The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage For readers who would like to have definitions of technical terms, the first 175 posts of this blog have been supplied with glossaries and are accessible by purchasing The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage, available from and other sellers.


This book is not a usage manual in the conventional sense. It is a sui generis series of compact, self-contained essays, arranged into chapters by broad topic categories of problematic points of linguistic usage in contemporary American speech and writing, and cast in an uncompromisingly analytical style that is nevertheless accessible to any educated reader with a love of words, an inquisitiveness about language, and an appetite for exegesis.



This book is not a usage manual in the conventional sense. It is a sui generis series of compact, self-contained essays, arranged into chapters by broad topic categories of problematic points of linguistic usage in contemporary American speech and writing, and cast in an uncompromisingly analytical style that is nevertheless accessible to any educated reader with a love of words, an inquisitiveness about language, and an appetite for exegesis.

The author's project has been motivated in large part by the assumption that there exists a huge and entirely untapped reservoir of interest among the listening and reading public in questions of pronunciation, grammar, and etymology that has not been satisfied by other sources.

It is based on the author's blog,, many of whose posts have been revised and adapted for the present purpose. Judging by the countries of visitors to the website, there is an audience for this book outside the Anglophone world, particularly in Germany, Brazil, The Netherlands, Russia, and Ukraine.

The bias of the author is unabashedly prescriptivist. It is formed by a long-standing theoretical interest in and empirical observation of English usage, oral and written. Much of the material for analysis is drawn from the language of contemporary media, both print and broadcast. The discussion of examples frequently opens out on a perspective that takes in deeper questions of value and society in America as revealed in present-day language use.

The essays that comprise the chapters are what might be called linguistic vignettes. They call attention to points of grammar and style in contemporary American English, especially in cases where the language is changing due to innovative usage, including what older generations of speakers would consider errors in speech and writing.

The chapter headings are not meant to be mutually exclusive, which results in a certain amount of overlap, as when pronunciations have stylistic as well as phonetic outcomes, or when word formation is included under syntax. There are no sub-chapters because the detailed Index is meant to serve as a convenient way of facilitating any search for specific topics. This also allows for the order of entries within chapters to be similarly loose.

A book which deliberately mimics the miscellany genre and eschews the format of a strictly academic presentation driven by an argument will of necessity strike some readers as lacking guidance about the ordering and selection of its entries. The six chapter headings can only mitigate the impression of randomness in part, but the book is not meant to be read consecutively in any event but sampled repeatedly in no particular order.

Occasionally the scope is broadened to subsume languages other than English (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, Russian, Japanese), especially when a comparative perspective helps clarify a historical point of English usage. The brief concluding chapter on poetics is conceived as a pendant, since it deals mostly with Russian, the author's mother tongue and the lifelong focus of his activities as a scholar.

The mode of presentation differs significantly from conventional usage manuals by its self-consciously academic diction, which consistently recurs to scholarly formulations in furtherance of analytical acuity. In every case where an analysis contains technical or recondite vocabulary, a Glossary precedes the body of the essay so that a reader unfamiliar with the terminology of linguistics can more easily follow and make sense of the argument. In cases of doubt as to whether a particular item should be glossed––and glossed repeatedly––the decision has been to err on the side of redundancy, since the format of the book is aimed at inviting readers to browse through the self-sufficient entries rather than necessarily reading them in consecutive order. The Master Glossary, which provides a completely synoptic register of all items glossed in the text, can always be consulted in case any particular essay is opaque as to any item of its technical vocabulary.

The practice of glossing every text is abandoned only in the three Epilegomena, which are meant to summarize the theoretical framework of the book for a strictly academic audience, while being of possible intellectual interest to the adventurous general reader as well. The gist of the second Epilegomenon is also to be found in Chapter 2.

Only the Epilegomena contain footnotes. In this respect, the text takes a leaf from Edward Sapir's classic Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, whose author deliberately elided diacritic signs as burdensome to all but the initiate.

