Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


August 13, 2020

Roslyn Petelin

Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

High-profile author Philip Pullman tweeted on Sunday about the new 50 pence English coin due for release by the Royal Mint on Friday, January 31.

“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” he said.

An Oxford comma is the comma inserted before “and” or “or” in a list to separate the final item in a list from the items that go before it.

Sir Philip lives in Oxford, which voted to remain in the European Union. He has written several bestselling books, including the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. He argues that the commemorative coin requires a comma between “prosperity” and “and” – a very controversial opinion.

When The Guardian republished his tweet in an article, hundreds of responses were posted within hours. Moderators removed many comments – presumably the most heated ones.

Exciting passions

The mention of the Oxford (or Harvard or serial) comma unfailingly attracts passionate advocates (of which I am one) and determined detractors.

As Comma Queen Mary Norris, former copy editor at The New Yorker, says:

Nothing, but nothing — profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse — excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. Individual publications have guidelines that sink deep into the psyches of editors and writers. The Times, like most newspapers, does without the serial comma. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism.

Although its use is widespread in North America, the Oxford comma is not as widely used in Australia and the UK.

The Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers merely says “sometimes a comma is placed between the last two items to ensure clarity” and doesn’t use it in the manual’s title.

The UK National Curriculum authority warns students will be penalised if they use a serial comma in a list of simple items such as “apples, cheese, and milk”.

Many of the detractors say: “I was taught at school not to use it.”

To them I would say: “Well, you were taught wrong!”

As one poster on The Guardian article comments:

The use of the Oxford comma is not standard practice [in the UK], merely because of the ignorant, narrow-minded grammar school teachers we had.

Many believe it should be used only to avoid ambiguity, as in Robert Fulford’s example of a blooper that occurred in a newspaper reporting on a documentary about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

My argument is deciding whether or not to use the Oxford comma is an unnecessary burden. I advocate using it at all times, although most journalists aren’t fans of the comma – perhaps because they can save a couple of spaces by omitting it.

The 50p coin

To return to the quote on the coin in question, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”, placing an Oxford comma after “prosperity”, as Pullman advocates, doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to sort out the problem with the quote.

The intent of the quote seems to apply “with all nations” to the three nouns, but by parsing out each section we can see this does not work.

Does “Peace with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.

Does “Prosperity with all nations” make grammatical sense? No.

Whatever committee adapted US President Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration principles “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations” by merely deciding to drop the Oxford comma and echo the rest of his words has resulted in this egregiously inept wording.

As admirable (or pedantic, depending on your feelings about the Oxford comma) as Pullman might be in advocating for the use of the Oxford comma on the coin, it’s clear this coin has committed more than one crime against the rules of grammar.

Five things people think they know about English grammar that make absolutely no sense

August 12, 2020

Professor of Linguistics, Anglia Ruskin University


People get corrected on their language all the time. With written language, this is mostly about spelling and punctuation. In some cases, though, – especially when speaking – we’re pulled up on our grammar. Whatever you think about grammar pedants, there are some times when they are just plain wrong. Here are five examples of grammar you may have been pulled up on which really make no sense at all, grammatically speaking.

Can versus may

How many accidents have been caused by overzealous teachers correcting their students’ language when they innocently ask: “Can I go to the toilet, please?” “You mean ‘May I go to the toilet?’” was the stock response whenever I asked – and it confused me because I, like everyone else, including the teacher, knew that “can” has two different meanings, depending on context.

Yes, it can describe what you are able to do (the “dynamic meaning” in linguistic terminology), but it can also dictate what is permitted. In fact, those same teachers would also say: “You can take your pencil cases out now” – using the permissive (or deontic) meaning.

The ability reading of “can” is older, but the oldest OED example of the permissive reading is from 1489, so the idea that “can” is only descriptive makes no sense. “Can I go to the toilet” is simply ambiguous. It can either describe your ability to (well, you get the idea) or it can mean: “Do I have your permission to go to the toilet?”

In fact, the word “may” is ambiguous in a similar way in statements (but not questions). Compare “You may come in now” with “It may rain later, judging by those clouds.”

So, in short, when asking permission you may use “may”, but you can also use “can”.

Well versus good

How many times have you been corrected for saying “I’m good, thanks” in answer to the question “How are you?” This is another kind of correction which makes no sense. The verb “be” (am, are, is, was, were) is what linguists call a “copular verb” (ascribing a property to a subject).

This verb can be followed by an adjective. Think: “It is cold”, “I am tired”. “I am good” is no different.

So, what are people objecting to here? There is another adjective “well” which can also be used to describe wellbeing and, until recently, was used rather than good for this purpose.

This adjective developed from the adverb “well” in Old English. Often when people correct “I am good” they claim that we need an adverb here. In fact, the opposite is true – “be” needs to be followed by an adjective and “well” only works because it can be either an adverb or an adjective.

So, the moral of the story is that all’s fine with both well and good. “I’m well” is older, but “I’m good” is first recorded in 1921, so only people over the age of 99 can claim it to be a recent abomination.

