In the long run, grammar bullies always lose
Posted by June on May 13, 2019

Once upon a time there was a word that meant “a male or female child.” One day, people started using it wrong.

For some reason, they started using it to mean only a female child. Suddenly, a term that had long included males meant “definitely not male.”

We can imagine the fallout. Surely some people were misunderstood. Surely others decried this change as imprecision in the language. Still others likely saw it as part of a disturbing trend — a dumbing down of the entire language. No one listened. And that’s how we got the word “girl” as we know it today.

This is where words come from. They evolve slowly, often through misuse.

Grammar bullies don’t like this process, so they try to stop it. But they always fail. Here's a column I wrote about two famous grammar bullies, William Safire and James Kilpatrick, who tried to police the language and failed.

English scores the No. 33 spot on the weirdness scale
Posted by June on April 29, 2019


There are a lot of weird languages in the world. Some have clicking noises. Some have throat-clucking noises. Some have no way of forming questions other than a Valley girl upward lilt at the end of the sentence.

Some have a whole letter for the sound your breath makes when you blow on glass to write your initials in the condensation.

That’s a lot of weirdness. So, it’s a big deal that, according to a group of linguists who set out to rank 239 languages by how weird they are, English scored the No. 33 spot.

Obviously, there was some whimsy to their science. For one thing, 239 languages make up only a small fraction of the 7,000 or so out there (depending on who’s counting).

Plus, “weirdness” isn’t exactly a scientific concept. Researchers have yet to invent a weird-o-meter. But the linguists’ findings nonetheless shed some light on languages, in general, and our own in particular.

How, exactly, do you scientifically determine whether a language is “weird.” Well, you don’t, obviously, because the idea is so vague and subjective. But you can do what the folks at the blog Corpus Linguistics did. You can look at the parts of a language and how they work together and compare these features to other languages to see which ones follow common patterns and which don’t.

Here's my recent column on some of their most interesting observations.


Forwent? Forewent? Foregone? Forgone?
Posted by June on April 22, 2019


“Forgo” is, for my money, one of the most misused words in writing. People tend to assume there’s an E in there: forego. And spell-checkers don’t correct them. That’s because “forego” is also a word. It’s just not the word people usually want.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen “forego” used correctly and on purpose. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s: “forego: to go before; precede.” So if you were talking about someone whose reputation preceded him, you’d say, “The story of his mishap foregoes him.”

And, really: How often do you hear something like that?

The past tense forms are even weirder: “The story of his mishap forewent him” shows the proper simple past tense. Here’s the past participle in action: “The story of his mishap has foregone him.” Not a popular turn of phrase.

Interestingly, this “foregone” does live on in one tiny corner of the language: a “foregone conclusion” uses this past participle as a modifier. The expression is so ingrained that Merriam’s online dictionary even has an entry for the whole phrase.

“A foregone conclusion: something certain to happen. ‘At this point, his victory seemed to be a foregone conclusion.” So, yes, that’s the same forego we never use in the present tense.

The word we do sometimes use — or try to use — is “forgo.” That means to do without. As Merriam’s defines it, to “forgo” is “to give up the enjoyment or advantage of; do without.”

For example, “Those guys never forgo an opportunity to turn a profit.”
Note that it has no E. Any copy editor will tell you that most writers put an E in there anyway. We know because it’s our job to take it out.

Google “forego” misused in an example phrase of your choosing, and you’ll see that it’s a very popular error. I got 640,000 hits for “I had to forego,” with examples like “I had to forego my own creative projects” and “I had to forego a lot of immediate financial rewards.” Again, those should be “forgo.”

The past forms of “forgo” are uncommon, bordering on odd. The simple past tense is “forwent”: “When they were in business, those guys never forwent an opportunity to profit.” That form is so uncommon that my Microsoft Word spell-checker flags it as an error.

The past participle is “forgone”: “In all their years in business, those guys have never forgone an opportunity to profit.”

Here's my recent column with a more thorough look at forgo, forego and their past forms.


You can be nonplussed, so why can't you be plussed?
Posted by June on April 15, 2019


I’ve never been plussed. And, according to dictionaries, neither have you. There’s no such word, say Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage and, I’m sure, many others.

My personal experience confirms this. Never have I heard anyone say, “Gee, Bob sure was plussed by the company’s latest earnings report.”

That’s contrary to what would seem a reasonable assumption: If you can be nonplussed, when you’re not that, you must be plussed. But no. No plussed for you.
We see this from time to time in English. A word starts with a negative prefix like “non” or “dis,” yet the root word can’t stand alone without the prefix.

You can’t just chop off the first syllable to un-negate it. If you could, people would walk around in a near constant state of being gruntled, punctuated by short bursts of acting chalant.

But “nonplussed” isn’t what it appears. Here's a look at where this word came from and how to use it.