Don’t stupid-lah, Brudder

A unique brand of pan-Asian English really exists, readers reckon. Its vocabulary comes from English, but grammar and word-order come from Chinese, according to an academic. Singapore already has lots of works in Asian English, but examples can also be found in Malaysia and Indonesia.

This discussion reminded me of a one-act play called Don’t Stupid-Lah, Brudder, which was written entirely in Englasian by a group of contributors to the Far Eastern Economic Review. In it, you can “hear” three variations of Englasian: East Asian, South Asian and Australian.

Plot: Mal, a Malaysian investor, is having kopi (coffee) with an Indian accountant named Indra. They are in a hotel in Jakarta waiting for Oz, an Australian entrepreneur, with whom they are setting up a business.

Mal: Plan latest where got?

Indra: Not having. Maybe Oz has?

Mal: He here already, is it?

Indra: Yesterday already he checked in.

Mal: (Pointing to Indra’s bag) Inside is what?

Indra: Contact list and other sundry items.

Mal: Contack how many? Hundred-over?

Indra: Two hundred-over.

Mal: Waah. Damn good. Oz is where? Mat salleh sleep too much always. Make me frus only.

(Enter Oz.)

Oz: Greetings! Hi, chooks. Bit late — apologies.

Mal: No nid-lah. Sit-sit, don’t shy.

Oz: You Indra? Pleaseta meetcha.

Indra: We met before one time, no? At the party to felicitate my cousin-brother, a revered Sydneysider?

Oz : Yeah, right.

Mal: Waah, stylo-milo only-lah today you.

Oz: Huh? Oh. My clothes were a bit daggy after the flight so I got a new shirt and some daks.

Mal: Nice, man. Now start already.

Indra: You are bringing business plan?

Oz : Godit right here in me bag.

Indra: Put the papers out. Projections, case studies, like that, also need.

Mal: Bank account have?

Indra: Have.

Mal: Cover letters ready, is it?

Written by: Ramsha Ahmed

The passage is written by an Asian journalist therefore, it is in favor of varieties of English. The humorous blog celebrates as well as mocks the evolution of English into new varieties by including a play in which speakers of different varieties of English interact. People like Quirk and Widdowson believe that there should be a Standard English which everyone should adhere to. The main purpose of having a Standard English is to be mutually intelligible. However, in the play of this passage, the three characters are speaking in different varieties and are yet still mutually intelligible. This raises a question over the need for standardization of English.

The passage uses the word, ‘unique brand’ to describe pan Asian English. The word ‘brand’ has connotations of prestige, acceptability and legitimacy. This is ironical, as varieties are generally seen as mistakes and the language of lower class. The word ‘unique’ has connotation of rebellion. It stresses upon the distinctiveness of varieties and therefore marks them as a result of creativity rather than mistake. The fact that the blog includes a play written entirely in English is an act of indigenization and institutionalization of the language, as suggested by Moag.

The fact that one can ‘hear’ the variations (line 6) reflects that the varieties are ostensibly different from one another. The play is a classic example of David Crystal’s theory that people will always find a way to be mutually intelligible regardless of what language they speak. The title of the play ‘Don’t stupid Lah Brudder’ (line 5) is a combination of the features common in Singlish, Australian English and Indian English

In the play, English native speaker (Australian Oz) is conversing with English second language speakers (Indra, an Indian and Mal, a Malaysian). They are using English as a ‘lingua franca’ or common language. The characters of the play are accurate portrayal of their respective kinds of varieties. Mal’s utterances are topic-prominent (topic followed by a comment as seen in line 12 and line 16). He also uses reduplication (line 24) and the word ‘already’ (line 15) to show change of state/time. These are common features of mesolectal Singlish. Through the play, the writer seems to be promoting Singlish, a language, generally discouraged in Singapore. The use of Singlish is discouraged to such an extent that there is an annual “speak good English’ movement in Singapore to persuade people against using it. The fact that the play portrays an investor speaking it at an international setting can be seen as an attempt to elevate the status of Singlish

Kachru proposed ‘three circles’ of English, each representing different ways in which the language has been acquired and is currently used. The inner circle includes those countries where English is a native language, the outer circle are those countries which were colonized by the inner circle and use English as a second language and the expanding circle are those who use English for functional purposes. The outer and expanding circles are seen as dependent upon the inner circles for rules. The play in this passage negates this theory as the speakers of the outer circle (Mal and Indra) are creating their own rules and it is the speaker of the inner circle (Oz) who is accommodating to the former. This is seen in line 34 where Oz mimics Mal’s utterances

Moreover English is about power dynamics. The reason for English being a global language is the cultural and economic power of America. Similarly, in the play, it is Mal who is in power. In business settings, an investor is very important. Therefore Oz is seen as converging to Mal. Indra being an accountant, and therefore at a lower status than the others, is seen as trying to accommodate to Mal as well as Oz. This can be seen through the overly formal diction used when talking to Oz (line 26 and line 15) and mimicking Mal’s style in line 19. He is seen as translating the Hindi word to cousin-brother in order to avoid localized features. However Mal uses the word ‘salleh’ (line 20) and Oz uses the words ‘daggy and daks’ (line 30) without translating. This shows that they have greater power than Indra.

 All in all, this passage sheds light over the fact that we do not need one variety to be mutually intelligible and that different settings have different people in power. Therefore there is no clear division between correct and wrong usage of English. Since varieties are also mutually intelligible in some contexts, we cannot dub them as being mistakes and should not try to curtail their evolution.


One of the Perks of Speaking Esperanto? Free Lodging Around the World


‘Pasporta Servo’ Links Esperanto Fans, Who Share Homes and Conversations

The key to a free night’s stay in Jim Medrano’s New York City apartment isn’t a stellar rating on Airbnb or a lot of frequent traveler points.

It is really just about knowing the right words to say—in Esperanto.

Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof
Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof

Through a service called “Pasporta Servo,” speakers of this artificial language invented over a century ago have access to a directory of hosts from all corners of the globe, willing to open their houses free to promote a tongue with no home of its own.

Produced by an Esperanto youth organization in the Netherlands, Pasporta Servo was first printed in 1974, listing 39 hosts. The latest book, published in 2011, is filled with 1,087. An updated edition is due early next year, with a revamped website expected this month.

Esperanto was created in the late 19th century by Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof, who lived in Poland under the Russian Empire and believed that a universal means of communication might be the key to world peace. The estimates of the number of speakers of the language vary widely—from as low as 100,000 to as many as 2 million.

A map compiled by Jim Medrano and family, showing guests from around the world who have stayed at their home using Pasporta Servo, a lodging service for speakers of Esperanto.
A map compiled by Jim Medrano and family, showing guests from around the world who have stayed at their home using Pasporta Servo, a lodging service for speakers of Esperanto. JIM MEDRANO

“The goal of Esperanto is to understand other cultures, and traveling through Pasporta Servo is one of the main ways we have to do that in the real world,” says Amanda Higley Schmidt, who has used Pasporta Servo—which means “passport service” in Esperanto—over 100 times. She says it is a key tool for Esperantists to build a community divided by miles but united by vocabulary and grammar.

For Ms. Schmidt, Pasporta Servo transformed a youthful hobby into a lifelong passion after she graduated from Principia College in Elsah, Ill., in 1999.

