The 35 words you’re (probably) getting wrong

Have you made a flagrant error, in confusing your alternative choices? The legendary Fleet Street editor Harold Evans proscribes this glossary to solve your language dilemmas

Words composite.

Affect/Effect You can only affect something that already exists. When it does, you can effect, or bring about, a change in it. To say: “It effected a change in his attitude” is correct; so is: “It affected his attitude.” To combine the two – “It affected a change in his attitude” – is silly.

Alibi Means “proof that one was elsewhere” but is confused with “excuse”, which has a wider generality. Let us save “alibi” for the precision of proving you were not within a mile of the kitchen when the last slice of apple pie vanished.

Alternatives Wrongly used for “choices”. If there are two choices, they are properly called “alternatives”. If there are more than two, they are choices. But in 2017, the tides of the expedient post-truth era sapped centuries of definition. Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to Donald Trump, explained to NBC’s Chuck Todd that press secretary Sean Spicer’s series of falsehoods inflating the crowds at the Trump inauguration weren’t lies, they were “alternative facts”.

Anticipate Confused with “expect”. To expect something is to think it may happen; to anticipate is to prepare for it, to act in advance. To say a fiancee expects marriage is correct; to say she is anticipating marriage defames the lady.

Blatant/Flagrant It’s best to use “blatant” for offence that is glaringly obvious, without care, brazen. Best use “flagrant” to emphasise a serious breach of law or regulation.

Chronic Confused with “acute” or “severe”, medically the opposite. It means long-lasting (from the Greek chronos, “time”). An acute illness comes to a crisis; a chronic one lingers.

Compose/Comprise Compose means “to form” or “constitute”. Comprise means “to contain, include, be made up of”. The whole comprises the parts. The US comprises 50 states; 50 states do not comprise the US. After the 2014 referendum on independence for Scotland, the UK still comprised England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Continual/Continuous “Continual interruptions” says it all, meaning the speaker resumed his argument after the interruption. The speech was not continuous, as a river is, because the flow was broken.

Crescendo Confused with “climax”. It indicates a passage of music to be played with increasing volume. Figuratively, it means “to rise to a climax”. Thus the cliche “Rise to a crescendo” is nonsense.

Decimate Confused with “destroy”. By derivation, decimation means “killing one in 10”. Today, it is often used figuratively to mean “very heavy casualties”, but to say “completely decimated” or “decimated as much as half the town” simply will not do.

Dilemma Confused with “problem”. If you have a problem, you do not know what to do. There may be many solutions. If you have a dilemma, you have a choice of two courses of action, neither attractive.

Disinterested/Uninterested If you’re in some messy dispute, you don’t want an uninterested arbiter, judge or mediator, so uninterested he nods off. You don’t want an arbiter who has a selfish interest, declared or concealed. You want a neutral, disinterested person who cares enough for truth.

Entomb Confused with trap. The trapped miners may be alive; entombed miners are dead, ie in a tomb.

Flotsam/Jetsam Married in common parlance, but divorced in maritime law. Jetsam is stuff jettisoned, thrown overboard by the crew of a ship to lighten the load in stormy seas. If you find this stuff, it’s yours. Flotsam is cargo or wreckage floating in the sea. Flotsam is legally the property of the vessel’s owner.

Forego/Forgo: Forego means “to go before in time or place” – think of the final e in before. To forgo is to give up or relinquish.

Gourmet/Gourmand The gourmet, one with a refined, discriminating taste for the best food and wine, will be insulted to be called a gourmand, a glutton fond of good things.

Inchoate/Incoherent “Inchoate” describes something not ready to be judged “incoherent”, which means “lacking clarity”. The inchoate idea or thing is embryonic, in the early stages of being formed.

Incumbent As a noun, the current holder of an office; a “former incumbent” is nonsense. But when you hold an office, it is incumbent (adjective) on you to perform your duties.

Inflammable/Flammable Danger in a word again. The prefix “in-” might suggest that something inflammable won’t catch fire, that it is comparable to the absolutes “incapable” and “invulnerable”. But it does catch fire as easily as anything flammable, because the two words mean the same. (The prefix “in-” in this case means “into”, not “non”.)

Insidious/Invidious Both nasty, but “insidious” is evil by stealth; you don’t know the worm is in the apple. The invidious utterance or person invites odium more openly.

Judicial/Judicious Judicial means “connected with a court of law”; judicious means “wise”. Not all judicial decisions are judicious.

Less/Fewer “Less” is right for quantities – less coffee, less sugar. It means “a smaller amount”. “Fewer” is right for comparing numbers – fewer people, fewer houses; less dough results in fewer loaves. Nobody would think of saying fewer coffee, fewer sugar, but every day somebody writes “less houses”.

Litigate Did you hear what happened in the court case to make Trump release his tax returns? No? Neither did anyone else. In January 2017, while telling ABC why Trump would not keep the off-and-on promise, Conway said: “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.” Wrong verb. To litigate is to enter a lawsuit. Better verb for the serial flip-flopping: “dodged”.

Luxuriant/Luxurious The film star can have a luxurious car that is “full of luxury”, but not a luxuriant car. That would mean the car that is producing abundantly, growing profusely, since “luxuriant” refers to something that grows.

Momentarily You have to hope the pilot and stewards are lying when they say: “We will be in the air momentarily.” That does not mean: “We will be in the air in a few minutes.” It means: “We will be in the air for a moment.” That is strictly speaking, of course, but what is the point of having words if they mean nothing?

Prescribe/Proscribe Opposite meanings. An action or product that is proscribed by authority is banned. A “prescription” is advised, recommended.

