The progressive prescriptivist

23 Jun Small taxi

If you ever wondered what “Mx” meant – as in the courtesy title, “Mx Pat Smith” – you can now look it up. Stan Carey at Sentence First writes that the dictionary for which he works, Macmillan, has created an entry for it for the first time.

Mx is like Ms, but whereas Ms is a title that is non-specific about marital status, Mx is a title that is non-specific about sex. It’s intended for trans people, intersex people and others who would prefer not to be specific, at least in formal correspondence, about gender.

Although it’s completely new to me, Mx appears to have been invented, according to a well-researched post by Nat Titman, as long ago as the late 1970s. The lexicographer Jonathan Dent attributes its first use to a US magazine in 1977, and observes: “The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

But the key here is that, whoever invented it and whenever it happened, it was invented: that is to say, it was consciously proposed as a new word in the hope of introducing it into the language. Mx has no roots in Middle English, nor was it naturally appropriated from 18th-century Persian. It is a suggestion, a proposal, an innovation; in other words, it is prescriptivist.

In its identification of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English Usage:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

Exactly the same was true, 114 years ago, about Ms. As the linguist Ben Zimmer notes in the New York Times, when the term was proposed, it too was an innovation – another artificial construct designed to bridge an obvious gap in the language. Just a few years after the publication of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, an anonymous resident of Massachusetts wrote in the Springfield Sunday Republican:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill … Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.

And so he went on to propose the use of Ms as a simple, embarrassment-avoiding alternative: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

A few years ago, there was an interesting discussion on You Don’t Say about the politics of linguistics: specifically, whether prescriptivists were rightwing and descriptivists leftwing. Left-of-centre commentators pointed out that prescriptivists spent much of their time being explicitly conservative: defending old usages and deriding new ones. Right-of-centre commentators objected to the what they saw as the hypocrisy of political correctness, which they perceived as the “prescriptivism of the left”. What the invention of Mx, and the success of Ms, suggest is that the linguistic-political divide is more complex than simple left-and-right.

In the decades that followed the proposal of “Ms”, the term provoked political debate. It was mocked as modish, or defended as equitable: a classic left-right disagreement. But that debate did not take place between prescriptivists and descriptivists; it happened between two different schools of prescriptivism, conservative and progressive – one group who wanted to preserve the language, the other who wanted to improve it. Engineering change and enforcing traditions are both equally alien to descriptivism, which, in its purest form, simply observes popularity and usage regardless of antecedents.

The procedure by which words get into a dictionary, of course, remains a descriptivist one: Macmillan would not have considered Mx for inclusion simply on the basis of one magazine editor’s decision. Usage, and evidence of usage, is the only measure of success or failure for an innovation. Prescriptivism proposes, descriptivism disposes.

But that process is not as easily projected onto the left-versus-right political map as it might seem – for example, modern linguistics might have waited indefinitely for a non-sexist alternative to “chairman” if a progressive prescriptivist had not suggested “chair”. Descriptivism can be laissez-faire as well as inclusive; prescriptivists can innovate as much as they preserve.

Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

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Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

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A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?

Marginal differences

14 May

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It’s not all that hard to count to 331, but, as we can see above, there’s more than one way to get there.

In the aftermath of the general election, it fell to me to check the paper’s giant map of the seats won and lost across Britain on 7 May. In particular, the graphics department wanted to know how many gains – gross gains, that is: gains before losses – had actually been made, so that they could list them all around the map. Out of a total of 650 parliamentary seats, that seemed like an elementary request. Or so I thought, until I found that two reliable sources (the Guardian, top, and the BBC, above) were giving completely different figures.

To take the Conservatives as an example, both sources have them winning 331 seats in total. But the Guardian has them gaining 38 seats from other parties (and losing 10), while the BBC has them gaining 35 (and losing 11). How can that be? No wonder graphics was puzzled: I was too.

Clearly, since they imply net gains of 28 and 24 seats respectively, the two sums can’t even be working from the same base figure of constituencies held before the election. So what figures are they using? Subtracting the net gains from the total of seats now held – 331 – is an obvious place to start. That reveals that the Guardian (331 – 28) is working on a basis of 303 Conservative seats already held, while the BBC (331 – 24) is working on a basis of 307.

