This blog tries to be
a home for those who enjoyed posting
on the old BBC Word of Mouth Message board
— and anybody else with an interest in language.

If you want to start a new discussion, please do one of the following:

• Add your new point as a comment here (Click)
• Become a follower and email your text to me.

REMEMBER Before you compose a posting Sign in (Top Right)
Before you publish Save your text somewhere (as a precaution)

Friday, 8 July 2011

Caro's query

Caro writes

"Oh yes, I might like that [to become an author]. In the meantime I have a query. Someone has asked on another forum when the style of writing 'shippe' for 'ship' and 'beste' for 'best' etc stopped. We have been reading an historical document (you prefer a historical document, don't you?) from about 1575 and it uses these longer forms."

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Author! Author!

Want to become an author? That would seem to be the solution for the problem that so far only I've been the only person capable of starting a thread.

Let me know (by email or in a comment) that you would like to be able to start threads and I will make you an author, thus turning this into a group blog.

I've only just discovered this possibility, so I can't tell you exactly how it will work. It could be fun finding out!

I've learned a little more about how it works. All you need to do is
  1. create a google account
  2. send me your email address
I'll then fix it so that you can create your own posts and edit them.

Hastening demise of I?

Andy Coulson
On Newsnight just now a Conservative politician told Kirsty Wark that judging the possibility of criminal acts by Andy Coulson was 
"not for you or I"
Now this could be explained as a simple extension of the creeping increase of "for you and I". And one of the usual explanations of this is that 
you and I is a 'conjoined' unit, of which only the first pronoun takes the objective case form — for example for him and  or for them and I. You can hardly call the phrase you or I  'conjoined', but it is, arguable, a unit.

However, this can't explain the politician's grammatical choice. Earlier, He's told Kirsty that judgement of Ady Coulson's activities was
"not for you or for I".

This could well be a signal of the future of English grammar. Accusative and dative case forms long ago disappeared from nouns — leaving a small rump of 'objective case' forms for 
  • some personal pronouns (me him her us them and related himself herself themselves)
  • the pronoun that doubles as interrogative and relative (whom)
It's well known that whom is becoming rare in speech, and expressions like between you and I are on the increase. It looks to me as if objective case forms like me  might be reducing still further to the status of first mention only.

Time, ladies and gentleman please?

It looks as if time has been called in the zetaboards 
Word of Mouth saloon — and, indeed, all the other HyperTV drinking holes. We can't even access old postings, the way we can with the old original BBC WoM Board.

If you are a regular old drinker reading this, please consider transferring your custom. It really could be the Last Chance Saloon. 

I'll make you as welcome as I possibly can, although I know the blogger environment is not so friendly or accommodating. Please believe me that it doesn't always go wrong. There are frequent exasperating problems, but they do get fixed. There is a constant problem for new users learning how to post comments. Please believe me that it gets easier as you get used to it.

If you follow two golden rules you'll avoid the most common problems — though not all, alas!

Rule One Remember to Sign in before you start writing a comment.

Rule Two If you realise you've forgotten to Sign in

  1. Copy and save any text you've written
  2. Sign in
  3. Move forward, not back, to the page with the Comment box
  4. Paste the text in (if you've used any formatting tags, you'll need to restore them)
You can't post without an identity of some sort. The way I started on blogger was to create a phantom blog, which I never used until starting this ex-WoM enterprise. There are, of course, other ways but I don't have any knowledge of them. If you do acquire a blogger identity, you can add a little picture. 

You can also use your identity to become a follower, if you wish. This will allow you to send emails to me without knowing my address. So it's relatively easy to start a thread: just email the text to me. (Another way is to post your text as a comment and ask me to make a thread of it.) I may also send emails indirectly to you. (I'll only do this for blog business, and I'll happily stop doing so if you don't want to receive them.)

