Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

May 31 2016 11:55 AM

Why You Shouldn’t Use This Ambiguous, if Not Wholly Befuddling, Construction

I predict that people commenting on this article will be dismissive, if not hostile.

What do I mean by that? Am I predicting that commenters will be dismissive, and possibly even hostile? Or am I predicting that commenters will be dismissive, but not to the point of being hostile?


I ran a Twitter poll asking the same question, with different words:

The statistical insignificance of Twitter polls aside, anecdotal experiences as a journalist and educator lead me to believe that if you use the “it’s X, if not Y” formula in your writing, about half of your readers will think you mean one thing and half will think you mean the exact opposite.

Comprehension is at stake, so this is a language problem worth correcting, unlike the perfectly fine “I could care less” idiom, which almost everyone interprets the same way despite the fact that it literally means the opposite of how we use it.

With the “it’s X, if not Y” formula, ambiguity is built right into the word “if.” That conjunction exists to help us describe situations in which one thing might be the case, or another thing might be the case.

People in the “it’s X, if not Y = it’s X, but not Y” camp are presuming that you already know the answer to the question you’ve implied with your “if.” Take this example:

Many, if not all readers have already skipped to this article’s comment section to tell me I’m wrong.

My use of “if” in that sentence implies that there was — at some point — a possibility in my mind that all of you would have already skipped to the comment section before you got this far. However, there are context clues that would lead you to believe I had already considered and dismissed that possibility before writing my sentence; clues such as the unlikelihood that I would write and seek publication of words that I sincerely believed no one would read.

In contrast, people in the “it’s X, if not Y = it’s X, and maybe Y” camp are taking my sentence more literally; they think I’m saying there’s a possibility that all of you have already skipped to the comments, but in the event that some of you haven’t, certainly many of you have.

Both of these interpretations of my sentence are defensible, which means it’s a bad sentence. If two equally intelligent and informed people can come to opposite conclusions about what you mean, then it’s time to rephrase.

You should never write that something is “X, if not Y.” But you should feel free to say that out loud.

It’s easy to communicate which of these two options is your intended meaning by using inflection. However, it is impossible to render that inflection in text without using non-English characters or symbols, because the difference is tonal, not emphatic. For example, try reading this out loud implying one meaning and then the other:

The problem with writing nitpicking articles about language is that most of the time, if not every time, somebody will point out a language problem in your article, which damages your credibility.

If you wanted to communicate that something happens most of the time, but not every time, you’d emphasize the word “every.” If you wanted to communicate that something happens most of the time, and possibly every time, you’d also emphasize the word “every,” but with a different tone. In common English, we can indicate emphasis in text with italics or ALL CAPS, but we have nothing to indicate tonality (or do we?).

The solution here is simple: When dealing in text, write that things are either “X, but not Y,” or “X, and perhaps Y,” instead of “X, if not Y.”

I expect that one, and perhaps more of you will point out in the comments that I’m not the first person to make this argument. However, I think I am one of the first, and perhaps the first to do so using this many prismatic, self-referential examples. I’m nothing if not precious.

(Wait, does that mean I actually am nothing? My god, I’m vanishi—)

May 30 2016 9:04 AM

Meet Themself, Our Next Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

The singular they is gaining acceptance as a resourceful solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. But it’s not settling in without controversy. What’ll be next? critics fear. Themself? As in, Jo went to see the movie all by themself?

Actually, yes. We should be falling all over ourselves – or, if you’re a monarch, ourself. Got a problem with themself? You should take it up with Her Majesty.


Like singular they, the royal we, in which a sovereign refers to themself with  plural pronouns, takes a curious reflexive form. Ourself, joins a plural our with a singular self. While unusual, ourself is all over Shakespeare. Take Macbeth: “The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself/ Till supper-time alone.” Richard II shows us the pronoun’s intensive form: “We will ourself in person to this war.” Even the heroic and eloquent Henry V employs it: “It was ourself thou did abuse.”

Chaucer, Dickens, and Tennyson join Shakespeare to form a literary pantheon of ourself. John Wycliffe used ourself in his seminal 14th-century translation of the Bible into English. Some believe English’s majestic plural started with Henry II’s claim to divine right. When he spoke, he was also speaking for God. Hence we. The royal we, however, probably goes back to ancient Rome.