Hmm. Odd. Can we relate either of those two figures to data about the previous election? Time for a quick trip to the Electoral Commission’s website, where we find that … oh:

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Now we have a third figure for seats won in 2010: 306. What’s going on? Can we not even agree on a figure for the number of seats the largest party in the country holds from one general election to the next?

And then, after slightly longer than one cares to admit, the light began to dawn. The clue to the Electoral Commission figure is down at the bottom of the graphic: “Speaker (1)”. The Speaker of the House of Commons is an apolitical figure who votes only in the most exceptional of circumstances; nonetheless, he or she is still notionally an MP who stands for election as a representative of one of the parties. And the current Speaker, John Bercow, is a Conservative: the Tory MP for Buckingham. So if you add him to the Conservative total, you get 307: the same as the BBC’s figure. And then it all starts to become a lot clearer.

Clearly, the BBC is using the data from the 2010 election as its basis point. So what is the Guardian using? One obvious possibility is that it is factoring in changes to the makeup of the Commons that have taken place since 2010. Can we account for the discrepancy by looking at byelection results in the last parliament?

According to parliament.uk, there were 21 byelections in the last parliament. Three of them resulted in the Conservatives losing a seat, and all three are still reasonably memorable events for political wonks: author Louise Mensch’s unexpected resignation from her seat in Corby in 2012, which resulted in a Labour win; and the high-profile defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless from the Tories to Ukip in the runup to the election, when both incumbents won their seats back under new colours.

That reduces the number of seats the Tories held in parliament from 307 to 304, which is getting closer to the Guardian’s figure. Could it be that the Guardian is simply discounting the Speaker’s seat? It seems not: the election interactive is clear that it is talking about all 650 seats in the country, not 649 as would be the case if Buckingham were excluded.

It’s only when, exploring the interactive, you discover the striking fact that ultra-safe Tory seat of Kensington is described as a “gain” that you find the last missing piece. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and MP for Kensington, was suspended by the Conservative party, and ultimately decided not to stand for re-election, after being caught in a cash-for-access newspaper sting in February. Technically, therefore, as a sitting MP who has had the party whip withdrawn, he counted as a seat lost before the election, and therefore a Tory “gain” (from an “independent”) when his successor duly won. So the Guardian’s total, omitting Mensch, Carswell, Reckless and Rifkind, is also correct: 303.

So who’s right? In short, everyone. The BBC is working on a previous-election basis, using unmodified figures from the 2010 ballot. The Guardian is using eve-of-election figures, reflecting the actual position of the parties on the day before the country voted in 2015.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. If you work on an eve-of-election basis, you’re using running totals based on the quality of your own electoral research and arithmetic. If you work only on the official previous-election numbers, the maths is simpler, but you have to remember the “byelection factor”: some triumphant regainings of marginals lost in midterm will actually be “holds” for your purposes, and some routine victories for the winners of half-forgotten byelections actually “gains”.

If you’re wrestling with British electoral totals (and you might not be for another five years … although who knows?), here’s a table covering four of the most likely problems you may encounter (click to enlarge). As to how 2020’s calculations will go, if the major boundary changes and seat reductions planned by the Tories go through in this parliament – heaven only knows.

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The surnames flowchart

30 Apr

For years, I didn’t know this about Burmese names:

Burmese people do not have first names or last names in the western sense (although in informal speech many people use shortened nicknames). Thus when referring to Burmese people … you should always use the full form of the person’s name. For example, Mi Mi Khaing should never be referred to as just “Khaing” or “Daw Khaing”.

It’s not in our style guide, but it is in Wikipedia’s. And not only is there no forename/last name, but the name itself may contain honorifics that disappear or change over the course of a person’s life.

Foreign names in copy are a constant trap for the unwary. For example, it might be unwise to truncate the noms de guerre of jihadists or other fighters in the Middle East: “Abu Qatada” means “Father of Qatada”, so shortening it to “Qatada” can, it may be argued, suggest the writer is talking about the son, not the father. Then there is the question of Spanish names, with their patronymics and matronymics (Gabriel Garcia Lorca) – do you mention the matronymic at all, or once at first mention, or use both throughout (or, as occasionally happens, use the matronymic alone)? Transliteration of mainland Chinese names (generally two words) differs from transliteration of Taiwanese and Korean names (generally three). And any rule for any country can be overridden by an individual’s own preference for spelling or form of address.

