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.

Grammar haiku win / Win win win win win win win / Did I mention win?

After four glorious years of failure, I’ve won the annual Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest!

Organised by the American Copy Editors Society, the contest is pretty self-explanatory: you tweet a haiku about grammar, and then you tweet half a dozen more, and then maybe one of them turns out to be kind of OK. And apparently it did:

I also took fifth place with this one:

So I guess that means that on average I’m third?

Anyway, I’m thrilled to bits. My thanks to ACES (especially Mark Allen) and the judges (Adriana Cloud, Corrie Loeffler, Laura Poole, Carol Saller and Karen Yin), and my awe to the other entrants (as always, there are some truly brilliant little works of beauty and genius).

These are my efforts from previous years:

The meanings of “refute”

Do you get annoyed by the modern use of the word “refute”? Lots of people use it to mean “deny” or “reject” instead of “disprove” – as in “I refute these allegations”, which hapless miscreants mumble on the news every day as their reputations collapse.


“You’re just contradicting me!” “No I’m not.”

It makes me a bit twitchy when I hear it. But it’s not that modern. This year is the centenary of the first recorded complaint about “refute”.

In 1916, Robert Palfrey Utter published Every-Day Words and Their Uses. It included this:

To refute a statement, opinion, accusation, imputation, or charge, is not merely to call it in question, or deny it without proof, but to disprove it, overthrow it by argument, show it to be false.

The usage Utter condemned had been becoming more popular by the turn of the 20th century. The earliest example recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1886:

Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind

This is a satire of ill-educated language, so maybe “refute” was a deliberate mistake. But even so, that would suggest it was a known misuse.

In any case there are earlier examples. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw fears he may have spotted one from 1815, another century before Utter:

But now I read in Jane Austen’s Emma about the heroine’s apparent pique at the existence of a rival beauty: “Mr Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself, and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

Oh no. Could it be that Austen is a non-refutist? I prefer to think she is deliberately reflecting Emma’s thought processes: in her nervous vexation, Emma in her own mind fudges the meaning of “refute”.

Bradshaw’s thinking sounds wishful.

I found an irrefutable example, after rummaging through a few classics, from Anthony Trollope’s The Warden in 1855:

‘But you do love him,’ said Mary, who had followed her friend to the window, and now spoke with her arms close wound round the other’s waist. ‘You do love him with all your heart—you know you do; I defy you to deny it.’

‘I—’ commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love…

So the “deny/reject” meaning has a long pedigree.

And while Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 defines “refute” only as “prove false or erroneous”, the OED lists other, older meanings.

It first records the “disprove” meaning in 1533. Another definition, “to demonstrate error”, goes back to 1572, although the OED says this usage has now become rare. The earliest known meaning was “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. This was a Scottish term that the OED now says is obsolete; its first example is from 1513 and its last 1686.

These are intriguing variations on what kind of opposition counts as refutation – but all the same, the “disprove” meaning was clearly dominant by 1700. In the 1800s, though, the “deny/reject” usage – not a million miles from the original Scottish meaning – started to creep in.

And eventually Robert Palfrey Utter noticed it. Like-minded critics have taken up his cause ever since, fighting a hundred years’ war and suffering defeat after defeat as the usage has gained more and more ground.

Take the Guardian. Its style guide stands firm against the not-so-new meaning (“this much abused word should be used only when an argument is disproved; otherwise contest, deny, rebut”) but its articles often don’t. I looked at 20 of its recent uses of the word: 5 of them meant “disprove”, 14 meant “deny” or “reject” (8 in quotes, 6 in the journalists’ own words), and one I couldn’t tell.

I found a similar picture – banned, but used anyway – in the Telegraph.

The growing use of the “deny/reject” meaning has bred growing acceptance. Almost all contemporary dictionaries list it, although many give a usage note like this from the OED:

Criticized as erroneous in usage guides in the 20th cent. In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless

The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that opposition to this meaning is fading: in 2002, 62% of its usage panel (an assortment of literati) approved of this example: “In the press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details.”

