Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”

Some people don’t like the singular, gender-neutral use of “they” (along with “them”, “their” etc.):

  • They hung up without saying anything.
  • Who finished their work first?
  • If anyone forgets their hat, you’ll have to leave them out of the photo.
  • Nobody who cares about their future can ignore this.

The objection is:

“They” and its cousins are plural and can’t be singular. The first two of the sentences above are about a single person, so they’re just wrong. The other two may be about several people, but “anyone” and “nobody” are still singular words (we say “anybody is”, not “anybody are”), so they’re still ungrammatical. While the traditional generic “he” can seem odd or sexist, and “he or she” can be clumsy, that doesn’t mean we should break the logical rule that separates singular from plural.

If you’re inclined to agree, I’d like to try to convince you otherwise. It’s fine to dislike singular “they”, but maybe you needn’t worry about it so much.


Pronouns are a mess, but they’re a familiar mess

Here’s a simple, irrefutable proof that a pronoun can be both singular and plural: “you”.

We gave up on the distinction between singular “thou” and plural “you” centuries ago, and it hasn’t done us any harm. This means the so-called logical objection to singular “they” is wrong.

In fact, logic is a poor guide to English pronouns, which are an inconsistent mess:

  • Most have different subject and object forms – “I” and “me”, “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”, “we” and “us”, “they” and “them” – but “you” is both subject and object.
  • Third-person singular pronouns vary by gender – “he” and “she”, “him” and “her” – but other pronouns don’t.
  • Reflexive pronouns are irregular: “myself”, “yourself”, “herself” and “ourselves” are formed from the possessive “my”, “your”, “her” and “our” – but then instead of “hisself” and “theirselves”, we have “himself” and “themselves”.

Our pronouns are deeply illogical, but we don’t notice this because we’re so familiar with them.

And there’s another oddity. “We”, “us” and “our” can be, and often are, singular:

“Each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Here, “each one of us” is singular, but the following possessive is “our”. This is natural and clear – and grammatical (spoken by someone with unimpeachable command of the Queen’s English).

We’ve all come across this sort of thing many, many times, but we haven’t been trained to find it illogical, so we don’t. We don’t even notice it. Google “singular we” and you’ll find pretty much nothing; Google “singular they” and you’ll tumble into a vortex of angry pedantry.

This shows that dislike of singular “they” isn’t a natural, logical reaction to a real grammatical mistake; it’s an artificial constraint that takes effort to internalise.

A third-person version of that sentence would be:

“Each one of them will have their own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Equally natural and clear – and grammatical.

“You” can be singular as well as plural, which everyone accepts. “We” can be singular as well as plural, which no one notices. “They” can also be singular as well as plural, and the only problem is the people who believe it’s a problem.

Let’s meet a couple of them. Continue reading

What style of language do scientists really prefer?

“Our readers are intelligent, well-educated scientists. Why should we make our language dumbed-down, patronising and imprecise in the name of ‘readability’?”

It’s a fair question. Here’s the answer.

Never talk down to your readers. But never waste their time, either. And scientists, while intelligent and educated, are also busy. As well as their research, they may have teaching, management or clinical duties to perform, funding applications to write, presentations to plan, journals to keep up to date with… They don’t have time to wade through verbiage in search of facts.

If you’re writing about something complex, then of course you need to give all the necessary detail. If you’re writing for specialists, you can use their specialist terms. But you don’t need to add verbal complexity beyond that. Keep it clear and direct. This makes your writing more efficient and more likely to succeed in communicating your message. It’s also courteous to your readers.

Einstein may or may not have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Either way, it’s good writing advice.

But we don’t all follow it.

Many people, when writing in a work context, feel that they’re supposed to use language that is more abstract, impersonal and convoluted than they otherwise would. The idea is that this makes the writing sound more professional. But the result is often that it’s unclear and off-putting, even to highly intelligent readers.

Language like that can be made more concrete, more personal and more concise without dumbing down the content, without losing important information, and without making the tone inappropriately casual. In fact, directness and clarity normally sharpen the tone and can even help to add precision. Clearing up overgrown language can show you previously hidden patches of ambiguity.

Testing the hypothesis

Scientists like evidence, so let’s have some.

John Kirkman, as part of his book Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology, ran several surveys of scientists.

