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ї before е

1 Mar

It began on a faintly sceptical note – “what is the BBC up to now?” – but the Daily Mail’s change of heart, and change of house style from Kiev to Kyiv, happened quickly.

Last Wednesday, this article appeared on its website: for the Mail, a rare discussion of the implications of language that came close to publicly acknowledging the existence of the Daily Mail style guide (and how one would love to get a sight of that). And although the headline and first paragraph are redolent of the usual suspicion of the national broadcaster,

the rest of the article is actually an informative and lucid discussion of the question:

“Ukraine’s capital is known as Київ in Ukrainian and Киев in Russian. Both terms do not have a direct translation into the Roman alphabet, with Kiev, Kyiv, Kyyiv or Kiyev all being possibilities. 

But the spelling ‘Kiev’ is intrinsically linked with the old USSR due to its widespread use by the British and Americans while the city was under Soviet rule. 

This continued after independence in 1991, until ‘Kyiv’ was legally approved by the Ukrainian government …

Young Ukrainians see ‘Kiev’ as a relic of the Soviet past, and this view is now shared by the government, which launched a ‘KyivNotKiev’ campaign in 2018. 

At this stage, the Mail is still keeping its journalistic distance – the last line of the article is a brisk “MailOnline has contacted the BBC for comment”, interrogating the corporation on the reader’s behalf. But by Friday morning, the following note had appeared in the print edition:

and by Friday lunchtime, the website was leaping on board a social media bandwagon to get others to follow suit:

A style guide change within two days of first raising a style issue in public, and an explicitly advertised one at that: that’s unusual behaviour for the Mail.

Of course, commentators were not slow to point out that acknowledging preferred terms in this way might set an awkward precedent for Britain’s leading scourge of wokeness. As Neil Fisher of the Times acutely put it: “I love the distinction here between ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘a symbolic show of support’.”

But there seems no disagreement in the Mail, or among its critics, or in linguistic circles, about another aspect of the decision, which is the necessity and desirability of prescriptivism in these instances. Although linguists frequently condemn the imposition of editors’ arbitrary (sometimes very arbitrary) rules on published writing, few ever object when an oppressed group pleads for a deliberate change in language to be enforced. On Google Ngrams, which offers results for English up to 2019, the use of Kiev (blue line) always comfortably outstrips Kyiv (red line), which barely figures on the graph until the 1990s – one guesses as a result of independence – and then kicks up sharply from the early 2000s onwards, at around the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Kiev is, strictly speaking, the popular choice over time. But in circumstances like these, no one contends that corpus results should decide an argument on usage. Other considerations prevail.

These debates are not always easy ones: names and spellings matter to oppressors as well as the oppressed, as dictators’ renamings of cities and countries (and, in the case of President Nyazov of Turkmenistan, even days of the week) remind us. The Guardian thought hard before replacing “Burma” with “Myanmar” in copy, weighing the balance between an old name redolent of empire and a new one chosen by a brutal junta.

But the point is: these choices matter. They matter not just to editors in the newsroom, but to the people we are reporting on. Using a name, or shunning it, is, in the words of David Marsh, the Guardian’s former style guide editor, “a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval” – a way of signalling your support, and your values. Popularity and precedent, the principles on which descriptivism runs, are not equal to these circumstances. This is the other, not always acknowledged, side of prescriptivism – progressive, rather than regressive, and alive to the resonances embedded in a word, or even a spelling, that a purely descriptivist approach cannot hear.

The wonder of Woolsworths

10 Nov

It turned out not to be true: Woolworths was not reopening in Britain. It was a hoax, announced from a stunted-up Twitter account and unwisely seized upon by numerous British media outlets. And how did people begin to realise it was a fake? Because of the typos.

As the BBC reports, the Twitter feed (now suspended) referred to the brand as “Woolsworths” more than once – deliberately, its teenage creator says – and although some of the media may have been fooled, several people on social media weren’t:

As we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging or corporate communications, its absence is suspicious. Posts that purport to be from an official body written in casual – specifically, unedited – English seem as jarringly inauthentic as jokey Halloween Twitter handles do in serious news reports.

It is one of this blog’s hobby-horses that formality has its uses: however absurd “proper English” seems to linguists, it is the language authority speaks, and to which it most readily responds. In anyone’s mouth, it has the power to command. And it also serves another purpose, even today: as an implicit guarantor of authenticity. This is why consumer rights groups still advise customers to be alert to language errors on suspicious websites. As Which? puts it: “Watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or phrases that don’t sound quite right.”

Scammers and pranksters could solve many of their authenticity problems by hiring editors, of course. But, perhaps fortunately, they seem to have as little respect for the craft of editing as many news organisations.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”

Sous rapture

26 May

“Since the word is inaccurate it is struck through,” Heidegger wrote, “Since it is necessary, it remains visible.” And so was born the concept of sous rature (literally, “under erasure”) – the simultaneous printing and crossing-out of a word on the page to show that, while you have no alternative but to use it, it does not fully mean what you need it to mean.

