1. n. The love of language

TGIF : That Gerund Is Funky (Aug 29)

by Louise


TGIF. In language and usage news this fortnight: grammar rules that can sometimes be broken; a socialite’s guide to elegant expletives; a mispronunciation leads to the renaming of a TV show (if only briefly); the fading art of diagramming sentences; and a childhood spelling error of adult proportions.

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“You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible?” In The Guardian, linguist Steven Pinker identifies 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes). Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Hardwick on you’re and your …

by Louise



There was a profoundly important moment at last night’s Emmy Awards: when Chris Hardwick got up and gave the world’s internet trolls a dressing down for not getting their grammar right.

“There’s one very important message and I wanted to use the Emmy stage as a global stage to get this message out  … It’s very important … I want them to listen … This is very important, trolls, please. Understand what I’m about to tell you, and write it down. ‘Your’ — Y-O-U-R — is a possessive pronoun. ‘You’re’ — Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E — is the contraction of ‘you are’. As in ‘you’re bad at your grammar.’ Thank you.”

Thank you, Chris. And internet trolls: learn your lesson well. We’re watching you …

Who pronounces foreign words more correctly: Yanks or Brits?

by Louise


Nowadays it seems to be good etiquette to pronounce loanwords as closely to their native pronunciation as possible. So how do the Yanks and Brits fare comparatively in the face of this challenge? Brits are known to lean more  towards pronouncing words literally/phonetically as their English spellings prescribe, whatever their origins; Americans, on the other hand, are more bravely inclined to try and approximate the original pronunciation — even if the attempt is ultimately misguided. (The subject of “hyperforeignisms is tackled further down – and Eddie Izzard puts in his two cents too.) As well as the particular sound of the word’s vowels and consonants, it’s also a matter of syllable emphasis that helps determine how much a word sounds like its foreign forebears. 

Although Americans and Brits tend to agree on the pronunciation of most of their linguistic immigrants, there are a number of words that we approach differently depending on which side of the Atlantic we’re from. Here’s a selection of those words, and I’ve denoted with a larger flag the nation that seems to come closer to the original pronunciation (based on both sounds and syllable emphasis). Strangely enough, despite the theory above about Brits sticking to their own phonetic rules, 9 of the 16 words below are pronounced more “authentically” by the Brits, at least by my reckoning. Go figure.

herb:    unionjack HERB        usflag  ERB


croissant:   unionjack  KWAH-song        usflag kruh-SAHNT


valet:    unionjack  VAL-lett        usflag  val-LAY 


fillet:   unionjack  FILL-uht         usflag  fi-LAY


mauve:  unionjack  MOHV (rhymes with drove)       usflag  MOV


crepe:  unionjack  CREP          usflag  CRAYP


address (noun, postal sense):  unionjack  a-DRESS       usflag  ADD-ress


cigarette:   unionjack  si-guh-RET       usflag  SI-guh-ret


paella:    unionjack  pah-YEAH-luh       usflag   pah-YAY-yuh


basil:   unionjack  BAZ-il         usflag BAY-zil


lieutenant:  unionjack  lef-TEN-uhnt       usflag  loo-TEN-uhnt 


humo(u)r:  unionjack   HYOO-muh         usflag   YOO-murr


Van Gogh:  unionjack  van-GOKH (like “loch”, Lochness) or van-GOFF    usflag  van-GO


schedule:    unionjack  SHED-yool       usflag  SKED-yool


Risotto:    unionjack  rih-ZOT-toe       usflag  rih-ZOH-toe


Pasta:   unionjack  PASS-tuh (“pass” like “lass”)      usflag  PAH-stuh


Please add other words to the comments section below.

Now we come to “hyperforeignisms”: this is where English-speakers try unsuccessfully to emulate the pronunciation of the word’s original language — by getting either the country of origin or the native pronunciation wrong.

Take the word parmesan. Although it names an Italian cheese, it actually derives its spelling from French and therefore should sound like PARM-uh-zan (and that’s how Brits verbalize the stuff they sprinkle on their spaghetti). However, it is often mispronounced as parm-uh-ZHAHN by Americans, who are presumably trying to approximate the Italian name for the cheese — parmigiano, which is pronounced parm-uh-ZHAHN-o in Italian). Sorry guys: it’s a French word.

Lingerie is another one. Americans often call their intimate clothing luhn-juh-RAY — making the final syllable sound like the many French loanwords that end in -é, -er, -et and -ez  and are pronounced “-AY”. Yes, lingerie is a French word. But it ends in ‘ie’ – and that sounds like ‘ee’, not ‘ay’. Oy.

Here’s an interesting one. Forte — when referring to a personal strength, something you’re especially good at (or, in fencing, the strongest part of a sword) — comes from the French word, meaning “strong”, and therefore the final ‘e’ should be silent: “FORT”. This shouldn’t be confused with the Italian word forte, which means loud, whose final ‘e’ is pronounced “AY”. But we all say FORT-ay when we’re talking about our personal strengths — just proving that pronunciation isn’t necessarily one of them. Hey — it sounds foreign, so surely we must be saying it correctly.

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Let’s give Eddie Izzard the last word on this subject of pronunciation. Take it away, Eddie:

Round the bend: nutty, knotty — or coming soon?

by Louise


At least three times in the last few weeks I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about an event or occasion “coming round the bend” — meaning, I assumed in each case, that it’s just around the corner: it will be happening before we know it. It’s coming down the pike.

Elvis did sing about a train coming ’round the bend, and Will Rogers captained the madcap “Steamboat Round the Bend” …


… but these were clearly references to vehicles traveling round a geographical bend.

Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Aug 22)

by Louise


MoS2 Template Master

TGIF. In language, grammar and usage news this week: does how we write tell others how smart we are? Do punctuation and grammar matter when we’re flirting digitally? Does the language of a restaurant’s menu tell us how expensive the restaurant is? Plus some spelling challenges presented to U.S. foreign policy reporters; movie titles that make us cringe; and the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks …


How you write can affect how smart others perceive you to be. According to a piece in the Atlantic, “Typing … in the Comic Sans font … could ruin the whole thing: a Princeton researcher found that a hard-to-read font made an author seem dumber, while a clean, simple typeface (Times New Roman, in the study) made him or her seem more intelligent. The same researcher also looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.”

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“The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.” So Roy Peter Clark maintains on Poynter.

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The Huffington Post has identified 18 movies whose titles make every grammar geek cringe. It’s mostly a case of missing hyphens (“40 Year-Old Virgin” has a slightly pedophiliac quality to it) and apostrophes (“Two Weeks Notice” cries out for one); but when it comes to Zach Braff’s new movie, he’s

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“Funky or very informal spelling” is the biggest turnoff for both men and women when it comes to digital flirting, according to the results of a digital flirting rules survey done by Omlet, a chat app. …For women, the second biggest turnoff was the lack of punctuation and grammar.” Delaware’s News Journal has the story.

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The Hill has published an article on the spelling challenges of U.S. foreign policy. Is it ISIS or ISIL?

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Does the language of a restaurant’s menu indicate how expensive it is? Dan Jurafsky has found that it does, as reported in the Atlantic. “Fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf)…. Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like deliciousflaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words.” Does that mean I get a bargain when “steak frites” is on the menu?

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Hanx Writer

by Louise

2014-08-21 07.04.42

The perfect present

by Louise


We often beat ourselves up about living too much in the past or the future and not “living in the moment”. But it’s interesting to see that we speak and write in the present tense more than we probably realize …

In my work as a publicist, I’m often talking and writing about things that will happen in the future: a work that is going to be performed or premiered, a CD scheduled to be released, an award to be bestowed. But nowadays — in this age of low attention spans and instant gratification – everything has to sound imminent or immediate in order for it to receive attention or make any impact. So we talk in the present tense — even about the future: “She sings next month”; “he releases the CD in October”; “he opens the Met’s season in 2015″. A press release written strictly and entirely in the future tense, using a lot of wills, would be tiresome indeed: as well as being more removed in time, it is necessarily more wordy and repetitive. Snappy it certainly isn’t.

As well as its sense of immediacy, the present tense has the advantage of linguistic expediency. English speakers don’t have the choice of simple future conjugations the way the French and others do (“j’irai demain”); officially we’re meant to employ extra words (in this case modal verbs) in addition to the main verb to indicate the future: “he will sing”, “the label is going to release a CD”. Our conjugated present tense is much shorter: “he sings”; “the label releases”. But thankfully for us marketeers, and confusingly for anyone trying to learn English as a foreign language, we actually do use the present tense — in common standard and not just colloquial English — to talk about the future, especially if we’re discussing something that is happening [there it is again -- ed.] fairly reliably or imminently: “I’m having dinner with him tomorrow”, “he’s giving a speech next week”, or “the bus leaves at 3 in the morning”. Try explaining that rule to a non-English speaker …. Read the rest of this entry »

“Mourning sickness” and “grief porn”

by Louise



We all love word-watching: we’re howling with delight that binge-watch, amazeballs and YOLO have recently been added to the dictionary (see Glosso’s earlier post on YOLO), and a universal groan went up when literally officially took on its new (and historically opposite) meaning, “figuratively”. Cementing and legitimizing the words and phrases that pepper our language — if not by making dictionary entries out of them but just by observing and recognizing their widespread usage — is a powerful form of social commentary. The language we speak reflects the thoughts we share: what better insight into the 21st-century  mind than by noting the words and expressions we use to articulate them?

So what a sad and unsettling fact that the phrase “mourning sickness” has taken root in our vocabulary to describe a growing phenomenon: “a collective condition characterised by ostentatious, recreational grieving for dead celebrities and murder victims” (as reported in the UK’s Telegraph more than a decade ago.)

The world wept when it learned of the tragic death of Robin Williams last week. He was a comedian, actor and entertainer who made millions of people laugh and cry: a public figure who graced TV and movie screens over several decades and a man whose private, inner life was known by very few. Social media channels lit up as the news of his death broke: for the first hour or so there was an understandable communal expression of shock and disbelief that this extraordinary man should have made the unfathomable decision to take his own life. But within about an hour of the news settling in, the tone of the discussion began to change: people started to relate their own associations with or memories of Williams, anxious to lay their own claim to a portion of the big grieving pie and to feel part of the public event. (And I’m no exception: I posted something in his memory here on this blog, with only a tenuous connection to the subject of language.) Mourning sickness had started to kick in …

“Mourning sickness,” as Wikipedia defines it, “is a collective emotional condition of “recreational grieving” by individuals in the wake of celebrity deaths and other public traumas.  Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Aug 13)

by Louise



TGIF. Language and usage in the news this fortnight: this year’s new legit words — both in life and in Scrabble; the controversy over Sanskrit; baby talk — in humans and turtles; John Oliver’s new phrase goes urban; and what’s in a name – your name? It might be more important than you think …

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Oxford Dictionaries have added some new words to the dictionary, including YOLO, amazeballs, and binge-watch. Time has the adorbs story. And while we’re on the subject: Merriam-Webster has released a new version of the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary with 5,000 new words, added to reflect new trends, styles and facts of the 21st century. … Words like Read the rest of this entry »

What good amid these, O me, O life?

by Louise


“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love: these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman:

“Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here — that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will your verse be?”

Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society, written by Tom Schulman.

O Me! O Life! 

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Read the rest of this entry »