More usage guides

If the coincidence Robin Straaijer experienced last week was finding a usage guide ten years after he had been working on it, mine was to find a copy of a German usage guide, the German usage I’ve been told, just five days before I’m giving a paper on the comparative English – Dutch – German complaint traditions.

It is a Duden volume, called Richtiges und gutes Deutsch: Wörterbuch der sprachlichen Zweifelsfälle (6th ed., 2007), with over a thousand pages of German usage problems. The book illustrates one major difference between all three traditions: the existence of set of publications that together make up the “Standardwerk zur Deutsche Sprache”. The English or Dutch traditions don’t have such standard publications. I had of course seen it before, but now I actually own a copy of the book, found in a second-hand bookshop in Leiden. Second-hand bookshops are great places for finding usage guides, as I wrote several times on this blog. I found quite a few copies when we were collecting material for the HUGE database, in the UK but also in The Netherlands. Like Robin though, I wasn’t looking for any more, let alone any German ones. It’s great to have it all the same.

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Usage guides and the complaint tradition

If you wish to attend this presentation, on Wednesday 27 April at 2 pm (CET), here is the zoomlink:

We hope to see many of you there. And if students need a certificate of attendance, the organisers will will be happy to let you have one.

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Usage guides… there’s no getting away from them!

Yesterday, I found this well-worn copy of Margaret Nicholson’s A Dictionary of American-English Usage (Signet 1958) in my local street library (see photo below) just around the corner of where I live.

I realised that it has been just about exactly 10 years after I put the original 1957 edition in the HUGE-database I created for the research project Bridging the Unbridgeable, which we started in 2011.

The book’s subtitle reads “Based on Fowler’s Modern English Usage”, and if memory serves, this was taken quite literally. Although I haven’t done a systematic comparison, the changes from Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press 1926) were – to my recollection – minimal.

However, a quick dip into the HUGE database does reveals an interesting change that was made by Nicholson.

In the entry on all right, Fowler starts out as follows:

“The words should always be written separate; there are no such forms as all-rightallright, or alright” (Fowler 1926, p.16)

Nicholson changed Fowler’s use of the flat adverb “separate” to a full adverbial form, changing the start of the entry to:

“The words should always be written separately; there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright” (Nicholson 1957, p.17, emphasis added)

Does this perhaps show a lower tolerance for the use of flat adverbs in American English?

Nicholson’s Dictionary of American-English Usage was possibly an attempt by Oxford University Press to replicate the commercial success of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in the US by appealing to the American market. Apparently the idea worked since this paperback was published just one year after the hardcover. As can be seen from the logo top left on the cover, it is part of a series of cheap paperbacks called “Signet 75c books” – this would put the book’s price at about $7 in today’s money.

small, single book case street library against a wall with yellow tiles
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Coming up soon

For those wishing to attend, here is the zoomlink:

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First usage guides

Within this project, we’ve focused on English, and started our research on the history of the tradition from the first usage guide believed to have been published, Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language, from 1770.

Inspired by this, I started looking for the first usage guide in Dutch, my native language, and found it, or at least, I think I did: I wrote a blog post about it as well as an article in the online journal Neerlandistiek.

My next step was to look for the first German usage guide, for a paper I was preparing last January, and will be giving again next month. I don’t think I found it, so the quest continues, and suggestions are very welcome.

But one thing leads to another, and Matjaž Zgonc from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia has let us know that he has been working on the first usage guide for Slovenian. It is much, much younger than Baker (1770), and if you want to read about it, read the piece he wrote about if for this blog.

If you wish to add to this growing and very interesting list, do get in touch!

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UniSIG: Copy-editorial decision-making strategies

Morana Lukaç and Adrian Stenton will be presenting a study of copy-editors they conducted in 2020 to members of SENSE, the society of English-language professionals in the Netherlands. They’re looking forward to to sharing insights of a study with the community that participated in it and possibly will benefit from it. Save the date, 18th of March 16:00–17:00 CEST, and don’t forget to register for the event!

Abstract: Their presentation is inspired by their online survey of 288 editors in 2020, in which respondents were given very short unedited texts and asked to focus on a single usage feature. Many respondents couldn’t resist editing the entire text, and Morana and Adrian found some interesting differences and similarities in their edits. During the meeting, we’ll find out more about the survey and whether we edit similarly to the respondents.

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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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