Following graduation, she stuck what was then a small Pasporta Servo book into her bag and flew to Paris. There, her first host took her bicycling through the city. She says they rode for 12 hours straight, exploring the sights and talking about everything, speaking to each other only in Esperanto.

It was the first time Ms. Schmidt could truly use the language in a natural setting. Ms. Schmidt would go on to stay with over 100 hosts for 16 months throughout Europe on a very low budget. She visited Hungary, Germany and England; toured castles with a group of “young, guitar-playing, Esperanto-speaking bohemians” in the Loire Valley; and attended a cultural festival in Helsinki where she remembers reading a poem in Esperanto to a large crowd of fellow speakers. This remains one of the highlights of her life, she says.

“It was this really wonderful feeling to be in this community of people who appreciates you and loves you so much,” she says. “We are a people connected by this book, connected by this language.”

Ms. Schmidt, now 39 and a stay-at-home mother of two in Sacramento, Calif., started hosting in Pasporta Servo in 2000. She has kept an enduring souvenir from her days as a guest—the language she now uses to speak with her daughters.

On a recent evening, her six-year-old interrupted her mother’s phone interview, pleading in the background, “Panjo, mi malsatas,” Esperanto for “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

Esperanto-speaker Steven Brewer used Pasporta Servo on a trip he took to Brazil in 2006.
Esperanto-speaker Steven Brewer used Pasporta Servo on a trip he took to Brazil in 2006. STEVEN BREWER

For some travelers, Pasporta Servo offers a way to connect with people like themselves without worrying that they will be judged by a skeptical public. That was the case with Steven Brewer, who kept his love for Esperanto largely a secret for many years.

Although he used the language nearly every day in private correspondence with close friends, the director of a computer center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst says he worried people at work might think he was “kind of a kook” if they knew he was so passionate about Esperanto. He says many people—especially in the U.S., where few see the need for a lingua franca outside of English—stigmatize Esperantists as dreamers, wasting their time learning an artificial language with overly optimistic visions of the future.

So Pasporta Servo was a dream come true for Mr. Brewer.

It helped him travel to Brazil in 2006, where he stayed with a host and one other visiting Esperantist, who both made him feel like less of an oddball.

“There’s a connection at this fundamental level that doesn’t exist in any other context when you meet a host,” he says. “It feels like you’re meeting that aunt or uncle you knew when you were nine or 10 and can just be with them for a couple of days.”

Now, Mr. Brewer speaks more openly about speaking Esperanto. He has gone on to land leadership roles in various national and international Esperanto organizations, present at Esperanto congresses around the world, and even run a local group of enthusiasts in Amherst.

Everybody who learns Esperanto has a feeling of joining a larger community, he says. Speakers all have stories about the first time they learned about the language, the first time they sat down and started to study, and the first time they were able to use it to communicate. These rites of passage provide common ground and a shared identity, even with strangers.

Of course, not every host/guest encounter can be a magical bonding of souls seeking to connect through this universal language. As Mr. Brewer says, even Pasporta Servo guests are like fish—they begin to smell after three days. The service has set out rules to make home stays as smooth as possible. Hosts indicate how many and for how long guests may stay with them. The book notes that accommodations are “not necessarily luxurious.”

To make sure the service—and the language—can flourish in the digital age, Pasporta Servo went online in 2009, says Baptiste Darthenay, a Pasporta Servo user and computer programmer in Budapest. The site was popular, but not as good as it should have been, he says. So the 29-year-old is giving the site a digital face-lift. He expects to roll out a completely redesigned site this month.

Mr. Darthenay recognizes the increasing popularity of other sites—including Airbnb—that offer cheap accommodation for travelers in the homes of foreigners. But Mr. Darthenay doesn’t see their rise as an existential threat to Pasporta Servo, since this passport service exists for an entirely different purpose and community.

“Esperantists are quite allegiant to one another,” he says. “When a guest and a host come together, they already have something in common. And it is big: They have Esperanto.”

English – the universal language on the Internet?



Generally speaking, English is the universal language on the Internet, but it has no official status, and it will never have. The reasons for the position of English are the imperialism and economical and political importance of English-speaking countries. Linguistically, English is extremely unsuitable for international communication, and the actual wide use of English tends to polarize the world into Internet users and Internet illiterates.

The position of English can only be altered by major world-scale political and economical changes, such as increasing importance of the European Union or a coalition between Japan and China. Such powers might wish and be able to promote a language other than English, possibly a constructed language, for international communication.

Alternatively, or in addition to this, the technology of machine translation may allow people to use their own language in international communication.


The impulse to writing this article was a discussion in the Usenet newsgroup sci.lang. The original question was “whether or not English should be made the universal language of the internet”.

As several people remarked, English essentially is the universal language of the Internet. Nevertheless, the question, appropriately interpreted and elaborated, is worth a more delicate treatment.

The current situation

In general, the universal language on the Internet is English, or more exactly a vague collection of languages called “English” because their common origin is the national language spoken in England by the English. That national language has spread over the world, and several variants such as American (US) English, Australian English, etc exist. A great number of people whose native language is none of the variants know English as a foreign language. They typically use a more or less simplified variant, e.g. excluding most of the idioms of British, American, Australian etc English. Of course, they make mistakes, and sometimes the “English” used by people as a foreign language on the Internet is almost incomprehensible to anyone else. In addition, people who use English as their native language do not know how to spell difficult words, since they basically know English as a spoken language.

Thus, roughly speaking, the universal language of the Internet is clumsy, coarse and misspelled “English”.

There are exceptions, such as national discussion forums in such countries where English is not the native language of the majority. Even in such forums, English is often used, for instance when people from other countries wish to participate.

Why is it so?

Generally speaking, when a languages has got the position of a universal language, the position tends to be affirmed and extended by itself. Since “everyone” knows and uses English, people are almost forced to learn English and use it, and learn it better.

Even if you expect the majority of your readers to understand your native language, you may be tempted to use English when writing e.g. about research work. Usually researchers all over the world know English and use it a lot, and often the relevant terminology is more stable and well-known in English than in your own language. Thus, to maximize the number of interested people that can understand your text, you often select English even if the great majority of your readers have the same native language as you. Alternatively, you might write your texts both in your native language and in English, but this doubles the work needed for writing your document and possibly maintaining it. The maintenance problem is especially important for documents on the World Wide Web – the information system where one crucial feature is the ability to keep things really up to date. Consequently, the use of English in essentially national contexts tends to grow.

In Usenet news, the first discussion system on the Internet, the position of English in most international groups has been regarded as so obvious that people who post non-English articles to such groups – by accident or by ignorance – have typically got flamed quickly. This is the sort of control that communities exercise in other matters than language, too. It has often been regarded as an example of the “democratic” nature of the system.

In more modern discussion and communication systems, such as web-based discussion forums, blogs, StackExchange, Facebook, etc., English is the language of international communication. This is regarded as more or less self-evident and seldom mentioned example; anyone who joins such a system sees the situation.

The universal language position, once gained, tends to be strong. But how is such a position gained?

