Articles, quizzes, and grammar tips for word-lovers everywhere

Tag: English usage

Is it true that the word ‘tragedy’ originally meant ‘goat-song’?

Grinning goat

It is absolutely true. Many theories have been offered to explain it. One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat. The contests were part of worship to Dionysus, involving chants and dances in his honour. The Romans knew Dionysus later as Bacchus, god […]

Putting the accent on English

Putting the accent on English

A recent article in the New York Times describes a somewhat controversial (and no longer current) program that was run in public schools in the state of Arizona for nearly a decade – sending monitors to judge whether English teachers had an accent. If a teacher was thought to have too strong an accent, he […]

Of moms and men: what two small words reveal about big social changes

Of moms and men

The Oxford English Dictionary’s evidence files reveal an interesting trend: in recent years, the number of phrases designating types of mothers (on the model of [X] mother) has grown much faster than the number of comparable terms for fathers. Since 1990, OED has tracked roughly 40% more maternal terms than their paternal counterparts. But why […]

Truly. Madly. Deep.

Truly. Madly. Deep.

A few years ago, I became unusually vocal over a particular bit of linguistic abuse. Unusually, because the lexicographical instinct is to be descriptive of language change at all times, and sanguine about those bugbears that others decry. But this particular trend had me sufficiently riled that I wrote an article entitled ‘The Adverb is […]

Participles, and how not to dangle them…

Dangling kitten

True confessions time: back in the dim and distant days when I first embarked on lexicography, I was tasked with drafting potted biographies of famous people. In trying to be succinct, I had a rather bad habit of writing in the following vein: ‘Born in Russia, his most famous opera is …’ The problem stems […]

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Punctuational perplexities

Punctuation

Are you punctilious about punctuation, or do you regard it as a hassle or a minefield? Many people, including no doubt the person who posted the example below on a social networking site, seem to share the latter view. It often appears that, rather than get it wrong, there are those who prefer to omit […]

Five events that shaped the history of English: part one

Anglo-Saxon alphabet

The Anglo-Saxon settlement It’s never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Little is known of this period with any certainty, […]

A journey through spin

A journey through spin

Spin is one of those words which could perhaps now do with a bit of ‘spin’ in its own right. From its beginnings in the idea of honest labour and toil (in terms of etymology, spin descends from the spinning of fabric or thread), it has come to suggest the twisting of words rather than […]

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