Dialect Surveys of American English and World Englishes

In my review of Joshua Katz’s book Speaking American, I mentioned that a new dialect survey was up. Much of the data in Katz’s book was drawn from an online dialect survey done by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Here’s Ben Zimmer giving credit where credit’s due.

Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.

Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.

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25 words That Do Mean What You Think They Do

These words mean exactly what you think they mean. And dictionaries are here to back you up.

An article in Mental Floss called “25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do” attempts to educate readers on the One True Meaning™ of words in a listicle. It’s written by Paul Anthony Jones, who runs the Haggard Hawks account on Twitter and has written several books on language. I like Haggard Hawks and I enjoyed Jones’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4. That’s what makes this article so puzzling. It takes a prescriptivist stance in the meaning of words, claiming for the most part that what the words in the list originally meant is what they mean now. I find this position wrongheaded and contradictory. Words change meaning, which I’m sure Jones has no problem acknowledging, but to insist that their original meaning (or some former meaning) is the only one that’s correct is like claiming that women shouldn’t have the right to vote because, well… they used to not have the right to vote. Things change, and you either change with them or you will be left out. Language is no different in this regard.

What’s especially strange about this position (and the Mental Floss article) is that the history of English undermines the argument itself. For example, is there a certain date we can look back to when a word’s meaning was “correct”? The word deer originally meant any animal that was hunted. Are we using it wrong when we refer to what everyone knows of as a deer? No. Likewise, the word nice originally meant foolish. Now it means nice. There are scores more words like this in English. So why do some words deserve a place on lists like the one in the Mental Floss article while others do not?

Speaking of undermining the argument, the Mental Floss article references dictionaries which directly undermine the article’s claims. Lexicographers today use corpora (databases of language) to determine the meaning of words. When there are several meanings, dictionaries usually list them in descending order of how frequently each is used. Not every dictionary does this, but Merriam-Webster does and that’s the one that the Mental Floss references. (Macmillan does too)

Let’s take a look at the words in the list and see what’s going on. To be perfectly clear, this article claims that “in the dictionary […] there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted”. Dictionaries are written by lexicographers and their first job is to discover what words mean. So this article is basically saying that lexicographers aren’t doing their job. The first salvo made in the article is an attack on the figurative use of literally. It’s not on the listicle (thankfully), so I’m not going to cover it. You can see how the “misuse” of figurative literally has been confirmed to death here and here.

I won’t go through the whole listicle. Some of the entries on it are correct. For example, the first item on the listicle says “barter doesn’t mean haggle”, which it doesn’t, but it’s still unclear who is using barter to mean haggle. The numbers below refer to the numbers from the listicle.

2. Bemused doesn’t mean amused

Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”

Here we see the article contradicting itself by linking to a dictionary which defines bemused as “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing”.

3. Depreciate doesn’t mean “deprecate”

Here the Mental Floss article acknowledges that self-deprecating = self-depreciating, but it links to a site called Grammarist and claims that self-deprecating is 40 times more common than self-depreciating. I couldn’t find out who runs Grammarist and they do not say where they get their figures from. But in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio of self-deprecating to self-depreciating is 512:2. That makes it 256 times more common.

4. Dilemma doesn’t mean quandary

Ugh, why do we have to do this? The writer claims that dilemma must be a choice between only two alternatives because di– means “two”. This is nonsense and MW even says so. The word disperse has the same di– prefix, so must it mean spreading things into only TWO directions? No. Prefixes from other dead languages do not determine today’s meaning of a word. That shit is bananas.

5. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested”

Except sometimes to totally does.

6. Electrocute does not mean “to get an electric shock”

Lol wut?

** By the way, the meaning “give an electric shock to” was recorded the year after the original meaning was recorded (source: OED). This word couldn’t even hold on to its meaning for a year. Sad!

9. Flaunt does not mean “flout”

K.

