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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.

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Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook, has been generating a ton of buzz in its brief invitation-only phase. That’s about all I know about it; I’ve intentionally been avoiding investigating further. It doesn’t have FarmVille, so what’s the point? But I’m on Twitter too much to avoid Google+ entirely. I’d been getting 140-character updates about its importance or awesomeness from a variety of sources, but what finally got me to look into it was an update from an unexpected quarter: Ben Zimmer, with a tweet about the morphology of +1.

The +1 button on Google and Google+ is basically a generalization of Facebook’s “Like” button, indicating “what you like, agree with, or recommend on the web.” The trouble is that users are going to want to use +1 in more general contexts, treating the word* +1 as a stand-alone noun, verb, and so on. This already happened with Facebook’s Like, and there it was a pretty seamless process, since the new meaning of like could piggy-back on the morphology of the existing word like, resulting in likes, liked, liking, etc.

+1 doesn’t have this same ability, at least in text. Plus-one exists as a word in English, referring to “A person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited” (OED) — e.g., your date for an event. This word has its morphology basically worked out (plus-ones is used in the OED’s first attestation, back in 1977, and here’s an example of “plus-oned the alloys”, whatever that means). The trouble, though, is that the word isn’t written plus-one; it’s written +1. The pronounced forms are all worked out, but the written form is unestablished.

Credit is due to Google for recognizing this and wanting to establish the conventions. In their +1 help, they explain their spelling conventions, in which the morphologically complex forms are formed with apostrophes — +1’s, +1’d, +1’ing — rather than the plain forms +1s, +1d, +1ing. In so doing, they raised the hackles of some grammarians, so let’s look at each of the forms individually to try to explain the choice.

+1’s. Apostrophe-s is a standard way to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms, or abbreviations. This introduces ambiguity with the possessive form, but it avoids other ambiguities (such as pluralized a looking like the word as) and often looks better (I think Ph.D.s looks weird). Thus we see mind your p’s and q’s, multiple Ph.D.’s, and Rolling 7’s and 11’s. +1 ends in a numeral, so it’s not unusual to write it as +1’s instead of +1s, although either is acceptable. (For more on apostrophes in plurals, see this old post.)

+1’d. Apostrophe-d for the past tense is not as common as apostrophe-s for the plural, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Fowler’s Modern English Usage favors it for words ending in a fully pronounced vowel — forming mustachio’d instead of mustachioed, for example — in order to avoid a strange collocation of vowels clogging the end of the word. However, this appears to be a minority position; mustachioed generates about 35 times more Google hits than mustachio’d.

"Wait, lads! Am I being shanghaied or shanghai'd?"

Apostrophe-d used to be a more general suffix, up until around the middle of the 19th century (judging by the Corpus of Historical American English). In Middle English, the -ed suffix was always pronounced with the vowel, and in Early Modern English, the vowel was optional in some words where today it is obligatorily omitted. If you’ve ever heard someone described as learned, pronounced /learn-ED/ instead of /learnd/, you’ve seen one of the few remaining vestiges of this alternation. With variation, it was useful to have different written forms to indicate whether the vowel was pronounced or not.

I first learned of this reading a Shakespeare play in which certain words were written as, for instance, blessèd, with an accent indicating that the second e was to be pronounced so that the meter of teh line was correct. To clarify cases where the vowel was not to be pronounced, poets and playwrights would sometimes vanish the e into an apostrophe. This edition of Hamlet, for instance, includes both drowned and drown’d on the same page when different characters are talking about the death of Ophelia:

Queen: Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Clown: Argal, she drowned herself willingly.

But historical usage is dead, so perhaps the more relevant comparision is looking at other numerical verbs. The only one that’s coming to my mind is 86, meaning to eject or reject something. Looking around, I see both 86’d and 86ed used, with 86’d appearing to be a bit more common. The Wikipedia entry for 86 only has 86’d attested, and there’s also a book titled 86’d. At the very least, 86’d is an acceptable variant, and seemingly the more common as well. In that case, it’s not surprising that Google would choose +1’d over +1ed or +1d.

+1’ing. Lastly, we have the present participle. There isn’t a historical component to this usage like there was for the past tense. The apostrophe-ing form is attested for 86, appearing in the book Repeat Until Rich, but 86ing without the apostrophe looks to be a little bit more common on the web as a whole.** The trouble is that 86(‘)ing just isn’t well-attested in either form. Unlike the plural and past tense, there isn’t much of a precedent for apostrophe-ing, and in fact there doesn’t seem to be much of a precedent for the present participle of a numeral in general. I think that the choice to include the apostrophe in the present participle was made strictly for consistency’s sake; I doubt many people would prefer the paradigm +1’s, +1’d, +1ing to the more consistent one they chose.

The future. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what Google says, just as it doesn’t really matter what Strunk & White or Fowler or I or any other language commentator says. Language is what people do with it. Personally, I suspect that the apostrophes will disappear fairly quickly. Even in typing this, I kept on being annoyed that I had to send a finger out in search of an apostrophe. When you’re writing something often, you want to toss out unnecessary stuff — Facebook is a good example of this; when I first ended up on it back in 2004, you still had to type thefacebook.com to get to it, but that unnecessary the was quickly lost. As people become more familiar and comfortable with +1 and its inflected forms, the need (and the desire) for the apostrophes will ebb, and I think we’ll see +1s dominate. In fact, even typing +1 is kind of a pain (I keep accidentally typing +!), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see plus-ones, or even pluses, eventually become the standard.

*: I’m going to call +1 a word in this post, though you may find it more of a phrase. The key point is that it has a specific meaning that is not a simple sum of its component morphemes (plus and one), and that makes it word-like for my purposes.

**: 86’ing doesn’t appear in the Google N-grams corpus, suggesting it appeared less than 40 times in a trillion words. 86ing appears there with 962 hits.

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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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