A sneaky word

A few months ago I randomly encountered an online article which used


as the past tense of 


A few weeks ago I randomly encountered the same article again. I didn’t save the article and I can’t find it now. It was about some people who “snook into a stadium” or “into a football match”. I asked my Facebook friends, and those who responded said “mistake”, “… unless the author is using similar linguistic devices throughout” (which I don’t remember was the case) “an Americanism, like snuck” (possibly; there was no particular indication that the writer was American) and “mistake”.

Snuck (use it or not (I don’t), like it or not (I don’t)) is here to stay (and is already used more than sneaked in US English, and almost as much in British English). Snook is either a mistake or a very rare alternative. Searching for snook by itself finds mostly irrelevant results for people with that surname, fish or a town in Texas. But then

“No, you got all sneaky and snuck around and snook that vote away from me. And I know this because earlier I sneaked and snooked around and Jammy was supposed to vote for me. The snooker has become the snort.” Leslie Knope to Ron Swanson

I recognise the names as characters from Parks and Recreation (which I have never seen). So writers of tv comedies can use it. (Writers of tv comedies can do a lot of things.) Note snooked. I assume that snooker is pronounced similarly and not like the table-balls-and-cue sport.

Searching for “snook into” found a few uses, for example “someone snook into my [hotel] room” on Tripadviser and “this guy snook into [a sports stadium when it was closed]” on reddit.

Searching for “snook into a stadium” found nothing, but “snook into the stadium” found this tweet:

the streaker at the Granada vs Manchester United game, snook into the stadium at around 7am”, But that is an auto-translation from German: der Flitzer beim Spiel Granada gegen Manchester United gegen 7 Uhr morgens ins Stadion geschlichen ist 

With snuck and sneaked to choose from, I can’t see why any auto-translator would be programmed to use snook

But I still need a genuine use of snook. I don’t know how I found it, but luckily I saved the URL. From the BBC, no less: 

Zoe snook into rehearsals to catch up with Patrick and Anya and Fiona and Anton. 

I assume that the BBC has a style guide and that snook isn’t in it. In fact, I assume that snuck isn’t in it, either. I’ll venture that no style guide so much as mentions snook in this sense, whatever it might say about snuck and sneaked. I’ll get proscriptive and say “Don’t use snook. People will question your intelligence and/or ability in English” (unless you are a writer of a tv comedy). In fact, I’ll say “Don’t use snuck“, but most people will ignore me.

The rise of snuck is relatively recent. Most discussions date it to the late 19th century, but Google Ngrams shows its rise from the late 1990s. Sneaked has risen at the same time, in part because people are using it to compare and contrast with snuck. Have we spent more time sneaking in the last 25 years?


“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.)

Every cloud possesses a silver lining

Writing about David Essex yesterday reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about another song of his, “Hold me close“.

Twice, he sings:

Every cloud’s got a silver lining

But the final time, he sings:

Every cloud has a silver lining

I was going to write at length about ‘ve/’s got v have/has (note that very few people say/write have/has got in full), but I got very confused very quickly and don’t want to confuse you. I thought more about I’ve got and I have because we talk more about I than we do about every cloud. As well as I’ve got and I have, there’s also I got and I’ve gotten, as well as have as a main verb and have as the auxiliary of the perfect. I’ve got a is slightly more associated with British English, but even there I have a is by far the most common.

But I got thinking: do people say or write Every cloud’s got a silver lining or Every cloud has a silver lining? Google Ngrams shows absolutely no results for Every cloud’s got a silver lining, which means that its dataset does not include 1970s English pop songs. A general Google search shows about 1,050,000 results for “every cloud has a silver lining” (in quotation marks, for an exact match) and about 1,040 for “every cloud’s got a silver lining”, most of which are references to this song. Worryingly, Google suggests every clouds got a silver lining, for which there are 935 results, most of which are references to this song. I’m not surprised that people who create websites of song lyrics don’t how to use apostrophes, but I’m worried that Google doesn’t. 

Many proverbs circulate in slightly different forms, but this one is remarkably stable (and also Every dog has its day, which sprang to mind).

(I thought I’d written a previous post about I’ve got and I have in pop songs, but I can’t find it.)

Effective English

… more important than so-called good English [is] effective English. English that clearly, strongly and unambiguously ‐ unless you’ve a penchant for ambiguity – conveys from writers’ brains through their typing fingers and onward to the imaginations of their readers what it is that writers are attempting to communicate.

Benjamin Dreyer is “is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House”. He has just released a book called Dreyer’s English AN UTTERLY CORRECT GUIDE TO CLARITY AND STYLE, which I am neither endorsing nor not endorsing. I am less likely to buy it after finding myself described as a “godless savage”, and Dreyer obviously didn’t proofread that job title himself. And I would question three things about style in the quotation itself. But I fully endorse effective English.

Today on the Sydney Morning Herald website is this article, from which the quotation comes.

(Checks post very carefully in case there’s any mistakes: Muphry’s Law.)

Another rabbit hole confounds me

Another day, another linguistic rabbit-hole.

On Sunday, we sang Universi qui te expectant by Michael Haydn, which I had not previously known. The Latin of the two verses (Psalm 25:3-4) is:

Universi qui te expectant non confundentur, Domine
Vias tuas Domine notas fac mihi et semitas tuas edoce me.