Occasionally, the Glossaries notwithstanding, readers may find it necessary to consult a dictionary, but this is taken to be ineluctable, given the variable linguistic competence and background of the book's intended audience, which doubtless includes readers for whom English is not a native or habitual language. The author's guiding principles in this respect are his own lifelong word gluttony and love of dictionary excavation, a delight in the richness of the English language, which undergirds his conviction that those who encounter unfamiliar words when reading this book will, more often than not, choose to look them up––and will, moreover, find the effort rewarding.

The unique form of the book's presentation is aimed at satisfying the natural curiosity of readers who are alert to the peculiarities of present-day American English as they pertain to pronunciation, grammar, and style, and who wish to be enlightened about them in a way that does not "dumb down" or compromise the language in which the explanations are couched. This extends to the book's tone, which is guided not by considerations of political correctness or politesse, which the author regards as having no bearing on the presentation's content, but by aims that are first and foremost didactic, propaeduetic, and hortatory. At the risk of offending those readers who will recognize their own speech habits among the examples brought up for criticism, the tone of the essays is occasionally censorious, but that is unavoidable if the thrust is distinctly educative and not merely informative. In other words, no attempt has been made to buffer the book's stance on error.

It is hoped that a book which addresses itself to what is technically called orthoepy, the doctrine and study of correct speech in the broadest sense, will find a receptive audience among readers of all ages and backgrounds.

New Feature
Terms with dotted underscores are hyperlinks to definitions. Hover over them for more information.

Ersatz English

English in the twenty-first century is veritably the global lingua franca, the universal medium of linguistic communication between people whose native language is not English; and between people in situations where only some of the interlocutors have English as a native (or “near-native”) language. This sometimes leads to the psychologically interesting phenomenon when a person imagines that he/she is speaking English, but in fact the version of English being produced is defective grammatically as well as phonetically, and can (only at best) be called something like “ersatz English,” the meaning of ersatz being ‘a substitute or imitation (usually, an inferior article instead of the real thing)’. This sort of faux English is often heard, for instance, in interviews with African and Asian speakers on the BBC World Service––in a phonetic rendering, moreover, that is so impenetrable as to be barely recognizable and hardly comprehensible even by professional linguists.

Unfortunately, this kind of ungrammatical patois can now be found in written form as well. In an era when book publishing is in retreat and economically less and less viable, publishing houses leave the written form of English unedited to its authors and routinely offer books for sale that are rife with grammatical and stylistic errors. This species of ersatz English is especially to be found in publications by authors whose native language is Spanish or one of the Germanic tongues. Thus some Scandinavian and Dutch authors, having studied and heard English from early childhood on, have obviously been lulled into thinking that they have a command of the language that is error-free and adequate to the demands of scholarly discourse, when in fact what they say and write is grossly short of the mark. The loss in some global sense redounds to the great English language itself as a cultural institution, whose native speakers must often suffer in silence while being assaulted by speech (written and oral) that is only a specious simulacrum of the norm.


Assertion sub rosa (Lengthening of Clause-Final Unstressed Syllables in Female Speech)

One increasingly noticeable feature of the language of younger female speakers in contemporary American English is the lengthening of clause-final syllables, both open (ending in a vowel) and closed (ending in a consonant), in unstressed syllables. Thus words like America and negotiation, when occurring at the end of clauses, routinely have hyper-long unstressed vowels in the speech of women but not of men, most noticeably when the syllable is followed by a pause.

One possible explanation is compensatory. Lengthened syllables (syllables of greater duration) are always marked vis-à-vis their normal counterparts, and this marked character can serve the function of emphasis sub rosa. Speech in which this occurs can be interpreted as an attempt covertly to convey assertory meaning where overt assertion would undercut the generally apotropaic flag under which women’s speech––in American English, but not only––generally flies.


The Mangling of French by Speakers of American English

When native speakers of one language try to reproduce the words of another language, the results will vary naturally and understandably with the linguistic skills of the imitators. In this respect, the speakers of certain languages—Japanese in particular comes to mind—have a deservedly bad reputation for their utter inability to refrain from mangling the vocables of foreign languages. In this respect, speakers of English are somewhere in the middle of the scale of success when it comes to this task.

