For the Love of Prepositions Part 13 — For it is sweet…

A recent translation forum debate regarding the correct preposition to use in the names of government departments reached a consensus that, while ‘of’ is the most appropriate preposition for the more prestigious ministries, lesser government agencies with longer more descriptive names tend to be less resistant to the use of ‘for’. ‘Ministry of’ is thus the proper nomenclature for Health, Education or Defense, but ‘Department for the Environment, Housing and Planning sounds OK too.

While few countries around the world have graced their major offices of state with the title of ‘Ministry for’, the phraseology is certainly very common in translation and this suggests that some underlying change is in fact afoot. In the case of government agencies that opt to call themselves departments rather than ministries, the changeover from ‘of’ to ‘for’ is already quite advanced.

In 1992, in the UK, for example, the one-time Ministry and then Department of Education (in existence since the Second World War) was transformed into the Department for Education and, despite various infelicitous name changes since then, the ‘for’ has remained firmly in place.

A similar pattern emerges with other UK government departments. The Department of Transport swapped its ‘of’ for ‘for’ in 1997, and various other newfangled divisions of Her Majesty’s Government have been baptized likewise in recent years.

The purpose of this shift to ‘for’ is clear. ‘For’ connotes a caring agency rather than a grim bureaucracy and suggests the friendly encouragement of self-help rather than the doling out of benefits. For the same reason, the pompous- and—since George Orwell published 1984—somewhat sinister-sounding ‘ministry’ is being pushed out in favor of ‘department’ or ‘office’, both of which are words and concepts that voters will be familiar with from their own workplaces.

Even Orwell of course named his dystopian ministries the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love. ‘For,’ in this context, would in fact sound even creepier. Perhaps we have good reason to be wary of ‘for’.

A quick Google search for “Ministry for Truth” shows that the name of the authoritarian institution in 1984 is in fact frequently misquoted this way. More interestingly still, this usually occurs in contexts that are themselves clearly using the term for propagandist purposes.

A Sky News podcast likens Antifa to Orwell’s Ministry for Truth (sic). The Daily Telegraph warns us that Orwell warned us of a coming ‘Ministry for Truth’. And, in a peculiar twist, the Guardian newspaper misquotes the Sun quoting Orwell’s dystopian novel correctly when accusing David Cameron’s government of operating a ‘Ministry of Truth’.

A left-wing blogger freely moves back and forth from ‘Ministry of Truth’ to ‘Ministry for Truth’ in a single post attacking Teresa May, and Time Out, in a review of a lefty gig, remarks that the University of London’s Senate House provided the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Both extremes of the political spectrum would thus seem to agree that “Ministry for…” sounds far creepier than “Ministry of…” and yet this is precisely the terminology that is becoming fashionable and finding increasing favor in government circles these days.

A recently published science fiction novel about environmental catastrophe entitled The Ministry for the Future has won plaudits from Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The imaginary international organization that gives the book its title is described as being ‘“charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves” and is clearly intended to inspire our praise.

Herein, however, lies the problem with ‘for’. An organization that speaks or acts for groups of individuals who would otherwise be deprived of a voice can be seen as liberating in so far as it advocates for the rights of those who go unrepresented in modern democracies, but it could also be viewed as sinister in so far as it presumptuously arrogates to itself the right to speak for groups (such as animals or the unborn) who are a priori incapable of speech or opinion and, by extension, for other supposedly ‘silent majorities’ who do in fact have their own voice.

As the ideological diversity of the misquotations from Orwell cited above suggests, no one single party or political persuasion has a monopoly on this tendency. Activists on the left claim to speak for the workers or the planet, while those on the right stand up for the nation and the war dead.

‘For it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’, a long-dead poet once pronounced on behalf of heroes who had long since lost their right to voice their own point of view.

‘For’ is a preposition that has a long history of sweetening such subterfuge.


Plurality in Question

The Linguistic Concept of Number and its Diversity

Number in linguistics clearly goes far beyond the simple arithmetical concept. Grammatical number overlaps with other arguably more primordial categories, such as countability and definiteness, and may carry significant cultural connotations also.

Many languages make no distinction between singular and plural or at least possess no marker of this distinction. Most internationally prestigious modern languages, however, distinguish singular (one) from plural (more than one) for either nouns or verbs or both and sometimes for adjectives also.

Theories of Countability in English

Grammar books normally assert that nouns in English can be countable or uncountable (other terms, such as ‘mass’ and ‘count’ nouns are also sometimes used) and it is often argued that this is similar to the way that nouns are classed as masculine or feminine or according to some other classification in other languages.

It is, however, a significant oversimplification to equate countability with grammatical gender. Mass and count words in English do not fit cleanly into categories or classes but range about along a relatively flexible continuum. Conservative estimates put the number of clear clusters along this spectrum at five, while eight is often cited as the agreed number among scholars of such matters.

These distinctions can be subtle, such as that between wine (uncountable) in general and wines (countable) meaning different kinds of wine, or somewhat more substantial, as in that between countable lambs (meaning the young animals skipping in the field) and uncountable lamb (the meat on a dinner plate). In some cases countable and non-countable versions of the same word may have distinct if not entirely unrelated meanings (e.g. uncountable ‘room,’ meaning space, and countable ‘rooms’ meaning the rooms of a house).

Countable nouns can be used in the plural, with numbers or with the indefinite article, while resiliently uncountable nouns cannot. Uncountable nouns form collocations with the quantifiers ‘much’ and ‘(a) little,’ while countable ones take ‘many’ and ‘(a) few’.

Furthermore, it is important to note that individual items of lexis may move back and forth along this spectrum over time.

Countability and Language Change in Present-Day English

One common shift over time is from the nearly always uncountable category to one of the categories that allow for countable uses (with or without some degree of difference in meaning).

The causes of this shift may be obscure but there can be no doubt that the phenomenon occurs among users of English as a second language. For example, the plural form of ‘research’ ‘researches’ is becoming common in international academic journals.

Some words, however, such as ‘information’, ‘equipment’, ‘music’ and ‘bread’ have proved more resistant to pluralization/countabilization even though they are used as such by many non-native speakers. Unlike ‘researches’, one is unlikely to find ‘informations’ in a major international publication. Interestingly, in the case of ‘researches,’ this plural form was in fact acceptable and not uncommon in the not too recent past.

It remains to be seen at which point instances of the use of such language become sufficiently commonplace to be deemed normative. For now, however, they clearly constitute non-standard forms of the language and should be corrected in more formal discourse.

More problematic, is the case where a traditionally uncountable word is made countable (usually by way of permitting pluralization) for ideological reasons or to express a new perspective on a subject.