During the history of mankind, there have been several more or less universal languages or lingua francas, such as Latin (and Greek) in the Roman empire, mediaeval Latin in Western Europe, later French and English. Universality is of course relative; it means universality in the “known world” or “civilized world”, or just in a large empire. No language has been really universal (global), but the current position of English comes closest. The position of a universal language has always been gained as a by-product of some sort of imperialism: a nation has conquered a large area and more or less assimilated it into its own culture, including language, thus forming an empire. Usually the language of the conquerer has become the language of the state and the upper class first, then possibly spread over the society, sometimes almost wiping out the original languages of the conquered areas. Sometimes – especially in the Middle Ages – the imperialism has had a definite cultural and religious nature which may have been more important than brute military and economic force.

As regards to the English language, it would have remained as a national language of the English, had it not happened so that the English first conquered the rest of the British Isles, then many other parts of the world. Later, some English colonies in a relatively small part of America rebelled, formed the United States of America, and expanded a lot. They formed a federal state where a variant of the English language was one of the few really uniting factors. And that federal state became, as we all know, wealthy and important. It also exercised traditional imperialism, but more importantly it gained a very important role in world economy and politics. Whether you call the US influence imperialism or neo-imperialism is a matter of opinion, but it certainly has similar effects on maintaining and expanding the use of English as classical imperialism.

This probably sounds like political criticism, but it is intended to be descriptive only. Personally, I do not regard imperialism as an incarnation of the Evil; it has had both positive and negative effects, and in many cases imperialism has been a necessary step from chaos to civilization.

Effects of the importance of the Internet and English

The importance of the Internet grows rapidly in all fields of human life, including not only research and education but also marketing and trade as well as entertainment and hobbies. This implies that it becomes more and more important to know how to use Internet services and, as a part of this, to read and write English.

Of course, the majority of mankind cannot use the Internet nowadays or in the near future, since they live in countries which lack the necessary economical and technological infrastructure. But the Internet causes polarization in developed countries, too: people are divided into Internet users and Internet illiterates, and as the use of the Internet grows and often replaces traditional methods of communication, the illiterates may find themselves in an awkward position.

In general, it is easy to learn to use Internet services. The worst problems of Internet illiteracy are, in addition to lack of economical resources of course, wrong attitudes. Older people are usually not accustomed to live in a world of continuous and rapid change, and they may not realize the importance of the Internet or the easiness of learning to use it.

But although Internet services themselves are, generally speaking, easy to learn and use, you will find yourself isolated on the Internet if you are not familiar with English. This means that knowledge or lack of knowledge of English is one of the most severe factors that cause polarization. Learning to use a new Internet service or user interface may take a few hours, a few days, or even weeks, but it takes years to learn a language so that you can use it in a fluent and self-confident manner. Of course, when you know some English, you can learn more just by using it on the Internet, but at least currently the general tendency among Internet users is to discourage people in their problems with the English language. Incorrect English causes a few flames much more probably than encouragement and friendly advice.

In different countries and cultures, English has different positions. There are countries where English is the native language of the majority, there are countries where English is a widely known second language, and there are countries where English has no special position. These differences add to the above-mentioned polarization. Specifically, it is difficult for people in previous colonies of other countries than Great Britain (e.g. France, Spain, the Netherlands) to adapt to the necessity of learning English. Locally, it may be necessary to learn the language of the previous colonial power since it is often an official language and the common language of educated people; globally, English is necessary for living on the Internet. And the more languages you have to learn well, the less time and energy you will have for learning other things.

An official language for the Internet?

There is no conceivable way in which any authority could define an official language for the Internet. The Internet as a whole is not controlled by anyone or anything, and this could only change if, by miracle, all countries made an agreement on it or if the entire world were taken to the control of one government.

Thus, if the question “whether or not English should be made the universal language of the internet” is interpreted as concerning the official status of English, the answer is simply that English, or any other language, cannot be made the official universal language. It is fruitless to ask whether an impossible thing should be made.

But can things change?

Things can change, and they actually do, often with unpredictable speed. The rapid fall of the Soviet empire – including the loss of the role of Russian as a “universal” language within in – is an indication of this.

English can lose its position as a widely used (although not official) universal language in two ways. Either a new empire emerges and its language becomes universal, or a constructed language becomes very popular. I believe most people regard both of these alternatives as extremely improbable, if not impossible. Perhaps they are right, perhaps not.

I can see two possible empires to emerge: the European Union and a yet nonexistent Japanese-Chinese empire.

The European Union (EU) is a political and economical formation which is moving towards federalism. In many respects, the European Union already is a federal state, with less independence and autonomy for its constituents than the states have in the United States. Although people may present the EU as the successor of previous empires such as the Roman empire and the empire of Charlemagne, it is quite possible that the EU never becomes a real empire, since it seems to be inherently bureaucratic. Every empire needs a bureaucracy, of course, to promote the aims of its ruler(s), but the EU lacks true rulers. But if the EU ever becomes a true empire with a prominent role in the world, the language of the empire will hardly be any of the national languages in the EU, except possibly English. It is possible that the builders of the empire will realize the need for a relatively neutral universal language, and adopt Esperanto or some other constructed language for official purposes. In fact, such a choice would be extremely rational at the present stage of the EU, since now a considerable portion of EU expenses are used for translation and interpretation between the official languages of the EU. A single official language of the EU might or might not be adopted by people worldwide as a universal language for everyday communication, including communication on the Internet.

It is, however, more realistic to expect that if the EU will have a single language for its administration and politics, it will be English, possibly a specifically “pan-European English” or “EU English” The EU has extensive style guides, both with language-independent principles and with rules for different languages. So we might say that for internal use within EU organization, a “EU English” already exists.

Japan is probably too small, both as a country and as a nation, to create an empire with its own forces, despite its flourishing technology and economy and efficient social organization. But its potential combined with the vast human and other resources of China would certainly constitute a basis for an empire that succesfully competes with the United States and the European Union, even if latter powers were (economically) strongly allied. Both Japan and China would have a lot to gain from intensive mutual cooperation, or alliance, confederation, or federation.

A Japanese-Chinese empire would have a difficult choice of language. It might decide to accept the role of English as a universal language, both for continuity and for the reason that selecting either Japanese or Chinese (Mandarin) would set the Japanese-Chinese union at stake. Alternatively, it might seriously consider using a constructed language – most probably not Esperanto but a language which is culturally more neutral, i.e. not dominantly Indo-European, for instance something like Loglan or Lojban.

Is English a suitable universal language?

Apart from being widely used and known, English is extremely unsuitable as a universal language. There are several reasons to this.

