There was some good material in the blog that EL&U used to have. This Meta post brings back some of them, with each blog post preserved as an individual answer below.


  • The blog still comes up for me: english.blogoverflow.com . If you point out the specific articles you think need preservation, we can find a hime for them.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:37
  • @DanBron Thank you! The link disappeared from the ELU/SE menu. I'll go through it and drop stuff here.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:38
  • I'd like to start with the first article, "Why did I delete your answer?". Does anyone have the source text, so we can more easily preserve the formatting?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:40
  • I don't know, I've asked on Meta.se. You may follow the discussion there.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:49
  • @DanBron Good idea!
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:53
  • @Lawrence You can manually try converting the html from source to markdown. domchristie.github.io/to-markdown
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 15:28
  • @NVZ Thanks! That will help a lot.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 15:36
  • I did not know there was (is?) an EL&U blog! Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 4:27
  • 1
    I added the rest of the posts. I can't suggest an edit to the Q, so here's the post links in markdown: paste.ubuntu.com/25137446 The only post left is english.blogoverflow.com/2015/02/… (which turned out to be too long: ~60k characters where the maximum is 30k). There might still be some punctuation errors (spaces before commas, periods, closing parentheses, etc.)
    – muru
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 5:06
  • @Lawrence I say we convert it all to CW.
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 11:39
  • @muru Thank you!
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 23:11
  • @NVZ Yes, let's do that.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 23:12

24 Answers 24


You Could Look It Up

by StoneyB 2012-12-17, filed under English Stack Exchange

Your question has been “Closed as General Reference”. That raises more questions: What does that mean? Why was it closed? What should you do about it?

What Does It Mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “Your question is worthless. Don’t bother us.” It certainly doesn’t mean “You are an illiterate cretin. Go away” — although some people take it that way.

Closed means “Closed for repairs”. And General Reference means “You could look it up.”

Why Was it Closed?

That’s very easy to answer: we believe that your question (as it stands) can be answered by consulting a standard online reference work.

It makes a lot more sense for you to do that than us. If you look it up you will find not only the answer to the question you asked but also the answers to many other questions you might have intended to ask that we don’t know about.

You will also get your answer faster, since you won’t have to wait for one (or more) of us to perform the lookup and incorporate the results in a Witty and Incisive Response. (Wit and Incisiveness are hard to achieve, and a good Response can take a long time to compose.)

And: you may also learn something about what online resources are available to you, and what they offer which might satisfy future needs.

What Should You Do?

Depends. Very often people will have posted an answer to your question, or will have posted what amounts to an answer in the comments. If all you’re interested in is the answer, you’ve got it: you’re done.

If you didn’t get a satisfactory answer this way, do what the Closed banner tells you:

Look it up.

Again, people will often post a link directing you to an appropriate online reference. If not, a lot of useful references are listed here and here. These lists are particularly valuable for the comments which accompany them. The works fall mostly into four broad categories:

  • Dictionaries provide far more than just definitions: etymologies, examples, citations, and often brief notes on “standard” usage (debate rages over what exactly that means, but that’s instructive, too). Don’t consult just one: Dictionaries vary greatly not just in overall quality but in the value of individual entries.
  • Thesauruses (or thesauri, or even more piquantly thesauroi) are useful for recalling words you can’t quite remember, but they don’t usually tell you much about which synonym you should use where. But they can be fun.
  • Corpora provide many more examples of actual use of a word or phrase than dictionaries, and can be particularly valuable guides to when and how synonyms differ.
  • Style guides are the best source for prescriptive rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and documentation. They all differ in many details, however; select the one that is recommended by your school or discipline or (if you are so fortunate as to have one) your publisher.

A hint: OneLook is a very useful tool: input a word or phrase and it returns you links to many dictionaries and other references conveniently listed on one page.

But what if these references don’t provide you what you need? — no reference work can answer all questions. In that case, come back to ELU and

Fix your question.

Click edit immediately beneath your post and rewrite it.

  • Tell us what you’ve found out, and focus our attention on what your research leaves unanswered.
  • If anybody left useful comments, address those.
  • Give us as much context as you can. What is it you’re trying to understand (or say)? Who said it (or to whom do you want to say it), where and when? What register are you concerned with? — formal, colloquial, vulgar?
  • Don’t forget to change your title Question to fit the new content.

The more you can tell us, the better we can answer.

If you’ve got at least 20 rep, you can pop over to Chat (the link’s at the top of the ELU page) for help. There’s usually somebody around to hold your hand. And if you fix it all by yourself, come by Chat when you’re done and report it. It takes a moderator or five high-rep users to get your question reopened, so you want to draw their attention to the work you’ve done.

Trust me. That’s how you get a Witty and Incisive Response—or several. That’s how you get Upvotes and Reputation. That’s how you learn to use resources you never knew about. That’s how you Make Friends and Influence People.

You could look it up.


Grammar Girl Interview

2011-10-19 by Mr. Shiny & New, filed under English Stack Exchange

As someone who is interested in the English language and word history, I don’t just participate in English Language & Usage, I also read other blogs. Grammar Girl, from Quick and Dirty Tips, is a good blog to read for English advice. She recently agreed to do an interview for us. I polled the community and we sent her these questions. Here are her responses.

  1. How did you choose the name Grammar Girl?

    It just popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration. In retrospect, I think it works especially well because “girl” is a very nonthreatening word, and a lot of people are anxious about grammar, so Grammar Girl seems approachable and friendly. Grammar Girl is someone who will answer your questions without making you feel stupid or embarrassed.

  2. How do you come up with ideas for podcasts/posts?

    In the early days, I tackled what I knew were the most common questions (e.g., who versus whom) or things I struggled with myself (overusing of). Then I went through a phase during which I answered a lot of listener questions–the show often actually began with a recorded listener question. Then, when I started writing more books, I had a lot of guest writers contributing to the show, and they would suggest topics. Today, it’s still a mix of all those things. I mix reruns of the shows that cover the most common problems with listener questions, ideas from guest writers, and topics that appear in the news.

  3. What grammar-related question(s) do you get most frequently from your listeners?

    The most common question is how to know when to use affect and effect. There are exceptions, but most of the time, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

  4. What’s the most interesting, thought-provoking, or fun topic you’ve tackled lately? On the other hand, what question are you sick of hearing?

    I’ve been doing small research projects lately. They’ve been popular, and I enjoy doing them. For example, I polled my Facebook followers to find out where people say “The car needs washed” instead of “The car needs to be washed.” It turns out dropping the to be is a regionalism, and that led to a lot of other interesting discussions about other regionalisms such as spendy (which is popular in Minnesota and Oregon) and bow up (which is mostly heard in the South). The studies aren’t scientifically rigorous, because the sample is just people who respond to my Facebook questions, but the results are still interesting. Frankly, I’ve answered all the common questions (affect/effect, who/whom, which/that) hundreds–probably thousands–of times, so I’m a little sick of all of them.

  5. It seems like many common grammar rules have exceptions. Are there any hard and fast grammar rules you believe in firmly, that don’t have exceptions?

    Yes! A lot is always two words.

  6. From EL&U moderator nohat: In your article about the word class of than, you explain the prescriptivist objections to using “than” as a preposition, but also provide some arguments in its favor. In contrast, I answered a related question on our site using two different corpora to show that than-as-a-preposition is in fact more common than than-as-a-conjunction. Have you considered using corpus-based approaches to answering questions of grammar? Corpus-based approaches have the benefit of bringing cold, hard facts to the table using logic and appeals to authority, but the authority of these facts might be hard to sell to your readership. The argument that “just because everyone says it that way doesn’t make it correct”, though specious, is, sadly, quite common.

    Great question! I’ve started doing more corpus-based research since I discovered the Google Books Corpus (Ngram), which then led me to investigate other corpora. For example, I did a Google Ngram search to track the rise of schadenfreude, which showed some interesting spikes that may correlate with a mention on the TV show The Simpsons and the popularity of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which includes a song “Schadenfreude.” You’re right that many people don’t like the “it’s correct because everyone writes it that way” argument, but like it or not, that is one way language changes, and I’ve been looking through corpora and making that argument more and more lately. This isn’t a corpora-based argument, but on a related note, I recently decided to give up the fight for the traditional logic meaning of begs the question. I searched extremely hard to try to find a correct use in newspapers, magazines, and websites, but the “improper” use (using begs the question to mean “raises the question”) vastly outnumbered the proper uses. I literally searched through hundreds of articles and not one of them used it in the traditional way. When common usage swings that far in the “wrong” direction, it’s a lost cause.

  7. From user Robusto: Is it ever worth the time and effort to correct someone else’s grating grammatical mistakes? In my experience, even when I phrase my suggestion in the gentlest possible way it never works well and I almost always wind up feeling pedantic, priggish, or even alienated.What’s the general opinion here? Is it best to just let these things slide or to take up the fight?

    I think it has a lot more to do with your personality and relationship with the other person than anything else. It’s always going to be fine to correct your children or your students if you’re a teacher, for example. But you start to get on thin ice when it’s a coworker or your boss or a stranger. I almost never correct people unless they’ve asked for help because in most instances it seems rude to me. On the other hand, I know a lot of people do want to correct others, so I’ve actually invited a guest writer who does regularly correct people to write a Grammar Girl podcast on the topic and give advice on how to do it as politely as possible.

  8. From user TRiG: What do you think of gender-neutral pronouns? I prefer the zie/zir set, but when I used them on our Christianity site, all kinds of unpleasantness broke out! Do you think these pronouns are offensive? If so, which set of gender-neutral pronouns do you prefer?

    I’m not offended by the zie/zir set, but I think it’s hopeless to try to get them widely adopted. I strongly believe that they will be fine to use as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in the near future. People already use it all the time (especially in speech), there’s a long history of it in literature, and English desperately needs such a word.

  9. On a related note, why don’t English nouns have gender, the way they do in French and Spanish?

    I don’t know!

  10. What’s your favorite bit of punctuation and why?

    I’m fond of the interrobang (‽): a combination of the question mark and exclamation point. An advertising man invented it in the 1960s and held a contest to determine the name. It was almost called an exclamaquest. It’s not on your keyboard, but you can insert it as a special character or symbol in some fonts. (The easiest way to use it online is to just cut and paste it from a site that has one.) I like it because it fills a need (much like they as a singular pronoun that we talked about a couple of questions ago). In English, you aren’t supposed to use both a question mark and exclamation point at the end of a sentence; you’re supposed to pick one of the other, but when it’s a surprised question (you did what?!), the desire to use both is strong. The interrobang fills the need, while letting you stick to the rule of only using one terminal punctuation mark.

  11. Of the other Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, which is your favorite and why?

    That’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite! I love them all equally.

