The Grammarians – by Cathleen Schine


If you’re interested in prescriptivism, you might well want to read this recently published novel. It’s about twins who gradually grow apart, with the one thing binding them to the end being an old copy of a dictionary, probably  by Samuel Johnson, though they can only have it each to themselves 6 months at a time.

While the one twin turns into a poet, the other becomes a copy editor, whose focus is linguistic correctness: they couldn’t be further apart in the linguistic interests they develop over the years. There is a lot there for readers interested in prescriptivism: Fowler is referred to several times (though I wouldn’t have called Fowler’s Modern English Usage “an old grammar book”, p. 194: usage guides are not grammars), and many usage problems fly by, like the dangling participle, the split infinitive, the placement of only, the use of who/whom, and singular they – stuff we, linguists, don’t expect to find playing such a major role in a novel but love reading about.

What I don’t understand about the novel though is the role played in it by Johnson’s dictionary, who is quoted at the start of every chapter. The girls, in their early youth, had a fascination with words, and even developed their own secret language. They’re finally given a copy of a dictionary by their father, leaving it jointly to them after his death. By then, the twins are no longer on speaking terms and they have to find a way out for this. But Johnson was neither a grammarican nor a prescriptive handbook writer like Fowler, whose views on language do play more of a role in the novel. Perhaps my real (and actually only) problem with the book is its title: grammarians is what neither of the girls are.  Would The Poet and the Prescriptivist have been a better title? Even then, Johnson’s dictionary hardly seems to fit in.

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Describing Prescriptivism: soon out now

Great news: my book will be out in two weeks time. 23 October is the official publication date. I can’t wait! To be published by Routledge, and copies can be pre-ordered there, in hardback and as an e-book.

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The power of pronouns

Another interesting article from the UK Guardian on which pronouns people who identify as non-binary would like others to use to refer to them. Apart from it being a possible language/usage change in progress, it also addresses the issue of who directs change.

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Just out: paper on flat adverbs by Morana Lukač and Ingrid Tieken

Congratulations, Sandra Jansen and Lucia Siebers, on the appearance of your book, and to Raymond Hickey in whose honour it was published! As for Morana and me, we’re very happy that it is out, and in my case, just in time to change the only “forthc.” in the proofs of my book Describing Prescriptivism (Routledge).

Morana Lukač and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2019). Attitudes to flat adverbs and English usage advice. In: Sandra Jansen and Lucia Siebers (eds.), Processes of Change. Studies in Late Modern and Present-day English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 159-181.

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Caroline Taggart’s books in National Trust shops

Proofreading my forthcoming book Describing Prescriptivism, I came to p. 100 where I mention that Caroline Taggart’s Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queeen’s English (2010), published by the The National Trust, used to lie for sale in country houses all over Britain. That is, I remember seeing it lying about at every country house we visited while living in Cambridge in 21011. Unfortunately, I never thought of taking a picture of the book as evidence at the time.

This time, accompanying a Jane Austen garden tour last week as an academic tour guide and visiting several country houses in the process, I looked everywhere for Her Ladyship’s Guide, but to no avail. None of the shop assistants had even heard of the book. But we did find one of Caroline’s books, on two occasions even: 500 Words You Should Know. Not a usage guide, and not published by The National Trust, but still (I suppose) testifying to Caroline’s name and fame as a writer on language.

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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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