15. Nonplussed does not mean “not bothered”

“Many people use nonplussed to mean ‘unperturbed’ or ‘unaffected’”.

Well, that settles it then. I guess you better update your lexicon or you’re going to be left out of the conversation because the people using nonplussed to mean “not bothered” are not going to get the memo. Unless you already know that nonplussed can be used to mean “not bothered”… Wait, you do? Well, then I guess everything is sorted.

16. Oblivious doesn’t mean “unaware”

Or at least, it didn’t originally.

Aaaaand we’re back to appealing to antiquity, that old etymological fallacy. Now please explain what deer, nice, silly, and A THOUSAND OTHER WORDS mean.

17. Peruse doesn’t mean “browse”

perusing something actually means studying it in great detail.

Technically, peruse originally meant “to use up”, so you’re both wrong. If we’re going to be pedantic, why not go all the way?

As the OED notes, peruse has been used as a “broad synonym for read” since the goddamn 16th Century! (curse word mine, but it’s totally implied by the OED):

“Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.” (OED, peruse)

You should definitely peruse this Mental Floss article and not take in the details.

17. Plethora doesn’t mean “a lot of”

Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

//

I don’t have any more time for this. Remember when I said that it was unclear who is using barter to mean haggle? Well, that’s one way that language changes. If enough people use barter to mean haggle – and everyone understands what is meant – then barter means haggle. Just like how enough people use(d) literally to be an an intensifier like really and now literally is an intensifier, in addition to its other meanings. Lexicographers are just doing their job by updating the dictionary to include new meanings.

Stop trying to force people into using words the way you think they should be used, especially if you know what people mean when they use those words! Instead, let’s celebrate that we are witnessing language change happen.

Book review: Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz

A book review of Speaking American by Josh Katz.

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz is a very easy read since it is mainly colorful maps of dialect (sometimes lexical) boundaries in the US – here’s the line between people who say X and people who say Y (and occasionally there’s an island of people who say Z). The research behind the maps comes from a dialect survey that was featured in the New York Times in December 2013. It’s rather scant on details about language because that’s not really the purpose of this book. It shows, not tell.

Speaking American by Katz book cover
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016

To anyone familiar with linguistics, the maps will look familiar, although they are much nicer looking than the average dialect map in a linguistics textbook. Speaking American is a great coffee table book and I mean that in a positive way – it’s perfect for starting conversations between people. E’rybody loves talkin’ ‘bout language. The material is presented with such great imagery and it is so simple that it makes a great springboard into talking about talking. It happened at my house too. Both of my kids were very interested in how people said different things.

I did have a few misgivings with the book, however. I would have appreciated having the words of a few of the maps written in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the maps showing the various ways that people say pecan were a bit tricky to figure out (PIH-KAHN, PEE-KAHN, PEE-KAN, PEE-KAHN, and PEE-KAN, pp. 80-81). But I suppose that the dialect survey in the NY Times wasn’t done using the IPA (and I know that the general public isn’t familiar with the IPA).

The section on California was a bit unclear to me. Katz writes that “for much of the twentieth century, California speech sounded like a mish-mash of dialects from everywhere else. California was a giant blender of the rest of the country’s speech: the general American dialect.” (p. 91) I don’t think Katz means that the rest of the country speaks in the General American dialect because that would be incorrect. But it would also be wrong to say that Californians speak in the General American dialect, so this part left me scratching my head a little.

Later in the section on Katz says that “in the mid-twentieth century, though, national radio began to replace local radio for the first time. The voices in America’s living rooms were […] Californians.” (p. 91) I’m not disputing the rise of (southern) California in the media industry, but I would’ve like to have a source for this. I assumed that national radio stations were still broadcasting shows out of New York in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Katz seems to suggest that surfer culture and valley girl speech spread the word cool out of California to other parts of the US. But that doesn’t seem right at all.

