Hen and hun in Dutch. Or: How to Make a Usage Problem Go Away

This is Amos van Baalen’s second blogpost for last semester’s MA course Non-Standard English:

Modern Dutch technically does not have a case system anymore. Remnants of this system occur in many set expressions, such as te allen tijde “at all times”, in which the final –en and –e attached to, respectively, the adjective and the noun are dative case endings. Just like in English, there is also a distinction for personal pronouns between a ‘subject’ form and a general ‘object’ form, e.g. ik “I” vs. mij “me”. However, there is one very interesting exception: the Dutch forms hen and hun both correspond to the English personal pronoun form them, with the difference that hen should be used for direct objects and hun for indirect objects: e.g. Ik zie hen “I see them” vs. Ik geef hun een cadeau “I give them a present”. Furthermore, hen should always be used as the object of a preposition, e.g. Ik geef een cadeau aan hen “I give a present to them”.

There is a reason for this salient exception in the Dutch pronoun system: according to the relevant article on the webpage of Genootschap Onze Taal “Our Language Society” (mainly known for publishing the magazine Onze Taal, which deals with various aspects of language), the rule governing hen and hun is artificial and was made up in the seventeenth century by a scientist named Christiaen van Heule. In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ANS (Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst “General Dutch Grammar”), which is seen as the most authoritative grammar of the Dutch language, mentions that native speakers use hen and hun indiscriminately and that they often feel uncertain about which form to use in any given context (Haeseryn et al. 1997). It is worth noting that the ANS emphasises that incorrect usage of these pronouns should certainly not be seen as a mistake (Haeseryn et al. 1997).

What are the preferences of native speakers? According to Wouter van Wingerden’s usage guide Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!’ “But that’s what I was taught!”, 47% of the nearly 17,000 respondents to his survey consider hen to be the only correct form (van Wingerden 2007: 32). This finding is in line with the ANS, in which it is noted that hen is considered to be stylistically superior to hun (but both the ANS and van Wingerden note that hun occurs more frequently than hen in spoken language) (Haeseryn et al. 1997; van Wingerden 2007: 33). Consequently, van Wingerden’s (2007: 33) advice (for written language) is to write hen in all cases, although he also provides the ‘classic rule’ for reference in the same section.

In my opinion, this creates a very interesting situation: the use of hen and hun may be said to be a usage problem in Dutch, because it is an aspect of the language that many speakers are unsure about (and, therefore, something that they need to look up in a grammar or usage guide). However, while they acknowledge the existence of the hen/hun rule, it appears that the ANS and van Wingerden downplay its importance; van Wingerden even explicitly advocates a different, simplified rule.

This type of tendency in grammars and usage guides is the beginning of the end for a usage problem. First of all, these recommendations have the positive effect of reassuring speakers who are unsure of the rule that they are not technically incorrect when they use the ‘wrong’ form. In addition, pedantic speakers who know the rule and wish to correct others can no longer use an authoritative grammar or usage guide to back up their claim. In time, the old rule may become characteristic of archaic language and may eventually not even be a part of grammars and usage guides anymore. To me, this approach seems like quite an effective way of solving a usage problem!


Haeseryn, W., K. Romijn, G. Geerts, J. de Rooij and M.C. van den Toorn. 1997. Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst. (Vols. 1-2; 2nd ed.). Groningen: Martinus Nijhoff.

Wingerden, Wouter van. 2017. ‘Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!’: De waarheid achter 50 taalkwesties. Utrecht / Antwerpen: Van Dale Uitgevers.

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I should of used have…

This is Lizi Richards’ second blog post for the MA course Non-standard English:

While browsing through my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, the following tweet appeared in my feed:

The forty responses, forty-two retweets and two hundred and forty-nine likes suggest that many other Twitter users agreed.

It seems that there are few usage problems that raise the hackles of the public quite as much as the usage of of instead of have. It is, however, not such a new usage problem as may first appear. Merriam-Webster provides evidence for could of dating back to 1777 and Professor Tieken has found evidence of it appearing in a diary entry dating from 1785. It does appear, though, that public awareness of this usage problem is increasing.