  12. Below are two examples from our top grammar questions. If you click the link you can see the answers our community came up with. What is your take on these questions? Do you agree with any of the answers you see on EL&U?

  13. What do you think of the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage site? Is it something you can see yourself or your listeners using? What is your favorite question on EL&U?

    The reputation score is an essential part of the site; without that, you’d just have mess of people posting their opinions. I might use the site as a starting point for research, but even with the reputation scores, I’d still always verify anything I found there before using it in my own work. I like the question What is the origin of the term “Urban Legend”? because I had never thought about it before.

On behalf of the EL&U Community, I’d like to thank Grammar Girl for taking the time to answer our questions, and I encourage our readers to check out her site for useful tips.


Good English = Effective English

by Barrie England 2012-12-03, filed under Linguistics

Speech and the written language differ in many ways. Speech developed before writing and we learn to speak before we learn to write. For a long time there was no written language at all, and there are languages that have no written form. That is not to say we can say what we like and hope to be understood. Speech has its rules. In English, we must say, ‘Shut the door’ rather than, ‘Shut door the’ or ‘Shut of door’, and we must say ‘streets’ rather than ‘street, street’ when we mean more than one. Anyone who applies such rules consistently speaks correct English. The only people who don’t are those who have yet to learn them: infants and those who are learning English as a foreign language.

There are many varieties of spoken English and there is no reason to suppose that one variety is linguistically superior to any other. At the same time, we do well to use a spoken language that is tolerably close to that of the people with whom we expect to spend most of our lives. For the middle-class, that means adopting the dialect known as Standard English. It can be spoken in any accent, but is often associated with the accent of educated people living in London and the south-east of England. But it’s no more and no less correct than Midlands, Liverpool, Tyneside, Indian, Australian or Caribbean English.

Written language derives from speech, but we have to make a deliberate attempt to learn it. Some fail to do so, even when they speak their native language fluently. We have to encode our thoughts as arbitrary marks on paper or the screen and interpret similar marks produced by others. Like speech, different kinds of written language suit different circumstances. An email or text message in a variety of language that many of us would not understand is perfectly appropriate between people who do understand such language. The question of whether or not it is correct simply does not arise. However, such language in, say, a job application or a Times leader would be unacceptable, and consequently ineffective, if it was incomprehensible to its readers, or if it simply antagonized them. That seems to me a more important consideration than whether or not it conforms to someone’s idea of correctness.

Those who commit words to print should consider what they are trying to express, who their readers are, and whether the chosen language will succeed in conveying the message clearly without hesitation, repetition or deviation. And it is helpful if, in writing which is destined to be read by a large number of people whose linguistic backgrounds we cannot know, we agree on certain conventions. These conventions include punctuation, spelling, and choice of vocabulary and structures. In speech we generally know personally our audiences. In writing, too, we will sometimes know our readers and we can adapt our language accordingly. Quite often, we will not. In those cases, a certain commonality is required to avoid chaos.

When I read a sentence I ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Do I want to read any more of this stuff?’ ‘Getting it right’ means successfully using language to achieve the purpose intended, not necessarily complying with a set of rules. Achieving the purpose intended includes producing the response on the part of our readers thaty we want them to have. Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness seems to me more likely to produce the desired result. The alternative seems to suppose that once you have complied with the rules laid down by this or that authority you have done all you need to. That is far from the truth.


How we talk about future situations

by tunny 2015-09-07, filed under Grammar, Learning

People learning English are often confused by the many ways in which it is possible to talk about future events. They are not helped by the fact that some writers (eg, Sinclair {1}) claim that the construction with will in front of the base form (bare infinitive) of the verb is the future tense, while others (eg, Quirk et al {2}) claim that there is no future tense in English. Learners who have read in one book (eg, Thomson and Martinet {3}) that the BE + going to form expresses the subject’s intention to perform a future action will wonder what intention is present in It’s going to rain. Some course books appear to claim that there is only one way of expressing the future in any given situation, but learners will meet many native speakers who claim that several ways are often possible, and that there is no difference between them. In this blog post, I hope to clear up some of the confusion. Let’s begin by making two clear points: 1. There is little point in considering that English has a future tense. It is more realistic (and helpful) to think that there are several ways in English of expressing futurity. 2. Although each of the ways expresses a different way of looking at future situations, the speaker often has completely free choice at the moment of utterance, and there can be some overlap of meaning. There is often no single—or even ‘most appropriate’—form for a given situation. Now let’s look at the five most common ways of talking about future situations. We’ll do this by considering what forms are possible for the example “Lindsay (fly) to New York next month”.

1. The present simple (non-past, unmarked) tense – Lindsay flies

In English, as in many other languages, the so-called ‘present’ tense functions more like a default tense; it is used when there is no need for any additional temporal or aspectual information carried by other forms. The time of the situation denoted by the present simple tense of the verb can be past, present, future, or even unspecified. Let’s look at Lindsay’s future flight. If we imagine the speaker mentally seeing Lindsay’s schedule, and presenting a neutral fact without any of the overtones suggested by other ways of expressing the future (which we shall come to below), we can simply say:

Lindsay flies to London next week.

The futurity is shown by the context (for example, the previous mention of a schedule) or by explicit-markers (such as next week in the example above).

2. The present progressive (continuous) – Lindsay is flying

A better name for this aspect might be durative, as it is used when the speaker wishes to indicate both that the situation spoken of has duration and that that duration is limited. The fact that the situation has a beginning and an end, and that these are not considered remote in time, is more important than precisely when these occur. Consider these three utterances:

1. I am writing some notes about the English language. 2. The number 22 tram is running through Florence this week. 3. I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening.

In (1), the limited duration of the writing is clearly understood from the context. In (2), the known context of the normal route of the 22 tram (which does not usually include Florence) confirms the limited duration of the situation. It is perfectly correct for this to be said at 3 a.m., when no number 22 tram is actually running. I, the speaker, can say (3) because I know that my wife and I arranged the meeting this morning. The arrangement to meet has limited duration – it began this morning and ends when we actually meet. Considered this way, it is useful to think that one of the ways of using the progressive form is to indicate an arrangement. If an arrangement of limited duration is what the speaker has in mind, then the example sentence is now realised as:

Lindsay is flying to London next week.

As with the present simple, the futurity is shown by the context or by explicit time-markers.

3. BE + going to – Lindsay is going to fly

Forms with BE + going to possibly originated in such utterances as:

4. We are going to meet Andrea at the cinema.

These types of phrases are spoken when we were literally going, as in ‘on our way to meet Andrea’. At the moment of speaking there was present evidence of the future meeting. This use has become extended to embrace any action for which there is present evidence – things do not have to be literally moving. Consider now these two utterances:

5. Look at those black clouds. It’s going to rain. 6. Luke is going to see Bob Dylan in concert next year.

In (5) the present evidence is clear – the black clouds. In (6), the present evidence may be the tickets for the concert that the speaker has seen on Luke’s desk, or it may simply be the knowledge in the speaker’s mind that s/he has somehow acquired. This explains why, when the grammatical subject of the verb is capable of planning, there may be little practical difference between the use of the progressive form and the BE + going to form. However, with a grammatical subject incapable of planning, there is a difference:

3. I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening. 3a. I am going to meet my wife at the pub this evening.

Compared with:

5. It’s going to rain. 5a. It’s raining. 5b. *It’s raining tomorrow.

In (3), the speaker has made the arrangement with their wife. In (3a), the present evidence can be any or all of the speaker having made the arrangement, having been informed by their wife of the arrangement, or having recently made a plan. The circumstances surrounding the situations in (3) and (3a) differ, but the practical result is the same: the speaker has free choice between the two forms. Neither is ‘better’, ‘more appropriate’, or ‘more correct’. In (5), the present evidence is something like the presence of black clouds, or the speaker’s knowledge of the weather forecast. In (5a), it is impossible for an arrangement to be made for future rain, and therefore the progressive form used here cannot be referring to future arrangement. The context will therefore inform us that rain is actually falling as the utterance is made. The addition of a time-indicator cannot make the impossible possible, therefore (5b) is not a grammatical utterance. If the speaker has present evidence of next week’s flight, then the example will be realized as

Lindsay is going to fly to London next week.

4. Modal will – Lindsay will fly

Will is a modal and, like the other modals, has two core ideas. The two core ideas for most modals are: (a) the ‘extrinsic’ meaning, referring to the degree of certainty of the event/state, and (b) the ‘intrinsic’ meaning, reflecting such concepts as: ability, necessity, obligation, necessity, permission, possibility, volition, etc. The extrinsic meaning of will is exemplified in:

7. Emma left three hours ago, so she will be in Manchester by now. 8. There will be hotels on the moon within the next 50 years. 9. The afternoon will be bright and sunny, though there may be rain in the north.

In all three examples, the speaker suggests 100% probability, i.e. absolute certainty; (may would imply possibility, must logical certainty, to take examples of two other modals). Note that while certainty in (8) and (9) is about the future, in (7) it is about the present. It is the absolute certainty, in the minds of speaker/writer and listener/reader, that can give the impression that forms using ‘the will future’ are some way of presenting ‘the future as fact’. Some writers therefore call this form ‘the Future Simple’. Weather forecasters, writers of business/scientific reports, deliverers of presentations, etc., frequently use will, and learners who encounter English more through reading native writers than hearing native speakers informally may assume that it is a ‘neutral’ or ‘formal’ future. In fact the particular native writer or speaker is simply opting to stress certainty rather than arrangement, plan or present evidence. The intrinsic meaning of will is exemplified in:

10. I’ll carry your bag for you. 11. Will you drive me to the airport, please? 12. Jed will leave his mobile switched on in meetings. It’s so annoying when it rings.

These examples show what we might loosely call volition, the willingness or determination of the subject of the modal to carry out the action. Note that (12) is not about the future, and in (10) and (11) the futurity is incidental. It is context rather than words which gives the meaning. So, our original example can clearly be realized as:

Lindsay will fly to London next week.

Without expanded context or co-text, we cannot be sure of what is implied by Lindsay will fly . If the background has been that she is scheduled to fly next month, but there is an urgent need for her to be in London soon, the speaker of this utterance is indicating Lindsay’s willingness to fly earlier than intended. In a different context, known to both speaker and listener, the speaker is indicating the certainty of Lindsay’s flight tomorrow, possibly even because of the speaker’s own volition. Outside the context of gap-fill exercises this is not a problem. Note that some writers used to insist that for this way of expressing the future, shall could (Alexander {4}) or ought to (Wood {5}) be used for first person forms. This ‘rule’ was never true except for a minority of speakers of BrE, and can safely be ignored by learners.