In one, he gave two versions of a passage from a research paper to 2,781 readers from medicine and the life sciences:

Brown’s version

In the first experiment of the series using mice it was discovered that total removal of the adrenal glands effects reduction of aggressiveness and that aggressiveness in adrenalectomized mice is restorable to the level of intact mice by treatment with corticosterone. These results point to the indispensability of the adrenals for the full expression of aggression. Nevertheless, since adrenalectomy is followed by an increase in the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and since ACTH has been reported (Brain, 1972) to decrease the aggressiveness of intact mice, it is possible that the effects of adrenalectomy on aggressiveness are a function of the concurrent increased levels of ACTH. However, high levels of ACTH, in addition to causing increases in glucocorticoids (which possibly accounts for the depression of aggression in intact mice by ACTH), also result in decreased androgen levels. In view of the fact that animals with low androgen levels are characterised by decreased aggressiveness the possibility exists that adrenalectomy, rather than affecting aggression directly, has the effect of reducing aggressiveness by producing an ACTH-mediated condition of decreased androgen levels.

Smith’s version

The first experiment in our series with mice showed that total removal of the adrenal glands reduces aggressiveness. Moreover, when treated with corticosterone, mice that had their adrenals taken out became as aggressive as intact animals again. These findings suggest that the adrenals are necessary for animals to show full aggressiveness.

But removal of the adrenals raises the levels of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and Brain2 found that ACTH lowers the aggressiveness of intact mice. Thus the reduction of aggressiveness after this operation might be due to the higher levels of ACTH which accompany it.

However, high levels of ACTH have two effects. First, the levels of glucocorticoids rise, which might account for Brain’s results. Second, the levels of androgen fall. Since animals with low levels of androgen are less aggressive, it is possible that removal of the adrenals reduces aggressiveness only indirectly: by raising the levels of ACTH it causes androgen levels to drop.

Kirkman sums up the main differences:

  • shorter, less complex sentence structures in Smith’s version
  • all necessary specialist terms are present in both versions, but Smith uses familiar words in place of unnecessary specialist terms
  • fewer passive structures and less roundabout phrasing in Smith’s version
  • paragraphing.

The scientists were then asked what they thought of the two versions.

“Which style do you prefer to read when you read scientific texts?” 74% picked Smith and 21% Brown.

“Which style do you think is more appropriate for scientific texts?” 57% picked Smith and 25% Brown.

Clearly the Smith style was much preferred, but the disparity between these two answers is interesting. A significant minority, even though they favoured Smith’s style, were still reluctant to endorse it for professional use. Presumably they were worried that their peers didn’t share their preferences. But, the survey shows, most did (they also rated Smith’s version easier to read and more precise, and rated Smith as being more objective and having the better-organised mind).

This is a case of what Steven Pinker calls pluralistic ignorance:

a false consensus, in which everyone is convinced that everyone believes something, and believes that everyone else believes that they believe it, but in fact no one actually believes it. One example is the cachet that college students place on drinking till they puke. In many surveys it turns out that every student, questioned privately, thinks that binge drinking is a terrible idea, but each is convinced that his peers think it’s cool.

Convoluted prose isn’t so literally sickening, but many academics and journals still maintain the illusion that it’s cool.

Kirkman also ran other surveys, giving different versions of specialist texts to chemical engineers, ecologists and biochemists. The results were similar. He lists the features of the preferred style:

Direct, verbs mainly active, minimum of special vocabulary, judicious use of personal and impersonal constructions, sentences of varied length but mainly short and not complex.

How to do it

For advice on how to improve convoluted writing, you could try Kirkman’s book, which focuses on scientific writing. Joseph William’s book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is very good and has a broader remit.

If you want something a bit shorter, Rachael Cayley’s Explorations of Style blog has some useful posts on that draw on Williams, among others, with a focus on academic writing. Look in particular at the ‘five key strategies’ posts listed on the right.

Pinker’s The Sense of Style I also recommend, particularly chapters 2–5 (don’t get too bogged down in the sentence diagrams). He too draws on Williams, as well as bringing in some psychological research on how we process language. He’s an engaging writer, if sometimes a bit combative.

I might try to write my own short guide one day. For now, I’ve done a case study [PDF] of a passage of text that isn’t from a journal article but is written for scientists. I’ve tried to improve it – cutting it in half but keeping the information, expressed more clearly and directly – explaining the changes as I go.

