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It’s a dark night; you’re in an unfamiliar city, slightly lost, but pretty sure you’ll know where you are if you just get to the next corner. The streets are quiet. A stranger steps out of the gloom in front of you, and announces that certain words don’t mean what you think they mean. They’re words that you use but have never really felt comfortable with, words that you use mostly because you’ve heard them in set phrases, words like plethora.

Plethora, you wonder, could it be I’m using it wrong? That niggling uncertainty kicks in, the same niggling uncertainty that’s pushed you to educate yourself all these years. It creeps further, darkening your mind. Have I been using words wrong? Your breath quickens — how many others have thought heard me say them before this stranger came up and told me I was wrong? Have I used one of them lately?  Have I been judged? Your pulse races. Did I just say one? — is, is that why this stranger materialized to announce it was wrong?

The stranger says more words are being used wrong, by others, by you. These words are more common, common enough to be known but not common enough to be well-known: myriad, enormity. Oh God, you think, I’ve used those words in business writing! The uncertainty changes into certainty, certainty that you are wrong, and worse, that people know it. Important people know it. That’s why you haven’t been promoted, it’s why your friends were laughing that one time and didn’t say why. The stranger has you now. The stranger knows the dark spots on your soul. The stranger is almost touching you now, so close, so close. Your eyes meet. The stranger’s eyes widen; this is it, the final revelation.  Do you dare listen?  You can’t listen, you must listen:

“And you’re using allow wrong, too!”

At which point the spell is broken — because c’mon, you’re not using allow wrong. You’d definitely have noticed that. You push the stranger out of the way, and realize your hotel’s just on the next block.

In the unfamiliar city of the Internet, I encountered such a stranger: Niamh Kinsella, writer of the listicle “14 words you’ve been using incorrectly this whole time“. Kinsella argues that your usage doesn’t fit with the true definition of these words, by which she usually means an early, obsolete, or technical meaning of the word.

Her first objection is to plethora, which she defines as “negative word meaning a glut of fluid”. And so it was in the 1500s, when it entered the language as a medical term. This medical meaning persists in the present day, but additional figurative meanings branched off of it long ago — so long ago, in fact, that one of the meanings branched off, flourished for 200 years, and still had enough time to fade into obsolescence by now. The extant figurative meaning, the one that most everyone means when they use plethora, is antedated to 1835 by the Oxford English Dictionary, at which point it was usually a bad thing (“suffering under a plethora of capital”, the OED quotes). But by 1882 we see the modern neutral usage: “a perfect plethora of white and twine-colored thick muslin”.

The second objection is to myriad, and here Kinsella deviates by ignoring the early usage. She hectors: “It’s an adjective meaning countless and infinite. As it’s an adjective, it’s actually incorrect to say myriad of.” But in fact myriad entered English as a noun, either as a transliteration of the Greek term for “ten thousand”, or as an extension of that very large number to mean “an unspecified very large number” (both forms are antedated by the OED to the same 1555 work). The adjectival form doesn’t actually appear until two centuries later, the 1700s. Both nominal and adjectival forms have been in use from their inception to the present day; claiming that one or the other is the only acceptable form is just silly.*

There’s no point in continuing this after the third objection, which is to using allow in cases that do not involve the explicit granting of permission. To give you an idea of what folly this is, think of replacements for allows in a supposedly objectionable sentence like “A functional smoke alarm allows me to sleep peacefully.” The first ones that come to my mind are lets, permits, gives me the ability, and enables. That’s the sign of a solid semantic shift; four of my top five phrasings of the sentence are all verbs of permission with the permission shifted to enablement. Kinsella herself has no beef with it when she isn’t aiming to object, judging by her lack of objection to an article headlined “Are we allowed optimism now?”.

This enablement usage isn’t new, either; the OED cites “His condition would not allow of his talking longer” from 1732. (Permit without permission is antedated even further back, to 1553.) This oughtn’t even to be up for debate; even if it were completely illogical — which, as an example of consistent semantic drift, it’s not — the fact that it is so standard in English means that it is, well, standard. It is part of English, and no amount of insisting that it oughtn’t to makes a difference. It’s similar to the occasional objection I see to Aren’t I?: even if I agreed it didn’t make sense, virtually every (non-Scottish/Irish) English speaker uses it in place of amn’t I?, so it’s right. End of discussion.