Among usage commentators, Bryan Garner and Steven Pinker oppose this; those accepting it include Pam Peters and Oliver Kamm. Jeremy Butterfield even-handedly says: “it will sound normal to those who normally use it in this way, and aberrant to those who do not”.

My advice: Don’t waste time fretting about which meaning is “correct”; just focus on what will work for your audience.

For people with academic backgrounds – especially in philosophy or law – you can assume they’ll be happy with the “disprove” sense and they may dislike the “deny/reject” sense. For the public in general, I think the scales have tipped the other way: “deny/reject” is how they most often hear it used, which means the “disprove” meaning may not come across when intended.

On the whole, it’s safest to avoid the word. Unless you’re confident you’ve got an audience who will understand and a context that can point them in the right direction, avoid it.

But “irrefutable” is still safe to use, because its meaning is pretty close to “undeniable”.

Rabid reaction

Michael Oman-Reagan has been looking for sexism in Oxford Dictionaries entries. Specifically, he thinks that their example sentences perpetuate stereotypes.

He lists six entries that trouble him. I have no idea whether these are cherry-picked or representative, but take a look and see what you think. Carolyn Cox has further discussion.

The most interesting of Oman-Reagan’s six is Oxford’s entry on “rabid” and the example it gives: “a rabid feminist”.

He complained to Oxford on Twitter. They replied, saying that “’rabid’ isn’t always negative”.

Is this true?

Their full definition says:

Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: ‘a rabid feminist’

“Extreme” and “fanatical” do kind of sound bad.

They give three other examples of the word’s use: Continue reading

Giving grammar advice? Whatever you do, don’t check it

Jim Baumann writes a column in the Chicago Daily Herald under the title Grammar Moses, in which he dispenses (mostly bad) advice on grammar and usage.

This week, Moses has crowdsourced his tablets.

One of his contributors writes that we should use ’til and not till as the short form of until. Till, he says, “can be a noun, meaning a cash drawer, or a rather inexact verb describing what growers do to the soil so as to produce crops or decorative plants”.


Any dictionary you bother to check will confirm that till is a legitimate word in its own right. It’s not a short version of until. Things are the other way round: till dates back to the ninth century, until only to the twelfth, when it was derived from till (compare the relationship between unto and to).

As for ’til, Merriam-Webster says that it is “a variant spelling of till used by writers who do not know that till is a complete, unabbreviated word in its own right”.

Baumann’s correspondent offers more advice.

We should say “the expressed written permission” and not, as is common, “the express written permission”. This is why:

One needs to use an adjectival form, and ‘expressed’ is it.

In contrast, while there is certainly a verb ‘express’ meaning to ‘render one’s thoughts,’ such does not fit the bill herein. Likewise, the adjective ‘express,’ as in reference to a fast train that doesn’t stop at all stations, does not fit, either.


Any dictionary you bother to check will tell you that express can mean “explicit and clearly stated”, which is what it means here. Expressed would be quite the wrong word: writing is a form of expression, so anything that is written is by definition expressed.

This use of express is venerable. The OED cites Chaucer around 1386: “Wher can ye seen… That highe God defended mariage By expresse word?”

A final contribution comes from Baumann’s colleague Jim Slusher, a tormented fellow who beats himself up for using sentence adverbs. Amazingly, he doesn’t realise that they’re a standard and well-established way of expressing the writer’s view of a statement, such as: “Just as importantly, they should care about their constituents.”

Sadly, he thinks: “In that construction, the adverb ‘importantly’ describes how they should care about their constituents. I’m not sure how one cares importantly. But that’s what it means.” The poor chap.

Disappointingly, this time I only have four dictionaries to confirm the sentence-adverbial use of importantly (meaning “it is important that”). The other two say only that it’s the adverb form of important.