The word Heidegger wrote and struck through was “Being”. The Deconstructionists loved the whole idea, of course, and merrily struck through many more on their way to discovering, over and over again, that the signifier was not the signified and the author was dead.  Now it looks like sous rature has broken out and is going to make some serious money at last, because it’s found its way into the self-help publishing market.

Except that – and this is the annoyingly vigilant editorial conscience at work again – if you state something is not a diet book, and then you cross that out … doesn’t that mean that it is a diet book? Or is the language of deconstruction – like the English language itself – capable of supporting more than one negative in a clause?

Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.


(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

Out and out

6 Aug

Oops, there’s a repeated word. This is why proofreading is so important, even close to deadline. Something always slips through.

Oh, wait, hang on: there’s a link.

Oh, wait, hang on: it’s a thing.

And it appears that “going out out” is only the mid-price option in a range of three:

To clarify: going out, tout court, is the simple dinner with mates: “think shiny fabric, a feather trim or, to really nod to the late 90s moment, a sequin cami and pair of wedge sandals”. Going out out “involves some preparation, an acceptance that best laid plans may go awry and a look that is both committed to the party without being too sensible” (in other words “go for something long and shimmery à la Bottega Veneta and whack a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath if you’re planning to go three parties deep”.) Going out out out – the big one is “a night out that may well turn into a lost weekend”, for which you will need “sequins, but with a polo neck underneath, sparkles, but on a low heel, hemlines below the knee and, the stealth secret weapon, sleeves”. (Not to mention, as the article wisely reminds us, a coat.)

It’s going to stay in, but I’m hyphenating it. It just looks like a mistake otherwise.

And to think I almost deleted it. I really am starting to get too old for this.

Turn left at the crosshairs

21 Aug

Possible language-change alert:








“At the crossroads” means to be at a turning point. “In the crosshairs” means to be someone’s target. But it looks like these metaphors may be careering down different roads towards the same poorly lit intersection.

As to which direction things will go in after the collision, it’s not clear. The sense of numbers 1, 3 and 6 appears to be “in the crosshairs” (and to be fair to Hasan Minhaj, the speaker featured in the first example, that’s clearly what he says in the video: he’s  misquoted in the headline). But 2, 4, 5 and 7 clearly suggest the meaning “at the crossroads” (indeed, in number 7, The Good Bike Co of Prineville, Oregon, are literally describing a junction).

The newest example (the first one) appeared last week on the BBC website and the oldest ones date back to 2009; those were all I could find on Google for “at the crosshairs” as a metaphor. So it’s early days yet: there’s barely a flicker on the Ngram.

But still, there’s something worryingly plausible about it as a phrase: the easily overlooked malapropism, the fact that both metaphors express, broadly speaking, a sense of being in a tricky position. On the subs’ desk we’ll do our best to keep directing traffic, of course. But how often does language change obey a stop sign?

Happy anniversary

3 Apr

Ten Minutes Past Deadline is five! I’d like to say “five today”, but in fact it was five last Friday: the first post on this site went up on 30 March 2013.

Although many subjects have attracted its attention, including baseball, cartoons and the rise of IMDb’s formidable robot copydesk, this blog has all too frequently returned to the subject that first inspired it: prescriptivism and formal English. The first post that ever appeared here arose from years of reading two inspiring blogs – You Don’t Say and HeadsUp – and, through them, becoming increasingly engaged with editing’s big issues: ethics, grammar, ambiguity, statistics, and, above all, language change.

Written in response to a debate on how forward-thinking one should be when editing someone else’s writing, that post was motivated by a slightly defensive sense that although formal English was indefensible, it was somehow important too: and that, even though the case against prescriptivist crotchets was unanswerable, deadline was not the right moment to get into an argument with a writer over notional agreement.

Five years later, that debate is as hard to resolve as ever, but the advice, tips and ideas readers have offered over that time have helped move the blog forward immeasurably. Thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, shared, liked, quoted, linked to, disagreed with and retweeted it over the past half-decade. And, by way of celebration, here is a distillation of what Ten Minutes Past Deadline now thinks it thinks (at least currently) about formal English:


Formal English is absurd, but unmistakable

There is no academic justification for the ban on split infinitives, or the stricture that forbids qualifying a sentence with “hopefully”, or the objection to ending a sentence with a preposition, or for many of the other rules taught or followed as being “good English”. And yet, taken together, those rules have come to create a recognisable register: a tone, a rhetoric, a voice. However baseless its antecedents, when formal English is spoken, everyone recognises it for what it is: the language in which power speaks and expects to be addressed.


Formal English is not imposed from above

The English language has no central authority, not even an ineffectual one like the Academie Française. Everyone who has tried to suggest usage changes, or best practice, or new words, has had to do so from a position as a private citizen – or, at best, as part of a self-appointed body. None of them have had the power to compel correct usage. The mechanism by which, say, a language commentator’s suggestion becomes a teaching point in primary-school English, which is then carried forward into the solicitors’ letters and leading articles of a generation of adults, is an achievement of influence, not enforcement. Prescriptivism in English has to win hearts and minds; there is no state imprimatur to reinforce the message. Which leads us to a surprising conclusion:


Formal English is a descriptivist phenomenon

In Modern English Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1930s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, some of which caught on: some, but not all. Proposing, it appears, is not enough: every piece of language change, from the accidental to the intentional, has to pass the test of usage.

