpress.com/abstracts-fall-2021/#lukacstenton) and use the following link to connect to our education platform (Kaltura Live Room) where we will host the event: https://smart.newrow.com/#/room/wkg-309?_k=ce0u38 – you do not need to install anything to access the room, just click on the link and watch it from your browser.”

Hope to see you all this afternoon!

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Geoffrey Nunberg, Robert Lowth and punctuation theory

Working on the punctuation practice of 18th-century letter writers, I was intrigued by the title of Geoffrey Nunberg‘s book, The Linguistics of Punctuation (1990). The book didn’t have what I was looking for, was in fact more about developing a theory of text-grammar in which punctuation plays a major role than about punctuation as a linguistic topic in its own right. Reading the book did produce some unexpected things for me though.

There are many references – in footnotes only to be sure – to usage guides, particularly Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926 edition!), the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English (the 1931 edition) and Partridge’s You Have a Point There (1953). This puts Nunberg into the category of linguists who, as I found out in a survey held in December 2007 among the members of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas, do not consult usage guides but only use them for research (see my book Describing Prescriptivism, 2020, p. 3). It also puts Nunberg into the category of people who as I learnt still rely on Fowler’s 1926 edition even though more recent editions are available. Perhaps it is just that, like so many people, he happened to own a copy of this version of the book.

But what caught my attention most was his reference to “Bishop [sic] Lowth’s influential grammar of 1762” (p. 86), which includes a lengthy quotation from Lowth’s discussion of punctuation. No page numbers are given (1762, pp. 156-158), and original paragraphing is not maintained, but the main interest of Lowth’s discussion is adequately represented, i.e. what the marks of punctuation are, but also the way in which punctuation marks correspond in proportional duration with musical notation: the semibrief with the period, the minim with the colon, the crotchet with the semicolon and the quaver with the comma.

Nunberg does not quite agree with Lowth’s account, but he was clearly struck by it to the extent that he included a large section from the grammar in his book. I do wonder though what made Nunberg consult Lowth on the subject. That Lowth’s grammar contains a section on punctuation was not unusual at the time: according to Ian Michael in his book English Grammatical Categories (1970), “[p]unctuation is included in about sixty per cent of the grammars, taken over the whole period”, that is, 1586-1800 (p. 195). But what caused Lowth to make the link with musical notation? Searching ECCO with the help of the keywords “music” and “punctuation” did not produce any relevant hits. Lowth was interested in music, since he is the author of the text which was later turned into the libretto for Handel’s Choice of Hercules, and had consulted the grammarian and patron of music (ODNB) James Harris about his own grammar. So did Lowth think of the correlation between punctuation marks and musical notation himself?

The Linguistics of Punctuation, Nunberg
Source: University of Chicago Press

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Language columns in major newspapers

It’s great to come across language columns in newspapers like The Economist and, more recently, the New York Times. It is even greater if they deal with aspects of prescriptivism, and linguists’ as well as the general public’s reactions to them. Last week, John McWhorter wrote about pronoun usage in a piece called You and Me Need to Talk, citing the first (British) English usage guide that deals with the issue, The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected (1826). (The first American usage guide to treat this usage item would be Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, published thirty years later.)

As a linguist, McWhorter argues, he has no problems with sentences like the one in the title of his piece. What do you think? I’d be interested to know.

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Roadkill’s scriptwriters

For a paper I’m writing on the use of who/whom I’m trying to get in touch with the scriptwriters of Roadkill, a British political thriller series that was broadcast in the UK and the US towards the end of 2020 and in The Netherlands in January – February of this year.

My question is whether in condemning the inappropriate use of who in the context in question the choice of phrase (is not English rather than is not good English) was made deliberately and why. I tried to find out by writing to the director, David Hare, but got no response. Perhaps not surprisingly, since he must get a lot of email from fans and others interested in the series.

But I was wondering if there is a different, and better, way of getting in touch with the scriptwriters of the series? Can anyone help please?

Cast of Roadkill: Who is in the drama with Hugh Laurie and where have you  seen them... - Heart

Source: https://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/cast-roadkill-drama-hugh-laurie/
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