An eye-opening part of the book is where the data seems to shows that 75% of Americans have the cotcaught merger. The cotcaught merger basically describes speakers who pronounce these words identically. Since it’s two vowel sounds that are merged into one, it means that other pairs of words are pronounced the same, such as stockstalk and podpawed.

cot-caught in Speaking American page 102
Explanation of the cot-caught data in Speaking American, p. 102.

But seeing that 75% of people have the cotcaught merger is bananas! I don’t know if I can buy this. Other linguistic research on the cot-caught merger, such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg, 2006), would probably disagree since they show that large regions in the US resist the merger (and there are degrees to the merger, rather than just a yes-no classification).

cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English page 60
The dialect boundaries for the cot-caught merger from the Atlas of North American English, p. 60. The green dots represent speakers who completely have the merger.

But the data presented in Speaking American shows how many people have the merger based on their age. I think we can agree that the merger has spread, and obviously that language changes over time, but I’d like to see where the younger speakers in the data grew up. It seems like there might be an over representation of speakers from places where the merger has happened. If not though, this is some huge news.

One of the best parts about reading this book is how fun some of the sections can be. For example, if you know anyone from Philly or South Jersey, you might get a kick out of this section, which shows how some speakers pronounce the word crayons:

krown crayons in Speaking American page 107
Crayons pronounced like crowns (p. 107)

You are also bound to be surprised by certain sections. For me it was just how many people say “groh-shery store” (blue regions in the map below). I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, but look at all these people. They’re everywhere!

grocery store in Speaking American page 162

grocery store in Speaking American page 163
It’s GROH-SERY, not groh-shery. What the hell is wrong with you people?!

Finally, despite my misgivings about some aspects of the book, there is a refreshing linguistic commentary at the end, especially in the last paragraph which says

Dialect variation in American English shows no sign of disappearing […] No matter how much media we consume […] our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the Internet. (p. 197)

It’s nice to see such sound linguistic observation in a book aimed directly at the general public.

Katz developed the questions in his survey based on the Harvard Dialect Survey (Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder 2003) and the Dictionary of American Regional English. The former one of these is back online. I’ll talk about it in an upcoming post.

Speaking as David Brooks is hard

David Brooks has an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Speaking as a White Male…”. It’s about identity politics and it features the usual headscratcher ideas that we have come to expect from the Times‘ opinion page, including this nonsense right here:

Brooks Opinion Speaking as a White Male - nonsense paragraph
Wat.

 

Brooks’ column may be full of the stuff that only white dudes could ever think of, but I want to look at one particular thing that he says:

Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?

Brooks’ choice of words is telling (“rise up”, “Latina”, “queer”, and “Jew”), but I’m not going to get into that here (or just yet). I can’t remember hearing anybody rise up in conversation and say “Speaking as a(n) X”. So I thought I’d have a look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if we can find this phrase. The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA comes from transcripts of news shows. Not all of it is entirely spontaneous, but it’s good enough for what we’re looking for. Here’s a search for “SPEAK as _at*” (that is: all forms of the lemma speak, followed by the word as, followed by an article):

COCA Spoken - SPEAK as _article_
Search in COCA for “SPEAK as _a*”

The first thing we can see is that speaking as a is the most common form of this construction, but that it seems to be trailing off in usage from the 1990s to 2017. On top of that, 63 hits are not that much (48 hits for speaking as a + 15 hits for speaking as an = 63). Let’s take a look at the two most common constructions.

Of those 63 hits, 35 fit the form that Brooks used. I’m excluding examples like “I’m not speaking as X” or “I was speaking as X” or when the speaking as X was put into the person’s mouth, such as in this example from NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Show:

Peter Sagal: And speaking as an esteemed historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, do in fact, in your scholarly opinion, the Yankees suck?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Without a question.

Peter Sagal: Thank you.

