grammar is relationships

This is not a post about American versus British English. I hope you’ll indulge me. It's come out of some Twitter conversations this afternoon.

It started when I read this sentence in James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns:
Function words require social skills to use properly.

And I wondered how it had got(ten) past a copyeditor. So I did a Twitter poll to see if other people were happy with the sentence. The poll looked like this: 

So, 25% of more than 300 people thought it sounded fine. 75% felt there was something weird about it. Given how I phrased the question, it's possible that the 75% had 100 different reasons for thinking it weird. But considering some of the tweet-replies I had, I know that at least some people had the same reaction that I did. 

The problem with the sentence for me is that there is no reasonable subject for the verb to use. Compare it to this sentence with the same kinds of parts in the same order:  
 The law requires every driver to drive safely.

In that case, the subject of the infinitive to drive is every driver—every driver is to drive safely. So, what you've got is:
  • Main verb: requires
  • Subject of main verb: the law
  • Object of main verb = infinitive clause: every driver to drive safely

But that doesn't work for Pennebaker's sentence. Social skills to use properly is not a complete clause because (a) there's no object of the verb to use (to use what properly?), and (b) social skills is in a position where it could be the subject of to use (as in the driving example), but it's not.  The sentence could be "fixed" in a number of ways that involve making it clearer that function words are the things being used.
  1. Make the infinitive into a passive, so it's clear that function words is the object of use: Function words require social skills to be used properly.
  2. Move use closer to function words so that it's clear how they relate to each other: To use function words properly requires social skills. (Or Using function words properly requires social skills.)
  3. Move function words closer to useIt takes social skills to use function words properly.
Number 1 is a little ambiguous (it sounds a bit like function words are bossing social skills around), so I'd prefer 2 or 3, where it's really clear that function words is the object of use

But there are sentences with require that do work more like Pennebaker's sentence:
Crops require water to grow.

Here, it's not the water that's growing, it's the crops. So it doesn't work like the driving sentence—the object of require is not water to grow. In both sentences, I've put the object of require in blue, so you can see that the sentences have different structures. Another way that you can tell they're different structures is that you can replace to with in order to in one and not the other and can rephrase one with that and no to, but not the other.
The law requires every passenger in order to drive safely.
Crops require water in order to grow.
 The law requires that every driver drive safely. [or drives if you're not a subjunctive user]

Crops require that water grow.

So one of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to make this big point:
Grammar isn't just where words go in a sentence, it's how they relate to each other.
The fact that the crops sentence is the same shape as Pennebaker's sentence doesn't mean that Pennebaker's sentence is grammatical, because it still has the problem that there is no subject for to use. Notice that it can't be rephrased in either of the ways that the other two can:
Function words require social skills in order to use properly
Function words require that social skills use properly
The last possibility is to interpret use as being in middle voice (as opposed to active or passive voice). This is when the verb acts kind of like a passive (where what would have been the active object becomes the subject), but doesn't get the passive be +past participle form. English has some verbs that work this way.
I cut the bread easily. (active voice: subject is the cutter)
The bread is cut easily. (passive voice: subject is what's cut)
The bread cuts easily. (middle voice: subject is what's cut)
Grammar Girl has a podcast and post on middle voice in English if you're interested. English has more of a 'middlish' voice than a 'middle', as we're really limited in how we can use it and it doesn't have a special verb form, as it does in some other languages. As Grammar Girl notes:
[English] middle-voice sentences usually include some adverbial meaning, negation, or a modal verb, or a combination of the three. “The spearheads didn’t cast very well” has both negation (“didn’t”) and an adverb phrase (“very well”). “The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would” has the adverb phrase “more easily than I thought it would.”
While Pennebaker's sentence does have an adverb, properly, it's not one that I'm super-comfortable using with a middle construction (?The bread cuts properly), but maybe some people would like it better than I do. (Proper is used more as an adjective and adverb of intensity in some colloquial BrEs than in my AmE.)

So, are the 25% who like the sentence reading it as having middle voice? I'm not totally convinced, because I think that the English middle doesn't do well with fancier sentence constructions as with require:
?That bread requires a good knife to cut easily.
?That bread requires a steady hand to cut easily.
Putting an object between requires and to makes it confusing—is it the bread or the knife/hand that is cutting easily? If it's the knife or hand, then the sentence would usually require an it to stand for the bread: The bread requires a good knife to cut it easily. 

So, anyhow, when I put the Pennebaker sentence up, some people wondered if it was like this dialect phenomenon, found in some parts of the US (particularly western Pennsylvania) and some parts of the UK (particularly Scotland):
The car needs washed.
It was natural for them to make that connection because both Pennebaker's sentence and the needs washed sentence would work in other dialects if the final verb were made passive. But note that what needs to be added to the sentences to create a passive is different in the two cases. In needs washed, the washed is in the past participle needed for a passive. But in Pennebaker's sentence the infinitive verb is not in any way in passive form.
The car needs to be washed.
The function words require social skills to be used properly.