5. Modal will+ progressive – Lindsay will be flying

will be … -ing can have two possible overtones, both stemming from the combination of the ideas of certainty (will) and limited duration (progressive form). The first possibility is that the speaker is describing a situation already begun, having duration, and not completed by the time mentioned or implied.This would be explicit in:

13. At 5 o’clock tomorrow Henry will be driving up the M6.

The second possibility is that the speaker is more concerned with the pure certainty of the action happening than any volitional aspect that might be implied by the use of will by itself. This idea can be illustrated more clearly in the following examples. If someone says “I’d like to know what Joan thinks about this”, responses might be:

14. I’ll see her tomorrow; I’ll ask her. 15. I’m seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her. 16. I’m going to see her tomorrow. I’ll ask her. 17. I’ll be seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.

In all four examples, the I’ll ask her indicates the speaker’s willingness (confirmed by context). In the first half of the utterance, (14) indicates the speaker’s willingness to see her, (15) the speaker’s knowledge of an arrangement already made to see her, (16) the speaker’s awareness of present evidence of the future meeting and (17) the speaker’s simple presentation of the fact of the future meeting. It is claimed by some writers, with some justification, that the use of will be …-ing implies, by its lack of reference to intention, volition or arrangement, a ‘casual’ future, the ‘future as a matter of course’ (Leech {6}).. So, the realization of our standard example can be:

Lindsay will be flying to London tomorrow.

Other ways of talking about the future

We have looked at five common ways of expressing the future. We will now look very briefly at other ways. So far we have considered the five ways of referring to the future that are considered by some to be ‘tense’ forms: Present Progressive, Present Simple, BE going to, will, and will be + …-ing. There are many other ways of referring to future situations, each with its own particular shade of meaning. Some of these are considered briefly below.

BE + to

This form is not common in informal conversation. It refers to something that is to happen in the future as a plan or decree:

Lindsay is to fly to London next week.

It is common in news reports. In headlines BE is frequently omitted:

18. Obama to meet Putin.

BE + about to

This form is used to refer to planned future events that are expected to happen soon:

19. 2,300 workers at the Manchester factory are about to lose their jobs.

The soon-ness often carries the idea that the subject is very close to the point of doing something:

Lindsay is about to leave for the airport.

Other idioms with BE

There are a number of other expressions with BE which have some form of modal-type meaning (ability, obligation, etc), and which point to the future. These include: be able to, be bound to, be certain to, be due to, be likely to/that, be meant to, be obliged to, be supposed to, be sure to.

Idioms with HAVE

Expressions with HAVE, such as have (got) to and had better, have some form of modal-type meaning (necessity, obligation, etc) pointing to the future.

Lindsay had better fly to London next week.

Other modals

Apart from will, discussed earlier, other modals can also used with future reference:

  • Lindsay can fly to London next week. (possibility/ability/permission)
  • Lindsay could fly to London next week. (more remote possibility/ability)
  • Lindsay may fly to London next week. (possibility/permission)
  • Lindsay might fly to London next week. (more remote possibility/ permission)
  • Lindsay must fly to London next week. (obligation)
  • Lindsay should fly to London next week. (possibility/suggestion)

Expressions with would, with some form of quasi-modal meaning (preference) pointing to the future, include: would rather, would sooner, would just as soon. Verb + to- infinitive Some full verbs, such as hope or want, indicate that the action of the complement verb will be in the future (expressing future possibilities). Such verbs are usually followed by the to-infinitive:

Lindsay hopes to fly to London next week.

Examples include: agree, ask, allow, aspire, attempt, cause, choose, consent, dare, decide, decline, encourage* expect, hope, instruct, intend, offer, mean, need, permit, persuade, plan, prepare, promise, propose, swear, remember, tell, threaten, try, want, warn, wish* Some verbs (e.g. those marked with an asterisk above) can be followed by object + infinitive:

John expects Lindsay to fly to London next week.

A small number of verbs are followed by an object + bare infinitive, e.g. have, help, let, make: Have Mr Smiley come in, please.

Verb + gerund

When a gerund follows a verb, or verb + object, the meaning is normally that the situations described are already in existence, i.e. they are not future situations:

Lindsay hated flying.

However, a small number of verbs followed by a gerund complement point to the future. These include consider, contemplate, fancy, feel like, put off, suggest.

Lindsay is considering flying to London next week.


1 Sinclair, J (1990.255), Collins Cobuild English Grammar, London: HarperCollins 2 Quirk, R et al, (1985.213), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Harlow: Longman. 3 Thomson, A J and Martinet, AV (1980.184),b A Practical English Grammar, 4th edn, Oxford: OUP 4 Alexander, L G, (1988.178), Longman English Grammar, Harlow: Longman 5 Wood, F T, (1954.219), The Groundwork of English Grammar, London: Macmillan 6 Leech, G (2004.68), Meaning and the English Verb, 3rd edn, Harlow: Pearson

  • Note: Due to limitations in markup (or by ability to use the same), I've replaced 1. square brackets with round (to avoid picking up stray links); 2. in-text superscripts with the numbers in curly brackets; and 3. ignored superscripts altogether in the references section.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 15:33

Chat vs Comment

by Matt Ellen 2013-07-11, filed under English Stack Exchange

Hello my friend! How are you doing? It is good to see you around these parts, the Stack Exchange network is a lovely part of the Internet where we can all help each other to learn.

Of course, though, there are rules by which we should abide if we want to keep this place friendly and free of noise. Hey, now, do not look like that. It is true there are many rules, but they are normally quite useful.

Today I want to tell you about how to communicate with your fellow Stack Exchange users. For example: you have seen something someone has written and you disagree. You are a polite person, so you do not think you should just downvote and leave. I admire your style. Communication is good. At Stack Exchange we are allowed to make comments on people’s posts to ask for clarification and to point out mistakes. Obviously we do this in as friendly a way as possible.

Oh? You cannot comment? I see, I see. Do not be troubled. Comments are a privilege, which is earned by attaining 50 reputation points on this site. It is a mere trifle. You will find that by contributing good quality answers and questions you will be there in a few days, maybe even less.

It is important to note that comments are not permanent parts of the site and they get deleted when they outlive their usefulness. Ideally the useful information in a comment will be integrated into the post the comment is on, thus making the comment redundant.

Also, you should understand that the main site is not for discussion. Comments should not be used to discuss a topic at length.

Yes, you are quite right. Sometimes discussion is useful, or necessary. For that there is another place! It is a wonderful place, really. There is much adventure to be had. We call this place chat. The ability to chat is also a privilege, but it has a lower bar. Only 20 reputation points are required.

Chat is used for discussion, yes, but the discussion can roam from being purely about topics on the main site. Many times people wander in with simple questions, questions that might not be suitable for the main site, and ask them in the chat room. This is fine, encouraged even. There is of course a lot of other discussion going on there too, it can get quite frenetic, but do not be afraid to jump in. Be courteous and not pushy and you will be fine.

One excellent trick you can do with chat is to take a discussion in comments and move it to a chat room. This is useful if you think the discussion will become long. Also, if you would like to chat with someone, but they and you are finding the main room too difficult, you can create your own room. The new room will be public, but people generally do not stray from the main room unless they are invited.

Well, my friend, I hope you stay a while. There is a lot you can learn, and maybe a lot you can teach! We will be glad to hear from you.


Why did I delete your answer?

by Matt Ellen 2015-11-13, filed under English Stack Exchange, Learning

Imagine someone has a question about physics, say “How can I figure out the acceleration due to gravity?”

A physicist answers with “You can throw a bowling ball from various floors of a multistorey building.” The physicist knows in their head the experiment they would perform. It’s so obvious to them that they skim over the details and say what they see to be the key points, and assume that the person asking will figure the rest out.

The problem with this is that a non-physicist has asked the question, and they don’t know the details that the physicist skimmed over. If they did, they maybe wouldn’t have to ask the question. Thus, the person asking the question is little better off than they were before asking.

Now imagine this is a single word request:

Word for staring wide-eyed at a TV

I saw my son staring wide-eyed at the television. His face looked so comical to me. Is there a word to describe such wide-eyed staring?

I’d like to use it like “My son was staring at the TV last night, it was so funny to see.”, but I don’t like staring because it doesn’t emphasise his wide-eyed-ness.

Is there a word that would better describe what I mean?

And then there is the answer:

I think you’re looking for goggling.

Now you and I know that is a good word for the situation, but is it a helpful answer?

If you’re wondering, then let me tell you: it’s not. The Stack Exchange system itself will parse it and flag it as “low quality” and it will garner a comment from a moderator or other concerned member and then, if no improvements are made after a week or so, it will be deleted.

Yes, the asker now has a word to fill their gap, but the answer does not explain why goggling is fit for the purpose. The asker has no context to decide if this answer is the best fit, and no way to generalize the word to fit other situations.

Why is that important? The thing to remember is that the person who came here looking for an answer is unlikely to already know the answer. You don’t get many people who go around wondering “how many people know the word goggling?” (And I suspect most of those who do are crossword designers.)

If someone doesn’t already know the answer, then the details are important. When you suggest a word for a given context, you need to explain why it fits the context so that when they try and use it in the future they have a grasp on how the word works and what its connotations are.

I know many of you might complain that they should look it up in a dictionary. We’re a site for serious English language enthusiasts, after all.

That is irrelevant. An answer needs to be complete.

However, to entertain that idea for a moment. Most of our users are not serious enthusiasts. Most people come here looking for an answer and leave with one, without ever posting anything. That is the beauty of Stack Exchange.

That is why it is so important to leave a complete answer. With only half an answer, people will only half understand how to use a word.

So what does a better answer look like?

I think you’re looking for goggling. It’s from the verb "to goggle", which means to stare at something with your eyes wide open and an amazed look on your face.

Instantly this answer is a lot more helpful. By adding a definition the answer now gives a clear explanation why the word is suitable. Also note that the definition isn’t from a reference. When giving the explanation a reference can be useful, but if you have your own way to articulate the meaning, then that is fine, too.