But before you get to the problems that foreign names present, or even the special rules for kings and queens*, you have to think about something even more complex and nuanced: domestic names.

Other cultures’ naming customs may be less familiar, but the style-guide rules for them are shorter and more definitive. With English names, familiarity itself is the problem: we are all too aware of the shades of courtesy or offence potentially contained in the use of honorifics, diminutives, first names or surnames.

So, when editing, you have to be aware that style of address can be different for different ages and circumstances; for real and assumed names; for before and after criminal convictions; and even for different sections of the newspaper. And so the question of how to refer to someone in a news article isn’t easy to sum up in a sentence or two: rules of thumb aren’t enough. For this, you really need a flowchart.

This is the decision tree for English names as it stands at the Tribune. To use it, start at the top and go down, and if the answer to any of the questions is “yes”, turn right and follow the appropriate path. We are a paper that generally omits honorifics except in leading articles: further wrinkles of complexity would be added at a paper in which honorifics are generally used but with exceptions (e.g. for criminals), or at a paper that drops honorifics for commoners at second mention but retains them for peers (which was the Tribune’s former policy).

Click on the flowchart to open it, then click to magnify. See you at one of the endpoints.

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* Brief title and forename in full at first mention (“Queen Elizabeth II”); never Her Royal Highness or HRH; forename only thereafter.

Film editors

14 Apr

Another submission to IMDb, another response it would be fair to characterise as “robust”:

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We first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence following a high-profile marketing campaign in which the company attempted to grammar-check EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey when the film of the book premiered. It ran James’s text and that of several famous historical authors through the system, and presented its findings in a lively press release.

Grammarly is a hugely ambitious undertaking: an algorithm that attempts to read and parse text like a human editor, and check spellings and punctuation in context. Unfortunately, the marketing push didn’t go as well as might have been hoped. As was widely observed, notably by Jonathan Owen at Arrant Pedantry, the worked examples contained several infelicities or mistakes, including some questionable overpunctuating and a suggestion that The Tempest be corrected to “We are such stuff on which dreams are made on“. As Arrant Pedantry concluded, many of the things Grammarly found in its press release weren’t errors and, where it intervened, “the suggested fixes always worsen the writing”.

The IMDb parser is a much less ambitious undertaking. It doesn’t work on free-form text or purport to “read”: instead, it controls inputs tightly by using step-by-step data entry. And yet somehow, it feels so much more like being edited.

Above all, it’s the tone. As ever, the rejection notice at the top is brisk but not wholly discouraging, like a copy editor intercepting a reporter with a question. Then there’s the fact-checking and the resultant queries, and the automatic corrections for house style (surname, first name), done without a song and dance. Then there’s the institutional memory and the ever-so-slight weariness that goes with it: there are 3,304 attributes like this already – are you sure you want to create a new one? Then there’s the encouragement not to touch the type: “If you don’t understand how the ordering should be formatted, please leave it blank.” And, as we saw last time, it enforces word counts ruthlessly and threatens to reassign material elsewhere if it’s not cut to fit.

Maybe Grammarly wouldn’t have stumbled over the cap ‘W’ in “Written” and asked for guidance; IMDb doesn’t do line-by-line context and only really spellchecks the proper nouns already in its database. But this is big-picture, organisational editing for accuracy and factual consistency. Rather than entering the murky, and often highly debatable, world of comma use and the passive voice, it just aims to get things cross-referred and reliable.

In fact, quite a lot of real editors’ work is like the kind of  “database editing” IMDb does. Is that how we normally spell it? Haven’t I read that paragraph somewhere else? Someone else has written a piece about this: what does that say? The parser may not be able to write a headline, but it can certainly keep control of a multi-contributor encyclopaedia.

Assertive,  detail-oriented, unbending about style, weary but polite – and, as we see from the “override” tickboxes, stoical about the possibility of being ignored: doesn’t that sound just like an editor? These robots are getting more lifelike by the day.

Hear me rort

26 Mar

I’m sorry, a what?