As with other linguistic developments that fall into the somewhat pejorative category of ‘political correctness,’ the motivation for such wording ranges from a genuine need for greater precision, a marker of ideological purity, to, in the worst instances, mere imitation in an attempt to appear scholarly and/or progressive.

‘Feminisms’ plural, for example, meets a genuine need to indicate that the feminist movement embraces a wide diversity of theories and approaches but may also be employed by writers keen to demonstrate to their readers that they are sufficiently open-minded to be aware of this diversity. ‘Technologies’ used willy-nilly with no clear difference in meaning from ‘technology’ is, however, in my opinion, purely decorative and thus inelegant.   

I would suggest, however, that, in most cases where there is some degree of flexibility with regard to countability, the word has been uncountable in the past and this usage is thus simply being revived.

This is the case with ‘research’, as seen above, and also of ‘history’, which is often pluralized nowadays in an academic context to underline the fact that there can be no single objective interpretation or account of historical events: women’s history differs from men’s history and even within these there are various different ‘histories’. This usage still seems borderline unorthodox today but it was not so long ago that ‘history’ and ‘story’ were synonyms and could both be used countably or uncountably. Indeed, the title of the first book of history in history—Herodotus’s Histories—contains the word history in the plural in its traditional English translation.   

Non-standard usages relating to Concordance

Moving on from issues relating to countability, another area where confusion between singular and plural may arise and in which non-native speaker language use may have some influence concerns agreement in number between subject and predicate. Errors in this regard may be compounded by the question of countability.            

This issue is often presented in grammar books in terms of cases where a plurality of subjects each possesses a certain object.

[1a] The two men put their hats on their heads.

[1b] *The two men put their hat on their head.

In some languages 1a would sound strange because each man only has one hat, but in English 1b strikes the reader as very unnatural, even though the normal English rendering leaves room for some doubt as to whether each man wore one hat or more.

As is often the cases with grammar books and grammar exercises, however, such examples are both infrequent and atypical. More common is confusion between phrases such as

[2a] People’s everyday lives

[2b] ?People’s everyday life

in which the ‘wrongness’ of the second is far less obvious.

In my experience, it is far more frequent to encounter cases of concordance error where countability issues also play a role. 

The following sentence, for example, is entirely correct and sounds quite natural in English.

[3a] Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatment for patients.

Many non-native speakers, however, will write this sentence as follows:

[3b] ?Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatments for patients.

The logic is that many patients receive many different kinds of treatment and, indeed, the same patient may receive multiple treatments. Singular therefore would be wrong.

However, to a native speaker, while not wrong, the over-precision of this sentence sounds a little strained, as if the writer were laboring the obvious. As a general rule, English prefers vagueness, where meaning can reasonably be inferred from context.

If we replace the word ‘treatment’ with a word that falls into the resiliently uncountable category, such as ‘care’, the plural sounds very strange indeed and would be considered by most native speakers to be non-standard or wrong.

 [4] *Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing cares for patients

Note the following, however:

[5a] Patients undergoing multiple treatments must be especially careful with their medication.

[5b] Patients undergoing treatment …

Here we need to add the word ‘multiple’ because otherwise the plural would sound strange. The singular, on the other hand, implies a certain specific kind of treatment.

As noted at the beginning of this section, movement from countable to uncountable status may combine with an urge to provide the kind of unnecessary precision discussed here.

In phrases, quite common these days such as

[6a] ?The course provides various insights into the psychologies of young children.

it is by no means clear whether the author intends to emphasize the plural nature of child psychology or perspectives on it, or whether they are opting for over-precision, on the grounds that any one child can evidently be affected by more than one psychological condition.

In cases, where these strategies overlap in such a way that the making of a valid point becomes indistinguishable from error, I think it is justified to categorize such usage as non-standard. Especially since such sentences can almost always easily be reworded to avoid the ambiguity.

[6b] The course provides various insights into the psychological states and conditions of young children.

Brevity and familiarity of discourse may however play a role in such linguistic decisions on the part of writers and speakers. If so, ‘psychologies’ could be regarded as acceptable shorthand for ‘psychological states and conditions’.

A related, although somewhat marginal and self-contained issue concerns the agreement of seemingly singular quantifiers such as ‘a number of’ and ‘the majority’.

I think that most native speakers of English would baulk at the sentence

[7a] *?A number of issues was raised in the meeting

and prefer [7b] A number of issues were raised in the meeting.

Opinion regarding the following pair, however, may be more divided.

[8a] ?The majority of British families now possesses a washing-machine

[8b] The majority of British families now possess a washing-machine

To native speakers of a neo-Latin language, however, [7b] and [8b] sound outright wrong and such individuals will actively resist [7a] and [8a], because so much importance is attached to this particular ‘grammar rule’ in their schools.

Such concordance issues are not accorded so much emphasis in schools in English-speaking countries and it is not therefore uncommon for even educated writers to produce non-standard sentences such as:

[9a] *The quality of information technology courses have been on the decline in recent years

rather than

[9b] The quality of information technology courses has been on the decline in recent years.

Some US tests of English as a foreign language still include Use of English questions of this type.

This suggests that international cultural differences also play a role in determining the extent to which forms of use of the singular/plural distinction are acceptable or not. Different cultures entail different patterns of prescriptivism and such different cultures may co-exist within a single language community. 

Number and Definiteness

Singular and plural can also be used to indicate subtle differences in the degrees of definiteness and in such cases the use of the definite article also plays a role.

[10a] Farmers need more support from the Federal Government

[10b] The farmer needs more support from the Federal Government.

The former sounds more natural nowadays, but the latter is commonly found in the political discourse of a few hundred years ago and is still not deemed non-standard today.

The definite article plus singular form persists in scientific treatises such as

[11a] “The Anatomy of the Horse”, i.e. the horse as an ideal type.

A book entitled [11b] “The Anatomy of Horses” suggests a more accessible guide for horse-owners.   

Definiteness and number overlap in creating the desired effect.

Language is necessarily flexible and tolerates a certain quite large degree of ambiguity. Most patients will not complain or sue their doctors if their (indefinite/general) ‘cancer treatment’ in fact involves several different (definite/specific) kinds of treatment.

Anglo-American philosophers who are interested in the subject of generics attempt to distinguish subtle distinctions between different ways of saying very similar things. Their focus is somewhat different from mine in that they are interested both in the way concepts are supposedly organized in the human mind and in the nature of reality (if at all accessible), while I am interested here purely in linguistic patterns of use.