If you do use a reference it is essential to cite your source. If you copy and paste without citing your source the answer will be deleted as plagiarism. With a reference the answer would be:

I think you’re looking for goggling. From ODO, to goggle means:

  • Look with wide open eyes, typically in amazement

The important points to remember:

  • You are writing an answer for someone who doesn’t know anything about the word you’re suggesting.
  • An answer needs to explain the word in order for it to be useful.
  • If you are copy/pasting a definition you must cite where you got it from.
  • 1
    These should actually get catalogued into separate Meta questions, or questions on the main site. It doesn't make sense, organizationally, to have them all under this one question. This answer, for example, should be under an existing or new Meta question about why answers get deleted, or what constitutes a good answer on EL&U. If it helps, we could link to all the separate questions and answers from this Meta-Q, or a single answer in it, or we could create a new tag from-blogoverflow.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:53
  • @DanBron My main concern with scattering them is having them get lost. Grouping them under a single question allows possibility for the lot to be linked permanently from a convenient spot (maybe the help pages). Then again, if we tag them appropriately as you suggest, we can still link to a search page. Since there are different topics in the blog, adding extra tags to them can help with searching as well. They're not really 'questions', but I suppose that doesn't matter - all the faqs are archived the same way (and are equally hard to find, especially for someone new to ELU).
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:59
  • 1
    They should be posted as answers. Sometimes applicable questions where they can be posted have already been asked, sometimes new questions will have to be asked where these can be posted as answers. Some posts belong on Meta, others belong on Main. As I said, you could leave this Meta-question up, and post a single answer, linking directly to where all the other blog posts get posted as answers, in addition, we can create a tag for them, on Meta and on Main, and add it to all questions where blog posts are posted as answers.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 12:03
  • This answer calls for a follow-up question "Why did that jerk downvote my answer?"
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 17:20

How to Ask out an Apple

2011-09-20 by Matt Ellen. 3 comments Filed under Grammar Tagged: learning, verb, verb-tense

Hello there Paul!

paul saying hi!

I understand you’re staying in England to learn the language.

Paul saying "Yes I am here for learning English""

That should be “I am here to learn English.”

paul saying "Oh. Please to explain me"

I think you mean “Please explain to me.”

Paul saying "OK, thank you. Please explain to me."

Well, you were explaining your reason for coming to the UK. In English, we explain our reasoning by saying I am [present continuous verb] to [verb] . For example:

  • “I am reading to learn.”
  • “I am running to catch up.”

We would not say “I am running for catching up”.

Paul saying "Thank you!"

So, Paul, how has your week been?

Paul saying "It has been good. I have a problem though."

Oh yes? And what is that?

Paul saying "Do you mean what is my problem?"

Yes, “that” can be used in a similar way to “it” to refer back to a previous subject, such as your problem.

Paul saying "OK. I meet this other fruit, and I want to ask to take him to dinner, but I am afraid my English is too bad."

Well, I’m not the best person to ask for romantic advice, but I can certainly help you ask him out with good English. Tell me what you are going to say to this fruit.

Paul saying "Hello, Angus."

Good so far.

Paul saying “We are hanging out and talking for many times. I would like to eat dinner with you in a restaurant.”

Hmmm, well, what you want to say is understandable, but there are a couple of grammatical errors and the second sentence would be phrased differently by a native speaker.

I’ll deal with the second sentence first. A native speaker would be more likely to say “Would you like to come to dinner with me?” This allows Angus to answer a question, rather than be faced with a statement of fact that needs no answer.

The first of the two errors I’ll deal with is where you said “for many times”. First, the word “for” doesn’t go with the phrase “many times”; “many times” just goes by itself.

  • “I threw the ball many times.”

However, you are talking about two types of event (hanging out and talking) that occurred on more than one occasion. English has various words to cover this, for example: a lot, often, frequently .

So the difference can be characterised like so: When you play squash, you hit a ball against a wall many times . If you play squash each week, then you play it frequently .

The final thing I would change is the tense of your opening sentence. “We are hanging out and talking” means that that is what is currently going on, but “many times” means that this is something that has happened before. What you want to indicate is that hanging out and talking have happened in the past, and each time is complete, i.e. not still ongoing. For this, English has a tense called the present perfect .

Examples include:

  • “I have been to the doctor.”
  • “We have gone on holiday.”
  • “They have eaten us out of house and home.”

To form the present perfect you take have and add the past tense of the verb. So in your sentence you want to say, “We have hung out and talked “.

So Paul, what are you going to say to Angus?

Paul saying "Hmmm. I think I will say: We have hung out and talked a lot. Would you like to come to dinner with me?"Would you like to come to dinner with me?"

Excellent. To make it clear that you enjoy Angus’s company, you could add “, which I enjoyed very much.” to the end of the first sentence. So it would become “We have hung out and talked a lot, which I enjoyed very much.” This would emphasise how you feel about Angus, and hopefully persuade him to say yes!

Paul saying "Thank you very much!"

No problem. Go get him!


That vs Which: A Pragmatic Approach

2012-10-01 by StoneyB. 6 comments Filed under Grammar

“There’s glory for you!”

H. Dumpty, founder of linguistic pragmatics

If you’re looking for a balanced discussion of the That vs Who/whom/whose/which controversy, go here. I’m not interested.

A hundred years ago the Fowlers put forward a modest proposal. Linguistic bureaucrats elevated this proposal to a Rule, linguistic libertarians resisted; and today the Fowlers’ proposal is an Issue hotly contested by Conservative and Liberal ideologues.

I have no taste for political disputation. While my sympathies lie with the Liberals (who in the Fowlers’ day would have been the Reactionaries), my experience is that I am never profoundly disturbed by the actual usage of the Conservatives (who a hundred years ago were the Radicals). And neither side is going to budge from its position, each is deaf to the other’s arguments and writes or redacts according to its own judgment; so I see little point in rehashing the arguments.

I’d like instead to adopt a non-partisan and non-ideological approach, and come at the T / W question from a different angle. I’m a writer, my concern is to make the most effective use I can of the tools which come to my hand. The Fowlers themselves grounded their proposal in the economic argument that “if we are to be at the expense of maintaining two different relatives, we may as well give each of them definite work to do (The King’s English, 1908).” I may hope, then, that others will find some value in exploring the pragmatic and non-doctrinal considerations which govern my usage in my writing.

“Writing”, I say; but the spoken language is both historically and methodologically prior to the written, and most of us aspire to something of the spontaneity and freshness presumed to reside in oral usage; so it may be useful to see what ordinary speech tells us.

I happen to possess a modest corpus of semiformal speech—videotapes of impromptu interviews with a dozen college-educated U.S. speakers from various regions and callings. Scanning the transcripts for uses of relative pronouns (and consulting the tapes where there was any ambiguity) yielded three interesting findings:

  1. Ordinary U.S. speech does not distinguish lexically between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Indeed, the paratactic construction imposed by improvisation makes the distinction itself difficult to maintain. How do you categorize a clause which is clearly, to the ear, an afterthought, but which could make sense as a restrictive clause? —Here’s an example; the speaker is discussing a table of numbers (a dash represents a pause):

    The difference between 154?—(points) that is actually available?—and  and the 149—(points) which the budgeting exercise produced?— is another opportunity for life insurance . . .

  2. All the W forms are very rare: that is absolutely predominant by at least fifty to one. If the W forms disappeared from the spoken language they would never be missed.

  3. Again and again I heard that after a clause followed by a pause (and sometimes repetitions of that)—and then the speaker settled on what he was going to say—which might be a relative clause (restrictive or not), an adverbial clause, or a clause to which that was entirely irrelevant.

So—should the written language follow Liberal logic, and abandon the W forms altogether?

Of course not. No craftsman forsakes the use of a tool simply because amateurs do not use it. Finding 3. above is instructive: speakers prefer that because it’s the all-purpose tool, adequate in all circumstances. But the writer has an entire workbench of specialized tools, and leisure to choose between them.

Should we then unite behind the Conservatives, and use T and W to distinguish restrictive and non-restrictive clauses?

Again, I think not. The usage is not distinctive either for the ordinary reader or for many of the ideologues. And it is redundant: all of us distinguish these clause-types by means of the comma. The T / W distinction is unnecessary here.

Let’s instead use the W forms where they’re most useful: in any relative clause. The W distinctions, between who, whom, whose and which, allow us to signal reference and syntax more clearly and more smoothly. When it can be done gracefully, omit the relative pronoun altogether; but let’s use that as a relative pronoun only under pressure of what the Fowlers call “considerations of euphony”.

This not only exploits the W distinctions more fully, it makes that more effective and efficient, too. that is horribly overworked: it takes 17 columns in the OED to discriminate its uses. No word except to is more likely to appear multiple times in a sentence with different meanings. As Dumpty noted, that comes at a cost: no word is more likely to confuse the reader’s eye and mind.

I have for thirty-five years avoided the use of that as a relative pronoun. I use W forms almost exclusively, in all contexts: marketing copy, stage plays, voiceovers, business proposals, legal drafts, training videos, my doctoral dissertation.

And you know what?—I’ve never been called out for it. Not by clients—not by actors—not by academics.

I commend this approach to your consideration.

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”



Book Review – The Adventure of English

2012-01-11 by Matt Ellen. 3 comments Filed under Etymology Tagged: Book review, etymology, history

The Adventure of English

The Biography of a Language

by Melvyn Bragg

While I am a serious enthusiast when it comes to learning about and understanding my native tongue, I am an amateur with regards to my studies. The work, carried out by Melvyn Bragg in writing this book, puts anything I do far in the shade. Despite this, he opens the book explaining that he is an amateur standing on the shoulders of linguistic scholars. This is made clear if one peruses the bibliography at the end of the book.

The book proper truly is an adventure story. After the introduction, as at the start of a Hollywood blockbuster, the narrative thrusts us into the heat of battle: barbarians, Romans and Celts fighting for survival and supremacy on this fair isle (Britain—if I’m unclear). However our hero is no legatus or chieftain. No, we are following the life of something far more interesting than any individual: the English language.

The treatment of English as a character is a clever hook that keeps the book interesting by allowing the reader to sympathise with the language as if it were a person. Bragg put me on the edge of my seat at many points through out the tale. How would English survive the Norman invasion? French, with a knife at its throat. What would become of the English champions who tried to bring the Bible to the masses? Despite its progenitor’s best attempts, how English helped slaves overcome their masters on more than one occasion. Bragg gives a good feel to the language, making it seem fluid and adaptable yet strong and persistent.

Each chapter tells the story of a different turning point in the history of English. This has the added bonus of meaning that the chapters don’t have to be read in order, since they are mostly self contained.

This is a book that loves the English language. Despite what the British have done, and Bragg chastises us where appropriate, English is always held as either a helping hand to the oppressed (as well as a tool of the oppressors) or as a means by which the good can triumph. It is better than French and Spanish, and more successful than any other language it encounters. Even in near defeat by the Normans, Bragg describes the English language’s revival as if the vocabulary it picked up were just a few scratches, so the language is essentially the same as it had always been.

The story shows us the experiences of people from all walks of life, from royalty to scholars, from merchants to explorers, from conquerors to slaves, and beyond. We are treated to excerpts from plays, poetry and myths, as well as the drier dictionaries and legislation. Every type of English has a part to play in its history.

I thoroughly recommend this book for lovers of history and language. It is not a deep scholarly work, insofar as it covers so much so it cannot be detailed about everything and it will have to miss some things out. Regardless, it is a very informative and entertaining book for anyone, especially those looking to start understanding the history of English.