Why do we fall for this over and over again? Why do we let people tell us what language is and isn’t based on assertions that never have any references (Kinsella cites no dictionaries) and rarely hold up to cursory investigation? I don’t know, but my guess is that it appeals to that universal mixture of insecurity and vanity that churns inside each of us.

We are convinced that we must be doing everything wrong, or — and perhaps worse — that we’re doing most things right but there’s some unexpected subset of things that we have no idea we’re doing wrong. So if someone tells us we’re wrong, especially if they candy coat it by saying that it’s not our fault, that everyone’s wrong on this, well, we just assume that our insecurities were right — i.e, that we were wrong. But then, aware of this new secret knowledge, these 14 weird tricks of language use, our vanity kicks in. Now we get to be the ones to tell others they’re wrong. Knowing these shibboleths gives you the secret knowledge of the English Illuminati. Between our predisposition to believe we’re wrong, our desire to show others up by revealing they’re wrong, and our newfound membership in this elite brotherhood, what incentive do we have to find out that these rules are hogwash? All that comes out of skepticism is, well, this: me, sitting on my laptop, writing and rewriting while the sun creeps across a glorious sky on a beautiful day that I could have been spending on the patio of my favorite coffee shop, approaching my fellow patrons, dazzling them with my new conversation starter: “I bet you use plethora wrong. Allow me to explain.”

*: In fact, Kinsella undermines her own definition of “countless and infinite” in her supposedly correct example by using “countless and infinite” to describe the finite set of stars in the universe, so maybe she’s just in love with the sound of her own hectoring.

I have it on bad authority that English has died. You may have heard the linguistic Chicken Littles milling about Internet, each trying to come up with a more hyperbolic statement about the death of the language — or perhaps even society as a whole — because twerk is now a real word”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Ben Zimmer has a nice run-down of this “perfect lexicographical storm”, and if you’ve been lucky enough to have missed out on it, let me offer a few sample Tweets:

The last one’s best because it really couldn’t be more wrong. No one has the power to make something “officially” a word,* and it wasn’t the Oxford English Dictionary but the Oxford Dictionaries Online that added these entries. (The differences between the OED and ODO are detailed here.) I mean, seriously, if you’re going to lecture someone, can’t you at least put in the little effort it takes to be right?

For some reason, many media outlets can’t, at least not when they’ve got new dictionary entries on the brain. The wrong dictionary is cited, the new entries are never read,** and the purpose of a dictionary is always misunderstood — which is to record common words, not exclude them.

In light of all the misinformation out there, let’s calm down and look at what’s actually happened, why it’s happened, and what it means.

What has happened? The Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), in one of their quarterly updates, added a set of new definitions to their online dictionary, including ones for emoji, cake pop, and, yes, twerk. The ODO “offers guidance on how the English language is used today, based on the Oxford English Corpus. Words can be removed when they are no longer used”, as noted on their page explaining that the ODO and OED are not the same thing.

Nothing has “become a word”, nothing has been “officially” recognized, nor “added to the language”. One dictionary — one that focuses on contemporary usage — has added these words so that people who are unaware of them or unaware of how they’re used (me, in cases like balayage) can find out from a more reliable source than Urban Dictionary. The words already existed and were in common enough use that a group of lexicographers decided that their definitions should be noted and made available.

Why did this happen? Angus Stevenson explains in the ODO announcement:

“New words, senses, and phrases are added to Oxford Dictionaries Online when we have gathered enough independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English. […] Each month, we add about 150 million words to our corpus database of English usage examples collected from sources around the world. We use this database to track and verify new and emerging words and senses on a daily basis.”

These words were added for one reason: they are currently sufficiently common that the lexicographers at ODO feel it will be useful for people to be able to find out what these words mean and how they are used. This does not imply that the lexicographers like or dislike these words, nor that they want to see them used more or less. In the same way that a meteorologist is compelled to state the expected weather regardless of whether they’d prefer something else, so too are the lexicographers bound to the language we give them, like it or lump it.***

['conk' in my desk dictionary]

A century ago, conk could have been a contentious addition, yet within a decade of its appearance, Rudyard Kipling was using it.