Any national language, i.e. a language which is or was originally the language of a particular tribe or nation, has obvious defects when used for international communication:

  • Native speakers of the language are in a quite different position than others. Some people regard this as bad in itself, as contrary to the equality principle, but I think it is practical consequences that make it bad. Native speakers tend to use idioms and rare words and to speak too fast, unless they exercise conscious control over their language – and such control is difficult and unnatural when applied to one’s mother tongue. This implies that in oral communication in particular native speakers of English often have worse problems in getting themselves correctly understood than nonnative speakers!
  • National languages exist in various dialects and forms – sometimes they are even mutually unintelligible, but the differences always make communication harder. There is usually no standard for a national language, and even if something that can be called standard exists, it is just one form of the language – typically a form that is only used by a minority, and even by it only in a minority of occasions. For a native speaker of a language, it is natural to use one’s own dialect, and it is difficult to avoid this entirely; this emphasizes the importance of the above-mentioned problem of native speakers expressing themselves in international contexts.
  • When you learn your native language in your childhood, you learn it by listening to and talking with people who have it as their native language. First they know it much better than you, later equally well. Thus it is very natural human behaviour to use your native language with the unconscious but strong assumption that the listener or reader knows the language to the same or even higher extent than you. In international contexts, this built-in assumption is almost always false, and this has severe consequences. For instance, we tend to regard people as stupid or ignorant if they do not understand normal language; this deep-rooted tendency is present even if our conscious mind understands the situation correctly.
  • A national language carries with it the history of the nation. For instance, words and phrases have got, in addition to their dictionary meanings, connotations, colours and associations. This is an important cultural phenomenon which helps in keeping the nation a nation, but in international communication it is a burden.
  • National languages have originally evolved as spoken languages. When written national languages originated, they were usually formed on the basis of the dialect of the capital or other important area, with the aim of creating a language which supports the creation of a unified nation. Thus, the very origin of a national language is in a sense nationalistic, not internationalistic.
  • Due to their long history, national languages have historical relics and features which make them illogical and irrational, such as grammatical gender or irregular forms. Moreover, being originally spoken languages, they lack sufficient tools for expressing things in an exact, unambiguous manner; and the need for such expression is immense and growing, especially in the areas of law and contracts, technology and technical descriptions, and science.

These remarks apply to English, too, and especially to English. One of the worst relics of English is the orthography. English has a very rich repertoire of idioms, and it typically has several words which have the same basic meaning but different connotations and stylistic value. Especially in international contexts you can never know what words mean to people with different backgrounds. Thus, you may occasionally get your basic message understood in some way, but you cannot tell in which way. This is of course an inherent problem in all human communication, but the nature of English makes it a really big problem.

English is an eclectic language which tends to borrow words from other languages instead of constructing words for new concepts from older words with derivation or word composition. People often say that English has a rich vocabulary as if it were something to be proud of. The richness of the vocabulary results basically from word borrowing and implies that words for related concepts are typically not related to each other in any obvious, regular manner. Word borrowing makes a language more international in one sense, but in the essential sense it makes it less suitable for international communication, since learning the vocabulary is more difficult.

A constructed international language?

The discussion above shows that it would be highly desirable to have a constructed language for international communication. It is well known that a large number of attempts to that effect have been made, with little results. Advocates of the basic idea have hardly agreed on anything but the basic idea, and most constructed languages have had no use as a language. People who strongly support the idea have typically designed their own proposal, a perfect language, and they do not want accept anything that is not perfect – “best” is the worst enemy of “good”.

The very idea is not inherently unrealistic, but it can only be realized if strong economical and political interests are involved, such as the intended creation of a European or Japanese-Chinese empire. The best that the advocates of a constructed international language can wish is that such empires emerge and that the United States remain as an important power, so that the world will have a few strong empires which cannot beat each other but must live in parallel and in cooperation. In such a situation, it might turn out that it is unrealistic not to agree on a common language which is not any of the national languages.

The role of the Internet in this hypothetical development would be to create the informational infrastructure for the discussion of the construction of the language, the very construction work, spreading out information about the language, the use of the language, and continuous development of the language. Most probably the language would first be used in parallel with English, and the initial use would be for such purposes like international agreements where national languages are clearly insufficient. For instance, if you need to formulate an agreement between two countries, you definitely need a neutral common language instead of having the text in two languages, each text allowing its own interpretations.

An alternative: machine translation

An alternative view of the future is that after a few years or decades, no universal language is needed: machine translation will allow you to use your own language. If the machine translation tools had sufficient quality and speed, you could sit on your terminal writing your news article or an IRC message in, say, Finnish, and another person in New Zealand would read your text in English, due to automatic translation “on the fly”.

During the last few decades, quite a lot of predictions and even promises have been presented regarding machine translation, but useful software and systems for it have not been available until recently. This has caused disappointments and pessimism to the extent that many people consider machine translation as definitely unrealistic.

Actually, machine translation is operational for a wide range of texts, although corrective actions by human translators may be necessary. Corrections are needed to resolve ambiguities which exist due to the limitations of the software and to fix errors caused by the fact that translation of human languages requires extralinguistic information.

Assumably fully automatic correct translation will never be possible. However, this does not exclude the possibility of using it extensively. It only means that we must be prepared to accept a risk – decreasing by advances in technology, but never reaching zero – of translation errors. Such risks exist when human translators are used, too, and in many respects automatic translation can be more reliable. Both human beings and computer programs err, in different ways.

In addition to the advancement of translation techniques, there are several ways in which the risk of errors in automatic translation can be decreased:

  • avoiding ambiguities in the source language: people can try to write their texts so that they are more easily tractable by translation programs
  • checking the translations: a person who has written a text in his native language may run it through a translation program, check and correct the result, and provide the “authorized” translation together with the source text; although it is usually not feasible to do this for several target languages, the authorized translation (typically, to English) can be used by translation programs for checking purposes: if translations from the original source and the authorized translation yield different results, this fact should be signalled to the user
  • warnings: in general, problematic fragments of texts like those obviously allowing different syntactic analyses, can be signalled to the user – i.e. to the author, to the reader, or both.

Currently the operational machine translation software is essentially based on syntactic analysis, so that semantic information is implicit in the dictionaries used by the software. An alternative approach, based on some kind of semantic analysis in addition to syntax, does not appear to be practically applicable yet.

Final remarks

Machine translation and constructed international languages are alternative but not mutually exclusive solutions to the problem of communication between people with different native languages. They can be combined in several ways.

A constructed language might form the basis of a semantics-oriented machine translation system. It could be used as an intermediate language, thus reducing the problem of making m × n translators from m languages to n languages into the problem of making m + n translators.

A constructed language, specifically designed to allow exact and unambiguous expression, might also be more suitable than English to the role of the language of “authorized” translations.

Global Englishes

The presentations in this article use David Crystal’s book, Global English and other source material as reference.

1. By: Aimen Sheikh, Hamza Siddiqui and Faiza Urooj: English and Global Languages

Presents the case of English as a global language and the need and benefits (and disadvantages) of a global language.

2. By: Nigel Bruce Khan, Hania Hasan, Kashaf Asim and Rida Farhan: Why English

Talks about WHY ENGLISH, presenting two international case studies as to why English became widespread the region and the case of English in Pakistan. In particular, it refers to ‘The Tyranny of Language in Education’ by Zubaida Mustafa who has written several articles on learning and the education system and the language policy in Pakistan.

3. By: Anas Siddiqui, Maheen Faruqui and Umme Salma Gadriwala: Exploring the possibilities of standardization and legalization of Standard English

Focuses on the case of proper English and the case for legalizing new Englishes in different territories.