Refugee/Migrant War and terrorism in Iraq and Syria forced millions of people to flee and seek refuge in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and western Europe, notably Germany. They were refugees, but they became migrants, unwelcome in countries that feared to admit them for security, religious or economic reasons.

Refute A strong verb, meaning “to disprove, to demonstrate falsehood”. It has been emaciated by its careless confusion with “rebut”, “reply”, “response” and, less forgivably, “deny”. A denial is merely a contrary assertion; it does not demonstrate the falsity of the assertion. Nor does “rebut”. A rebuttal is a denial dressed up in battle armour.

Regalia Regal means “of or by kings”, and regalia means “the insignia of royalty”. “Royal regalia” is therefore tautologous, and “the regalia of a bishop” is contradictory. Freemasons, however, have adopted the term for their insignia.

Replica/Reproduction Ask for your money back if you buy “a virtual replica” of the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon or any work of art. You may have bought a good reproduction, copy, duplicate, model or facsimile, but a replica is one recreated by the original creator, so there is no such thing as “a virtual replica”. It either is or isn’t. The journalist James Kilpatrick, who manned the barricades to defend the integrity of “replica”, was cross, with reason, that the respected Smithsonian magazine offered “an almost incredibly authentic replica of the Titanic – a replica that measured 3in in length”.

Sceptic/Denier The sceptic questions the evidence; the denier flatly rejects it.

Transpire Wrongly used to mean, merely, “happen”. It comes from the Latin spirare, “breathe”. To “transpire” is to emit through the surface of leaves or skin and, figuratively, is best used for when some fact oozes out, especially a secret.

Viable/Feasible “Viable” means capable of independent life – a viable foetus or seed or, figuratively, in the sense of “capable of succeeding”, a candidate. “Feasible” means “capable of being done, accomplished” – a feasible plan.

Viral Unwelcome adjective as related to Ebola, Zika and other nasty viruses. Much desired by websites in the internet age (since 1999); an item “gone viral” has been passed person to person so many times as to seem contagious.

Virtually Incorrectly used to mean “nearly all”; eg: “Virtually all the chocolates were eaten.” “Virtually” is useful for an imprecise description that is more or less right, close enough, as good as. “He’s virtually the manager.” He does not have the title, but he manages the business.

This is an extract from Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans, published by Little Brown. To buy this book for £17 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. P&P charges may apply.


Ill-gotten gains – why Americanisms are a boon for the British

Many phrases the British love to hate are actually old English expressions – while many genuine Americanisms are accepted without a fuss. Are they a bad thing? You do the math

That’s just like, so your opinion ... Wallace Shawn and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

 That’s just like, so your opinion … Wallace Shawn and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

Do you hate Americanisms? Lots of people wince and reach for the green ink if they hear a British person speak of death as “passing”. Yet that euphemism is present in Chaucer and Shakespeare. What about “oftentimes”? It’s in the King James Bible. And even “the fall” for autumn is good old 17th-century English, a shortening of the traditional term “fall of the leaf”.

By contrast, some phrases that appear echt-British are, in fact, American. A “stiff upper lip” first appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1815. Americans also coined the terms “commuter” and “teenager”, which don’t seem to prompt so much of a post-imperial cringe from those who want to take back control of our linguistic borders.

But the writer and Countdown dictionary guardian Susie Dent is heroically going further, with a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary to celebrate the flood of lexical migrants, Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a Good Thing.

The fear of Americanisms is often based on a vague idea that they are incorrect, less grammatically pure, but this is prejudice. “Can I get” instead of “Can I have” in the coffee shop? Shakespeare probably would have loved it, Dent says. (“Gotten” is in his plays.) Much of the time, Americanisms are socially useful as well as fun: to greet people with “Hey guys!” is appropriately friendly because “guys” is now gender-neutral in its usage.

Those who fear our culture is being overwhelmed by US television, of course, will so not like this. Yet even that use of “so” as an intensifier is already in the draft next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Resistance is futile. As it happens, the OED’s first citation for that usage – “Oh, thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool” – is from Amy Heckerling’s script for Clueless, which is, of course, based on Jane Austen’s Emma. The whole history of British and US English is one of creative give and take. Economists say that globalised free trade makes everyone richer; that’s certainly true for language, and it’s totally awesome.

Cushioning, breadcrumbing or benching: the ​language of modern dating

Not sure if your romantic crush is ‘ghosting’ you or if you’re just being ‘haunted’? This handy guide might help …

Language lesson: do you understand what’s going on in your fledgeling relationship with your online beau?

Language lesson … do you understand what’s going on in your fledgeling relationship with your online beau?

It’s a truism of modern dating that no one knows what they are doing anymore. As technology has exploded our capacity to find potential mates and take them to tapas bars with outsized wine glasses, we’ve all had to relearn our sexual “moves” from first principles, like stone age hunter-gatherers suddenly asked to perform credit default swaps.

Yet what’s becoming apparent is that we all don’t know what we’re doing in remarkably consistent ways. These quirks – and the rules formulated by a panoply of breathless dating gurus who promise to help you navigate them – have required a new language. Earlier this year, “ghosting” entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and newer terms like “cushioning” won’t be far behind. For the avoidance of both confusion and online dating gurus, here’s a roundup of this freshly born lingo.


Some suggest that ghosting is a defining millennial act. That when they make period films about the 2010s they will all open with dialogue like: “Oh so Gary ghosted you? No way. Can I borrow your Fitbit? I’ve got to nip to my SoulCycle class before I go vote for a rightwing populist.”

Ghosting is in lockstep with the times because it is entirely driven by new technology’s capacity to anonymise. If you have zero friends in common, stepping straight back into the darkness from whence you came without so much as a word of explanation is the no-hassle way to devastate your ex. “Congratulations: you have been unpersoned.”