Speakers whose native language is American English do not, as a rule, fare well with French, despite the ubiquity of French borrowings in English and the frequency of French words and phrases that happen to be intercalated in English utterances as a matter of course. Particularly glaring examples are items that end in –eur in French (like entrepreneur and liqueur), which are typically rendered with the vowel of English pure rather than the more authentic vowel of sir. The latter is certainly within the grasp of an English speaker, who typically mangles the French by modeling their pronunciation on the orthography. Also badly served are words that end in –oir, such as the frequent item noir of film noir, which are regularly distorted by having the final [-r] omitted in utterances containing them by Americans. [ADDENDUM: Cf. the all-too-common mispronunciation in the media (as pointed out to Y-H-B by Jacobus Primus) of the phrase coup de grâce with the final consonant of  grâce missing, making it sound ludicrously like gras 'grease' instead of 'mercy'!]

Lately, because of its prominence in world affairs, the designation of the organization of doctors who go by the appellation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) comes in regularly for mispronunciation in the mouths of the American media. The first word, Médecins, is actually easy to reproduce, once one knows that the second vowel is elided in French, hence disyllabic and not trisyllabic, and the final vowel equivalent to the nasal vowel of aunt.

The upshot of all this distortion is inescapable, namely the deep-seated idea in the American psyche that FRENCH IS AN EXOTIC LANGUAGE, with a hopelessly wayward phonetics that lies beyond the reach of speakers of American English. Vive la France!


Gender-Specific Designations of Human Referents: Vacillations in Usage

In contemporary American English usage, the words on either side of the virgule man/woman, boy/girl, gentleman/lady, male/female can be used more or less interchangeably, but in some cases it remains unclear which of the two alternatives is stylistically appropriate. (This is the sort of vacillation that facilitates the well-know sexist joke: Q: “Who was that lady I saw you with? A: That was no lady, that was my wife.”). Women in particular are sensitive to being referred to by the word “woman” rather than “lady.” Colloquially, of course, women refer to themselves and to other members of the female sex casually as “girls,” even when the referents are well beyond girlhood in age.

Occasionally, with women designees in particular, one becomes unsure as to the stylistically appropriate term. This was brought to mind recently when Y-H-B was being tended to by two nurses (female) in a hospital examining room. When one nurse left the room, the patient asked the other the first’s name and vacillated before choosing woman. Lady would clearly have been inappropriate, but at the same time woman seemed coarse, especially after being treated so kindly and gently by her. Once having uttered woman nevertheless, the patient wished that he had avoided the impasse by choosing “other nurse” (“colleague” would doubtless have sounded pompous under the circumstances) in framing the question. This sort of linguistic problem, let it be noted, rarely comes up in referring to adult males, a reminder of the semiotic fact that the feminine is the marked gender in all languages, regardless of whether that opposition is grammatically codified or not.


Productive but Wrong (Childish Linguistic Errors)

A five-year-old boy whose native language is American English answers his mother and uses two forms of the past tense in consecutive sentences that exemplify productive rules of verb morphology but happen to be wrong, viz. *holded (hold) and *bended (bend; but cf. on bended knee). Eventually, of course, typically after having been corrected, he will learn that the correct preterits are held and bent, respectively, and are part of the class of verbs with irregular past-tense forms (the so-called strong verbs).

The bulk of a language’s morphology conforms to rules that determine the productive sector of its structure, and unproductive rules (like the change of root vowel in English accompanied by the suffixation of a desinence in the preterit) tend to disappear with time. Children understandably apply the productive rules first when learning their native language and only later acquire a mastery of the unproductive sector.

An interesting question of linguistic theory is why unproductive forms (= exceptions) perdure in every language despite the general tendency to whittle away exceptions and replace them by productive ones. Some unproductive sectors of the morphology are large enough (like the English strong verbs) to constitute a distinct class of exceptions with its own localized raison d’être, although it may be difficult to define. Others are isolated enough to drop out of the language with time, although they persist in the speech of those who––perhaps unconsciously––use them to define their linguistic identity in terms of superiority to speakers who are ignorant of the traditional norm. Eventually, of course, the norm changes with the death of those who adhere to it, and the productive rules inevitably triumph, solidifying the new norm.