So, I asked the 25% who accepted the sentence to write back and tell me where they were from. And it turns out they're from anywhere.... New Jersey, California, New England, southeastern US, eastern and western Canada, up and down the UK, the Caribbean. That makes it look like it's not a dialect feature. 

An interesting thing about the 25%, though, was that a few got in touch to say: "I clicked that the sentence was fine for me, but once I started thinking about it, I was less sure."

After the dialect idea didn't pan out, I joked that the next step was to give personality tests to people who didn't like the sentence. And while it was a joke, I think there is probably something to the idea  that some people read for meaning and don't get the grammatical 'clang' that I got because getting the meaning is good enough. If they can get the meaning without a deep look at the grammar, the grammar is irrelevant. I'd wonder if people who get a 'clang' with this sentence are also more likely to also notice misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. A lot of us who notice these things notice them because we've been trained in looking at language analytically, or we're just very literal readers. Had I heard Pennebaker's sentence, I probably wouldn't have noticed that there was no workable subject for the verb use. I would have just understood it and gone merrily on my way. But in reading, CLANG.

Anyhow, the main reason I wanted to blog this was to make that point that Grammar is how words relate to each other. That two sentences with the same shape can be working in very different ways. And on that note, I'll leave you with an experiment that Carol Chomsky did way back when. She gave children a doll with a blindfold over its eyes and asked them if this sentence was true—and if not, to make the sentence true.
The doll is easy to see. 
Notice how that sentence doesn't work like this sentence:
The doll is eager to see.
In the first, the doll is being seen. We can paraphrase it as The doll is easy for me to see. In the second, the doll is who will do the seeing. We can't paraphrase it as The doll is eager for me to see, because it means The doll is eager for the doll to see. The words easy and eager determine how we interpret the relations of the other words in the sentence. In linguistic terms, they license different relationships in the sentence. (In these sentences it's adjectives doing that relationship-determining, but in most sentences, it's the verbs. In our requires sentences above, we can see that require licenses a range of possible sentence structures—words do that too.)

Understanding that a blindfolded doll is easy to see is something that most kids don't master till they're into their school years. When asked to make the doll easy to see, the younger kids take off the doll's blindfold. This shows us that kids take a while to fully take account of the grammar, not just the words, in sentences.

Hope you didn't mind my little grammatical foray...
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Review: Linguistics: why it matters by Geoffrey Pullum

It's National Writing Day (for another 48 minutes) and I've reali{s/z}ed that I haven't written anything but emails and tweets today. So a blog post is needed. But a short one. Luckily, I have a very short book to review.

The book is the linguistic installation of Polity Press's 'why it matters' series, and it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum. Here come the full disclosures: I know Geoff and I got this book for free. But I wouldn't say nice things about the book if I didn't mean them. (I'd just save myself the trouble of writing a blog post about it.)

So, since it's by the exceptionally clear Geoff Pullum, this is an exceptionally clear book. It's just 120-something pages, divided into five themed chapters on why linguistics matters: for what it tells us about what makes us human, about how sentences work, how meaning, thought and language intertwine, how it uncovers social relations, and how it might help machines understand humans. I particularly admire Geoff's ability to write short sentences about complex topics. (That's lesson 1 in making things exceptionally clear—complex topics aren't helped by grammatically complex sentences!) The real value of the book is in the examples that show how linguistics does matter—for expanding human understanding, for uncovering and undoing prejudices, and in applications that can help people.

Here's the bit that I most enthusiastically underlined:
[T]o a large extent the importance of linguistics has turned out to lie not so much in the results it has achieved (those evolve over time and are often overturned or contradicted) but in the change in the general view of what's important enough to study. It lies in our moral evolution of our perception of what we should be looking at and what we should value. 
That leads into a discussion of the shift from thinking of signed languages as gesticulations to their recognition as complex languages that are as languagey as any other human languages. But I think it could have introduced many of the sections. I do believe that linguistics has done a lot of good in the world in the past 50 or so years, and a lot of that is about valuing people and their languages. Though the book is only long enough for a few examples of that, they're great examples.

The ideal audience for this book? I think it would make an excellent present from any students studying (or planning to study) linguistics to their parents. When your parents' friends ask them "What's your kid up to?" and they say "Studying Linguistics", the conversation usually DIES. Give them the gift of knowing how to talk up your fascinating studies! It'd also be great for anyone considering studying linguistics, or who just thinks: "That sounds like an interesting subject, but I don't quite know what it's for." (It's mostly not about translation or language teaching, by the way.)

Geoff blogged about writing the book, which you can read here.
Here's a link to the publisher's site. It's only giving me the UK buying links, but I hope that if you approach it from another country you'll get the appropriate page!
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practice and practise

I now do not remember where I took this photo of a museum label. Some museum I've been to in the UK in the last couple of years.  It's been sitting on my computer desktop to remind me to blog about practice and practise. Maybe it's for the best that I don't remember, as to mention them would feel like naming and shaming, since practise there is spel{led/t} wrong.

