Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Edwin L. Battistella

What does a linguist do?

Linguists get asked that question a lot. Sometimes by family members or potential in-laws. Sometimes by casual acquaintances or seatmates on a plane (for those who still fly). Sometimes from students or their families. Sometimes even from friends, colleagues, or university administrators. It turns out that linguists do quite a lot and quite a lot […]

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Conjunction dysfunction

Everyone of a certain age remembers the FANBOYS of Conjunction Junction fame: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.  In the lyrics of the 1973 song, we mostly hear about and, but and or with a brief mention of or’s pessimistic cousin nor.  A conjunction’s function is to “hook up words and phrase and clauses” […]

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Don’t vote for the honeyfuggler

In 1912, William Howard Taft—not a man known for eloquence—sent journalists to the dictionary when he used the word honeyfuggle.  Honey-what, you may be thinking. It turns out that honeyfuggler is an old American term for someone who deceives others folks by flattering them.  It can be spelled with one g or two and sometimes with an o replacing the u.  To honeyfuggle is to […]

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Everyone and their dog

A writer friend of mine posted a social media query asking for advice on verb choice.   The phrase in question was “… since everyone and his poodle own/owns a gun…” Should the verb be in the singular or the plural? More than fifty people weighed in.  Some reasoned that there was a compound subject […]

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Figuring out phrasal verbs

English contains a bewildering number of so-called phrasal verbs: two- or three-word compounds that seem to consist of a verb and a preposition—things like bring up, fill in, give away, pay back, work out, and many more. The Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary lists 6,000 of them in its 2016 edition. Native speakers of English learn these naturally in the course […]

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The Perfect Tenses in English

What could be simpler than grammatical tense—things happening now are in the present, things happening before are in the past, and things that haven’t happened yet are in the future. If only it were so easy. Consider the present tense. Its meaning often refers not to things happening right now but to some general state […]

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Donald Trump’s insult politics

Political commentators and satirists love to mock Donald Trump’s verbal gaffs, his simplified vocabulary and vague, boastful speech. But if you judge his oratory by its effect on the audience, Donald Trump’s rhetoric, particularly with large crowds of enthusiastic supporters, is undeniably effective. People have studied the art of rhetoric for millennia – so how […]

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Grammar in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll was a mathematically-inclined poet who published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass in 1872 as well a number of poems and math and logic texts. Last summer I saw an outdoor production of Alice in Wonderland and it reminded me of all the linguistics in the two books. Carroll touches on questions of […]

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Usage issues—How are you doing?

When people talk about grammar problems, they often mean usage issues—departures from the traditional conventions for edited English and the most formal types of speaking. To a linguist, grammar refers to the way that language is used—by speakers of all types—and the way that it works—how it is acquired, how it changes, and so on.

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How to use the existential “there”

When I read something, one of the things I notice right away is overuse of non-referential there as a means of sleepwalking from topic to topic. Also known as the existential there, this grammatical form asserts the existence (or non-existence) of something and is often used to introduce new information, to shift the topic of discussion or to call something to mind.

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Completing your verbs—infinitive and gerunds

Most of us have been told at some point that a sentence has a subject and predicate and that the predicate consists of a verb and an object—the girl kicked the ball. We may have been introduced to distinctions such as transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs (like carry, snore, and become, respectively). But there is much more to the intricacies of what must follow a verb.

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Celebrating banned books week

Book banning is not a new phenomenon. The Catholic Church’s prohibition on books advocating heliocentrism lasted until 1758. In England, Thomas Bowdler lent his name to the practice of expurgating supposed vulgarity with the 1818 publication of The Family Shakespeare, edited by his sister.

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How to construct palindromes

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same way forwards and backwards, like kayak or Madam, I’m Adam. The word comes to us from palindromos, made up of a pair of Greek roots: palin (meaning “again”) and dromos (meaning “way, direction”).

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What is the Middle Voice?

Punctuation-wise, most of us fall between these two extremes. We are neither staccato nor breathless. Instead, we use punctuation to establish a comfortable pace for readers by grouping and emphasizing certain chunks of information.

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