A prescriptivist’s playlist

I’ve been listening to a lot of pop song compilations recently. With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek:

All shaken up
Another somebody did somebody wrong song
Bobby McGee and I
Doesn’t it make my brown eyes blue?
I can’t get any satisfaction or I can get no satisfaction
I have you, babe or I’ve got you, babe 
Lie, lady, lie
Lo que será, será
Love me tenderly
Mrs Jones and I
There isn’t any mountain high enough or There’s no mountain high enough
Two fewer lonely people in the world
You haven’t seen anything yet or You’ve seen nothing yet

1) One of these definitely doesn’t belong here, because the original is unquestionably correct (or at least is questionable in another way). A free lifetime subscription to this blog to anyone who can point out which.

2) I stuck with titles, being easier to search for. I’m sure there are many more titles and many, many more lyrics. You can search for ‘pop music grammar errors’ to find more examples of ‘errors’, including within song lyrics. Some of these ‘errors’ actually are, but most of the lists fail to take into account that …

3) Informal spoken (or sung) English exists. I can (in some cases only just) accept each of the originals here as common informal spoken (or sung) English. That doesn’t mean that I say or write them, or would accept them without question in an ESL class. I said many times “Many people say X, but ‘correct, exam English’ is Y”.

[PS It’s possible that Two less lonely people in the world is prescriptively correct, too, if it is interpreted as Two + less lonely + people. But it’s hardly romantic to say “Before I met you, I was lonely. Now I am … less lonely.”]

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Either way, don’t beg the question

Some prescriptivists insist that beg the question means, and can only mean, assume the conclusion of a philosophical argument, and doesn’t mean, and cannot mean, raise the question. The esteemed Mark Liberman of Language Log traces the whole history from Greek to Latin to English in probably more detail than you will ever need or want (brief summary: almost everyone now uses it to mean raise the question) and concludes: 

If you use the phrase to mean “raise the question”, some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ “misuse”, you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean “assume the conclusion”, almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

The reason I am mentioning this is that a few days ago I was watching a TED-X Talk in which the (native US English) speaker said:

Which begs me to ask another question …

No it doesn’t.

PS 26 Aug: A commenter on a Language Log post seems to have used the phrase in its original sense, judging by his punctuation: “”Is this the best way to approach the problem of the lack of scientific terminology in African languages ?”. I think that this begs the question. Is there any evidence that the lack of scientific terminology in African languages is a problem ?”

Extraordinarily unique

Wikipedia’s article on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan quotes “US officials” describing it as “extraordinarily unique”.

Some style guides advise or prescribe against any modification of unique. Either something is the only one of its kind, or it’s not. It can’t be (for example) very unique. While modifying unique is probably best avoided in formal contexts, there can be no doubt that many people say or write it informally and normally. Google Ngram Viewer shows not (by far the most common), very, as, most, so, quite, rather, somewhat, almost and probably unique. Some of these are (probably) more acceptable, and others less so. 

Extraordinarily unique isn’t on Ngrams’ top 10 results (its usage is about one-tenth that of probably unique), but a general Google search shows about 391,000 results, starting with blind auditions on The Voice, the Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Villa Bismarck on Capri.  


It might just be possible to describe something as extraordinarily unique if it’s extraordinary as well as unique – a whole level more unique than anything else. Australia has many unique animals, but the platypus is extraordinary. Anyone familiar with jerboas will accept the kangaroo, but when the first samples of dead platypuses (?platypi, ??platypodes) arrived in England, the experts there thought someone here was playing a practical joke on them. But “except for its size and exaggerated security measures,” Bin Laden’s compound “itself did not stand out architecturally from others in the neighbourhood.”

Whatever day

I am convinced that today is Easter Day, but a lot of people think it’s Easter Sunday. This is partly simple familiarity: The Book of Common Prayer, An Australian Prayer Book, A Prayer Book for Australia, the Anglican Communion’s Cycle of Prayer and probably every hymn book I’ve ever used all use Easter Day. It is partly a matter of logic and redundancy. The Day of Resurrection has always been celebrated on ‘the first day of the week’/‘the Lord’s Day’, therefore ‘Sunday’ is redundant. Forty days later comes Ascension Day, not Ascension Thursday. But there’s also Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday and Trinity Sunday, so logic and redundancy only get me so far.

Alas, Google Ngrams shows that Easter Sunday is about three to four times as common as Easter Day. Does this make Easter Sunday ‘right’ and Easter Day ‘wrong’. No. I have the right to choose what I say (I can even say ‘the Day of Resurrection’ if I want to) and everyone else has the right to choose what they say (even if they’re wrong). (Though I doubt that many people ‘choose’ what to say in this case.) I cannot possibly say Easter Sunday and I am even fighting the urge to put it in scare quotes every time I write it.

