meta/phr(eɪ) Weekly Digest

Unbelievable… These 23 Mind Blowing Facts Will DESTROY Your Understanding Of Time (via

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The truth about grammar books: do they actually influence language use?

Everyone is familiar with prescriptive grammars – books containing ‘the rules of correct language use’. But have you ever wondered whether these volumes have any actual impact on the way we speak and write? Lieselotte Anderwald was determined to find out.

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How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

For 20 years, 14 of those in England, I’ve been giving lectures about the social power afforded to dictionaries, exhorting my students to discard the belief that dictionaries are infallible authorities.

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An European vs. A European

E.P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

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The fascinating linguistic legacy of the Crimean War

March 28, 2014, is the 160th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Russia to formally start the Crimean War. The war was fought by Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia, mainly to curtail Russia’s presence and ambitions in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe. It lasted until 1856, and was fought in several places, not just Crimea. But it’s best remembered for just one battle, a battle that was vaunted as glorious and heroic by the side that lost it (but won the war) — and that has left us with some misquotations, three articles of clothing, and some lessons in accidental and deliberate miscommunication.

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A renegade tells all

It’s a dicey business to reveal the secrets of the brotherhood to the laity; look at what happened to Edward Snowden. But I step forward today to tell you that the people you would imagine to be most knowledgeable about English grammar and usage, English teachers and editors, are often ill-informed and sometimes startlingly ignorant of basics.

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Johnson: Talking past each other

Some advice is worse than useless. A short list of bullet points from eHow, a website, that is passing around social networks purports to show “how to write good.” (Each rule was jokingly broken in explaining it.) Unfortunately, it will not help most people write good. Two of the rules explained not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition. But both “split infinitives” and sentence-ending prepositions have been native to English, used by the finest writers, for centuries. The rest of the eHow list included the injunction that “the passive voice is to be avoided”. But sadly, many writers, even professionals, cannot recognise the grammatical passive voice. (Here is a compendium of examples of writers calling out others for using the passive, when no passive has been used.)

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