You can see a list of RECENT POSTS at the right-hnd side of the blog. I'm afraid there's no RECENT COMMENTS list, but you can discover them though the All Comments box under the 

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

THEM - The Creeping Horror!

Another post from Brian Duncan 
Grouchy old pedants such as I - unless we are completely stupid - have long accepted the status of gender-neutral singular pronoun that political correctness has now firmly assigned to  "they" and its kin.  
We acknowledge that such usage is not only time-honoured, but dignified in the works of masters of English literature (though perhaps there may be a measure of irony in Wodehouse's gloss of "the psychology of the individual" as "what they are like").  
We may even, while eschewing the usage ourselves, accept that it is preferable to the clumsy  "he or she".  In any case, it is no sillier than the formal Italian use of "lei" (= "they") for "you".

However  .  .  .  where is the sense in the following from Evan Davis on "Today" the other morning? 

Evan Davis

"  . . . here is someone else who wants to express their view on this topic:  Lord Warner . . ."

Lord Warner

I acknowledge that my quotation is woefully inaccurate, but the absurdity contained within it is not.   That Lord Warner is a man is beyond doubt:  were it not so, his title would be "Lady".  That "Lord" is a noun of the masculine gender is a matter of fact, even were the sex of its holder a matter of conjecture.  Why, then, in the name of all that's reasonable, does Mr Davis find it appropriate to say "their" instead of "his"?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A new start?

Back from holiday, with this postcard. 
I'll try again ...

One way of signing in that works
This is how I got started on Blogger.
  1. At the top right of the screen, click Create Blog
  2. Follow the instructions, which I found pretty clear. This will give you a Google account, which makes signing in quite easy. You don't have to use your blog. I left mine alone until I though of using it for ex-Word-of-Mouth.
  3. In future, always check the top right hand corner. If it shows Sign in then you need to click it if you want to post a comment.
  4. Once signed in, never navigate backwards.
  5. I started on Blogger to follow other language blogs:

 I can recommend all three. The John Wells blog can be technical (sometimes very technical) but quite often it's very accessible. David Crystal is excellent value, but he doesn't post all that often. Lynne Murphy ('Lynnequist Lynneguist') starts thread on differences between British and American usage and lots of people feel confident enough to post.

    Friday, 27 May 2011

    Holiday break

    I'm off on holiday until June 6th. This is unfortunate, since people tell me that the other Word of Mouth Board is closing.

    If you're new to this Blog, have a look at what's been written. If you like what you see, do please add comments to old threads. If you want to start a thread, send me a message ― either in the Welcome thread or by becoming a follower and sending your text to me. I'll start some new threads after June 6th.

    Some people have had problems signing in. All I can say is please try again. It may be necessary to make a fresh move to the Blog ― i.e. not using the Back arrow.

    If you haven't done so, try creating a Blogger account here (click). This will allow you to be a follower, if you wish. It will also allow you to see all the recent comments, which is quite difficult otherwise.

    If you're desperate to start a discussion, you could try posting the OP-equivalent as a comment on this tread.

    Tuesday, 17 May 2011

    Following us

    As you can see, I've added two boxes headed SUBSCRIBE TO towards the top, above the RECENT POSTS. This is a Blogger feature I've just discovered. If you are signed up to one of the following

    • Google Homepage
    • Google Reader 
    • netvibes 
    • newsgator 
    • MY YAHOO
    • atom 
    you can click

    • the Posts box to see recent posts
    • the All comments box to see recent comments

    Sunday, 8 May 2011

    The Scottish People

    Douglas writes

    Alex Salmond wants a referendum on Scottish independence but who should vote?

    Should the whole UK vote, should it be confined to Scotland or should it be confined to the Scots? 

    It can’t be said that only the Scots have an interest in the matter but would the SNP accept that others are concerned?  

    If all the UK voted it wouldn’t necessarily mean that it would be defeated.  There are many in England would say “Good riddance” as they think they would be well rid of Scots MPs at Westminster. 