Let's start with the spelling facts:
  • In standard British spelling, the noun is practice and the verb is practise (in that picture it's a noun, and therefore should have a 'c'). If you need to remember which is which, think of advice and advise: the noun has 'c' and the verb has 's'. What's different, of course, is that advice and advise are pronounced differently. The letter 'c' usually doesn't represent the /z/ sound that you get in 'advise' (but the letter 's' often does). Practi{c/s}e is confusing because they're both pronounced the same, even though they're spel{led/t} differently. That is to say, they're homophones.
    Historical aside from the OED:
    The word was originally stressed on the second syllable [...], and this is still the case in some regional varieties, especially in Scots (hence such spellings as practize, practeeze, practeese). The stress was subsequently shifted to the first syllable, with devoicing of the final consonant, probably by association with practice n.
  • In standard American spelling, they're both practice. Noah Webster promoted dropping practise in his 1828 dictionary (and probably elsewhere), arguing that "[t]he orthography of the verb ought to be the same as of the noun; as in notice and to notice.]" But, like most of Webster's spellings, it didn't really take off in the US until after he was gone—in the late 19th century. 
Now, the reason I wanted to write about this is that the UK spelling seems to be going a bit buggy [orig. AmE]. People claim to me that American spellcheckers are making everyone write practice. But what I tend to see is a lot of practise where BrE should have practice, as in the photo above and this request from a UK-based copy editor's client::
Hi Lynne  I hope you're well. I wondered if you could verify something for me.  A client has asked for a "US spelling" of "community of practice" to be "community of practise".  I think this is incorrect, and I'd love to know what you think.
These kinds of experiences have led me to suspect that instead of American spelling taking over, we have another case like -ize/-ise (which, if you want to read some interesting facts about those, I have a book to sell you). That is, because one of the spellings (and not the other) is known by British people to be unacceptable in American English, that spelling is now perceived as"the British spelling" and then applied willy-nilly. In the case of practice/practise, this means that errors are introduced into the British spelling, while Americans (BrE) tootle along with one spelling. 

So, to test what's happening, I looked, as I like to do, for objective evidence—not filtered through my (or anyone else's) biased attention for one type of error or the other in everyday life. To do that, I looked up practice and practise in the British portion of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), asked it to give me a random sample of 200 passages with each spelling, and then read each and identified any spelling errors (using the British rules). That is, I looked for nouns in the practise data and verbs in the practice data.

The result:

Of 200 British cases of the spelling practise, 65 were misspelled nouns.
Of 200 British cases of the spelling practice, 23 were misspelled verbs.

At the bottom of this post, I'll stick in screenshots of the data so you can see some examples.

Now, I am not convinced that people were ever good at keeping these spellings straight. Some people were, sure, but homonyms have given people trouble since people started standardi{s/z}ing spelling. We'd need some more historical data to see if this is the pattern of error has always been this way. But at least now, at least in this web-based data, there's less evidence of Americani{s/z}ation of British spelling and more evidence of counter-Americani{s/z}ation—people using the spelling they perceive as not-American, even though it's not the right spelling for standard British English.

Before I go: Some people say to me "I didn't know you were in my town! I would have come to see you talk if I'd known!" I keep my talk schedule posted here. If you're in Brighton or London (UK) in the next few weeks or the DC/Maryland area in August, have/take a look at the schedule and see if you can join us! 

Some noun practises on UK websites (click to enlarge)

Some verb practices on UK websites (click to enlarge)

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sadly (and a bit on hopefully)

Those of us who've relocated from our "home English" acquire many new turns of phrase, and we get used to even more. But for most of us, some phrasings just never sit right. We cringe at them. We resist them. We gripe (oh, how we gripe!) about them. And it's one of those things that I'm writing about today. Followers on Twitter will have heard aspects of this before because oh how we gripe!

The object of my gripe? It's not a word. It's a word in a certain context—the word sadly in British newspaper reports like these:

A selection of sadly died in UK news reports, from GloWBE

Besides sadly died, there's sadly passed away, sadly lost, and so forth.

Now, I have a certain sensitivity to death-writing because of my funeral-home upbringing (as you've seen before). I have little patience for euphemism and cliché when it comes to talking about the fact that people have died. But the heart of why it bothers me has to do with the tone I expect from newspapers, having grown up with American ones (I've also mentioned that before, here). I expect a newspaper report to tell me that there was an accident or a murder and someone died. That a celebrity or statesperson died. That is the news. They died. The sadly is inappropriate (orig. AmE)  editoriali{s/z}ing.

British newspapers put their hearts on their sleeves more than American ones do in reporting, not just in terms of expressing sadness at deaths, but in their reporting of everything. (I know this sometimes surprises non-Americans because they think of Fox News. But that's not a newspaper.) I recall my mother objecting "they can't say that!" to a front-page news story when she first visited me in the UK. I can't remember what the story was, but to her the writing clearly indicated that the reported thing  was a bad thing (or maybe a good thing). American newspapers are only supposed to take a sides in pieces that are clearly marked as 'opinion'. So sadly is off-tone for me in an factual report.

