Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Do You Suffer From the Recency Delusion?

Lots of work today, but I wanted to post a quick note on the first of three interesting terms I came across yesterday as I searched for the proper term to describe the (not) new meaning for “hopefully.” All three terms describe mistakes I have probably made, and continue to make, on this blog.

The first was coined by Language Log poster and Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky. It’s called the recency illusion:

the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent

When “hopefully” came into more frequent usage in the 1960s, there was a lot of muttering about those halcyon days when grammar had still been good. While this use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb became more prevalent in the 1960s, it was nothing new: my pal Peter Andrews at the ol’ M-W dates popular usage back to at least the 1930s. So much for the good old days pre-language change.

So if you think that today’s whippersnappers have only just started substituting “their” for “they’re,” you’ve got another think coming. I’ll be on the lookout for more recency illusions–mine and others–from now on.

Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

It’s the April Fool’s Aftermath!

As I’m sure most of you have figured out by now, yesterday’s post was a joke for April Fool’s Day. There is no Peter Andrews of the media relations department at Merriam-Webster online. If you look up “its” in the dictionary, you’ll still find multiple definitions for the iterations that go with and without an apostrophe. The multiple incorrect usages in my entry–Its a legitimate spelling, because M-W says that its so–are just as wrong today as they were Monday.

What surprised me was how much this posting struck a chord with readers. I expected surfers to be on the lookout for pranks yesterday, but it seems as if this English error really has spread across the web like kudzu. So prevalent has the “its/it’s convergence” become (thanks to for helping me describe it) that my report of Webster’s formal approval was taken without question by all who came across it.

[Insert standard I’m-no-prescriptivist disclaimer here]

I’m really not. I happily contribute to the flourishing of hopefully as a speaker-oriented sentence adverb in popular speech and Internet comments. There’s no other word like it. I enjoy beginning written sentences with “and” and “but.” Realizing that a word like “gift” is now accepted as a verb, insofar as it’s become the root of a gerund favored by PR parasites in Hollywood (see “gifting suite”, “gracious gifting”), excites rather than enrages me. I’m into that whole full-stop. In sentences. Thing. Used sparingly, it can do great things for your style.

BUT. When someone sends me an e-mail with “Its official” in the title, I don’t expect an e.e. cummings masterpiece from some brave linguistic trailblazer. I am loath to click on that slothful subject line. I dread opening that hastily typed, impulsive missive, sure to come from some self-interested slacker who is either too important or too absent-minded to respect the rules of grammar in a letter from one native speaker to another.

Grammar. Because how else would you spot spam?

Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

Its a Legitimate Spelling: Webster’s Agrees

Merriam-Webster online issued a press release today stating that “it’s” and “its” will now be found under one combined entry in the famous reference dictionary. From Peter Andrews, head of media relations for the lexical conglomerate:

Given the heavy influence of the Internet on modern American spelling, we’ve decided to accelerate our normalization process. The ‘its/it’s’ convergence is the natural result of a long erosion in the importance of the apostrophe. We’re taking a good hard look at the rest of the contractions for our 2009 edition, but we believe that ‘its/it’s’–now just its–merits immediate attention.

What M-W calls the “‘its/it’s’ convergence” has until now been one of the top grammatical errors in English. Native speakers and English learners alike will substitute one for the other, when each actually has a clearly distinct meaning.

It’s is a contraction of it is:

It’s a pity she arrived so late. = It is a pity she arrived so late.

Its is a possessive pronoun of indeterminate gender, as opposed to the gender-specific his or her. “Its” is often used to in reference to babies, and in American English “its” will often refer to collective nouns such as “company” or “team”:

The company revised its code of conduct.

As we’ve been through before on this blog, the nature of language is change. One of my tasks as an editor is to stay on top of which changes have passed into common usage and in what context this altered language is acceptable in a text.

Just because M-W says that its so, however, does not mean I will begin applying it as a norm. Especially because this post is an APRIL FOOL!

Editor at Large Politics Written English

S/he, Zey, Yo…How Do We Get Her Into English?

There has been quite a kerfuffle lately (and I’m only allowed to use that word because of the type of blog this is) over the long search for unmarked ways of expressing gender neutrality in English.

More specifically: when you want to talk about everybody’s hats, do you use the traditional masculine his–Everyone has his hat–or do you adopt the gender-neutral but grammatically dubious their?

I try to avoid the situations altogether, rewording sentences to remove any temptation to choose one way or the other. But, for the record, I think that using “their” is the closest solution we have right now. This is one of the few areas in which I disagree with my gurus Strunk and White–as Geoff Pullum so concisely rebuts them (emphasis mine):

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for five minutes?

