An anachronism in The Mitford Murders

Being a fan of Nancy Mitford, and having read the Mitford sisters’ entire correspondence  (ed. Mosley 2007) as well as their biography by Mary Lovell (2001), I was naturally curious about The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes, the more so since its translation was  favourably reviewed in the Dutch press. So I decided to buy the 420-page book and take it with me on holiday. What a disappointment.

Not only did it read like a Young Adult Novel, the characterisation of young Nancy Mitford in no way matched that of the real person in as far as I had become acquainted with her.

What also irritated me was its linguistic anachronism, evident from the regular use of snuck (for sneaked) in the text, as in

He had snuck out wearing a tweed cap, which Nancy had snatched out of the boot room (p. 272)

The story is situated in 1919-20, when snuck would not have been common usage in British English yet. In 1988, Greenbaum and Whitcut  in the Longman Guide to English Usage label snuck as “American English only”. It is not until twenty years later that, according to Jeremy Butterfield (Oxford AZ of English Usage , 2007), snuck is “sneaking into British English in a big way too”.

I’m afraid I’m not looking forward to the next three novels in the series, each featuring one of the remaining Mitford sisters.

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Just out!

Just out, and yes, the book includes a paper on prescriptivism, my own! The project may be finished, but new publications still appear. So:

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2019), Usage guides and the Age of Prescriptivism. In: Birte Bös and Claudia Claridge (eds.), Norms and Conventions in the History of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.7−28.

This volume is only one of two: congratulations, Birte and Claudia, on this wonderful publication!

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Even John le Carré has them

Source: Wikipedia

Metalinguistic comments that is, as in the novels of Kingsley Amis, Len Deighton and Ian McEwan. Reading A Most Wanted Man (2008), I came across several references to accent but also one to who/whom:

But for how long? And from who? Whom? (p. 275)

The speaker is the elderly Scottish banker Tommy Brue, one of the main characters in this novel situated in Hamburg.

Read more about all this, though not about John Le Carré, in chapter 7 of my forthcoming book Describing Prescriptivism.

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Describing Prescriptivism

Soon to appear (expected publication date: some time in September):



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More complete?

In 2007, The Dutch Taaladviesdienst (a language advice service run by Genootschap Onze Taal)  published Taal top 100, a collection of the 100 most popular usage problems in Dutch, in the fields of spelling, grammar, lexis , punctuation and style. The preface opens with an interesting sentence: “Taaladviesboeken zijn er genoeg – het ene nog completer dan het andere.” In English: “There are plenty [Dutch] usage guides – the one even more complete than the other.”

In an English context, such a sentence would have provoked a lot of comment, the same kind of protest as that found for very unique. After all, words like complete and unique are so-called absolute adjectives, that cannot be modified by very or more, or so the argument goes. And indeed, one of the few Dutch letters to the editor I encountered was on “rather unique”, tamelijk uniek. So I was surprised to find this particular form in a language advice manual from what is arguably the most authoritative language advice body in The Netherlands.

So here is a question specifically directed at our Dutch readers: what about more complete? Do you find it acceptable or not? Please fill in the poll below and let us know.

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These ones, those ones

Just finished my article “Of greengrocers, sports commentators, estate agents and television presenters: Who’s in a usage guide and why” for a special issue with papers from Liv Walsh’s workshop In the Shadow of the Standard September last in Nottingham. It’s basically a critique of Caroline Taggart’Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), one of the usage guides in our HUGE database. One of the groups criticised by Taggart are television presenters, for saying these ones and those ones. And look at what I ran into during my little walk to the city centre of The Hague during lunch time:

these ones

So what’s wrong with this, I wonder, Caroline: it looks just like the plural of this one, as the picture suggests. 




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English Grammar Day 2019

Every year, some time during the summer, UCL organises an English Grammar Day. This time I have been invited to speak, and I decided to do so on the following topic (not yet announced online):

No complaint tradition in The Netherlands?

English, according to Milroy and Milroy in Authority in Language (2012), has a complaint tradition, which makes people write letters-to-the editor or, these days, post “below-the-line” comments to online newspaper articles about linguistic and other issues. The Milroys, moreover, claim that such a tradition is common in “technologically advanced societies [with] heavily codified standard language[s]” (2012:77). Not so, however, in The Netherlands. Unlike in the UK (or the US), usage guides, or language advice manuals, are barely a popular text type in my country, and unlike in the UK (or the US), people rarely write letters-to-the editor about language. And if they do, they write not about usage problems like the dangling adjunct or multiple negation, but – recently in particular – about the status of Dutch in the light of the increasing influence of English.

In this paper, I will contrast the attitudes to linguistic correctness as expressed by the British and the Dutch by discussing how they find an outlet for complaints about language, and how and where they seek usage advice. In doing so I will argue that major differences in this can be explained by the very different ways in which both societies are traditionally organised.

English Grammar Day will be held on 8 July in the British Library. I expect that practical details will be announced soon.

With thanks to Marten van der Meulen for sending me a copy of his paper (in English) on groter als/dan as an iconic Dutch usage problem.

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