Author Archives: Tom Freeman

I work in the publishing department of a fairly large charity. I copyedit, I sub, I proofread, I guard the style guide, I drink tea, I try to control my rage.

How do you cope when everyone’s usage is wrong?

Princess_Bride_That_WordThe remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.

Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.

In an article in Harper’s, she wages war on what she calls “semantic drift”. Using the rhetorical style that’s obligatory for such pieces – mock-theatrical (and therefore deniable) moral horror – she rails against “decay”, “degeneration”, “blight”, “barbarism”, “mob rule” and the replacement of “civilised” with “contaminated” English at the hands of “animals”. Shriver’s a fantastic writer, but this kind of thing is just tiring.

The substance of this linguistic apocalypse is, as she sees it, the ignorant modern misuse of words such as literally, nonplussed, notorious, performative and enervated, and the blurring of distinctions such as less/fewer, as/like, who/whom and that/which.

On some of these, I think she has a point. While it’s unlikely anyone will be genuinely confused by “My head literally exploded”, the near-opposite meanings that nonplussed now has make it hard to use reliably. And it’s handy, even if only for formal occasions, to know how to whom. The that/which distinction, on the other hand, is needless. Most Brits (and a good many Americans) are indifferent to it, with no ill effects.

But Shriver’s examples of “semantic drift” also include grammar (flat adverbs and pronoun case) and punctuation (comma splices and indiscriminate dashes), so I guess the word semantic is drifting quite a bit too. She also makes it drift to include pronunciation, claiming that “‘flaccid’ is actually pronounced ‘flak-sid’”. In light of usage, which she accepts is almost entirely ‘flassid’, the meaning of actually must have drifted as well.

OK, that was cheap snark. But it gets us to the heart of the matter: what determines the actual rules of English?

There’s a view that the rules are wholly independent of the usage of English speakers, that the theory is what’s real and true while the practice is at best an approximation and more often a travesty. On this view, usage is evidence of nothing other than failure and corruption.

Nobody really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do.

The Good Book or the guidebook?

Shriver was raised as a language stickler, and the pedantry she inherited from her parents she reinforced at school. But for her, the ultimate authority, the guide to “official” English, is The Dictionary. She knows that she is fallible – her parents too – and is willing to take corrections when appropriately justified:

Hence when the copy editor on my first novel claimed that there was no such word as “jerry-rig,” I was incensed. Determined to prove her wrong, I went to my trusty, dusty-blue Webster’s Seventh (based on the august Webster’s Third), only to find she was right: “jerry-rig” wasn’t listed. Apparently I’d grown up with a garbled portmanteau of “gerrymander,” “jerry-build,” and the word I really wanted: “jury-rig.” The scales fell from my eyes.

A convert, I explained to my mother her lifelong mistake, but she was having none of it. “Oh, no,” she said gravely. “‘Jury-rig’ refers to rigging a jury, which is very serious.” Explaining the allusion to a “jury mast,” a makeshift sail, with no etymological relationship to a judicial “jury,” got me nowhere. It’s fascinating how ferociously people will cling to their abiding linguistic assumptions, however wrongheaded.

But there’s a twist: nowadays, dictionaries list the “incorrect” spelling as standard. “The mob – and my mother – have won.” Shriver, though, isn’t going to budge. Even though recent dictionaries now align with the way most people spell it – and the way Shriver herself long did – she has found her truth and she’s sticking to it, with the zeal of a convert whose prophet has snuck off to the pub.

For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.

The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.

Don’t just take my word for it, though.

Shriver’s “trusty” Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary is a 1963 abridgement based on the “august” full-length Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which came out in 1961. The Third was not seen as august at the time. In fact, it outraged many contemporary sticklers, who were appalled by its permissive, descriptivist approach. In the preface (the bit that nobody reads), its editor, Philip Gove, wrote that “a definition, to be adequate, must be written only after an analysis of usage”. He concluded:

This new Merriam-Webster unabridged is the record of this language as it is written and spoken. It is offered with confidence that it will supply in full measure that information on the general language which is required for accurate, clear, and comprehensive understanding of the vocabulary of today’s society.

Today’s society. As a new dictionary, it paid no heed to the aggrieved traditions of yesterday’s sticklers. And Gove knew that his work – his guidebook – would have a shelf-life. He knew that some of the language his team mapped would change in years to come. He wouldn’t have wanted the book to treated as scripture almost six decades later.

But that scripture is what Shriver grew up with. That book formed part of the fundamental order of the world as she was honing her command of English, so it’s understandable that departures from it seem like creeping anarchy, like the destruction of something precious – like a “bereavement”, even.

Each generation thinks it invented language change

Maybe I can offer a scrap of consolation. Despite Shriver’s fears, language change definitely isn’t her fault.

Noting that she is more liberal than her father on some matters, such as the meaning of decimate, she says: “my own generation probably instigated this decline in the first place”.

Not guilty. Decimate slipped the bounds of “reduce by one-tenth” to start meaning “destroy a large part of” as early as 1663.