Available at Amazon and Blackwells.


Proofreading Questions

2011-10-05 by waiwai933. 2 comments Filed under English Stack Exchange Tagged: main-site

If we were to categorize all closed questions on the English Language and Usage – Stack Exchange , proofreading questions would be by far the largest category. The fact that we get proofreading questions in quantity is no surprise—after all, a vast number of people are eager to learn English, which is the lingua franca of international business, science, technology and aviation” , and they want to know if their English is respectable.

At the same time, EL&U-SE has a policy that prohibits proofreading questions . Does this mean that we don’t want to help people get better at English and that we’re only here for discussing obscure questions about grammar? Of course not! The entire point of EL&U-SE, and every other SE site, is to help people learn about the subject matter. The reason we don’t allow proofreading questions is because there is nothing to be gained by a simple proofreading question—true, a sentence will be improved, but the author does not benefit from experience, nor does the community benefit, as it is statistically unlikely that some other person will come up with the same sentence.

Certainly, we could identify all the errors in a piece of writing, but that doesn’t teach the author about pronoun-antecdent agreement, about idiomatic uses, or about the differences between to, too, and two. We’d love to teach our friends about these things so that they can benefit in the long-term. So while we don’t allow general proofreading requests, proofreading requests that identify a specific area of concern are welcome.

For example, presume the following post was posted on EL&U-SE.

The cats eating food of cat.

What are the errors in the above sentence?

The example sentence has at least two mistakes, depending on how you count them, but that isn’t our concern right now. Let’s say we were to identify the errors for the author. Hopefully, he/she would be grateful, but in the long run, the author’s only resource is to continue asking us. This doesn’t help anyone learn, and eventually, we’d all get bored of these questions.

On the other hand, here’s a good example of a proofreading question:

The cats eating food of cat.

Can you use *eating* in the above sentence? I don’t see verbs that end in *ing* by themselves in sentences, but I don’t know why that is.

This is an example of a good proofreading question; an answer could discuss verb forms that end in -ing (i.e. participles and gerunds) and why they can’t be used as a verb by themselves (but they can with a form of the verb to be , e.g. was eating). This way, the author can understand better how verb forms work. Note that the author has to take the initiative to identify the area of concern; it would be too much expenditure of effort if we explained every error when the author was only trying to get an editor for free and didn’t care how or why the sentence was wrong

In addition, most people are kind enough to mention as a side note that food of cat is wrong, and why food for cats and cat food are the acceptable phrasings. We’re generally able to help with minor issues, so long as the original author has demonstrated concern and a willingness to learn.

In summary, proofreading questions, when they identify the area of concern, are welcome on EL&U-SE.


Good things from 2014

2015-01-02 by Matt Ellen. 2 comments Filed under English Stack Exchange Tagged: 2014, end of the year

Now that hat season is in full swing, we thought it would be nice to have a look at some of the good bits of 2014 at English Language & Usage.

First of all, some congratulations to members who hit 20K reputation this year:*

Job well done.

On a similar note, some of the more interesting gold badges earned this year:


Unsung Hero


Three questions from this year that caught our attention (in a good way)

Thanks to all our members for helping make EL&U the thriving community that it is. Thanks for an enjoyable 2014 and have a happy 2015!

* Thanks to the SE team for compiling the list. Since this was done in the middle of December more folks may have passed the line.


Much Ado About Possessive Apostrophes

2012-11-19 by kitfox. 9 comments Filed under Orthography Tagged:possessive-apostrophe

Apostrophes are lovely little critters, but they tend to boggle the mind if you think about them too much.  One of the most common questions on EL&U regards proper usage of an apostrophe to indicate possession.

The basics.

How do we use an apostrophe to indicate possession?

If the possessing noun is singular, add an 's (apostrophe-s).

Sara's beast friends were all balrogs.

If the possessing noun is plural and ends in s, add an ' (apostrophe).

The beasty balrogs' game was very fun.

Well, now, that’s pretty straightforward, right? Except that apostrophes have this annoying habit of jumping into your brain and scrambling your thoughts.  There are lots of ways to get confused.

What if the possessing noun is plural and does not end in s?

Then treat it like the singular case, and add an 's (apostrophe-s).

The children's books were tucked away in their cubbies. The geese's honking alerted the dog to the fox’s presence.

What if the possessing noun is not plural, but ends in s?

Well, golly, it turns out this one is complicated. Generally speaking , these are treated just the same as other singular nouns:

The glass's rim was cracked.

But this has not always been the case. Historically , names ending in s followed the plural rule:

* Seamus' writings were well-known throughout Galway.

For proper nouns, this is considered a stylistic choice, but following the singular form is more common these days:

Seamus's writings were well-known throughout Galway.

You’d think with just four rules (which are really just two if you think about it) that noöne would have much trouble with possessive apostrophes. But those apostrophes sure are pernicious.

The Advanced.

What if the possessing noun is a conjoined phrase like “my wife and I”?

Kosmonaut gives an excellent answer to this question.

Those rules are all well and good, but how do I decide whether the possessing noun should be plural or not in the first place?

There are a lot of questions about this very sticky wicket on EL&U.  Some examples are:

User’s or Users’ Guide

User or Users Account

User’s/Users’/Users Group

Happy Mothers’ Day or Happy Mother’s Day

Members’ or Member’s Benefits

Beginner’s or Beginners’ Guide

Baker’s Dozen

Does the guide belong to one user or many users?  Is the day for one mother or all mothers?  Either way is technically acceptable, but generally speaking, we consider a single instance and an abstract entity.  So one copy of the guide for one abstract generalization of user means we usually say “User’s Guide.”  Mother’s Day is trickier because we could celebrate all mothers on that day, but it is supposed to be a day on which we honor our own mother, so “Happy Mother’s Day” unless you have two mommies.

Finally, we see that possessive apostrophes are disappearing for plural nouns that demonstrate affiliation, so it is acceptable practice to use phrases like “User Group” instead of “Users’ Group.”

That is a little summary of possessive apostrophes, along with some fun links for further reading.


Looking Up a Gun: Common English Words with Nordic Origins

2012-11-05 by Luke. 2 comments Filed under Etymology Tagged: etymology , history

Old Norse words in the English language are much more numerous than many would suspect. Many common words such as gun , craze , and equip are of Nordic origin. Because the two languages were so similar, they have many loanwords. Often, they were mutually intelligible to quite a degree. In this post, I’m going to analyze the origins of these three common English words rooted in the Old Norse language.

There were a two main ways that Old Norse words made their way into the English language. First, between 865 and 954 (the Danelaw), the Vikings colonized eastern and northern England. During this time, many of their Old Norse words entered the Old English and have been in use  since. Other words entered the Norman French and were passed on from there to Middle English during the Norman Conquest of 1066. The parallels between Old Norse and Old English facilitated the trading of words between the two languages.


In Nordic culture, the name Gunnhildr was fairly common. It had the meaning “war battle maid” and is a cognate to the more modern name, “Gunhild”. In 1330, Windsor Castle had an inventory of it’s munitions made. In the inventory, a specific siege engine was called the Lady Gunilda , a shortening of Gunnhildr . Later, the word gonnilde , yet another variation of Gunnhildr , became more generalized to mean “cannon” in Middle English. By the mid-fourteenth century, these had been shortened to gunne . It did not yet have the modern meaning of “gun”, though. It meant simply “an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles”. So, the ballista and the trebuchet both fell into this definition. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that gunne came to mean “firearm” (because that’s when firearms first came to major use). Around that time, it was finally shortened to “gun”.


Old Norse had a word krasa , which meant “shatter”.  Around the mid-14th century, it entered the Middle French language as the word ecraser , which meant “to squash”. This evolved into both the modern French écraser , and the Middle English crasen , which meant “to break in pieces; to crack”. It also had a  second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. Crasen evolved into the modern English crase (now obselete), however, it only carried the first meaning, “to break in pieces; to crack”. However, crasen evolved into another modern English word, craze . This carried the second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. However, it had evolved into the meaning “mental breakdown”. The current meaning of the word is “to become insane; go mad”, not a far cry from “mental breakdown”. The first reference to craze meaning “mania, fad” was in 1813. However, the original meaning, “to make cracks”, is still in use a with a slightly different meaning, “to make small cracks on the surface of”. This is used when referring to ceramic pottery.


The Nordic word skip meant “ship”. Skipa , another Norse word was derived from it, with the meaning “fit out a ship”. In the twelfth century, it entered the Old French as esquiper . In the 1520s, it was used in the Middle French as équiper . It meant “to supply, fit out”, thus it was no longer specific to ships. In the late sixteenth century, it made it’s way into English as Esquippe . In the seventeenth century,  a p was dropped and the word became esquip . Later in the century, the s was dropped and it was shortened to “equip”, as we know it today. It was spelled acquip during that time, but that spelling never really caught on.

Estimates vary, but range from 15-25% of English words (non-scientific) originate from Old Norse. Given the size of the English language, that is a quite a considerable amount. Only Latin and French contribute more words to English than Old Norse. Our language owes a great deal to those ruthless Scandinavian seafarers. Without their contributions, I would not be able to say, “He often fumbled for words, which amused people greatly.” (Kylfdi mᴊǫk til orðanna, ok hǫfðu margir menn þat mᴊǫk at spotti.)



Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

2012-10-15 by Cameron. 13 comments Filed under Linguistics

Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:

I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question, “Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?” The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.

How would you characterize the quality of the writing?

  • It is just fine
  • It has some style issues
  • It has some grammar issues
  • It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar

Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple.

A Prescriptivist’s View

If you cringed while reading the example passage above and ached to break out the red pen, then chances are that you fall into the prescriptivist camp. The general take of a prescriptivist is that there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from when those rules are broken. You might hear this idea of prescriptive linguistics described as normative, which means that the rules are based on “normal usage,” and they determine the way things (spelling, grammar, etc.) ought to be. Some examples of prescriptive rules are:

  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Don’t split infinitives
  • Don’t use the passive voice
  • Don’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in object position

Of course, not all prescriptivists agree on what the rules (and exceptions) should be. Many derive their rules from authoritative works, like Fowler’s 1926 work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage , or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style , now in its 53 rd year of printing. Others rely on their intuitions, informed by the forces of society and class, or aphorisms passed on by their elders (my grandmother was fond of saying, “Cakes are ‘done’, people are ‘finished’!” ). The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site has seen many questions on prescriptivist rules, for example:

The keen observer will have noticed that prescriptive rules tend to cover not just what is allowed by language, but also (and often) what is preferred. The rules are not restricted to grammar, but can extend to concerns like spelling and formatting (all of which are, for lack of a better phrase, elements of style ). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.

