A linguistics book for the rest of us

For several years now I’ve been looking for a book about linguistics that doesn’t assume I know diddly squat about the subject. I tried Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.
I tried Pinker’s The Language Instinct. In desperation I got a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Not one of them was what I wanted or needed.

I ordered a copy of Steve Kleinedler’s Is English Changing? because I follow Steve on Twitter and I enjoy his tweets. (I’ve found that following lexicographers is one of the smartest moves a editor can make.)  When it came today, I opened it and started reading. At the beginning, as one should.

And I shouted for joy.


It’s part of the Routledge Guides to Linguistics, which means it’s on the pricey side for its size (172 pages of actual text, plus front and back matter), but already I can tell you that if, like me, you want a totally accessible text about what linguistics is and how it affects YOU, it’s worth the US$30 and change. This snippet is what made me shout HOORAY:

“You will be asked to observe how you use language. These observations will help guide your understanding of basic linguistic concepts.”

FINALLY! A simple book, in plain language, for me and folks like me who are interested in the topic but are put off by academic texts and theoretical presentation. I want hands-on exercises that don’t use highfalutin terminology. I want explanations that don’t rely on lingo. (Linguistics. Lingo. Ha.)

“The language you speak is different than that of your parents, and of their parents, and so on, running backward through a multitude of generations. Indeed, the language you yourself speak is different from what you spoke last year, or 10 years ago.”

[insert GIF of owl’s head turning to face the viewer with the text O RLY? below it]

Sprinkled liberally throughout every chapter are boxes labeled “Something you can do!” I cheer every time I see one, because I CAN DO A THING AND THAT THING WILL HELP ME LEARN!

I haven’t gotten past the first chapter, because I’m squeeing and nodding and rereading and THIS IS THE BOOK! THIS ONE!

Thank you, Steve, for finally writing the book I’ve wanted for years.

Grammar Day 2018

I love grammar.

More precisely, I love grammar, usage, syntax, semantics, and mechanics.

I’m one of those bitchy editors who will point out that “grammar” as used by Average  Robin encompasses all of those things, which is why “grammar quizzes” are usually bullshit. Most of what’s in them isn’t grammar. It’s mechanics or spelling or usage or style. And that last one has a lot of gray areas, so making a generalized quiz about it is fucking cruel. No, it’s NOT wrong if you don’t use a serial comma. Not as clear as it could be, perhaps, but it’s not wrong. Continue reading “Grammar Day 2018”

#SpellcheckCannotSaveYou: a bit of explanation

This has gotten a little attention in the last month or so, mostly thanks to June Casagrande (a fantastic editor-person who’s written a number of highly accessible grammar and style books, most of which I own). One thing that some folks don’t quite understand is why it’s “cannot” and not “won’t” or “will not.”

Simple. And it’s got NOTHING to do with the fucking apostrophe (which kills a hashtag every time, y’know).

I don’t care whose software it is; the fact is, no spellcheck program is able to save you from yourself. It is incapable. It is unable. It CANNOT save you. It can ensure you won’t have any egregious misspellings, but when it comes to homonyms, it cannot save you. If the word’s spelled correctly, but still the wrong word, spellcheck is unable, incapable, powerless to save you.

It’s not a case of it being unwilling to perform, or uninterested in doing the job.

It cannot perform that duty. Only a human brain in conjunction with human eyes and reasoning abilities can parse the difference between cleaver and clever. No spellchecker will flag either of those words, unless for some reason you have manually told it to. (You did know you have that kind of control, right? Like, telling the program to always flag the word “pubic” to save you from mortification?)

Spellcheck cannot save you from errors stemming from correctly spelled words used incorrectly. Not that it will not (although technically, that’s true — it won’t save you, but there’s more to the sense behind the phrasing), but that it cannot. It is not capable. It is unable. It cannot perform that action.

Spellcheck cannot save you.

By the end of the day, they’ll put their heads together

I was tagged into a discussion the other day about idioms, and whether it’s a good idea to remove them from writing in order to better ensure that the story doesn’t become dated.

After a bit of back and forth, it looked to me as if there was some conflation going on between “idiom” and “cliché.” It’s something like squares and rectangles, or porn and erotica, but not nearly as obvious as the first and somewhat messier than the second. Continue reading “By the end of the day, they’ll put their heads together”

Listen to the words

I’ve blogged before about when to use “a” and “an” with initialisms. Here’s a real-world example, taken from Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:

It is typical for the subject of a clause to be an NP.

“But Karen, ‘n’ would take ‘a’ because it’s a consonant!”

Nope. “N” takes “an” when it’s pronounced as itself, the letter “en.” It begins with a vowel sound, which takes “an.”

Clearly, the authors intend for us to say “en pee” rather than “noun phrase.” The indefinite article “an” is the cue.

Yes, there are rules.

Lots of folks seem to have gotten the idea that “there are no rules” about English anymore. I have to guess that they’ve seen and heard the articles and discussions about prescriptivism versus descriptivism, and their takeaway has been “Well, so rules can be broken.” That becomes “rules don’t matter,” and from there it’s a short hop to “there are no rules.”

Yes. There are rules. Continue reading “Yes, there are rules.”