Don’t kill your language

A TED talk by Suzanne Talhouk. The text of the talk is pasted below for reference:


Good morning! Are you awake? They took my name tag, but I wanted to ask you, did anyone here write their name on the tag in Arabic? Anyone! No one? All right, no problem. Once upon a time, not long ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with my friend, ordering food. So I looked at the waiter and said, “Do you have a menu (Arabic)?” He looked at me strangely, thinking that he misheard. He said, “Sorry? (English).” I said, “The menu (Arabic), please.” He replied, “Don’t you know what they call it?” “I do.” He said, “No! It’s called “menu” (English), or “menu” (French).” Is the French pronunciation correct? “Come, come, take care of this one!” said the waiter. He was disgusted when talking to me, as if he was saying to himself, “If this was the last girl on Earth, I wouldn’t look at her!” What’s the meaning of saying “menu” in Arabic?Two words made a Lebanese young man judge a girl as being backward and ignorant. How could she speak that way? At that moment, I started thinking. It made me mad. It definitely hurts! I’m denied the right to speak my own language in my own country? Where could this happen? How did we get here?Well, while we are here, there are many people like me, who would reach a stage in their lives, where they involuntarily give up everything that has happened to them in the past, just so they can say that they’re modern and civilized. Should I forget all my culture, thoughts, intellect and all my memories? Childhood stories might be the best memories we have of the war! Should I forget everything I learned in Arabic, just to conform? To be one of them? Where’s the logic in that? Despite all that, I tried to understand him. I didn’t want to judge him with the same cruelty that he judged me. The Arabic language doesn’t satisfy today’s needs. It’s not a language for science, research, a language we’re used to in universities, a language we use in the workplace, a language we rely on if we were to perform an advanced research project, and it definitely isn’t a language we use at the airport. If we did so, they’d strip us of our clothes.Where can I use it, then? We could all ask this question! So, you want us to use Arabic. Where are we to do so? This is one reality. But we have another more important reality that we ought to think about.Arabic is the mother tongue. Research says that mastery of other languages demands mastery of the mother tongue. Mastery of the mother tongue is a prerequisite for creative expression in other languages.How? Gibran Khalil Gibran, when he first started writing, he used Arabic. All his ideas, imagination and philosophy were inspired by this little boy in the village where he grew up, smelling a specific smell,hearing a specific voice, and thinking a specific thought. So, when he started writing in English, he had enough baggage. Even when he wrote in English, when you read his writings in English, you smell the same smell, sense the same feeling. You can imagine that that’s him writing in English, the same boy who came from the mountain. From a village on Mount Lebanon. So, this is an example no one can argue with. Second, it’s often said that if you want to kill a nation, the only way to kill a nation, is to kill its language. This is a reality that developed societies are aware of. The Germans, French, Japanese and Chinese, all these nations are aware of this. That’s why they legislate to protect their language. They make it sacred. That’s why they use it in production, they pay a lot of money to develop it. Do we know better than them? All right, we aren’t from the developed world, this advanced thinking hasn’t reached us yet, and we would like to catch up with the civilized world. Countries that were once like us, but decided to strive for development, do research, and catch up with those countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia and others, they carried their language with them as they were climbing the ladder, protected it like a diamond. They kept it close to them. Because if you get any product from Turkey or elsewhere and it’s not labeled in Turkish, then it isn’t a local product. You wouldn’t believe it’s a local product. They’d go back to being consumers, clueless consumers, like we are most of the time. So, in order for them to innovate and produce, they had to protect their language. If I say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence (Arabic),” what does this remind you of? It doesn’t ring a bell, does it? Regardless of the who, how and why. Language isn’t just for conversing, just words coming out of our mouths. Language represents specific stages in our lives, and terminology that is linked to our emotions. So when we say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence,” each one of you draws a specific image in their own mind, there are specific feelings of a specific day in a specific historical period. Language isn’t one, two or three words or letters put together. It’s an idea inside that relates to how we think, and how we see each other and how others see us. What is our intellect? How do you say whether this guy understands or not? So, if I say, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence (English),” or if your son came up to you and said, “Dad, have you lived through the period of the freedom (English) slogan?” How would you feel? If you don’t see a problem, then I’d better leave, and stop talking in vain. The idea is that these expressions remind us of a specific thing. I have a francophone friend who’s married to a French man. I asked her once how things were going. She said, “Everything is fine, but once, I spent a whole night asking and trying to translatethe meaning of the word ‘toqborni’ for him.” (Laughter) (Applause) The poor woman had mistakenly told him “toqborni,” and then spent the whole night trying to explain it to him. He was puzzled by the thought: “How could anyone be this cruel? Does she want to commit suicide? ‘Bury me?’ (English)” This is one of the few examples. It made us feel that she’s unable to tell that word to her husband, since he won’t understand, and he’s right not to; his way of thinking is different. She said to me, “He listens to Fairuz with me, and one night, I tried to translate for him so he can feel what I feel when I listen to Fairuz.” The poor woman tried to translate this for him: “From them I extended my hands and stole you –“ (Laughter)And here’s the pickle: “And because you belong to them, I returned my hands and left you.” (Laughter)Translate that for me. (Applause) So, what have we done to protect the Arabic language? We turned this into a concern of the civil society, and we launched a campaign to preserve the Arabic language. Even though many people told me, “Why do you bother? Forget about this headache and go have fun.” No problem! The campaign to preserve Arabic launched a slogan that says, “I talk to you from the East, but you reply from the West.” We didn’t say, “No! We do not accept this or that.” We didn’t adopt this style because that way, we wouldn’t be understood. And when someone talks to me that way, I hate the Arabic language. We say– (Applause) We want to change our reality, and be convinced in a way that reflects our dreams, aspirations and day-to-day life. In a way that dresses like us and thinks like we do.So, “I talk to you from the East, but you reply from the West” has hit the spot. Something very easy, yet creative and persuasive. After that, we launched another campaign with scenes of letters on the ground.You’ve seen an example of it outside, a scene of a letter surrounded by black and yellow tape with “Don’t kill your language!” written on it. Why? Seriously, don’t kill your language. We really shouldn’t kill our language. If we were to kill the language, we’d have to find an identity. We’d have to find an existence.We’d go back to the beginning. This is beyond just missing our chance of being modern and civilized.After that we released photos of guys and girls wearing the Arabic letter. Photos of “cool” guys and girls.We are very cool! And to whoever might say, “Ha! You used an English word!” I say, “No! I adopt the word ‘cool.'” Let them object however they want, but give me a word that’s nicer and matches the reality better. I will keep on saying “Internet” I wouldn’t say: “I’m going to the world wide web” (Laughs)Because it doesn’t fit! We shouldn’t kid ourselves. But to reach this point, we all have to be convincedthat we shouldn’t allow anyone who is bigger or thinks they have any authority over us when it comes to language, to control us or make us think and feel what they want. Creativity is the idea. So, if we can’t reach space or build a rocket and so on, we can be creative. At this moment, every one of you is a creative project. Creativity in your mother tongue is the path. Let’s start from this moment. Let’s write a novel or produce a short film. A single novel could make us global again. It could bring the Arabic language back to being number one. So, it’s not true that there’s no solution; there is a solution! But we have to know that, and be convinced that a solution exists, that we have a duty to be part of that solution. In conclusion, what can you do today? Now, tweets, who’s tweeting? Please, I beg of you, even though my time has finished, either Arabic, English, French or Chinese. But don’t write Arabic with Latin characters mixed with numbers! (Applause) It’s a disaster! That’s not a language. You’d be entering a virtual world with a virtual language. It’s not easy to come back from such a place and rise. That’s the first thing we can do. Second, there are many other things that we can do. We’re not here today to convince each other. We’re here to bring attention to the necessity of preserving this language. Now I will tell you a secret. A baby first identifies its father through language. When my daughter is born, I’ll tell her, “This is your father, honey (Arabic).” I wouldn’t say, “This is your dad, honey (English).” And in the supermarket, I promise my daughter Noor, that if she says to me, “Thanks (Arabic),” I won’t say, “Dis, ‘Merci, Maman,'” and hope no one has heard her. (Applause) Let’s get rid of this cultural cringe.(Applause)