And some of the recent changes that make up her bugbears are not that recent:

  • Notorious, Shriver says, doesn’t just mean “well-known”. But the word dates back to the 15th century, when originally it meant exactly that. Over the years it acquired negative connotations, and for a long time it has mostly been used negatively – but only mostly.
  • She deplores the modern use of quicker as an adverb. But here’s Tennyson in 1865: “Nature… on thy heart a finger lays, Saying ‘Beat quicker’.” Adverbial quick has been in constant use since 1300 – informal, but hardly disreputable.
  • Performative is a term in linguistics, relating to utterances that enact what they state: “I promise”, “I warn you”, “I apologise”. Nowadays most people use it to mean “relating to performance”, but the correct word for that, she says, is performatory. In fact both words have a patchy history. JL Austin coined the technical sense of performative in 1955, but for several years before that he had been using performatory that way. For the performance-related meaning, performative goes back half a century earlier and is the norm today. Despite Shriver’s pessimism, the word’s linguistic meaning is alive and well too – among linguists. Many words comfortably carry more than one meaning, depending on context. We don’t need performatory and we shouldn’t mourn it.

Change didn’t begin with the baby boomers. It’s always been happening (and people have always been complaining about it). The rules Shriver grew up with were simply the customs of the day – some ancient, some much newer. Most are still in place, but the changes stand out. And even when the changes aren’t changes, the realisation that many or most people don’t follow your preferred conventions can be disconcerting.

Our language is part of our culture, our identity. We like things to be done our way, and we like to think that our way has some objective, enduring superiority. So yes, it’s fascinating how ferociously people will cling to their abiding linguistic assumptions, however wrongheaded.

Childhood glimpses of a truer reality

talk on the wild sideYou know that electric thrill when something jostles a shapeless old sack full of dim notions in one of the dusty, dark rooms at the back of your head and it rolls overs and its contents somehow rearrange themselves and suddenly coalesce to form a coherent idea that bursts out of the sack, crackling with energy, glowing with light, beautifully new and familiar at the same time?

My brain doesn’t treat me to those moments all that often, but I now owe one to Lane Greene and his new book Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language.

It’s a great book, lucid and insightful, a riposte to the grumpy sticklers who complain that our language is going to the dogs, who see every change as a sign of decay. Greene rejects their implicit view of English as “an easily threatened logical system for conveying meaning without loss or confusion, which could crumble if we don’t mind it carefully”. Instead, he says, we should realise that language is “a robust, organic and evolving phenomenon that needs relatively little intervention”.

Our language may be untidy, inefficient and imprecise at times, Greene says, but it is hardy, resourceful and adaptable.

To make his case, he explores the natural, social history of language change, the links between language and national identity, and the enormous difficulties of teaching machines to speak. He marvels at the dreamers who have tried to invent logical new languages and despairs at the clueless certainty of amateur grammarians. He even explains the underrated linguistic skills of Donald Trump.

The bit that really made my brain perk up, though, was a single well-placed turn of phrase.

Greene discusses what happens when children first bump into unexpected “rules” of English, rules that clash with the language they’ve picked up from the adults around them. Lots of us can remember a teacher telling us not to say “Can I?” when asking for permission, or not to say “Me and Billy went”…

When children are suddenly told that what they know their parents and virtually everyone else says, and what they have been saying all their lives thus far, is “wrong”, there’s an early disconnect between the child’s native competence and the new idea of an invisible but Platonically correct language out there, one that nobody seems to be using.

As Greene says, the typical reaction to this is puzzlement and even humiliation at being wrong when you’re sure you were right. If you continue to be bruised by encounters with “grammar”, you’ll grow to resent it.

But here’s what this made me think: Not all children react in the same way to those early encounters with the Platonic realm of proper English.

There’s a scene from a David Tennant episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor talks about how the Master first became power-crazed:

When he was a child. That’s when the Master saw eternity. As a novice, he was taken for initiation. He stood in front of the Untempered Schism. It’s a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the Vortex. You stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of time and space, just a child. Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.

When kids glimpse Platonic English, some of them realise that they’re supposed to learn how to use it, and they make partly successful efforts to do so. Some are distrustful, thinking it a threat to their own language, and they try to avoid it. And some stare at this elusive, mysterious knowledge – a purer, higher truth that sets the elite few apart from the masses – and they go mad.

Is this the moment when apparently ordinary children turn into budding grammar-peevers? Is this the catalyst that makes a love of knowledge fuse with a respect for authority to produce a desire for linguistic superiority?

When I remember my own early experiences of being “corrected” by teachers, I think I managed to avoid going mad. Just.

I was one of those annoying kids who took pride in being clever, and I had a pedantic streak that nowadays is mostly under control. More charitably: I liked understanding things. And the rules of English were something I could take an interest in. I was at risk of proto-peeverism, and as young as seven or eight my speech and writing were already more formal than the average kid’s (even the average smart-alec kid’s), but I managed to keep my feet on the ground. During my teens I grew out of the idea that formal language was a sign of sophistication and intelligence and maturity.

But some people don’t grow out of it. They grow ever more fixated with the Platonic world, anxious to protect its perfection from the barbarian hordes of real life and zealous to conquer the rest of us in its name.

If they were to read Talk on the Wild Side, they might learn to ease up. Maybe just a little.

Alighting the escalator: a transitive in transit

The other day I saw this sign at a railway station:

Sign at Euston station: “When you alight the escalator keep moving forward”

Sign at Euston station: “When you alight the escalator keep moving forward”

Sorry the photo’s a bit blurry, but funnily enough I was on a moving escalator at the time.

When I saw it I thought: “‘Alight the escalator’? What in the name of Samuel Johnson’s gout-ridden ghost is this sorry abomination? Shouldn’t it be ‘alight from the escalator’?”

I hadn’t ever seen “alight” as a transitive, non-phrasal verb before. So, after apologising to the people I knocked over when I stopped to take the picture, I ran to the dictionaries – Oxford, Collins, Chambers, Macmillan, American Heritage, Merriam-Webster – but none of them had this transitive usage.

The norm is “alight from”, although the OED notes some historical uses of “alight out of”, “alight down from” and “alight off”.

So, is “alight the escalator” a quirk of one sign writer or an up-and-coming innovation? Or maybe even a nonstandard usage that has been rumbling along unnoticed for a long time?

It makes me think of “depart”, which is another official-sounding word strongly associated with transport signs and announcements, and which is increasingly being used transitively without a “from” (compare “depart from the station” and “depart the station”). But from what I can tell, transitive “alight” is a lot rarer than transitive “depart”.

When I started looking into usage of the verb “alight”, I found something surprising: there isn’t much. I already knew it was one of those quaintly formal bits of transport-speak, even more so than “depart”, but I hadn’t realised just how rare it is.

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a record of 520 million words used during 1990–2015), I found just 34 instances of “alighting/alighted from the”. There was one transitive, without the “from”.

In the Glowbe corpus of online usage, 774 million words from US and UK websites contained just 16 uses of “alighted/alighting from the” and five of “alighted/alighting the”.

These are tiny numbers.

A search of Google Books produced more examples of both. Uses of “alight/alighting/alighted from the train” massively outnumber those of “alight/alighting/alighted the train”. But still, the vast majority of the latter were results like “after you alight, the train will pull away” and “I should not have alighted. The train was gone…”

Most of the definite examples of transitive “alight the train” that I could find were post-2000. The earliest was in a US Congressional committee report from 1975.

So it seems that transitive “alight” is flitting around the edges of usage. If it starts to catch on, it will find itself pursued by a mob of angry pedants with plasticine pitchforks.

Like it or not (and I don’t), I think it could spread fast. When a word’s use is dominated by a small group – such as railway staff – there’s more scope for idiosyncrasy in that group to change that use. If signs like the one I saw appear across the country, and if announcements follow suit, that will set the tone for the rest of us.

But who knows? Anyway, there’s a bit more to this story: the beginning.

The earliest “alight from” in the OED’s records is from 1477, in William Caxton’s translation of Raoul Le Fèvre: “Peleus and Iason were alighted from their hors.” But “alight of” and other variations go back all the way to Old English, the first in the OED being from Ælfric of Eynsham in the late 900s: “Ic geseah þurh Godes gast, þa se þegen alihte of his cræte” (I saw through the Spirit of God that the officer alighted of his chariot).

And here’s the funny thing. Back then, there was a transitive sense of “alight”. It’s been obsolete since the 1600s, but it meant “to make light, or less heavy; to lighten, alleviate (a burden); to relieve (a person) of a burden”.

Here’s an early example, also from Ælfric: “a ealdan cyningas on ðam aerran timan hogodon hu hi mihton heora byrðena alihtan forþan ðe an man ne mæg æghwar beon” (the old kings in previous times thought about how they might alight their burden, for one man cannot be everywhere).

And one from Reginald Pecock in 1449: “for this cause of aliȝting the poor men it is alloweable and profitable, that lordis and ladies haue mansiouns with inne the cloocis gatis”.

These two are figurative uses, but it could be literal as well: if you got off your horse, you would make it lighter; you would relieve it of its burden; you would alight it.

And if there had been an escalator around for you to get off, you would have alighted that too.

If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

The only thing as bizarre and horrifying as the Trump administration’s loudening belches of vicious, incompetent corruption is the coverage thereof in the New Yorker. Specifically, the punctuation.

You may have seen this headline:

Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt

Period, comma, apostrophe. What a grotesque sight for these three punctuation marks to be colluding so brazenly. Why did this horror happen?

The New Yorker’s Andrew Boynton explains:

The reasoning for the punctuation of “Jr.,’s” is pretty straightforward. It’s a collision of conventions. The first convention is The New Yorker’s—we place a comma before “Jr.” Doing so leads to another of our conventions: when something like “Jr.” occurs in the middle of a phrase, clause, or sentence, it is set off by its preceding comma and a following comma. Thus: “Ed Begley, Jr., was in ‘St. Elsewhere.’” A third convention is one that we all accept: the possessive is indicated by the addition of an apostrophe and “s.” We (the magazine) like our punctuation; we set things off with commas a lot; it drives some people nuts (i.e., it’s “bullshit”). This reaction is not surprising; it is also not new. With “Jr.” occurring in the middle of a line, where else is the possessive indicator supposed to go?

I’m happy to tell them where to stick it.

It’s silly

Boynton’s case all sounds very logical, but likewise it’s very silly. The New Yorker is a magnificent publication, and one of the most carefully copyedited in the world, but some of its style conventions are odd – and applied too zealously.

A house style on punctuation (or any other aspect of language) exists to help the reader get at what the writer is saying. Consistency is a big part of that: if an article’s comma style varies from one paragraph to another, it can be disorienting and distracting.

But English is a magical beast, and the ways we can ride it are myriad. This means that too much consistency can get in the way. Sometimes a mostly reasonable style rule can cause trouble, and the pile-up that is “Jr.,’s” is one of those times. In these cases, a wise copyeditor will break the rule – or find a way to avoid it.

Also, it’s wrong

Oh yes, and neither comma should be there anyway, regardless of the apostrophe. A New Yorker convention this may be, but the pair of them are confusing and misleading. To explain, I’ll rely on the magazine’s wonderful “Comma Queen”, Mary Norris.

She has repeatedly defended the first and second commas in this notorious New Yorker sentence: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” Critics think these two commas needlessly fussy, but Norris says:

I took a good, hard look at the magazine’s policy, and I persuaded myself that in fact these commas were not indiscriminate. They marked off segments of the sentence that were not germane to the meaning. The point of the sentence… is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both extra details that the author, Jane Mayer, provides only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. They aren’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. They are nonrestrictive.

I don’t wholly agree with this policy, but Norris’s reasoning is clear. The two phrases bracketed by commas – “of brain cancer” and “in 1991” – are inessential asides. You could cut them and the main statement would be intact: “Before Atwater died, he expressed regret.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the Trump headline again:

Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt

Here, “Jr.” is bracketed by the pair of commas. It looks like one of those inessential, nonrestrictive asides. So let’s try cutting it to see if it leaves the main part intact:

Donald Trump’s Love for Russian Dirt

Nope. When there are two Donald Trumps in a story, “Jr.” and “Sr.” are absolutely essential. But the commas suggest otherwise.

Perhaps there is a line in the New Yorker style guide saying, “Oh, but in this sort of case, the commas are working differently.” But, if so, the New Yorker readers don’t know this.

One of the lessons it took me a while to learn as a copyeditor is that you must work to satisfy readers who neither know nor care what your style guide says. If instead you work – however accurately – to correspond to a geekily intricate but internally consistent set of arcane rules, you are failing. You are working to satisfy yourself and your peers.

Those commas, like the Donald Trumps, are a repellent pair that I wish would appear in the news less often.

Paul Romer and the World Bank and conjunctions and brevity and bad targets

The World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, has been demanding that his staff use the word “and” less.

Why? It’s such an innocuous little word.

This is his thinking:

Circulating a draft of the upcoming World Development Report, Mr Romer warned against bank staff trying to pile their own pet projects and messages into the report. The tendency, he argued, had diluted the impact of past reports and led to a proliferation of “ands”.

“Because of this type of pressure to say that our message is ‘this, and this, and this too, and that …’ the word ‘and’ has become the most frequently used word in Bank prose,” he complained in an email.

Romer mentions a study of World Bank writing, which highlights this phrase as an example:

emphasis on quality, responsiveness, and partnerships; on knowledge-sharing and client orientation; and on poverty reduction

This is 16 words (counting “knowledge-sharing” as two), of which three are “and” – 18.75%. That’s very high.

I agree that a lot of corporate writing – like this quoted phrase – tries to say too much, making it clunky, boring and unfocused. But a mechanical focus on the word “and” is the wrong way to fix this.

Imagine you’re a junior member of Romer’s team. As instructed, you’re trying to reduce the “and”s in that phrase. The simplest thing would be to change it to this:

emphasis on quality, responsiveness, partnerships, knowledge-sharing, client orientation and poverty reduction

Now you only have one “and” in 11 words – just 9.1%. A great improvement!

Except that the whole waffly list of things is still there. You may have hit the target but you’ve missed the point.

The point is to say less. So instead, you talk to your colleagues to figure out what’s truly important to keep in that list, and you all agree that it only needs to emphasise the first two points. So you can cut it down to this:

emphasis on quality and responsiveness

This is a great improvement. Shorter and much better-focused.

There’s only one problem: five words, one “and” – you’re up to 20%. Romer will not be happy. But Romer will be wrong.

Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries – by Kory Stamper

word by wordIt turns out that dictionaries don’t just coalesce out of the antique dust in academic libraries, hardening on the shelves into compendia of immutable, authoritative Truth. Human beings write them.

There are actually real people who pay intense attention to words and their uses, who record and catalogue these uses, who spend hours and days and decades sifting these uses and carefully analysing them – a different shade of meaning here, a grammatical variation there – and who then try to encapsulate these analyses in succinct, helpful definitions, so that chumps like me can one day look them up and announce: “Well, according to The Dictionary…”

Real people do this for a living. One of them is Kory Stamper, who has written a beautiful, fascinating, witty, loving, irreverent book about the life of the lexicographer.

In Word By Word, she tells us about her career at Merriam-Webster and the colleagues who wrestle with pronunciation, etymology and how to socialise with the extroverts from marketing. She tells us about the silent frenzies of defining that rage inside their cubicles, about how lexicography is not just a job but a way of life. She shares the joys of handling correspondence from a polite and well-informed public (hashtag sarcasm), and she talks us through some of the words that have caused the most trouble and how they were eventually brought to book.

How do you handle racial bias in explaining the meaning of “nude”-coloured pantyhose? Where can you look to find out where “posh” really came from? How do you tease apart the many, many senses of “take” without losing your mind? What are and aren’t the essential features of a “surfboard”? What exactly was the problem with an old definition of “bitch”? And how do you convince an angry mob that “irregardless” is a word whether they like it or not?

She explains what dictionaries really do and busts myths about what they don’t do. And she unearths some gems from the history of lexicography, spanning Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and what happens when rival dictionaries fall out.

And she makes it all such damned good fun.

I’m a copy editor who blogs about language, and I like to think of myself as a word nerd. But I’m not. Kory, who toils endlessly on the linguistic equivalent of the Human Genome Project, is the very definition of a word nerd.

You should look her up.

Full disclosure: I slightly know Kory, and she bought me a beer once. So, for all you know, I’m biased and possibly drunk. Here are some other reviews by proper people: Megan Garber (Atlantic), Stan Carey (Sentence First), Jennifer Schuessler (New York Times), Caitlin PenzeyMoog (AV Club), Stevie Godson (New York Journal of Books).

‘Got’ and ‘gotten’ in British and American English

As every loyal British subject knows, American English is bad and wrong and stupid and a threat to our way of life. So I guess that makes me a traitor. I find it hard to worry about a few new imported words and phrases every year, especially as we exported our entire language across the Atlantic.

Yes, some of these newcomers grate – new words often do – and many of those ones don’t survive long. But others have become so well-established that most Brits don’t even realise they were made in America. Here are a few of the terms we’ve gained from the US: bandwagon, bedrock, blizzard, boss, cereal, close-up, comeback, cocktail, crook (criminal), ditch (get rid of), electrocute, fan (devotee), footwear, gobbledygook, graveyard, joyride, know-how, maverick, radio…*

The US has been a wonderful way of enriching British English, even if some of those riches seemed vulgar at first.

How gotten works

One noteworthy word is gotten: standard in the US but not in the UK.

In both countries, the past tense of get is got. In British English, the past participle is also got. But in American English, it’s more complex. Roughly: when talking about a static situation (possessing or needing) the past participle is got; when talking about a dynamic situation (acquiring or becoming) the past participle is gotten. So:

  • Yesterday I got a new guitar
  • I’ve got a great guitar
  • I’ve gotten a new guitar
  • You’ve got to see my new guitar
  • I got into playing the guitar last year
  • I’d gotten into playing the guitar the previous year

Any Brit who reads American books or watches American TV and films will have come across gotten. And, in fact, more people in Britain are coming to use it themselves – although it’s still often seen as an Americanism.

For a snapshot of recent usage, I looked at the Glowbe corpus of text from 1.8 million web pages in 2012. I compared different countries’ uses of has gotten, have gotten and had gotten with has got, have got and had got. The results don’t account for differences between static and dynamic situations, but they give us a rough relative picture.

On US websites, has/have/had gotten outnumbers has/have/had got by almost two to one. So that’s what a fully operational gotgotten distinction looks like. On Canadian sites, gotten is only slightly ahead of got, which suggests usage may be a bit more mixed. In Australia and Ireland, got is ahead by about three to one; gotten is common, but not fully accepted. And on British sites, has/have/had got outnumbers has/have/had gotten by seven to one.

(In a more formal context – Hansard’s record of proceedings in Parliament since 2010 – the ratio is about 1,500 to one.)

So, gotten is still far from mainstream in the UK, but it has built a firm presence. And, whether or not it catches on to become standard, it’s another example of British English using an Americanism.

Except that it isn’t.

This is how British English used to work – or rather, how English English used to work before Britain even existed.

The English decline of gotten

The huge list of example sentences in the OED suggests that gotten reigned supreme until the late 1500s, when got increasingly appeared in its place. Shakespeare and Hobbes used both. Got seems to have overtaken gotten around 1700.

Geoffrey Chaucer (Legend of Good Women, c1386): Ffor he woste wel she wolde nat ben geten

John Paston (letter, 1477): The Frenshe Kynge hathe gothen many off the townys off the Dukys off Borgoyne

Myles Coverdale (Bible translation, 1535): Treasures that are wickedly gotten, profit nothinge

William Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 2, c1591): Jack Cade hath gotten London Bridge

Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 3, c1591): The Army of the Queene hath got the field

Walter Raleigh (letter, 1618): I had gotten my libertye

Richard Whitlock (Zootomia, 1654): they should have got a whipping

John Evelyn (letter, 1690): I have now gotten me a pair of new horses

George Berkeley (Alciphron, 1732): Some old Ideas may be lost, and some new ones got

John Stepple (testimony at the Old Bailey, 1742): I would go and fetch a Constable, for he had got the Thief

Usage commentators eventually noticed the change, but too late to do anything about it. Robert Lowth’s popular Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) complained about “a very great Corruption, by which the Form of the Past Time is confounded with that of the Participle” – including the use of got instead of gotten. Lowth said: “This confusion prevails greatly in common discourse, and is too much authorised by the example of some of our best Writers.”

Maybe Lowth was thinking of Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary, seven years earlier, had uncritically listed both got and gotten as options for the past participle of get. Neither Johnson nor Lowth commented on the difference between static and dynamic situations.

And then in 1795, Lindley Murray’s blockbuster English Grammar declared that gotten was “obsolete”. That’s an overstatement, but by then it was uncommon, at least in standard usage. It partly survived in some nonstandard dialects (such as in Scotland and Ireland), as well as in the fossilised phrase ill-gotten gains. And there British English stayed for the best part of two centuries.

The American rebirth of gotten

In the US, got also dominated, but gotten survived on the fringes.

Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 said that gotten was “nearly obsolete in common parlance”. But it also said the same of forgotten and swollen. A generation later, Richard Meade Bache’s Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (1869) said that gotten was still only “nearly obsolete”.

But Richard Grant White in Words and Their Uses (1870) saw the issue as a live dispute, and he picked a side: “I am asked, for instance, whether gotten… belongs to the list of ‘words that are not words.’ Certainly not.” Alfred Ayres in The Verbalist (1881) agreed: “If we say eaten, written, striven, forgotten, why not say gotten, where this form of the participle is more euphonious – as it often is – than got?”

The American revival of gotten seems to have started at the end of the 19th century.

Data from Google Books shows the end of gotten’s decline in British and American English (as with the Glowbe data, I’m looking at the ratio of has/have/had gotten to has/have/had got). And then – in the US – there’s the start of its recovery:



Some Americans continued to resist it, such as Dana Jensen (Modern Composition and Rhetoric, 1935), who said, with a whiff of wishful thinking, that “gotten… has been supplanted by got in formal usage”. The mention of formal usage suggests that the rearguard action had narrowed its focus to style, but still it was doomed.

In 1942, Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage accepted the return of gotten: it was “obsolete in Great Britain… but in the U.S.A., gotten (past participle) is preferred to got”.

And Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1965) agreed, noting the value of the gotgotten distinction. He quoted the linguist Albert Marckwardt: “In fact, most Americans regularly make a very precise distinction between got and gotten. ‘We’ve got ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that the funds in question are in our possession – we have them. ‘We have gotten ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that we have obtained or acquired this particular sum of money.”

In the late 20th century, gotten surged back into mainstream, standard usage in the US. And British usage has tentatively started to follow.



The future

I don’t think any British usage guide has yet endorsed gotten, and for the moment that seems fair – although the reason has changed. A century ago, the word would have seemed affectedly archaic (Henry Fowler’s judgement in 1926); today, the risk is that it comes across as affectedly American. How easily we forget our history.

Jeremy Butterfield’s 2015 edition of Fowler notes that gotten is on the increase in the UK. And I’ve been noticing it more and more in British conversation over the last few years – mostly from younger people. So I’d guess this shift is generational rather than because individuals are changing their usage. While it’s easy to pick up new words at any age, the grammar of a common verb like get may be a more fundamental thing to relearn. I’d expect gotten to keep growing – but slowly, and mostly in casual contexts.

And why shouldn’t we Brits use it? As Marckwardt and Bernstein said, and as millions of Americans have found, it’s useful. And it’s a part of our heritage that the US is helping us to recover. But I may be too set in my ways to start using it myself.


* Thanks to various people on Twitter for helping me with the list of Americanisms that have become British – especially to Andrew Brightwell, who pointed me towards a paper by Katerina Pauliuc.

Use split infinitives to better support your meaning

As the Labour party continues to decay under the shambling non-leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, its MPs find themselves freer to pursue their own interests. One of them, Gerald Kaufman, has decided to campaign against split infinitives.

Today he told the House of Commons his view of the government’s new White Paper on education:

One of the most morale-destroying assignments that I have had in this House has been to read this White Paper. It is riddled with jargon, with ungrammatical structures and with split infinitives.

So I had a look.

The White Paper is indeed an unlovely read, with plenty of official jargon. But split infinitives? I found two in the first chapter. Here’s one:

It will also help us to better support schools to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders

Hardly prose to inspire. But the split infinitive – “to better support” – is fine. In fact, it’s better than fine: it’s essential.

Where else could the adverb “better” go? There are four options and they’re all terrible:

  1. It will also help us better to support schools to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders
  2. It will also help us to support better schools to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders
  3. It will also help us to support schools better to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders
  4. It will also help us to support schools to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders better

Option 1 is confusing: the adverb is right between two verb phrases, leaving unclear which it applies to: is it the helping or the supporting that will be done better?

Option 2 is much worse: it’s positively misleading. In theory it’s ambiguous: “better” could apply to the support or the schools. But in practice the natural reading is the schools.

Option 3 has the same problem as 1: will the supporting or the developing be better?

Option 4 is triply ambiguous: “better” could mean the helping, the supporting or the developing. The likeliest guess would be to give it to the nearest verb: “develop”.

There is a fifth option, which would be to cut the “to”:

  1. It will also help us better support schools to develop a strong and diverse pipeline of great school and system leaders

This is the best of the five: the only way to interpret it is the right one. But there’s a risk of a miscue. As in option 1, “better” follows right on from “help us”, so it could easily at first be taken to apply to that. After a couple more words things become clearer, but the reader’s brain has to do a quick gear change to adapt.