    If confined to Scotland, you would have a vote and I would not but it would be a matter of great concern to me. 

    If it were to be confined to Scots, how would they tell who were and who were not? 

    I don’t expect you would wish to find yourself living in a foreign land any more than I would.
    Salmond is very fond of the phrase the Scottish people. Recently there has been talk of Scotland being an ordinary country. And of course people speak of the Scottish nation. But which of these different concepts equate to the Scots and how do they relate to an electorate?

    If ever a Scottish nation state within the present boundaries were to be established, then I would think it fair that people resident in that state should comprise the electorate — just as people within the present entity are subject to Scottish Law and enjoy certain privileges vis-à-vis the NHS, university fees, professional teaching qualifications etc. 

    But how could Scotland become a nation state? The usual method is by hostile breakaway, which seems inconceivable as things stand now. Yet if the residents of Scotland voted in a referendum for independence, they wouldn't be able to secede peacefully without the cooperation of the rest of the UK. I suppose that would be the time for a UK-wide referendum.

    Another word to consider is citzenship. In the remote event of a velvet divorce, could Douglas and I choose to be citizens of one country and electors of another, while remaining British subjects?

    Saturday, 7 May 2011


    Our concept of fair is surely derived later in life from this early perception of what is unfairSo I reckon the choice of the Yes  campaign to
    promote AV as fairer was pretty disastrous. The question voters asked themselves was:
    Is first past the post unfair to me?
    Yes, we are also capable of altruism. But if you campaign to bring equity to others, then you have make people empathise with the disadvantaged. Persuading Conservative and Labour supporters to pity the poor Lib Dems was never a starter.

    Or is it possible to promote a more adult sense of fairness?


    Another contentious word. On the old Board we discussed the wording of apologies and the sincerity or insincerity of the apology giver. There's a continuation on this other WoM-type forum. But I think we've missed an important perspective: what does it all mean to the receiver  of an apology?
    • Why do we want apologies?
    • What are the minimum ingredients to make us feel satisfied?
    • What considerations can make us dismiss an apology?
    • Does it really matter who makes the apology? Or when it's made?

    Friday, 6 May 2011


    This is a low-resolution copy of Bill Tidy's cartoon with the caption: 
    "Well, lads, what are we going to do wi' rest of Arts Council grant?"
    The birth of the Cloggies!

    At my French class on Thursday, we read a couple of press items referring to patrimoine, which I take to be the French way of looking at what we call heritage. 

    One item identified the target of populist politicians as a group which feared the loss of their material heritage of high living standards and the immaterial heritage of their way of life. Immigrants can be demonised as threats to both.

    The other item reported that bullfighting in South-West France had been registered as an item of heritage.

    But what really shocked me was our teacher's assertion that we in Britain don't have any items of cultural heritage because nothing has been registered with UNESCO.

    So, what is heritage?


    For all Americans speaking in the media, the killing of Osama Bin Laden is self-evidently an act of justice. For a good many speakers heard in the British media this was more like vengeance.

    The split seems to be between those who define justice in terms of law and due process, and those who see justice as an attempt to rebalance the moral universe — good actions cancelling bad.

    The two principles are complementary in normal circumstances — but these circumstances are far from normal. Do we have the right to question the Americans' conviction that justice has been done?

    The show so far

    Well, I'm extremely happy with the number of old virtual friends who have visited and written something. I'm less happy with the amount of discussion generated. This is clearly my fault. What I was doing wasn't working. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. Meanwhile, I'll try a number of short OP's.

    I hope you like the changes I've made to the appearance. Other features and changes may be possible. Let me know if there's something you'd like me to try.

    Sunday, 17 April 2011

    is is

    Brian Duncan writes:

    There was a fracas some months ago - I think on the "Today" programme - about the new linguistic oddity of the double "is":  as in "the thing is, is that", or "the problem is, is that" - and so forth.

