Category Archives: Language Miscellany

Muphry’s Law

You’ve likely heard of Murphy’s Law (that’s Sod’s Law, you UK lot): anything that can go wrong will. But did you know there’s an editorial version, too? Muphry’s Law is the “principle that any criticism of the speech or writing of others will itself contain at least one error of usage or spelling.” (See this article for the etymology and some fun examples.)

I’m all too aware of this phenomenon. That’s why I instituted the “My Bad!” contest.  If you spot an error anywhere on my site, I’ll reward your eagle eye with a $5 discount off your next project. ALL writers–even (especially?) editors–need editors.

Google Ngram Viewer: Now more powerful than ever

You’ve seen me use Google Ngram Viewer output before to make points about eggcorns, adverbs, and ingenuity. Earlier this month, the tool got a few welcome upgrades. You can now conduct case-insensitive searches, find all the inflections at once, and use wildcards.

Check out these blog posts from Google’s research team and The Atlantic for more information and interesting examples of how to exploit these options. A few of mine follow.

Case insensitivity: Now, instead of searching separately for aids, Aids, and AIDS, you can toggle back and forth between having them combined and separated.

aids All

aids separatedInflections: Now, instead of searching separately for different verb tenses like run, running, ran, and runs, you can toggle back and forth between having them combined and separated.


run separated

The same logic applies to adjectives like tall, taller, and tallest.


tall separated

Wildcards: Want to know which Kings are most often mentioned in books over time? Now you can, simply by adding a noun wildcard.

King All

King separatedI thoroughly recommend playing around with these new tools. Find anything interesting? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter!

For your edutainment: a listorama of libfixes!

Want to know how to make anything instantly more entertaining? Add the suffix -tainment. Spice up your boring educational materials and make them edutainment!

A liberated piece of a word that now acts as a prefix or suffix has been named a libfix. Examples abound in today’s culture. Remember Climategate? And what about Snowpocalypse–not to mention Snowmageddon!

For a fun A-Z list of libfixes, check out this post by Neal Whitman. He couldn’t come up with any for H, U, X, and Y, but commenters have suggested -holic and -umentary. Can you think of any X or Y libfixes?

Sometimes a synonym is just a synonym

Pop quiz: what’s the difference between a bag and a sack? For some amusing answers, check out this post by Allan Metcalf. The bottom line, though, is that no one agrees. Because, in my humble opinion (along with Dr. Metcalf and five of his students), they’re just synonyms. So why do we invent differences between words that actually mean the same thing?

Just as nature hates a vacuum, so language hates synonyms.

To be precise, it’s the users of language who hate exact synonyms. After all, common sense and our experience of language tell us that if there are two different words, they must refer to two different things. So when two words seem to refer to the same thing, we are inclined to invent a difference.

It all boils down to the fact that we like to rationalize things. We like nice, orderly worlds with nice, orderly words.

But sometimes a synonym is just a synonym.

Surprise! I’m a Wisconsinite. What’s your regional dialect?

(Pssst! The Constitution Day contest only has one entrant so far, and I promised three winners. That means if you submit an interesting quote or fact about the U.S. Constitution by tomorrow morning, you have a good chance of winning $17.87 off your next edit!)

A dialect is a form of language (including word choice and pronunciation) specific to a particular group. Social classes and ethnic groups can have varying dialects, but the term is most often used to refer to regional variations in language. That’s what today’s post focuses on.

People are fascinated by regional dialects. In the past few days alone, I’ve seen multiple people posting about them on Facebook. I’ve done similar quizzes in the past, but I like the two that have been floating around recently.

The first is called “What American accent do you have?” With only 11 substantive questions, it’s certainly the easiest to complete. The results were nonetheless accurate. Here’s what I got:

The Inland North. You may think you speak “Standard English straight out of the dictionary” but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like “Are you from Wisconsin?” or “Are you from Chicago?” Chances are you call carbonated drinks “pop.”

Indeed, I’ve spent most of my life so far in Wisconsin. In fact, on my first day of choir in college in Ohio, the conductor stopped us in the middle of a song to ask, “who’s from Wisconsin?” Apparently my Wisconsin accent shines through my Latin–even in another Great Lakes state.

The second quiz is called “Where in the continental United States do they speak like you?” There’s a short version with 25 questions, but I took the full version with a whopping 140 questions. It was quite a time investment, but I love the output. The maps below show the likelihood that “a randomly-selected person in that [area] would respond to a randomly-selected survey question the same way [I] did.” The first is the full-color map, and the second is the monotone version for colorblind folks like my brother.



The cities most similar to me are Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Madison, Wisconsin (58.9%, 58.7%, and 58.3% similarity, respectively). My entire family is from Plymouth, Wisconsin, which is halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee, and I grew up in Madison. So that makes sense. Apparently Grand Rapids and Lansing, Michigan are also quite similar (58.2% and 57.7%, respectively).

On the other end are New York, NY; Birmingham, AL; Huntsville, AL; Jackson, MS; and Yonkers, NY (48.4%, 48.4%, 48.5%, 48.5%, and 48.7% similarity, respectively). I think it’s interesting that these differences are so strong both on the East Coast and in the South.

So where do these (or other) quizzes place your regional dialect? Are they as accurate for you as they were for me?