Also, if you’re worried about split infinitives, you should note that option 5 doesn’t so much split one as tear it apart and throw half of it away.

But you shouldn’t be worried about split infinitives. Not because we live in a liberal era in which “anything goes”, but because split infinitives (like the White Paper’s one) are useful. By tucking a word like “better” snugly inside the infinitive, you make crystal clear what it applies to. The split makes the grammar and thus the meaning of the sentence clearer.

As I’ve documented at great length, split infinitives are a centuries-old feature of English whose opponents, dating back only to the Victorian age, have never been able to muster a coherent case.

But these opponents, by talking as if they guard an eternal but fragile truth rather than a baseless and unhelpful superstition, have intimidated many people into thinking they must be right.

Luckily, their hold is weakening. Look at how often the phrases “better to support”, “to support better” and “to better support” have been used in books – published, edited books – over the last century:

to better support

Split infinitives come naturally to most people. They are good, clear, grammatical standard English. And no one can take them away from us.

How “humbled” took pride

Something odd is going on with the verb “humble”. If you check a dictionary, you’ll find that it means something like “cause to feel unworthy or insignificant”, but people often use it to mean something that looks like the opposite.

Here are three recent examples from the Guardian:

Hilton Als, winner of a nonfiction award, said he was “gobsmacked and humbled” by the prize

Hunt said that “on a personal level I am genuinely humbled to receive this award…”

“I am humbled by the support of Caf’s executive committee and tremendously encouraged by the unanimous decision to support my bid for the office of Fifa president,” Sheikh Salman said

Here, “humbled” seems to mean something like “honoured”, “flattered” or “proud”, but also conveying that the speaker is in no way arrogant. There may (in the first two, but not the third) be an implication that the speaker is not worthy of this honour.

This semantic backflip hasn’t drawn much attention. As well as all the dictionaries I’ve checked, the usage books on my shelf don’t mention the issue, and nor do the several style guides I’ve looked at online.

I did find a few articles and blog posts about it, from the last three years.

Meghan Daum scorns the trend for making humble “the new smug”.

Julian Baggini ponders the etiquette: “we live in a society in which we are all officially equal… So what can you say if you are surrounded by adoring fans or loyal subjects? … You proclaim that you are humbled, bringing yourself down to earth just as others raise you above it.”

But Louise Barder wrestles with the contradictions: “So if you’re being elevated in society’s estimation by receiving an honor, you should logically feel the opposite of humbled — even if it does feel undeserved or uncomfortable. … Technically, you can’t really feel humbled — ie. brought down to a lower level — unless you already think highly of yourself.”

And Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman try to connect this usage to the accepted meaning: “So the use of ‘humble’ by a victorious politician isn’t incorrect, if he means he’s proud of winning yet humbled by the responsibilities of office.” But I’m not convinced: usually what’s said to be “humbling” is the decision to give the status, not the implications of having it. And if what you’ve received is an award or just praise, there are no responsibilities of office.

But I think there is a connection between the two meanings.

An age-old question

One of the first things I wonder when I think about a disputed usage is: how old is it? The answer is usually: much older than I would have guessed.

Here are some of the examples I found by searching Google Books:

Norman McLeod, 1846: “I appreciate the delicate and considerate kindness, which has placed me in this Chair. I am grateful for it: I trust I may say, I am humbled by it: I never will forget it.”

Charles J Hempel, 1861: “‘Gentlemen,’ answered he, ‘I am humbled by this generosity, but I yield to your request. Your wishes shall be gratified.’”

Atlantic Monthly, 1931: “If anyone wishes to overhear the sermon, I am flattered. If anyone profits by it, I am humbled. I should of course be gratified to think that I had illuminated the path that other young people must travel”

Christopher Durang, 1975: “I am humbled by your thinking well of me.”

Tamunoemi Sokari David-West, 1981: “I am as a matter of fact doubly humbled: humbled by the kind gestures of the organisers of these lectures, and also very much humbled by the enormity of the subject selected for me”

That last one is intriguing because it mixes two senses of “humbled”: one meaning touched and honoured, the other meaning daunted and unworthy.

And I found more examples of people explicitly claiming to feel humbled at the same time as feeling proud or honoured:

Horace Walpole, 1785: “I am flattered by it, as perhaps one always is, when rated too highly, at least that is the common opinion; though I confess I imagine that I am humbled in my own eyes, when I feel conscious of not deserving what is said of me.”

Proceedings of the 34th Annual Encampment of the Department of Ohio, 1900: “I cannot express to you my feelings in any sense unless I would say I am humbled and proud.”

Wisconsin Congregational Church Life, 1950: “The confidence of the Conference in me shown by this act is a great honor, and I am humbled by it.”

These examples convey the same sort of meaning as the previous ones. What varies is whether the sense of honour and pride is mentioned separately from “humbled” or incorporated into it.

Why this seemingly paradoxical combination? I blame religion.

Holy humility, Batman!