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A couple of months ago, we were tripping over a story on the Guardian’s most-read list that gave no clue that it was about Australia until about two paragraphs into the body text. Not much danger of that happening this time: whatever a “rort” is, it brings you up short before you’ve even clicked on the link.

And it turns out that this is a Guardian Australia story too: a “rort” is Australian slang for a “dodge” or a “scam”. As Google puts it:

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Collins suggests that it’s a back-formation from the adjective “rorty” (“boisterous, high-spirited”), which I have come across in the northern hemisphere before (specifically in car magazines); this is a first for me with the noun, though.

It sticks out on a long way on a British web front page, but this is the same phenomenon we encountered last time with regard to multi-newsroom operations. This may have sneaked through the content management system into another hemisphere, but it’s an Australian story for an Australian audience about Australian tax affairs: of course it should be written in Australian English.

Language and locality questions aren’t always as simple as that, though. What if this were an Australia-bureau story ordered by and for the US newsdesk about a presidential visit to Canberra? What if it had been a Super Bowl preview from the New York sports editor, produced in the US but written as a primer for viewers in Britain? Or what if – as with an article I worked on last week – it were a feature by a UK-born but US-based writer about a major American corporation, commissioned by the London desk to brief a British audience, but still with half an eye on readers in the States?

The feature was about Starbucks’s controversial RaceTogether campaign – its attempt to stimulate conversations on the subject of race relations between baristas and customers at the counter. In the end, the idea was seriously rethought less than a week after it started, but not before one of our feature writers was sent out to canvass opinions in the district of Brooklyn where Starbucks’s founder, Howard Schultz, grew up. And one of the people he spoke to lived in – well, that was the problem.

The expatriate reporter, who now writes largely in American English, called it “public housing”. British readers won’t quite be sure what that is – they’ll almost know, but not quite. In the days before the Tribune had an internationally ambitious website, I would have changed this immediately to “housing estate”. But I’m aware that that term isn’t really used in the US, where a more usual synonym would be “housing project”.

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So: what to do? Change it, for the British readers for whom the piece was commissioned? Leave it, for the American readers who may ultimately make up the bulk of the article’s readership?

In stories written in, by and for one country, these choices are easy. Even for articles written in one newsroom at the request of another, they aren’t too difficult, as long as it’s the bureau that ordered the piece that then takes responsibility for editing it. But what about stories written for more than one audience?

And it’s not simply a matter of word choice: the audience you have in mind will also dictate the news angle, presentation, tone and style the article ends up with. It will determine which bits of background or explanation you feel confident to cut and which must be left in.

Imagine, let’s say, a funny-photo story in which the US president takes the prime minister to a baseball game, and the photo shows the entire White House entourage leaping to its feet to cheer a triple play while the PM, the only one still seated in the photo, looks bemused. If you’re writing it up for the UK edition, you’re going to need to explain why a triple play is so rare; but a beginner’s explanation would alienate American readers. Even if you choose to skirt around it for the UK edition and just call it “a spectacular play on the field”, US readers are going to be curious about what the play was.

In the earliest days of the Tribune’s international operations, the flow of overnight stories from Australia was so novel that many of them found their way onto the UK front page, until it was gently pointed out that British readers might be seeing slightly too much of Tony Abbott in the morning. With websites as a whole, that’s easy to fix: you can just serve a different homepage to visitors depending on location, and curate their content accordingly.

But you can’t do that with an article: one piece of text is all you get, visible all across the internet. And, linguistically speaking, there’s no neutral ground: you have to pick sides. Maybe that explains the Guardian’s advertising banner for its expanded Major League Soccer coverage this season: “Follow our MLS stories. Soccer or football, whatever you choose to call it.”

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The uses of formality

6 Mar
Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

If all prescriptivists were this cool, descriptivism wouldn’t stand a chance:

In the dead of night, two men steal through the streets of Quito armed with spray cans and a zeal for reform. They are not political activists or revolutionaries: they are radical grammar pedants on a mission to correctly punctuate Ecuador’s graffiti.

Adding accents, inserting commas and placing question marks at the beginning and end of interrogative sentences scrawled on the city’s walls, the vigilante editors have intervened repeatedly over the past three months to expose the orthographic shortcomings of would-be poets, forlorn lovers and anti-government campaigners.