Rather than explain in a series of text messages that they are a desiccated husk of a human, the ghoster simply puts down the phablet and is never heard from again. It’s the online equivalent of “going out for a pack of cigarettes” and never coming back. It is apparently perpetrated equally by both sexes, and over 50% of online daters report it happening to them.

Slow fading

Closely related to ghosting, but more and/or less humane depending on whether your framework of morality would include “playing nicely with a puppy before you drop it down a well”.

Slow Faders are always on the lip of availability. They’re always “just” doing some other thing with some other person in some other place, but “drinks soon yeah?”. They’re the likely to use that most inexcusable excuse, “work”, to keep you on the cusp of their radar until the signal fades out, like the batteries running down on an airplane distress beacon at the bottom of an ocean.

You should pity them. They’re utterly at sea with the infinite choices the modern world has given them, but they’re also wedded to seeing themselves as “nice”. So they probably stand on the brink of a breakdown if they don’t solve some of that cognitive dissonance.

Cuffing season

This is the proposition that you shack up with whoever’s around between October and mid-November, so that you’ll be snug with your “human hot water bottle” when the things turn coldest and the thought of going to bars night after night to meet strangers sounds about as enticing as laser eye surgery. In other animals, this would be timed to include a few months of foetus gestation before the spring lambing season.

Cuffing season is a lot like Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. While the grasshopper plays the field all summer, the ant works tirelessly on his relationship, extending well-observed compliments and putting lots of immersive couples activities in a joint iCal. But, as in the fable, the grasshopper actually does OK because when it gets to October he just drops his or her standards and “cuffs” anyone who lives close by. A few months of Netflix, roasts in cosy country pubs and trips to the Sir John Soane Museum proceeds in much the same way.

The effect is measurable: the dating app Hinge polled their users and discovered that men were 15% more likely to be looking for a relationship in winter. But Cuffing Season, like so much else, has also become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the new-rules era, where people are assumed to have been looking to cuff-up simply because of the time of year.

Deep like

To indicate to the object of your crush that you are “interested” by going back through their social media and interacting with artefacts buried back in the mists of time.

This is a useful tool because while it is happening on what is technically a “public” forum, not even dearest friends would go back to re-read the ancient brain-burps that constitute an online life. Yet the notification will show up immediately. Could it be that someone you flirted with was just “really feeling” that gag you did about “Macron-nomics”? No. It could not. They like you, so get out there.

If nothing else, the idea of someone rummaging through your ancient Facebook junk will remind you to change your privacy settings before running for public office.


In olden times, when life was simpler, a gent or lady would throw your self-esteem under the bus and you’d have to look at it all crushed and twitching and crying out for death’s sweet release.

But that was back when a basic level of monogamy was built-in. Now that we’ve eliminated many of what economists would term “search costs”, it’s possible to avoid the deep life learnings of relationship breakdown. How? Simply by keeping a bunch of buttresses to hand. That means a little B-team of boys or girls who could easily be taken off the bench and drafted into the A-team if things take a funny turn. All these potential human life-rafts require is a little bit of flirtatious open-ended contact to maintain interest. It’s really no trickier than feeding a goldfish.

Cushioning is the latter-day equivalent of the zero-hours contract. Yeah, sure you do the job well. But we’ve also got the CVs of another half dozen people who can do the job too, so why should we give you pension rights?


What Cushioners do to B-teamers.


Sadly, the witch to your digital Hansel & Gretel doesn’t even want to cook you in their OvenMaster3000. They just want to be wanted. They just need to be needed. It’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s about the moment when they know you have stopped thinking about them – perhaps via a tiny radar in their heads to detect their personal stock dropping – and decide to ‘like’ some random bit of content on some obscure social network, setting the cycle of need, excitement and deprivation up all over again. It’s little granules of “hey how r u” dropped at inconvenient hours, cheap links to content they think you might like but they probably haven’t even read; it’s anything bi-monthly or with more punctuation than text.


Sure, it sounds like ghosting but haunting is almost its inverse. It’s the people who are no longer in your sexual life, but who still cluster at the edge of your social media to peer in through the pane, wordlessly. The intent may vary: sometimes the haunter wants sex, sometimes they want to rekindle something, sometimes they just want to wallow in this one-way mirror of their own melancholy.

How do you even find out they are there? With the advent of apps – Snap Stories being the most obvious – where you can see who has “read” your content, it’s become possible to know who’s lurking on the edge of your awareness.

Also known less poetically as ‘zombie-ing’, haunting doesn’t feed off of social technology’s capacity for anonymisation; it feeds off of its capacity to keep us all socially linked – even against our will or better judgement.

6 Filthy Americanisms that Aren’t Actually American

And one that is


The American variety of the English language has contributed a great number of interesting and peculiar words to our vocabulary. Words such as riproarious (“hilarious”), flummadiddle (“nonsense”), and bodacious (“noteworthy”), all of which first appeared in the United States in the 19th century. Who doesn’t love a nice, juicy Americanism?

A great number of people, it turns out, many of whom are from the United Kingdom.

British writers have been mocking Americanisms for hundreds of years now, although in some cases the objects of their derision are not actually from North America (or even commonly used here). Which is fine, since an Americanism needn’t have originated in America; it is defined as “a characteristic feature of American English especially as contrasted with British English.”

Following are 7 cases where British writers have accused some word of having socially awkward parentage.


