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.”]


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 ?”

“I wish to apologise”

A document quoted someone’s written submission, which started “I wish to first sincerely apologise for the delay”. Microsoft Word helpfully suggested “Avoiding multiple words between ‘to’ and a verb is best”. At least it didn’t say “Adding any words between ‘to’ and verb is always a no-no”. So far, so good, but its suggested rewriting, “I wish to first apologise for the delay sincerely” is not an improvement. (I first typed “hardly an improvement”, but I’ll be definite here.)

The basic sentence is “I wish to apologise for the delay”, and there are six places the two extra words can go. First(ly), with first (which is more marginal to the sentence anyway):

1 First, I wish to apologise for the delay.
2 I first wish to apologise for the delay.
3 I wish first to apologise for the delay.
4 I wish to first apologise for the delay.
5 I wish to apologise(,) first(,) for the delay.
6 I wish to apologise for the delay first.

(Mentioning then ignoring “I wish to apologise for the first delay”.)

Second(ly), with sincerely:

7 Sincerely, I wish to apologise for the delay.
8 I sincerely wish to apologise for the delay.
9 I wish sincerely to apologise for the delay.
10 I wish to sincerely apologise for the delay.
11 I wish to apologise sincerely for the delay.
12 I wish to apologise for the delay sincerely. 

I won’t discuss these at length, but note that in 8, sincerely clearly modifies wish and in 10 apologise, while 9 is ambiguous, and that some are clearly more formal or informal, or stylish or unstylish. To me, none is completely wrong, but 4, 6 and 12 are the most awkward. (Microsoft’s suggestion is basically 4 + 12.)

There are 42 possible combinations of both words (because when both are in the same slot they can be in either order), which I’m not going to list. You might want to try some out. My choice is “Firstly, I wish to sincerely apologise for the delay”. Fortunately, proscription of the so-called split infinitive is now less common than it used to be. (Even Microsoft Word’s advice doesn’t reach proscription.) The benefit of placing sincerely there is that it is perfectly clear what I am sincerely doing (or doing sincerely).

(I have a vague memory of encountering someone’s thorough analysis of adverb placement, but I don’t think I saved it.)

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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The legal writing guide of a mid-level university states “Do not use contractions in your academic writing, Using contractions can give your writing an informal or colloquial tone, which is not appropriate.”  Unfortunately, one of its examples, alongside can’t, shan’t (who writes shan’t anyway?), they’re, wouldn’t and it’s, is o’clock, which is a contraction of of the clock. So don’t use o’clock in your academic writing; use of the clock instead.

That said, contractions are generally avoided in academic writing, but some contractions are now standard. Google Ngram shows that o’clock is about 200 times as common as of the clock. I suspect that no-one actually uses of the clock; they just mention it in the course of talking about the origin of o’clock.

Talking about contractions, the conductor of one of the choirs I sing in told us that the soprano soloist for a recent concert has just had a baby … after 62 hours of labour.

Stranding prepositions (or not)

I had seen several approving references to the book Origins of the specious: Myths and misconceptions of the English language by Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, and last week saw a copy on sale, so I bought it. They generally do a very good job of explaining why most of the prescriptivists’ ‘rules’ are wrong (of course, I already knew about most of it), but I have to disagree with them on half of one point.

I agree with them that it’s a myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. They trace the “final-preposition bugaboo” (their words) to John Dryden (who complained that Ben Johnson put “the Preposition in the end of the sentence: a common fault with him”) then add “The bee in Dryden’s bonnet later took up residence in the miter of an eighteenth-century Anglican bishop, Robert Lowth, who wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn’t belong at the end of a sentence in formal writing”.

No he didn’t.

Later, they write that he “condemned the preposition at the end of a sentence”.

No he didn’t.

Later again, they refer to Lowth as “the fellow who helped popularize the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition”.

If he did, if was because those who read his book misunderstood what he’d written.

What did he actually write?

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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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Grammar in pop songs – Lucy Lucy Lucy

Picture yourself
Somebody calls you
You answer
A girl

She’s gone


Follow her
Everyone smiles

Taxis appear
Climb in
You’re gone


Picture yourself
Someone is there
The girl




In the loved-by-some, loathed-by-others Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr and EB White say ‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs’ and ‘Omit needless words’. Very well then …

I have taken that advice to its logical extreme and wielded the delate button on Lucy (in the sky) (with diamonds) by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The result is possibly comprehensible if you already know the song and possibly not if you don’t. To be fair, Strunkandwhite don’t mention the other word classes, especially prepositions, but I’ve erred on the side of comprehensiveness.

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Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

I have posted before about unexplained and puzzling advice on language-related websites. This kind of advice is given in terms of ‘that is wrong, this is right’. I stumbled across a website which gives generally correct and useful advice on English vocabulary, grammar and usage for second-language learners. But on one page, among 13 pieces of unexceptional advice, are three pieces of unexplained and puzzling advice on word usage. I won’t identify the website, because I don’t want to name and shame; this person has obviously put a lot of time and effort into the site and the advice is generally correct and useful. The name and photo indicate someone from a major English-speaking country, one sentence uses the spelling center, many of the mistakes sound typical of Indian English, and one sentence mentions Chennai, so draw your own conclusions from that.

The website has a page of ‘Common mistakes in the use of nouns’. Only one piece of advice comes with an explanation:

Incorrect: I am learning a new poetry.
Correct: I am learning a new poem.
Poetry means poems collectively.

The three puzzling pieces of advice are:

(1) Incorrect: He enquired about your state of health.
(2) Correct: He enquired about the state of your health.
(3) Incorrect: My English is very weak.
(4) Correct: I am very weak in English.
(5) Incorrect: Why are you standing in the center of the street?
(6) Correct: Why are you standing in the middle of the street? [my numbering]

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