And the construction has evolved. Journalist and author Constance Hale identifies several modern first-person plurals. Like the political we: “We are taking this campaign all the way to convention.” Or the editorial we, employed representatively by columnists. There’s the urban we, which Hale ribs as a sort of smug, hipster sanctimony: “We should really compost, honey.” And then there’s the nanny we: “We don’t play with our food now, do we?”

 Since we still use various collective we’s, we are still referring to ourselves as ourself.

The up-to-the-minute corpus Newspapers on the Web finds hundreds of recent examples of ourself, often in quotations from individuals speaking on behalf of an organization or cause.

Both ourself and themself are attested earlier in the record than their plural counterparts, which superseded them in the 16th century. So they’re not just lofty and quaint: They’re original, even found in some foundational Anglo-Saxon texts.

But c’mon, you might be saying. Ourself simply doesn’t sound as wrong as themself. Compare Jo went to the movie by themself with a coach’s post-game analysis of We really pushed ourself hard this match. The first example just innately sounds more ungrammatical, doesn’t it?

Well, the latter example might enjoy an unfair advantage: The plural our agrees with the plural subject, dampening the din of disagreement some hear as more jarring between Jo and themself. (Conversely, many users of collective we may err on the side of ourself, as ourselves may jar some with its suggestion of multiple speakers.)

And are there any good alternatives to themself? Style mongers might blow their whistle at the alien-y xeself, the impersonal oneself, the clumsy him or herself. While we often judge grammaticality by our ear, we should be sensitive: themself, along with ourself and us self, are perfectly grammatical in certain speech communities. Not to mention that, for the person who identifies as genderqueer, some alternatives to themself don’t accurately represent their identity.

Once upon a time, we called ourselves whatever we wanted. As early as the ninth century, English speakers were using a simple, solo self as its general reflexive and intensive pronoun. The usage leaves us with some great examples in the annals, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: god self, man self, lord self, thing self, parties self, poet self. (By this token, Jo saw movie by Jo self.) Yet these usages didn’t stick around. Others did, and merged together with frequent and widespread usage, like himself, herself, myself, itself, and oneself, and, for a time, ourself and themself. Themself is a perfectly acceptable inflection for singular they. If you don’t like it, you’ll soon be by yourself – yet another pronoun that has managed just fine in both the singular and the plural. 

May 26 2016 3:48 PM

The Fascinating Lexicography of a Dirty Adjective

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

Sometime in the 20th century, shit—having already long been a verb and then a noun—also became an adjective, as in He was a shit teacher or That restaurant has shit service. Exactly when this happened is a bit tricky to pin down, precisely because of the word’s versatility. In many contexts, the shit you think is an adjective might actually be a noun.

There’s a common misconception that putting one noun in front of another noun turns the first into an adjective:

May 25 2016 9:00 AM

Dear Journalists: For the Love of God, Please Stop Calling Your Writing Content    

The word content is creeping into journalism, which scares the hell out of me.

You see it in the job listings. Politico is hiring a reporter who will “deliver the kind of content our subscribers have come to expect.” Time Inc. is recruiting not only for a “digital content enthusiast” to serve as an associate editor at Fortune but also for a breaking news reporter at Time.com who will produce “video, mobile and social content”—both of which, as if to hammer the phenomenon home, are listed on the company’s careers page under a category simply called “content,” which when I last checked listed a whopping 75 positions.

It’s a trend that should make anyone who cares about journalism uneasy. “Content” is a vague, cynical word—a lazy catchall for the full spectrum of stuff ClickHole satirizes, from simpering listicles to hot takes to quizzes that, per the Awl, “are almost comically transparent in their desire to turn you into a marketable commodity.”

The common denominator, as far as I can tell, is that content is created by the lowest bidder, in the highest volume and to the lowest standard that’ll still attract eyeballs on Facebook. That doesn’t mean it’s all terrible, I suppose—the success of BuzzFeed and Upworthy is a testament to its apparent appeal—but, for the most part, units of content are fundamentally interchangeable, like off-brand Oreos. In a glum 2009 feature, a Wired writer asked a videographer who had shot an astonishing 40,000 videos for the pioneering content mill Demand Media whether any particular project he’d done for the company stood out as a favorite. The videographer demurred; “I can’t really remember most of them,” he said.

May 24 2016 12:26 PM

Cheesy, Syrupy, Corny: Why Do We Describe Art We Dislike as if It Tastes Bad?

