Category Archives: language and linguistics

Season your fiction just right

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Can you tell when and where (America or England) these passages were written? (And I promise the answers will be revealed.)

  1. When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table furnished with an elegant and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry and address than commonly fall to the share of students.
  2. She wore the hood set back off her square honest face and showed her hair, dark brown with a tinge of Tudor red. Her smile was her great charm: it came slowly, and her eyes were warm. But what struck me most about her was her air of honesty.
  3. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.

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Don’t die a critic of diacritics and special characters

Do you always get your accents and special characters right in non-English words? Or are you sometimes unclear on which is which, and maybe not sure what difference it makes?

Well, lucky you. I spent quite a bit of time recently putting together charts for a presentation I took part in at the 2018 Editors Canada conference. They list the most common ones, some of the languages you’re likely to see them in, and the kinds of differences they can make – cases where the presence or lack of a little mark can turn something innocent into something dirty (or vice versa, which is sometimes even worse).

Here they are. It’s a PDF, but it’s small: accents_characters_harbeck.pdf

Is text-speak replacing speech?

Every so often, some get-off-my-lawner launches another jeremiad about the demise of English and points the knobbly finger at that interweb text thing the youth do. Are we losing the ability to communicate in basic, decent English? Is this text-speak taking over from talk? Well… no (hell no) and yes (sorta). We’re not losing anything; we’re just adding another variety of English, which I’ve taken the liberty of calling live internet vernacular English. I explain in my latest article for the BBC:

Will we stop talking and just text?


I’ll assume you’re familiar with the word ombudsman, which refers to a person who arbitrates complaints for a newspaper, government agency, or similar organization. It comes from Swedish, where it’s been a word for a good long time, descended from Old Swedish umboþ ‘commission, order’ plus man. English borrowed it in the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s, and for a while after, every ombudsman was in fact a man. But by the later 20th century there were ombuds…women? But it seems a bit clunky to have to specify the sex of the ombuds…person? But, then, why say man, woman, or person at all? We already resolved this neatly with chair, which replaces chairman, chairwomanchairperson with a nice bit of metonymy (like using crown or state to refer to government things). And whereas chair is a thing of its own and so in some contexts may be ambiguous, there is no ambiguity if we say ombud. It’s clearly a short form of ombudsman (or whatever). K?

Question, though. If we take man off ombudsman, that makes it ombuds, not ombud. But then what’s the plural? Ombudses? But if we make it ombud, which can pluralize to ombuds if you ever need to, where’s the original s? But the in the original is a genitive, not a plural; it allows ombud (or in the original umboþ) to modify man.

But do we have a real basis for changing ombudsman in the first place? This question has come up on various occasions, and various people have had various things to say about it. A colleague pointed me to a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly that quoted a couple of people weighing in on it as certain kinds of people will:

Put simply, the word ‘Ombudsman’ is not an English word: it is Swedish. It does not therefore lend itself to conversion to the ‘ombudsperson’ or ‘ombudswoman’ that the manual suggests… it makes it meaningless because such suffixes are not recognised as Swedish’.

“Ombudsmand”, a Scandinavian word, has the etymological meaning a “man who is asked for something”, ie, help or redress. Washington has shorn the title down to a meaningless “ask-for”.

There are… problems, let’s put it nicely (why?)… with these objections. Ombudsman, borrowed into English, is no longer a Swedish word. If I call either of the persons who made this objection ignoramus, I’m not saying in Latin “we don’t know,” which is what Latin ignoramus means; I’m saying in English a noun that describes the person as pointedly ignorant. If I see him in a restaurant and ask the maitre d’ to show the ignoramus out, he can object all he wants that maitre d’ is meaningless because it just means ‘master of’ (with the original hotel deleted), but he’s still going to find his butt (and the rest of him) on the street, hopping the next bus. And even though bus is short for Latin omnibus, which is a dative Latin plural of the adjective omnia ‘all’, and even though the bus is part of the inflectional ending and not the root, the short form bus is not meaningless for us. We know exactly what it means in English, regardless of what a Latin speaker might have thought.

But what about the objection that in Swedish man doesn’t mean ‘man’? We don’t change human to huperson or hu, after all. But, then, we don’t say “hu man” as though it’s another kind of man; we say it as though it’s an adjective derived with the suffix –an from hume. (In fact, that’s pretty close; it’s from Latin humanus, derived from homo, which is indeed gender-neutral; ‘man’ is vir.) Well, what is the word for ‘man’ in Swedish? Why, it’s man. Man is also the word for ‘husband’, and it is not the word for ‘woman’ (that’s kvinna) or ‘wife’ (fru). Swedish for ombudsman is ombudsman, using that same man; the spelling ombudsmand comes from Danish (there is no language called Scandinavian; the several Scandinavian languages do have differences in their words). Swedish man is directly related to English man – by which I mean it’s the same word used in the same way in a not-that-distantly-related language. The fact that man is used broadly in Swedish the way it used to be used broadly in English does not mean it’s gender-neutral; it means Swedish is still masculine-normative in this regard.

So we borrowed ombudsman into English, which really means we borrowed ombud(s) and already had man. And when we hear it, we hear the man at the end, and it is masculine-normative. If it weren’t really from man, there would be a different argument to make – should we change a word just because it sounds like something problematic?* But it is from man. It is accurately read as English man and is received and dealt with as such.

Editors know that if there’s a tricky phrasing, one that leads to syntactic vexation, the best solution is to rephrase. And if there’s a turn of phrase that might upset some people, you’re best rewording if you can. An important tool in the editor’s toolkit is a nice sharp sword for cutting Gordian knots. Ombudsman is a place to use that sword. Slice true and clean and you get ombud and ombuds. And if anyone objects too strenuously, the sword is still sharp; let them look to it. Any complaints can be addressed to the ombud.


*That’s a fun debate, but if you want to cut to the chase, we already do that in various ways. Newscasters say harassment and Uranus in ways that avoid saying ass and anus per se, and the British pronunciation of bomb is no longer identical to that of bum, as it once was. There are other examples I probably don’t need to list of words that sound like even less acceptable words; though unrelated, they’re often avoided, because why bring unpleasant things to mind? Like it or not, we do it, because we can hear it.

Pronunciation tip: The One Ring inscription

Everyone knows the inscription inside the One Ring from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of course, but most of us can’t get the pronunciation quite right. Discover the secret to saying it so Sauron will seek you out, and get a little bit of linguistic insight while you’re at it:

Oh, and happy April 1.

I tell Boston about Celtics

Edgar B. Herwick III, of the National Public Radio station WGBH in my erstwhile stomping grounds of Greater Boston, got me on the phone (Skype, actually) to find out why Celtic music is “keltik” but the Boston Celtics are “seltik.” Of course, I told him. You can listen to the radio show, or read the script, or both:

Why We Pronounce ‘Celtic’ Music And Boston ‘Celtics’ Differently

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.