Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Edwin L. Battistella

Getting English under control

Any large organization or bureaucracy is likely to have a style guide for its internal documents, publications, and web presence. Some organizations go a step further and develop what is known as a control language.

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Down the rabbit hole

If you are a writer, you’ve probably gone down a rabbit hole at one point or another. The idiom owes its meaning to Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice literally does that.

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Wondering about the subjunctive

“He wondered if he were hallucinating.” I came across that use of the subjunctive while listening to the audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

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Oftener and oftener

When I was growing up, someone in authority told me that way to pronounce often was offen, like off with a little syllabic n at the end. Often was like soften, listen, and glisten, I was warned, with a silent t.

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Super takes off

Superman has been around for more than eighty years. The word “super” been a part of English much longer. It was borrowed into English from Latin, and in Old English we already find the word “superhumerale” to refer to a religious garment worn over the shoulders.

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A world without relative clauses

Where does the relative clause begin and the main clause end? Why does the teacher sometimes call them adjective clauses? Should I use that or which or who? And what is the story with restrictive and non-restrictive?

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Outlandish but not crazy

The study of language has generated a lot of outlandish ideas: various bits of prescriptive dogma, stereotypes and folklore about dialects, fantasy etymologies, wild theories of the origin of language. Every linguist probably has their own list. When these ideas come up in classes or conversations, I have sometimes referred to them as crazy, wacky, loony, kooky, or nutty. I’m going to try to stop doing that.

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Where are the Martian scientists?

When Perseverance, the Mars rover, landed on the Red Planet on 18 February 2021, I found myself asking a familiar question: where are the Martian scientists?

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Five things you need to know about pronouns

First off, there are more pronouns than you might think. Personal pronouns get most of the attention nowadays, especially the widely accepted singular they and other non-binary pronouns. But personal pronouns are just one group among several.

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The ABCs of modal verbs

Modals are a special group of helping verbs, e.g. “can” and “could.” The distinction between dynamic, epistemic, and deontic uses of modal verbs is one of the most puzzling pieces of the verb system. For me, the easiest way keep things straight is with the mnemonic ABC: for ability, belief, and canon. So when you encounter a modal, ask how it is being used. Is it A, B, or C?

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Reading for words

I grew up in the golden era of standardized reading tests. We were taught to read for information, and our progress was tracked by multiple choice tests asking us “What is the main point of the passage?” In retrospect, it was bad training for reading (and for writing), and it took me a long time to change my habits.

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Naturally speaking

The label “natural” connotes a certain imagery: freshly grown food, pure water, safe consumption. Things described as “natural” are portrayed as being simple and lacking the intervention of culture, industry, and artificiality. Let’s take a closer look.

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Understanding un-

Recently I had occasion to use the word unsaid, as in what goes unsaid. Looking at that phrase later, I began to ponder the related verb unsay, which means something different.

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A year of listening to books

The COVID crisis has led me to rethink a lot that I’ve taken for granted. One the saving graces helping to get me through long days of remote teaching and evenings of doom-scrolling was the opportunity to take long walks.

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How did the passive voice get such a bad name?

Many grammatical superstitions and biases can be traced back to overreaching and misguided language critics: the prohibitions concerning sentence-final prepositions, split infinitives, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, or using contractions or the first person.

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How to write a byline

A while back, I wrote a post on How to Write a Biography, with some tips for long-form writing about historical and public figures. However, that’s not the only kind of biographical writing you might be called upon to do. You might need to write about yourself.

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