But also I bristle at the sadly because it's such a pathetic word, given the situations it's used to describe. Last month, I read a story about a man being stabbed by a stranger on a train which included the phrase "he was sadly killed". Sadly doesn't cut it. It was horrific. It was shocking. It was angering. Sadly is mere platitude.

And then there's another reason why it grates: the old sentential adverb problem. You might know this from hopefully. There are all sorts of pedants out there who claim that a sentence like
She'll arrive soon, hopefully.
has to mean that she'll arrive full of hope. That's actually a silly thing to claim, because there are so many other adverbs that one could make the same argument about and no one's making that argument or interpreting those adverbs that way. If I say
She'll arrive soon, unfortunately.
I'm not saying that she'll arrive in an unfortunate state or in an unfortunate manner. It means that I find it unfortunate that she'll arrive, just as the hopefully in the previous example is describing the mental state of the speaker, rather than the state of the subject of the sentence.

Having said that, one has to admit that these sentences are ambiguous: you could interpret them with the hopeful or the unfortunate applying to the she.

Sadly is another case where the adverb is usually used to attribute a feeling to the speaker (or writer) rather than to the subject of the sentence. He sadly died is not intended to convey 'he died while sad', but 'We are sad about him dying'. The people who complain about hopefully never seem to notice sadly doing what they say an adverb shouldn't do. That seems hypocritical, but I don't think they're really hypocrites. I think they're people who just like to parrot things they've heard about linguistic usage without really understanding them. (Is that better or worse than being a hypocrite? Since I'm a hypocrite on so many things, I'm going to say it's worse.)

While I can see that it is perfectly ok to use sadly in that way, the ambiguity of sadly is very apparent to me when I hear or read the sadly-died statements: for two reasons. First, AmE uses a lot more commas than BrE does, and the lack of commas in He has sadly died also adds to the 'clang' factor for me. If it were  
He has, sadly, died.
then it would have to be interpreted as 'I am sad that he has died'. Without the commas, to my American eye, the ambiguity (is it sad that he died, or was he sad when he died?) punches me in the brain.

And second is the problem of where the adverb is placed (though this is not relevant to all of the above examples): AmE would prefer not to put the adverb between has and died, whereas that's where BrE likes its sentential adverbs. We've seen that before for adverbs like certainly and probably. So, he has sadly died sounds a tad unnatural to me as an AmE speaker anyway. He sadly has died sounds better. And He, sadly, has died looks like how I'd want to pronounce it.

I mostly read sadly-died phrasings because I get most of my news in typed form, but one hears it in British radio and televsion too. There are not great comma pauses when it's said. Sometimes it almost sounds like it's a one-word journalistic synonym for passed away. He sadlydied.

So that's me and my creeped-out, nails-on-chalkboard feelings about BrE journalistic sadly. I can do my descriptive linguist thing and say: Isn't that interesting? What function does it have? Here's why it might sound weird to Americans. But sometimes it's hard for the linguistic training to silence the cultural training and the near-lifetime's worth of experience of proofreading the super-factual American obituaries my dad has written. Though, I suppose, the upside is that the cringey feeling has led me to do a bit of linguistic analysis. And write a blog post!

A late addition (19 Feb): I think I'm a little  unfair here in calling it 'journalistic'. A lot of the examples in newspapers are quoting the police, and it does seem to be a staple of UK police press engagement. Another one today in our local news: a man was stabbed and then he "sadly died early on Sunday morning after being taken to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton following the incident in Elm Grove", according to the police statement. 

And while I'm here...
The UK paperback of The Prodigal Tongue  has a publication date: 7th of March. If you've been waiting for that format, there are links for buying it here. It's nicer than the hardcover because it's got blurbs from all the great reviews on it, including that "The Economist Books of the Year" on the cover!

I'll be launching that edition on the 7th at the Leeds Literary Festival, and I'm giving more talks in different parts of the US and UK in the coming months—more details here. I'm always happy to give more, so do get in touch if you have a speaker series or festival that you think needs a lynneguist.

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2018 UK-to-US Word of the Year: whilst

Yesterday I announced the US-to-UK Word of the Year (click for details!), and so today is the turn of the UK-to-US WotY.

The 2018 US-to-UK WotY has been moving to the US for quite a while—but Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) makes the case for us recogni{s/z}ing it in 2018. And the word is:


...that is, a longer version of the conjunction while. Whilst was probably one of the things that led Ben Yagoda to start his Not One-Off Britishisms blog. In a 2011 Lingua Franca post (Lingua Franca, RIP!), he mentions American students using whilst in their writing, then a few months later he started NOOB, with whilst as one of the early entries. I wrote about whilst earlier—though not about it as an import to the US, but as something that was annoying me in my British students' writing (I've been coming to terms with it ever since).