The first images of this guerrilla nitpicking exploded across social networks in December, but despite their global notoriety, the group – Acción Ortográfica Quito – have kept their identities secret and have never given a media interview until now.

Imagine swooping through the neon-lit urban landscape with a spray can and that firm a grasp of Spanish diacritical marks. Imagine graffitising the graffiti of protest itself. Imagine just belonging to an organisation called “Acción Ortográfica”. These are lawyers with punctuation-derived street names in their thirties, on a mission to educate and entertain – and judging by the photograph at the top of the page, with an attitude to ellipses that’s almost as hostile as IMDb’s.

And yet … in the light of the just-departed National Grammar Day, and its gleeful celebration of nitpicking, this also feels like going a little bit too far. Shorn of the wit and the big-city coolness, is this actually any better than Lynne Truss’s grumpy attempts to assault greengrocer’s signs with a felt-tip pen?

Mindful of the tendency for prescriptivist festivities to get out of hand at this time of year, John McIntyre at You Don’t Say wrote this on the eve of National Grammar Day:

Item:  Do not aspire to be a grammar Nazi, and don’t indulge people who use the term. Nazis are not funny unless you are Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks. You are not Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks …

Item: It is not your job to correct misused apostrophes or other errors in signage. Resist the temptation … keep in mind that English has many dialects, each with distinctive properties. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

And that’s the problem. There are, as descriptivists are fond of saying, “many voices”, of which formal English is only one. Indeed, it’s more than one: as You Don’t Say goes on to observe: “Just as there is no one English but a variety of dialects, there is not even one standard written American English, but a spectrum.” Graffiti is written English, but not formal English. It doesn’t need to be entirely correct.

Other things, however, do.

Very formal English – the kind found in our venerated 18th and 19th-century usage guides – is little more than a collection of antiquated grammar, mistakes, Latinate superstitions and quixotic innovations. But however dubious its antecedents – and they are often shaky or even baseless – it has been, and remains, the English of government, the police, the corporate attorney: the voice of those who have power to command. Fowler’s suggestion on “which” and “that” in restrictive clauses has found its way into more than a dozen state legislature drafting manuals. Copies of Strunk and White are, or were, sent out to those newly admitted to the bar of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unsplitting infinitives,  moving prepositions away from the end of the sentence, using “whom” in the right place: in the most formal circumstances, these are not just superstitious efforts at “correctness”, but something more: they are a raising of the rhetorical stakes, an appropriation of the register in which the most serious matters are discussed. Relationship therapists teach something called “tone-matching” to help people who struggle to get their point across in arguments. If someone is polite, you are polite. If someone becomes curt, you become curt. If someone raises their voice, you raise it too – not more, not less, but exactly the same amount.

The capacity to detect and respond to changes of tone is an essential part of doing well in disputes, and the same applies to writing as it does in speech. Litigators don’t use slang, and neither do leader writers. The register they use might crumble to dust on close inspection of its antecedents, but it still sends a powerful signal: that the matter is grave, and that gravity is expected in reply.

And this is why people seek guidance from editors, or Fowler, or Strunk and White. Not for advice on informal English: nobody needs help with that. They need help with formal English: they need their tone to match the tone of their interlocutor.  They need to sound as forbidding to the solicitor as the solicitor sounds to them, or as authoritative and competent to a new employer as a successful candidate should.

So, if a friend applying for a job asks you whether it should be “whom” in the sentence “My former employer was Joe Dough & Co, from whom you may obtain references”, the correct answer is not “there are many voices”; the correct answer, this time, is “yes”. In this context, in this tone, at this stage in the relationship, formality is advisable and “whom” is the correct choice. What is nitpicking and tin-eared in one register is resonant and appropriate in another.  As editors, we can weigh audience, tone, register, changing patterns of usage, and still come to a conclusion. We can make those calculations effortlessly: that is why they are asking us.

In that sense, the zombie rules of the 18th and 19th century prescriptivists are almost beyond criticism. They have become embedded in the law and the classroom, and in a generation of usage manuals that have still not been superseded in the common imagination. Like so much language change, they were born out of misapprehension and error, and yet have become part of English nonetheless; they are now as much an inexplicable descriptivist phenomenon as surfer slang or the changing meaning of “iconic”. In an English of many voices, formality is a voice too.

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