You and me

This is something that gets corrected again and again – and it makes little sense, because many people say “you and me” or “me and you” whenever they join these two little words together (in a coordination).

Of course, there is some logic to saying that we should use “you and I” as a subject – as “I” is the subject form. You would not say “me like chocolate”, and so – according to some – you should not say (or write) “you and me like chocolate”.

What makes no sense is when people are corrected for using “you and me” in object position or after a preposition such as “for”. People say “for you and I”, because they want to avoid saying “for you and me”, but we wouldn’t say “for I” would we? This “hypercorrection” shows us that the distinction between subject/non-subject is breaking down in this context.

Things get even more complex when you joint two possessors together. Is it “mine and John’s book” or “my and John’s book”, “John’s and my book” or even “me and John’s book”? I’ve heard people use all of these.

Whom or who?

“Whomever wants to help – can”, says Walter White in Breaking Bad. In fact, White says “whom” a lot. I guess this is because he is an (admittedly somewhat corrupted) high school chemistry teacher and using “whom” marks him out as an educated person. But what is “whom”?

Once upon a time, English was a language with rich grammatical case (like Latin, German, Russian or Polish) – a means of encoding whether a noun phrase is being used as a subject, object, indirect object etc.

We still have it to some extent in our pronoun system (as discussed in the previous point), and we used to make a subject/non-subject distinction with who/whom too. Nowadays, most English speakers no longer make this distinction, and many people who use “whom” use it (because of hypercorrection) in contexts where it would not have been used historically, like Walter White does.

Avoiding the passive

The passive is to be avoided at all costs. To be honest, this was not really advice that I received at school but it is something I have been told (oops – that people have told me) at many training sessions about good writing in my adult life.

This myth has already been debunked online, notably Language Log – but it is so commonly cited that it needs to be mentioned here. The passive is just a way of making the undergoer of an active sentence into a subject, and we use it, especially, when we don’t want to say who the instigator of something was.

When I wrote “I have been told” above, I did so precisely because I didn’t want to specify exactly who had done the telling. The passive allows me to do this. Now, in some cases, we need to know who did something. The passive allows us to include this information too “I have been told by some people”. In fact, because this information is optional, a case could be made that including it actually creates emphasis.

So, in short, there is nothing wrong with the passive. Just like there is nothing wrong with using “can” instead of “may” or saying “I’m good”. We’re all entitled to our grammatical preferences – but grammar itself does not care about them one bit.


“Do you speak ‘Euro English’?” — “What is it about?”

August 11, 2020

By Lindsey Johnstone (

Now that the UK has left the European Union – albeit with one foot in the door until 31 December – there are now no remaining member states with English as their official language.

In both Ireland and Malta, English is an official language, but both countries have selected their national tongues – Irish and Maltese – as their EU-nominated language.

But Brexit is unlikely to result in citizens of Europe shunning English. In a 2012 report by the European Commission it was found that English was the most widely-spoken foreign language in the EU, understood by 38% of respondents to a survey.

English was the mother tongue of only 13% of those that took part in the survey, in joint second place with Italian and behind German, the native language of 16% of EU citizens.

A total of two-thirds of European citizens, however, considered English the most useful language after their mother tongue, and four in five believe it is the most important for their children to learn. A 2017 survey by Eurostat found that 95% of students in the bloc were studying English as a second language.

Taking all this into consideration, figures for second languages spoken by UK citizens are unsurprisingly low, with the prevalence of speakers of their own language perhaps at least partly explaining a lack of incentive for them to learn another. In 2016, Eurostat reported that 65 per cent of Brits had no knowledge of any foreign language, the highest percentage in the EU.

But English won’t be following its native speakers out the doors of EU institutions with Brexit – not only has it been confirmed that it will remain an official EU language, but there is an unofficial language, derived from English, that Brits can lay little claim to.

Indeed, this language belongs more to the EU as an entity than to any member state, current or former – it is called Euro English.

What is Euro English?

“It is a little bit of a messy use of English. It’s people trying to express themselves in English but very often taking direct translations from their native languages, plus adding to that a kind of technocratic language that comes from the European institutions,” said German MEP Terry Reintke, of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance.

“In the meetings where we don’t have interpretation, and where people people communicate in English, this is how the communication works.”

In short, Euro English is the everyday, pidgin version of the language, as spoken by the people working in the EU’s institutions – an amalgam of jargon, British English, the English spoken by non-native speakers with all its inherent quirks and common mistakes, and terms borrowed from the 23 other official languages from across the bloc.

The term was coined in 1986 by German linguist Broder Carstensen, who said: “The English these people use is also a kind of Euro-English, and it is obvious that it will be rather different from the real present-day English usage that was its original model.”

Reintke agrees that it is a vernacular quite unlike the English she heard spoken while she was living in England and Scotland, prior to first arriving at the European Parliament for an internship in 2010, and said it was one that she had to get used to.