When Professor Tieken undertook her survey to gauge attitudes towards certain usage problems, as part of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, back in 2012, she included “I could OF gone to that party”, inspired by a colleague whose teenage daughter had “been highly surprised to learn that of [in the sentence] was not a preposition but an auxiliary verb”.[1] Responses to the survey included one commenter who stated that  could of was an “execrable abomination” and the results confirmed that informants felt the most strongly about could of gone out of all three sentences (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2013: 7, 9).

As part of my MA assignment for the Non-Standard English course, I carried out a survey with the aim of exploring, firstly, if there was a difference in attitudes between native and non-native speakers to five specific usage problems and, secondly, if these were influenced by the variety of English which informants predominantly spoke. Knowing the strength of feeling surrounding could of, I included the sentence I could of gone to the party, but I was tired in my survey.  Would people still be getting terribly upset by this or was my Twitter feed a bastion of grammar pedants?

The results did not disappoint. As with the 2012 survey, this was the sentence that provided the strongest responses. Irrespective of whether the informant was a native or non-native speaker of English, over 50 percent of the 86 responses viewed using could of as ‘unacceptable under any circumstances’. The option that received the next highest number of responses (informants were able to check multiple options for each sentence) was ‘acceptable in informal speech’, perhaps reflecting the belief that could of is a usage problem stemming from connected speech. Based on my extremely unrepresentative data sample, more native speakers of American English (AmE) viewed it as acceptable than native British English (BrE) speakers: 66% to 37% respectively. Where non-native speakers are concerned, 33% of non-native speakers of BrE considered could of acceptable in informal speech compared to 36% of those who use AmE.

Informants were also invited to comment, and this sentence received the most comments – 14 in total. Some were more descriptive, pointing out that this was a result of connected speak. Some though, as in Professor Tieken’ 2012 survey, clearly felt strongly about it. Their comments included:

“This is awful” —  “This one makes me angry!!!” — “Heinous” — “Oh, this one annoys me a lot when I see it”.

Based on the 2012 survey, my 2018 one, and Twitter, it appears that could of, should of, and would of are not only becoming more widespread, but are also becoming one of the usage problems that make the blood boil!

[1] Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 2013. Studying Attitudes to English Usage. English Today 116,29 (4), 3-12. p.5


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Febuary, febry

‘Last February? Last February? Oh yes, I was here last February.’ He [the janitor]  pronounced it exactly as spelled.’  (p. 236)

(Source: Pinterest)

The passage is from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Little Sister (1949). When I came across this metalinguistic comment, I was wondering if anyone who isn’t focussed on issues of prescriptivism, would have spotted it.

February is a usage problem, and an old chestnut at that, for we find it already in Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, one of the earliest American usage guides (published in 1856). The anonymous author of Five Hundred Mistakes writes that “this word is often incorrectly spelled by omitting the r” (p. 21), but that is not why Chandler comments on it. His comment is about pronunciation, not spelling. Pronunciation of the word, according to the OED, is variable, both in British and American English: as many as seven variants are recorded in the dictionary.

For both varieties the OED lists pronunciations with and without /r/, but only for British English does it record a variable number of syllables. This is what Caroline Taggart, in her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), criticises  when she comments that february is “another word where people often swallow syllables” (p. 123), so pronouncing it as “febry”. Unacceptable in her view.

Thirty years earlier, Robert Burchfield had listed a recommendation for the correct pronunciation of the word in his BBC guide The Spoken Word (1981) as well: “(feb-roor-i) not (feb-you-)” (p. 13). Chandler’s comment, I think, is the same as Burchfield’s. He would have expected the janitor to say “feb-you-ari”, in line with the man’s assumed (though not clarified) social background.