Of the 35 hits that are similar to the form Brooks made up, most of the words that appear after speaking as a(n) are unique, so most of them appear only once. Some favorites of mine are

Speaking as a(n)

old-time criminal defense lawyer

guy

reporter who missed that story

There are 2 hits each for Speaking as a followed by woman, individual, and mom. The words Latina, queer or Jew do not appear in the search results. There is, however, one example of speaking as a homosexual and one example of speaking as an Israeli dove. So two out of three ain’t bad?

What’s going on here, then? My guess is that Brooks inflated the number of times he has heard Speaking as a(n) X to suit his argument. It’s probable that he has heard it a couple of times, but he makes it seem like it’s an everyday thing. Of course, maybe just hearing speaking as a queer person once is one too many times for some people.

The scant results from the search could also indicate that the data in the corpus doesn’t include speech from enough people who identify as a Latina, queer or Jew. That is probably true (these people need to be represented more on our news shows), but I also think that people do not need to say speaking as a(n) X because often in conversation a person’s identity is known by the participants. Think about it: would any of your friends or family members unironically say speaking as a(n) X? When people are being interviewed, their identity is often spelled out before the interview starts. And of course there are many other ways to indicate aspects of your identity in conversation without saying speaking as a(n) X.

I don’t recommend you read Brooks’ column (read this instead). It’s bad. It’s by a white guy who claims he doesn’t understand identity politics. Come on, David. You have a column in the New York Times. You get it. You just don’t want to. If you really need some help, give up your column and hand it to a Latina person, or a queer person, or a Jewish person. Then sit back and read what they have to say. I guarantee it won’t “Speaking as a(n) X…”

Language achievement: UNLOCKED!

TFW Merriam-Webster is writing about the same thing you wrote about:

It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.

In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.

10 Words You Should NOT Delete from Your Vocabulary

Don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing wrong with these words.

Based on a little Twitter rant of mine…

and the fact that I felt like I’ve seen this article online before, I decided to go looking for around for advice about which Words You Should Not Use Ever™. It turns out, the Time article I was ranting about was actually written by someone at Muse. My social media slaying of that article unfortunately didn’t keep Time from tweeting it out again less than a month later. I know, I was as shocked as you:

Some things never die.

That Muse article which appeared on Time has also appeared on the websites of Forbes, USA Today, Federalist Papers, Business Insider, and Mashable. Talk about mileage. I was able to find 12 other articles slinging the same snake oil. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of the words on each of the listicles. Let’s just go over the ones that appear on three or more lists instead. They are: actually, but, honestly, just, literally, maybe, never, really, should and very. You can see a spreadsheet of the entire word lists here (I am not including one list which turned up in my search because it’s actually honest advice on how to be a better person, rather than a language shaming trash piece like the other listicles). Here we go!

Actually

Appears on 3 lists: Inc.com, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com

Dictionary.com calls their banned words “crutch words”, invoking the idea that a sentence isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without them. But then removing them would mean… I don’t understand the metaphor. They say about crutch words that “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” What is curious about this is that they list a meaning for each of the crutch words that they list. Maybe these are just the meanings that they don’t like? Besides, emphasizing a statement is a perfectly fine and natural thing for some words to do. Not every word has to bring some definition of content along with it. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to use words like if and not.

For actually, Dictionary.com says “Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).” Ok, so what’s wrong here? We’re not allowed to add punch to our statements? Why not? And wouldn’t that make our language blander? I don’t think the bloggers at Dictionary.com have thought this one through. (The lexicographers over there are off the hook, though. They know what’s up and they have nothing to do with this clickbait nonsense.)

Inc.com’s problem with actually is that it will put distance between sales people and their customers, especially in phrases like Actually, you can do this under “Settings.” The idea is that the actually implies the customer was wrong and that’s a no-no in bidness. So it should be replaced by something like sure thing. So their problem isn’t with the word actually, it’s with the sentence adverb actually. But Inc.com hasn’t picked up on the fact that actually might have more than one meaning and more than one use in a sentence, so they’ve banned it from all sentences everywhere. Somebody should put them in touch with Dictionary.com.