From the latter point of view, all of the following are possible ways of expressing the idea that members of the species of bear referred to in common parlance as ‘grizzly bears’ are biologically programmed to hibernate:

[12a] Grizzly bears sleep in the winter

[12b] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

[12c] The grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

or [12d] The grizzly bears sleep in the winter

While an urge to avoid ambiguity, produces a clear preference for the first of these nowadays, a specific context may, however, lead our preference to shift to one of the others, as follows:

[12e] [contrasting groups] The polar bears hunt all year round, while the grizzly bears sleep in the winter.

[12f] [logical induction from general to specific] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter, so this one won’t bother us at this time of year.

[12g] [a natural history documentary] The grizzly bear sleeps through the winter, while much of the forest fauna continues to go about its everyday business.

In political discourse, nowadays, the generic with the definite article (such as ‘the farmer’, ‘the soldier’, ‘the voter’) seems to be being avoided in favor of the bare plural form ‘farmers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘voters’. This may reflect a concerted effort to avoid (or to be seen to avoid) stereotyping or homogenizing members of a diverse group. It may constitute an attempt to disambiguate the phrase. Or indeed may seek to accomplish both simultaneously. This same desire may underlie some of the less acceptable-seeming politically correct usages such as ‘child psychologies’.

Number in Legal English

While everyday English tends to prefer ambiguity and vagueness if a choice exists, legal language needs to be clear and its distinctions crisp. In legal usage, therefore, it may be necessary to provide explicit explanation to the effect that ‘the singular includes the plural’ or vice versa.

The [13a] ‘right to bear arms’ includes the right to carry just one weapon. A law stating that it is [13b] ‘illegal to discharge a fire arm in a public place’ does not imply that it would be permissible to use a whole arsenal.

Descriptivism, Tolerance and Prescriptivism in a Polarized Age

It is important in matters of language, as in all things, to strive to uphold a crisp distinction between subjective and objective criteria.

Linguistics has long been beset by a prescriptivist element that confuses the objective and subjective ‘rules’ and even some supposedly scientific descriptivist linguistic studies may justly be accused of this. Linguistic arguments that seem silly today were once considered highly objective. In the case of number, we need go back no further than Logan’s 1941 article on countability in US spoken discourse to find prejudice against language change donning the guise of objectivity. His “instances in which the plural adds nothing to the clarity of the statement, though the authors probably thought they were making a valuable distinction” include some turns of phrase that seem quite normal today. On the other hand, this same author also provides numerous examples of needless use of the plural that I feel would be unlikely to occur today. Few modern writers, for example, I think would follow Dickens in describing an after-dinner speaker as ‘toasting the healths’ of the guests.

It is, therefore, important that we remain alert to the possibility that over-tolerant anti-prescriptivism may itself become intolerant and prescriptivist. This will surely be the case if we accept the standards of our own age as the norm and, for instance, tolerate non-standard forms in which political correctness is at play, while baulking at non-native speaker errors such as ‘musics’ and ‘equipments’. More controversially, any full description of a language should surely include a description of any and all instances of perceived prescriptivism on the part of its many different users.

A Typology of Non-Standard Uses of the English Plural

By way of a tentative attempt to provide a typology and tolerance guide with regard to this particular feature of the English language, I suggest the following types of non-standard usage of plural/countable forms, presented here in order of increasing acceptability:

[A] Simple grammatical error [*The men is old]

[B] Use of plural form for resiliently uncountable nouns [*?The house has many furnitures]

[C] Over-precision in use of a plural form [?The doctor provided treatments for many patients]

[D] Plural applied for merely decorative purposes [?The school uses a variety of educational technologies]

[E] Plural applied to make an ideological point [?Feminisms in History]

[F] Plural applied for reason of greater accuracy (academic/legal English) [The 18th century saw the publication of numerous histories of England]

For anyone interesting in exploring this topic further, I include a short bibliography.


Aarts, B., Denison, D., Keizer, E., and Popova, G. (Eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: a reader. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Corbett, G.G. (2004) Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Downing, A. and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar: a university course. Routledge. New York and London.

Gillon, B. S. (1992) “Towards a Common Semantics for English Count and Mass Nouns” in

Linguistics and Philosophy 15(6), pp. 597-639

Hamm, F. and Hinrichs, E. (Eds.) (1998) Plurality and Quantification. Springer. Dordrecht.

Huddleston, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Jespersen, O. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Einar Munksgaard and George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Copenhagen and London.

Landman, F. (2011) “Count nouns – mass nouns, neat nouns – mess nouns” in The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. Volume 6 – Formal Semantics and Pragmatics. Discourse, Context and Models. Retrieved from   

Logan, C. T. (1941). “The Plural of Uncountables”in American Speech, 16(3), 170. doi:10.2307/486884 

Massam, D. (2012) Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar in Use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate learners of English. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (1979) Mass Terms: some philosophical problems. Springer. Dordrecht.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (2010) Kinds, things, and stuff: mass terms and generics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.  

Sharvy, R. (1978) “Maybe English Has no Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics” in Studies in Language, 2(3), pp.345–365. doi:10.1075/sl.2.3.04sha 

Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. Master’s Dissertation. University of Tampere, Finland.

Storch, A. and Dimmendaal, G. J. (Eds.) (2014) Number – Constructions and Semantics: case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia

The Politics of Stress

[In the final week’s runup to the US presidential elections, I publish two posts on language related to this event. This is the first of them.]

The Politics of Stress

The prosody of Present-Day English is dominated by stress. This means that certain syllables in a word are given greater or lesser degrees of emphasis. A stressed syllable is usually louder than an unstressed one and may also differ in pitch.

Words of two syllables in English are usually stressed on the first (DUM-di), as in ‘MOther’ and ‘LANGuage’. Sometimes, however, the stress falls on the last syllable. This can be used, in some instances, to distinguish nouns from verbs. Note, for example, how the difference in stress in the word pairs ‘REbel’ : ‘reBEL,’ ‘UPset’ : ‘upSET’ distinguishes the noun (the first of the pair) from the verb (the second), even though these are indistinguishable in spelling.     

The most common stress pattern for a three-syllable noun in English is DUM-di-di. In this, English follows the practice of its Germanic neighbors and forerunners.

Deviations from this norm, therefore, frequently indicate a word of foreign non-Germanic origin.

A stress on the final syllable, for example, often occurs in the names of exotic animals, such as kangaroos, or exotic dishes such as vindaloo. Likewise, a stress on the penultimate syllable marks a word or name as foreign in origin: potatoes, tomatoes, and volcanoes are not native to English soil.

Given names tend to follow the same general pattern. The stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable in traditional English or invented names, but can fall elsewhere in names of foreign origin or names on which the giver intends to confer an exotic feel. The latter, for some reason, tend to be more common among women and girls.