She gives some examples: “The most obvious are [words] that in real English, British English, we wouldn’t use [as] a plural. The most common is ‘information’ – in Euro English, people take it directly from their own language and say ‘informations’ [in French, for example, the noun information is plural – les informations].

“One of the things that my Irish flatmate, who also works for the EU, always points out is that when somebody says, for example, ‘I play football, don’t I?,’ in Euro English people say, ‘I play football, non?’. Instead of using the terms ‘isn’t it, don’t I, do you,’ we just use the question non?, which in a lot of languages is a way of expressing that.

“The most recent [and pertinent] example was the term ‘home office’ which obviously in British English doesn’t have the same meaning [in the UK the Home Office is a government department].

“Very recently I tweeted something using the term ‘home office’ and I had a lot of followers who were native English speakers who were a little bit puzzled about what I was trying to say.”

Other commonly used Euro English terms and constructions include the word “possibility” in lieu of “opportunity” – derived from the French term “la possibilité,” which means both; and usage of the possessive construction “the pen of my aunt” borrowed from Romance languages, rather than “my aunt’s pen”.

Words from other languages relating to technology also often replace those a native English speaker would use: SMS rather than text, Handy rather than mobile phone (from the commonly used German term).

“What” is often replaced by “how” in the phrase “what do you call it,” as seen in European languages including Italian, French, German and Polish.

In Euro English, the word “occasional” is replaced by “punctual,” while another time-related construct that would be a non-sequitur to native English speakers is the use of “finally” where they would use “in the end”: “Finally, I decided to stay in Brussels.”

How legitimate is it?

Some academics have suggested that many of these characteristics are no more than learners’ mistakes. Certainly the author of this 2016 European Court of Auditors report, entitled Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications – aimed at its staff, and one of the few written traces of the language that can be found in official documents, as according to an EU official Euronews spoke to “it does not officially exist” – seems to take this view.

Jeremy Gardner writes: “A number of the errors mentioned in this paper can be ascribed less to a question of meaning than to an aspect of English grammar that seems to have gone relatively unnoticed in the English teaching in European schools – the distinction between countable and uncountable (or mass) nouns… This concept is fundamental for an understanding of the errors found with words like ‘action’, ‘aid’, ‘competence’, ‘conditionality’, ‘training’, ‘screening’, ‘precision’ and ‘prefinancing’.”

These directives aside, Euro English seems to be something that exists more in reality than in theory, and in one particular reality only. One EU official who spoke to Euronews said: “It’s not something that easy to grasp if you’re not in the European institutions bubble.”

He continued: “I think in writing, you won’t find many traces of Euro English. It’s when you don’t have an editor scrubbing your text that you will see it coming to life. It’s more something you hear during meetings and informal conversations. I think it’s just something that happens naturally when you have non-native speakers who are using a second or third language – it becomes some kind of dialect.”

“I’m a native French speaker and I hear a lot of French words used in conversation in English. Because a lot of people know French or German as a second or third language, they will use words from these languages whenever they cannot find the proper term in English. So in the middle of a conversation someone will use a French word to describe something, and most people in the room will understand it, and no one is [phased] by that.”

“It is an insider language, and here I’m mostly thinking about the jargon, the terms that we use. The first time I heard all these people saying they were going on missions, I was like, what are they doing? It sounds very glamorous, like secret agents.”

The idea of this so-called dialect as an identity marker, one that denotes the speaker as belonging to a group, is strengthened by the fact that, according to our source, it’s not just non-native English speakers who use it. EU staff who have English as their mother tongue also regularly use terms and phrases that they know are not correct in British English.

He said: “Native English speakers definitely use it too. I think it would be hard to avoid because everyone’s using it. I’ve spoken to native English speaker colleagues who have said like, oh my god, I’m also speaking like that. There are certain sayings or words that are more understandable to everyone so I think they see it that they have to make some sacrifices [of their language]. I think at some point they don’t even think about it, after a while it becomes natural and you don’t overthink it, it’s part of daily life.”

Reintke’s Irish flatmate is apparently among them. She said: “He told me that for him after a while when he came back home [to Ireland] he realised that he had picked up certain expressions or ways of saying something which Irish people don’t really say.”

While Heath Rose, associate professor of applied linguistics at Oxford University and co-author of Introducing Global Englishes, agrees that Euro English could be used to “consolidate an identity,” he says that it falls short of being a dialect, and is simply another example of the flexibility of English as a language, rather than a separate dialect of it.

“Euro English is a term that’s a very neat idea, that some people have gotten attached to, but I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that it is a dialect in itself. In order for something to be a dialect it needs to be quite stable, it needs to have features that have been shown to be very stable.

“English as a lingua franca is very flexible – we change our language according to who we’re speaking to, their language background, what language community they’re from, their proficiency level, so I think at the moment the English-using community is very diverse so we can’t really peg a single dialect as being representative of English used [in Europe].”

Robert McColl Millar, professor in linguistics and Scottish language at the University of Aberdeen, agrees: “I’m not so sure about Euro English. There is a tendency for a stripped down mid-Atlantic variety being used by very good non-native speakers, but I’m not convinced that this is as well developed as other non-native varieties like South Asian English.”