Diana Urban says only that actually doesn’t “add information” and that it should be removed if the sentence makes sense without it. Ok, let’s pretend that actually doesn’t add information to a sentence (even though it totally does). Why stop with removing actually? Articles (the and a) don’t add information to a sentence and many languages do not have articles. So should we remove them? No, because there are other things that words besides pass along pieces of lexical information. Words can allow speakers to relate their feelings about the information. Like, I actually want to punch my screen when I read these banned words lists.

But

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10; Also appears on the Forbes 7 as “I’m no expert, but”
Inc.com says this about but:

As for “but,” look at the difference removing it makes, she* points out.

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

It’s a subtle fix that makes your message more positive.

* The advice on actually and but in the Inc.com article actually comes from this post by Carolyn Kopprasch.

Hold the phone. You didn’t just remove the word but, you changed it to an apostrophe. Am I supposed to always do this? [Song lyrics, poems]

Over on Selfgrowth.com, it’s all about removing obstacles to achieve your dream:

When used as a conjunction, “but” negates whatever statement that precedes it. “I want to study law, but it will take a lot of hard work.” Your mind does not focus on your desire to become a lawyer or judge; it only sees the hard work you will need to perform. Replace “but” with “and.”

You know what? I’m going to get behind this one. Do that hard work and become a lawyer. You got this! (The Forbes 10 list says pretty much the same thing as this)

Now, back to the grind! The Forbes 7 list says this:

Women often preface their ideas with qualifiers such as, “I’m not sure what you think, but…”

Did you think we were going to get out of this without criticizing women? Ha! Such wishful thinking…

Honestly

4 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Business Insider, Dictionary.com
Honestly? Honestly.

Dictionary.com says that this word “is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, ‘Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.’” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement.” What is the problem here? Why can’t we use a word to assert authority or express incredulity? Honestly, Dictionary.com, don’t you know how language works? You’re a goddamn dictionary, fer crissakes!

Muse, the list that started this whole ball rolling, says that “the minute you tell your audience this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not”. What? No. That’s not how things work. I used honestly in the last paragraph. Does that mean that all of the other words in this post are dishonest? What kind of black magic linguistics is this? Honestly is one powerful word if it can make the rest of the words sound dishonest. Maybe you shouldn’t use honestly until you’ve received a license and the proper training.

The Forbes 6 list and the Business Insider info-tainment video both parrot the Muse advice. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t really care. Moving on!

Just

6 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Inc.com, Diana Urban, Forbes 7, Dictionary.com
Six lists! This word is on six lists! Way to go, just!

The Forbes 6 list goes hard on just:

Just. This seemingly simple word is often used but rarely needed. It also packs a big punch to detract from your credibility and confidence and negates from the importance of your message. Instead of sending an email that begins with “Just wanted to check in…” say “I’m checking in on X, Y and Z.” The adjustment is small, but there is a big difference in the resulting impression you leave.

How often is “often”? Don’t ask because Forbes don’t know. They just know it’s too often. But apparently using this little tiny word can make you seem less credible (for… reasons?), less confident (because… Cobra Kai, show no weakness!), and less important. That’s a tall order for a four-letter adverb.

Dictionary.com also claims that just is too common and (oddly) that overusing just makes paying attention more “effortful” for listeners. I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. They say that just is used “to signify a simple action”, so to me it would seem useful. If I introduce what I’m saying with just, it means that what I’m saying is simple. If I don’t, then you should pay more attention. If you ask me, this use of just makes language better.

Inc.com gets its knickers in a bunch over just. They say:

No matter the context, this one smacks of negativity. Consider phrases you might hear and how someone might interpret them.

“Just a minute.” Your priorities are somewhere other than helping me.

“Just do XYZ.” You think I’m having a hard time figuring this out.

“I’m just an intern.” You think your power or influence is limited, in which case it certainly is.