Thus, more traditional, anglicized or obviously Germanic girls’ names tend to be stressed on the first syllable in three-syllable names: Márgaret, Ísabel, Cátherine, Álison, Híllary, Émily, Hárriet, Stéphanie, Béthany, Mádison and so forth all obey the rule. [Stressed syllable marked artificially by an acute accent] The same applies to names of more than three syllables, such as Elízabeth and Victória. Invented names such as Pámela, Jénnifer and Jéssica, irrevocably fall into step with the usual pattern.

Names that diverge from this tend to have a deliberately foreign or classical sounding feel to them. Historically, such names have often been preferred by aristocratic elites—as Diána and Camílla both attest, but also among post-Civil Rights Movement African Americans keen to disassociate themselves from names given them by white slave owners. In recent years, this fashion has spread more widely to all sectors of society.

There is therefore good evidence to suggest that modern English has a strong preference for a stress on the antepenultimate syllable of polysyllabic words (including names) and that stress placed elsewhere is associated with loan words or foreign names.

As a corollary of this, English speakers will tend to mispronounce unfamiliar foreign words by moving the stress from penultimate to antepenultimate position, especially if the penultimate syllable is followed by a single consonant. When this ‘error’ becomes the norm, it suggests that the name, concept or word borrowed from abroad have been fully assimilated into the host language. Márgaret is fully Anglicized; there is no hint that the original French name was stressed on the last syllable Marguerite. No-one would call Margaret Thatcher, Marguerite Thatcher, unless they were making some heavy-handed point about the un-Englishness of her ways.

Speakers, may also, however, do the opposite and hypercorrect, placing the stressed syllable on the penult in foreign words even when it is incorrect to do so, in order to make them sound more foreign. This may, as in the recent case of mispronunciation of US vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s first name by Republican senators and the current US President, be done deliberately. In this case, the error clearly serves the explicitly racist purpose of making the individual seem more alien than she in fact is. In this context, such behavior is a form of linguistic exclusion or shunning.

Kamala is a name derived from the Ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. It means ‘lotus flower’. The name is stressed on the first syllable in the original Sanskrit and thus follows exactly the same stress pattern as that of the vast majority of two-syllable English words. Furthermore, in view of Ms. Harris’s status, the correct pronunciation of her first name is well known in political circles. There is, therefore, no reason other than racism to pronounce the senator’s name otherwise.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 12 …in the time of coronavirus

In this time of global pestilence and need for isolation, many people have understandably been posting on social media about immunity. The preposition they use after this word or after the corresponding adjective ‘immune’ varies. Sometimes it is ‘to’, sometimes ‘from’.

I am not a prescriptive grammarian and the purpose of these blogposts is never to police the way people employ language but to reflect on the social meaning of shifting language norms… In this case, however, the precise use of terms may determine the way people perceive a lethal disease and behave in response to it. There may therefore be some justification for greater caution in this specific instance.

‘Immune to’ and ‘immune from’ are both correct but they have different meanings.

The first is a medical term. It means that your body has developed antibodies that may protect you from contracting a disease. Usually, you have developed these antibodies as a result of already having been exposed to infection. Of course, like many technical terms, it can also be used figuratively.

[1] I am immune to criticism

means ‘you can criticize me, but it doesn’t upset me’.

‘Immune from’ by contrast is a legal term. It means that a judge has decreed that you are exempt from something, usually some kind of burden or penalty. If a witness is ‘immune from prosecution,’ it means that they cannot be charged with a crime, even if they have in fact committed one. This may be the case in plea deals, for example. Again, the term can be used figuratively.

[2] I am immune from criticism

means ‘people aren’t allowed to criticize me’.

There is clearly a big difference between statement [1] and statement [2]. The latter suggests arrogance or unfair privilege; the former indicates forbearance.

The legal use of the term is much more ancient. It goes back to Latin and Roman Law. Immunology, is, unfortunately, a field of knowledge that is much younger than the legal profession. It is therefore understandable that laypeople tend to use ‘from’ in all contexts and think legalistically about issues that have nothing to do with the law. This is especially likely to occur if these issues involve relatively novel complex concepts, such as immune responses and antigens. However, in a medical context, use of ‘from’ may be misleading… fatally misleading in fact…

No-one is immune from a virus, even if they are immune to it. To suggest the former is possible at best invites complacency, at worst justifies eugenics. To expect the former invites mistrust with regard to vaccination. Both are dangerous attitudes in a time of crisis.

Of course, few who use ‘immune from’ inappropriately in this way have any conscious malign intent. However, over time, persistent repetition of such imprecise use of language nudges people unconsciously as a herd in the direction of complacency, callousness, mistrust, and lack of care.

People who do not care about language probably do not care about people either. This is a malady as insidious as any disease.

There is, however, another preposition that is used with ‘immune’, albeit far less frequently. This alternative is ‘against’.

Use of ‘against’ in this context could be conceived as wrong, if we define ‘wrong’ linguistically-speaking to mean ‘insufficiently frequent to be considered standard usage’. If, however, we define linguistically wrong as meaning ‘lacking due precision,’ there are perhaps good logical arguments in favor of a shift to ‘against’ in medical contexts. It is, therefore, no surprise that use of the phrase ‘immunity against’ is more common among scientists, especially those whose native language is not English, for whom the turn of phrase does not sound ‘strange’.  ‘Against’ is also more common with the abstract noun than with the adjective. This again suggests that it is preferred in more technical contexts.

‘Against’ has the advantage of echoing the Latin prefix used in scientific neologisms such as antibody and antigen. It also suggests the metaphor of an ongoing battle that may be won or lost, which is more appropriate than that of inviolable protection from… It would not be the first time that non-native speakers taught us how best to use the English language.


A Brief Statistical Survey

I checked the frequency of occurrence of all three prepositions with the words ‘immune’ and ‘immunity’ in texts accessible through Google. To simplify the search, I restricted it to ‘chickenpox,’ in order to rule out non-medical uses and avoid ongoing controversies surrounding Covid-19.

The results were as follows.

  immune immunity
to 13700 (73%) 15300 (66%)
from 4510 (24%) 3290 (14%)
against 648 (3%) 4720 (20%)



Someone asked me about ‘for’. To my mind, this sounds very strange with the adjective but not with the abstract noun. I, therefore, checked the figures for this preposition. ‘Immune for’ registers a frequency of 10 (0.0%); ‘immunity for’ registers 1,900 (7.5%) in the context searched for above. This confirms my instinct and justifies not (yet) considering these as forms in standard use.