Definition: to entertain or express a wish to have or attain

What the learned gentleman chiefly desiderates (a vile Americanism for wants) is more concentration of purpose; like water spread upon a plain his great powers are lost by diffusion.
The London Magazine, 1 Dec. 1826

Desiderate smells a bit like one of those jocular 19th century Americanisms, perhaps coined in the same region that gave us conversate or absquatulate. It is not. The word has been in use since the beginning of the 17th century, and for the first century or two of its life was primarily employed by British writers. It comes from the Latin desiderare (“to desire”), which is also the source of the lovely (and obscure) word desiderium (“an ardent desire or longing; especially: a feeling of loss or grief for something lost”).

Clemencie, the most dangerous companion that euer your Maiesty caried about with you, howsoeuer a part desiderated in many Princes.
A Bonefire for His Maiesties Double Deliuerie, 1607


Definition: British: to express disapproval of: disparage

We tend not to convert nouns into verbs (avoid “to hospitalise,” “to scapegoat,” “to rubbish,” “to debut”).
—Entry on AmericanismsBBC News Style Guide (Web)

It is doubtless helpful to BBC reporters to know that they should not use rubbish as a verb. It is, however, somewhat curious that this admonition should appear in a section devoted to Americanisms, as we likewise do not use the word in this fashion. Our Unabridged Dictionary provides a definition for this word as a verb, noting that its use is British. Although a number of UK-based lexicographic concerns do offer definitions for rubbish as a verb, the word is curiously absent from most dictionaries compiled in the US. Because it is not an Americanism. So stop rubbishing us about it (is this how it’s used?)

David Beckham has rubbished claims that he and wife Victoria stay together because of “brand Beckham”.
—, 29 Jan. 2017


 Definition: the quality or state of being ridiculous

I enjoy Americanisms. I suspect even some Americans use them in a tongue-in-cheek manner? “That statement was the height of ridiculosity”.
—Bob (Edinburgh), BBC News Magazine, 20 July 2011

Ridiculosity was a submission entered in an article in the BBC News Magazine, titled “Americanisms: 50 of your Most Noted Examples.” While this article was a splendid way to encourage reader participation (there were many quibbling submissions sent in), it did not appear to have checked the offending words to see whether they had in fact originated in America. There is no way to be certain of this, but we suspect that many Americans would be happy if we were able to claim parentage of a specimen such as ridiculosity. Sadly, this is not the case, for the word has been in use in British writing since the middle of the 17th century, well before we began to use it.

Yea, is it not an impious ridiculosity to affirme it, when notwithstanding we do transgresse the Commandements of our Master a thousand ways?
—John Bastwick, The Church of England, 1645


Definition: a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens) : a person

Mr. Farjeon writes without distinction; he disfigures his first page by the peculiarly rank Americanism of using “human” as a substantive, and some of his sentences would be the better for a more bracing sense of grammar.
—The Saturday Review (London, England), 31 Jan. 1891

The 19th century review quoted above does a fine job of sneering at poor Mr. Farjeon, and points must be awarded for style (“peculiarly rank Americanism” is a nice turn of phrase). However, points must also be deducted for inaccuracy. Whether the use of human as a substantive (“a word or word group functioning syntactically as a noun”) is “rank” is subject to debate; what is not is the history of the word. Human was first used in English as an adjective (around 1450), and later began to be used as a noun. The noun form has existed for considerably more time than America has (our records indicate it goes back to at least 1507).

For without ceasynge they praye for the humaynes lyuynge wtin this presente worlde….
—Here Begynneth a Lytell Treatyse Called the Lucydarye_, 1507


Definition: suitable or fit to be relied on : dependable

Sir,–“Telegram” may possibly be a useful word. I have heard the same utilitarian apology offered for the vile Americanism “reliable.” But there are times when etymologers must protest.
—Richard Shilleto, (letter) The Times (London, England), 15 Oct. 1857

The angry letter-writer quoted above was widely regarded as one of the finest Greek scholars in the 19th century (and before you snigger at his use of the word etymologeryou should know that this is an acceptable, although rare, variant of etymologist). And before you snigger at him for asserting that reliable was a “vile Americanism,” you should know that it was not uncommon for educated people in the 19th century to make this claim (J. H. Friswell, in his 1870 book Modern Men of Letter Honestly Criticised, called it “an odious Americanism”).

Reliable is not an Americanism; it has been used to mean “fit to be relied on” since the middle of the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary does note, however, that the sense of the word which is often used to refer to dependability in goods or services does appear to have originated in the United States.


Definition: held by or as if by a spell

The occasion was the annual dinner of the Canning and Chatham Clubs, the nursery, as their names imply, of undergraduate Conservatism; and for nearly an hour Lord Cairns held us, to use an odious Americanism, spellbound.
—James Atlay Beresford, The Victorian Chancellors, 1908

When one encounters a sneering comment about an apparent Americanism, such as the one above, it often appears that the author is using Americanism to mean “word which I greatly dislike,” as opposed to “a characteristic feature of American English.” There is no indication that spellbound is peculiar to this side of the pond, and our earliest evidence of the word in use comes from a distinctly British source, the playwright and actor David Garrick.

He merits all our wonder, all our praise!
Yet ere impatient joy breaks forth,
In sounds that lift the foul from earth;
And to our spell-bound minds impart
Some faint idea of his magic art.
—David Garrick, Testimonies to the Genius and Merits of Shakespeare, 1769


Definition: to speak slightingly of : disparage

What an expression!—It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is, to guess at its meaning.—For shame, Mr. Jefferson!—Why, after trampling upon the honour of our country, and representing it as little better than a land of babarism—why, we say, perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language? … Freely, good sir, will we forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character’ but for the future, spare—O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!
The European Magazine, and London Review (London, England), Aug. 1787

In all fairness to the British quibblers and scolds who have populated this list the word belittle does appear to be a genuine Americanism, coined by one of our most famous citizens, Thomas Jefferson. It is included in this list in large part due to the marvelously splenetic tone of the complainant; perhaps a day will come again when people quibble about language use with the phrase “O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!”