Feast Your Eyes on This Beautiful Linguistic Family Tree


When linguists talk about the historical relationship between languages, they use a tree metaphor. An ancient source (say, Indo-European) has various branches (e.g., Romance, Germanic), which themselves have branches (West Germanic, North Germanic), which feed into specific languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian). Lessons on language families are often illustrated with a simple tree diagram that has all the information but lacks imagination. There’s no reason linguistics has to be so visually uninspiring. Minna Sundberg, creator of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, a story set in a lushly imagined post-apocalyptic Nordic world, has drawn the antidote to the boring linguistic tree diagram.

Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)

You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible, asks linguist Steven Pinker


Chief Justice John Roberts had Obama ‘solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully’.

Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as “fortuitous”, “decimate” and “comprise”. Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.

It’s a catchy dichotomy, but a false one. Anyone who has read an inept student paper, a bad Google translation, or an interview with George W Bush can appreciate that standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.

How can you distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions? These are the questions to ask. Does the rule merely extend the logic of an intuitive grammatical phenomenon to more complicated cases, such as avoiding the agreement error in “The impact of the cuts have not been felt”? Do careful writers who inadvertently flout the rule agree, when the breach is pointed out, that something has gone wrong? Has the rule been respected by the best writers in the past? Is it respected by careful writers in the present? Is there a consensus among discerning writers that it conveys an interesting semantic distinction? And are violations of the rule obvious products of mishearing, careless reading, or a chintzy attempt to sound highfalutin?

A rule should be rejected, in contrast, if the answer to any of the following questions is “Yes.” Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one? Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs? Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven? Has it been routinely flouted by great writers? Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical? Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear?

Finally, does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality? Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.

The easiest way to distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother’s tale is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern usage guide or a dictionary with usage notes. Many people, particularly sticklers, are under the impression that every usage myth ever loosed on the world by a self-proclaimed purist will be backed up by the major dictionaries and manuals. In fact, these reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense. (This is less true of style sheets drawn up by newspapers and professional societies, and of manuals written by amateurs such as critics and journalists, which tend to mindlessly reproduce the folklore of previous guides.)

What follow are 10 common issues of grammar selected from those that repeatedly turn up in style guides, pet-peeve lists, newspaper language columns and irate letters to the editor.

and, because, but, or, so, also

Many children are taught that it is ungrammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That’s because teachers need a simple way to teach them how to break sentences, so they tell them that sentences beginning with “and” and other conjunctions are ungrammatical. Whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults. There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction. “And”, “but” and “so” are indispensable in linking individual sentences into a coherent passage, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence. The conjunction “because” can also happily sit at the beginning of a sentence. Most commonly it ends up there when it introduces an explanation that has been preposed in front of a main clause, as in: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” But it can also kick off a single clause when the clause serves as the answer to a why question: “‘Why can’t I have a pony?’ ‘Because I said so.'”

dangling modifiers

Do you see a problem with the sentences that follow?

“Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, the area was sealed off.”

According to an old rule about “dangling modifiers”, these sentences are ungrammatical. The rule decrees that the implied subject of the modifier (the one doing the checking, turning, and so on) must be identical to the overt subject of the main clause (it, the view, and so on). Most copy editors would recast the main clause, supplying it with a subject to which the modifier can be properly fastened:

“Checking into the hotel, I was pleased to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, I saw that the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, authorities sealed off the area.”

Newspaper columns on usage are filled with apologies for “errors” like these. Danglers are extremely common, not just in deadline-pressured journalism but in the works of distinguished authors. Considering how often these forms turn up in edited prose and how readily they are accepted even by careful readers, two conclusions are possible: either dangling modifiers are a particularly insidious grammatical error for which writers must develop sensitive radar, or they are not grammatical errors at all. (Did you notice the dangler in the sentence before last?)

The second conclusion is the right one: some dangling modifiers should be avoided, but they are not grammatical errors. The problem with dangling modifiers is that their subjects are inherently ambiguous and sometimes a sentence will inadvertently attract a reader to the wrong choice, as in “When a small boy, a girl is of little interest.”

But some so-called danglers are perfectly acceptable. Many participles have turned into prepositions, such as “according”, “allowing”, “concerning”, “considering”, “excepting”, “following”, “given”, “granted”, “owing”, “regarding” and “respecting”, and they don’t need subjects at all. Inserting “we find” or “we see” into the main clause to avoid a dangler can make the sentence stuffy and self-conscious. More generally, a modifier can dangle when its implied subject is the writer and the reader. The decision of whether to recast a sentence to align its subject with the subject of a modifier is a matter of judgment, not grammar. A thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow them down, and occasionally it can lure them into a ludicrous interpretation. Also, even if a dangler is in no danger of being misinterpreted, enough readers have trained themselves to spot danglers that a writer who leaves it incurs the risk of being judged as slovenly. So in formal styles it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye open for them and to correct the obtrusive ones.

like, as, such as


Long ago, in the Mad Men era when cigarettes were advertised on radio and television, every brand had a slogan. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” “Lucky Strike means fine tobacco.” “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.” And most infamously, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”

The infamy did not come from the fact that the company was using a catchy jingle to get people addicted to carcinogens. It came from the fact that the jingle allegedly contained a grammatical error. “Like” is a preposition, said the accusers, and may take only a noun phrase object, as in “crazy like a fox” or “like a bat out of hell”. It is not a conjunction and so may not be followed by a clause. The New Yorker sneered at the error, Ogden Nash wrote a poem about it, Walter Cronkite refused to say it on the air, and style guide icons Strunk and White declared it illiterate. The slogan, they all agreed, should have been “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.” The advertising agency and the tobacco company were delighted by the unpaid publicity and were only too happy to confess to the error in the coda, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

Like many usage controversies, the brouhaha over “like a cigarette should” is a product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance. The ad’s use of “like” with a clause was not a recent corruption; the combination has been in use for 600 years. It has been used in literary works by dozens of great writers (including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, HG Wells and William Faulkner) and has flown beneath the radar of the purists themselves, who have inadvertently used it in their own style guides. This does not show that purists are only human and sometimes make errors; it shows that the alleged error is not an error. The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company was confessing to the wrong crime; its slogan was perfectly grammatical. Writers are free to use either “like” or “as”, mindful only that “as” is a bit more formal, and that the Winston-tastes-good controversy became such a bloody shirt in the grammar wars that readers may mistakenly think the writer has made an error.