I will in future post long overdue discussions of ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘of’ as part of this ongoing series on prepositions and my love of them.

Modal Verbs in the News

Grammar seldom makes the news. In fact nothing seems to make the news much these days except for Brexit and Trump.

I made a conscious decision early last year NOT to write about the US president on this blog, even though politics is one of its main thematic axes. Since Trump seems to thrive, like some extremophile strain of virulent bacterium, even on negative publicity, I feel it is the best policy not to give him any publicity at all.

I make an exception, however, where language is concerned; and, since I have written extensively on modal verbs in past posts, I feel obliged to comment when one of them makes the headlines, as has occurred recently, even though it came out of the mouth of Mr. T.

At the Helsinki summit press conference, when asked a question regarding Russian tampering in the 2016 US elections, Mr. T uttered the following words: “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]”

After much outcry over this statement, not least among members of his own party, the very next day the US president retracted his words, claiming that he had ‘misspoken’ ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’ and thereby, in an unimpressive display of clumsy prestidigitation, completely inverted the apparent original meaning of the phrase.

Leaving aside questions regarding the genuineness of this self-correction or the nature of Mr. T’s true feelings towards Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, I think it is worthwhile taking the president at his word on this occasion and examining the ‘mistake’ in purely linguistic terms.

To be fair, Trump himself, in the course of his retraction, explained the error in precisely this way. “It’s a sort of double negative,” he added (off-script) after reading out the corrected version of the original statement.

This provides a glimpse of insight into what really goes on in Mr. T’s mind, whether his intentions were duplicitous or not.

Trump is old enough to have been schooled quite sternly in a kind of prescriptive grammar, which, like much of what Mr. T believes in, is rightly considered politically incorrect and scientifically wrong these days. One such ‘rule’ that would have been beaten into him (perhaps literally) as a young student at a posh military school in the 1950s concerns avoidance of a so-called ‘double negative’.

The reason for this, of course, is that phrases of the kind “I ain’t done nothing” tend to be stereotypical markers of low social status and, in the US, non-white ethnicity.

The truth is that, from a descriptivist point of view, standard middle-class white English, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a language in which multiple negative markers are interpreted ‘logically’ rather than emphatically. Thus, “I haven’t done nothing’ is interpreted to mean “I have done something.” The two negatives cancel each other out just as they do in mathematics. I should add that, in this example, the double negative adds a sort of whining apologetic tone to a neutral double-positive statement and sounds sort of ‘off’.

But this logical interpretation of double negatives is by no means a linguistic universal nor even true for the wide range of brands of English now spoken around the world. Many languages, including my own second language, Portuguese, use multiple negative markers primarily to emphasize the negativity. Logic doesn’t come into it. No means no. And three no’s mean “No! No! No!”

Even within the English family of dialects, this emphatic use of multiple negatives is accepted in certain contexts and is common in cultures whose language use is colored by an ancestral substrate.

Going back to Trump’s sentence, however, we should note that it is not in fact a double negative in the sense outlined above. The two negative markers clearly occur in separate clauses, one embedded in the other in the manner of indirect speech.

In such cases, the logical interpretation of negatives applies in all cultures and all languages. There is a world of difference between “I never done nothing,” which is clearly emphatic and “I never said I never done nothing”, in which the two negative clauses cancel one another out.

So, there is nothing grammatically wrong with what Mr T. originally said and no reason for a mea culpa or correction on these grounds.

This is what linguists and language teachers call hyper-correction. The speaker or writer makes a mistake because they are inappropriately or over-exactly applying a ‘rule’ learnt by rote.

However, as is so often the case when we start to analyze discourse linguistically, there is something else going on here. And this concerns not the old-fangled notion of double negatives but a very modern shift in the use of the modal verb ‘would’.

There are no prescriptive sociolinguistically-determined rules regarding the use of ‘would’.

Supposedly descriptive grammar text books aimed at non-native speakers have traditionally typified ‘would’ as a ‘translation’ of the Latinate conditional. It usually presented in the context of sentences containing ‘if-clauses,’ in cases where the outcome is unlikely or counterfactual, although the modal verb is obviously not confined to this structure and context.

In fact, as Michael Lewis has pointed out, this traditional exemplification and implicit characterization of the use of ‘would’ is misleading to say the least. Numerous language students of mine have noted that ‘would’ does not occur most frequently in English in relation to an conditional, nor is ‘would’ the most frequent modal verb used in conditional sentences.

Matters are further confounded by the fact that there is a strong tendency, even in erudite discourse, and especially in the United States, to use ‘would’ in both halves of a sentence involving an ‘if-clause’.

Interestingly, this grammatical deviation from the ‘norm’ tends to go unnoticed and is certainly not subject to the kind of prescriptivist opprobrium associated with double negatives. The veteran CNN journalist, Wolf Blitzer, does it all the time.

There are in fact some good reasons for this structural development. The double use of ‘would’ sets up a nice parallelism that adds clarity, especially in situations where clarity is especially important, such as those involving reporting or reading the news.

There is, however, another more negative tendency to use ‘would’ very generally and vaguely, merely to distance or exempt the writer or speaker from responsibility for the statement uttered. It is habitually used by journalists and politicians and is even spreading at an alarming rate to academic discourse as well. In Latin languages, the equivalent use of a conditional has become standard in all fields of discourse to the extent that it is practically obligatory in any public statement of an opinion and even in statements of facts.

I get why people do this. It sounds modest and polite and acknowledges differences of opinion and the need for scientific doubt. However, it also threatens to cast a veil of suspicion over any statement uttered (however self-evident or well-documented) and, at the same time, provides a convenient safety-valve of potential retraction for those who wish to benefit from the dissemination of patent untruths.

It lays the linguistic groundwork for a world in which all knowledge is suspect, all facts questionable, and in which all promises, commitments and principles can easily be turned on a dime.

That may be the kind of world in which the likes of Mr. T prefer to operate, but it is definitely not the kind of gloomy unpredictable dark age most people in this world would ever wish to live in.


For the Love of Prepositions Part 9b: Playing the Language Game

“Play” is another word that is on the rise. But it has brought together a whole different array of complex connotations from those of ‘game’. It means pretending, stage-acting; it distinguishes the main free action of a sport or game from its surrounding bureaucratic structure. Musical instruments are played. Children play. In contract bridge the ‘play’ is distinguished from the ‘bidding,’ although both are equally important parts of the game. People who like to joke are regarded as ‘playful’ and valued socially as comics, even, perhaps even especially, if they are not ‘playing the game’. Play has even—graced with a duly respectable-looking Latinate prefix—become a scientific word in the word ‘interplay,’ meaning the way that various forces interact with each other. A graceful ‘play of forces’ as opposed to a violent ‘game of thrones’.

