The Stroppy Editor Word of the Year 2015

It’s time to announce the Stroppy Editor Word of the Year 2015!

Yes, even though it’s still only November, we think it’s somehow acceptable to take a complete overview of the entire year. In doing so, we follow the precedent set long ago by the former organisers of the Bethlehem Most Angelic Baby Contest, whose timing they defended until their dying day and indeed thereafter, in an unspecified circle of Hell.

2015 has been a fantastic year for words. “Happy”, “outside”, “geneticist” and “perturb” are just a few of the words that have seen use this year.

Our Word of the Year judges weighed the merits of a diverse shortlist of highly impressive words, but were ultimately swayed – descriptivists that they are – by usage. So, after much debate, they decided that the winner is… “the”!

Extensive research showed that “the” was the most popularly used English word this year. Again.

This is the 485th consecutive time that “the” has won this prestigious trophy. We congratulate it on its victory and remind other words that nominations for 2016 are now open.

About “the”

  • “The” is best known as the definite article, although it has recently taken to hanging out with fancy-pants university types and calling itself a determiner.
  • “The” is also often used as an adverb, in phrases such as “the sooner the better” and “none the wiser”.
  • “The” can be pronounced with two different vowel sounds. People usually say it with an “uh” if the next sound is a consonant and an “ee” if the next sound is a vowel – or if they’re questioning the identity of a famous person a friend claims to have met.
  • While English only has one “the”, other languages – less efficient languages – have several words. German, for instance, has six words for “the”. It also, no doubt, has a word for “the torment of schoolchildren as they struggle to learn loads of pointless versions of the same goddamn word”. Or maybe it’s like Eskimos and snow; maybe there’s just so much more definiteness in Germany that they’ve learned to distinguish six different types of it.
  • “The” is an actual fucking word. Yes, I’m looking at you, so-called Oxford so-called Dictionaries.

About the Stroppy Editor Word of the Year competition

The Stroppy Editor Word of the Year competition has been running since 1498, although it was put on hold during the Preposition Wars of the late 1700s, and it was cancelled on grounds of sensitivity after the Infinitive Incident of 1903.

About the judges

The panel of judges included:

  • Lynne Fuss, apostrophe fanatic and greengrocer-botherer
  • Devilled Gwynne, over-seasoned amateur grammarian
  • Joffrey Pullum, linguist and tyrannical Prince of Westeros

Licence or license? Practice or practise?

If you’re American, it’s simple: use license and practice and you won’t go wrong.

If you’re British, things are more complicated. Use licence and practice as nouns and license and practise as verbs. The adjectives formed from the verbs also have the s spelling.

Hence this passage from the UK’s General Medical Council:

If you want to continue to hold a licence to practise, then you will need to revalidate like every other doctor who is licensed. However, you may not need a licence to practise if you don’t carry out any clinical practice.

This is glorious in its precision, but also quite magnificently daft.

Let’s face it: this distinction is pointless. The Americans are right to reject it. It serves no purpose other than to make some people feel confused, to make others feel smug, and to waste everyone’s time. Precisely zero confusion would result if we spelt the verbs and nouns the same way.

Why do we in Britain have this distinction? (From what I gather, most other English-speaking countries follow British rules, although Canadian usage leans towards American.)

The rule is often explained by analogy with advice (noun, with a c) and advise (verb, with an s) – or device and devise, or prophecy and prophesy. That’s how I learned which one to use. But with these three pairs, we pronounce them differently too. So it still seems odd.

And many other words manage perfectly well to do double duty as verbs and nouns without needing their endings spelt differently: promise, release, incense, reverse, discourse, divorce, advance, silence, sentence, notice

What’s going on?

Looking into the history, I found that the practice/practise distinction is much older and better-established than the licence/license one. Practice/practise was in place 300 years ago, and for a while the pronunciations did differ, but licence/license was a 19th-century rationalisation that has struggled to catch on. And both distinctions are now weakening.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the P-word first appeared in English about 600 years ago. This was, to quote Terry Pratchett, “before they invented spelling”. So early forms are all over the place: practysse, practyce, praktese, practis… and many more!

I looked at the OED’s example sentences over the centuries to see how often spellings with c and s – and even z – were recorded across the centuries. With the caveat that this is just a small selection, there does seem to be a pattern:


At first, the word was mostly used as a verb and mostly spelt with an s. This fits with the etymology, which the OED roots in the Middle French practiser and the Latin practizare. Then the noun use grew, and as it grew it became more likely to have a c, as was more usual for nouns. This in turn influenced the verb spelling, giving it a c some of the time. But by the 1700s, the distinction was pretty firmly there.

The early z spellings – more common for the verb than the noun – are intriguing. Here are a couple:

Pleasanter to practize is this than the former and moste exact for Altitudes. (1560)

He practized the vtter ouerthrowe not onely of all Christian societie, but of the state of the whole world also. (1581)

These hint at a different pronunciation. The OED reports that the verb “was originally stressed on the second syllable”, but later shifted to match the stress of the noun. With –ize endings, you can see how that might have gone.

And take this 1439 poem by John Lydgate, in which he rhymes practised with devised:


Either it was spoken differently back then or Lydgate was just a useless poet.

And there’s more recent evidence.

In the introduction to his 1836 dictionary, Benjamin Humphrey Smart talks about the pronunciation of similar nouns and verbs. He points out that one way we sometimes distinguish the two is with a difference of stress: for example, refuse is stressed on the first syllable as a noun but on the second as a verb. This pattern is far from universal, but there are definitely others: incense, contract, upset, conduct

Then Smart says:

The vulgar, then, are in the right when they say prac’tice [noun, stress on the first] and to practise’ [verb, stress on the second]; but here… the caprice of fashion interferes, and in this one instance obliges us to pronounce noun and verb, though differently spelled, in all respects alike.

Whichever “vulgar” people he had in mind, this shows that an alternative pronunciation for practise was still getting some use as recently as the early 1800s.

If the noun and verb were stressed differently, that would fit with their being spelt differently, too – just like advice and advise. Then, after a while, the pronunciation of the increasingly common noun took over that of the verb, but the spellings – with a body of written evidence to establish them – stayed as they were.

In more recent history, the Google Books data shows that, from 1800 to 2000, the practice spelling of the noun has reigned supreme, with practise very rare. The verb’s spelling has been more mixed, but practise has consistently been well ahead of practice – until recently. This recent rise in practice as a verb might be part of the catastrophic modern decline in literacy that swivel-eyed liberals have inflicted upon our once-great education system, but I think it’s more likely that this is a sign of growing American influence.


The L-word (spelt at first in various ways) is about as old as practice/practise. But the licence/license distinction isn’t. Looking again at the OED’s example sentences, century by century:


Here there’s much less of a pattern. C was more common for both noun and verb at first, and then the s spelling became more common for the verb – but also quite common for the noun.

From these sentences, there’s limited evidence to back up the OED’s claim that the licence/license distinction is “now prevailing usage”. That claim was made in 1902 (the entries for practice and practise were updated in 2006).

The OED of that day seems to have been fighting a battle. It notes that late-19th-century dictionaries “almost universally have license both for noun and verb, either without alternative or in the first place”, but insists that the s spelling “has no justification in the case of the noun”.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 uses s for the noun, although noting some examples that use c:

johnson license noun

The first dictionary I can find to state the distinction is Smart’s of 1836:

smart def

He explains that this is because of the general principle that –ce is a noun ending while –se is a verb ending. This ignores, of course, promise, release, incense, reverse, discourse, divorce, advance, silence, sentence, notice etc.

However, Smart doesn’t observe the distinction himself. Elsewhere in the book he defines apothecary as “a dispenser of medicines, having also a license to practise medicine” and allowance as “Sanction, license, permission”.

Likewise for other members of the 19th-century grammarati. Henry Alford, in his bestselling The Queen’s English (1846), doesn’t observe it:

A curious extension of this license is sometimes found.

I expect we shall soon see “groceress” and “tea-dealeress,” and licenced “vendress of stamps.”

And Henry Sweet, in A New English Grammar (1892), acknowledges both spellings for the noun.

Then the OED, echoing Smart, laid down the law, and from the Google Books data the c spelling of the noun did become more common in the early 20th century. Later in the century, though, the s spelling began rising again – US influence, I’d guess, as with practise.

The spelling of the verb was mixed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, although from the 1980s the s spelling shot up. There could be two reasons for this: either a modern surge in prescriptivism or growing US influence. The latter fits much better with the other results.

So, at no point in British history has the licence/license distinction been dominant. Its supporters (like Henry Fowler in 1926) did their best, but on the whole people persist in not finding much use for it.

In the 21st century

Most modern British dictionaries still state both distinctions as fact. The only exception I’ve seen is the online Oxford Dictionaries, whose entries feed into the gradual updating of older OED entries. It accepts that licence is now “an acceptable variant spelling of the verb”.

What about recent usage?

As far as I can tell, in edited text, spelling still mostly follows the dictionaries. So for business writing I’d recommend doing the same, for the time being. But more broadly, the distinctions are unravelling – at least in unedited writing.

For that, I looked at GLOWBE, a corpus of online usage from 2012 (while some websites are edited, many aren’t). On British web pages, this is where we are:

  • Practice as a noun remains dominant: it’s more than 20 times as common as practise (comparing searches for the practice and a practice with the practise and a practise).
  • Practice as a verb makes a surprisingly strong showing: you practice, they practice and we practice are all more than twice as common as the practise equivalents. Practised and practising are still more common than practiced and practicing, but not by much.
  • Licence as a noun is only about twice as common as license.
  • License as a verb seems to be about twice as common as licence (although the numbers are small on either side). Licensed and licensing are 15–20 times as common as licenced and licencing.

I think we’re in the middle of a generational shift. Soon, dictionaries will accept practice as a variant spelling of the verb. Then, as it becomes more and more popular, they’ll stop labelling it variant. Practise will survive but seem old-fashioned, like whilst or homoeopathy.

Licence/license will become blurrier: more dictionaries will accept licence for the verb, and then license for the noun (all those “software licenses” we see). Eventually we’ll have a situation like that of adviser/advisor or artefact/artifact, where the choice is a matter of taste. I doubt licence will completely disappear: many of the bodies that issue licences are traditionally minded. No transport minister would ever want to announce to Parliament the Americanisation of driving licence.

Those of us who’ve had the distinctions drilled into our heads will continue to twitch when we notice a “wrong” spelling, but in time we’ll die out. The earth will close over our heads and English will live on, that bit more efficient for being rid of us.

Contractions: which are common and which aren’t?

Contractions – “you’re”, “we’ll”, “can’t”, “don’t” etc. – generally make language sound less formal, and avoiding them makes it more formal.

Over the years, contractions have become more acceptable higher up the formality spectrum. This is part of a general shift that’s been going on for decades: styles of language that were once firmly seen as casual are now more widely used in more businesslike contexts. Likewise, styles of language that would have been common and neutral in, say, the 1950s now tend to come across as very formal.

On the whole, your best bet is to trust your judgement. Use contractions or not depending on whether you feel comfortable saying the phrase that way, in that sentence, in that context, for that audience. But take care: if your tastes are more old-fashioned or new-fangled than your audience’s, you may miss your mark.

And if you’d like some evidence to double-check your judgement against, I have plenty – from COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

COCA is a database of English use – 450 million words’ worth – from a wide range of sources. It covers fiction, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and transcripts of unscripted TV and radio, from 1990 to 2012.

I searched COCA for 77 contractions and their spelt-out counterparts (there are others, but life is short). For instance, I searched for “didn’t” and “did not”, recorded the number of uses per million words, and then divided the “didn’t” number by the “did not” number.

This gives the relative frequency of use for each contraction: how common each is relative to its spelt-out version. A small number means a phrase is rarely contracted, 1 means both versions are equally common, and more than 1 means it’s usually contracted. The more common a contraction is, the more comfortable you can feel about using it.

Before we get into the detail, here are two top-level findings, averaged across all 77 contractions. First, the trend over time:

cont time

Over just a couple of decades, contraction use has increased.

Second, the differences between different kinds of source (averaged across 1990–2012):

cont sources

No surprises here. Contractions are extremely common in speech and fiction, quite common in magazines and newspapers, and less common in academic journals.

The next tables, getting into the detail, only cover non-fiction writing. This is because I think people are generally happy judging when to contract phrases in speech (and fiction, for those who write it). So from here on, I’m only looking at newspapers and magazines (averaged together, as their overall results are similar) and at academic journals.

Here are contractions ending in “–n’t”:

cont not

The lower the frequency, the more cautious it’s wise to be. But even for common contractions, there will be sentences where it’s better to spell them out. And for rarer contractions, there will be sentences where they work better.

The other common kind of contraction is the sort that joins a pronoun and a verb of the “be” or “have” families or “will”, “would” or “had”.

Here it gets a bit tricky:

  • “Would” and “had”. “I’d” can mean “I would” or “I had”. So to get meaningful results, I had to search for slightly longer phrases. I compared “I would be” with “I’d be” and “I had been” with “I’d been”. Likewise for other pronouns.
  • “Is” and “has”. “It’s” can mean “it is” or “it has”. So I compared “it is being” with “it’s being” and “it has been” with “it’s been”. Likewise for the pronouns “he”, “she”, “who” and “that”. This doesn’t work for “there”, because “there is being” doesn’t really get any use. So I compared “there’s been” with “there has been” and “there is a” with “there’s a” (“there has a” is pretty much non-existent).

These are the results:

cont new&mags

cont journals 2

“Be” verb phrases are the ones most often contracted. In newspapers and magazines, the other kinds (especially “will”) are also often contracted. “Is” is contracted more often than “has”, and “would” is contracted more often than “had”. In journals the pattern is mostly similar but the numbers are smaller.

In both tables, “you” phrases are the most often contracted, followed by “I” and “we”. First-person writing tends to be more casual, and writing that addresses the reader in the second person even more so. Phrases using other personal pronouns – “he”, “she” and “they” – are next-most-often contracted. “It” and “there” phrases follow, although most of the contractions there are “it’s” and “there’s”. Bringing up the rear are “who” and “that” phrases (with a strong showing from “that’s”).

I looked at a few other contractions that don’t fit either of the above groups.

“Should’ve”, “would’ve” and “could’ve” are pretty rare, with relative frequencies of 0.02–0.03 in newspapers and magazines, and 0.00 in journals. “Let’s” (for “let us”) is very common, scoring 3.79 in newspapers and magazines and 0.70 in journals.

I’ll end by quoting some recent usage manual and style guides with advice that, in light of this data, seems fair:

Contractions of the type I’m (= I am) and don’t (= do not) are exceedingly common in informal and online writing and increasingly found in various kinds of fairly formal contexts (e.g. in book reviews).

– Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015)

In the past they were felt to be too colloquial for the written medium, and editors of academic journals are still inclined to edit them out. The writers of formal documents may feel that they undermine the authority and dignity of their words. But the interactive quality that contractions lend to a style is these days often sought, in business and elsewhere. They facilitate reading by reducing the space taken up by predictable elements of the verb phrase, and help to establish the underlying rhythms of prose.

– Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004)

Many writers, especially those who write in formal situations, feel uncomfortable with contractions. And perhaps contractions don’t generally belong in solemn contexts.

But why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing? Some excellent writers use contractions to good effect, even in books…

The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed manner – not breeziness.

– Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.

Writing for GOV.UK (2015)

Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable. Be-verbs and most of the auxiliary verbs are contracted when followed by not: are–aren’t; was–wasn’t; cannot–can’t; could not–couldn’t; do not–don’t; and so on. A few, such as ought not–oughtn’t, look or sound awkward and are best avoided. Pronouns can be contracted with auxiliaries, forms of have, and some be-verbs. Think before using one of the less common contractions, which often don’t work well in prose, except perhaps in dialogue or quotations. Some examples are I’d’ve (I would have), she’d’ve (she would have), it’d (it would), should’ve (should have), there’re (there are), who’re (who are), and would’ve (would have). Also, some contracted forms can have more than one meaning. For instance, there’s may be there is or there has, and I’d may be I had or I would. The particular meaning may not always be clear from the context.

– Chicago Manual of Style (2010)

The triumph of the linguistic free market

The Idler’s annual Bad Grammar Awards are not about ridiculing grocers. They are about promoting the public discussion of grammar and, perhaps more importantly, exposing cant and humbug.

This is a noble aim and I am proud to support it.

By chance, I myself noticed a fine dose of cant and humbug the other day, in the Idler’s announcement of its Bad Grammar Awards.

It singles out Oliver Kamm’s “utilitarian approach to grammar”, saying:

He reckons that if a mistake is made enough times, then it is no longer a mistake. We don’t agree: we reckon grammar is more like the law. There is a set of agreed rules but the rules change over time. Both are based on a principle: with the Law the principle is fairness; with grammar the principle is clarity. We need a common language in order to be able to communicate.

Grammar – and, like so many pontificators on the topic, by grammar they mean language in general – is not like the law. Language is a set of social customs.

The law is defined by a particular group of people whose job it is to define the law. No such group exists for language, apart from the entire English-speaking population.

The “agreed rules” of English are agreed only tacitly, although we can try to codify them. And, at any one time, many of them cover only part of the population, or only some situations. The agreements change as more and more individuals change their linguistic habits; there is no moment of decision when a change is agreed.

The principle is clarity – and the people best placed to judge clarity are the people. All of us. We are the ones reading, writing, talking, listening. If we find that one way of using words helps us communicate more clearly than another, then we will favour the better way. There would be no point in having some committee of the great and the good to ponder its way towards these decisions on our behalf.

Most people who complain about language as the Idler’s judges do aren’t making a linguistic analysis, based on fact and reason. They’re just venting their conservatism.

I find it sad, and a little puzzling, that conservatives find it so hard to grasp that language is controlled by market forces. Nobody is in charge, and that makes our language far more dynamic, efficient, and rich.


Update: John McIntyre develops the ‘language as market’ analogy:

Some products stay on the market for a very long time. Others are periodically rebranded. New products pop up, have a vogue; some of them remain on the shelf, but most fail to find steady customers. There are upmarket products and downmarket products. The result is the product of innumerable individual choices.

Language is thoroughly democratic.

That’s exactly what I was (less articulately) thinking. Except for maybe the last bit.

In a democracy, everyone – in theory – has an equal vote. But in a market, we’re not all equal.

Some people are better than others at manufacturing usages, or at least marketing them. And some have more purchasing power than others. Those whose language is the most prominent – such as famous people or major publishers – have more influence on the language market, and can affect the fortunes of certain usages by buying into them.

Market success doesn’t necessarily reflect the intrinsic quality of a product – remember VHS vs Betamax? But when consumers choose products based on compatibility, the idea of intrinsic quality breaks down.

Sometimes a well-designed product will go bust. The people who backed it may try to keep it alive, but if the buyers lose interest there’s not much to be done. You can’t buck the market.

Common words you’re probably misusing

The English language is marvellous, and it’s evolving all the time. But amid the change, you should still stick to correct grammar. To help you avoid mistakes, I’ve put together a list of common words that people often get wrong:

  • Misusing
  • Correct
  • Grammar
  • Mistake
  • Wrong

(Apropos of this and a thousand similar articles.)

Playing it safe is a dangerous game

Here’s an argument I sometimes hear:

Sure, some of the so-called “rules” of English that you hear about are silly and pointless – don’t split infinitives and so on. But there are still a fair few people who believe in these rules, so it’s worth toeing the line to avoid annoying them.

This sounds like a reasonable, pragmatic position: play it safe. But there are two problems with it.

First, playing it safe takes a lot of knowledge, concentration and time. If you want to keep the complainers happy, here are just a few of the imagined “common mistakes” that you’ll need to avoid:

  1. A/an: When the following word begins with an h sound but the second syllable carries more stress than the first, use an, not a: an historian, an horrific, an habitual, an heroic.
  2. Above: Do not use this to mean more than.
  3. Acquiesce: One acquiesces in something, not to it.
  4. Acronym: An acronym is not just any set of initials but a set that is pronounced as a word: NATO and AIDS but not BBC or USA.
  5. AD: Place it before the year, not after.
  6. Admit to: While confess may or may not have a to, admit never should.
  7. Aggravate: This does not mean annoy; it means make worse.
  8. Agnostic: To be agnostic is to believe that knowledge (typically about the existence of god) is impossible. It is not to be doubtful or noncommittal.
  9. Alibi: This is a legal defence based on having been elsewhere at the time of the crime. It does not mean any excuse that allows someone to escape blame.
  10. All of: The of is usually a redundancy (except when followed by a pronoun, e.g. all of them) and should be omitted wherever possible.
  11. Alright: Do not use. The correct form is all right.
  12. Also: Do not use also as a sentence-opening adverb.
  13. Alternative: There can only be two alternatives. Three or more are options.
  14. Among: Use whenever there are three or more objects; for two objects, use between.
  15. And: Never start a sentence with and.
  16. Anniversary: This means the date marking a number of years since an event. Three-year anniversary is redundant; three-month anniversary is just wrong.
  17. Anticipate: This does not mean expect; it means act in expectation of.
  18. Anxious Do not use this to mean eager where there is no sense of unease.
  19. Anymore: Do not use. The correct form is any more.
  20. Appeal: When appealing against a decision, the against is not optional.
  21. As: The use of as to mean because can be confusing and therefore should be avoided.
  22. As [adjective] as [pronoun]: The object form of the pronoun is wrong in he is as tall as me and similar comparisons. Use the subject form instead: he is as tall as I.
  23. As such: This means in this capacity. Do not use it to mean in principle or therefore.
  24. At about: The at is usually redundant; delete it.
  25. Attorney-General: The plural is Attorneys-General, not Attorney-Generals.

These “rules” are all opinions that are noteworthy enough to be discussed in usage guides by Bryan Garner, Jeremy Butterfield, Pam Peters or Merriam-Webster. I’ve been highly selective: those books’ A sections are on average 95 pages long. And the alphabet also has other letters.

This list is a mixture of exaggerations and misunderstandings, relics and myths, personal preferences and reasonable tips. Judged against the standard of usage, there’s not a single rock-solid rule among them.

There are maybe five of these “rules” that make me twitch with distaste when I see them broken. But so what? My personal twitching doesn’t define the boundaries of good English, and nor does anyone else’s; other twitchers could pick their own pet peeves from the list.

To keep us all happy, you must follow all the “rules”. You must find out all the things that various people believe are wrong and spend time restricting your language to fit.

But this leads to the second problem with playing it safe: many of the “rules” can cause offence when you follow them.

There are maybe eight on my list that I often or even always prefer broken. In a couple of cases this is because the “rule” is based on ham-fisted linguistic analysis. A treaty among the countries of Europe? No: it has to be between.

In most cases it’s because I find the “rules” make language stilted, archaic or prim. An historian? He is as tall as I? Sorry, but I’m twitching. And I’m not alone. You can’t satisfy the people who have reactions like this while satisfying the people who insist that a historian and he is as tall as me are wrong. You have to disappoint one group.

Don’t assume that the louder group is the larger. People who think they’re right are more likely to write angry letters of complaint; people who simply don’t like the tone usually just stop reading. And if general usage keeps ignoring the rule-mongers’ efforts, that suggests the other group is larger. If so, the “rule” is, pragmatically, a bad idea.

And that’s the danger of following every “rule” that has a clique of enforcers: by armour-plating your language too heavily, you weigh it down and make it weak.

We need to talk about drug-resistant infections

Do you know what “antimicrobial resistance” is?

Most people don’t. That’s one of the findings from a series of focus groups and interviews commissioned by the Wellcome Trust (where I work).

First of all, “antimicrobial”. A lot of people have never come across this word. Antimicrobials are a family of drugs that kill microorganisms. It’s a broad über-category spanning several types of drug – including antibiotics, which pretty much everyone has heard of.

You probably have a rough idea what antibiotics are, even if you don’t know the exact definition: they treat infections that are caused by bacteria. Other types of antimicrobial drug treat infections that are caused by viruses or by fungi.

So, based on that, what’s antimicrobial resistance?

This still flummoxed the people in the focus groups. They hadn’t heard the phrase, but some of them thought they could work out what it meant: it’s when a person who has taken antimicrobial drugs for a while develops a resistance to them.

It sounds logical. It’s also dangerously wrong.

Scientists and health policy makers use “antimicrobial resistance” to mean that the microbes develop a resistance to the drugs.

This is the sort of confusion that happens when you carelessly use an abstract noun like “resistance” – whose resistance to what? It’s especially confusing when you couple it with a scientific word that most people don’t know.

A better term, the research suggested, would be “drug-resistant infections”. This clearly says who is resistant to what.

People need to understand this. Not because science is cool, but because people’s behaviour contributes to the growth of infections that are immune to our best drugs. For instance, as my colleague Kate Arkless Gray says, “if people think that they will develop a resistance to antibiotics, they may be less likely to finish the full course, when in fact not finishing the course could increase the rate at which resistance develops”.

We must talk to people in a language they understand. It can be hard to appreciate how little specialist language really seeps into public awareness, but it’s essential to make the effort to understand your audience.

And that’s why we need to talk about drug-resistant infections.

Synonymous with correct usage

One of the common mistakes I come across when I’m editing involves the word synonymous. You can see it in sentences like this:

Roger Federer is synonymous with great tennis.

Does that seem OK to you? If so, I’m afraid you’ve fallen prey to a confusion that affects many people. But it’s easy to explain.

A synonym is a word having the same meaning as another. It originally comes from the Greek syn (meaning same) and onyma (meaning name). Based on this, the adjective synonymous is defined as “having the same meaning”.

So big is synonymous with large and field is synonymous with meadow – but Roger Federer is not synonymous with great tennis. The man is associated with the game, sure, but the two terms don’t mean the same thing – otherwise people would talk about Serena Williams playing some really Roger Federer. And that’s obvious nonsense!

For centuries, people used synonymous without any difficulty, but recently some have started to extend its use, blurring the true meaning. This misuse is now widespread, but careful writers still avoid it – and so should you. If you use synonymous in this loose modern way, you risk not just confusing your audience but also degrading the word so much that it becomes unusable.

This would impoverish the English language and make it harder for us all to communicate. But it’s not too late to avert this, if we just make the small effort to use synonymous only in its original, logical, correct sense. Continue reading

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th edition) – by Jeremy Butterfield

“Is that good English?”

Century after century, people ask this and publishers sell books to answer them. A lot of these books are terrible but some are linguistic treasure troves. A lot of them sink without trace but some endure for decades.

This is one of the good ones.

A brief history of Fowler

One of the biggest names in usage guidance over the last 100 years, especially in Britain, has been Fowler.

Henry Fowler published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926. It contained a lot more learning, insight and modesty than many of today’s usage guides, but it was fundamentally a book of Fowler’s opinions. These opinions, shaped by his lexicographical work, were sometimes wise, sometimes idiosyncratic. His writing style was sometimes witty, sometimes obscure. It was a hugely influential book, which is why its successors still bear the Fowler name.

In 1965, Ernest Gowers edited the second edition. There were cuts and additions and polishes, but it was essentially an update, and the bulk of the book stayed the same.

The third edition came in 1996, edited by Robert Burchfield. This was a near-total rewrite, although there were still plenty of traces of Fowler. It marked a shift in approach towards greater objectivity and more systematic analysis. Burchfield had built up a database of language use far exceeding Fowler’s more hotchpotch collection, and he used it to inform his judgements. That said, he wasn’t shy with his opinions.

Now, in 2015, we have the fourth edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. It’s an update of Burchfield’s version, but a pretty substantial one. There are over 250 new entries and many of the others have been partly or mostly rewritten. Butterfield again improves the standard of evidence by using the immense resources of the Oxford English Corpus – a database holding 2.5 billion words of 21st-century usage from all sorts of sources. And while his own opinions still figure, they play a smaller role than Burchfield’s did. Continue reading

They know not what they do

One of my more exciting hobbies is checking whether prescriptivists follow their own advice. Often, they don’t. For instance, a stunningly high proportion of people who criticise the passive voice use the passive voice themselves, even as they’re criticising it.

I’ve seen four of these in the last week or so (most if not all via Oliver Kamm).

First, in an article on LinkedIn, Bernard Marr writes:

While there’s nothing absolutely wrong about passive voice, it’s considered weak writing.

I’ve underlined Marr’s use of the passive voice. And I don’t think it’s weak – and nor are the other nine uses of the passive in that article.

Second, in a blog post, Nigel Dudley writes:

Organisations use the passive in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.