As, in an emerging pattern, does John Joseph, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He said: “My belief is that Euro English isn’t a unified language or dialect, but a catch-all term for a wide range of varieties of English used by non-native speakers on the continent, and which are occasionally reflected in documents emanating from the EU – although the EU institutions employ, and probably will continue to employ, a large contingent of native English speakers who will ‘nativise’ the language of such documents.”

The future of British English in Europe

In terms of Euro English’s parent language, British English, and its place in the institutions (alongside its linguistic offspring), Prof McColl Millar adds: “In relation to the EU, I cannot envisage a time when English doesn’t assume considerable importance. It will, I would imagine, be the preferred language in the European Parliament and in other central bodies by the Nordic, Balkan and Baltic countries at least, given that the chances of simultaneous interaction between, say, Estonian and Maltese would be pretty unlikely. Plus, English is spoken by the present superpower (the USA) and seems to be preferred by the coming one (China) as the language of external communication.”

Professor Joseph again agrees, saying that, while “one mustn’t underestimate the power of ideology, and there are other forces standing in opposition to English within the EU, although the French resistance is far weaker than it was in earlier times, nevertheless, it is hard to see the use of English shifting significantly in the short term. Although it is possible that in the medium to long term this will change – presuming the EU survives in its present form, which of course is not a given.”

In terms of the choice made by Ireland to nominate Irish as its official language, he adds: “No more than 10 per cent of the population of Ireland is fluent in Irish Gaelic. Having Irish rather than English as the country’s official EU language is an ‘act of identity’ which was of no consequence so long as the UK was in the EU. Now that it isn’t, Ireland will have to make the choice between taking a pragmatic or an ideological course.”

Prof Rose too thinks that practical considerations will take precedence over ideology when it comes to the continuation of English as a working language of the EU, saying: “[If the fact that English is the most widely taught language in schools in Europe] is going to change, I don’t think it’s going to change quickly. I mean anything is subject to change – go back 40 years and Europe was a very different place, so 30 or 40 years in the future it could be very different again, but I think it would take quite a long time to change, just because of the investment.

“I think it’s 96 per cent of pupils across the EU [that] study English as a foreign language in schools, and the next one down from that is French at 23 per cent, so at the moment there is just such a big gap between those that are studying English and those that are doing other languages in Europe, that it’ll take a while for that to really change.

“Even though the EU has an initiative that encourages learning two or more foreign languages [educational and language policies are the jurisdiction of individual member states], a lot of European countries are not really following that guidance, and so a lot of students are not exposed to an additional foreign language beyond English.”

English as a neutral language

Given that there is no longer any member state in the bloc with English as its nominated language, it has effectively become a neutral means of communication, unbound by the accusations of political point-scoring that could be levelled at those who used it previously, or those who use, for example, French or German now. It could now, instead, be seen as a leveller. As our EU insider says: “I think if you’re using another language it could be perceived as like, this country is trying to have greater influence. With English, this is less likely to be the case.”

For Prof Rose, over and above the fact that the UK no longer has a stake in proceedings, English has already ceased to be associated exclusively with the UK by those in Europe: “I think nowadays a lot of Europeans probably don’t even think of English as necessarily belonging to the United Kingdom. They probably see English as a European lingua franca, so I think that would be very hard to change both practically and in terms of the way that it’s actually used.

“There could be ideological reasons to change this but then we would get into quite political hot water in terms of what language should replace it. In many ways [the UK having left the EU] takes the political argument out of it. If English is no longer the nominated language of any of its users, then it can kind of serve a more egalitarian role.”

The future of Euro English

MEP Reintke believes that it’s not just British English that could indeed flourish in the post-Brexit landscape, but that it could be fertile ground for Euro English too to come into its own, freed to an extent from the domination of its parent language.

Reintke thinks it will continue to be the lingua franca, and will only grow and evolve, with the adoption of more phrases from different European languages. She said: “I think it would be interesting to do a study about it, maybe have some linguists look at how English is being used right now and then maybe look in 10, 20 years, and see how things have changed.”

So it would seem its native language could be the UK’s most tangible legacy, its most potent parting gift to the EU, in whatever form. Reintke for one is a grateful recipient, saying: “I’m a very big fan of British English, I find it really beautiful, and people would not necessarily say that about Euro English.

“It’s not really beautiful, not in the most obvious sense, but if you look at it in a deeper sense… I mean, we have fought against each other, there have been wars on this continent, and now we come together in the parliament, and at least we are trying to communicate.”