Blogger, speaker, and consultant Matt Monge takes special issue with the latter example. “You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization,” he writes. “You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. (bolding mine)

Again we have Inc.com outsourcing their culpability here. I notice that Mr. Monge’s qualifications do not include linguist or editor. Interesting. Is that why he uses the word just while telling people not to use the word just?! Huh, IS IT? Sometimes I wish these people would reread the brain farts that they smear across their Word docs. What are the chances that I’m going to find Matt Monge using the word just in his blog, his speech and his consultations? I’ll tell you: about 100 million percent certain.

Diana Urban goes easy on just, which is good because she uses just after her section advising people not to use just. Confused yet?

The Forbes 7 list warns that saying “Sorry, I just wanted to check in” is code for “Sorry for taking up your time”. Yep, that’s exactly what it is. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called pragmatics. You should learn about it, Forbes, before prognosticating on it. The Forbes 7 list also says that removing all of the justs from your emails and texts will make your statements sound “much stronger and straightforward”. In other words, you will sound like an asshole who has no concept of subtlety. Congratulations, you are become David Brent.

Literally

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
The Muse 15 list gives us the old “literally means actually, it can’t mean figuratively” mumbo jumbo. They even come right out and say that people usually mean figuratively when they write literally, thereby contradicting their own argument because if someone uses a word and you know what that word means THEN IT’S NOT THE WRONG WORD.

From Dictionary.com (WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!):

This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English

The phrase I literally ran 300 miles today looks weird to me. Would anyone actually say that, i.e. use the figurative literally with an exact numeral after it? I think the people at Dictionary.com just made that sentence up and it shows they don’t know how to use the figurative literally. I mean, why didn’t they just check THEIR OWN GODDAMN DICTIONARY (their files, as it were)?

There are only 20 hits for “PRONOUN literally ran” in the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English. None of them include the figurative use of literally; they are all literal literally. So, no, Dictionary.com doesn’t know what it’s talking about. (Side note: I wonder what the ratio of figurative literally to literal literally is in the BYU corpora. Would be fun to check out.)

Diana Urban says that literally doesn’t add information to a sentence, once again completely missing the point of the pragmatic uses of hyperbolic literally.

Maybe

3 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Business Insider
Muse 15 thinks that maybe makes you sound “uninformed” and “unsure”. Business Insider says the exact same thing. But isn’t that the whole goddamned point? They say that you should write an informed piece, but sometimes that just ain’t possible. Maybe our universe is a tiny speck inside another universe. Maybe there are 9 dimensions. Maybe the people who write these lists didn’t do their research.

Selfgrowth.com takes the personal development angle and says that maybe should be replaced with I will or I will not because these words are more positive and they will lead to you emitting feelings of confidence and resolve. That’s a definite maybe.

Never

5 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10, Business Insider
All of the lists argue that never (and by extension always) are discouraging because they do not allow for possibilities. The Muse 15 list has this to say about never (and always):

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

I’m sorry to tell you, but never using never is not going to save you from criticism regarding inaccuracies (hint, hint: your language thinkpieces are inaccurate and they suck). Just like how you are sometimes unsure of something (maybe), sometimes you’re totes sure of it. Don’t be afraid to use always and never. Remember: Goonies never say die.

Really

6 lists: Muse 15, The Balance, Forbes 10, Business Insider, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
We have a winner, folks! Really tops the charts by appearing on six lists! Really well done, really. Hats off.

We also see the Balance’s list for the first time in this article. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Their advice sucks as much as the rest of the lists:

In a business sense, the word “really” is a very casual expression that attempts to place extra emphasis and importance on a particular outcome, without really quantifying what exactly that extra emphasis is.

That advice is making go cross eyed. Since when do we have to quantify emphasis? And what does that even mean – do you want, like, numbers? Should I use weights – three pounds of emphasis? Or length – a 39-and-a-half-foot emphasis.