This isn’t the only metalinguistic comment I came across in Chandler’s novels (though I’ve only read two so far). His biographer, Tom Williams, recounts an argument Chandler had with one of his editors over his use use of a split infinitive. This was in 1940 btw. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it stays split …”, he is claimed to have said. “The emendations took time,” Williams drily commented.

Chandler didn’t write many novels, but I can’t wait the read the other ones.

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Guess what?! You don’t just speak a dialect; you’re also illiterate and uneducated!

And here is Ilse Stolte’s second blogpost, on a topic related to the first one she wrote about:

For the course on Non-Standard English and prescriptivism, I spend a great deal of time reading through entries of usage guides in the HUGE database. It is interesting to see that there are so many ways of writing a usage guide; there is so much variation in the language used. Some authors use very negative metalanguage; for instance, in her book Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), Caroline Taggart writes that the double negative “is the supreme example of duplication through lack of understanding” (p. 43) and double negatives “are among the clearest indicators of inelegance” (p. 43).

Other authors, even though they still prescribe and proscribe, use less negative metalanguage. They do not overtly condemn; they simply state the grammar rules. A few entries caught my attention. When I initially read them, they seemed positive, or just not overtly negative. However, reading them a bit more carefully, something struck me. I’ll give two examples from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000):

Its [them] use as a demonstrative pronoun, permissible in standard sources from the 15c. onwards, is now only dialectal or illiterate. (pp. 776-777)

… and also of swoll as a byform for the pa.t. until the 19c. before it became restricted to dialect or illiterate use. (p. 575)

Did you spot it? I am, of course, referring to “dialect(al) or illiterate”. This phrasing seems a strong condemnation of dialects. It sounds as if the two, dialect and illiteracy, are interchangeable, as if they are essentially the same thing. I was already aware of the stereotypes of certain dialects and have heard and read about the stereotypes connected to some. For instance, in a 2011 newsarticle, The Telegraph reported on a study which showed that people seem to regard Glaswegian and Brummie English more stupid compared to RP and other varieties of British English. I hadn’t seen, however, dialect in general being coupled with illiteracy and lack of education.

This made me more curious, so I decided to do a simple Google search and looked up “dialect uneducated”, at which I was surprised to see a great number of sites pop up.
One of these was this discussion about educated versus uneducated accents, which quickly changed into a discussion about dialect.

When Googling these two words together, you also get a lot of pages dealing with the question of why certain dialects are regarded as uneducated and what your accent or dialect says about you. The sites I found show how sensitive this subject can be and how worried we might be about it.

We all have certain attitudes towards certain dialects – be they conscious or subconscious – and we are not likely to get rid of these attitudes anytime soon. However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t try. To me, the two quotes from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000) just highlight this issue and, in my opinion, do not help in changing these, often negative, attitudes.


Burchfield, Robert (ed.). 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taggart, Caroline. 2010. Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English. London: Pavillion Books.

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Hisself: should we allow it or not?

And here is another blogpost from one of my MA students. Maha Khalil would like to know why the non-standard reflexive pronoun hisself remains non-standard today. The blogpost was inspired … 

… by an article published by the Scottish writer and journalist Harry Ritchie in The Guardian in December 2013, called  “It is time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English”, in which he strongly rejects the prevalent notion that standard English forms are always deemed “correct”, whereas non-standard English forms seem to be wrong and ungrammatical.

This week, we are focussing in class on African American (Vernacular) English, and are studying the list of features included in Ax or Ask? The African American Guide to Better English, by Garrard McClendon. One of the features listed in the book is hisself,  which is condemned as “nonstandard for himself“. However, from Harry Ritchie’s perspective, there would be nothing wrong with hisself, the more so since standard English has my+self, her+self, our+selves. Consequently, hisself should be fully grammatical as it follows the same rule, and himself might be seen as the odd one out.

I also searched the HUGE database in order to see whether hisself is treated as a usage problem. It is, for I found out that the reflexive pronoun is dealt with in 12 usage guides, in 12 entries altogether. Most authors of the usage guides do not agree with the use of hisself for two main reasons: it is formed on the genitive case of the pronoun rather than the object case him (in spite of the fact that we have myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves), and it mostly characterises the language of uneducated and unsophisticated people.