What this year's two WotYs have in common is that the people who nominated them had researched and made good cases for them, rather than just "it sounds American/British to me and I don't like it".  Here's Nancy's nomination for whilst:
While standard dictionaries still mark it as "chiefly British," it's on the rise among Smart Young Things here in the U.S. who think it sounds "cool" or "refined." Here's an example from The Baffler (published in New York), April 6, 2018: "You see, while the violence of financial capitalism and the ever-widening chasm of economic inequality might have something to do with why poor folks get themselves into a tizzy and take to the streets, the true catalyst is that they don’t feel respected whilst being systematically eliminated by the police state, they don’t feel respected whilst performing wage slavery." This humor piece in McSweeney's (based in San Francisco), from April 2017, is egalitarian: it uses "while" and "whilst" twice each. And here's the singer Lana Del Rey— born in Los Angeles, residing in Lake Placid, New York — writing on Instagram in May 2017: "I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount.” (Quoted in Rolling Stone)

More "whilst"s from Americans:
Lisa Franklin, writer and comedian from New York
: "people keep commenting on those comics whilst happily ignoring my jokes about The Flash."
Halle Kiefer, "comedy writer out of Astoria, New York": "a surreally long, minutely detailed anecdote about a young Madonna auditioning with the Queen of Soul’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” whilst living in a crack den"

Now, this one isn't a Britishism in the sense of 'invented after the British–American divide' when people started talking about Britishisms and British English (as opposed to just English). It went over to America. But it practically died there before the word Britishism had even been invented (1853, if the OED's info is complete), as this chart from the Corpus of Historical American English shows:

Click to embiggen
What I'm interested in knowing is how the young Americans using it are saying it. Before I started hearing it in British English, I would have read it aloud as 'willst'. (Dictionaries would have told me otherwise, but I don't tend to look up pronunciations when I'm reading.) It is pronounced like while with a st on the end. In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print (does anyone have any nice clips of audio clips of it in American mouths?), whereas in the UK, you hear it too.

I'll repeat what I quoted the first time I wrote about whilst:
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage says: 'Although “whilst” is a perfectly good traditional synonym of “while,” in American usage it is considered pretentious and old-fashioned.'
A lot of people commenting on it in American English these days feel the same way about it. But I suspect that's less true for younger Americans, raised on a diet of Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I'm still not saying it!  Thanks, Nancy for your nomination. Your prize will follow next month!

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2018 US-to-UK Word of the Year: mainstream media/MSM

It was a tough year for deciding on Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year, and so I am very grateful to those who nominated US-to-UK and UK-to-US borrowings that seemed 'very 2018'. So grateful that I offered a prize for the best nominations. And our first winner is: Simon K! Simon—please contact me off-blog with your postal details and your choice of prize: Lane Greene's Talk on the Wild Side or my The Prodigal Tongue.

And Simon's winning word? Well, some of you are going to complain that it's not a word. Enjoy your complaining. I've written several times about why 'that's not a word, that's a phrase' complaints don't bother me.  If you want to read several paragraphs on the topic, see this old Word of the Year post. To give you a taste of it, I'll quote myself:
It all comes down to your definition of word. We can fight about it, but I'll just phone in my part of the fight because 'word' is not a terribly useful linguistic concept. Most people think of words as bits of writing with spaces on either side, but that doesn't work [because it's circular reasoning...]. [This Word of the Year is] a bit of language whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts and whose form-meaning association has to be learn{ed/t} by, and stored in the memory of competent speakers of the language. That's good enough for me.
And so what is it? It is...

Mainstream Media (or MSM)

Here's what Simon said in his nomination:
You could make a plausible argument that that I'm a year late in nominating this, but I'd make a couple of points.

Firstly, I think that the usage has changed over this year. In 2017, it was still being discussed as though it's notable that the term was being used here - see, for example, this article, the media talking about the media. By 2018, the term is being used much less self-consciously, in contexts such as sport - see this, from the footballer Stan Collymore.

Secondly, with all the caveats about its use as a source, I notice that the Wikipedia article on "Mainstream media" had no UK section until 2018. 

I've noticed it too—from Jeremy-Corbyn-supporting Facebook friends sharing links from dodgy websites because of their distrust of the "MSM". Among my US Facebook connections (who are politically more varied than my UK ones), I see MSM used by people on the left, but more from those on the right. But that sample is very biased.

Image from
The term isn't in a lot of dictionaries, and it's not in the ones that I check that have date-of-origin information. There are examples of mainstream media in the Corpus of Historical American English going back to the 1980s, but it really picks up in the 2000s decade in the US. In the News on the Web corpus, it's present in the UK since 2010 (when the corpus starts), but doubles in usage in 2016 and continues to rise in 2017. For some reason, the stats don't show up for all of 2018 data on that site, so I won't say it's absolutely of 2018, but it seems to continue to spread this year.

Mainstream media is used in a purely descriptive way by lots of people for a lot of reasons. I note that Ben Zimmer was given an award (well deserved!) for his "linguistic contributions to mainstream media." It's the abbreviated form MSM that often takes on a pejorative tone—and very often a pejorative tone is taken toward its pejorative tone. A lot of examples in the NOW corpus from 2018 are like this one (by a conservative columnist), identifying MSM-use as a symptom of 'nuttiness':
"The Westminster bubble” is a phrase so universal that it is in danger of losing its meaning – or, worse, becoming a sign of slight nuttiness, along with phrases like “wake up, sheeple”, “the MSM”, and “I’m a Liberal Democrat”.
Of course, the NOW corpus is mostly made up of mainstream media sources, so one would expect them to be pejorative about the pejoration (though it does include the comments sections—and many of the examples seem to be from angry commenters). There's a problem in counting how many MSMs there are in BrE, as it's also used a lot in public-health talk about Men who have Sex with Men—but the frequency of MSM overall doubled about the same time that mainstream media doubled.