In any case, the quest for a more inclusive pronoun in English pales in comparison to the struggles that countries with more gender-dependent languages must undertake, countries in which the words themselves exclude women by their very nature. And even the folks in these countries are making changes, so this language conservatism in English should go right at the window, as far as I’m concerned. If singular “they” was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the two non-English cultures I’m most familiar with, Spain and Germany, and how their speakers are taking gender inclusion in language into their own hands, clunky though it may be.

Editor at Large U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Ask 100 Million Brits, With One Click

I’m currently working on a British English editing job for a Frankfurt design company. They’ve got a 75-page “Broschüre” (read: glossy booklet), poorly translated from the German, that I am to clean up and prettify (I once described my services as “cosmetic surgery” for saggy, baggy texts).

The trouble is that after 30 pages of dubious English, you begin to doubt your own instincts. For example:

  • Is it okay to use “orchestration” when you’re not talking about music or some massive multi-person heist?
  • Once and for all, is it Majorca or Mallorca?
  • I already know that UK English speakers use “orientated” much more frequently than North Americans, but is it preferred to the extent that I should replace “oriented” with its regularized British counterpart?

That’s where the British National Corpus comes in.

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.

In other words, instead of driving your English boyfriend crazy with questions on normativity, you can query the hive mind:

  • The proposed meaning of “orchestration”, as used in the glossy I was editing, showed up exactly NOWHERE in the Corpus. I composed a list of alternatives and left it to the client to decide.
  • The proper English term for that big island off the coast of Spain is Majorca. But I’ve heard the double-ll Catalan/Spanish designation of Mallorca used by British friends so frequently that I had to check which was the most current. The BNC cleared up the confusion: 28 instances of Mallorca, out of 100 million words; 139 uses of Majorca.
  • All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

So here it is, y’alls: the big, bad BNC. You can use the new link on the list of References to the right from now on.

I won’t tell you exactly how few uses I found of obligated, so you can enjoy the moment for yourself.

Booklist Editor at Large Written English

The One Book You Need to Become a Great Writer…

…is this one:

Seriously, that’s it.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was given to me for Christmas when I was thirteen years old. This book is practical, straightforward, and indispensable. I internalized its contents, and by the time I was in college the simple rules in this book had become intuitive standards I applied to my writing by pure habit.

You can devour The Elements of Style in two hours, and that’s the expanded fourth edition. I got a skinnier one in my stocking in 1993 and was through with it in an hour. Then I read it again.

BUY THIS BOOK. You’ll like it. You’ll use it. You’ll treasure this tiny gem of a book, and you won’t pay more than ten dollars if you buy it through the links in this post. This edition is less than five, but lacks the modern updates that you’ll find from Roger Angell in the edition pictured above.

Housekeeping stuff:
Since Friday and Monday are both public holidays here in Germany, the next new Belletra post will be coming on Tuesday of next week.

Why not curl up with some Strunk and White in the meantime?

Editor at Large Written English

Reading auf Deutsch at the Leipzig Buchmesse

Today and tomorrow I am here, at the Leipzig Book Fair:

Leipzig Book Fair

Messe in German means “trade fair” or “expo.” The promotional insert in last week’s Süddeutsche Zeitung promised 2,300 exhibitors from 36 countries.

Yet the events all seem to be in German. I’m attending to look into opportunities for English editing with Berlin publishing houses, so my prospects aren’t the rosiest.

The web site for the event boasts translations in six other languages, but I’ve counted under ten non-German authors in the program so far. Quite a change from the Deutsche Bahn homepage, where Anatol at Bremer Sprachblog finds that 13% of the words are English:

BahnCard, Surf&Rail, Mobile Services, DB Lounge, City-Ticket, DB Carsharing, BahnShop, Newsletter und Last-Minute-Reisen

German corporate culture normally shows quite an affinity for the English language, and firms sprinkle Anglophone terms into advertising in much the same way that the Japanese do. The Leipziger Buchmesse, in contrast, seems from its marketing to be very much by German readers, for German readers.

On the bright side, several authors I used to work with at the Atlantic Community are promoting books or presenting panels at this year’s fair. I’m hoping to run into them to say a hearty Hallo.

Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

Expect a New Post Momentarily

The title above has two meanings, but only one of them is universally accepted. Which are you thinking of?

From Merriam-Webster (American):
1: for a moment (was momentarily delayed)
2 archaic : instantly
3: at any moment : in a moment (will be leaving momentarily)

I make one new blog post every weekday: each day of the Western business week running Monday to Friday. One moment of each day, I post a new entry to this page.