George Mikes. THE LANGUAGE

August 10, 2020
How To Be BritishWhen I arrived in England I thought I knew English. After I’d been here an hour I realized that I did not understand one word. In the first week I picked up a tolerable working knowledge of the language and the next seven years convinced me gradually but thoroughly that I would never know it really well, let alone perfectly. This is sad. My only consolation being that nobody speaks English perfectly.
Remember that those five hundred words an average Englishman uses are far from being the whole vocabulary of the language. You may learn another five hundred and another five thousand and yet another fifty thousand and still you may come across a further fifty thousand you have never heard of before, and nobody else either. If you live here long enough you will find out to your greatest amazement that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first three years you do not need to learn or use any other adjectives. You can say that the weather is nice, a restaurant is nice, Mr Soandso is nice, Mrs Soandso’s clothes are nice, you had a nice time, and all this will be very nice.
Then you have to decide on your accent. You will have your foreign accent all right, but many people like to mix it with something else. I knew a Polish Jew who had a strong Yiddish-Irish accent. People found it fascinating though slightly exaggerated. The easiest way to give the impression of having a good accent or no foreign accent at all is to hold an unlit pipe in your mouth, to mutter between your teeth and finish all your sentences with the question: ‘isn’t it?’ People will not understand much, but they are accustomed to that and they will get a most excellent impression.
I have known quite a number of foreigners who tried hard to acquire an Oxford accent. The advantage of this is that you give the idea of being permanently in the company of Oxford dons and lecturers on medieval numismatics; the
disadvantage is that the permanent singing is rather a strain on your throat and that it is a type of affection that even many English people find it hard to keep up incessantly. You may fall out of it, speak naturally, and then where are you? The Mayfair accent can be highly recommended, too. The advantages of Mayfair English are that it unites the affected air of the Oxford accent with the uncultured flavour of a half-educated professional hotel-dancer.
The most successful attempts, however, to put on a highly cultured air have been made on the polysyllabic lines. Many foreigners who have learnt Latin and Greek in school discover with amazement and satisfaction that the English language has absorbed a huge amount of ancient Latin and Greek expressions, and they realize that
a) it is much easier to learn these expressions than the much simpler English words;
(b) that these words as a rule are interminably long and make a simply superb impression when talking to the greengrocer, the porter and the insurance agent.
Imagine, for instance, that the porter of the block of flats where you live remarks sharply that you must not put your dustbin out in front of your door before 7.30 a.m. Should you answer ‘Please don’t bully me,’ a loud and tiresome argument may follow, and certainly the porter will be proved right, because you are sure to find a dause in your contract (small print, of last page) that the porter is always right and you owe absolute allegiance and unconditional obedience to him. Should you answer, however, with these words: I repudiate your petulant expostulations,’ the argument will be closed at once, the porter will be proud of having such a highly cultured man in the block,and from that day onwards you may, if you please, get up at four o’clock in the morning and hang your dustbin out of the window. But even in Curzon Street society, if you say, for instance, that you are a tough guy they will consider you a vulgar, irritating and objectionable person. Should you declare, however, that you are an inquisitorial and peremptory homo sapiens, they will have no idea what you mean, but they will feel in their bones that you must be something wonderful. When you know all the long words it is advisable to start learning some of the short ones, too. You should be careful when using these endless words. An acquaintance of mine once was fortunate enough to discover the most impressive word notalgia for back-ache. Mistakenly, however, he declared in a large company: ‘I have such a nostalgia.’ ‘Oh, you want to go home to Nizhne-Novgorod?’ asked his most sympathetic hostess. ‘Not at all,’ he answered. ‘I just cannot sit down.’
Finally, there are two important points to remember:
1. Do not forget that it is much easier to write in English than to
speak English, because you can write without a foreign accent.
2. In a bus and in other public places it is more advisable to speak softly in good German than to shout in abominable English.
Anyway, this whole language business is not at all easy. After spending eight years in this country, the other day I was told by a very kind lady: ‘But why do you complain? You really speak a most excellent accent without the slightest English.


August 10, 2020

One short remark before I go on with socially dependent language differences typical of the English. Those who speak “posh”, usually avoid the word “posh.” This word is used by the middle and lower classes in relation to the upper class, but the upper class – when they talk about themselves – use the word “smart”: “I wanted a smarter jacket – that one looks casual,” or “The nightclub is popular with the smart set.” The upper class use the word “posh” too but only ironically – to show that they know that the word applies to them and that they don’t think is a problem. The opposite of the word “smart” on the lips of the upper middle and middle-middle classes is “common” which is a snobbish euphemism for “working class.” By the way, in these politically correct times many English people avoid using too direct names like “working class” resorting to more “polite” words like “low-income groups”, “the less privileged”, “ordinary people”, “tabloid readers”, “blue collar”. Less polite euphemisms are “Sharon and Tracey”, “Kevins”, “Essex Man.” Here’s a definition of a “Kevin”: “A Kevin is someone who consistently or greatly shows a complete lack of intelligence through incompetence of social and societal norms, or is purposefully antagonistic in their poor decision making.” “Sharon and Tracey” (used humorously and disapprovingly) are, according to another definition, “two women’s names that were used by the writer Keith Waterhouse in a series of newspaper articles in the 1980s to refer to women with poor taste who speak English badly and are not very polite. Sharon and Tracy are also the names of the two sisters in the British television comedy series Birds of a Feather whose husbands are in prison.”