Looking at the latest near-London* uses of MSM on Twitter, one can find more sincere usages. It's not surprising that many instances of it are in discussions of Brexit—seemingly from both sides of the issue. But as in my Facebook feed, a lot of UK uses seem to relate to Jeremy Corbyn (and whether he gets a fair deal from the MSM). In the Google Image Search I did to find the illustration for this piece, the two key "victims" of MSM media bias are Corbyn and Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).

So, established in the US for a while before coming to the UK, but in very active use in the UK now...that fits my criteria for a WotY. Thanks again, Simon!

Oh, and speaking of Words of the Year and the authors of the two book prizes for this competition, Lane Greene, Anton La Guardia and I talked about words of the year for Economist Radio (released this week, but recorded before I'd decided on my WotYs). Please listen here!

*Sorry to be London-centric, but when I tried putting 'UK' in Twitter Advanced Search, it gave me zero results!

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Transatlantic words of the year?

I've had a few emails inquiring about the health of this blog. It's the same story as in some past years: the Autumn terms at the University are the worst for me—my heaviest teaching with constant essays to read and most of the admin work that needs to be done in my Director of Teaching and Learning role. (This should change next year, when one of my modules/courses is moving to spring and I shouldn't have the administrative role anymore.) So, my apologies for ignoring you. I promise to do better in Spring.

Because I have to get through a lot of essays this weekend, I'm going to heavily plagiari{s/z}e my past call for Word of the Year nominations:

It's that time of year again. Dictionary publishers are already starting to announce their words of 2018. I try to wait till we've actually seen the whole year before announcing mine, so it will be coming around New Year('s). If it comes at all.

The twist on Words of the Year on this blog is that I choose the most 'of the year' borrowings from US-to-UK and from UK-to-US. For past WotYs, click on the WotY label at the bottom of the post.

I go into this WotY season with no favo(u)rites. What do you think? Are there any US-to-UK or UK-to-US borrowings that are particularly 2018-ish? They don't have to have first come to the other country this year, but they should have had particular attention or relevance in the other country this year. Please nominate them in the comments below (not by email or Twitter, please--it makes more work for me to keep track of many different streams).

If there are no nominations that I deem worthy of this great award, then I may choose, for the first time since 2006, not to have a Word of the Year. But this year there is EXTRA MOTIVATION to nominate one. There are prizes! I have found myself in possession of an extra copy of Lane Greene's excellent new book Talk on the Wild Side, so IF I pick your nomination for US-to-UK WotY, you get the choice of receiving a copy of Lane's book or a copy of mine, The Prodigal Tongue (US trade paper edition). If I pick your nomination for UK-to-US WotY, you get the book that the other winner didn't pick. (I did it that way because I usually find I get more nominations in the UK-to-US category. So the US-to-UK nominations deserve extra extra motivation.) To be eligible for the prize, you must be the first to make the nomination and must do so in the comments to this blog post

When you nominate, make sure to subscribe to the comments for this post in order to ensure that I can get back to you to arrange the prize. If I think no nomination really fits my criteria for an 'of-the-year borrowing', I reserve the right not to name a WotY or to award the prize(s).

I look forward to receiving your thoughts on the transatlantic words of the year!
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Soon after the Brexit vote, I started writing a blog post about the different usage of the term racial in AmE and BrE. This followed an incident that the UK press had label(l)ed 'racial abuse' against a North American in Manchester. I thought it odd that being abusive to an American counted as 'racial abuse'. I then abandoned the post when I discovered that I'd had it wrong: the abuse was related to the colo(u)r of the person's skin. (There was a "go back to Africa" that I hadn't heard the first time I'd seen the recording.) I still had a feeling that I sometimes heard racial and racist being used differently in BrE than in AmE, but that wasn't an example of it.

But one thing I did find was that one hears the word abuse in such contexts a lot more in the UK. In the green you can see which adjective+abuse combinations are particularly American (left column) and particularly British (right). (Pink means the opposite—much more typical of the other country.)

Click picture to enlarge.
Much of the 'abuse' in the right column (after anti-semitic, racist, homophobic) can be understood to be verbal in nature. (Worth noting: the word abuse is no more common in BrE than in AmE--it's just has more of these green phrases associated with it.) Part of the reason for more occurrences of abuse phrases in BrE is that UK has more policing of verbal actions than the US does—historically in more restrictive libel laws and more recently in greater use of hate-speech laws and anti-social behavio(u)r orders. (In the US, such laws are more apt to be challenged on constitutional grounds due to the First Amendment right of free speech.) So, verbal abuse is going to make it into the news more.

But back to racial and related words: What pushed me to think about the matter again was this tweet from a fellow American linguist in Britain.

