Recently in the Usage Category


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Half the people on my Facebook friends list have linked to an article by Megan Garber in the Atlantic titled “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet,” about the growing use of the word because in the structure “because noun,” as in “because Internet” or “because FEELINGS” or “because Science!”

That article draws on a bunch of other recent articles from the linguistoblogosphere, including one by Stan Carey that goes into more detail and provides more links. The Atlantic also provides a cute followup by Alexis Madrigal categorizing becauses, which roundaboutly reminds me of an old column of mine, “Matt Brocchini Explains It All to You”; also of Jay and Elliott's Universal Explainer.

Anyway, I think the linguists' observations about because+noun are interesting (let's not call it “because-noun,” because confusing!), but so far I haven't seen anyone talk about it specifically as a shortening of the phrase “because of,” which seems to me to be the most likely derivation. It's expanded beyond that by now; in some contexts it can be thought of as short for “because that is” or “because I like” or all sorts of other things. But I think it's closer in structure to a shortened form of “because of” than to (for example) a shortened version of “because, hey,” which was one linguist's suggestion for an earlier similar construction.

Resource for English questions

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Jim recently pointed me to the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site. For those unfamiliar with Stack Exchange, it's a collection of websites on various topics that are designed for asking and answering questions.

Stack Exchange can take some getting used to. It's not a general discussion forum; the specific goal is for people to ask “practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face” and receive answers to those questions. In the case of the ELU site, though, there's a bit of a fine line between the sorts of questions that are okay to ask (about, for example, word choice, usage, grammar, etymology, and dialect differences) and the sorts that aren't (such as simple basic questions about definitions, pronunciations, and synonyms that can be easily answered by a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a web search). For more info, see the FAQ.

In practice, in my brief time on the site so far, there appear to be a great many questions by non-native English speakers of the form “Is this phrase grammatical?” My vague understanding is that such questions are fine and within the intended scope of the site, though I'm still a little unclear on what the boundaries are. Anyway, there are also a bunch of other kinds of questions.

I'm still getting used to the site, and I'm not sure whether I'll spend much time there. But so far I'm intrigued.

slow clap

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The thing I find fascinating about the phrase “slow clap” is that it's used to refer to two different things that are near-opposites in meaning.

On the one hand, there's what TV Tropes calls the Slow Clap, wherein someone starts clapping slowly, the whole crowd gradually joins in as the pace quickens, and it ends with wild applause from everyone.

On the other hand, there's what TV Tropes calls Sarcastic Clapping, wherein someone (usually one person) claps slowly and sarcastically.

TV Tropes gives the two things different names, but the illustrative quote at the beginning of the Sarcastic Clapping entry uses the phrase “slow clap.”

Urban Dictionary demonstrates the same contrasting usages of the term.

This wouldn't normally be particularly notable. There are lots of things that are said or done sarcastically to mean the opposite of the surface meaning.

But the reason I'm posting about it, and posting here in my words/language blog rather than elsewhere, is that recently I've seen the phrase used fairly often on the Internet. And it's often unclear which of the two meanings the writer intends.

I usually see it in a comment on a blog entry or similar posting. The entirety of the comment is usually “Slow clap” or “Slow. Clap.”

I suspect that in most such cases, the commenter doesn't realize that there are two opposite things that the comment could mean. And to be fair, in some cases it's pretty clear; for example, if someone posts about some wonderful awesome thing that someone has done, then probably a “slow clap” comment indicates actual applause rather than sarcastic applause.

I suppose this is arguably just one more example, among thousands, of the difficulties of detecting sarcasm in written communication. But it seems different to me.

Perhaps because in movies and TV shows, if a single person does a slow clap, it's almost always the sarcastic kind. So if one commenter writes “slow clap,” the mental image I get is not of a crowd of people starting to applaud slowly and then picking up the tempo.

Also, the reason that the positive kind of slow clap starts out slow is generally that the audience is (for example) hesitant or chagrined or uncertain, or sometimes embarrassed on the applaudee's behalf. So it's not the “slow” part of it that's an accolade. So it seems odd to me to say “slow clap” rather than just “applause” in a comment that's intended to be positive; the slow clap tends to suggest to me that the clappers start out with some reservations. Otherwise it would be just a regular clap.

Anyway, I'm not trying to be prescriptivist about this; clearly, people do use the written phrase “slow clap” to indicate approval. So this entry isn't meant to criticize that usage, but rather to document it, because it surprised me when I started seeing it.



Several years ago, I took a sideswipe at “literally” in an entry about something else. John S and Shmuel both gently pointed out that I was wrong to be fussy about it. I never responded to those comments, but I hereby belatedly thank both of you. You were right, though it makes me grumpy.

I managed somehow to avoid getting imprinted with a lot of the standard prescriptivist peeves. For example, I've never had a problem with using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.”

