Another book on how American English is taking over …

This is what Profile Books have to say about Matthew Engel’s new book

That’s The Way It Crumbles

The American Conquest of the English Language

Are we tired of hearing that fall is a season, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? You betcha. And are we outraged? Hell, yes. But do we do anything? Too much hassle. Until now.In That’s The Way It Crumbles Matthew Engel presents a call to arms against the linguistic impoverishment that happens when one language dominates another. With dismay and wry amusement, he traces the American invasion of our language from the early days of the New World, via the influence of Edison, the dance hall and the talkies, right up to the Apple and Microsoft-dominated present day, and explores the fate of other languages trying to fend off linguistic takeover bids. It is not the Americans’ fault, more the result of their talent for innovation and our own indifference.He explains how America’s cultural supremacy affects British gestures, celebrations and way of life, and how every paragraph and conversation includes words the British no longer even think of as Americanisms. Part battle cry, part love song, part elegy, this book celebrates the strange, the banal, the precious and the endangered parts of our uncommon common language.

 Details can be found here.
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Dutch letters to the editor

In my experience, letters to the editor are not a frequent phenomenon in Dutch newspapers, at least not when they deal with language, and in any case not in the daily newspaper I read, NRC Handelsblad.  A while ago I wrote a blogpost here when one such letter did appear – it seemed like a remarkable exception.

Interestingly, this month’s issue of Onze Taal (a Dutch magazine that deals with all kinds of language issues, prescriptive or otherwise) included an article by Jacco Snoeijer, on letters to the editor. The article deals with the text type in general, and even offers advice on how to write a letter that has the best chance of getting published (it doesn’t, however, discuss editorial policy on which letters on what topics get selected for publication, something I’d really like more information on, in general that is!). The article is in Dutch of course, but the guidelines might well be applicable for English too (be brief, clear and to the point, and avoid letting emotions get the better of you).

The article also claims that usage problems are a regular topic of letters to the editor, and that there is a host of letter writers that regularly comments on language errors. But I rarely see them, or at any rate, not in the paper I read. Perhaps NRC has a different policy in deciding what goes in and what doesn’t than other quality or other newspapers. Or perhaps the author is referring to letters addressed to Onze Taal itself: I’d really like to know, Jacco Snoeijer!

The article also mentions professional complainers, by which the author means spokesmen of companies or ceo’s who write to correct mistakes they encountered in the press. But in my own research I’ve come across letter writers who are professional in a different sense, in that they turn writing letters to the editor into a proper profession. I’ve also come across a case in which the reception of a controversial publication about language was turned in a battle of letters to the editor, in different newspapers no less. Do such arguments – about language, I mean – occur in The Netherlands too, I wonder? I really feel there is a different culture between the UK and The Netherlands in this respect. The Netherlands of course has Onze Taal as a proper outlet for these kind of things. I’m not sure if there is such a journal for English, but if there is, please let me know.

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Another Americanism?

In her book Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English (2016), Rebecca Gowers uses the word gripers in preference to sticklers (a word I myself always associate with Lynne Truss’s  famous Eats Shoots and Leaves), and in her paper at our Life after HUGE? symposium in December last year, she explained why.

Force of habit made me check the word in the OED just now, where I found only two quotations for griper, n., sense 7, both from the 1930s and both from an American source (the same one). The entry has not been updated yet (and it will be interesting to see whether Rebecca’s use of the word makes it into the OED when it is!), but it did make me wonder whether griper in the sense “One who complains” is indeed an Americanism. Is it?

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The globalisation of American English

There’s a piece in today’s Guardian here:

Do you want fries with that? Data shows Americanization of English is rising

on the use of Google Ngram Viewer to document the spread of American English. It includes a link to the original paper.



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A missing word? Part II

The relevant entries from the OED are:


I also had a look at Worcester’s dictionary, primarily to see if he had any citations.  I’m not sure about the date, as the first twenty pages are missing, but these are the relevant entries:



So it would seem that auditorial is “established”, while auditorily is not mentioned. Maybe it is a new(ish) word!

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A missing word?