This is not the academic analysis that Lauren was looking for, but just more reflection on the differences in how race (in the 'type of people' sense) and words derived from it (racial, racist) are used and interpreted.

There's little that's more culture-dependent than our notions of how many and which races there are among humans and who can belong to which one. And what counts as a race differs a lot depending on why one's asking. The US Census's list of races you can choose from is a strange mix of colo(u)rs, ethnicities, nationalities at different levels of specificity. If all your grandparents came from Tokyo, your race is a nationality, but if they were ethnic Germans, your race is a colo(u)r.

Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin in this case is not counted as a race, but as an ethnic or linguistic group, and people are expected to have a race as well as status as Hispanic/Latinx/Spanish "origin".

But when it comes to talking about racism in America, it's not uncommon for people to talk about racism against Hispanic/Latinx people (on the basis of their membership of that group, not another "racial" group). You can see, for example anti-Latino racism in the US column of line 16 here:

click to enlarge

Look at the dark blue boxes in the GB column, and you see the kind of thing Lauren was alluding to in her tweet: line 3: anti-Muslim racism and line 6, anti-Jewish racism (and later on in the list, smaller numbers of anti-Semitic racism and anti-Islamic racism) are found in much greater numbers in UK than in US. (The US anti-Arab examples were mostly from one source, so I'm not going to make much of Arab being a 'national/ethnic' alternative to the 'religious' British phrasings.) The Irish column is interesting too--where Irish and Welsh are treated as "races" in the British "racism" context--but perhaps not other British contexts. (Though I just checked and there are 74 hits for "the Irish race" in the Ireland data.) (The "immigrant" numbers there are interesting, but that's the word I talk about in The Prodigal Tongue, so I won't repeat myself here.)

Both US and UK have plenty of hits for "the Jewish race" (a phrase used much historically, so not surprising), but none for "the Muslim race" or "the Islamic race". So, in that case it looks like you can be subjected to racism without being a race. Here's a great example of it in a recent (well, recent when I re-started this post) tweet:

Now, religion is not part of the legal definition of race in terms of most UK discrimination law (but religion may well be another category of discrimination in other laws). The Citizens Advice Bureau advises that you may have a case of racial discrimination if you belong to or are perceived to belong to a category under this definition of race:

What is ‘race’?  Race means being part of a group of people who are identified by their race, colour, nationality, citizenship, or ethnic or national origins.
Muslims make up less than 5% of the British population, but are the largest non-Christian religion. Islam mainly came to the UK through immigration from South Asia; about 6% of the population identifies as of South Asian descent (the largest 'racial' minority in Britain). Many British South Asians will have other religious backgrounds, but there about three times as many Muslims as Hindus in the UK, and about 6 times as many Muslims as Sikhs. So, while not all British Muslims are South Asian and not all British South Asians are Muslim, there may be a strong association between being Muslim and being part of a particular ethnic group. Maybe that's why the connection between Islamophobia and racial abuse seems so easy to make in the UK. And perhaps this follows on from the sectarian divisions within and between Britain and Ireland, where discrimination was (and is) not on the basis of skin colour but on the basis of tribalism defined by religion and ethnicity—and where, as we've seen, people do talk about belonging and discrimination in racial terms. 

Muslims are only 1.1% of the US population. Civil rights movements to do with 'race' in the US have concerned much bigger populations: over 12% of the population are Black/African-American and 17% Hispanic/Latinx (more than half of whom ticked 'white' on their census forms). It's not that religion and race are unconnected in the US. The Ku Klux Klan famously has it in for Jews and (historically, at least) Catholics as well as African-Americans. But perhaps since racism in the US has such deep roots and affects so much of the population, it's harder for that word to be extended to other kinds of discrimination.

There may also be something to the idea that religious discrimination is more of its own category in the US, where religion is much more widely and variably practi{c/s}ed. The country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, but not on any principle of racial equality. That said, it's kind of surprising we don't have a widely used single word for religious discrimination, like religionism or faithism. But we don't seem to.

The moral of the story is: races are different in different cultures because (a) those cultures have different histories involving different peoples, and (b) the categori{s/z}ation of people is made up to serve (the power-holders in) those cultures. If you're interested in these kinds of things, I talk about some of them in chapter 7 of The Prodigal Tongue, but also I've written a few blog posts here about race and ethnicity.

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Hello from the Fifth Conference of the International Society for the Linguistics of English, or #ISLE5, as all the cool kids are tweeting it.  We have an afternoon for touristic activities, but since we're in London, I'm feeling a combination of (orig AmE) 'been there, done that' and 'I could do that any time'. What's not available any time is a bit of quiet to blog. So, yay for everyone else going to Samuel Johnson's House (been there, got the postcards) and for my lovely hotel lounge and wifi. Today's post was started possibly years ago (I've lost track), when Lauren Ackerman asked me about British chilli versus American chili.

I went to my usual first stop: the Oxford English Dictionary. And I am sad to say that the entry for this item has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1889—which is to say, look at those spellings!  (Not blaming them, just sad for my post that they haven't got(ten) to this one yet!)

