Saturday, April 12, 2014

Just how American are the origins of center, scepter and theater, spellingwise?

One of the differences between British and American spelling is between those words that end in -re in British English and -er in American English, such as fibre / fiber. In this post I look at five words ending in -tre / -ter - centre, lustre, mitre, sceptre and theatre.
Talking about the differences between British and American spelling at Oxford Dictionaries, they say:
The differences often come about because British English has tended to keep the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages (e.g. French), while American English has adapted the spelling to reflect the way that the words actually sound when they're spoken.

Oxford Dictionaries

Which I understand to mean that these words entered English with their (for example) French spelling, and were later changed in American English. This change is usually attributed to Noah Webster, and especially to his An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. So I was rather surprised when I came across an instance of theater in a British book from the seventeenth century.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Random thoughts on the early use of apostrophes

Apostrophes in plurals of nouns ending in s.

While looking in Google Books for early use of the spelling fetus (as opposed to foetus) in British books, I came across this, from the Transactions of the Royal Society, London, with its double use of apostrophes in plurals ending in s - species's and fetus's:

Philosophical Transactions (of the Royal Society), 1669

I had known that one of the early uses of the apostrophe was in plurals of certain words ending in vowels (see next section), but this one was new to me.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Random thoughts on task as a verb

A reader wrote to the Grammarphobia blog about a line spoken by George Clooney in the film The Monuments Men:
We have been tasked to find and protect art that the Nazis have stolen.
The reader suggested that this was anachronistic, as the use of task as a verb is fairly recent. Other people complain about task being used as a verb at all. But Grammarphobia pointed out that the use of task as a verb is in fact very old.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Silly unstranded preposition at the BBC

Spotted on the BBC News website
  • The three [South Korean mobile networks] are selling the phone now to get round government restrictions on to whom they can sell new handsets.
Presumably the writer was trying to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition. But this is a case where by trying to follow a non-existent rule the writer has ended up with a totally unnatural sentence.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Random thoughts on all in all

All in all
In an article from the Economist about an important new discovery in cosmology there appeared the following sentence:
All in all, then, a big day for cosmology—assuming the results hold up.
I got to wondering about the origins of the expression 'all in all', and decided to have a poke round Google Books.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Random thoughts on tidbits and titbits

tidbit   &   titbit
An aquaintance of mine was wondering why Americans say tidbit while in Britain we usually say titbit, with the implied question 'Why do the Americans have to change everything?'
Indeed there are some people, and not only in Britain, who think that tidbit is a bowdlerisation of titbit, the story being that Americans thought that tit was rude, and so replaced it with tid. This idea was recently repeated by David Mitchell at the Guardian, but it is, of course, nonsense.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Random thoughts on referendums and referenda

People who lay down the law on English should really check their facts first, especially perhaps, journalists. On this week's The News Quiz, first broadcast on 14 March 2014 and available on the BBC iPlayer until the 21st, journalist Hugo Rifkind proclaimed, quite gratuitously and with total certitude:
"The plural of referendum is referendums, not referenda"
On what authority, I wonder. The style guide of one of the publications he writes for (the Times and the Spectator) perhaps?