So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side the Atlantic.
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782

Allow me to womansplain the problem with gendered language

Sophia Amoruso, who popularised the term girlboss, at the premiere of Netflix’s Girlboss TV show
Sophia Amoruso, who popularised the term girlboss, at the premiere of Netflix’s Girlboss TV show. 

She is a #Girlboss. She is a mumtrepreneur. She is a SheEO. He is a manterrupter. A mansplainer. A manspreader. He is always bropropriating women’s ideas. She is a feminazi. He’s got a dadbod and the man flu. What is it with the growing popularity of overtly gendered neologisms? From chick flicks to dick pics, from boss babes to guyliner, there has been a proliferation of his or hers portmanteaux.

Much of this is feminism’s fault, naturally. There has been more scrutiny of everyday sexism; words such as manspreading and manterrupting simply give a name to behaviour that was taken for granted before. There has also been more discussion of women in the workplace, leading to a rise in supposedly empowering labels such as girlboss, a term popularised by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of online retailer Nasty Gal. In 2014, Amoruso wrote a bestselling memoir/self-help book for entrepreneurially minded millennial women called #GIRLBOSS and the word entered the popular vernacular – it is now a Netflix show.

Neologisms such as girlboss and SheEO are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, of course. They are supposed to illuminate the fact that words such as boss and CEO are not actually gender-neutral, but implicitly coded as male, that language is “man made”, as the feminist Dale Spender put it, and reinforces a male world view. However, I can’t help feeling that, when it comes to girlboss, that subtlety has been lost. There are 5,491,625 pictures tagged with #girlboss on Instagram. It has become a cutesy girl-power phrase that is less empowering than it is patronising. It doesn’t tear down the sexism encoded in language, it reinforces it.

The same is true of the manifold vocabulary for manshaming. Words such as manspreading or mansplaining are – or at least they were – useful. If you don’t have a name for something, then it is harder to talk about and it is taken less seriously. But mansplaining and the various other man-words have become overused and diluted. They have gone from making an important point to simply being lazy ways to reinforce gender binaries. Men are like this; women are like that.

Language reflects and reinforces social norms; ungendering language is an important part of solving sexism. And there has been some progress. As you might expect, much of this emanates from Sweden. In the 1990s, there was consternation among Swedes that there was a colloquial, non-sexual word for penis (“snopp”) but no female equivalent; a discrepancy with ramifications on how children view and learn about their body. So Anna Kosztovics, a social worker from Malmö, coined “snippa” in 2000 and started promoting it. The government encouraged her efforts. Apparently, nursery school teachers were encouraged to put up notes on their doors asking: “Have you said snippa today?” Snippa entered the Swedish dictionary in 2006 and is now widely used.

Earlier this year, Kosztovics called for the UK to follow Sweden’s lead in a video on the BBC. British English has the word “willy” but lacks a widely used non-clinical, non-sexual way to talk about the vagina. Kosztovics says this means “little girls grow up with the thought that there is something wrong between their legs”. She adds: “There are 360 million people who speak English and I think it’s time for you to discover your own word … I say let the best word win.”

Hurricane names are another example of ungendering language. From 1953 to 1978, Atlantic hurricanes were given exclusively women’s names. In the 70s, feminists pushed to change this, but were met with resistance. A New York Times headline from 1972 declares: “Weather men insist storms are feminine.”According to some of these weathermen, female nomenclature was a matter of safety not sexism. Male-named storms wouldn’t be taken seriously, they argued, because they wouldn’t evoke female rage. Hell hath no fury like a female-named storm and all that. But the winds of change were not in the weathermen’s favour and Hurricane Bob hit Louisiana in 1979.

Perhaps the most success around fixing semantic sexism has been had by the increase of “they” being used as a singular pronoun. People have grappled with English’s lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun for centuries, often falling back on they. Chaucer and Shakespeare used they as a singular pronoun. Jane Austen uses they in this way 75 times in Pride and Prejudice. However, it is only recently that its use has become commonplace. They was named word of the year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society and, around the same time, the Washington Post style guide ratified the use of “they” as a singular.

We are more aware of the problems of gendered language than ever and, as the use of the singular they demonstrates, we are taking steps to fix it. At the same time, however, we seem to be creating a new gendering of language as the popularity of words such as mansplain and girlboss demonstrate. And that looks set to continue. On Friday, Girlboss, the show based on Amoruso’s life debuted, further reinforcing the word’s place in the vernacular. Girlboss may be one big step for one particular woman, but it is not a giant linguistic leap for womankind.

Do you pronounce ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘cone’ or ‘gone’? It depends where you’re from

As linguists celebrate English Language Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, what does the ever-changing way we speak reveal about us?

A scone

Scone as in ‘gone’, or scone as in ‘cone’?

It is a division as entrenched and as bitter as the split between Brexit backers and EU Remainers – though in this case, the issue is truly personal. Do you pronounce the word “scone” to rhyme with “cone”, or to rhyme with “gone”?

To those in the latter group, it is a posh affectation to use a long vowel for this staple item of afternoon tea. By contrast, those in the former group believe they are merely following a logical extension of the pronunciation of the word cone by adding an s as a prefix.

The example of scone’s different pronunciations underscores the highly varied nature of Britain’s complex, shifting patterns of speech, and comes as the nation celebrates English Language Day and Shakespeare’s birthday on Sunday. It also marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary, which tracks how spoken English has varied in terms of geography and over time.