But “literally,” to my very literalist mind, has always felt blatantly and bizarrely wrong.

This morning, I saw an article in Fast Company that said: “Dreams of legalized marijuana in California literally went up in smoke this week[...]”

Which manages to combine my annoyance over cheap pot puns with my annoyance with “literally.”

I considered dropping a note to the people who run Literally, A Web Log, but then I saw it's been over a year since their last post. (They tweeted more recently, but still a month and a half ago.)

And then I found an excellent article about “literally” by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower from 2005, and I decided to just bite the bullet and confess that I'm wrong.

Sheidlower points out (as Shmuel had done) that use of “literally” as an all-purpose intensifier goes back over a century, used in a bunch of Canonical Literary Works by a bunch of Great Literary Authors. It's the same argument I use to support gender-neutral “they”: if people who are widely regarded as among the greatest writers in English can do it, who am I to say they're wrong?

The Sheidlower article traces the history of the word's usage, from its early use with the meaning you'd expect, through Dryden and Pope and Austen using it as an intensifier for true statements, through the newer use (but still dating back to the late 1700s!) as an intensifier for metaphorical statements. Apparently there were no objections to any of this until the early 1900s.

But the parts of the article that really finally made clear to me that I was being wrongheaded are the discussions of (a) “contranyms” (words that have two or more meanings that directly contradict each other) and (b) the word “really,” which also seems like it ought to be used only to affirm the truth of something but in fact is widely used (including by me) as an all-purpose intensifier.

So my head is now firmly convinced that there's nothing at all wrong with using “literally” that way.

But I am nonetheless likely to continue to have a gut negative reaction to it, alas.

There can be only one (or two)

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Heard an unintentionally funny line on the radio this morning:

"There's only one person who can answer this, and that's y'all."

Car Talk caller, 4 April 2010.

Of course, "y'all" can be singular in some dialects. But in this case it was clear that the caller was addressing two people, the two Car Talk guys. It seemed to me that there was even a slight hesitation before "y'all" as she realized what she was saying, but I may have read too much into it.

I don't remember for sure, but I don't think she had a Southern accent; I suspect she was using the Northerner version of "y'all," which I've been hearing more often in recent years as a disambiguating plural "you" (which is also how I use it).

It may well be that she thought of the Car Talk guys as interchangeable—I know I can't tell them apart. But I think there may've been something else going on as well:

I'm pretty sure I've heard a construction like "there's only one X, and it's Y" (with Y being a plural noun) before, may even have said it myself.

So it may be that "there's only one X" is a kind of idiom or semi-fixed phrase or exaggeration-for-effect that really just means "Y is very likely to be an X."

Happy National Grammar Day!

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It's National Grammar Day!

Apparently created by the folks who brought us the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG).

The National Grammar Day site initially looked annoyingly prescriptivist to me, but their Top Ten Grammar Myths suggests that they're more flexible than I had given them credit for.

Indian English

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I continue to be intrigued by the differences between British/American English and Indian English.

I also wonder regularly if some of the grammatical problems I see in submissions written by South Asian writers are merely examples of Indian English. Some day, I should sit down and read more published South Asian writing to try and get a better feel for Indian English.

(I've read a few novels by South Asian authors, but not enough for a representative sample yet.)

See also: the online Dictionary of Indian English; 108 varieties of Indian English; a 2004 paper from Language in India on linguistic majority-minority relations in India; and a page of audio pronunciations of English words in New Delhi.

That last, btw, is from the extremely useful-looking Accents of English from around the world website. I hope to spend some time poking around there and listening to pronunciations in the future.

Mama, momma, mom, etc

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I was recently discussing various words for "mother," and it occurred to me that words/spellings like mama, momma, mom, ma, and mamma have different connotations to me.

MW11 lists them all as synonyms or spelling variants, and sometimes I don't especially notice any difference between them. But if I'm paying close attention, I expect them to be used by different kinds of people. (Especially in prose fiction; in speech, I can't tell the difference between the "mama" variants.)

I think the connotations are more obvious with other variations; for example, not many adults use "mommy" except when talking to small kids; terms from other languages ("amma," "mère," "maman," "madre," etc), when used in English prose, also have particular connotations; "mammy" has very specific connotations in the US; "mum" and "mummy" and "mam" and "mater" are mostly British; etc.

But I think even for the quasi-synonymous group of American English terms I listed in the first paragraph above, the connotations vary by person, at least to some degree; for example, I've seen a story's narrator indicate that "mom" is a word used only by fairly young people, which doesn't match my experience.

So I'm curious: what different connotations, if any, do these words (and others like them) have for you? Are the connotations mostly about age, about class, about geographical region, about culture? Or is there no particular pattern?

that of

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In the past few days, I keep seeing people misuse the phrase "that of" in the same kind of way, apparently for emphasis. Like this:

* My primary concern is that of earthquakes.