A Descriptivist’s View

You may have gotten through the passage at the beginning of this post and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Or, perhaps you thought it was not the best prose you’d ever seen, but that there weren’t any real “errors,” simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you even saw some things that you really didn’t like, but know that sometimes people choose to write that way, and as long as it’s understandable, you can deal with it. If any of that sounds like you, then you are probably somewhat of a descriptivist.

The idea behind descriptive linguistics is that a language is defined by what people do with it. In other words, you begin by studying and listening to native speakers. Then, when you notice patterns in the ways that they communicate, you can record those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If you rarely (or never) observe someone breaking those patterns, then your guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. Those guesses are called hypotheses, and when they are well-supported by evidence, they can be accepted as correctness conditions for a language. For example, a correctness condition about Standard English is the notion of a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to observe a native English speaker saying something like, “*I an apple ate,” so it is a safe bet that if you hear that, you aren’t hearing Standard English. Of course, it also means that if enough people start using a new construction, then your grammatical model should adapt to accommodate it.

The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is, by its very nature, regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of cooking: If I serve chicken cacciatore with raw chicken, that’s an error. The dish is still chicken cacciatore, but I’ve made it incorrectly. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs how to make the dish (specifically, the one that says that the chicken should be braised until it is cooked through rather than served raw). On the other hand, if I make cacciatore with rabbit instead of chicken, that’s not chicken cacciatore with mistakes. It’s simply rabbit cacciatore. A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that cooking alla cacciatora is defined by searing meat in oil, then simmering it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasoning, rather than by the choice of meat (perhaps with a caveat that some meats are more common than others).

The Middle Ground

So, you seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, you have generations of grade school English teachers rightly warning their pupils that people might chuckle at them if they use the word ‘irregardless’. On the other hand, you have the scientific rigor of the modern linguistic community touting descriptivism as the torch-bearer of truth and enlightenment. Are you doomed to choose between a democracy of solecisms and a library of thousand-page tomes of writer’s regulations? Are things really that bleak?

Of course not. You have the luxury of picking the view that suits you at any moment. You can leave it to the descriptivists to confirm what makes up the language, and the prescriptivists to guide you on how to make it flow sweetly and clearly into the minds of others. Members of these groups tend to bicker and say that the others are destroying the language or poisoning the minds of the children. It is rarely true that these claims are valid. As long as you keep your wits about you, it is not so hard to tell when a descriptivist is being overly forgiving of bad writing or a prescriptivist is blindly spouting advice on language that hasn’t been relevant for the last sixty years. Neither is it a bad idea to keep an open mind towards new ways of saying something, or consult a style manual for tips about how to communicate your ideas effectively. As is so often the case, the most important advice in the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate is to keep your head up and use the right tool for the job.

Going Further (or is it farther?)

Interested in diving deeper into the matter? Here are some resources that I think are interesting:


Articles: “A” vs. “An”

2011-11-04 by waiwai933. 5 comments Filed under Grammar Tagged: articles, pronunciation

One of the prevalent questions on the English Language and Usage – Stack Exchange is about whether a or an is the correct indefinite article to use. It’s a straightforward question, but like all questions, there are subtleties that raise further questions.

General Rule
The question of “a” vs “an” is always decided by the pronunciation of the word that follows the article, without exception. Words that begin with a vowel sound, such as apple, egg, or owl, use the indefinite article an .

I ate an apple yesterday.

All other words, i.e. words that begin with a consonant sound, such as cake, pie, or book use the indefinite article a .

I read a book yesterday.

Vowels, Consonants, and their Sounds
Some words are a little trickier though, and if you’re not familiar with common English pronunciation, you may want to take note of things that can trip people up. Note that I said vowel sounds and consonant sounds earlier, not just vowels and consonants. There’s a reason for this—many people think that vowels and consonants are letters, and making it clear that this is misleading is vital. We’ll keep up this distinction to reinforce the concept.

In fact, vowels and consonants are sounds. Letters thought of vowels (i.e. a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y ) can have a consonant sound, and vice versa, so it just might be a good idea to check a dictionary with pronunciations when you’re unsure. We’ll be using IPA pronunciations here, but any good dictionary will have some reasonable pronunciation guide.

If you have a word that begins with the letter h, there’s a good chance that the h is silent (i.e. doesn’t make a sound). For example, take the word hour, which has a pronunciation of /aʊ̯ɚ/ , and compare it with the word hospital, which has a pronunciation of /hɒspɪtəl/ . Note that hour, even though it begins with a consonant, does not begin with a consonant sound as the initial h is silent; rather, it begins with the subsequent vowel sound. However, hospital does not have a silent h, and thus the h is pronounced as a consonant, and hospital is used with the article a .

I was at a hospital for an hour.

There’s another common problem. Elementary school teachers seem to love teaching their students that there are five vowels (i.e. a, e, i, o, u ), and sometimes y is a vowel as well. This is true because y can have both a vowel sound and a consonant sound, but it’s extremely misleading because these same teachers also instill the idea that the letters are in and of themselves the vowels.

But that’s going off on a tangent—when does y make a vowel sound? Just like with h, the answer is when it does . There are few guidelines to work with, but in most cases, when a word begins with a y and is not a proper noun (in which case you wouldn’t be using an indefinite article anyway), it’s probably a consonant sound. Still, you might want to check your dictionary if you’re unsure.

I had lunch on a yacht. /jɒt/

More Vowels and Consonants?
Another corner case I want to point out are words beginning with u. In a fair number of these, such as uniform, user, and unicorn, the u is actually making a consonant sound that’s much like the y consonant sound—it’s represented in IPA as /j/.

A unicorn became my very best friend.

Even though I’ve warned you about these pitfalls, there are more cases where vowels and consonants don’t seem to be what they should be, so if you don’t know how to pronounce a word, a dictionary can be your very best friend (unless you have a dog, in which case the dictionary will be your second best friend).

Acronyms and Initialisms
Ok, so we’ve gotten the basics down. But English isn’t that straightforward—what happens when we bump into acronyms and initialisms? Remember, the general rule is 100% right—we’re only calling it general because we want to look at the corner cases. In fact, this is one of the few rules in English that is never violated in Standard English.

How you pronounce the acronym/initialism directs the article you choose. If you say FAQ as three different letters, i.e. /ɛf.eɪ.kjuː/ , you begin with a vowel sound and should use an. If you say FAQ in one syllable, i.e. /fæk/, you’re beginning with a consonant sound and should use a.

A NATO exercise will begin in thirty minutes.

An AIDS treatment is due to be tested shortly.

N.B. If you’re wondering why we don’t make the distinction between acronyms and initialisms here, it’s because there’s disagreement about the exact definition of the terms.

Parenthetical Statements
Another common area of confusion is parenthetical statements. Imagine that you’re reading the sentence. If you include the parenthetical statement when you read it aloud, the first word in the parentheses decides the article. If you skip it, then use the word immediately following the close of the parentheses. When in doubt, it’s usually safer to assume the parentheses would be read aloud.

If you’re wondering when a parenthetical statement might come after an article, it most often appears to insert an adjective (e.g. I need a/an (lovely) evening to myself).

But My Pronunciation Is Different
You might disagree with some of my examples because you pronounce the word following the article differently than I do, and that’s perfectly fine. I’ve done my best to choose cross-dialectal examples, but some dialects are so different it’s hard to make all examples work. What you should keep in mind is that you’re writing or speaking to an audience—if they’re all from a specific region, try to use the pronunciations they would when you’re choosing articles. If they’re from a variety of regions, then choose the most common pronunciation.


Typography: Striking Language (part 1)

2012-09-17 by cornbread ninja. 4 comments Filed under Orthography

Typography is all around us, every minute of every day.  I’m willing to bet that, this blog post notwithstanding, there are at least five different typefaces within reach of you at this moment.  I’m hedging my bet, because it’s probably closer to ten or fifteen.  You may think little or not at all of typography, but it is equally important to language as the spoken word.  By definition, typography is the study, use, and design of identical repeated letterforms.  Throughout history, these forms have taken shape and morphed from the shifting popularity and availability of writing implements and surfaces.

Language itself is rooted in visual communication.  Before we had language, we communicated with imagery.  The story of typography begins with man’s initial use of petroglyphs (rock engravings), pictographs (cave paintings), and pictograms to preserve business transactions, tell stories, give warning, and record history.

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fig 1. Sumerian cuneiform tablet

The ancestral awakenings of modern typography are found in cave drawings, tablets, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, ideography that served to support and preserve spoken tales of the joys and threats that comprised the daily existence of early man. From the oldest Sumerian cuneiform tablets ( fig. 1) to the digital typefaces of today, written language has persevered as a crucial auxiliary to the spoken word.  The written word is invaluable as a means of preserving the past and language itself.  The beautifully-written word adds a nuance of artistic flair and reveals a concurrent history of its own.

The English alphabet evolved from the Latin one used by the Romans and is thought to have grown from Greek, Semitic, and Etruscan influences.  Our modern letterforms developed around 100 BCE, and by 100 CE, two common forms of Roman scripts were in use.  About one hundred years later, parchment and then paper were developed, and their portability was revolutionary to the spread of written language and of literacy in general.  Over the next few hundred years, the Greeks were writing using reed and quill pens with nibs, the changing widths of which altered the pens’ strokes and resulting letterforms.

The earliest form of typographical mass production, relief printing, was developed in China around 700 CE.  By 1300 CE it had reached the Europeans, who by 1440 CE were using the technology to print entire books comprised of woodblock-cut text and images.  A German blacksmith, Johannes Gutenberg set the printing world on fire with his invention of a moveable type printing press which allowed individual letterforms and punctuation to be set and reused again and again.  Gutenberg’s contribution defined the identical repetition that defines typography and largely satisfied the printing industry for the next 400 years.  Printing technologies from then on have advanced to serve the growing literate population that Gutenberg’s invention had spawned.

As a discipline, typography is as complex as any other serious subject: the magic of readability and presentation is rooted in an often mathematically-calculated aesthetic.  In selecting type, the main concern is the matter of readability.  More than just legibility, readability is a marriage of legibility and good design.  You’re likely reading this post in a typeface called Georgia, a very popular face designed for the ease of screen reading.  Just as Gutenberg’s moveable type served to facilitate the changing times, digital type must capitulate to the limits of the medium to maintain the base principle of legibility. Bad type stands out and good type goes unnoticed, quietly serving and preserving ideas with beauty and aplomb.



2011-12-06 by martha. 7 comments Filed under Grammar Tagged: advertising , word-choice

I have a confession to make: I’m really a prescriptivist at heart. I have an idea in my head of how the English language ought to be used, and deviations from that ideal bother me. They especially bother me when I have to listen to them on a daily basis, courtesy of television commercials.