What the internet desperately needs is another blog post about the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma – also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, and the what the hell is wrong with you people why can’t you just get a life – provokes strong opinions.

It’s the difference between these two sentences:

1a) I ordered bacon, eggs and beans.
1b) I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans.

The Oxford comma is the last one, before the “and” in version 1b.

Should it be there?

Some people say no (loudly): it looks fussy and slows the sentence down. The “and” is quite enough to separate the last two items in the list.

Other people say yes (even more loudly): it’s helpful for clarity. Well, maybe not in this case, but it’s more important when the individual items in a list are grammatically more complex, especially if they contain “and”s. Compare:

2a) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs and toast.
2b) They ordered bacon and beans, chips, and eggs and toast.
2c) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs, and toast.

Sentence 2a, without the Oxford comma, is ambiguous about which ingredients make up which meals: it could mean either 2b or 2c.


3a) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire and a hatstand.
3b) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire, and a hatstand.

While 3a may take a moment to decipher – is the hatstand part of the sculpture? – 3b makes it clearer.

The Oxford comma can also help in cases like these well-known examples:

4a) We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
4b) We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

5a) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
5b) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the problem is confusion between different types of comma. In 4a, is the comma after “strippers” there to keep items separate in the list or to introduce the extra information (an appositive phrase) that JFK and Stalin are the strippers?

Likewise, 5a might suggest that Ayn Rand and God are my parents. But 4b and 5b make the separation clear.

Now, sure, there’s no real danger of misunderstanding in these two cases; rather, the risk is of a brief sense of absurdity. There are more sensible examples, though:

6a) I asked my neighbours, an architect and a builder.
6b) I asked my neighbours, an architect, and a builder.

So the Oxford comma can be useful. But given that it hardly seems necessary in “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans”, should we use it all the time?

The AP Stylebook says no, recommending it only in more complex or potentially ambiguous cases: “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag was red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.”

But the Oxford Guide to Style says yes: “Given that the final comma is sometimes necessary to prevent ambiguity, it is logical to impose it uniformly”. The Chicago Manual of Style also favours using it consistently, as do Bryan Garner, Steven Pinker and others. (It’s more common in American writing than in British.)

I agree that consistency is good – other things being equal. But other things are not equal. There are disadvantages to using the Oxford comma.

It can slow a sentence down. This is obviously subjective and depends on what you’re used to, but I find “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans” pretty ponderous and deliberate.

The New Yorker’s Mary Norris has taste that goes the other way, favouring the Oxford comma everywhere: “I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective.” Well, if starch is what you want…

She adds:

The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. … The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. … It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it.

Sure, this is thoughtful (it’s in a great extract from what looks like being a great book by Norris), but it makes two huge assumptions.

It assumes that readers consciously choose how commas come across to them. And it assumes that readers will understand the publication’s policy on commas and the reasons behind it. Even for the New Yorker, that feels like a stretch.

As a copyeditor, I’m a big fan of the fine distinctions copyeditors fret over. But we have to have some perspective about whether our readers understand those distinctions the same way we do – or even at all. Sometimes we might be zealously and ingeniously splitting hairs that are invisible to the untrained eye.

There’s a second, more serious problem with the Oxford comma: sometimes it creates the very ambiguity or absurdity that it’s supposed to remove. I’m amazed that its partisans so rarely acknowledge this, because you only need to tweak their examples slightly to see it:

7a) We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.
7b) We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.

8a) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.
8b) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the tables are turned: 7b might suggest that JFK was the stripper, 8b that Rand was my mother. 7a and 8a are clear.

So we have to choose whether to use an Oxford comma or not in each case. A blanket policy, pro or anti, just won’t work.

And it gets worse. Try this pair:

9a) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate and a priest.
9b) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate, and a priest.

Neither is clear. Does 9a mention three people or one? Does 9b mention three people or two? We need to rephrase somehow:

9c) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate, and a priest.
9d) I spoke to a priest and my uncle, a magistrate.
9e) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate and a priest.
9f) I spoke to a magistrate, a priest and my uncle.
9g) I spoke to my uncle as well as a magistrate and a priest.

