Express Yourself

Other languages have polite second-person pronouns. English used to have one, too.

Two people aiming flashlight at each other at night on the street.

If you studied French at school, you may recall the mild culture shock that comes with learning the second-person pronouns. Tu and vous both translate as “you,” but can’t be used interchangeably. Provided you’re speaking to one person, you have the rather dicey task of assessing how formal you should be with your addressee, taking into account their age and status, as well as how familiar you are with them. This would seem cut and dry if you were talking to a toddler or a tax collector, but consider, for example, a co-worker who is close to you in age

Express Yourself

Why we should take a red pen to ‘The Elements of Style’ and other writing guides

Dimly lit desk with an open notebook with pencil illuminated by a lamp.

There are a handful of dates in history that mark watershed moments for the English language. The year 1066: the beginning of the Norman Conquest of Britain, which would introduce a wealth of French borrowings into what was then a purely Germanic tongue. The year 1590: Shakespeare’s first foray into playwriting. And 1959: the year that E.B. White published his revised version of William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, a work that, in the decades to come, would inform popular opinions about how to competently express oneself in writing. In particular, it triggered the phenomenon of “which-hunting,” the systematic…

The metafunctions of language and the unnecessary arguments that arise when we ignore them

In some of the world’s languages, the meaning of a word can change depending on how many times you say it. Repeating a singular noun can make it plural, as in Malay, where “batu” means stone, but “batu-batu” means stones. In Māori, this can sometimes weaken the word’s connotations, as with “wera” (heat) and “werawera” (warmth).

English words can also shift in meaning depending on the number of times you say them. Someone means “an indeterminate or hypothetical person”, until you hear it in a sentence like, “If someone notices we’re running low on toilet paper, maybe someone should write…

Why it’s so hard to agree on the past tense forms of ‘troubleshoot’, ‘gaslight’, and other common words

Girl making finger-guns at the camera, standing in front of a screen showing gameplay from ‘Space Invaders’

Imagine—or cast your mind back to—sitting an exam designed to test your knowledge of irregular past-tense verbs in English. The exercises might look something like this:

  1. Emily was so musical as a child. She ____ [teach] herself to play the piano.
  2. There was a crash of thunder, and then a bolt of lightning ____ [strike] the tower.
  3. He couldn’t connect his laptop to the WiFi, so I sat down and ____ [troubleshoot] with him.

Any intermediate learner of English will be able to tell you that (1) and (2) are taught and struck, respectively. …

One simple sentence and the centuries of language change that made it possible

If travel restrictions have eased and the hospitality sector has reopened where you live, you might have already gotten reacquainted with the jargon of Airbnb listings. It’s tricky to navigate: the word cosy, for example, may mean something along the lines of “warm and comforting”, or it could mean “not suitable for sufferers of claustrophobia or people over 5'9.”

But here’s one phrase that always means the opposite of what is written: “This house sleeps four.” Because, of course, the house doesn’t do the sleeping. The “four” do. Who’s responsible for this mixup?

It’s easy to assume it’s a recent…

The intriguing connections between what words mean and the way they sound

One of the realisations we come to as children encountering a foreign language for the first time is that the relationship between the words we use every day and their meanings is mostly arbitrary. To a young monolingual speaker of English, tree might seem like the only name one could possibly give to a large, woody plant with leaves, until they learn that the Spanish call it an árbol, the Russians a дерево (dérevo), or the Koreans a 나무 (namu). None of these words captures the sound of the wind jostling the branches of an elm or of pine needles…

This isn’t the first time English speakers have turned a common name into an epithet

Hand holding a coffee cup with a first name scribbled on it

According to the Social Security Administration, “Karen” saw one of the most dramatic decreases in popularity among baby girls’ names in the US between 2019 and 2020. No prizes for guessing why. reports that the slang usage of the name, referring to an “obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist” white woman, was one of their most viewed entries last year. This surge of interest is probably due to a particular type of viral video that has been ubiquitous throughout the pandemic: clips featuring middle-aged women railing against lockdown restrictions or having cabin fever-induced tantrums in the middle of traffic…

The original ancestor of words like ‘ageism’ and ‘heightism’ is not what you might think

I recently chanced upon this entry in The Oxford English Dictionary:

alphabetism, n. Prejudice or discrimination resulting from a person’s position on a (notional) alphabetical list; [specifically] discrimination against people whose names begin with letters from the latter part of the alphabet.

One of the sample quotations, taken from a 1989 edition of The Daily Telegraph, explains the term more explicitly:

We’ve heard of racism and sexism, let’s hear about alphabetism. Since my marriage my surname begins with W and I have become accustomed to being in the back row, and being the last on the list.

You may roll…

Why codebreaking skills are essential for mastering a language — including your mother tongue

A hand holding a pen and a line of Georgian text with one word missing.

There’s a pretty big summer event coming up, during which representatives from all over the world will congregate in one city and go head-to-head in various competitive activities to win gold, silver, or bronze medals. It was supposed to happen last year but got postponed due to the pandemic. If all goes well, though, it should be allowed to take place once again in late July.

I’m talking, of course, about the International Linguistics Olympiad. What did you think I meant?

The International Linguistics Olympiad consists of a series of problem-solving tasks aimed at secondary-school students who have performed exceptionally…

Cringe’s long journey to becoming an adjective — and a postmodern zeitgeist

Halfway through a number entitled “Beautiful Girl” from Singin’ In The Rain, the song-and-dance breaks down into a fashion-show-slash-infomercial during which the announcer rattles off a few rhyming epigrams describing the chorus girls’ attire. One of the models appears wearing a sporty minidress and holding a racket behind her head, while the disembodied voice croons, “Anyone for tennis? Well, this will make them cringe!” I, personally, cringe at the twitching limbs that suggest the actress has been holding the pose a little too long for comfort, but I’m guessing that’s not what the announcer is referring to.

It’s jarring, since…

Clare C.H.

M.A. in English Linguistics and Literature.

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