For example, one of my first questions on ELU was about the laundry detergent commercial tagline of “Style is an option. Clean is not.” As I noted, while it’s obvious what they meant, it’s also not quite what they said — if clean is out of the question, then why would anyone ever use this detergent? It would be such a simple fix, too: just replace “an option” with “optional”, and you’d have an unambiguous and grammatically correct tagline.

Another recent violator is the luxury car commercial that ends with (for example) “More power, more style, more technology, less doors”. (The list of more adjectives changes with different versions of the advertisement.) Every time that ad plays, I swear I can hear the collective moan of pain from English teachers and grammar nerds across the country. Again, the fix would be simple: fewer would contrast with more just as well as less does,  with the added advantage of not hurting the ears of potential customers.

But oddly enough, other misuses of language don’t bother me. For example, the economy car ad tagline “unbig, uncar” elicits a grin, not a groan. I was wondering why this is, and I think I’ve hit on something: “unbig, uncar” doesn’t have an easy correction that would get the same idea across using more conventional grammar. “Small, not a car” just doesn’t have the same impact. So it’s obvious that this slogan is deliberately ungrammatical .

It turns out that even for a prescriptivist, a mistake made on purpose isn’t a mistake at all. (Warning: black hole, ahem, sorry, tv tropes link.)


Themed Questions: Wars

2011-11-11 by waiwai933. 2 comments Filed under English Stack Exchange Tagged: main-site, themed posts, war

On 11 November 1918, at 11 AM Paris time, the armistice that ended fighting between the Triple Entente and Germany in the First World War came into effect, and to this day, nations around the world hold memorial days on November 11th, no matter what they are called— Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, or Veterans Day.

For better or for worse, wars are no small part of human history, and that is evident in the questions the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site receives. Let’s take a look at a few:

How do I say WWI out loud?

As most countries observe November 11th in honor of those who died in WWI, let’s start with a question about that conflict. How do we expand the acronym?

Our members provide several suggestions: the First World War and World War One seem to be among the names most commonly used.

Are the allies always good guys?

Another fascinating question of terminology. The OP perhaps explains the question best:

[T]he side described as “allies” is nearly always reserved to the side to which the speaker has sympathy. Although technically the word means somebody in alliance, I virtually never seen the word applied to a supposedly bad side even if that side has an alliance of their own.

Word for opposing sides in a war

Let’s say we’d like to sidestep the issue of naming each side and just use a more general term for the two sides fighting in a war. What are our options?

Centigonal provides us with our most popular suggestion, belligerents, but Mitch and mickeyf trail close behind, with opponents, combatants, and adversaries as alternatives.

When referring to a specific war (or other named event), should the word “war” be capitalized when it appears alone?

Here’s a broader question. If we’re referring to, say, the Cold War, and we use the word war by itself, should it be capitalized?

Jim opines that both can be valid, but both he and Barrie England seem to prefer that war not be capitalized.

“Decimate”: has it been used in the “classic” sense in modern writing?

On a related note, decimate is a word commonly criticized that many people believe should mean to kill one in every ten , but very rarely do we see it used to mean the execution of a proportion that is anywhere near one-tenth. How often is the “correct” meaning used?

Very rarely, it seems—the answerers only seem to have been able to source it a few times. But ShreevatsaR provides us with an interesting glimpse of why what many people perceive to be the correct meaning is in fact not grounded in historical fact. Fascinating reading.

No matter where you live, November 11 marks an important anniversary for the human race—WWI is called a world war for a reason. Even as we enjoy the remarkable uniqueness of the date (i.e. 11-11-11), we should also take a moment to remember the tragedies of the World Wars.


One Language, Many Voices

by Barrie England, 2013-06-13. filed under Etymology, Linguistics

‘One Language, Many Voices’ was the title of an exhibition at the British Library in 2010-11 . It sums up what English is and always has been. This simple truth is overlooked by those who take a one-size-fits-all approach to language. An historical perspective may help to set the record straight.

English has its origins in the various north-west European dialects which were spoken by the tribes who invaded England from the middle of the fifth century, and which displaced the native Celtic, which remains only in a few words like brock (badger), cwm (valley) and some place names. The surviving literature from the period allows us to identify an Anglo-Saxon language, now usually known as Old English. However, the texts we have still show dialectical differences, and it seems likely that the spoken dialects of Old English were sometimes mutually incomprehensible.

For a period, the Wessex dialect was the most prestigious, showing that then, as now, any one variety of the language predominates not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. However, the language was by no means static during this period, because the rule of the Wessex king, Alfred the Great, coincided with the Viking invasions, which brought new words and new grammar into English which remain with us today.

The next most significant influence on the language was the Norman invasion of 1066. So pervasive was Norman French that it eclipsed English for many years in the administration of the country, but although Norman French was the official language, we may suppose that English, in all its varieties, continued to be spoken by the majority. English later resurfaced in public discourse, and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading allowed it to be used in Parliament. Soon after this time, Chaucer was writing the first great works of English literature in a form of the language that is much more recognizably English than its Old English predecessor. Chaucer wrote in his own dialect, which happened to be that of the east Midlands, spoken in the triangle formed by Oxford, Cambridge and London. The language spoken and written at this time is known as Middle English, but great literature survives in dialects other than Chaucer’s, including William Langland’s ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’.

Chaucer had a stroke of luck when William Caxton, the first English printer, came to print Chaucer’s works. Because of the proliferation of dialects, Caxton was unsure which to use in his printed books, so he just chose the one he was most familiar with, his own. This happened to be Chaucer’s as well, so the combination of a great writer and the first printer determined the course of English ever after. This particular dialect, which was to become the basis of what we now know as Standard English, was not chosen because it had some particular linguistic merit that other dialects lacked. Any other dialect would have served just as well.

Middle English turned into Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, but there is evidence from his plays that other dialects existed alongside what was becoming the standard one. The conscious process of standardisation didn’t begin until the eighteenth century, when speakers of English, most of whom until then had probably never given the matter a second thought, started to become self-conscious about their use of language and sought guidance. As today, there was no shortage of self-styled experts willing to help them out. They made up rules about English, which reflected their own personal preferences, and were based on Latin, a language which has a quite different grammar from that of English and other Germanic languages. Their idiosyncratic prescriptions remain with us. To some they are as holy writ and are stoutly defended by people who know little of their origins. In truth, they are shibboleths, whose main purpose is to allow those with a little education to show their assumed superiority over those who have been unfortunate enough to have had less.

Since the eighteenth century, English has changed, and become more widely spoken, in ways that earlier speakers could not have imagined. It has absorbed vocabulary from around the world and, thanks first to the British Empire and, since the start of the twentieth century, to the global influence of the United States, has become the first international language since Latin. The history of English is complex and long, but this very brief summary is necessary for countering the prejudices that all too often typify discussion of the language today. It is the failure to appreciate that English exists in many varieties, as it has always done, that is behind much misunderstanding. Within the United Kingdom alone, some regional dialects can be almost incomprehensible to those from other regions, and so can some social dialects to those from different social classes. More widely, there are varieties of English spoken in Singapore, New Zealand, Nigeria, India, Canada and the United States, to name just a few places where English is either a first or second language, and within these English-speaking communities there will be further sub-varieties.

All varieties, standard and non-standard alike, have an internally consistent system of grammar, and speakers of non-standard varieties are not, by that fact alone, inarticulate, unintelligent or ignorant. The difficulty in understanding those who speak differently from ourselves often lies in accent rather than grammar or vocabulary. As Peter Trudgill has shown , the grammar of nonstandard varieties does not differ so very greatly from Standard English. Where it does, it can be more complex. For example, as Trudgill says,

‘Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb “do” and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I does , he does or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary did and main verb done , as in You done it, did you?

Nevertheless, some form of commonly understandable norm is essential, and Standard English fills the role. It is the variety of the language used in published work, and in education, journalism and broadcasting, the law and public administration, and by the small minority of people for whom it is a native spoken variety. Provided it is understood as a neutral term, not implying ‘high standard’, Standard English is preferable to alternatives such as BBC English, Oxford English or The Queen’s English, and is the one used by professional linguists. If not universally spoken and written, it is widely understood, and for that reason schools have a duty to teach it.

None of this should be seen as undervaluing the linguistic merits of nonstandard varieties. They contribute to the richness of the language which we have inherited from those diverse tribes who came to Britain so long ago. We should celebrate rather than condemn them.


The Give That Keeps On Gifting: The Protean Nature of English Words, and Why That’s A Good Thing

by Robusto, 2012-12-31. filed under Etymology, Grammar, Linguistics

English is constantly adding, modifying, and repurposing words.

Look, there’s one right now: repurpose. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, it is officially a word:

re·pur·pose tr.v. re·pur·posed , re·pur·pos·ing , re·pur·pos·es
To use or convert for use in another format or product: repurposed the book as a compact disk.

Etymonline cites its usage from 1995, so it is relatively new. It is made by adding re- to the word purpose , which can be either a noun or a verb. My money is on noun, because the new construct comes out of business or technical jargon and purpose as a verb is pretty seldom heard. Not that it would be wrong. In fact, it would not be surprising if purpose used as a verb were revived as a back-formation of repurpose .

In this season of giving, let’s look at the words give and gift . Give is a verb and gift is a noun, right? True. But haven’t you ever found some mechanical thing to be loose when it was supposed to be tight and said, “I feel a little give in it”? Of course you have. Verb has been nouned. You nouned it yourself.

Similarly, we’ve all heard someone use the word gift as a verb: “She gifted them all with front-row seats to the concert.” And whether our inner fussbudget winces or not when we hear it said that way, it is still a legitimate usage. Face it: the traditional verb form give doesn’t say as much, and simply isn’t as precise. “She gave them all front-row seats to the concert.” That doesn’t exactly carry the connotation of presenting them with a gift, does it? She could have been paying them back for prior favors, or because she lost a bet — any number of non-giftish reasons come to mind.

Who can forget the “regifting” episode of the immensely popular TV show Seinfeld ? (Hmm, that occurred right around the time repurpose came into the lexicon. Coincidence?) And if we admit that the writers and actors on that show were all very gifted , we’ve now adjectived a noun. We might even have adjectived the noun very giftedly , in which case we’ve adverbed the adjective. It goes on.

There really is nothing to be afraid of. Languages change, and words get overloaded, adapted, modified. Some people abhor this condition. Some feel language should be as precise as mathematics: see John Quijada’s artificially constructed language, Ithkuil , if you don’t believe me. Me, I prefer the richness of everyday speech, and the creative way people adapt words to mean new things. Isn’t it more colorful and descriptive to say a basketball player bricked a shot, rather than falling back on the boring and pedestrian missed ? A horrible shot in basketball looks like someone throwing a brick, not a ball, and if we verb the noun we get a shot that has been bricked .