There is a plangent irony when the two words are combined as in First World War propaganda (“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”) used to exhort cannon-fodder, or the modern concept of ‘gameplay’. A recent ad for Dell brandishes the double-imperative slogan: “Don’t just play. Game.” Underlining the extent to which the online gaming industry takes itself way too seriously.

To return to the beginning of this two-part post, there is a connection between the distinct metaphors of playing and gaming and the way that linguists and philosophers of language have traditionally viewed their prime object of study during the still brief existence of this novel social science.

Saussure effected a foundational revolution by establishing a distinction between langue and parole. He famously compared language to a game of chess: the form of the pieces and the board can be changed but this does not alter the rules of play. This metaphor already rigidifies the originally radical idea to some extent, in so far as it is not only the form of the pieces used in the game, but also the relation between them, and the very rules, that can be changed. Within that works the play.

Wittgenstein also saw language as a game, or a series of games. This has often been interpreted by post-modern philosophers as suggesting that Wittgenstein introduced an element of playfulness into the philosophy of language. It is worth looking a little into Wittgenstein’s biography to find the extent to which this was definitely not the case. Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher, in that (by his own insistence) he actually had experience of teaching children. Reports of his teaching methods, clearly show, however, that he regarded language learning and language as such as more ‘game’ than ‘play’. It is more about the imposition of the herd instinct of a rugby match by force than allowing children naturally to play. In the much-quoted passage of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein’s description of the primitive ‘language game’ sounds more like a chain-gang or a production-line than anything it would be fun to be involved in. Michel Pêcheux, in Le Discours: structure ou événement uses a strip cartoon to mock precisely this kind of factory-floor approach to language learning writ large as linguistic theory.

Wittgenstein’s game-theory of language is echoed to some extent by the Sapir-Whorf approach to language, in which language determines or is determined by the core values of the tribe, giving it a sentimental but no less authoritarian twist. Structuralism picked up this essentially sentimental and conservative linguistic anthropological ideology, especially in the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Enter Chomsky.

Chomsky emerged on the scene in the 1950s with a set of investigative tools far in advance of anything that Saussure or Wittgenstein could ever have imagined. He was concerned to counter both the apparent arbitrariness that Saussure had unleashed and the culture-bound relativism that Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf seemed to propound. He was also spurred by an unflagging, very American, view of the nobility of the rational human spirit, and was funded by IBM.

To this end, Chomsky set about fusing Saussure’s revelations with a more conservative grammatical approach to language, while attempting to eschew the illiberalism that, according to Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf, this approach would tend to entail.

Grammar, according to Chomsky, is normative but confined to the mind. It is not therefore something that governments or ideologies or cultures can impose. It is, of course, a pared down sort of ‘universal’ grammar and Chomsky’s theories immediately came up against an overwhelming body of empirical evidence to the effect that such mental grammars are invariably overruled by cultural conventions and pure playfulness. Chomsky and his colleagues thus ‘invented’ the notion of ‘transformational’ grammar to account for this mismatch, thereby fusing Saussurian arbitrariness with a sort of neo-Kantian prescriptivism.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chomsky cashed in his intellectual chips at this point and turned his attention to a variety of liberal/left-wing causes that have sometimes verged on conspiracy theories. His followers were left with the messy business of cleaning up the contradictions he had left behind.
Leaderless yet uncomfortable with dissent, they opted for the arbitrary, while maintaining Chomsky’s originary faith in the rational human mind. A flurry of ‘transformational rules’ have subsequently merely re-written the traditional grammar books around a descriptivist but arguably less tolerant basis.

Transformational grammar merely revives a late-19th century debate that should have been laid to rest a long time ago. Should we respect people’s local way of speaking or encourage them, for the sake of self-advancement, to adopt a supposedly more rational norm? This is a very serious sociolinguistic contradiction dealt with playfully by George Bernard Shaw and George Cukor in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Like Henry Higgins, Liberal Chomskyan linguists tie themselves in knots to this day trying to reconcile these two contradictory aims.

Stephen Pinker, a liberal-minded Chomsky hanger-on and radical neo-Darwinist, bends over backwards to blandish the African-American community by suggesting (generously but patronizingly) that their argot is just as ‘rational’ as that of the white liberal élite, the implication being that, with tolerance and instruction, they could be incorporated into this elite. Black activist intellectuals argue that their discourse has more to do with a history of oppression and protest than with a common core of rationality shared with their historical oppressors. Pinker fails to do a similar analysis of the language of white trash, wherein lies a tale. In fact, he fails to do any serious analysis at all, basing his arguments on anecdote, presumption and hearsay. He arrogantly states at one point, that his argument could be proved true by a statistician in the course of an afternoon. So far as I am aware, no statistician has yet answered this puny call to arms.

Back in the trenches, a few linguists have started bucking the Chomskyan gravy-train. Word has it that the ouster of Chomsky is almost complete, as a result of a combination of serious scientific research and changing mores.

Chomsky is like the Queen of England. The grand old man whose dotty outdated view of the world academic linguists and language teachers who depend on his patronage will politely accept until he finally kicks off his clogs. After that the gloves are off, the game is on… I look forward to the fight.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 9a: games with ge-, y- a-, chaos and nothing

Although language change is heavily influenced by historical and political factors over time, we should not underestimate the extent to which the forms linguistic features take are determined by play.

Infants acquire their first language largely by playing with its sounds and shapes, its vocabulary items and their relation to the real world. Arguably, adult second-language learners should learn the same way, although this may not be practicable in a world in which there is not much time available to spend protracted periods just ‘messing around’.

The other main influence on language change is laziness. No-one wants to play a boring complex game. But no-one wants to play a boring simple one either and will tend to introduce complicating elements to liven things up.

Mainstream linguists lazily tend to boil down this complex interplay of playfulness, laziness and historical determination to mere arbitrariness. This, however, tends to blanch all the meaningfulness and fun out of language, reducing it to a bare skeleton of reductionist syntactic structures, supposedly related to intracranial synapses and the stern commandments of evolutionary biology and, as a result, overlooking the role that historical and cultural diversity and other idiosyncratic creative features have to play.

My fondness for prepositions is fuelled by the way that these little words, while apparently complying with their assumed arbitrary subservient status, are forever impishly defying the assumed arbitrary authority into whose service they are pressed, marshalled or cajoled.

Sometimes they are reduced to ghosts. But even that does not deprive them of a certain revenant power.