The upper middles may avoid using the word “class” at all carefully talking about someone’s “background.” However, the working class don’t feel awkward calling themselves “working class”. Neither are they too particular about differentiating between classes and sub-classes: they just divide world into “us and the posh.”

To finish off with the social division of the vocabulary usage, I’ll just give, as an example, two short lists of words and expressions: one for a “smart” group (upper and upper middle), and the other – for the “ordinary” people (middle through working class).

1.Children from the SMART group call their parents “Mummy” and “Daddy” (later – “father and mother”). The mothers carry a bag and wear scent, family members go to racing and to parties, at parties they are served food and drink, and when they eat they have helpings. Smart people have a first course during dinner. In their houses they have drawing rooms (also called sitting rooms), and use sofas to sit on.

2.Children from “ORDINARY” families address their parents as “Mum” and “Dad”, they also use the words “me Mam” and “me Dad.” Mum carries a handbag, wears perfume, they all may go to horseracing and to a do (also called a function). They are served refreshments and eat in portions (they don’t have helpings as is the case with the smart). Common people have a starter while having a meal. In their houses they have living rooms (or front rooms) and use settees to sit on.

CONCLUSION. British Society is a verbal rather than a visual culture (take English literature, for one). Although social class differences may be observed in how the people dress, what their hobbies are, what furniture is in their homes, what they read or watch, or what kind of pets they have, but their position on the class scale will always be identifiable by their speech, which is why those who are social climbers will painstakingly train themselves to use the pronunciation and vocabulary of a ‘higher” set.

Of course, everything said above – in this blog entry as well as in a few previous posts – is far from all-inclusive as regards the peculiarities of socially determined use of English. Hopefully, the facts presented in here will give you bearings on your ‘behavioral grammar” and stimulate to further explore this highly exciting theme.


August 9, 2020

In her work Class: A View from Middle England (1979), Jilly Cooper quotes a shopkeeper on the subject of bacon: “When a woman asks for back I call her ‘madam’; when she asks for streaky I call her ‘dear’.Back” and “streaky”, in this context, are names of two kinds of bacon: “back”, containing meat from the loin, is a leaner cut and is considered a better choice, while “streaky” comes from the pork belly and has long alternating layers of fat. In our case, the example is interesting in view of the vocabulary used in relation to separate social groups – those people who prefer to buy cheaper and those who buy more expensive sorts of meat.  As we will see, words or phrases identified with different classes of people are fairly reliable indicators of these people’s social identities.

1.The first interesting thing is how people react to words and phrases they don’t hear properly. Upper and middle upper classes will say “Sorry?”, representatives of middle and lower middle class will sooner use “Pardon?” and the working class will just say “What?” (very often with the glottal stop at the end of the word – “wha’?” “Pardon” and, still worse, “What” are frowned upon by the upper classes. Kate Fox says that once she overheard two kids talking, and one of the kids explained: “Mother says that “Pardon” is worse than swearing.” Really, the districts where middle, and especially, lower middle classes live, are mocked by the upper classes as “Pardonia.

2.What is “toilet” for middle and lower classes is “loo” or “lavatory” for uppers and middle uppers, although middles and lowers may also use genteel euphemisms “ladies”, “gents”, “bathroom”, “powder room”, “facilities”, “convenience”, “latrine”, “heads” or “privy.”

3.Middle and lower classes prefer to use the French borrowing “serviette” rather than the native word “napkin.” My explanation for the preference is that they want to sound more “cultivated” (for centuries, French culture was considered to be higher than British). Since nannies, who look after smaller children in upper class families, usually come from lower class, the children learn from them and start using “serviette” too, which, very often, is not to “aristocratic” parents’ liking.

4.A strong signal of social belonging is the names given by the English to the meals they consume throughout the day. “Breakfast” is common for all the groups. The midday meal is called “lunch” almost by everybody except lower classes who prefer to call it “dinner”. However, the “dinner” may be a midday meal even with upper classes if it is specially arranged with guests invited (as it is done on Sundays, for example). Lower middle, upper working class and working class call their evening meal “tea”, whereas for upper and upper middle and middle-middle classes this meal is called “dinner”, while the name “tea” is preserved by them for “afternoon tea” when they drink tea with cakes, scones and sandwiches. So, when you are invited to dinner, it’s advisable that you should specify the time. If teachers of English in Ukraine asked me what kinds of meal-names they should teach their pupils, I’d say that for me the trio of “breakfast-lunch-tea” would be the most preferable. When I lived in an English family (the host and the hostess were also teachers) we always had tea in the evening when we returned from school. We used to have supper much later in the evening (about 11:00 PM) after, say, a visit to the theatre, and that was something very light.