We have to face the awful truth: the Oxford comma is not a magical blade that can chop any sentence into slices of perfect meaning. It’s just one fallible tool among many.

Use it when you must, avoid it when you must, choose as you prefer (or as your readers will prefer) when you can, and rewrite whenever that would be better.

Oh, and try not to get too worked up about it.

Accidence Will Happen – by Oliver Kamm

I find it hard to review books that I like, because I tend to feel that I need to be critical to be useful. (It’s a sickness.) And in the case of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage, I’m also biased: he quotes my blog and thanks me in the acknowledgements for reviewing an early draft.

For what it’s worth, I really do like the book. Kamm’s view, in brief, is that standards are set by general usage and not by rule-mongers who think they know better, and obeying those sticklers is liable to bog you and your writing down with needless superstitions. He also says that Standard English is important but not intrinsically better or more correct than other dialects. Half the book addresses typical stickler arguments and half gives guidance on specific points.

Rather than review the book, I’m going to respond to a critical review of it.

Roger Lewis in the Times (paywall) says:

Any educated person used to know the difference between appraise and apprise, credence and credibility, enormity and magnitude. Those of us who were Mixed Infants in the Sixties would never say bored of, as the correct form is bored with, nor confuse different to with different from. We were aware by the age of seven that you’d be hanged not hung for capital crimes.

Kamm thinks a lot of this is bunkum.

Such rules are “just preferences”, and language should be left to its own devices — which is like saying that the destruction of the countryside ought to be allowed to proceed unchecked, as to halt such developments is to try to prevent an evolutionary inevitability.

Lewis’s timing is badly off. The roads and buildings he opposes were put there long ago; his position, in effect, is that map-makers should refuse to include them.

On matters of historical fact it’s wise to check the evidence. All of Lewis’s supposed errors are old, and their status as errors is mostly debatable.

To Lewis and his fellow pedants, “appraise” means evaluate and “apprise” means inform, and woe betide any modern illiterate who mixes them up; any educated person used to know the difference. Except that the earliest uses of “apprise” in the Oxford English Dictionary – from 1400 – meant to evaluate. It only started to be used for informing in 1694. Only a dozen years later, “appraise” (which had been about evaluating since 1424) started being used for informing. So the two words have a double history. That said, nowadays the disparaged usages are not that common, and Kamm agrees that we should avoid them. But this is on grounds of usage, not some mythical ancient decree.

“Credence”, the pedants say, means acceptance as true; it cannot mean “credibility”. The OED, though, lists a definition of “credence” as “the quality of being believed or believable; the likelihood of being true; plausibility, credibility”. This dates back to 1450. So this is one of many words with more than one meaning, and Kamm says confusion is in practice unlikely. The same is true of Lewis’s next bogeyman…

“Enormity”, according to the pedants, means great wickedness and not great size. The approved usage dates back to 1477 in the OED, but also around that time the word was used to mean an abnormality or a divergence from the normal standard, with no moral judgement necessarily involved. This makes sense when you think about the “norm” part of the word. So, while the approved usage means against the norm of morality, from 1792 the word was also being used to mean exceeding the norm in size. (Also, as Kamm notes, the earliest uses of “enormous” and “enormousness” had nothing to do with size but meant transgressing moral norms.)

“Bored of” is allegedly wrong while “bored with” and “bored by” are right. It’s true that usage has historically favoured the latter two, but this is changing. “Bored of” is still less common in print, but it’s growing. In speech and online, it’s clearly standard. The Glowbe corpus of web usage find “bored of” to be more common on UK-based sites than “bored by” or “bored with”. And there’s no logic to the complaint anyway, says Kamm: we all accept “tired of” and “wearied of”.

“Different to” and “different from” I’ve dealt with before. Both are well-established and both are fine, as Kamm agrees.

I would actually go along with a couple of Lewis’s points – but not because of any immutable rules from some vague point in the past. I try to favour or avoid certain usages based on today’s usage and attitudes (which may depend on the audience). When he says “What activates my own pedantry isn’t futile nostalgia for an ideal classical epoch but a real fear of reverting to linguistic barbarism,” he is kidding himself as well as being hyperbolic. Abolishing sticklers’ pseudo-rules wouldn’t just leave English in excellent shape; it would leave English pretty much as it already is.