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They are the Doctor

One of the most vehemently contested issues in modern English grammar and usage is ‘singular they’, specifically its use to refer to a person of known gender, or to someone who has chosen not to identify as a specific gender.

Over lunch, I was browsing through the Wikipedia article on Doctor Who. My eye was caught by the sentence ‘The Doctor often finds events that pique their curiosity’. Since late last year, when Jodie Whittaker took over the role, it is impossible to refer to the Doctor as he, and it was always impossible to refer to him, ummm, them as it.

The Wikipedia writer(s) use(s) they once again:

All that was known about the character in the programme’s early days was that they were an eccentric alien traveller of great intelligence

(even though in the program’s early days the Doctor was definitely he).

Alongside their in the usual plural sense:

There have been instances of actors returning at later dates to reprise the role of their specific Doctor.

there is another use of their the singular sense:

The Doctor has gained numerous reoccurring enemies during their travels.

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The muggers are very dangerous

One topic in the textbook this week is crime, and one grammar point is the passive voice, which allows us to say things like ‘The man was heard having an argument with the victim, seen leaving the scene of the crime, reported to the police, investigated, questioned, arrested, charged, tried, found guilty, condemned to death, hanged, drawn and quartered, and buried in unconsecrated ground’. Who by? By witnesses, the police, the crown prosecutor, the jury, the judge, the Lord High Executioner and four horses, and someone. Crime is an ideal context in which to practice the passive voice as it typically has an active participant (a do-er), a transitive verb and a passive participant (a done-to).

Much nonsense has been written about the passive voice (among other things, many people who write negatively about it a) can’t actually identify it, and b) use it quite naturally in the course of writing negatively about it), but it is a full part of English (and many other languages), is often used and often very useful. (It is, of course, sometimes (?often) badly used.) (Without consciously trying, I used four actives (underlined) and three passives (bolded). This is way more passive than the overall average of about 15%.)

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Gift me a verb … VERB!

Much ink and many pixels have been devoted to the topic of gift as a verb (see, for example). I don’t want to weigh in to the wrongs and rights of it, except to say that I don’t and wouldn’t use it as such (except linguobuccally). (I’ve got no general issue with verbing nouns, but why do it when there’s a perfectly good verb available already?) But I have recently noticed three uses of it in a major historical shopping building in the city. One shop has a poster ‘Gift the magic of Provence’, which could easily be ‘give’. Another has ‘Gift UGG this season’, which would still be awkward even with ‘give’.

The building management has provided a ‘Gifting station’. We can’t change that to a ‘Giving station’, but we could call a ‘Gift-wrapping station’ or even ‘Gift-wrapping’ if getting the words onto the sign was a factor.

(I am breaking a long-standing rule about gifting free publicity to commercial entities, but the identities of the companies are relevant.)

‘I will survive … Did you think I’d lay down and die?’

One theme in this week’s chapter of the textbook is ‘Survival’. The chapter begins with stories about the New York terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Tenerife airport disaster of 1977 (specifically, of two people who survived by getting out of the building or plane respectively). I thought this was a depressing way to start the first class of the year, especially so soon after the Paris attacks and the Air Asia incident and moderately soon after the Sydney attack and the two Malaysian Airlines incidents (one current student is from Malaysia – she actually joked that she had come to Australia on a Malaysian Airlines flight!), so I transferred that reading to the second lesson, then got it over with as quickly as possible.

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Most often used words in speech and writing

One of the books on my holiday reading list is the Cambridge Grammar of English by Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (a bit tragic, I know, reading grammar textbooks during the holidays). One of their focuses is the differences between spoken and written English. On p 12 they list and briefly discuss ‘the twenty most frequent word-forms in spoken and written texts’. I want to explore those lists further.

The 20 most-used words in spoken English are:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – yeah – that – of – in – was – it’s – know – is – mm – er – but – so – they

The 20 most-used words in written English are:
the – to – and – of – a – in – was – it – I – he – that – she – for – on – her – you – is – with – his – had

Twelve words appear on both lists:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – that – of – in – was – is

The eight other words on the ‘spoken’ list are:
yeah – it’s – know – mm – er – but – so – they

and the eight others on the ‘written list are:
he – she – for – on – her – with – his – had

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Irregardless

One word guaranteed to make any English language peever foam at the mouth is ‘irregardless’, but it may be much ado about almost nothing, because the number of times it is actually used is vanishingly small compared to the perfectly standard word ‘regardless’. This illustrates English language blogger Barrie England’s ‘First Law’: namely ‘The amount of discussion in social media of any point of English grammar, vocabulary, punctuation or spelling is in inverse proportion to the frequency of its occurrence in the language’.

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