A lot of the references I found to being humbled were religious, to do with people abasing themselves before God, ashamed of their sinful nature, conscious of their cosmic tininess. And yet, many of these quotes oozed a sense of pride in their virtuous humility – because being humble is the path to salvation.

For instance:

William Wilberforce, 1793: “How mysterious, how humbling, are the dispensations of God’s providence!”

Lydia Ann Barclay, 1842: “Oh, it is by the humbling touches of the Lord’s power, and the renewings of His grace, that we are at any time quickened with fresh life from Him”

George Washington Hosmer, 1882: “I feel a sense of God upon my heart. I am humbled by a deep and vivid consciousness of dependence and recognition of wondrous favor.”

Signs of the Times, ‪1901: “I hope that I am humbled by the sweet and loving spirit which God bestows, and this at times gives me great comfort.”

These people are keen to show off their humility at receiving God’s spiritual gifts. And this is essentially the same as what the “humbled” award-winners and vote-winners are doing. They’ve been given something that they’re glad to have, but it’s something that depends on approval – of the public, of the judges, of God. They know that keeping that approval depends on avoiding arrogance. So in their moment of triumph they declare their humility.

Whether any of them mean it or not is a question I shall have to refer to the man upstairs.

What words “should” mean and what they actually mean

Steve Finan of the Sunday Post has had a rant about “decimate”. He insists on the “reduce by 10%” meaning.

It’s a word I struggle to care about, so rather than get into the details I’ll point you towards good posts by Jan Freeman and Ben Zimmer.

And here are a few historical facts; you can decide for yourself which, if any, we should care about when deciding how to use the word today:

  • 1600: First recorded use in English of “decimate”, meaning to punish a unit of Roman soldiers by killing 10% of them
  • 1663: First recorded use of “decimate” to mean damage, destroy or remove a large part of – not necessarily 10%
  • 1868: First recorded complaint about the non-10% use of “decimate”

What interests me more than this word is Finan’s beautiful display of the I-know-best attitude to language:

Before anyone points out: “But the dictionary says…” the dictionary is wrong. Dictionaries are great on how words are spelled; they are unreliable on what a word should mean because they insist on giving definitions based on what the public is actually saying rather than what it should be saying.

This is like complaining that maps are unreliable because they insist on showing the actual geography of towns instead of the way the streets should have been laid out. Or that instruction manuals are unreliable because they insist on telling you how devices actually work instead of how they should have been designed.

Dictionaries tell you what words mean. Words are not abstract units of pure meaning but tools that a community uses to communicate. If you want to communicate, you need to use them the way the community does, not the way you think they ought to be used. This isn’t about being correct or incorrect: it’s about success or failure. Insisting on a notion of correctness that others don’t share is a sure route to failure.

And the ways people use words change.

Finan protests that he’s totally OK with language change in principle:

I enjoy seeing the language evolve. I’m no stick-in-the-mud. Awful used to mean full of awe; nice used to mean stupid.

But he tries to explain a logical, objective criterion for which kind of language change is good and which is wrong:

But there is no good reason to change the meaning of decimated. We already have perfectly adequate words to describe damage. If we accept that decimated no longer means reduce by one in 10, we are left without a word for being reduced by a tenth. English will have become less expressive as a means of communication merely because ignorant people have been copying one another.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, the awkward, pedantic point (sorry, sorry) that nobody is proposing to change the meaning of “decimated”. The change happened 350 years ago. I suppose Finan could say that he is proposing change by wanting to scrap a long-established meaning, but that wouldn’t quite fit his argument.

Secondly, he thinks words shouldn’t acquire new meanings when we already have other words with those meanings. But when “awful” and “nice” changed (both during the 18th century), their new meanings were already well-covered. Finan ought to damn these new-fangled mistakes, but instead he approves. I suspect that in his heart he doesn’t really think the existence of synonyms is “wasteful and pointless”, as he describes the common usage of “decimate”. I suspect that his argument is just a way to rationalise a pet peeve.

Thirdly, if having a word with a certain meaning is really so useful to people, they’ll keep that meaning alive. But most people don’t go around reducing things by a tenth all that often. That sense of “decimate” has largely fallen into disuse. But in any case, we don’t desperately need a single word when we have several perfectly clear phrases that mean reduce by a tenth, such as “reduce by a tenth”.

If you want to talk about reducing things by a tenth, saying “decimate” may not be effective. So many people understand it the other way that you’re likely to be misunderstood. You can harrumph all you like about being right, but you’ll be wrong. Judged against the only yardstick that matters – making your meaning clear – you’ll fail.

As I said, “decimate” isn’t that interesting. But in Finan’s eyes, the problem isn’t just about losing this one word. The whole language is at risk!

Where shall we end up if we accept the errors people make as new meanings? Soon, everything will mean anything and nothing will also mean anything.

Oh, please.

After centuries, even millennia of change there’s no prospect of everything meaning anything and nothing meaning anything. And there never will be. Most linguistic innovations meet with incomprehension and die a quick death. Some recur but stay on the fringes of the language. A few, if people find them useful, get picked up and become mainstream.

The discipline of market forces, not the edicts of a self-appointed elite, will make sure English remains as expressive as we need it to be.

This history of language is a slow journey with no destination. What matters is that we travel together.