Even within unproductive sectors of the vocabulary there may occur changes toward the elimination of certain forms. Thus, to continue with the English preterit, not all vowel alternations in strong verbs are being sustained in contemporary speech and writing. Instead of the normative shrank and stank, for instance, one increasingly observes the substitution of the past participle form shrunk and stunk for shrank and stank. In the long run, given the strength of this shift, the traditional forms will wither away and disappear. Meanwhile, those speakers who adhere to the older norm will thereby define themselves linguistically and culturally vis-à-vis the increasingly larger group who use only the newer forms while recognizing the extancy of what used to be their only correct counterparts.


Barba non facit philosophum (The Power of Proverbs)

All languages have a store of proverbs and similar sayings, Russian, Japanese, and English (my three “native” tongues) having numerically the greatest ones. These formulaic utterances are commonly stored in the linguistic data banks of users, to be recalled, sometimes silently, when the occasion prompts them. Their typically paronomastic form (“A stitch in time saves nine”) enhances the thought encapsulated in them and makes them easier to remember.

Thus it was last week, when Y-H-B attended the Charles S. Peirce International Centennial Congress at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (cf. the account by Spencer Case, “The Man With a Kink in His Brain,”, July 21, 2014), that the perfusion of bearded men among the attendees caused the Latin proverb, “Barba non facit philosophum” (‘A beard does not a philosopher make’), to insinuate itself into his brain during all four days of the gathering. The story of the origin of this saying includes an animadversion not only on the concerned individual’s facial hair but on his beggarly attire. Needless to say, in this day and age when academics––let alone philosophers––have succumbed to the general impulse to dress informally, the attendees of the male persuasion in Lowell strove mightily, not only to explicate Peirce’s cast of mind but to replicate his (hirsute) physiognomy. One can only wonder whether the Latin proverb ever gave them pause.


Phrase, Not Term

In contemporary media language, an increasingly frequent phenomenon is the misapplication of the word term when what is meant is phrase. This was exemplified in full by a discussion this morning on the NPR program Morning Edition that explored how Americans of a certain age wish to refer to themselves (as well as hear themselves referred to). In assessing phrases like older adult and senior citizen, the discussants mistakenly kept using the word term instead of phrase.

This error evidently derives from the mindless transference of the plurale tantum terms––as in phrases like on good terms with, terms of an agreement, etc.––to the designation of the singular term, where the latter, strictly speaking, consists of a single word and not more than one. Lamentably, this error has now been legitimated as standard usage in dictionaries, as reflected, for example, in the following definition: ‘a word or group of words designating something, especially in a particular field, as atom  in physics, quietism  in theology, adze  in carpentry, or district leader [sic!] in politics’ (

The historical process exemplified by what started as an error needs to be taken account of in describing the range of factors underlying linguistic change. All living languages, wherever they are spoken, inevitably include examples that owe their origins to failures of thought and other species of misinterpretation but become canonized over time as correct by speakers who have either lost the feeling of their erroneousness or been born at a stage of the language when the transition is largely complete.


Sinning Against Usage (Dead Last, but Flat Broke)

Idiomatic phrases and constructions are part of linguistic usage and as such not amenable to alteration. A command of one’s own language includes the knowledge of idioms. Violation of the idiomatic norms of a language is a sign of deficiency.

In a recent utterance attributed by the media to Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Clinton mentioned that when she and Bill left the White House, they were “dead broke.” American English does not have such a phrase, the idiom being “flat broke.” One can be “dead drunk” and “dead last,” but not *dead broke (in linguistic notation the asterisk signifies either an incorrect or a reconstructed––hence questionable––form).