If I updated according to the uncontroversial usage for momentarily, you wouldn’t see any of them for long: they’d be online for just that one moment, and no longer!

Of course, you probably thought from the title that I would be making a new post very soon. The question is, did you think I had made a grammatical error?

A Questionable Coinage for an Established Word
You can see that Merriam-Webster does not; the “incorrect” usage of momentarily to mean “almost immediately” is present and accounted for. But just as prescriptivists and descriptivists have been sparring over hopefully for four decades, people can get crabby about the proper use of momentarily.

The prescriptivists are sick of the word being shoehorned into waiting rooms and voicemail queues:

The doctor will be with you momentarily.
Your call will be answered momentarily.
You will receive a grammatically incorrect response momentarily.

The descriptivists, on the other hand, see speakers creating a practical new definition that ends a sentence more conveniently than the three-word “in a moment” and more precisely than the hazy “shortly.” While we may not be able to measure the length of a moment, it is at least a countable noun: we know that “a few moments” would be longer than just one.

But Should You Use It?
This abbreviation of “in a moment” is here to stay, at least in the United States. What M-W cites as the third definition for momentarily, Princeton’s WordNet cites as the first. The usage would not pop up in so many places if it did not fulfill a lexical need. Be careful, though: I don’t think the need for momentarily has permeated the entire English-speaking population to the level that you can use it with the impunity afforded to a word like hopefully, a formerly controversial usage that takes the place of the mouthful “it is to be hoped.” The British seem particularly irked by the iffy use of momentarily, so watch out if you’re submitting something to the Financial Times.

In any case, this all means that my pragmatic prescriptivism still gets activated when a writer I’m editing promises to prove her point “momentarily” in a paper.

It also means that I make use of hopefully all the time–but that’s a post for another moment.

Editor at Large Spoken English Written English

Expat Vocab Hour: Anglophone and Anglophile

Do you know what both of these A-words mean?

I was only familiar with one of them until I moved to Barcelona and the other suddenly became paramount.

An Anglophile is easy enough to figure out: just as a logophile is a lover of words, an Anglophile loves the English, and often their language as well.

My boyfriend is English, and I blog about words: pretty easy to paste an Anglophile label on me.

But the root -phone is trickier, because analogous forms such as homophone and microphone don’t exactly offer a trail of breadcrumbs.

A Brief Digression: Linguistic Battles in Barcelona

Stay with me here, it’s relevant.

Barcelona, Spain has two official languages–Spanish and Catalan. Almost everyone there can speak Spanish, but most public signage and state services are in Catalan. The predominance of one language over another is a frequent topic of discussion on television chat programs and in the newspaper. Although I can speak both languages fluently now, when I first arrived my Catalan skills were much weaker than my Spanish. But I soldiered on, insisting on speaking only Catalan with my Catalan friends, debating the merits of having two languages share one city. They would make reference to catalanòfons (say cat-ah-la-NO-phones), and I would nod vaguely–si, si–having no idea what they meant.

Finally it dawned on me. Catalano-PHONES. Catalan speakers.

End Digression

Anglo-phones. Speakers of English!

We took this word straight from the French, and if you Google it you’ll see that many of the results relate to the Anglophone-Francophone distinction in France.

We can speak of Anglophone countries, such as Ghana and Belize. We can also choose whether or not to capitalize the word; as a capitalization-happy American, I prefer the big letters.

Expat Bonus
Expat is short for expatriate. You knew that. But did you know that the full word is frequently misspelled as ex-patriot?

An ex-patriot who isn’t an expatriate might get his compatriots down; an expatriate who’s been repatriated is probably a dead patriot.

Bonus Bonus
The only spelling I’m ever unsure about is how to spell misspelled.

Bon weekend, my Anglophiles…

Editor at Large Written English

High School Grammar Hercules

Are you smarter than an 11th-grader? Here’s a cute little test to gauge your English skills.

The questions you’ll find behind the link are taken from the SAT, the standardized exam that high school juniors in the U.S. take before applying to college. A few years ago the SAT was revamped to include more analysis of writing and grammar.

The new grammar content probably comes from the Test of Standard Written English, or TSWE, which used to be administered in tandem with the SAT. Can anyone confirm in the comments whether the questions were taken from there?

I remember cramming for the TSWE at twelve years old to gain admittance to a summer writing program. It was the first time I had to study grammar.

I don’t recall what I scored then, (I did get into the program), but this time I can dutifully report a 7/7.

How will you fare?