Where the speaker meant to say that their primary concern is earthquakes themselves; but that's not what "that of earthquakes" means.

Here's one possible way to test whether you've incorrectly put "that of" in a sentence that has the structure "My A is that of B":

  1. Replace "that of" with "the A of". (* "My primary concern is the concern of earthquakes.") Or replace "that of B" with "the same A as B's". (* "My primary concern is the same concern as earthquakes's.")
  2. If the sentence doesn't read smoothly, then you've probably misused "that of."

The problem with the above test is that there are some borderline-inappropriate uses that pass the test:

* My subject tonight is that of grammar.

* The company's core business is that of computer graphics.

In both cases, you could argue that the sentence is correct, and both cases sort of pass my above test: "My subject tonight is the subject of grammar"; "The company's core business is the business of computer graphics." But in both cases, the "that of" is redundant.

So here's another test, probably better: just cut "that of" from the sentence, and see if the sentence still makes sense; if it does, then you were probably misusing "that of."

I think there's a subject/object confusion at the heart of the misuse; in the standard use of "that of," the B in the phrase "that of B" is a person or organization that owns (or to which can be attributed) the thing named by A.

Here's an example of how to use "that of" correctly:

His premise was that of Newton: that matter and energy are distinct.

In other words, his premise was the same as Newton's premise.

I imagine this is yet another case where my prescriptivist side will have to learn to live with the new phrasing; I suspect it's becoming more widespread over time. But it bugs me.

Of course, for all I know, the usage I'm objecting to has been around longer than I have; I don't currently have any easy way to check on that. If any of you know, let me know.

(Wrote this back in March, but neglected to post it.)



Is there a name for the particular kind of term-shortening where a term or phrase is abbreviated to its first component, even if that's not the important/meaningful part?

The most common example of this that I see is "Social," short for "Social Security number." As in, "What's your Social?" An abbreviation that includes the words "Security" or "Number" seems like it would make a lot more sense.

I've also heard "Microsoft" for "Microsoft Word." As in, "I wrote it in Microsoft" or "I fired up Microsoft and wrote a letter."

And "Internet" for "Internet Explorer," though that's arguably a different kind of thing; lots of people don't really understand the concept of a web browser.

Another common one: "wiki" for "Wikipedia." Again arguably a different kind of thing; many people don't know what a wiki is, and aren't aware that there are others.

It also seems to me that the "-gate" suffix, meaning "scandal," is somehow related, though that connection may just be in my head. But it does share the idea of extracting part of a term ("Watergate") and using it as shorthand for a much larger meaning.

I suppose these are all more or less synecdoche. One could argue that "society" for "high society" and "the throne" for "the king/queen" are just as strange; they've just been around long enough to be commonly accepted.

Still, my gut feeling is that there's something more/different going on here than just garden-variety synecdoche.

Two arguments about intended meaning

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Over at Language Log last week, linguist Geoffrey Pullum posted an entry titled "Yale sluts and Princeton philosophers," about a threatened lawsuit over a Yale fraternity's writing a sign saying "WE LOVE YALE SLUTS."

Pullum's entry is primarily a fairly standard "damn those PC people who are trying to stop our precious freedom of speech!" post, thinly disguised as being of linguistic relevance through a couple of arguments about the use of language. And, y'know, I agree with him that our society has too many lawsuits. And he later retracted some of the political stuff that I found most annoying about his post, after he found out more about the situation; also, he linked to Jane Achson's subsequent guest entry that makes some compelling points about harassment. It's worth noting that there have always been legal limits on Americans' freedom of speech.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about; this is my language blog, not my political blog. So what I want to say here is that in that particular entry, Pullum (whom I normally have a fair bit of respect for) was so focused on making his political point that he fumbled a couple of language-related arguments. And the reason I want to talk about those arguments is that they're arguments that I see pretty often; so my point here is not primarily that Pullum shouldn't have made these arguments, but rather that nobody should be making them.

This got very long, so I'm continuing after the jump.


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A USA Today blog entry from Kevin Maney, dated 5 April 2006, has the following headline:

Apple and XP: Has hell frozeth shut?

I'm wondering whether this was an intentional mangling of the more traditional "Has hell frozen over?", or whether the author just got confused.

But either way, I suspect it's a good example of people's tendency to use "-eth" and "-est" endings without really understanding how they were used in older versions of English.

"-eth" or "-th" was for the third person singular present tense. "-est" was for the second-person singular.

So: "I freeze"; "thou freezest"; "he freezeth." But: "I froze"; "you froze"; "she froze".

"Frozeth" just plain isn't a word. And "more than that, it never was one!" (he paraphrased randomly).

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