(The dispute about hopefully is a different matter: you can’t paraphrase it as “it is hopeful that”, which discombobulates some people. But even they are generally content with other sentence adverbs.)

This tripe is what passes for expert commentary on grammar. Hazy ideas, tendentiously rationalised, boldly stated, never checked.

And it’s often so, so easy to check these things. But if you do, you may find that you don’t have anything left to complain about.

I’m a people person

When should you use “people” and when should you use “persons”?

Short answer: you should almost always use “people”.

A controversy sprang up during the 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, when a few people – or persons – started insisting on a difference. “People”, they said, was for talking about a population or humanity in general, but when talking about a specific group you should use “persons”.

The exact nature of the imagined rule varied from commentator to commentator: some said “persons” should be used after specific numbers (“23 persons”), others said it should also be used after approximate round numbers (“more than a thousand persons”), others still said it should also be used after modifiers like “many” and “several”.

This idea, in one form or another, made it into various style books and writing guides (mostly American) up to around the 1980s, but it is now almost dead and you can safely ignore it – as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens, Disraeli, Wells, Hemingway and others ignored it.

The people are rising up

Looking at the Google Books database, I found that “two people” has risen in popularity, overtaking “two persons” around 1950. “Three people”, “four people” and “five people” took the lead over their rival forms around 1975, “ten people” around 1970, “hundred people” around 1910 and “thousand people” around 1890. “Some people” and “many people” went ahead by 1880, “several people” around 1970.

The Victorian commentators clearly noticed a tendency for “persons” to be used more often than “people” in certain contexts. So, gripped by the delusion that a word with more than one use is an abomination unto God, they decided that the tendency should become law.

It didn’t. The opposite happened.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English, covering usage from 1990 to 2012, has “two people” ahead of “two persons” by a ratio of more than 30 to 1.

Trying to prove a point

The only argument I’ve found for this distinction (as opposed to people saying “It just isn’t done that way!” when manifestly it is) comes from William Strunk in 1918:

The word people is not to be used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many “people” would be left?

If the sense of absurdity he’s trying to create isn’t coming across strongly enough, you can look at later editions, updated by EB White, where this line appears as:

The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.

Well, golly gosh. That clinches it. But in fact Strunk and White have undersold their case. This is really an argument against all irregular plurals. Look:

If of “six children” five went away, how many children would be left? Answer: one children.

Absurd! And to be honest, really it’s an argument against plurals of any kind:

If of “six cats” five went away, how many cats would be left? Answer: one cats.

Absurd! Just not in the way Strunk and White think. Their procrustean tomfoolery proves nothing.

Modern advice

I can’t find a single contemporary dictionary that maintains the rule. The nearest is this usage note from Oxford Dictionaries:

The words people and persons can both be used as the plural of person, but they have slightly different connotations. People is by far the commoner of the two words and is used in most ordinary contexts: a group of people; there were only about ten people; several thousand people have been rehoused. Persons, on the other hand, tends now to be restricted to official or formal contexts, as in this vehicle is authorized to carry twenty persons; no persons admitted without a pass.

But even in those official contexts, “people” would work fine.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) says that “twelve persons on the jury seems stuffy to many readers, and most native speakers of [American English] would say twelve people on the jury. In contexts like that, people has long been used and is the more natural phrasing.”

Jeremy Butterfield’s new edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2015) says that “persons, whether preceded by a numeral or not, is tending… to yield to people, and to retreat into somewhat restricted, mostly (semi-)legalistic use”. He means phrases such as “committed by person or persons unknown” and “hidden on their persons”. There, “people” would be odd.

So, if you’re writing a police report (update: or in certain other legal contexts), you may want to use “persons”. Likewise if you’re writing about grammar (first, second and third persons) or Christian theology (the three persons of the Trinity). And likewise if you’d like to sound unusually formal or old-fashioned.

Otherwise: power to the people.