5.The third course of a richer meal may have different names in different families. With upper/upper-middle classes it is “pudding.” In their usage “pudding” is not necessarily pudding proper. It may also be a slice of cake or a lemon sorbet. The word “sweet” is used as an adjective, or a synonym for what the Americans call “candy”. All the other classes call their third course “sweet”, or ”afters” or “dessert”, all of which are déclassé for the uppers. If you say “For afters we had…” it will get you demoted on the social ladder in the eyes of the uppers. Some American-influenced young people may use the word “dessert”, (the most neutral word of the three) but that can cause a sort of confusion for upper classes where “dessert” is a selection of fresh fruit served at the end of a dinner, after the pudding, and eaten with a knife and fork (TO BE CONTINUED)


August 8, 2020

The English are class-sensitive. Although they have become less class-obsessed in recent times, the fact remains: they position a person with a kind of the social GPS on the class map the moment the person starts speaking. There are two main parameters to calculate that position: vocabulary and pronunciation. Let’s start with pronunciation this time.

For me, as an uninitiated foreigner, English of the upper classes’ English seems more intelligible and accurate, while the lower-classes’ speech is sort of ‘lazy.’ A very typical marker of “uneducated” English is the glottal stop – the omission (swallowing, dropping) of t’s and the dropping of h’s in the beginning of words when ‘h’ is followed by another vowel. Some “ordinary” people try to rise to Standard English when they speak with foreigners or upper-class representatives. I know a family in Great Britain who named their newly-born daughter Ellen, but their neighbours – when they talked to me about Ellen – used to say “Helen” in their attempt to speak “better” English. However, the case when the upper classes ironize about the lower classes’ speech is the case of the pot calling the kettle black. The lower ranks may drop their consonants, but the upper class are equally guilty of dropping their vowels. If you ask them for directions, for example, a factory worker may tell you “go hup ‘ere” (= go up here), but the upper class will say “gphee.” A handkerchief in working class speech is “’ankercheef”, but in upper-class pronunciation it becomes “hnkchf”. The upper classes do it without moving the mouth very much (remember their “sacks” pronounced as “sex”?), this kind of “shortening” may remind you of the SMS-speak. The style allows the upper class to maintain an aloof, deadpan expression and a stiff upper lip.

The pronunciation of ‘th’ may also be a class indicator. The lower classes often pronounce it as ‘f’, and sometimes as ‘v’ (teef, fing, vat). Final ‘g’ becomes ‘k’ (somefink, nofink), ‘a’ is often pronounced as long ‘i’ (‘todAI’, not ‘today’). In Yorkshire they elongate the ‘a’ and say the names ‘Dave’ and ‘Tracey’ as ‘Daaave’ and ‘Traaacey’. The working-class ‘i’, in turn,  may be pronounced ‘oi(Oi’d loik to…’ instead of “I’d like to…”). As for the pronoun ‘I’, the upper classes don’t say it at all if they can help it: they generalize on a situation by referring to themselves as ‘one’(‘One prefers tea to coffee’ instead of ‘I prefer tea to coffee’). In fact, they are not too keen on pronouns in general, omitting them, along with articles and conjunctions: ‘See this as very important step in the right direction’ (instead of ‘I see this as A very…’).

A non-native English speaker should, however, make a distinction between upper-class speech and ‘educated’ speech – they are not necessarily the same thing. What we may hear referred to as ‘BBC English’ or ‘Oxford English’ is a kind of educated speech – but it is more upper-middle than upper: it lacks “lordship” tones, vowel swallowing and the pronouns are present where they should be present, and, certainly, it’s more intelligible to foreigners.

Another interesting aspect of a class-dependent accent is the “foreign’ pronunciation of foreign words which are usually called ‘barbarisms’ in linguistics. If you hear an English person saying ‘Francois Mitterrand or ‘en route” in a French way, or ‘Barcelona’ like ‘Barthelona’, you may almost be sure that the person belongs to the lower-middle or middle-middle class. The upper-middle, upper or working classes usually do not need to show off this way. I regret to say that somewhat earlier, after hearing such affected and pretentious accent, I also fell into this kind of temptation and used to say “en passant” (with the nasalized final syllable) instead of “in passing”, and “Macron” was on my lips as [Makro~].Thankfully, being non-English, I was forgiven for lapsing into this trap – although it would have been far more English and modest of me to avoid exhibiting my “skill.”




August 7, 2020

There’s so much of literature on such specific types of English humour as linguistic, absurd, nonsense, Englishmen-Scotsman-Irishman humour and graveyard humour that the best way for me will probably be to give a few examples. Here you are!

  1. Linguistic: Shop Front Signs. Codfather (fishmarket), Planet of Grapes (greengrocer’s – the pun based on the TV Program  “Planet of Apes”), Thai Tanic (a Thai restaurant), Abrakebaba (an eatery serving oriental foods), Bread Pitt (bakery), British Hairways, Cut-Hair-While-U-Wait, A-Cut-Above-the-Rest (all the three are the barber’s), Better To Be Late Than To Become Late (a warning road sign).
  1. Absurd. Think of Alice in Wonderland where the March Hare asks for half a cup of tea, so he offers a teacup cut in half and the Mad Hatter fills it to the brim. Logically, a cup cut in half shouldn’t hold liquid at all but it does and that’s the absurdity of it. And here’s one of the latest: Paranoia has reached absurd stages…I sneezed in front of my laptop and the anti-virus started a scan on its own.
  1. Sick (black, or –nowadays, due to the political correctness craze: dark) humour: Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: “Does this taste funny to you?”
  2. Nonsense. A dyslexic man walks into a bra (wrongly read: should be “bar”).
  3. Nationalities. Did you hear about the thoughtful Scotsman who was heading out to the pub?  He turned to his wee wife before leaving and said, “Jackie darlin’ put your hat and coat on, lassie.”  She replied, “Awe Angus that’s nice – are you taking me to the pub with you?” “Nah, I’m just switching the central heating off while I’m oot.”
  1. Funeral humour (humorous writing on tombstones). 1)Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising; 2)Merv Griffin. I will not be back after the message; 3)I finally found a place to park; 4)I came here without being consulted and I leave without my consent.