So much negative aesthetic criticism appears to take place in the kitchen. Saccharine and corny, schmaltzy and sour. Hammy, cheesy, vanilla. Applied synesthetically, visual and sonic descriptors often exalt creative work: A singer’s voice is shimmering, a film sequence is jazzy. But with a few exceptions—spicy erotica, bittersweet finales—we know exactly how to telegraph our disdain for (or grudging pleasure in) bad art. We compare it to bad food.

The food is bad in the way that the art is bad. It’s not so much disagreeable as unhealthy, even unvirtuous. Fluorescent with goopy cheese, oozing easy sentiment, it clogs our arteries and blunts our intellects. In his lyric Cattivo Tempo, Auden introduces an anti-poetic rascal named Nibbar, who whispers, in the writing room, of “the nearly fine, the almost true.” This scoundrel has “grown insolent and fat/ on cheesy literature/ and corny dramas.” He figures forth the dissipation he brings. He’s gobbled up his own bad aesthetics and battened on them.

Even in praise, a clear division exists. Between delicious and dazzling, guess which adjective is more likely to tag the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and which the guilty pleasure. The discerning eye perceives prose that glistens or shines or is luminous. The expert ear notices musical phrasing and a clarity of voice. But a scrumptious tell-all, a yummy story—leave that to your wife’s book club. Given five good senses, why do we turn to taste to communicate distaste?

May 23 2016 1:25 PM

Sometimes, Reporters ​Should Clean Up Ungrammatical Quotes

A few weeks ago, sports writer Brian T. Smith wrote a column for the Houston Chronicle about an outfielder for the Astros, Carlos Gómez, who has gotten off to a slow start this season. Smith interviewed the Dominican-born Gómez and quoted him exactly, relaying his words as follows: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

The quote stood out, because sports writers don’t usually transcribe so precisely the words of players for whom English is their second language. Usually, sports writers clean those quotes up. (Even Breitbart has rendered Go-Go’s speech with correct, if informal, grammar.) Critics, including Gómez himself, took Smith to task for seeming to mock the athlete’s incorrect English. Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes apologized, citing “less than adequate” AP guidelines on quoting news sources who did not grow up speaking George Washington’s tongue. On Deadspin, Tom Ley suggested that Gomez “has a right to be annoyed” that a reporter “went off and made him look dumb by not extending him a courtesy that most people quoted by reporters get”: that of subtly tweaked sentences.


Not everyone agrees. Over at ESPN’s brand-new site the Undefeated, J.A. Adande used the incident to inveigh against the cleaning up of quotes. “Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?” Adande asked. Doesn’t objectivity demand absolute faithfulness to what a person says, not what he means to say?

But context matters. It’s common practice in journalism for writers quoting sources to remove filler words—like, ah, um—and correct tiny grammatical violations. (Slate’s policy is to handle such issues on a case-by-case basis, but many writers at the magazine I spoke to told me they make such elisions and alterations all the time.) This is done to present information to readers as clearly as possible. It services the idea that we should be focusing on the content of the quote, not the slight infelicities that distinguish spoken from written English. It’s also done because writers scribbling in notebooks are unlikely to recall every twist and turn of a quote, and tend to streamline and standardize sentences in their notes.

So that expectation of unfailing accuracy is already misplaced. But Adande argues further that fixing quotes patronizes sources, implying that their words “are inherently inferior and must be corrected.” Yes, this is a problem when, for instance, white newsrooms insist on doctoring the expressions of black people to make them conform to Standard English—as if Black English were not a legitimate dialect on its own.

But we are not talking here about established vernaculars like AAE. We are talking about the imperfect phrases of a non-native English speaker—phrases that, quoted exactly, read to many readers (including, in this case, the subject himself) as a writer needlessly lampooning a source’s manner of speech. “Reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language,” Adande wrote, referring to Gómez. “Instead of teasing them for their shortcomings, we can applaud them for successfully conveying their thoughts.”

But the role of journalists is neither to tease nor to applaud, but to deliver information as clearly and truthfully as possible. To include a grammatical error in a news story is to hint that such error is somehow significant, rather than something most of us do when we are asked to extemporize aloud. Certainly, there are times when replicating someone’s exact rhetorical tics on paper illumines a deeper truth. But what was Smith illuminating by preserving Gómez’ broken English in an article about his .226 batting average? What cultural heritage was he honoring? What characterological or intellectual traits did he highlight?  

Gomez read the untweaked quote as an unkindness, as many readers did. Gómez was right, and Smith was wrong, and you can quote me on that. 