Take ge-. Every German speaker knows that ge- has a clear function in the established grammar of the Teutonic language. It indicates the past participle of a verb. Some might, albeit unconsciously, connect this with the ancient meaning of ge- as ‘together’. The idea of the perfective aspect in Old Germanic is connected with the idea of putting things together, tying things up, finishing things off and cutting off loose ends, to create the perfect Hegelian synthesis (Gestalt), in which the real truly does conform to a noble but potentially dangerous ideal.

English and other more peripheral Germanic languages started losing this ge- prefix quite early. Old English was already reducing it to y- and this process was accelerated by a constant influx of Danes on Viking long-ships, who were inclined to drop it altogether.

Y- persists as a badge of erudition and connection with tradition in Middle English and even later as an affectation, by now hopelessly confused with the a- prefix, which came, by happenstance, to have exactly the same pronunciation, and perform a merely decorative, at best metrical, function, with a soupçon of the original sense of ge- thrown in.

The times they are a-changing.

Nowadays, a- seems more laughably pretentious than ominously portentous and ge- irrevocably consigned to the garbage bin of linguistic history.
And yet, the ghosts, as ghosts do, have a way of not wanting to stay put in the ground.

“Game” is a word that is certainly on the rise, be it as a form of virtual entertainment that mimics physical sports for the couch-bound obese or as a euphemism for the gambling industry that is the sleazy sibling of presumably nobler financial transactions on which the whole world economy now depends.
“Game” is also used to refer to near-extinct species of wildlife corralled onto reserves as easy target practice for aspirant demagogues, the entitled and the super-rich.

It is also used as an adjective to imply willingness to enter into the team spirit, with an undertone of necessary humiliation. A whole ‘Game for a Laugh’ style of candid camera TV reality comedy shows have based themselves on this premise of the group humiliating an individual and the humiliated victim being expected to endure the further humiliation of publicly accepting this treatment in good grace. The process is so effective that North Korean dictators have recently used it as cover for surreptitiously assassinating their enemies in plain sight.

It is all just a game.

The English word game derives from Old German ‘ge-Mann’, meaning a group of men together and by extension the kind of things that a group of men tend to get up to together: getting pissed, pissing around, picking fights, plotting and conspiring against one another, harassing women, trashing the environment, and claiming that the resulting chaos reflects the natural order of things. Fair game, if not fair play.

Ge- is thus, through this seemingly benign word, in a disturbing manner, muscling its way back into the English language.

For the Love of Prepositions (Part 7) And…

Someone once asked me whether ‘and’ is a preposition or a conjunction. I thought this was an odd question at the time but, with the wisdom of experience and age, I have come to wonder whether there might indeed be some doubt as to the classification of this little functional word.

In recent years, I have been lumping all conjunctions, prepositions and referential words (like ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘who’, ‘that’ etc.) together and just calling them all ‘link-words’. They all do more or less the same kind of job and, although it is a humble one, it is vitally important. Consider the heavy lifting the word ‘it’ does (twice) in my last sentence. These lexical manual laborers account for around 25% of all written text in English and far outnumber verbs.

“And” is used in two distinct but obviously related ways. First to join two noun phrases or qualifiers (adjectives and the like) together (‘apples and pears’, ‘red and white stripes’); and, secondly, to indicate that one action follows or is accompanied by another (‘she closed the door and left’). In the case of the first of these uses, it behaves in a manner similar to the category of words described as ‘prepositions’ in the traditional nomenclature. However, when linking two phrases, it fits more comfortably into the ‘conjunctions’ category.

The hybrid nature of ‘and’ goes way back. Etymologically, it is a fusion of a variant of the very ancient ‘en/in’ preposition/prefix and the spatially referential word ‘da’=’there’. Literally, therefore, it originally meant ‘in there’ or ‘thereupon’ and was a far fancier formulation than it appears to be now, shorn even of its vowel and final consonantal cluster in ‘fish ‘n’ chips’ and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. This etymology also shows that its original usage tended to be conjunctive rather than merely additive.

Being used simply to link nouns and adjectives into a chain was a big step down in the world for once haughty ‘and’. And its fall from grace has been so steep that some modern-day prescriptivist grammarians would forbid its use at the start of a sentence, even though (or perhaps because) this was its main and much nobler function in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon England.

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse

In a recent press conference on the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, used the phrase “There is nothing that would conclude me that…”

There is something odd about the way this is formulated.

‘Conclude’ is a verb, like many in the English language, that hovers between transitive and intransitive status, but has a slightly different meaning in each case.

Transitive ‘conclude’ is more or less synonymous with ‘finish’, with extra emphasis on the finality of the process, or a ceremonial flourish. The two meanings may, of course, as is often the case, overlap.

Intransitive ‘conclude’ is more abstract. It can mean ‘draw a conclusion’ if the agent is human, or simply ‘end’ if the subject is inanimate, again, with slightly more emphasis than the near synonyms. Like other verbs of saying or thinking, ‘conclude’ can also be followed by a ‘that’ clause. Arguably, this should be construed as a transitive usage.

Linguists divide languages broadly into those that are ergative-absolutive (ergative for short) and those that are nominative-accusative (accusative for short), although this is by no means a rigid distinction. Most languages contain elements of both.

In an accusative language, the subject/agent of both an intransitive and a transitive verb share the same form or position in the sentence, while the object of a transitive verb has a distinct form or position. In ergative languages, the subject or agent of a transitive verb has a distinct form, while the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive one share the same properties.

It is generally the case that, in accusative languages, the object form is viewed as deviant, while the subject form deviates little from the root form. In ergative languages, the opposite tends to be the case: the agent of a transitive verb has a special form, while the object/ergative subject is akin to the root.

English is essentially an accusative language, although this has been eroded over time, as accusative endings, with the exception of some pronouns, have disappeared, and word order has become the main determinant of the relation between the subject and object of a verb.

Many linguists however have pointed out that there are many ergative features of English, including so-called ergative verbs, and that these may be growing in number in recent years. English may thus be going through a transition from a primarily accusative to a semi-ergative language.

Phrases such as

  1. The door closes.
  2. This car drives well.

suggest that there may be a shift towards using the pre-verbal position to indicate the object of an intransitively-construed transitive motion or action.

This, of course, is by no means a fully ergative form, but suggests that English may be drifting in that direction.

Remember that, in accusative languages, the object is regarded as deviant or subordinate (that is what declension means), while in ergative languages, it is the agent of a transitive verb that is viewed as a deviation from the norm of an otherwise static peaceful impersonal world. It is perhaps no coincidence that most ergative languages are very ancient (e.g. Sumerian) or have very ancient roots (e.g. Basque, Australian first nations languages). They stem from an age in which human agency played a much less important role than the timeless impersonal processes of the natural world.