  1. “Object Humour.” Among other features typical of English humour is a focus on a definite object. Hence, there may be “banana jokes”, “boat (boating) jokes”, “car jokes” and the like. Here are two of the “cup jokes”: Q: “What’s the difference between England’s football team and a tea bag?”– A: “The tea bag stays in the cup longer.” OR: “Your mama’s so dumb she got hit by a cup and told the police she got mugged.”
  1. Anti-Humour. Usually, a comic effect arises when the expectancy of the narration is thwarted, but with anti-humor we get the confirmation of the expectancy. Hence, ANTI-HUMOUR. Here are examples of humour (1) and anti-humor (2): (1) Q: Why did the cow cross the road?— A: To go to the moooooo-vies! And (2) Q: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”— “To get to the other side“. No 2 is an example of anti-humour, in that the curious setup of the joke leads the listener to expect a traditional punchline, but they are instead given a simple statement of fact.


August 6, 2020

A great deal of everyday English humour is preoccupied with class issues. It’s not surprising if we take into account the history of the English, a streak of snobbery in their mentality and, as a consequence, a desire of social climbers to live up to the standards of the elite. The best joke of the kind I have ever heard capitalizes on two things: 1) in the past, English homes were heated mainly with coal which usually came in huge sacks, and 2) a special way some representatives of the upper class speak English (“posh accent”).  Among other features of posh English, there’s the pronunciation of short broad “A”, which we hear in “cap” or “stand”, etc., as much more narrow (and also short) “E” – heard in “bed”, “step” and so on. A more detailed presentation of differences between Received Pronunciation and Posh Accent may be viewed at (especially from 16 min 39 seconds, and also at 19 min 58 seconds). Anyway, back to the joke. The question “What is ‘sex?” is answered by:  “Sex” is what posh people put coal into.” The humour lies in how the word “sacks” is pronounced in posh English.

The are many “class comedies” on the Internet, of which I particularly like “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Jeeves and Wooster.”  In an extract from “Keeping Up Appearances” that I recommend ( we may laugh at Mrs. Hyacinth Bucket who prefers her family name to be pronounced in a “French way” – just as the words “ballet” or “beret” are pronounced. In her opinion, “bouquet” is much more melodious that “bucket.”

P.S. Another funny video, of this type, which I spotted just a few minutes ago is at . Please, enjoy 🙂


August 5, 2020

Like the English understatement, English self-deprecation can be seen as a form of irony. Boasting isn’t approved of – moreover, it is considered to be “mauvais ton.” However, being proud of one’s achievement is quite natural for a human being, especially if what has been achieved is a result of hard — and very often, socially useful – work. So, we may observe a kind of game: a person is only “pretending” to be modest, at the same time expecting some degree of appreciation from a listener. The modesty generally displayed by the English is false, or – to put it charitably – ironic. A brain surgeon was asked what had led him to choose this profession. “Well,’ he answered, ‘I read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, but I found it rather beyond me, so I thought I’d better do something a bit less difficult.’ After the objection that a brain surgeon’s work could hardly be called an easier option, there followed another self-effacing remark: “To be honest, it’s actually a bit hit-or-miss. It’s just plumbing with a microscope – except plumbing’s rather more accurate.” It later emerged that far from finding the intellectual demands of Oxford “beyond him”, the future surgeon had entered with a scholarship and graduated with a First. “I was a dreadful little swot”, he explained. In another case, an anthropologist, explaining her profession to those unfamiliar with the term, said it was “just a fancy word for nosey parker.”

When I was analysing Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1755), I was amused to discover the definition of the word “lexicographer” in it: “A writer of dictionaries. A harmless drudge.” Just only imagine: Dr. Johnson – a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, the author of the most influential dictionary before the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled – calling himself “a harmless drudge”! Nowadays, probably, every English person understands that the customary self-deprecation means roughly the opposite of what is said. The problems may arise when the English play this game with people from outside their own culture, who do not understand the rules and, failing to appreciate the irony, take the self-deprecating statements at face value. However, we, learners of English, with our knowledge of what it all is about, should only give the self-denigrating person a sort of knowingly skeptical smile to show that we do not believe what the person is saying but think even more highly of their abilities and their modesty. This will be a prescribed English response to prescribed English self-deprecation.

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