In fact, the way you pronounce scone says far less about your class and much more about your geographical origins – for, according to “The Great Scone Map”, produced by Cambridge University academics, its pronunciation follows a discernible pattern across Britain and Ireland. Those who rhyme it with gone predominate in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. Those who rhyme with cone dominate in southern Ireland and the Midlands. The rest of the country is a mixture of the two pronunciations.

And, just to complicate the matter, there is a third pronunciation available for the word – in the form of the village of Scone in Scotland, which is pronounced “skoon”.

“It is not a matter of being posh, or thinking you are posh, if you pronounce scone as in cone,” says phonetics expert Professor Jane Setter of the University of Reading, co-editor of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. “It is more a matter of where you grew up. By and large, the pronunciation that rhymes with gone is more common, however.”

“Our language continually reshapes itself,” she says. “New words appear. In addition, pronunciations of existing words alter. The word trap used to be pronounced more like ‘trep’, for example. Similarly pat was pronounced more like ‘pet’. Changes like these have been tracked in our dictionary for a century now – though very often when we detect changes, we really don’t understand why they have taken place.”

Consider the words poor and pour. “In the past they were pronounced differently and still are in some areas,” says Setter. “However, as time has passed, more and more people, myself included, have come to pronounce them in the same way – as in the word ‘pore’. In phonetics, it is called a merger, but we don’t always know why it has taken place in some areas of Britain and not in other parts of the country.”

Other entries in the dictionary have been pronunciations that have virtually disappeared from the modern world. The word calibre – as in the quality of a person’s character – is now pronounced as “KAL-ih-ber”. “Fifty years ago, you would have been far more likely to pronounce it as ‘ka-LEE-ber’,” said Setter.

Catherine Tate’s character Lauren
 ‘Am I Bovvered’? Catherine Tate’s character Lauren follows a trend in replacing ‘th’ sounds in words with ‘f’ or ‘v’ sounds. 

An even more striking illustration is provided in England by the word “arm”. In 1950 most people living to the south-west of a line drawn between London and Birmingham – as well as pockets in Lancashire and in Northumberland – pronounced the “r” in “arm”. The vast majority of those living outside these areas did not. Today virtually everyone in England now pronounces arm without the “r” – though people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland still use it.

“This latter trend has become quite pronounced,” adds Setter. “A similar pattern has been noted with the word ‘square’ and also with ‘near’. Essentially, in England, we no longer pronounce these words with an ‘r’ in them either. We say something that is more like ‘squih’ and ‘nih’ today.”

The tendency to enunciate the letter “r” everywhere it appears in the spelling of a word is known as a rhotic accent and it is typified by people from Scotland and Ireland. However the use of the rhotic “r” was once more widespread in England, particularly in the south-west, but this has slowly disappeared.

Similarly the pronunciation of the letter “t” in words like metal is disappearing and is being replaced by glottal stops, in which a stop sound is made by rapidly closing the vocal cords. In this way, the word butter has ended up with a pronunciation like “bu’er”.

In a similar fashion, the pronunciation of “th” inside a word is disappearing and is being replaced by a “v” or “f” – to give us pronunciations like “muvver” or “bruvver” or even “bovvered” – the word so beloved of Catherine Tate’s schoolgirl character Lauren.

In fact, some experts believe that in 50 to 100 years the use of “th” in popularly spoken English will have disappeared. “The idea horrifies some English language teachers but at the end of the day we have to accept that words and their pronunciation are flexible and changeable,” says Setter.

“They are not fixed entities to be enshrined in stone.”

“One of the most profound influences is undoubtedly the London accent, which has a noticeable glottal stop,” she says . “It is the language of the capital, after all, so it is certainly going to affect the southern part of Britain. And you can trace the spread of the glottal stop and other features of the London accent moving westward along the M4 over time. Correspondingly, the rhotic “r” of the Berkshire accent has been lost over the years.”

And that is the crucial point, she adds. “Language changes – and for a variety of reasons. Incomers can affect it. Those who we perceive as being prestige figures or groups can affect it. There are plenty of reasons.

Setter concludes: “There is all sorts of discussion about how English might change over the years – and the truth is that we really don’t know exactly what is going to happen.”

What I have learned from five years of Everyday Sexism

To be a feminist is to be accused of oversensitivity and hysteria. But in the face of the abuse the project uncovered, the strength, ingenuity and humour of women has shone like a beacon

Laura Bates: ‘I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.’

Laura Bates: ‘I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.’

In spring 2012, a week after setting up a website to catalogue experiences of gender inequality, I asked Lady Gaga for her support via Twitter. Keen to raise awareness of my newly created Everyday Sexism Project, I hoped she might spread the word among her millions of followers.

The next morning, I sleepily reached for my phone and saw more than 200 new notifications. I clicked eagerly on the first message and stopped cold. It wasn’t, as I had hoped, the first of many new entries from women who had suffered harassment or assault. It was a brutally graphic rape threat – and the moment I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.

The threats continued to flood in. The sheer tenacity was startling. Who were these men, who could spend days, weeks – years, even – bombarding a woman they had never met with detailed descriptions of how they would torture her?

Over time, things became clearer. I met men who opposed feminism in different settings, and began to recognise their varied tactics. In some ways, the online abusers – who hurled hatred from behind a screen – were the least threatening. The repetition in their arguments (if you can call “get off your high horse and change your tampon” an argument) made it clear that their fury was regurgitated: rooted in a fear of that man-hating, society-destroying “feminazi” of online forum fantasy.