Some of Fowler’s ideas were terrible, but some – such as his forgotten proposals for punctuating parentheses – were just as useful as his “which/that” distinction, which has become a staple of legal English. Similarly, the BBC committee failed in its primary task of inventing a new word for one who watches television (the corporation rejected  “auralooker” and went for “viewer”), but it did successfully popularise the term “roundabout” for the road junction. The unpredictability of these successes and failures suggests that prescription, just like natural language change, is subject to the mysterious processes of acceptance by which English is ultimately formed. That means many prescriptivist initiatives are doomed to failure: but it does suggest that the ones that have survived to create what we now call “formal English” have passed the stern test of public approval.

A new hopefully

28 Nov

I fear the people who don’t like sentence adverbs are not going to like this:

And, although I don’t normally have a problem with “hopefully”, for once I might agree.

Sentence adverbs – or, as linguists call them, “modal adjuncts” – are adverbs that, rather than modifying the verb in a sentence, express an attitude towards the sentence itself. They frequently appear at the start of the sentence, set off by a comma: “Hopefully, I’ll find them”; Honestly, you may not”; “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Although all such words can operate as standard adverbs* – “she looked up hopefully”; “he spoke honestly for the first time”; “his eyes gazed frankly into hers” – when placed in certain contexts they take on a higher function: one of commenting on the thought being expressed.

Of all the common sentence adverbs, “hopefully” is the one that resonates with editors most, because it became the subject of a brief but heated usage debate about 50 years ago, as Geoffrey Pullum recounts in a blogpost on Lingua Franca:

The 1960s saw an increase in the frequency of modal-adjunct use for another adverb: hopefully. Alongside They’ll wait hopefully (“They’ll wait with hope in their hearts”), it became increasingly popular to use sentences like Hopefully they’ll wait (“It is to be hoped that they’ll wait”).

This unremarkable little piece of linguistic evolution might have gone unnoticed, if the aging usage specialist Wilson Follett had not bristled. It is “un-English and eccentric” to use the word that way, he asserted dogmatically (Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966), page 170), even though (as he said) the German equivalent “hoffentlich” is fine in modal-adjunct use.

Follett was dead by 1963 (his posthumous usage book was completed by Jacques Barzun and others), but he left a legacy: By the late 1960s, using hopefully as a modal adjunct was widely taken to be a grammatical sin.

As John McIntyre observes in You Don’t Say, Follett’s language was ferocious enough to have quite an impact – “how readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel”, he says at one point – and the disapproval spread to other style manuals. But it proved to have shallow roots: faced with popular usage and the existence of other unproblematic sentence adverbs in English, such as “mercifully”, people began to retreat from their positions. As Prof Pullum says:

For a few years, battles raged and peevers fumed. But the opposition peaked when disco was young, and Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra were hot. By 1979, [conservative language columnist] William Safire had accepted the modal-adjunct use of hopefully … The dispute was basically over.

It was, having started and finished in less than two decades – although Associated Press, out of an abundance of caution, prohibited the usage until 2012 before finally caving in.

But although the acceptability of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb is now settled, that does not mean that it succeeds as one in all situations. While it is certainly not true that modal adjuncts always need to be at the start of a sentence, or even set off with commas, to work, as Prof Pullum shows in the following example –

Compare “He was flirting with her too obviously”, which comments on the manner of the flirting, and “He was obviously flirting with her”, which doesn’t.

– there is nonetheless something amiss with the Gary Younge standfirst that prevents “hopefully” from functioning as intended.

The sentence is an intricate one: the main subject and verb, “I decided”, is then followed by a long, comparative construction: “ignoring a feted white supremacist was more dangerous than hopefully exposing him”. In fact, the comparative construction functions as a complete sentence on its own; the main verb is “was”, and the subject of the sentence is “ignoring a feted white supremacist” – a verb phrase functioning as a noun, or, in other words, a gerund.

The object in the more/than construction is also a gerund – “exposing him” – and it is this idea of exposure that “hopefully” is trying to comment on, rather than directly modify. But, if anything, it really only succeeds in doing the latter and creating the idea of “exposing in a hopeful manner”.

It is possible to use modal adjuncts with gerundive constructions – “Hopefully, going to the coffee shop won’t make me late” – but I can’t think of an example where they succeed other than when placed at the start or the end of a simple sentence. In this standfirst, however, we have a “sentence adverb” that is neither intended to modify the verb that it sits next to, nor the sentence as a whole, but instead act as a comment on one of two gerunds contained in an independent clause. Setting it off in commas might help a bit, but, I fear, not enough. Sentence adverbs can do a lot, but I don’t think they can do that much.


*Also known as “manner adjuncts”.


14 Nov

Spotted on holiday. Probably largely preheated and nonfat. Let’s hope it isn’t parboiled, halfbaked, overdone or indigestible: if so, it’ll be left uneaten.