Let us go back to Sean Spicer and try to unpack the underlying unconscious meaning of his words. I deliberately leave the content of the ‘that’ clause blank; it matters little to the argument I am presenting here, which concerns more the way supposedly factual statements are now being framed and is relevant to the current debate about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’.

First of all (although this is not the most important point), note how clipped the phrase is. Grammatical purists, who turn their noses up at Twitter and TV, would argue that it should read “There is nothing that would lead me to the conclusion that…” or more succinct “Nothing would lead me to the conclusion that…”

But neither of these formulations works on Twitter or TV. The first is two wordy; an impatient TV sound-bite listener or keystroke-stingy online reader is already bored by the time we arrive at the second ‘that’. The second sounds negative from the start, with nothing as the subject of the verb. “There is” tempers “nothing”, establishing a more positive tone.

Next note the deviant use of the ‘indirect object’ “conclude me”. This is an extension of ‘tells me’ etc. but also, perhaps more importantly, marks a clear contrast with the bald absolute “I conclude…” Spicer of course is well aware that his function is that of a ‘spokesperson.’ He is supposed to avoid the first person singular, but there is no reason not to use “the president” or “the administration” as the agent of the sentence.

The formulation thus pushes away any kind of agency or responsibility. The conclusion ergatively drives itself.

Such a formulation allows for a lot of wiggle room. Challenged as to the veracity of the statement, Spicer can fall back on a “But I didn’t say that….” Nor does he have to appeal to some abstract agency “the American people,” “we”, “God” or even his boss.

We see the same phenomenon in Trump’s thumpingly repeated slogan “Make America great again!”

This could be construed as an imperative exhortation, but makes little sense if read that way. Neither does it fill the zero subject place with an individual or collective subject. Despite Trump’s obvious narcissistic tendencies, his discourse is strewn with this kind of ergative-minded abstract subterfuge. You could be forgiven for thinking that his favorite pronoun is “I”. In fact he more often uses ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, or, given his penchant for the brevity of Twitter, simply zero. The ingenuousness and the sense of responsibility conveyed by Obama’s “Yes we can,” is instantly undermined.

Ergative language is fundamentally alienating and fetishizing in the Marxist sense. The door which closes is either closed by someone, blown by the wind, or programmed to do so. A car drives well because thousands of workers and designers and engineers have labored to manufacture it.

There is no invisible hand, only the hands of thousands and millions of agents. Trump with his small lily-white hands that have never fixed bricks in mortar themselves can perhaps be forgiven for not understanding that.

What Spelling Tells Us about Ourselves

Spelling norms, as any papyrologist or epigraphist will tell you, are a relatively new development in human language history.

In British English, spelling conventions emerged out of the needs of printers and readers. Different publishers have developed slightly different solutions to these needs over the years.

Despite this apparently liberal approach to orthography, in the early 1960s, I still had to endure corporal punishment for spelling a word ‘wrong’ at school, and was eventually lauded, when I mastered the bizarre ‘rules’ by rote from a book and excelled in exams. I was six years old.

British English has its own ecosystem of fiercely defended tribal spelling rules, which vary from one institution to another. A whole caste of copy editors has made a living for itself, doing due obeisance to the cherished norms of the institution to which they are allied and questioning those of others.

In the United States, a different ethos prevails. Noah Webster, a 19th century lexicographer, suggested a spelling reform, which has been largely accepted by all sectors of society, to the point where it has become the fixed norm. Webster viewed this reform as just a modest first stage in an ongoing simplification and phoneticization of spelling rules. The second much more radical stage was cut short by his death and by forces resistant to too rapid social change. Webster’s phase II has nevertheless filtered down into the popular psyche and ‘nite’ for ‘night’ and ‘thru’ for ‘through’ are still commonly seen on street signs.

Neo-Latin languages have traditionally been very fussy about spelling rules. It is a way of both emphasizing their Imperial Roman pedigree and of establishing their prestige as major languages in their own right. The arcane French spelling system, which bears no relation whatsoever to phonetics, is a little Latin lesson constantly tugging away at the otherwise Barbarian-leaning Gallic soul. The abolition of the circumflex accent—one marker of an original Latin S—spurred by a new passion for European Union norms and a desire for digital simplicity, was widely criticized and is largely ignored.

Similar attempts to remove the tilde from official EU Spanish likewise failed.

Portuguese is a much more complex case. The language has evolved over time a system of accents, similar to those of French, which not only distinguish the exact sound of the vowel (necessary, since Portuguese has seven vowels compared to Latin’s five) but also indicate the main stressed syllable in a word. The case of Portuguese is compounded by the fact that—like British and US spelling conventions—the orthography current in Portugal and its colonies and in Brazil rapidly diverged. This is further compounded by the fact that neither Portugal nor Brazil is a country that enjoys much economic, military or cultural heft in the modern world.

As a result, Portuguese has gone through a series of international committee-devised authoritarian but contested spelling reforms, the most recent in 2009.

K and Y are not considered letters of the Portuguese alphabet in certain circles, even though they appear everywhere in everyday life. A great poet once bemoaned the decreed loss of y… “Abismo” means nothing, he argued, the very shape of “abysmo” already suggests plumbing the abyss. More recently another poet has bemoaned the loss in the most recent spelling reform of the circumflex on the first o in the word “vôo” (meaning flight). The diacritic hovers over the word, like a UFO, lifting it up. “Voo” is an impoverishment, more start-up brand name than real word.

Online chat and text messaging have brought a whole new range of spelling deviancies and new norms. We are oscillating these days between ‘u’ and ‘you,’ ‘4’ and ‘for’, ‘2’ and ‘to’. The former could be seen by some as sloppy and lazy, whilst many regard the latter as fussy, patronizing and wasteful of precious microseconds of keyboard time.

The vogue for and convenience of brevity have created a whole new communications etiquette. Recent studies have found that recipients of short functional courtesy text messages that are ended with a full stop view them as rude.

As with all aspects of language, in the case of spelling, the opinion of a majority of language consumers almost always prevails in the end, however rigorously reforms or protection orders are enforced by supposed authorities.

Spelling thus tells us something about the character of a nation. Brits like a wide range of choices. In the US, people largely accepted the Webster norms, because of their rationality and simplicity, even though they were under no obligation to do so, but balked at more radical reforms. The French-speaking public rejects excessively radical and over-conservative linguistic diktats alike, resisting the removal of the circumflex but welcoming Anglicisms. In the Lusophone world, imperfect rules handed down from on high are grudgingly accepted in a manner tinged with nostalgia and certainty that there will soon be another round of new regulations.