May 23 2016 10:00 AM

Why Are You Talking to Your Dog Instead of to Me? 

Not long ago, I lived in an apartment complex that billed itself as a “modern living community.” It was furnished with a nice pool, a community room, grills, a gym. It even had a dog run for its canine tenants. This was the perfect place to meet some new people, I thought. Nothing is as socially lubricating as dogs.

But as my pet and I approached another pet-human pair, I’d hear: “Spike, let’s stop that barking. No, Spike!” Or, in a singsong soprano as I opened my mouth to say hello: “C’mon, Lola. Let's go. It's not playtime now.”


Pet-directed speech, or PDS, is a real linguistic phenomenon. (Its high-pitched register—“You’re just the best boy, aren’t you?!”—resembles infant-directed speech.) But I think I was observing something else: pet-directed speech used to mask human-directed speech. In asking Spike to quiet down, my neighbor was really communicating: “I see you and your dog. I’m sorry if my dog’s a bit annoying. I’m just gonna move over here.” In coaxing Lola along, my neighbor was saying, “Hey. Just kinda doing my thing right now. Getting ready for the workday. You know, right? I’m not really in the place for a whole dog production at the moment. Sorry?”

To the linguist, my neighbors were performing both locutionary and illocutionary speech acts. Their locutionary acts comprised the surface meaning of their utterances: “Stop barking, Spike.” But their illocutionary acts conveyed their intended meaning: “I want to be left alone.” By talking to their dogs, my neighbors managed to acknowledge my presence (it would be rude not to) without engaging in conversation—and without losing any face.

I have observed similar indirect illocutions in other canine encounters. From owners struggling to manage a hyperactive or aggressive pooch, dog etiquette typically requires some mild embarrassment and a polite apology. Instead, I’ve seen face-saving acknowledgment of the misbehavior directed at the dog. At the park, another owner will completely ignore me in order to crouch down and ask my pet: “And what’s your name, buddy? You’re cute.” If our dogs could talk, we’d probably never have reason to speak to another human again.  

I think this sociolinguistic puppy deserves a name. Let’s call it “dog-directed indirect illocutionary discursive politeness events.” Or as the rest of us probably know it: “I’m sorry, but I can’t be bothered to talk to you.” Woof.

May 17 2016 1:16 PM

Shakespearean Slang

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

While we flip the bird at explicit language advisories on this blog, I do want to issue a trigger warning for this post due to fictional content about rape. That’s a hell of way to kick off a little language study, huh? But even by today’s standards, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, with its human sacrifice, gang rape, and cannibalism, is just brutally fucking violent. Amid all its carnage, though, is some sexual wordplay that sounds, well, shockingly modern for a play written more than 400 years ago.

In just one of its many fucked-up episodes, this fuck, Aaron, helps these two other fucks, brothers Chiron and Demetrius, scheme to rape Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. As the three hatch their unconscionable plot, they amuse each other—you’re a real motherfucker, Shakespeare—with a little wordplay about stealing Lavinia away from her husband for their evil act:

May 16 2016 8:30 AM

Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds 

Assassination, bedazzled, lonely, rant, scuffle, zany: These are just a few of the 1,700 words we traditionally credit to Shakespeare. Some, like elbow, seem like they should have always existed in the English language; others, such as swagger, feel strikingly modern. Perhaps these words, acts of inspired creation from a godlike artist, let us glimpse the genius still gripping us 400 years since he last put quill to parchment. Or perhaps we’re looking for his linguistic prodigy in the wrong place.

For one thing, we can’t say for certain that Shakespeare actually “invented” these words. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language, only documents the earliest written evidence it finds for a word. Shakespeare may simply have been the first person to put down in writing the words we attribute to him. Or he might have been cribbing from older texts that didn’t survive.

May 12 2016 10:06 AM

When F--k Was Fug

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

As much as the youthful Norman Mailer may have enjoyed inflating his self-image by inundating friend and foe with a superheated geyser of fucks, his favorite word wasn’t acceptable for the printed page in 1948. The disgruntled (read “pissed-off”) Mailer was forced to substitute the word fug for fuck in his gritty war novel The Naked and the Dead. The story goes that this prompted the waggish starlet Tallulah Bankhead to say upon first meeting Mailer, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” If Mailer never wanted to see—or say—another fug in his life, there was a counterculture rock group that thought the euphemism was the ideal name to have to “stick it to” the establishment of the 1960s.

Enter the Fugs.