One other complaint Lewis makes is:

Kamm can be the revolutionary favouring diversity while flaunting (not flouting) a professional knowledge of dangling modifiers – he can do all this because he operates from a superior base of intellectual assurance. … He can say “errors” represent “flux” and that standards are not falling, because he knows in the first place these various conventions of grammar when he chooses to break them.

Similar points come up in John Rentoul’s and Simon Heffer’s recent discussions with Kamm.

I’m sceptical. Yes, it may be a bit tricky for some people to get their heads round the various distinctions that masquerade as matters of right and wrong. But I think most people can grasp that, for instance, the wrongness of “I ain’t done nothing” depends on context while the wrongness of “I anything not have doen” doesn’t.

It’s a common riposte to people like Kamm that they write in flawless Standard English while arguing that other forms of English are fine too. But Kamm makes it crystal clear that Standard English is vital to know; he just wants it taught without the disparagement of other dialects. He also wants it taught without time being wasted on the loose collection of pseudo-rules and superstitions that are followed by a minority of Standard English speakers.

On this point he practises what he preaches.

In the first few pages of the introduction to his book, he breaks several of these pseudo-rules: he ends sentences with prepositions, he uses “like” (not “such as”) to introduce an example, he treats “none” as plural, he uses “if” where sticklers would demand “whether” and he begins sentences with conjunctions.

The result is good prose. Those rules define not Standard English but a minority taste that imagines itself to be law.

An interesting comparison is Heffer’s book Simply English, which is uncompromising (albeit ill-informed and quirky) in insisting on such rules. Take this line from his introduction:

I am bemused that we should be asked to tolerate someone saying ‘he has flaunted all the rules’ when but for a moment of ignorance they could just as easily say ‘he has flouted all the rules’.

“Someone saying” is a fused participle, a construction that later in the book Heffer condemns as clumsy and confusing. Following his own rule, he should have written “someone’s saying”.

Also in that sentence is a singular “they”, which he elsewhere calls “unacceptable”. Following his own rule, he should have written “he” (because “the male should be taken to include the female”).

Heffer flouts the very rules he flaunts; they take pride of place in his opinions but have a weaker hold over his actual usage. This is not a sign of his illiteracy, though: the sentence is good Standard English. It’s a sign that these rules have been artificially grafted on to the language and don’t really belong there.

If even the most determined professional stickler can’t keep usages like these out of his carefully written book on correct usage, it’s a sign that those usages are correct and the rules against them are bogus.

The exorcism of bogus rules is the purpose of Kamm’s book, and I commend it.

A ridiculously brief, outrageously selective and painfully simplified history of Standard English

Standard English is one of many dialects of English. It’s the dialect that public affairs, the media and administration overwhelmingly use, and is the one most associated with education, prestige and power. Here I’m looking at Standard British English, but many of the points apply in other English-speaking countries.

Standard English dominates public life but not private conversation: only a minority of English speakers (largely defined by class) use it with friends and family, although far more switch into it when the occasion demands. It’s important to be able to do this, because Standard English opens so many doors in life.

Because of its status, many people think of it as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English, and scorn those who speak other varieties. But as well as being rude, this is mistaken. If you say ‘I seen them books but I didn’t buy none’ in the company of other people who talk that kind of dialect, that’s fine. If you say it in a job interview at the BBC, you may have a problem. Your error is one of judgement, though, not grammar.

Non-standard dialects are perfectly ‘correct’ – on their own terms. In fact, they’re mostly the same as Standard, but of course what we notice is the differences. And where they differ, they do so according to their own rules – not a lax application of Standard rules, as snobs like to imagine.

For example:

  • Standard uses the possessive ‘my’ and ‘your’ to form the reflexive pronouns ‘myself’ and yourself’, but not the possessive ‘his’ and their’ to form ‘hisself’ and ‘theirselves’. Other dialects have a regular system that does use the possessives consistently this way.
  • Standard doesn’t allow multiple negation – ‘I didn’t want none’ – but most other dialects do (along with some other languages, but je ne sais pas how many).
  • Some dialects make much more use of flat adverbs (without the ‘-ly’) than Standard, such as ‘they talked real slow’.
  • Standard has varied verb endings – ‘you like’ but ‘she likes’ etc. – while other dialects may use the same form, whether ‘likes’ or ‘like’, across the board.
  • Some dialects use singular noun forms for plurals after a number – ‘they walked five mile’. Standard doesn’t, although it does something similar in constructions like ‘a five-mile walk’.
  • Standard has lost the old distinction between singular ‘thou’ and plural ‘you’, while some dialects maintain it. Others have developed new distinctions, using ‘you’ for singular but ‘youse’ or similar for plural.
  • Irregular verbs may differ in the past and perfect tenses. Standard says ‘I spoke’ but ‘I have spoken’ while Tyneside English says ‘I spoke’ and ‘I have spoke’. On the other hand, Standard says ‘I got’ and ‘I have got’ while Tyneside says ‘I got’ but ‘I getten’ (a relative of the old ‘gotten’, which still thrives in the US).

So in some cases Standard English draws more distinctions than other dialects, in other cases fewer. Some of its conventions are more consistent and some less consistent.

It also isn’t the same thing as formal language. Standard English can range from ‘The consequences of further inaction would be somewhat vexing’ to ‘You’d better get your skates on or I’ll be pretty pissed off’. Standard can be casual, idiomatic and obscene. That said, the situations in which it’s used are more likely to be formal.

The linguists’ label ‘Standard’ reflects status, not quality – and that status is the result of historical accident. So let’s race through a millennium or so… Continue reading

A fairy tale

Simon Heffer has written a historical fantasy:

heffer fairytale

This story needs, shall we say, a little clarification. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Continue reading

A test of grammar

The magazine Management Today recently published a grammar quiz and a list of tips by my friend Andrew Ingram (who runs Better Business Writing) and me. As MT’s readers are probably a bit less fascinated by this stuff than my blog’s readers are, here I’m reproducing the questions with a more extended discussion of what they mean.

The questions

1) “They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.”
Would you move the word “quickly” to somewhere else in the sentence?

2) “This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”
Would you change “between” to “among”?

3) “None of the people in that meeting are your friends.”
Would you change “are your friends” to “is your friend”?

4) “You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.”
Would you change “can” to “may”?

5) “We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.”
Would you treat “data” as a plural?

6) “Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.”
Would you change “than me” to “than I”?

7) “You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.”
Would you change “who” to “whom”?

8) “Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.”
Would you alter “their” used this way?

How did you do? Continue reading

The whale fail

mwdeu2Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is a great book. It’s a hefty, well-researched, non-dogmatic guide to usage debates past and present, and I rely on it a lot.

But there’s a typo on the front cover.

A bit embarrassing to get the name of the book (and the publisher) wrong, so prominently. And it is wrong: on the dust jacket and the inside pages, the hyphen is there.

This reminds me of another book with a hyphen problem: Moby-Dick.

Yes, Herman Melville’s book is called Moby-Dick, with a hyphen. But the whale in the book is called Moby Dick, without one.

Moby-DickNo one knows exactly why this happened. Melville changed the title (from The Whale) at a late stage in production, and perhaps a message got garbled or someone at the publisher’s put a typo on the title page of the first edition. Whatever the cause, the hyphen stuck.

My own theory is that the hyphen that should be on the cover of MWDEU fell through a freak wormhole in the fabric of spacetime and landed on the front of Moby-Dick.

Scraping the sky, raking the moon, tall tales and horseplay

Here are three facts that, taken together, have puzzled me for a while:

  1. Skyscrapers are so called because they are such tall buildings that they scrape the sky.
  2. Scraping is a kind of movement.
  3. Buildings do not move.

So what the hell’s going on?

The answer is that “skyscraper” had earlier meanings, more associated with movement. The OED’s first record of “skyscraper” to mean a tall building is from 1883. But its previous uses had included:

  • a ball hit high into the air (from 1866)
  • a tall man (from 1857)
  • a tall hat or bonnet (from 1800).

But the most common early use of the word seems to have been nautical, meaning a particular kind of sail placed at the very top of a tall mast:

Sky-scrapers. These sails are triangular… The foot spreads half of the royal yards (1794)

Four vessels hove in sight…with…royals and skyscrapers set (1797)

There were studding-sails set aloft and alow; royals, sky-scrapers, and moon-rakers (1803)

James Bond fans take note! Although it turns out that “moonraker” is older and ruder, dating back to 1767 as a term for the natives of Wiltshire. Apparently these witless bumpkins, seeing the moon reflected in a pond, would mistake it for a block of cheese and use rakes to get at it.