More sinister were the slick, intelligent naysayers who hid in plain sight. Men who scoffed at social events, confidently assuring those around us that sexism in the UK was a thing of the past and I should look to other countries to find “real problems”. Men who asked my husband, in commiserating tones, how he coped with being married to me. Politicians who told me I was “unnecessarily negative” and that girls these days didn’t know how lucky they were. The newspaper picture editor who overlooked the content of my interview when he announced his priority was to make me look “as sexy as possible”. People with the power to change things and the will to keep them exactly the same.

Despite this, the site was a success, and over the next five years, hundreds of thousands of testimonies flooded in. Almost every woman or girl I met told me their story, too. A nine-year old who had received a “dick pic”. An elderly lady who had been assaulted by her late husband’s best friend. A young black woman refused entry to a nightclub while her white girlfriends were waved through. A woman in a wheelchair who was told she would be lucky to be raped. My assumptions about the type of person who suffers particular forms of abuse and the separation between different kinds of prejudice quickly shattered.

The sadness of the stories was a heavy thing to bear, as was the continued abuse I received. A man who had offered me directions crossed the street in disgust when I told him I was on my way to give a talk about workplace sexual harassment, snapping: “For God’s sake, we’ve got to have some fun!” An interviewer asked me live on air whether it was difficult having no friends because I was so humourless. An American commentator wrote a blog publicly warning my husband he would one day come home to find I had burned down our house, murdered our children and joined a “coven of lesbian witches”. Somewhere around the time I received a death threat alongside the claim I was a dripping poison that should be eradicated from the world, I started seeing a counsellor. And – at low moments – I seriously considered the coven.

But there were pleasant surprises, too. I hadn’t anticipated the practical and emotional help offered by other women – solidarity from those of my own age and staunch support from older feminists who had seen it all before. And nothing could outweigh the privilege of being entrusted with so many people’s stories, often never told before. I felt a great sense of responsibility to make sure women’s voices were heard. I began to work with schools, universities, businesses, politicians and police forces, to try and ensure that the stories of one generation could alter things positively for the next. It helped hugely to feel that concrete change could come directly from the project.

Another joy was being part of a burgeoning wave of feminism, standing alongside others tackling everything from media sexism to female genital mutilation. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how closely connected the different forms of inequality are. It is vital to resist those who mock and criticise us for tackling “minor” manifestations of prejudice, because these are the things that normalise and ingrain the treatment of women as second-class citizens, opening the door for everything else, from workplace discrimination to sexual violence.

To be a feminist, I have learned, is to be accused of oversensitivity, hysteria and crying wolf. But in the face of the abuse the project uncovered, the sheer strength, ingenuity and humour of women shone like a beacon. The dancer who performed for hours on the tube to reclaim the space where she was assaulted. The woman who waited five years to present her contract and a salt cellar to the careers adviser who had told her he would eat her paperwork if she ever became an engineer. The pedestrian who calmly removed the ladder of a catcalling builder, leaving him stranded on a roof.

That’s why I can honestly say that the experiences and lessons of the past five years have left me more hopeful than despairing. I can’t celebrate this milestone, exactly, representing as it does a collective outpouring of grief, anger and trauma. But I think of the resilience, the solidarity, the resistance, and I can’t mourn it either. In five years, I have learned that the problem is immense, but the will to fight it is greater still.

Write an opinion article about language change in which you assess the ideas and issues raised in Text A and Text B and argue your own views.

AO2: Demonstrate critical understanding of concepts and issues
relevant to language use
Level 5


·       demonstrate a synthesised, conceptualised and individual overview of issues

·       evaluate and challenge views, approaches, interpretations of linguistic issues

Level 4


·       identify and comment on different views, approaches and interpretations of linguistic issues
Level 3


·       show detailed knowledge of linguistic ideas, concepts and research
Level 2


·       show familiarity with linguistic ideas, concepts and research
AO5: Demonstrate expertise and creativity in the use of English to communicate in different ways
Level 5


• use form creatively and innovatively

• use register creatively for context

• write accurately

Level 4


• use form convincingly

• show close attention to register, effective for context

• show strong control of accuracy

Level 3


• use form competently

• use and sustain register, effective for context

• show firm control of accuracy

Level 2


• use form appropriately

• use appropriate language for context

· make occasional errors

The US has gotten this word back, and the UK probably will too

gottenAs every loyal British subject knows, American English is bad and wrong and stupid and a threat to our way of life. So I guess that makes me a traitor. I find it hard to worry about a few new imported words and phrases every year, especially as we exported our entire language across the Atlantic.

Yes, some of these newcomers grate – new words often do – and many of those ones don’t survive long. But others have become so well-established that most Brits don’t even realise they were made in America. Here are a few of the terms we’ve gained from the US: bandwagonbedrockblizzardbosscerealclose-upcomebackcocktailcrook (criminal), ditch (get rid of), electrocutefan (devotee), footweargobbledygookgraveyardjoyrideknow-howmaverickradio…*

The US has been a wonderful way of enriching British English, even if some of those riches seemed vulgar at first.

How gotten works

One noteworthy word is gotten: standard in the US but not in the UK.

In both countries, the past tense of get is got. In British English, the past participle is also got. But in American English, it’s more complex. Roughly: when talking about a static situation (possessing or needing) the past participle is got; when talking about a dynamic situation (acquiring or becoming) the past participle is gotten. So:

  • Yesterday I got a new guitar
  • I’ve got a great guitar
  • I’ve gotten a new guitar
  • You’ve got to see my new guitar
  • I got into playing the guitar last year
  • I’d gotten into playing the guitar the previous year

Any Brit who reads American books or watches American TV and films will have come across gotten. And, in fact, more people in Britain are coming to use it themselves – although it’s still often seen as an Americanism.

