Six out online now! One more to go …

As a follow up of our project’s closing symposium, there will be a special issue of English Today later this year with most of the papers. Here are the ones that are out already:

One more paper to follow!

The printed version of our English Today special issue will be out in December, as number 34/4.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The death of the adverb

I fear that the Oldie (September 2019, a British monthly magazine whose title speaks of its readership – which of course includes me!) is a bit late for the party on this one …


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Prescriptivism at ICEHL-20

Great news: Prescriptivism has a separate section at next week’s ICEHL-20 in Edinburgh, with five papers no less. Have a look at the book of abstracts if you’re interested.

Posted in news | Leave a comment

Greengrocers, footballers, sports commentators, estate agents, television presenters

We’ve written about the greengrocer’s apostrophe on this blog before, but what about these other people, footballers (known for their use of the perfect when other people would use the past tense in English instead), sports commentators (who seem to favour the flat adverb), estate agents (who allegedly overuse yourselves for you) and television presenters (these ones/those ones): what do these people have in common, and why do they get singled out for these particular language features?


I’d really like to know, and especially from our British readers, so please let me have your opinions!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper!

I can’t even read read a Raymond Chandler novel without a pencil, I told Carol Percy when she was interviewing me for the Journal of English Linguistics (to appear in December this year). It is the fate of the linguist, she responded. In my case, it is the fate of someone interested in prescriptivistm. And it happened again!

Reading the collected Patrick Melrose novels (the series is currently being broadcast on Dutch television: what a treat!), I got stuck at p. 110, where I read: “‘Up to a point, Lord Copper,’ said David” (the incestuous father). Yesss, another one: I’d come across the expression before, in a usage guide no less. It is one of the usage problems to be found in Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English which I’d read for an article on the subject. Amis doesn’t exactly say what it means, just that he used it himself and that he thinks in is “misleading and should be dropped”. And he gives the source, the novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. All that makes it a usage problem, I suppose, but no more (I would say) than a “one-off” as Chapman (2010) calls such usage problems. What it means is explained in the Wikipedia entry on Scoop (you get there simply by googling for the phrase: three cheers for the Internet!): it means neither “yes” nor “no”, or both. Well, yes and no, sometimes things aren’t as straightforward as all that. (Lord Copper, a newspaper magnate, is just a fictional character.)

But is it used at all, I wondered, thinking of the threefold appraoch to our research we have been adopting for our work in this project (usage guides, attitudes to usage, actual usage).  So I  looked it up in the Hansard Corpus (200 years of British Parliament speeches,  7.6 million altogether: another treat!), and yes, it does occur: once in the 1980s, 7 times in the 1990s and 5 times in the 2000s. It is always used in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. But why only from the 1980s onwards? The novel dates from 1938. Why was the expression suddenly being used, and why did Kingsley Amis think he should proscribe it? Does anyone know? Edward St. Aubyn, can you help perhaps?


Chapman, Don. 2010. Bad ideas in the history of English usage. In Robert Cloutier, Anne Marie Hamilton-Brehm and William Kretzschmar (eds.), Studies in the History of the English Language V. Variation and Change in English Grammar and Lexicon. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter. 141–160.

Posted in usage features | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in usage features, usage guide | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment