I am loathe to criticize anyone but . . .

I have a somewhat respectable day job in which I’m supposed to oversee a couple dozen highly experienced writers.  In the past week, two different writers have sent me emails containing a sentence like the following:

I am loathe to make any changes to the content at this late date.

I generally don’t like pointing out mistakes in emails.  We’re always writing fast; we don’t don’t have time to go back and edit what we’ve written.  But for some reason I decided to point out to one of the writers that the word she should have used was loath.  She responded:

I’m so sorry!  I thought both words were one in the same.

One in the same!  I started to get a pit in my stomach.  Was the language changing without my even noticing?  Or should I start getting more persnickety about emails?

Boston accents

I have never lived more than twenty miles away from Boston.  I was born and raised there.  I went to high school in the Boston neighborhood known as Dawchestuh — the same school where Whitey Bulger’s brother, Billy Bulger, also went.  (In Boston, Dorchester Avenue is invariably referred to in speech as “Dot Ave.”)  When I went off to college, I manage to travel all the way to Cambridge, one city to the north, where I once actually did pahk my cah in Hahvid Yahd.  (That’s not really a thing they let you do.)

When people become aware of this sad fact about me, their first response is usually: “But you don’t have a Boston accent!”  And that’s true.  But, like any Bostonian, I notice when actors don’t get the accent right.  Which is more often than not.  But it’s never been clear to me that this is because the accent is, well, hahd, or because I’m just so attuned to it.  Do people from Louisiana grouse about the accents in True Detective?  What do folks from Baltimore think when they watch The Wire?

Here’s an interview with a Boston-area casting director (about fifteen minutes into the episode), who says the Boston accent is one of the hardest ones to get right.  But I think she underestimates the difficulty in a few ways:

  • She says most actors, like Jack Nicholson in The Departed, are inconsistent about dropping their R’s.  But I think sometimes actors are too consistent.  The casting director herself pronounced lots of R’s, but she was consistent in saying “hahd” and “heah”, which is what you want.
  • She neglects to mention another aspect of the Boston accent — putting in R’s where they don’t belong.  This is the biggest temptation I have: for example, my first instinct is to say “I sawr it” instead of “I saw it.”   (I can remember way back when I was learning to read, being puzzled when I saw that sentence in print for the first time — what happened to the R that I clearly heard everyone say?)  A somewhat lesser temptation is to say “dater” instead of “data”.
  • Finally, there’s more than one Boston accent.  In movies you typically hear the straight-on streets-of-Southie accent.  The actress who plays the wife on Ray Donovan does a good version of this (she’s from Belfast).  The Kennedys, of course, have their own weird version of the accent.  And there’s a different patrician version that you don’t hear much anymore.  But most people I know just have the merest trace of an accent — just enough to make it clear where they’re from.

Although most of my novels are set in or around Boston or have Boston characters, I’ve never been tempted to try to do a Boston accent in print.  Just too distracting for the reader.  You just have to imagine the accent is there.

That thing kids do? Where they seem to put a question mark at the end of every sentence? It has a name!


Maybe everyone else but me knows this?  Apparently it’s a phenomenon studied in organizations like the Acoustical Society of America?  This report seems to suggest that it’s still predominantly a Southern California thing:

Uptalk is looking more and more like part of a widespread Southern Californian dialect. To avoid misunderstandings, it may be wise to accept that. Amanda Ritchart, who admits to some uptalking herself, says that when Southern Californians speak to outsiders, they may “come across as ditzy or stupid or maybe unassertive or timid or something.” But, she says, “Because everyone does it, obviously that’s not true. And that’s why it kind of helps to break those stereotypes. We’re not confused. We’re not stupid. We just talk like that.”

From my East Coast vantage point, uptalk occurs more in women than men, more in the young than the old, but it’s hardly confined to people from Southern California.

The researcher also made this interesting point:

Ritchart’s research also identified a clear difference in tone between when a So Cal English speaker asks a question or makes a statement, even though both have a rise at the end. The rise in a statement comes later than the rise for a question. Though you might not catch that as an outsider, its clear to another uptalker.

Well, if you say so.  As I mentioned before, sometimes an uptalker needs to add the words “question mark” at the end of a sentence to clarify her meaning.  For which I’m grateful?

h/t Jeff

Language Peevery

The Atlantic reports on the latest outrage: Google recognizes that literally is often used to mean figuratively in informal speech.

In August, the outcry began. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked The Guardian. The Web site io9 announced “literally the greatest lexicographical travesty of our time,” while The Week bemoaned “the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done.” The offense? Google’s second definition of the word literally, which had been posted on Reddit: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

Here’s the offending entry.  You actually have to click the “more” down arrow to view the Informal definition.


I hadn’t realized that Google now includes a use-over-time graph, previously available only via their Ngram Viewer.  What a great idea!  The graph shows the problem: our use of the word keeps increasing, which means “incorrect” uses are increasing as well.  Which annoys the language snoots.  We like literally!

The article includes a good quote from Steven Pinker:

“There’s probably also a feeling of anxiety when a shared standard appears to be threatened,” explains Steven Pinker, a language expert and psychology professor at Harvard. “Human cooperation depends on common knowledge of arbitrary norms, which can suddenly unravel. If the norms of language were truly regulated by an authority, this would be a concern. In fact, they emerge by a self-adjusting consensus.”

These arbitrary norms persist as what Wilson Follett called “shibboleths” — norms or principles that are useful only in distinguishing the “insiders” from the “outsiders”.  We know the real meaning of literally, even if you unwashed peasants persist in misusing it.

Because grammar! Because Internet!

Here’s a linguistic development that so far seems to be confined to the Internet: the evolution of the word “because” into a preposition, typically used ironically. The Atlantic has a nice article about the phenomenon. The article refers to it as “explanation by way of Internet—explanation that maximizes efficiency and irony in equal measure.”

I’m late because YouTube. You’re reading this because procrastination. As the language writer Stan Carey delightfully sums it up: “‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar.”

The article notes that the usage conveys “a certain universality”:

When I say, for example, “The talks broke down because politics,” I’m not just describing a circumstance. I’m also describing a category. I’m making grand and yet ironized claims, announcing a situation and commenting on that situation at the same time. I’m offering an explanation and rolling my eyes—and I’m able to do it with one little word. Because variety. Because Internet. Because language.

This is a usage that currently feels too specialized to appear in everyday language or formal writing.  But it’s wonderful in the right context.

What’s your favorite new word? Selfie? Twerking?

The OED has named selfie its word of the year for 2013.

The publisher of the Oxford dictionaries said Tuesday that ‘‘selfie’’ saw a huge jump in usage in the past year, bursting from the confines of Instagram and Twitter to become mainstream shorthand for any self-taken photograph.

But the other finalists are also fine words in their own right:

The term beat other buzzwords including ‘‘twerk,’’ the sexually provocative dance move that got a huge boost in usage thanks to an attention-grabbing performance by pop star Miley Cyrus; ‘‘showrooming,’’ the practice of visiting a shop to look at a product before buying it online at a lower price; and ‘‘Bitcoin,’’ the digital currency that gained widespread media attention.

Also making the shortlist was ‘‘binge-watch,’’ a verb that describes watching many episodes of a TV show in rapid succession.

I’ll confess that I haven’t twerked, but the other words have all become part of my life.  One son posted a selfie on Facebook after he shaved off his beard. The other son has bought a Bitcoin, which is currently showing a 1000% profit; we had an interesting discussion about Bitcoin’s liquidity and volatility — how did he get so smart?  My lovely wife and I were showrooming for TVs at Best Buy recently.  And then there was the evening we were watching our third straight episode of “Homeland,” and we said to each other, “There’s got to be a word for what we’re doing….”

It’s interesting that WordPress’s spelling dictionary recognizes none of these brave new words.  Catch up with the times, WordPress!

Behind the gun

At work today, someone said “We’re really behind the gun on this project.”  Hmm. We all got the idea, but the idiom wasn’t quite right. Seems like a mixture of “under the gun” and “behind the eight ball.”

It’s hard to tell from Google how common this usage is, since there are movies and songs that include the words “behind the gun.”  But it’s not uncommon.  For example:

But what if we’re behind the gun, people are coming over tonight and we have a full day of work ahead of us?

This sort of thing has a name: an idiom blend.  This post gives some other examples: page-burner, “It’s not rocket surgery,” “That’s the way the cookie bounces.”  Lots of these are funny malapropisms, but “behind the gun” isn’t quite that bad.  Like “I have a pit in my stomach,” it may even work its way into standard usage.

Punctuation marks as words slash sounds slash gestures

Young people nowadays?  They end their sentences with a rising intonation?  So that every sentence sounds sort of like a question?

So, I was listening to a woman on a podcast, and she was describing her mixed feelings about a movie:

“I liked it — question mark?”

She felt the need to verbalize the punctuation mark, because her typical speech pattern couldn’t convey her doubt about whether she actually liked the movie — because every sentence she spoke seemed to convey a bit of doubt anyway.

Another punctuation mark that gets verbalized is the slash used as a conjunction, as in “I walked/ran all the way home.”  But I hadn’t realized how far this had gone until my son sent me this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Slash has become a word used in everyday writing as well as speech — a new conjunction or conjunctive adverb.  The following usage is straightforward: the word is just substituting for the punctuation mark:

Does anyone care if my cousin comes and visits slash stays with us Friday night?

But the following usage, as the author points out, is more interesting:

I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?

Or even:

JUST SAW ALEX! Slash I just chubbed on oatmeal raisin cookies at north quad and i miss you

Here slash has wandered far from the standard use of the equivalent punctuation mark.  It is introducing an afterthought or topic shift, without much in the way of a relationship to the previous sentence.  That’s super-cool and awesome!  (The word chubbed is also super-cool and awesome, by the way.)

The writer concludes:

The emergence of a new conjunction/conjunctive adverb (let alone one stemming from a punctuation mark) is like a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language. This use of slash is so commonplace for students in my class that they almost forgot to mention it as a new slang word this term. That young people have integrated innovative slash into their language while barely noticing its presence is all the more reason that conjunctive slash might have staying power.

All of this reminded me of Victor Borge’s famous phonetic pronunciation routine, which YouTube kindly provides:

Life would be much more interesting if we all talked like that.

Is that province “restive” or “resistive”?

A Washington Post article reprinted in today’s Boston Globe refers to Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province as resistive.  But the same article in the Post itself uses the more expected word restive.  What’s up with that?

Restive is a tough word–it provides you with two different ways to get it wrong.  Language mavens will tell us that it isn’t a synonym for restless–it means “difficult to control,” not “fidgety.”  But I’ve also seen it used as a synonym for restful.  Here, for example, we have an online thread about what to do when you’re able to get to sleep but your sleep isn’t “restive.”

The Globe seems to want to eliminate the confusion by changing the word to resistive, presumably meaning resistant, which I suppose also fits Baluchistan.  The dictionary will give you that definition for resistive, but it seems to be used that way mostly in technical contexts.  Of course maybe the Globe didn’t make the change.  It’s also possible the writers themselves used resistive; the Post corrected it, but the Globe didn’t bother.  Either way, this is probably one of those substitutions that show a word is on the way out.  The Google Ngram Viewer tells us that restive peaked in popularity around 1930 and has been on a downward slide ever since.  It’s a useful word, but it’s time may have passed.

As they are want to do

I came across this mangling of the standard “as they are wont to do” in an award-winning book published by a mainstream publisher and written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.  (On the same page “pretension” came out “pretention.”)  I don’t recall encountering this usage before, but a Google search turns up 382,000 of ’em.  Plus 2.6 million occurrences of its cousin “as is their want”–this one actually outpolls “as is their wont,” which garners only 558,000 usages. (Google helpfully asks me if it didn’t really mean to search for “as is their want.”)  So this is an idiom that seems to be having an identity crisis.  I have a pit in my stomach just thinking about it.