    They trotted out the customary "linguistic"  "expert", who suggested that the second "is" is merely a lexical filler to enable the speaker to gather his ("or -yawn - her", to quote Giles Coren ) thoughts.  This is demonstrably nonsense.

    When speakers use the double "is", there's never a trace of hesitation.  All that has happened is (is) that among careless speakers - who are the majority, and, therefore, in charge - such expressions have become cliches to such a degree that, for example, "the thing is" has become a composite word, necessitating another "is" for the sake of syntax.

    The fact that I find this horrifying is not of the least importance:   if it is the way that the language is going - why, then! -   it is the way that the language is going.  I wish it a happy and productive journey.  

    But I find myself uncomfortably suspended between two stools.  A language that does not evolve is a dead language.  (Maybe that's why I love Latin.)  But it is possible for English to "make sense" without disrupting entirely the customs of usage and idiom.  If the double "is" has become idiomatic, it saddens me:  it doesn't make sense.

    Saturday, 16 April 2011

    Kiss, kiss. Shake, shake.

    Another politeness question in this week's programme was the etiquette of greeting ― in Mike's case by the expected handshake and the unexpected kiss. Having lived in several other countries, I don't feel it unnatural to kiss cheeks, but I do tend to flick an internal switch before I act foreign in this way.

    But kissing isn't necessarily a substitute for a handshake. I used to tell foreigners that handshaking is very rare in Britain. Ignoring the congratulatory handshake, I believed that the norm was to shake hands once in a lifetime with any given individual ― on the occasion that you're introduced, or introduce each other. This I thought (and still do) was true of the greeting How do you do!

    When I came to Scotland, I changed this to saying Once in a lifetime in England and once a year in Scotland. This is because people here shake hands when they meet at the start of  a new year.

    Well OK, I exaggerated. We shake hands more often than I reckoned, but still far less than in other cultures and countries. What should I have said? When do the rest of you shake hands or kiss?

    Tuesday, 12 April 2011

    Politeness in emails

    This weeks programme left me wondering:

    • Is the Hi greeting (or any other greeting) necessary? 
    • Is even the name of the addressee necessary?
    • Are they functionally unnecessary but desirable on ground of politeness?

    • Is there a functional reason for a valedictory phrase at the end?
    • Is there a politeness reason?
    • Do we even need a signature in informal emails?

    • How formal can emails be?
    • Are there any messages that still must be sent by letter?
    • How (if at all) should we address companies in emails?
    • Can we write to the anonymous holders of jobs, the way we do in letters?

    • If told that there is an etiquette for emails, should we take any notice?

    Wednesday, 6 April 2011

    Can a story tell a picture?

    Does every picture tell a story? Well, this one does. 
    I've long been intrigued by the fact that this is the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, and so in the range of icons for feats, this represents Easter. How come? 
    Orthodox theology demanded that no icon could be formed from imagination. Each picture must be a likeness, something actually seen by eye-witnesses. But the Resurrection was observed only by the dead. The get-out clause is that when the Temple Veil was rent in two and so on, the dead came out of their graves and spoke to the living. For the faithful, this is the image they described. The 
    other intriguing thing about this icon is that it's a narrative. 
    Jesus descended to Hell. He broke the gates of Hell. He rose and lifted up Adam and Eve. It's all there is the icon told by the results: the broken gates under the feet of Jesus; the open graves of Adam and Eve; risen Jesus raising them up.

    a very different style, this first picture in Hogarth's Rake's Progress tells the narrative of writing love letters to his his lover, making her pregnant, then rejecting her when his wealthy father dies.
    The linguistic 
    equivalent in E
    nglish of a picture that tells a story is a clause with a Present Perfect verb form. Both can indicate the result of a recent event.