For a snapshot of recent usage, I looked at the Glowbe corpus of text from 1.8 million web pages in 2012. I compared different countries’ uses of has gottenhave gottenand had gotten with has gothave got and had got. The results don’t account for differences between static and dynamic situations, but they give us a rough relative picture.

On US websites, has/have/had gotten outnumbers has/have/had got by almost two to one. So that’s what a fully operational gotgotten distinction looks like. On Canadian sites, gotten is only slightly ahead of got, which suggests usage may be a bit more mixed. In Australia and Ireland, got is ahead by about three to one; gotten is common, but not fully accepted. And on British sites, has/have/had got outnumbers has/have/had gotten by seven to one.

(In a more formal context – Hansard’s record of proceedings in Parliament since 2010 – the ratio is about 1,500 to one.)

So, gotten is still far from mainstream in the UK, but it has built a firm presence. And, whether or not it catches on to become standard, it’s another example of British English using an Americanism.

Except that it isn’t.

This is how British English used to work – or rather, how English English used to work before Britain even existed.

The English decline of gotten

The huge list of example sentences in the OED suggests that gotten reigned supreme until the late 1500s, when got increasingly appeared in its place. Shakespeare and Hobbes used both. Got seems to have overtaken gotten around 1700.

Geoffrey Chaucer (Legend of Good Women, c1386): Ffor he woste wel she wolde nat ben geten

John Paston (letter, 1477): The Frenshe Kynge hathe gothen many off the townys off the Dukys off Borgoyne

Myles Coverdale (Bible translation, 1535): Treasures that are wickedlygotten, profit nothinge

William Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 2, c1591): Jack Cade hath gottenLondon Bridge

Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 3, c1591): The Army of the Queene hath got the field

Walter Raleigh (letter, 1618): I had gotten my libertye

Richard Whitlock (Zootomia, 1654): they should have got a whipping

John Evelyn (letter, 1690): I have now gotten me a pair of new horses

George Berkeley (Alciphron, 1732): Some old Ideas may be lost, and some new ones got

John Stepple (testimony at the Old Bailey, 1742): I would go and fetch a Constable, for he had got the Thief

Usage commentators eventually noticed the change, but too late to do anything about it. Robert Lowth’s popular Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) complained about “a very great Corruption, by which the Form of the Past Time is confounded with that of the Participle” – including the use of got instead of gotten. Lowth said: “This confusion prevails greatly in common discourse, and is too much authorised by the example of some of our best Writers.”

Maybe Lowth was thinking of Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary, seven years earlier, had uncritically listed both got and gotten as options for the past participle of get. Neither Johnson nor Lowth commented on the difference between static and dynamic situations.

And then in 1795, Lindley Murray’s blockbuster English Grammar declared that gotten was “obsolete”. That’s an overstatement, but by then it was uncommon, at least in standard usage. It partly survived in some nonstandard dialects (such as in Scotland and Ireland), as well as in the fossilised phrase ill-gotten gains. And there British English stayed for the best part of two centuries.

The American rebirth of gotten

In the US, got also dominated, but gotten survived on the fringes.

Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 said that gotten was “nearly obsolete in common parlance”. But it also said the same of forgotten and swollen. A generation later, Richard Meade Bache’s Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (1869) said that gotten was still only “nearly obsolete”.

But Richard Grant White in Words and Their Uses (1870) saw the issue as a live dispute, and he picked a side: “I am asked, for instance, whether gotten… belongs to the list of ‘words that are not words.’ Certainly not.” Alfred Ayres in The Verbalist(1881) agreed: “If we say eatenwrittenstrivenforgotten, why not say gotten, where this form of the participle is more euphonious – as it often is – than got?”

The American revival of gotten seems to have started at the end of the 19th century.

Data from Google Books shows the end of gotten’s decline in British and AmericanEnglish (as with the Glowbe data, I’m looking at the ratio of has/have/had gotten to has/have/had got). And then – in the US – there’s the start of its recovery:



Some Americans continued to resist it, such as Dana Jensen (Modern Composition and Rhetoric, 1935), who said, with a whiff of wishful thinking, that “gotten… has been supplanted by got in formal usage”. The mention of formal usage suggests that the rearguard action had narrowed its focus to style, but still it was doomed.

In 1942, Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage accepted the return of gotten: it was “obsolete in Great Britain… but in the U.S.A., gotten (past participle) is preferred to got”.

And Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1965) agreed, noting the value of the gotgotten distinction. He quoted the linguist Albert Marckwardt: “In fact, most Americans regularly make a very precise distinction between got and gotten. ‘We’ve got ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that the funds in question are in our possession – we have them. ‘We have gotten ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that we have obtained or acquired this particular sum of money.”

In the late 20th century, gotten surged back into mainstream, standard usage in the US. And British usage has tentatively started to follow.



The future

I don’t think any British usage guide has yet endorsed gotten, and for the moment that seems fair – although the reason has changed. A century ago, the word would have seemed affectedly archaic (Henry Fowler’s judgement in 1926); today, the risk is that it comes across as affectedly American. How easily we forget our history.

Jeremy Butterfield’s 2015 edition of Fowler notes that gotten is on the increase in the UK. And I’ve been noticing it more and more in British conversation over the last few years – mostly from younger people. So I’d guess this shift is generational rather than because individuals are changing their usage. While it’s easy to pick up new words at any age, the grammar of a common verb like get may be a more fundamental thing to relearn. I’d expect gotten to keep growing – but slowly, and mostly in casual contexts.

And why shouldn’t we Brits use it? As Marckwardt and Bernstein said, and as millions of Americans have found, it’s useful. And it’s a part of our heritage that the US is helping us to recover. But I may be too set in my ways to start using it myself.