Not all jargon is created equal

I’ve advised against and poked fun at jargon before. But not all jargon is created equal. Andy Hollandbeck’s article “How To Put Business Jargon In Its Place” focuses on business contexts, but the principles also apply in science. He argues that jargon can be exclusionary or inclusive:

Exclusionary jargon is the “bad” jargon. Rarely does it impart more useful information than simpler, plainer speech. Instead, it transmits a message about the speaker: I am a business professional. It’s an easy way to establish one’s qualifications — even for the unqualified. … Inclusive jargon is the “good” jargon, a business shorthand that encompasses complex ideas and multi-step actions. It’s inclusive because it binds people of the group together to discuss complicated issues.

So I argue that some types of jargon are never warranted, because they add no new or special meaning other than the “code” of being “in the club.”

Even the time and place for “good” jargon is limited; you have to be sure your audience knows what it means. When publishing in a very specialized journal, for example, you can get away with it. But if you want your ideas to have a wider impact beyond your micro-field, even the “good” jargon has to go.

After being steeped in a field, it’s hard to remember what’s jargon and what isn’t. So what’s a busy scientist to do when s/he’d rather focus on designing the next experiment than eradicating the jargon from the article s/he just wrote?

Hollandbeck agrees: “hire an editor, preferably someone from outside the company [i.e., your lab], to ‘translate’ your posts, pamphlets or what have you into plain language.” Smart guy.

When the original context is no longer clear, hone in on a word that seems to make sense.

I’ve always used the expression “hone in on.” Before I saw this post on World Wide Words, I had no idea that the original is actually “home in on.”

The history is interesting. According to Quinion, early pilots “were said to home on the [radio] beacons.” Then, “after [WWII], people began to use it in the current figurative sense of focusing one’s attention on a single matter.”

Without knowing the original context, though, “home” doesn’t seem to make much sense. So people started changing it:

In this case, it seems to be the figurative sense of the verb to hone, meaning to sharpen a tool, that has led to the change, since it’s widely used to mean making something work better, for example when we say somebody is “honing her skills”. If you are honing in on a topic, you can imagine people thinking, then you’re improving your understanding of it.

This phenomenon is called an eggcorn. Another example is when people mistake “Alzheimer’s disease” for “old-timers’ disease.” It seems plausible enough, right?

With Google Ngram Viewer, we can track the use of both phrases:

home hone

Both have generally risen in popularity over time. While “home in on” is still most frequent, the gap has narrowed and “hone in on” may well overtake it in the coming years.

“Drive safe!” Wherein I am again surprised by my “simple tip” research.

When I was home in Wisconsin last weekend, my family helped me brainstorm some ideas for new blog posts. My mom suggested writing one on how many people tend to say “drive safe” when it should really be “drive safely.” Easy enough, I thought. Adjectives and adverbs are different and should be upheld as such.

Then I did my customary “quick research,” and it turns out to be not so simple after all.

I’ll get to the wrinkles at the end, but let’s start with the basics. Adjectives modify nouns and usually answer which, what kind, or how many. Adverbs, most of which end in -ly, modify verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs. They usually answer how, but sometimes answer where or why. For an excellent summary filled with great examples, see this article on the Purdue OWL site.

Following these strict rules, then, since the root word safe is modifying the verb drive, we should use the adverbial form safely. But as I’m continually learning, “following these strict rules” needn’t always apply.

This article at The Economist describes how “adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever,” citing examples from Shakespeare himself. Apparently it has to do with a quirk of Old English, and it’s especially common with monosyllabic words (like slow, fast, hard, and safe).

I did a Google Ngram search comparing drive safely and drive safe to track their actual usages across time. As you can see in the image below, safely has always been the more common choice, but safe has modestly risen in popularity, especially since 1995.

safe v safely

Keep in mind that Google Ngram only searches books. I suspect if it included more informal language contexts such as blogs or everyday speech, drive safe would appear much more frequently.

Beyond citing longstanding use of adjectives where one “should” have an adverb, the Economist article also argues there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two phrases: “‘Get home safely’ would be telling someone to get home in a safe manner, while ‘get home safe’ would be telling them to arrive home in a state of safety.”

Whether you accept the “been around since forever” argument or the case that the meanings are actually different–and I’m still mulling over whether I do in this instance–it’s clear that the issue isn’t as black and white as first imagined. And as I appreciate more each day I delve deeper into editing, that’s the beauty of our language.

How easy is it to learn English?

Since earning Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages certification, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about learning English. How easy is it to learn as a second language relative to the thousands of other languages in the world?

Well, as this Economist article notes, it depends on your native language: “If you learn a language geographically close and from a common ancestor of your first language, there will be fewer nasty surprises, at every level from sound to word to sentence.” So, for example, if you already know German, it will be easier for you to learn English than if you grew up with, say, Russian.

But a company called Idibon, whose focus is natural language processing, recently conducted a study attempting to answer this question in the abstract. Using the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures, they determined which languages have the most distinct features (like word order and types of sounds). While I would have used a less judgmental word like “atypical,” they called the languages with the most unique features “weird.”

Chalcatongo Mixtec, “a verb-initial tonal language spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico,” tops their weirdness scale while the language with the most common features is Hindi. Interestingly, “Mandarin Chinese is in the top 25 weirdest and Cantonese is in the bottom 10.” They explain this based on the way sounds differ between these languages.

Where does English rank? 33 out of 239. So while the ease of learning a new language depends on the particular features it shares with your native language, if we’re attempting to quantify it in an absolute sense, English is among the top 15% of the weirdest languages.

I encourage you to read more about the study’s methodology here. And since I know plenty of you followers are academic language nerds, let us know your thoughts about it in the comments below!