What does it mean? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that these words are in “the dictionary”, because there is no “the” dictionary; there are a wide range of dictionaries, with different purposes and different criteria for adding entries. There is no central authority on English, so nothing’s ever “officially” a word or not. It also doesn’t mean that you have to like these words, nor that you have to use them or understand them. It doesn’t mean that all future dictionaries will now be forced to include these words in perpetuity, regardless of the lifespan of the words.

English is the same today as was two days ago; it’s just a little better documented. The ODO’s update means that if you choose to use these words, other people will be able to find out what they mean, and if other people choose to use them, you will be able to find out what they mean. For the words that show staying power, more and more dictionaries will contain them, and those words that don’t will disappear. (The OED does not remove words once they’re in, but many dictionaries do, including the ODO at the center of the current dust-up.)

Lastly, if you’re worried that defining selfie and supercut and their ilk makes our generation look silly, or self-involved, or obsessed with stupid Internet trifles, well, maybe we are. Change begins at home; stop clicking on cat videos and waging arguments through memes. Stop making Miley Cyrus the top news story in place of Syria and the NSA and things that matter. Talk about ideas instead of contrived distractions. Dictionaries are reflections of our time; one can’t blame the mirror for an ugly face.

[A disclaimer: I am a linguist, not a lexicographer. If you are a lexicographer, we’d all love to hear any additional insights you have, and of course, please correct me if I’ve mischaracterized anything. If you are not a lexicographer but are interested in hearing more about lexicography, you can’t go wrong with Ben Zimmer’s or Kory Stamper’s writings.]


*: This whole idea of “X is (not) a word” doesn’t even make sense anyway — see discussions by Arnold Zwicky and Stan Carey. A word is a word if it is used with a consistent meaning by some group of language users. For linguists, we have different possible definitions of a word (orthographic words, phonological words, etc.), so the matter’s actually pretty complicated — are idioms words, for instance?

**: In 2011, the actual OED did add a new entry for heart, v., based on its slang usage for “love”. The OED’s announcement noted the new form derived in part from the famous “I♥NY” logo, but nowhere in the entry does ♥ or <3 appear. That didn't stop Time, the Daily Mail, and many others from claiming that the OED had added its first graphical/symbolic entry and clucking their tongues as expected.

***: My impression is that lexicographers like more than they lump, as you can tell from the excitement of their update announcement.

People pop in fairly regularly to complain about “one of the only”, which I’m just really not that interested in. Usually the complaints are in response to my argument a few years ago that it was perfectly grammatical and interpretable (specifically rebutting Richard Lederer’s silly claim that only is equivalent to one and therefore is inappropriate for referring to multiple items). I haven’t gotten as many only=one complaints lately, but I’ve now received a new objection, presented as part of a comment by Derek Schmidt:

When [only] precedes a noun used in plural, it implies that there are no other similar items that belong to the list. “The only kinds of writing utensils on my desk are pencils and pens and highlighters.” […] But I have many of those pens, so if someone asked if they could borrow a pen, and I said, “No, that’s one of the only writing utensils on my desk!” that would be a little disingenuous and if someone was standing at my desk and saw the number of writing utensils, they would be baffled and think me a fool. Rightly so. Because they would understand it (logically, even) as meaning “that’s one of the few”, which is very false. So… “one of the only” means about as much as “one of them”.

To buttress his point, he referred me to a grammar column in the Oklahoman, which I never grow tired of noting was once called the “Worst Newspaper in America” by the Columbia Journalism Review. That was 14 years ago now, and I sometimes wonder if it is fair to keep bringing this up. Then I read Gene Owens’s grammar column in it and I wish the CJR had been harsher.*

About one example of “one of the only”, Owens writes:

“Now I can understand if he were the only English speaker or if he were only one of a few English speakers,” Jerry said, “but I don’t know how he could be one of the only English speakers.” That’s easy, Jerry. If he was any English speaker at all, he was one of the only English speakers in the area. In fact, he was one of the only English speakers in the world. […] The TV commentator probably meant “one of the few English speakers in the area.” But even if the colonel was “one of the many English speakers in the area,” he still was one of the only ones.

It continues on in this vein for a while, and but his point seems to be approximately the same as Schmidt’s, boiling down to the following statements:

  • It is grammatical to say “one of the only”.
  • It is used regularly in place of “one of the few”.
  • Examining it literally, one could say “one of the only” to describe something that there are many of.
  • This would be a strange situation to use it in.
  • Therefore “one of the only” oughtn’t be used in the case where it wouldn’t be strange.

Up till the last sentence, I agree. In fact, I don’t think any of those points are controversial.** But the last sentence is a big leap, and one that we demonstrably don’t make in language. Would it be silly of me to say:

(1) I have three hairs on my head.

Thankfully I’m still young and hirsute enough to have many more than three hairs on my head, and I think we’d all agree it would be a silly statement. But, parsing it literally, it is true: I do have three hairs on my head, though in addition I have another hundred thousand. In case this is such a weird setting that you don’t agree it’s literally true, here’s another example:

(2) Some of the tomatoes I purchased are red.

If I show you the bin of cherry tomatoes I just bought, and they’re all red, am I lying? No, not literally. But I am being pragmatically inappropriate — you expect “some” to mean “some but not all”, just as you expect “three” to generally mean “three and no more”. These are examples of what’s known as a scalar implicature: we expect people to use the most restrictive form available (given their knowledge of the world), even though less restrictive forms may be consistent too.***

To return to Schmidt’s example, it may be truthful but absurd to protest that one of 30 pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”. But just because the truth value is the same when I protest that one of two pens on my desk is “one of my only pens”, this doesn’t mean that the pragmatic appropriateness doesn’t change either. Upon hearing “one of the only”, the listener knows, having never really heard this used to mean “one of many”, that pragmatically it will mean “one of the (relatively) few”.

There is, perhaps, nothing in the semantics to block its other meanings, but no one ever uses it as such, just as no one ever says they have three hairs when they have thousands. This is a strong constraint on the construction, one that people on both sides of the argument can agree on. I guess the difference is whether you view this usage restriction as evidence of people’s implicit linguistic knowledge (as I do) or as evidence of people failing to understand their native language (as Schmidt & Owens do).

Finally, and now I’m really splitting hairs, I’m not convinced that “one of the only” can always be replaced by “one of the few”, as the literalists suggest. If we’re being very literal, at what point do we have to switch off of few? I wouldn’t have a problem with saying “one of the only places where you can buy Cherikee Red“, even if there are hundreds of such stores, because relative to the number of stores that don’t sell it, they’re few. But saying “one of the few” when there’s hundreds? It doesn’t bother me, but I’d think it’d be worse to a literalist than using “one of the only”, whose only problem is that it is too true.

Summary: If a sentence could theoretically be used to describe a situation but is never used to describe such a situation, that doesn’t mean that the sentence is inappropriate or ungrammatical. It means that people have strong pragmatic constraints blocking the usage, exactly the sort of thing that we need to be aware of in a complete understanding of a language.


*: I am being unfair. Owens’s column is at least imaginative, and has an entire town mythos built up over the course of his very short columns. But I never understand what grammatical point he’s trying to make in them, and as far as I can tell, I’d disagree with it if I did. As for the “worst newspaper” claim, this was largely a result of the ownership of the paper by the Gaylord family, who thankfully sold it in 2011, though the CJR notes it’s still not great.

**: Well, it might be pragmatically appropriate to use “one of the few” in cases where the number of objects is large in absolute number but small relative to the total, such as speaking about a subset of rocks on the beach or something.  I’m not finding a clear example of this, but I don’t want to rule it out.

***: Scalar implicatures were first brought to my attention when one of my fellow grad students (now a post-doc at Yale), Kate Davidson, was investigating them in American Sign Language. Here’s an (I hope fairly accessible and interesting) example of her research in ASL scalar implicature.

If you haven’t already heard, Texas’s state senate was engaged in a political thriller last night. I was able to catch the last 40 or so minutes of its livestream, riding that delightful roller-coaster of modern politics that trundles from dim optimism that something good will happen to the crushing realization that the deck has been stacked against it so thoroughly that you can only hope to minimize your losses.

