Ed Smith over at the New Statesman has a rather good criticism of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is often trotted out as justification for grammatical prescriptivism, probably because of the six simple rules for good writing that Orwell promulgates. It is only second to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in this regard. Of course, neither Orwell or the prescriptivists realize that Orwell himself runs roughshod over his rule #4, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” In the essay Orwell uses the passive voice in about twenty percent of his sentences, while most writers of his era used it in only about ten percent. It seems that Orwell (Strunk and White, too, but that’s another story) didn’t know what the passive voice is, or at least wasn’t very good at spotting it in his own writing.
But Smith skips the grammatical skirmishes and drives a knife into the heart of Orwell’s argument that plain English inherently makes for clearer communication:Read the rest of the article...
Grammar of Newspaper Headlines
Newspaper headlines are a dialect of English in their own right. They don’t operate under the same grammatical and stylistic rules that normal prose does. In a brief post on the Lingua Franca blog, Allan Metcalf outlines the basic rules that govern headline writing.
I’ve never seen these rules codified before. It’s kind of neat.
Beowulf MS Now Online
The British Library has put the Beowulf manuscript on line. Beowulf starts on folio 132r. The library’s announcement is here.
The manuscript, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, contains two separate codices that have been bound together. The first, the Southwick Codex, occupies the first ninety-three folios. The Beowulf manuscript, also known as the Nowell Codex after sixteenth century antiquarian Laurence Nowell who owned it at one point, follows on 94r and contains five Old English works, a life of St. Christopher, a description of the Wonders of the East, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, and two poems, Beowulf and a verse translation of the book of Judith. The date of the composition of Beowulf is unknown, but the manuscript, the only surviving copy of the poem, was copied c. 1010 C.E.
The manuscript was badly damaged in a 1731 fire at the aptly named Ashburnam House. As a result, the manuscript pages have been bound in paper frames to prevent further deterioration.
J. K. Chambers on The Great Vowel Shift
University of Toronto linguistics professor J. K. “Jack” Chambers was on CBC radio Sunday talking about the Great Vowel Shift. It’s one of the better explanations of the topic in under ten minutes that I’ve heard. And radio is a much better medium to explain sound changes than anything in writing. There’s probably not much here for those that already know about the topic, but if you don’t or are still confused by the Great Vowel Shift, it’s well worth a listen.
Twenty Words We (Probably) Don’t Owe to William Shakespeare
A 31 January posting on the Mental Floss website has been making the rounds of Facebook and other social media sites. The post, by Roma Panganiban, lists twenty words that Shakespeare allegedly coined. The post is unadulterated bardolatry. Yes, Shakespeare was the greatest English playwright and a pretty darn good poet as well, but he was not a literary superman, and claims that he coined thousands of words have been around for years. Panganiban claims some “2200 never-before-seen words” that can be attributed to Shakespeare, although I have no idea where she gets this number.Read the rest of the article...
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