A related superstition, ruthlessly enforced by many copy editors, is that “like” may not be used to introduce examples, as in “Many technical terms have become familiar to laypeople, like ‘cloning’ and ‘DNA’.” They would correct it to “such as ‘cloning’ and ‘DNA'”. According to this guideline, “like” may be used only for resemblance to an exemplar, as in “I’ll find someone like you” and “Poems are made by fools like me.” Few writers consistently follow this bogus rule. “Such as” is more formal than “like”, but both are legitimate.

preposition at the end of a sentence

Winston Churchill did not, as legend has it, reply to an editor who had corrected his prose with “This is pedantry up with which I will not put.” Nor is that witticism (originally from a 1942 Wall Street Journal article) a particularly good example of the construction that linguists call “preposition stranding”, as in “Who did you talk to?” or “That’s the bridge I walked across.” The particle “up” is an intransitive preposition and does not require an object, so even the most pedantic of pedants would have no objection to a phrase like “This is pedantry with which I will not put up.”

Though the attribution and the example are spurious, the mockery is appropriate. The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check. There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”. The pseudo-rule was invented by John Dryden based on a silly analogy with Latin (where the equivalent to a preposition is attached to the noun and cannot be separated from it) in an effort to show that Ben Jonson was an inferior poet. As the linguist Mark Liberman remarked, “It’s a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel, and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief.”

The alternative to stranding a preposition at the end of a clause is allowing it to accompany a “wh” word to the front, a rule that the linguist JR (Haj) Ross dubbed pied-piping, because it reminded him of the way that the Pied Piper lured the rats out of the village of Hamelin. The standard question rule in English converts “You are seeing what?” into “What are you seeing?” and hence “You are looking at what?” into “What are you looking at?” The pied-piping rule allows the “what” to pull the “at” with it to the front of the sentence, yielding “At what are you looking?” and similar clauses, such as “The better with which to see you,” or “It’s you of whom she’s thinking.”

How should you choose? Most obviously, pied-piping sounds better in a formal style. Abraham Lincoln knew what he was doing at the graves of the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg when he vowed “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”, rather than “increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion for”. The problem with stranding a preposition is that it can end the sentence with a word that is too lightweight to serve as its focal point, making the sentence sound like “the last sputter of an engine going dead”. By the same principle, a preposition should be stranded at the end of a sentence when it contributes a crucial bit of information, as in “music to read by”, “something to guard against”, or when it pins down the meaning of an idiom, as in “It’s nothing to sneeze at” or “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about”.

predicative nominative

When you come home after a day at the office, do you call out, “Hi, honey, it’s I”? If you do, you are the victim of a schoolteacher rule that insists that a pronoun serving as the complement of “be” must be in nominative case (I, he, she, we, they) rather than accusative case (me, him, her, us, them). According to this rule, Psalms (120:5), Isaiah (6:5), Jeremiah (4:31), and Ophelia should have cried out, “Woe is I,” and the cartoon possum Pogo should have reworded his famous declaration as “We have met the enemy, and he is we.”

The rule is a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar and syntax with semantics. Accusative predicates have been used for centuries by many respected writers (including Samuel Pepys, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf), and the choice between “It is he” and “It is him” is strictly one of formal versus informal style.

split infinitives

Most mythical usage rules are merely harmless. The prohibition of split infinitives (as in “Are you sure you want to permanently delete all the items and subfolders in the ‘Deleted Items’ folder?”) and the even more sweeping prohibition of “split verbs” (as in “I will always love you” and “I would never have guessed”) is downright pernicious. During the 2009 presidential inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts, a famous stickler for grammar, could not bring himself to have Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States”. Abandoning his strict constructionism, Roberts unilaterally amended the Constitution and had Obama “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.” The garbled oath raised fears about whether the transfer of power had been legitimate, and so they repeated the oath verbatim, split verb and all, in a private meeting later that afternoon.

The very terms “split infinitive” and “split verb” are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, “to love”. But in English, the so-called infinitive “to write” consists of two words, not one: the subordinator “to” and the plain form of the verb “write”, which can also appear without “to” in constructions such as “She helped him pack” and “You must be brave.” There is not the slightest reason to interdict an adverb from the position before the main verb, and great writers in English have placed it there for centuries. Indeed, the spot in front of the main verb is often the most natural resting place for an adverb, and sometimes it is the only resting place. Unsplitting the infinitive in the New Yorker cartoon caption “I’m moving to France to not get fat” (yielding “I’m moving to France not to get fat”) would garble the meaning, and doing so with “Profits are expected to more than double this year,” would result in gibberish: “Profits are expected more than to double this year.”

More generally, the preverbal position is the only one in which the adverb unambiguously modifies the verb. In a sentence in which the author may have taken pains to unsplit an infinitive, such as “The board voted immediately to approve the casino”, the reader has to wonder whether it was the vote that was immediate, or the approval. With the infinitive left unsplit – “The board voted to immediately approve the casino” – it can only be the approval. This does not mean that infinitives should always be split. Indeed, it’s a good habit to at least consider moving an adverb to the end of the verb phrase. If the adverb conveys important information, it belongs there; if it doesn’t (such as “really”, “just”, “actually” and other hedges), it might be a verbal fluffball that is best omitted altogether. And since there are benighted sticklers out there who will mistakenly accuse you of making an error when you split an infinitive, you might as well not ask for trouble if it makes no difference to the sentence anyway.

Finally, in many cases a quantifier naturally floats leftward away from the verb, unsplitting the infinitive:

“I find it hard to specify when to not split an infinitive.”

“I find it hard to specify when not to split an infinitive.”

The unsplit versions sound more elegant to me, though I can’t be sure that my ears haven’t been contaminated by a habit of cravenly unsplitting infinitives to avoid spitballs from the Gotcha! Gang.

that and which

Many spurious rules start out as helpful hints intended to rescue indecisive writers from paralysis when faced with a choice provided by the richness of English. These guides for the perplexed also make the lives of copy editors easier, so they may get incorporated into style sheets. Before you know it, a rule of thumb morphs into a rule of grammar, and a perfectly innocuous (albeit second-choice) construction is demonised as incorrect. Nowhere is this transition better documented than with the phony but ubiquitous rule on when to use “which” and when to use “that”.

According to the traditional rule, the choice depends on which of two kinds of relative clause the word is introducing. A nonrestrictive relative clause is set off by commas, dashes or parentheses, as in “The pair of shoes, which cost five thousand dollars, was hideous.” A restrictiverelative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, often because it pinpoints the referent of the noun from among a set of alternatives. If we were narrating a documentary about Imelda Marcos’s vast shoe collection and wanted to single out one of the pairs by how much she paid for it and then say something about that pair alone, we would write “The pair of shoes that cost £5,000 was hideous.” The choice between “that” and “which”, according to the rule, is simple: nonrestrictive relative clauses take “which”; restrictive relative clauses take “that”.

One part of the rule is correct: it’s odd to use “that” with a nonrestrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000, was hideous.” So odd, in fact, that few people write that way, rule or no rule.

The other part of the rule is utterly incorrect. There is nothing wrong with using “which” to introduce a restrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes which cost £5,000 was hideous.” Indeed, with some restrictive relatives, “which” is the only option, such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “The book in which I scribbled my notes is worthless.” Even when “which” isn’t mandatory, great writers have been using it for centuries, as in Shakespeare’s “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” and Franklin Roosevelt’s “a day which will live in infamy”.