Well, thankfully, there was a substantial group of state senators who managed to lack such pessimism and who stood up to do right by their constituents. Literally, in the case of Sen. Wendy Davis, who began a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill 13 hours before the special session was set to end at midnight. By rule, she had to keep talking throughout, stopping only to take questions. She was not allowed to sit, lean against a desk, leave the floor, or eat. None of this “silent” filibuster garbage of the federal senate: no, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, wreck-your-body-because-you-believe-in-what’s-right dedication.

What I hope becomes an iconic picture of this event.

Sen. Tommy Williams couldn’t have looked more like a political caricature while arguing for a second strike against Davis’s filibuster because another member helped her adjust her back brace. [Photo: Patrick Michels, Texas Observer]

Davis made it ten hours before getting three strikes on her filibuster. Other senators took over, stalling until 11:45, when the Republican majority managed to trigger a vote to trigger a vote on the contemptible SB 5. With this first vote passed and the bill’s passage imminent, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte challenged the first vote on the basis of her having an outstanding inquiry at the time of the vote, a challenge the Senate president overruled by noting that he had not recognized her inquiry.

With calm fury reminiscent of Joe Welch, she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” The gallery erupted in cheers that continued for the last fifteen minutes of the day, a cacophony that prevented the final roll-call vote from happening until after the midnight deadline. It was powerful stuff, and my eyes welled more than once throughout it.

But this is a grammar blog, and I wouldn’t bring this up unless there was a grammatical discussion to be had. Let’s go back to the second of the three strikes against Davis’s filibuster, the objection I’ve included Patrick Michels’s excellent picture of above. Claire Cardona wrote at the Dallas Morning News’s filibuster liveblog:

“Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order on the filibuster because Davis had help from Sen. Ellis to readjust her back brace. […] but Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, brings up a part in the rules that would permit Davis to sit. […] Zaffirini notes that the rules said ‘may not lean on his desk, his chair, and that note doesnt apply to Sen. Davis.'”

The rule in question, which I think is Senate Rule 4.01 [PDF, p. 8-9], reads:

“When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a motion to re-refer a bill, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean thereon (61 S.J. Reg. 1760, 1762 (1969)).
When a member has the floor and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair (61 S.J. Reg. 1059 (1969)).”

Of course, we all know what is meant there, that the intended interpretation is gender-neutral he. We see such usages regularly, probably think little of it, and move on. To claim that the use of he in this rule means it doesn’t apply to a woman is crazy, surely.

Or is it? During a filibuster, pedantry is everywhere. I learned but one thing from the time I volunteered at a Model Congress convention: intent and common usage mean little as the parliamentarian sifts through Robert’s Rules of Order to decide which of the fourteen simultaneous objections takes precedence over the rest. Grammatical pedantry, so often out of place, is only fair in this situation.

[Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and guests unveiling a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case]

The Canadian “Persons Case”, in which women were suing to be granted the right to be appointed to the Senate, depended in part on whether he included women. The legal gender-neutrality of he had in fact been specified in 1889’s Interpretation Act.

I’m no legal expert, and I’m certainly not an expert at what terminological choices are taken as given in the Texas Senate rulebook, so take this discussion with a grain of salt. But Zaffirini’s argument isn’t without merit. I found no declaration at any point in the Senate Rules that he is to be assumed as gender-neutral. In fact, there are eight instances of “his or her” in the rules — one occurring in the first sentence of Rule 4.01, the very rule being debated. If he is understood to be gender-neutral in the third and fourth sentences of Rule 4.01, why is he insufficient in the first?*

I wrote last year about how such uncertainty of the interpretation of gender-neutrality on the male pronoun in governmental settings was not a new concern: even the first U.S. Congress, in 1790, used “he or she” in some of their bills. It’s all hair-splitting, of course, but it’s a hair that may need to be split. When the issue at hand is so entwined with gender, maybe it’s a good time to examine our assumptions, starting with a little pronoun.


*: Possibly because the third and fourth sentences are based on 1969 formulations and the first sentence isn’t. But are Senate rules to be interpreted diachronically or synchronically?

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About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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