Yes, chilli is still the BrE spelling for piquant peppers--but giving chilly as the alternative spelling and not the standard AmE chili reads very odd in the 21st century. Chili is acknowledged there as a historical spelling, and is present in the quotation evidence in the entry.  And it's consistently been the more common spelling in the US:

(click to enlarge)

At the conference, I've been at two sessions where someone's called into question the OED tagline, visible at the top of the dictionary screenshot: 'The definitive record of the English language". That's marketing talk, not lexicographical talk, and it's unfortunate. There can be no definitive record of the English language, because there is no definitive English language. It's always varying and changing and you can never know if you've found the first instance of a word or the last one, etc. So here's a little plea (in the form of advice) to the Oxford University Press: If you put most before definitive it would be an accurate tagline. And it would have a marketing-department-friendly superlative in it! Win-win!

As a side-note, there's this little bit of puzzling prescriptivism in the run-on to the entry (i.e. the additional defined items at the end), which seems to have been added later—or at least I'm assuming so, given the AmE spelling (it's hard to tell, though, the link to the previous edition includes none of the run-ons).

I've been trying to figure out what that 'erron.' is referring to. I believe what it's saying is that the "real" meaning of chili pepper is 'pepper tree' and it's an error to use it to refer to chil(l)is, but why does it only have the US spelling? It's not clear to me when this chili pepper was added to the entry, as the link to the 2nd edition does not include all the compounds that are in the run-on entries. But it must be old, as it's not marked as a post-2nd-edition addition.  But it's interesting to see how recent it is to say "chil(l)i pepper":

Anyhow, back to the word itself: it comes ultimately from Nahuatl, with an /l/ sound in the middle. We pronounce it with a 'short i' sound (like in chill). You can see, then why BrE likes the double-L spelling: without a double consonant, it looks like it should have a a different vowel: we say wifi differently than we'd say wiffi; fury versus furry, etc.

So why does AmE have a single L? My educated guess would be because Americans have had more consistent contact with Spanish. When the Spanish went to spell it, they used a single L, because double consonants don't do the same thing in Spanish spelling that they do in English. If you pronounce chilli in Spanish, there's no L sound. (What sound is there depends on your dialect of Spanish, but I learned in my US Spanish classes to pronounce the LL like a 'y' sound.) It stayed Spanish-ish in American, while getting a more English-ish spelling in Britain.

Now, I think that back in the mists of time when Lauren requested a post on chil(l)i, she meant the stew, rather than the fruit. I am not going to wade into the debates about what "real" chil(l)i (con carne) should have. But I will say this: every American I've seen to order the dish in the UK has had a moment of "Whaaaa?" when it was served with rice. Not something we're used to. But nice when you get used to it.

There is another spelling issue here, though. The pepper almost always ends with an i, but the stew sometimes ends with an e. But not much anymore, according to my corpus searches:

And on that note, I'll post this before my battery dies!

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It's been months! Contrary to what's perceptible, I am still a blogger! It's just that in the aftermath of the BOOK, I've had a lot of other writing and public-engaging to do. Much of it is collected here. The most recent piece I've published was in The Guardian, and relates to some of my current research with Rachele De Felice (discussed a bit here). In the midst of all this book-promoting and writing for others, I've had to manage working my 7.5 hours/day at the day job.

So let me slip gently back into blogging, with an nice little adjective suggested to me by Paul, a correspondent who's now lived longer in the US than in his birthplace Britain. He writes:
From the Guardian, this caught my eye:

"This grade I-listed house was built in 1704 and refronted by Robert Adam in 1774-80. Inside, it has a number of ravishing interiors which are still intact. It was sold 10 years ago and since then the house has been disused."

'Disused' by H.L.I.T.

Disused? What's wrong with unused ? :) 

Fairly sure this term has been almost completely replaced by "unused" in AmE.  Obviously, the "dis" prefix has "previously used" as an implication that "unused" lacks. But still ... it really grated on my (inner) hears to read "the house has been disused" and though it worth drawing to your marvellous attention.

(Paul is showing his birthplace there with the double-L in marvellous!)

While it grates on Paul, I find the distinction between unused (connotations of 'pristine') and disused (connotations of 'abandoned') rather useful.

And I'd just not noticed it as British, but (orig. BrE) lookee here:

Very British. So, three possibilities:
  1. It never made it to America (i.e. it was invented after AmE & BrE split).
  2. It existed before British settlement in North America, but fell out of use into disuse in the new place. [Thanks to Tobias in the comments for the improved phrasing.]
  3. It existed before British settlement, but maybe it wasn't part of the vocabulary of the people who settled in the US.
We can rule out option 1 right away. The OED has the current sense of disused back in the 1600s, so it existed for the British to bring it to America. And we can probably rule out number 3, since it seems to have been well used in 19th century AmE:

In the mid-20th century, Americans hardly knew the word at all. (It was an autological word in AmE. Disused was disused!)

But look at it getting bluer in the 2000s. Could it be in the process of a second westward migration?

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)