    Michael is certain that stringing these Present Perfect clauses to form a narrative is a feature of football punditry. He's got people to speak about a Football Tense on
    Word of Mouth at least twice before this week's programme. 
    I've never been convinced. And I think I got support from the guy who spoke this time. He reckons that Present Perfect narrative is probably a nonstandard device that is allowed in football programmes because there is no insistence on Standard English. I think we can say the same of the use in traditional ballads. It's unusual to find Present Perfect consistently used throughout the narrative of a ballad, but relatively common to find it in a short narrative sequence within the ballad.

    Here's an unusually rich example:

    Clerk Colvill and his gay ladie
    As they walked in the garden green,
    The belt about her middle jimp
    Cost Clerk Colvill of crowns fifteen.

    'O promise me now, Clerk Colvill,

    Or it will cost ye muckle strife,
    Ride never by the wells of Slane
    If ye wad live and brook your life.'

    'Now speak nae mair, my gay ladie,
    Now speak nae mair of that to me;
    For I ne'er saw a fair woman
    I like so well as thee.'

    He's ta'en leave o'his gay lady,
    Nought minding what his lady said,
    And he's rode by the wells of Slane,
    Where washing was a bonny maid.

    'Wash on, wash on, my bonny maid,
    That wash sae clean your sark of silk.'
    'And weel fa'you, fair gentleman,
    Your body whiter than the milk.'

    He's ta'en her by the milk-white hand,
    He's ta'en her by the sleeve sae green,
    And he's forgotten his gay ladie,

    And he's awa'with the fair maiden.

    Then loud, loud cry'd the Clerk Colvill,
    'O my head it pains me sair.'
    'Then take, then take,'the maiden said,
    'And frae my sark you'll cut a gare.'

    Then she's gied him a little bane-knife,
    And frae her sark he cut a share;
    She's ty'd it round his whey-white face,
    But ay his head it aked mair.

    Then louder cry'd the Clerk Colvill,
    'O sairer, sairer akes my head.'
    'And sairer, sairer ever will,'
    The maiden crys,'till you be dead.'

    Out then he drew his shining blade,
    And thought wi'it to be her dead,
    But she has vanished to a fish,
    And merrily sprang into the fleed.

    He's mounted on his berry-broun steed,
    And dowie, dowie rade he hame,
    And heavily, heavily lighted doun
    When to his ladie's bower he came.

    'O mother, mother, lay me doun,
    My gentle lady, make my bed,
    O brother, take my sword and spear,
    For I have seen the false mermaid.'

    And this earthier narrative of 
    The Trooper and the Maid

    A trooper lad came here last night,
    With riding he was weary,
    A trooper lad came here last night,
    When the moon shone bright and clearly.

    Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,

    Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
    Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

    She's ta'en the trooper by the hand
    And led him to the table,

    There's food and wine for a soldier here,
    As much as he is able.

    Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
    Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

    She went upstairs to make the bed,
    And she made it soft and easy.
    She's pulled her petticoats o'er her head,
    Crying, Soldier, are you ready ?

    Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
    Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

    He's taken off his big topcoat,
    Likewise his hat and feather.
    He's ta'en the broadsword from his side,
    And now he's down beside her.

    Bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    Hey bonny lassie, I'll lie near you,
    I'll gar all your ribbons reel,
    Bonny lassie, ere I leave you.

    They had not been an hour in bed,
    An hour but and a quarter,
    When the drums came beating up the town,
    And every beat got shorter.

    Bonny lassie, I must leave you,
    Now bonny lassie, I must leave you,
    If ever I come this road again
    I will come in and see you.

    She's ta'en her gown out o'er her arms,
    And followed him through Stirling.
    She's grown so full
    she could not bow,
    And he left her in Dunfermline.

    Bonny lassie, I must leave you,
    Now bonny lassie, I must leave you,
    If ever I come this road again
    I will come in and see you.

    It's when will you come back again
    To be your bairnie's daddy ?
    When cockle shells grow silver bells
    It's when I'll come and wed ye.