A New Scrabble Champion

One may wonder at the detail and effort that fivethirtyeight.com put into this article on the national Scrabble championship, but really it’s no more silly than the amount of analysis that goes into football (soccer or the other one), baseball, or hockey.

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Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad

I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.

Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.

In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.

Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.

This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.

The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.

Or you can download it from here.

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In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…

We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.

You may recall George Walkden from this previous post and this follow-up on the use of hwæt in Old English poetry.

Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat

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zero gravity, zero g, microgravity

Zero gravity is one of those words that appears in science fiction before science and engineering had an actual need for it. Zero gravity, also called zero g or microgravity, is the state of weightlessness experienced in outer space (and, as we shall see, at the center of the earth).

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See zero gravity


In modern English the word yard has two primary meanings: 1) a unit of linear measurement; 2) an open area near a house or other building. These are both yards, and they both come from Old English, the language spoken in England prior to the Norman conquest, but the two senses are different words with different origins.

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weapon of mass destruction / conventional weapon

Most people became aware of the term weapon of mass destruction during the run up to the first Gulf War in 1990–91. And it again entered the public consciousness during the second war with Iraq which started twelve years later. Both times Saddam Hussein had been thought to have developed these nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, an assessment that was only correct the first time. But the term is much older than widespread public awareness of it.

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conventional weapon / weapon of mass destruction

See weapon of mass destruction


Of the words I’ve discussed on this site, the word Viking may have one of the more perplexing etymologies. It’s not a simple case of “origin unknown;” we have pretty good of evidence about where the word comes from, only that evidence doesn’t point to where one would expect. The word’s origin seems like it should be straightforward—a borrowing from the Old Norse vikingr—but that’s not the origin. And to make matters more complex, our modern use of the word is a nineteenth-century revival of a word that had long since passed out of our vocabulary.

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Word Crimes

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a new video that’s making the rounds. It’s Word Crimes, a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. It’s very clever (despite the “cunning linguist” chestnut; that ancient pun was only mildly amusing upon first hearing and just plain not funny subsequently; no self-respecting comedian should use it), but it’s also very wrong. Many of the “errors” that Yankovic descries are not wrong at all.

The things that Yankovic doesn’t understand about English:

  • Less used to modify count nouns is perfectly acceptable
  • I could care less is correct; it’s an idiom and doesn’t have to be logical (hint: acceptable usage is never determined by logic)
  • Innovative abbreviations are okay; what’s important is that the message gets across
  • Whom is dying; using who in its place is okay in most contexts
  • Good can be an adverb too
  • Literally has a figurative meaning too

In short, Weird Al is exposing himself as a peever, someone who doesn’t understand that:

  • Language changes
  • There is no single “correct” style that works in all cases; different contexts call for different styles and diction
  • Use determines what is “correct,” not arbitrary rules or logic

There’s a place for artful, well-written English prose, but this kind of peeving has never led to better English, and when it’s wrong—as in this case—it tends to lead to stilted, poorly written prose.

Still, it’s an amusing and well-constructed parody.

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