No English translation is given in the score, but at the rehearsal one of the choir members quickly found:

Let none that wait on thee be ashamed
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. [KJV]

Hang on, though. A little bit of Latin shows that Universi is everyone/all, and that non confundentur is will not be confounded, so the verse should be translated:

Everyone who waits for you will not be confounded.

(The more common Latin word for everyone/all is omnes, which can be followed by a noun: omnes gentes or omnes generationes.) Continue reading

I feel like writing more about adjectives

(Following on from the previous post about adjectives.)

Adjectives modify nouns, and can, in turn, be modified by adverbs and a number of other elements. These can go either before or after the adjective. Three common adverbs before an adjective are: very (no example in this song), so (so pretty/charming) and too (too much to eat). Some of these work better in some sentence patterns than others: My dress is very pretty, I am wearing a very pretty dress, My dress is so pretty!, *I am wearing a so pretty dress (>I am wearing such a pretty dress), My dress is too pretty!, *I am wearing a too pretty dress (>?I am wearing too pretty a dress).

Note that in I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy, pretty is not an adjective, like it was in I feel pretty, and such a pretty dress!, but rather an adverb. ‘Extreme adjectives’ are particularly limited in which adverbs can go before them: ?He is very wonderful!, ?He is a very wonderful boy!, He is so wonderful!, *He is a so wonderful boy! (>He is such a wonderful boy!), He is too wonderful!, *He is a too wonderful boy! (>?He is too wonderful a boy!)

Some other adverbs go after the adjective: pretty enough. Continue reading

I’d like to talk to you about cheeses

During the week I edited an article which quoted a company spokesperson talking about the company’s pizza which included an “Edam, mozzarella and Cheddar” topping. Edam and Cheddar are real places (in the Netherlands and England, respectively), and their cheeses originally had an upper case letter (and often still do). Mozzarella is not a place; the name is derived from the Italian mozza, a slice. So do I really have to have that mix of upper- and lower-case letters? Fortunately not. The Macquarie Dictionary styles edam and cheddar (the cheeses) with a lower-case letter, so the magazine will have “edam, mozzarella and cheddar”.

Various food and drink products have “protected designation of origin” status; for example, only sparkling wine from that region of France can be called (upper case) Champagne. There is, in the European Union, at least, no such thing as (lower case) champagne. Continue reading

“a devout lactose-intolerant”

Today I edited an article which described someone as “a devout lactose-intolerant”. The first question is whether we can or should describe anyone as “a lactose-intolerant”, in the the same way as we might “a diabetic”, which has comfortably made the leap from adjective to noun. Can we? Obviously. Should we? Most style guides prefer the ‘person-first’ style: a person who is lactose-intolerant, or a person who has/with (a) lactose intolerance.

The second question is whether we can describe a person who is lactose-intolerant as “devout”. Devout is more often used to describe beliefs or behaviours. I can imagine someone being a devout vegetarian or vegan, or devoutly following a lactose-free diet, but being lactose-intolerant is not a belief or behaviour.

This person’s company’s website describes him as “a lactose intolerant guy”, and there is no recorded use of “a devout lactose-intolerant” or anything like it on the internet (but there will be in a few minutes, right here).

I asked my journalist colleague who wrote the article what he meant, and he said he didn’t know; he took that directly from the material the person (or someone at his company) had sent him. We discussed various options, then I decided to keep those words, but in quotation marks. [Update: in the end, that whole story was scrapped for reasons of space.]

And until I checked the definition, I had no conscious knowledge that devout is related to devoted.

Grammar checkers and passive voice

Most (maybe all) of the videos on Youtube are preceded by an advertisement. One assiduous advertiser is a well-known grammar checker for computers and mobile phones. One ad starts with a women typing a term paper. She types “Women are often portrayed as if they are powerless”. A red line appears under “are portrayed” with the warning “passive voice”. There is no way to pause the ad, so I don’t know which rewording it suggests. I can easily reword this in active voice, but none of the possibilities is an improvement.

Firstly, this is an example of a “short passive”, which omits the actor/agent from a phrase beginning with “by”. This construction is often derided as “vague on agency”, which may or may not be true. Who often portrays women as if they are powerless? People who portray women – writers, directors, actors, artists, photographers, politicians and other public commentators. So can we say or write, most simply, “People often portray women as if they are powerless”? Of course we can. Is it an improvement? No. Among other things, we are not talking about “people”; we are talking about “women”, which means we want them to be the subject of the sentence. Passive voice allows us to do that. It also allows us to omit the actor/agent if the actor/agent is unknown, irrelevant or obvious: “The seriously injured driver was rushed to hospital and underwent emergency surgery”. “Was rushed”, who by? An ambulance driver. “Underwent” … hang on, that’s actually active voice, but equally vague on agency. Who by? A surgical team. “An ambulance driver rushed the seriously injured driver to hospital and a surgical team performed emergency surgery”. That’s better. Not. Continue reading

extraposition and dislocation

Yesterday during my bible study, I spotted the following sentence in discussion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Whether this outlook is “gnostic” in the nontechnical sense that it merely placed an unusually high premium on “knowledge” (gnōsis) and “wisdom” (sophia) or in the more technical sense that it stemmed from a system of thought resembling second-century *gnosticism is a matter of ongoing debate.

(You can ignore the theology and church history; this post is about language.)

Continue reading