Language is a living thing. Let’s never forget that. If words stop changing, a language starts dying, just as our bodies do if our cells stop dying and being reborn.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at that verb: live . The noun form is, of course, life . Since the 1830s, the noun lifer has referred to a prisoner serving a life sentence. But wait a sec, didn’t it have to become a verb first? Isn’t a verb at least implied there: lifer , one who lifes ? No? Let’s move forward in time and notice a shift in meaning: lifer now includes someone who is serving “for life” in the military. I recently read the book Generation Kill by Evan Wright, who was embedded with a platoon of Recon Marines that participated in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. After Saddam’s army was defeated, one of the Marines, Corporal Ray Person, is quoted as he grouses about the battalion first sergeant’s return to his meddlesome “lifer” ways. Person complains:

“The second they stop shooting at us, [that] motherfucker’s lifin’ us in his stupid fucking retardese.”

Ahh, there it is. Crude though his statement may be, his verbing of a noun that arose from the prior verbing of the same noun is pure poetry. And exactly right for the sentiment the soldier wished to express. What is a lifer sergeant doing to Marines when he makes their lives miserable with a lot of petty regulations? He is lifing them. And he is doing so in the imaginary-yet-somehow-very-real language Cpl. Person vulgarly calls retardese , which consists, presumably, of one stupid, ungrammatical statement after another spoken in a near-incomprehensible hillbilly drawl.

I hope you can’t find any give in my arguments. But I wish to gift you with one final thought on the protean nature of English. Wallace Stevens said it about poetry, but it goes for language in general as well:

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage.

In other words, it has to be a living, changing entity, continually adapting, being adapted, constructing a new stage. Fortunately for all of us, it is.


Writing Good ‘Meaning’ Questions

2012-09-03 by mahnax. 1 comments Filed under English Stack Exchange

On any Stack Exchange site, a question must be tagged. Here at EL&U, our most popular tag is the tag, with over 2700 questions filed as such. Unfortunately, this tag is often misused, and many questions bearing this tag are closed, with some being subsequently deleted. Luckily, the EL&U blog is here to save the day.

Here is a set of criteria for good meaning questions:

Good meaning questions…

  1. are not General Reference
  2. are applicable to a wide audience, not just the OP (not Too Localized)
  3. ask about…
    • words or phrases that do not make sense when interpreted literally
    • words or phrases that are ambiguous
    • potentially archaic words or phrases
    • words or phrases that have different meanings in different dialects
    • other things that are generally deeper than a simple definition

1. Not General Reference General Reference questions are questions that can be fully answered with a single link to a place that is specifically designed to provide the information in the question.  These sources include online dictionaries or etymology sites.

To put it more simply, a General Reference question is too basic for EL&U. In my experience, General Reference is the most common reason for question closure. The meaning tag is more likely to be used on a General Reference question because the name and description of the tag are slightly deceptive, especially to those who don’t speak English well; it’s deceptive because meaning sounds a lot simpler than the questions should be.

Almost all definitions are easily found by using search engines or by checking dictionaries directly. In most circumstances, asking for a simple definition is too basic.

2. Not Too Localized Questions that get closed as Too Localized are unlikely to help anyone in the future, meaning that the question at hand simply does not apply to many people. These questions can stem from a user finding an unfamiliar word or phrase somewhere else on the Internet, a news article, etc. EL&U and the meaning tag seem like prime places to ask about the meanings of these unfamiliar words or phrases, but if that word/phrase has been made up and used among just a handful of people, then it likely has no established meaning, and thus cannot be explained.

More simply, they don’t mean anything to anyone other than the few who use it. Asking about the meanings of these types of phrases is not likely to be accepted, either with the meaning tag, or without.

3. So what can I ask about? Well, if your question isn’t ruled out by criterion #1 or #2, it stands a good chance of being acceptable. There are a few final things to be concerned about, but these apply to all questions—make sure it’s legible, sensible, and well-written. Be certain to clearly state the exact question you have at some point, and include research that you’ve done yourself. The list of good question criteria is a good place to start, and don’t hesitate to pop into chat to ask about your question if you’re not sure it’ll do well. Here are two examples of good meaning questions: Which day does “next Tuesday” refer to? What does “information porn” mean?

Thanks for reading, and good luck with all of your future meaning questions.


Getting into the spirit

2011-12-20 by martha. 0 comments Filed under English Stack Exchange Tagged: holidays, main-site, themed posts

… the Holiday spirit, that is. Here’s a selection of Christmas and other end-of-year holiday questions that you may find interesting.

Determining which good sentiment to wish at each holiday – If you have ever wondered why we don’t say “Merry New Year”, or why “Happy Christmas” is perfectly fine in Britain but exceedingly odd in America, you’re not alone. If you know some of the history behind these set phrases, here’s your opportunity to post a good answer.

How many articles should go in "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!"? and How should "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" be capitalized? – These questions might come in handy if you haven’t written your Christmas cards yet.

What preposition should I use before the word “Christmas”? – Yes, this is Yet Another Question About Prepositions, but like many other commonplace expressions, Christmas does have its idiosyncrasies, so the answers might be worth a read if English isn’t your native language, or if you’re puzzled by the usage on the opposite side of the pond. Another similar question is http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/49880/prepositions-for-wednesday-night-and-the-night-of-christmas-eve.

What method of counting puts Twelfth Night on January 6th? – OK, full disclosure, this is my question, but I still think it’s a good one. And my traditional year-end gripe bears repeating, too: however you count them, the twelve days of Christmas come after Christmas. If you’re taking down your decorations on the 26th, you’re doing it wrong.

And finally, why do some words have “X” as a substitute? – This is worth reading just for the comment by mgkrebbs, which (in my opinion) quite effectively debunks the notion that writing “Xmas” is a nefarious new plot to remove Christ from Christmas.


The Basics of Limerick Composition

2011-11-16 by Matt Ellen. 11 comments Filed under Poetry Tagged: Edward Lear, learning, limericks, pronunciation

It is difficult to judge someone’s language proficiency. There are plenty of standardised tests, but in my humble opinion, they just prove someone can pass a test, not how good they are at using a language.

Two things that can indicate a good grasp of a language, at least in the case of English, are the abilities to pun and to rhyme.

Punning is probably more difficult than rhyming, since it requires not only a good grasp of pronunciation and a swift vocabulary, but also knowledge of the meaning of a great many words and idioms.

One of my favourite British pastimes that involves a lot of rhyming and occasional punning, is that of writing limericks. I won’t be concentrating on puns, since they are not essential to limericks.

I can see you’re all wondering what this wondrous thing, a limerick, is. Limericks are a type of verse, invented as a parlour game. They follow a simple pattern:

  • They have five lines.
  • The last words of the first, second and fifth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The last words of the third and fourth lines must have the same rhyme.
  • The first, second and fifth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh DA duh duh DA duh duh daaa (approximately).
  • The third and fourth lines have the syllable stress pattern of duh duh DA duh duh DA (approximately).

I say that they have five lines, but often limericks are written with the third and fourth lines combined into one. It is simpler to learn how to write limericks by thinking of them as having five lines. The stress patterns should be adhered to as well as possible, but can be fudged somewhat in order to include a rhyme. The only strict rule is the rhyming pattern of AABBA.

I think an example will be most illustrative. One of the great British poets, Edward Lear , was famous for his limericks. Here is an example:

There was an old man who said, ‘See!
I have found the most beautiful bee!’
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’
he answered, ‘It does,
I never beheld such a bee!’

You can often tell an Edward Lear limerick by how two of the lines, usually the first and fifth or second and fifth, make the rhyme using the same word (in this instance, bee ).

As an example of how being able to rhyme can demonstrate one’s proficiency in English, if you look at the third and fourth lines of Lear’s limerick, you can see that does rhymes with buzz . While the pronunciation of does is probably one of the earlier things learnt in English, it might not be obvious to all due to how the spellings differ.

Another point is the ability to know which words will best fit the stress patterns for the limerick. This is something that can only be learnt through extensive practice. In our above example, the words fit the stress patterns almost exactly. The fourth line, however, does rely on a pause at the end to keep the rhythm.

Some say that for a limerick to be a true limerick it must be salacious or rude in some way. I do not agree. I think that beyond the structure of the limerick, the main semantic rule is that they should be light hearted. A serious limerick is a pointless thing.

So if you’re wondering how well your ability in English is coming along, try composing a few limericks. The easier you are finding it, the better your grasp of English is.


What are you on about now? (Prepositions: on vs about)

2011-10-11 by Mr. Shiny & New. 2 comments Filed under Grammar Tagged: prepositions , word-differences

When something has a topic, is it ON that topic, or ABOUT that topic? This question on, or about, which preposition to use comes up fairly often. Martha’s answer tries to explain some of the connotations that may be present when using certain words.

  • A discussion about a topic — this implies that the discussion was just a conversation, really, and it might not have stayed strictly on-topic.
  • A discussion of a topic — this brings to mind a true discussion, going into all sorts of details of the topic (and only the topic).
  • A discussion on a topic — here I picture the discussion to be somewhat one-sided, almost a lecture.

I’m afraid to say that I don’t agree with these explanations.  My instinct is that “about” and “on” are pretty much equivalent in meaning, as FumbleFingers wrote.

But if there are two words, and they both serve a similar purpose, which should we choose? People must care about this, because they keep asking.  It turns out that EL&U is not the only place people have asked. A blog post on twopens.com asked the Chicago Manual of Style editors which was better:

She gave a lecture on recycled plastics or about recycled plastics.

A lengthy discussion ensued until one editor pointed out that it didn’t matter at all, since the meaning was perfectly clear and concise.

Until, of course, you have a sentence like

I once attended a lecture on the surface of Mars. (How did you get there?)

Now we have a pickle. The word “on” has many definitions , so once your sentence invokes one of those other definitions you risk confusing your reader. If you’re careful, you can spot the double meanings and edit your sentence accordingly. Or, you can be cautious and just choose “about” which has less potential for error.

Finally, if you want to just go with the flow, you can simply do whatever everyone else is doing. If you can figure out what that is, of course.

Ratio of On to About

(Ratio of less than one means About is used more)

   Word      Ratio
[1]News       0.73
[2]Discussion 0.6
[3]Lecture    4.82
[4]Article    2.73
[5]Book       1.35*


  1. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=12190283
  2. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=12190220
  3. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=12190302
  4. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=12190315
  5. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=12190338

*Note: Many false positives here, such as: “found the book on Amazon.com”, “book on tape”, etc.

From my crude Corpus search, it seems that there is no clear winner in usage. The numbers for “on” are inflated by the fact that many examples are false positives, yet there still is an overwhelming usage of “on” for certain phrases. So don’t get too hung up about about, or go on and on about on. It’s all okay.

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