True, the passive voice can be used to avoid mentioning who was responsible for something. But here, there’s nothing evasive about Dudley’s use of it. He’s talking in general, not about any particular instance of criticism. It’s a perfectly good turn of phrase.

He says that we should “doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot” – but I disagree, because he’s clearly sincere even though he uses the passive another six times in the post.

Third, and more shockingly, the Economist Style Guide’s entry on “passive” says:

Be direct. Use the active tense. A hit B describes the event more concisely than B was hit by A

Talking about the “active tense” or the “passive tense” is a howler: they’re voices, not tenses. Either can be used in any tense:

  • A is hitting B; B is being hit by A
  • A will hit B; B will be hit by A
  • A had hit B; B had been hit by A

And while this entry doesn’t use the passive itself, the two immediately below it do:

Peer (as a noun) is one of those words beloved of sociologists and eagerly co-opted by journalists who want to make their prose seem more authoritative.

Per capita is the Latin for by heads; it is a term used by lawyers when distributing an inheritance among individuals…

The “per capita” example could have been written in the active with a tiny gain in concision (“…it is a term lawyers use when…”). But the “peer” one would have been awkward and in fact longer (“words beloved of sociologists and which journalists eagerly co-opt when they want…”).

Many other entries on the P page of the Economist guide use the passive – and use it well.

Fourth, and most spectacularly, Toby Young writes in the Spectator:

On the contrary, nearly all of Gove’s rules can be traced to George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, an essay that’s generally regarded as the best guide to writing good English that has ever been produced. To give just one example, Orwell’s fourth rule is ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’. Kamm singles this out for condemnation in his Times article, apparently unaware that it was first set out by the finest prose stylist of the 20th century.

There’s one final reason why it was sensible of Gove to set out these rudimentary principles. I’m absolutely certain that for every Oliver Kamm who bridles whenever these old–fashioned rules are observed, there are 10,000 Toby Youngs who feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored.

Part of the beauty of this self-blindness is that Orwell’s essay also used the passive voice extensively, including in his complaint that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”. So Young is truly a disciple of his hero.

(Other professional writers who condemn the passive while using it include Stephen King and Simon Heffer.)

So, what’s the moral of all this?

I am shallow and I can’t deny a certain cheap ‘Gotcha!’ satisfaction in spotting examples like these. But I’m not faulting these writers’ uses of the passive: this rule-breaking prose is mostly well-written, and there’s something to learn from that fact.

Young, in particular, knows how to put sentences and paragraphs together. But he apparently doesn’t know how he does it. He thinks certain grammatical rules make him “feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored”. But that passive construction, and the others, didn’t make him feel assaulted. He wrote them, probably read them over once or twice, and thought they were fine. And on that point, at least, he was right.

The passive voice is an essential tool in every good writer’s repertoire. Oliver Kamm, in the Times, gives a superb example of Orwell using it in his essay:

Orwell describes the reality of the anodyne term pacification: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets…” – passive clauses, every one. It’s powerful writing because Orwell ignores his own advice.

I’ve written plenty about the passive voice before. In summary, it can indeed be stuffy, verbose and evasive – but it can also be useful for shifting focus and improving flow.

But today I’m making a point about the psychology of prescriptivism (or what Joseph Williams called “the phenomenology of error”).

When people insist that a certain use of language is bad or wrong but use it themselves, even while doing the insisting, something is amiss. Their beliefs about language have become unmoored from their use of language.

They have heard that the passive voice (or adverbs, or split infinitives, or fused participles, or singular “they”, or “who” as object, or whatever) is bad. They have seen a few examples of it being used to bad effect. This has convinced them that it is bad, and so they’ve started to preach the rule against it themselves.

But they haven’t thought enough about possible good uses of the passive (or whatever). And because they don’t realise that the human mind is far from transparent to itself, it doesn’t occur to them that their proud, firm belief isn’t reflected in their own fluent, natural behaviour. They don’t notice how useful they find the thing that they condemn.

They understand how to use language. That understanding runs deep – deeper than the conscious belief they’ve adopted – and it is what keeps them good writers even as they become bad writing advisers.

There is no surer sign of a bogus rule than that it cannot take root in its own evangelists’ minds.