I was copy-editing a paper for a language journal today, and came across this:

“… children may or may not identify phonemes better audiovisually than auditory only.”

The prescriptivist in me baulked at the combination of adverb and adjective, and so I changed it to:

“… children may or may not identify phonemes better audiovisually than auditorily only.”

At this point Microsoft Word (Word for Mac 15.3.2) chipped in with a wavy red underline. (I should perhaps add that so far in this post, it has also picked up audiovisually and prescriptivist!)) It did, however, make me stop and think.

I checked my two desktop dictionaries, The Chambers Dictionary (13th edition, 2014) and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (eleventh edition, revised, 2008), and neither of them lists auditorily. Somewhat chastened, I went back to the text and revised it to:

“… children may or may not identify phonemes better audiovisually than when they are auditory only.”

relying on the reader to link they with phonemes rather than with children.

However, later in that same paper, I came across:

“… by locating the … onsets visually and auditorily …”

This is a not unusual feature in a paper where different authors are responsible for different sections.

Time to check the OED online, where I got the message “No dictionary entries found for ‘auditorily’”. However, it also pointed out that auditorily could be found in three quotations and three times in a full-text search (these were, in fact, the same three occurrences):

2011   Internat. Jrnl. Amer. Linguistics 77 163   Stress placement was judged auditorily..and verified through instrumental measuring pitch, amplitude, and duration. [at instrumental]

1966   K. De Hirsch et al. Predicting Reading Failure viii. 82   Five auditorily gifted children who read well had been intensively trained in phonics. [at phonics]

1961   L. F. Brosnahan Sounds of Lang. i. 15   Articulations which are similar..must require greater precision of order to keep the resulting speech sounds distinct, both proprioceptively and auditorily. [at proprioceptively]

There is possibly a register restriction here, so I went to check in my corpus of academic journal papers which have been sent to me for copy-editing. This is a corpus of approximately 13.5 million words, and I found 28 examples of auditorily in 22 different papers. All of them were from language journals.

Before you jump to the conclusion that this reflects nothing more than my copy-editing preferences, I should add that in my corpus these papers are in their pre-copy-edited form.

So is “The definitive record of the English language” missing something? Not necessarily. There is a note on both the noun and adjective entries for auditory which says:

“This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1885).”

My corpus dates from 2006 to 2016, so it is possible that this is a recent innovation.

There is more to be done on this.


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“But this is what I was taught in school!”

This is not the kind of comment you’d expect to hear from British informants when asked about the acceptability of particular disputed usage items, given the lack of formal grammar teaching in UK schools since the 1960s and 70s. It is, however, a typical comment made by native speakers of Dutch according to Wouter van Wingerden, whose “Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!” De waarheid achter 50 taalkwesties (van Dale, 2017) has just come out.

I’ve known about Wouter’s project for a while, and rushed to my local bookshop as soon as I read about the book’s appearance in Onze Taal, a monthly magazine that deals with all kinds of language issues (always a great read). Wouter used to work for the magazine as a language adviser, and decided to put his experience to good use by writing this book.

But this is not just a usage guide: it is the result of painstaking research including a large-scale  survey in which as many as 17,000 informants participated! And it gives very practical usage advice. The fifty items were carefully selected, and are treated systematically in a single format, each time addressing the following points:

Which of these variants do you find acceptable? (multiple options)

On which grounds? (a selection is offered) or: Which of the variants do you prefer?

What do the experts say?

What it is all about.

Remember this.

Five more items can be found online.

I think the book (which is very readable) is an excellent example of how a prescriptive approach (sound usage advice) can be combined with a descriptive one (basis in an elaborate attitude survey). And in doing so it provides highly valuable data, such as different preferences between Dutch and Flemish native speakers. I also think that if used properly used in Dutch schools (school teachers both make up an important section in the survey population and are approached directly in the book itself), it could give a boost to the teaching of Dutch in The Netherlands (a subject which, for unclear reasons, currently suffers from very low prestige among secondary school children in this country). Congratulations, Wouter van Wingerden, I expect the book will do extremely well. It should, moreover, serve as an example for all those thinking about embarking on a new usage guide project.


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