But the first known use of “skyscraper” is the name of a racehorse born in 1786. Skyscraper, owned by the fifth Duke of Bedford, won the Epsom Derby in 1789. He was the foal of a racer called Highflyer and later sired another called Skyrocket – all very tall and very fast.

Skyscraper seems to have passed into legend, because by 1826, his name was being used as a general term for a tall horse.

So, from equestrianism and seafaring, “skyscraper” became a byword for something tall. Then, in the late 19th century, when buildings were starting to shoot upwards in American cities, it came easily to mind.

Finally, there’s a more figurative use, to mean a tall tale:

My yarn won’t come so well after your sky-scrapers of love. (1840)

Aren’t words fun?

“Publicly” and “publically”

From time to time I see “publically” in copy. I’ve even caught myself typing it once or twice. It’s widely regarded as a mistake (although some dictionaries now list it as a variant spelling).

But the approved spelling, “publicly”, is a unique oddity. It’s the only adverb ending in “–icly” formed from an adjective that ends in “–ic”. Compare:

  • hectic – hectically
  • tragic – tragically
  • archaic – archaically
  • cryptic – cryptically
  • idiotic – idiotically

And so on. But “public” alone bucks the trend to become “publicly”.

At least, it does most of the time. In the GloWbE corpus (a record of language used on web pages archived in 2012), “publically” is about 6% as common as “publicly”. In the Google Books records, it’s below 1%.

People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid. They’re promoting regularity in the language. They’re like children who say “runned” and “buyed” and “bringed” because they’ve worked out the rule for forming past-tense verbs but haven’t realised that there are exceptions.

We get taught about these exceptions, though: there are over 100 irregular verbs, most well-known. But there’s only one “publicly”, so people are less aware of it as an issue and it appears in adult usage far more than over-regularised verbs.

I don’t know why “publicly” is unique, but Pam Peters notes that several adjectives have both “–ic” and “–ical” forms. Some of these pairs have pretty much the same meaning:

  • botanic/botanical
  • geometric/geometrical
  • monarchic/monarchical
  • poetic/poetical
  • rhythmic/rhythmical

Some are subtly different in meaning:

  • comic/comical
  • electric/electrical
  • lyric/lyrical

Others are more significantly different:

  • economic/economical
  • historic/historical
  • politic/political

Peters connects this to the adverb situation:

The parity of adjectives in -ic and -ical helps to explain why the adverbs for both types end in -ically. So, for example, the adverbs for organic and tragic are organically and tragically. Even though the -ical forms of the adjectives have long since disappeared, their ghosts appear in the adverbs. The effect is there even for adjectives which never had a counterpart ending in -ical. So barbaric, basic, civic, drastic and others become barbarically, basically etc., and it’s as if -ally is the adverbial ending for them. This has become the general rule for all adjectives ending in -ic except public, whose adverb is still normally publicly.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us why the adverb forms settled as “–ically” rather than “–icly”.

So I looked at the OED historical citations for the 16 bullet-pointed examples above, and found that for 12 of them, the “–ical” form of the adjective pre-dated the “–ic”. This kind of suggests that, if these pairs were interchangeable at the time (1400s–1600s in most of these cases), the “–ical” forms may have been better established and so had a dominant position when it came to forming adverbs. Hence the “–ically” convention.


But this doesn’t tell us why “publicly” now stands alone. It did appear earlier than most of the other adverbs above; the OED’s first “public” is in 1394 and “publicly” 1534. So maybe it had managed to dig in by the time the “–ically” convention was blossoming? The OED has a couple of “publical”s (one in 1450, one in 1898) but they’re clearly rogue; “public” has always been the only accepted form of the adjective, and this fact may have pushed people towards “publicly”. (“Publically” doesn’t appear until 1797.)

A scrap of support for this theory comes from the fact that “publicly” hasn’t always stood alone. The now-dead “franticly”, which Peters mentions, used to be common. The OED’s first “frantic” was in 1390, “franticly” in 1549 and “frantically” in 1749; it has no record of “frantical”. The situation is very like that of “public” and its derivatives, except that “publicly” has managed to survive regularisation.

So far, at least.


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