How should one evaluate a sin against usage? In the case of a prominent politician like Hillary Clinton (who actually writes remarkably well), one can perhaps chalk the mistake up to the heat of the media moment. At the same time, usage is a form of truth, since by its very fixity, it is immutable. A violation of usage––whatever the circumstances––is, therefore, a transgression against verity, i. e., a sin against truth. Such a mistake, especially emanating from the mouth of a politician, thereby speaks against their veracity.


World-View and Untranslatability (The Case of Yiddish)

Because of the deep historical and cultural connectedness between world-view and language in traditional societies, it has often been pointed out by anthropologists and linguists that words and phrases are not necessarily translatable from one language into another. Yiddish stands as a well-known exemplar of this situation, despite the steady penetration of Yiddish vocables into languages (like English or Russian) whose speakers include sizable Jewish segments.

It has been remarked that for Jews––and not only those from the ghetto––life consists of four elements, designated by the following Yiddish words (all derived from Hebrew originals): tsores (צרה) ‘troubles’, nakhes (מכּה) ‘pleasure, especially that of a parent from a child’, makes (מכות) ‘abcess; scourge, plague’, and yikhes (ייִחוס) ‘descent, lineage, pedigree’. Of these, perhaps the most familiar one to English speakers is tsores (also transliterated tsures and tsuris). But the translation ‘troubles’ cannot do justice to what the Yiddish word connotes in the Jewish worldview. Here is a piece of personal linguistic folklore that will illustrate this assertion.

A paternal distant cousin of Y-H-B known in the family only as “Uncle Misha” was routinely cited in the appropriate conversational context for his having excogitated the humorous rhyming couplet (a takeoff on Cicero), “[Latin] O tempora or mores/[Russian] O vremena, o tsores [О времена, о цорес].” The original has Cicero deploring the viciousness and corruption of his age, for which the literal translation is ‘oh what times!, oh what customs!’ The use of the Yiddish word tsores in Uncle Misha’s version immediately shifts the semantic dimension into the age-old experiential context of Eastern European Jewry, a world utterly incompatible with that of ancient Rome. (By the bye, this is the same Uncle Misha who made an appearance in an earlier post on the word continental, namely the picaresque personage who escaped death by firing squad in revolutionary Kiev, immigrated to Paris, and lived there into his hundreds as a wealthy arms dealer. Among his other (putative) witticisms was “Il y a une différance entre air et courant d’air.”)


Ideology and Grammatical Error (The Feminine Pronouns)

Here is a contemporary example (from the editor’s introduction to a book published in 2010) of the untraditional generic use of the feminine pronoun instead of the masculine: “If mathematical reasoning is in some sense maximally perspicuous, then no other kind of reasoning can be capable, by dint of its greater perspicuity, of rescuing the mathematician when she goes wrong.” The writer of this sentence––a man––uses the feminine pronouns she/her without fail in every case where he/his is demanded by the norms of English grammar. This practice––perceived by Y-H-B as a verbal tic––is evidently intended by the writer as a badge of his ideological bias against the exclusivity of the masculine gender when the personal pronoun refers to a noun unspecified as to biological sex.

What writers of English who resort to the blatant inversion of the generic/specific distinction fail (or care not) to understand is that their practice is a grammatical error. This error is rooted in the markedness value of the feminine in all languages which have gender as a grammatical category. That value is marked, i. e., conceptually restricted vis-à-vis the masculine (and the neuter gender, if the latter is extant), which is correspondingly unmarked. In a language like English, where gender in nouns is not overtly specified morphologically (unlike, say, Russian), the only other way for gender to inhere in the grammatical makeup of a word is to be part of its lexical meaning. Thus woman can only refer to a member of the biologically female human sex, just as bitch in its straightforward (i. e., non-emotive, non-pejorative) application can only designate a female dog; or gander a male goose, etc.

Thus the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to a word like mathematician––which is neutral, i. e., undesignated lexically as to biological sex––is not only a violation of the rules of English grammar but a distortion of the specific/generic distinction rooted in nature, of which grammar, like biology, is an integral part. The ideological motivation for this contravention of grammar, far from advancing the cause of feminism, only serves to undercut it.


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