I therefore decided to ask you as readers of this blog (native or non-native speakers of English alike) what you think of hisself: should it be considered acceptable, as Harry Ritchie seems to advocate, or should it indeed be condemned, as the usage guides in HUGE do, and should it therefore, as Garrard McClendon advises speakers of African American English, be avoided? Please leave your comments below : they will be of great use for my presentation on the subject next week. I will of course treat your comments entirely confidentially.

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Three more project publications!

Standardising EnglishJust out: Standardising English: Norms and Margins in the History of the English Language, ed. by Linda Pillière, Wilfred Andrieu, Valérie Kerfelec and Diana Lewis (2018), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Carmen Ebner, Concepts of correctness and acceptability in British English: Exploring attitudes of lay people, 213-233
  • Viktorija Kostadinova, Correcting English: Josephine Turck Baker (1873-1942) and the early American usage guide tradition, 171-190
  • Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, The grammatical margins of class, 193-212

Congratulations, editors, and special thanks for organising the wonderful conference that inspired these papers, Linda!

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Dialect or simply illiterate?

Ilse Stolte needs to write blogposts for my course Non-Standard English (and prescriptivism) as well. Here is the first one, and one with a request to our readers to fill in a survey on the acceptability of two stigmatised language feautures.

As a lover of British literature, TV, and film, I have read and seen my share of Cockney stereotypes. Sometimes, the story does not even have to be set in or near London for characters to be given the well-known Cockney features. If a character is supposed to be working class and/or uneducated, they swallow their Hs, replace their Ts with glottal stops, and, of course, “don’t need no education”, as Pink Floyd would say.

Especially the last feature – multiple negation – seems to be highly stigmatised and is seen as “a stock example of uneducated speech” (Howard, 1993: 133-134). I actually find this quite surprising, since throughout the history of English, double negation has been used extensively and it never seemed to be a problem. Double negatives can be found in the works of authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. More importantly, it is generally assumed to be one of the most common features in British dialects (Cheshire et al. 1993: 75).

For all this, most authors of usage guides do not go easy on them. Simon Heffer (2010), for instance, calls them “offences against logic” and “the product of illiteracy and stupidity” (201: 57). Even the ones that do not fully forbid the use of double negatives, Robert Baker (1770), for instance, says that not and no can be used with neither and nor “not with an ill grace” (1770: 112-113). However, in the same section, he calls the use of these words together “wrong” and essentially not “the correct Way of speaking”.

So this is why I decided to bring in another common feature, namely demonstrative them. Looking at the usage guides in the HUGE database, there are far fewer entries for demonstrative them than there are for multiple negation: only five compared to 33. The language used is also less harsh and negative. For example, in the Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1999), demonstrative them is simply labelled “non-standard or dialectal” (1999: 570). However, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2000), this feature is described as “dialectal or illiterate” (2000: 226-227), which reflects a rather strong condemnation.

The differences between the number of entries and the language used in two entries made me wonder about the status of both features in the eyes of native speakers of British English, so I decided to have a survey to find out, though I am also curious to hear the opinions of speakers of other varieties of English. So I would be really grateful if you could help me find out by filling in the survey, which you’ll find here. Many thanks for your time!


Baker, Robert. 1770. Reflections on the English Language. London: John Bell.

Chesire, Jenny; Edwards, Viv & Whittle, Pamela. 1993. Non-Standard English and             dialect levelling. In Real English: The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles, edited by James Milroy & Lesley Milroy. Harlow: Longman Group Uk. 53-96.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 1999. Pocket Fowler’s Modern             English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry Watson & Burchfield, Robert W. 2000. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heffer, Simon. 2010. Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why it             Matters. London: Random House.

Howard, Godfrey. 1993. The Good English Guide. London: Macmillan.

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