Forbes 10 (quoting someone else) says that really is a “poor attempt to instill candor and truthfulness that makes clients and coworkers question whether you’re really telling the truth.” Get the hell out. Just go. This makes it sound like there’s some conspiracy of people judging others who say the word really. Or that your coworkers are incapable of questioning people who use the word really around them. It’s nonsense. I think the people who made these lists are the only ones judging your usage of really and it’s good to remember that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Business Insider, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com all promote the idea that really is useless. Dictionary.com’s advice on really: It’s not that bad, but you still shouldn’t use it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.

The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.

I don’t understand this advice. Surely not every show can be breathtaking or provocative or whatever punchy adjective. Some shows are just really interesting, right? So why can’t we describe them that way? Why do I have to do so much work coming up with some rare adjective? Will it make my language more remarkable or will it be more work for my listener/reader to follow along? There’s a reason that really and interesting are so common – they do what’s needed and no one is asking for more. We save the words like knee-smacking for things that are actually knee-smacking (just kidding, no one use knee-smacking unironically).

Should

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, The Balance, Inc.com
I have to admit, I had no idea why this word would be on these lists. But check out the downward spiral that will happen to you if you use the word should:

“‘I should be [doing something more]’ leads to ‘Man, I lack discipline’ which leads to ‘What’s wrong with me?’ which leads to ‘Maybe I don’t have what it takes … why do I even bother … I should just quit now …’” says psychologist and master violinist Dr. Noa Kageyama. “And pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office and eating a six-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.” (from Inc.com)

Yikes! That’s fucking scary (except for watching reruns of The Office, that show was great). Who knew should is the crystal meth of language? And what the heck is a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich? Are they like really bad? Are they what… what losers eat? What losers who say the word should eat? *shudder*.

Very

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com</span>
Oh my god. This is the part of the Muse 15 article that advised using woebegone instead of very. Here’s the pic, so you know it happened:

Muse 15 very description

So now we’re not allowed to qualify adjectives anymore? Ugh. Listen, I’m going to say this again for the people at the back: Sometimes you don’t need to be specific. Sometimes you’re not ecstatic, you’re just very happy. And the fact that these kinds of articles keep getting churned out doesn’t make me melancholy or depressed – it makes me very sad. Sure, be specific. But don’t be so specific that you sound like a robot.

-zzkkt- She’s 6’3” and it’s 13 degrees below freezing -zzkkt-

Oh yeah, if you were wondering whether Muse practices what they preach, they don’t. Scroll down that article a bit and you’ll be presented with a popup that says “Answer a few (very) short questions…” BUT HOW SHORT ARE THEY? Y U NO be MOAR specific?!

Muse 15 very

We covered Dictionary.com’s bungling of very in the section on really above. Diana Urban says something about it, but who cares?

We’re done here

If you hate these words or hate people for using these words, just stop it. If you use these words, just keep doing it. If you’re an editor and you see too many of these words in someone’s article, then do what you do and take a few out.

If you are a competent speaker, then you know how these words are used – where they belong, where they don’t, where you need them, what they mean, all that jazz. So don’t take the “advice” from these listicles. Hating on people for their use of language is an old game and its siren song is so strong that people will literally tell you to stop using some of the most common words in the English language. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they have nothing better to do.

Mistakes will be made…

When economists do linguistics

There’s an article coming out in the Journal of Comparative Economics called “Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment” (Mavisakalyan et al. 2018). The authors claim:

  • We identify future tense marking in language as a determinant of environmental action.
  • Individuals speaking such languages are less likely to behave pro-environmentally.
  • Climate change policies are less stringent in places where language marks the future.

This has my Whorfian alarm bells going off like crazy. The language I speak determines how I feel and act towards the environment?! Say what? That is just too bonkers to be true.

Because it’s not true. But let’s check out why.

Note: This article is long, so I’m adding a Read More tag here. If you’d prefer reading this as a PDF, click here. Continue reading “Mistakes will be made…”