So what’s a writer to do? The real decision is not whether to use “that” or “which” but whether to use a restrictive or a nonrestrictive relative clause. If a phrase that expresses a comment about a noun can be omitted without substantially changing the meaning, and if it would be pronounced after a slight pause and with its own intonation contour, then be sure to set it off with commas (or dashes or parentheses): “The Cambridge restaurant, which had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches.” Having done so, you don’t have to worry about whether to use “that” or “which”, because if you’re tempted to use “that” it means either that you are more than 200 years old or that your ear for the English language is so mistuned that the choice of “that” and “which” is the least of your worries.

If, on the other hand, a phrase provides information about a noun that is crucial to the point of the sentence (as in “Every Cambridge restaurantwhich failed to clean its grease trap was infested with roaches”, where omitting the italicised phrase would radically alter the meaning), and if it is pronounced within the same intonation contour as the noun, then don’t set it off with punctuation. As for the choice you now face between “which” and “that”: if you hate making decisions, you won’t go wrong if you use “that”.

who and whom

When Groucho Marx was once asked a long and orotund question, he replied, “Whom knows?” A 1928 short story by George Ade contains the line “‘Whom are you?’ he said, for he had been to night school.” In 2000 the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm showed an owl in a tree calling “Whom” and a raccoon on the ground replying “Show-off!” A cartoon entitled “Grammar Dalek” shows one of the robots shouting, “I think you mean Doctor Whom!”

The popularity of “whom” humour tells us two things about the distinction between “who” and “whom”. First, “whom” has long been perceived as formal verging on pompous. Second, the rules for its proper use are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop “whom” into their speech whenever they want to sound posh.

So you may be inclined to agree with the writer Calvin Trillin when he wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” But this is an overstatement. There are times when even non-butlers need to know their “who” from their “whom”.

It ought to be straightforward. The distinction between “who” and “whom” is identical to that between “he” and “him” or “she” and “her”, which no one finds difficult. We say “He kissed the bride,” so we ask “Who kissed the bride?” We say “Henry kissed her,” so we ask “Whom did Henry kiss?” But even after a century of nagging by prescriptive grammarians, the “who–whom” distinction remains tenuous in speech and informal writing. Only the stuffiest prig would say “Whom are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” “It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know,” or “Do you know whom you’re talking to?” And when people do try to write with “whom”, they often get it wrong, as in “Whomever installed the shutters originally did not consider proper build out.”

Like the subjunctive mood, the pronoun “whom” is widely thought to be circling the drain. Indeed, tabulations of its frequency in printed text confirm that it has been sinking for almost two centuries. The declining fortunes of “whom” may represent not a grammatical change in English but a cultural change in Anglophones, namely the informalisation of writing, which makes it increasingly resemble speech. But it’s always risky to extrapolate a downward slope all the way to zero, and since the 1980s the curve seems to be levelling off. Though “whom” is pompous in short questions and relative clauses, it is a natural choice in certain other circumstances, even in informal speech and writing. We still use “whom” in double questions like “Who’s dating whom?”, and in fixed expressions like “To whom it may concern” and “With whom do you wish to speak?”. A scan of my email turns up hundreds of hits for “whom” in unmistakably informal sentences such as “Not sure if you remember me; I’m the fellow from Casasanto’s lab with whom you had a hair showdown while at Hunter College.”

The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of “whom” to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire. If William Safire, who wrote the New York Times’ “On Language” column and coined the term “language maven” in reference to himself, could write, “Let tomorrow’s people decide who they want to be president,” so can you.

very unique

They say you can’t be a little bit married or a little bit pregnant, and purists believe that the same is true for certain other adjectives. One of the commonest insults to the sensibility of the purist is the expression “very unique” and other phrases in which an “absolute” or “incomparable” adjective is modified by an adverb of degree such as “more”, “less”, “somewhat”, “quite” or “almost”. Uniqueness, the purists say, is like marriage and pregnancy: something is either unique (one of a kind) or not unique, so referring to degrees of uniqueness is meaningless. Nor can one sensibly modify “absolute”, “certain”, “complete”, “equal”, “eternal”, “perfect” or “the same”. One may not write, for instance, that one statement is “more certain” than another, or that an apartment is “relatively perfect”.

A glance at the facts of usage immediately sets off Klaxon horns. Great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries, including the framers of the American Constitution, who sought “a more perfect union”. Many of the examples pass unnoticed by careful writers, including “nothing could be more certain” and “there could be no more perfect spot”. Though the phrase “very unique” is universally despised, other modifications of “unique” are unobjectionable, as when Martin Luther King wrote, “I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers.”

Here is the flaw in the purists’ logic. Uniqueness is not like pregnancy and marriage; it must be defined relative to some scale of measurement. I am told that all snowflakes are unique, and so they may be under a microscope, but frankly, they all look the same to me. Conversely, each of the proverbial two peas in a pod is unique if you squint hard enough through a magnifying glass. Does this mean that nothing is unique, or does it mean that everything is unique? The answer is neither: the concept “unique” is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying. Calling something “quite unique” or “very unique” implies that the item differs from the others in an unusual number of qualities, that it differs from them to an unusual degree, or both. In other words, pick any scale or cutoff you want, and the item will still be unique.

This doesn’t mean that you should go ahead and use “very unique”. “Very” is a soggy modifier in the best of circumstances, and the combination with “unique” grates on enough readers that it’s wise to avoid it.

count nouns, mass nouns and “ten items or less”

English speakers can conceptualise aggregates as discrete things, which are expressed as plural count nouns, such as “pebbles” or as continuous substances, which are expressed as mass nouns, such as “gravel”. Some quantifiers are choosy as to which they apply to. We can talk about “many pebbles” but not “much pebbles”, “much gravel” but not “many gravel”. Some quantifiers are not choosy: we can talk about “more pebbles” or “more gravel”.

pinker illoPhotograph: Adam Gale

Now, you might think that if “more” can be used with both count and mass nouns, so can “less”. But it doesn’t work that way: you may have “less gravel”, but most writers agree that you can only have “fewer pebbles”, not “less pebbles”. This is a reasonable distinction, but purists have extended it with a vengeance. The sign over supermarket express checkout lanes, “Ten Items or Less”, is a grammatical error, they say, and as a result of their carping upscale supermarkets have replaced the signs with “Ten Items or Fewer”. By this logic, off licences should refuse to sell beer to customers who are “fewer than 21 years old” and law-abiding motorists should drive at “fewer than 70 miles an hour”. And once you master this distinction, well, that’s one fewer thing for you to worry about.

Clearly, the purists have botched the “less-fewer” distinction. “Less” is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in “one less car” and “one less thing to worry about”. It’s also natural when the entity being quantified is a continuous extent and the count noun refers to units of measurement, such as “21 years old” and “70 miles an hour”; like the 1-11 scale on Nigel Tufnel‘s favourite amplifier in This Is Spinal Tap, the units are arbitrary. And “less” is idiomatic in certain expressions in which a quantity is being compared to a standard, such as “Describe yourself in 50 words or less.” Like many dubious rules of usage, the less-fewer distinction has a smidgen of validity as a pointer of style. In cases where “less” and “fewer” are both available, such as “Less/fewer than 20 of the students voted”, “fewer” is the better choice because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that “less” is a grammatical error.