October 25, 2021
by Graham

Notify, mandate and sanction

Thomas West (@IntermarkLS) has tweeted:

“In BrE I keep seeing things like “the last address you notified to the company” and “the complaint notified to the police.” This sounds so wrong in AmE (we notify someone of something; we don’t notify something to someone).”

I refer him to the OED, which gives the following quotation from the Rolls of Parliament in 1433:

“The whiche offre and agrement..[was] notified and communed to all the Lordes.”

On this side of the Atlantic, we have recently acquired an American usage which sounds equally wrong to me, and was until this year very unusual in the UK: the verb “mandate” to mean “compel” (why not use compel, which is not ambiguous?). The problem here is that the normal meaning of the word in British English is “authorise”. The difference, I suppose, is that while both usages are transitive, the AmE usage may be to mandate something, while the BrE usage is only to mandate someone to do something – which AE can also have. So when we read that President Biden has mandated an organisation to enforce the wearing of masks, I wonder why this is so contentious, because to me, the meaning of this sentence is that he has authorised that organisation to enforce mask wearing if it wishes to. The use of notify, however, while it may sound wrong to AmE speakers, at least is not confusing – there is no other meaning of notify.

Sanction is another word with confusing uses. And in this case, the two uses are diametrically opposed. The earliest example quoted in OED is its use as a noun in 1570, where it refers to an ecclesiastical decree (with no sense of either condemnation or approval). Within a hundred years this had become “the penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law”, but at the same time a sanction could now also be the reward for obeying a law (quotations given from 1696 and 1692 respectively).

Since at least the 18th century, a further extension of its meaning has become “something which serves to support, authorize, or confirm an action, procedure, etc.”, with an example from 1727. It is an easy step from there to “permission”.

Interestingly, OED has a quotation from Richard Baxter (1651): “The Law hath two parts, the mandate and the sanction.” Interpret that as you wish!

October 14, 2021
by Graham

The Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania

The latest edition of In Our Time on Radio 4 (first broadcast on 14 October 2021), the programme that tries to deal in depth with a narrow topic, was about the medieval elective kingdom of Lithuania and Poland (or the other way round).

One of the speakers, as he introduced the topic, described the kingdom as covering an area of “one million kilometres squared”.

Has the difference between “square kilometres” and “kilometres squared” changed since I was at school? (or similarly square miles and miles squared).

To me the phrases “one kilometre square(d)” and “one square kilometre” indicate identical areas, but for any larger amount, the difference between the two will only increase as the numbers get bigger. So, “two kilometres square(d)” is equal to “four square kilometres” (because “2 kilometres square(d)” is equivalent to saying “an area which stretches 2 kilometres along the x axis and 2 kilometres along the y axis”). By my calculation, using this logic, “1 million kilometres squared” is the same as “1 million million square kilometres”. The land surface area of the earth is said to be about 150,000,000 sq km according to Science Desk Reference American Scientific, so presumably the expert speaking this morning meant to say “one million square kilometres”. If an expert can get a figure wrong by this magnitude (which makes the area of Poland and Lithuania about 6,660 times bigger than the total land area of the earth), what hope have we for the rest of the population?

Unless, of course, the meanings of “square kilometres” and “kilometres square(d)” are now identical. In which case, how do we know how to convert an areal measure in miles to its equivalent in kilometres? (4 square miles is 2 miles in each direction, but as 2 miles is equivalent to ca 3.2 kilometres, 4 square miles is 10.24 square kilometres, while 4 miles squared is 16 square miles, or 40.96 square kilometres.)

If these two expressions have now coalesced, then the language has lost a valuable distinction, and may well cause confusion to budding mathematicians, to say nothing of architects and land surveyors.

September 2, 2021
by Graham

/s/ – apical or laminal

I’ve been asked about the pronunciation of /s/ in initial strings of /str/.

I know that it is common to pronounce it with a post-alveolar, apical articulation in Glasgow and London (David Abercrombie was talking about its occurrence in Glasgow at least forty years ago, and I have heard it from many Londoners myself). I’m now being asked how prevalent it is in English as a whole, and as none of my pronouncing dictionaries mention it (why should they?), and John Wells’ Accents of English doesn’t either (unless I’m just not seeing it), I’m hoping that someone can throw more light on it. It’s not a variant I use myself, but that might also be a feature of my age.

Presumably, those who have the apical allophone use it also in their pronunciation of words such as syringe, when said in a single syllable: /srɪndʒ/.

August 26, 2021
by Graham

A new development in English phonology?

With the increasing number of BBC journalists who have South Asian heritage, we are hearing an ever greater number of examples of a non-traditional pronunciation of the orthographic symbol {t} in words of South Asian origin.

I’m thinking in particular, but not solely, of the word Taleban. The initial T is pronounced with a dental articulation rather than alveolar by such renowned presenters/reporters/correspondents as Mishal Husain and Rita Chakrabarti, as well as those whose accents betray a South Asian upbringing. Interestingly, some Afghans who speak extremely good English are using the traditional alveolar place of articulation in the same context. How long before those of another tradition take to imitating them (if they can both recognise the difference, and reproduce it without special phonetic training)?

Will this come to initiate a change to English phonology, with the two articulations beginning to develop minimal pairs, or will it disappear again as the present generation is replaced by their children who will probably have less connexion with the sub-continent?

Time will tell.

August 13, 2021
by Graham

BBC news writing

Are BBC news scriptwriters using a system with predictive spelling? In the last few days, I’ve been hearing nonsensical statements from reputable, and usually reliable Radio 4 newsreaders, and either they are uncharacteristically mis-reading their script, or the script is mis-spelt in a way that I can only attribute to predictive spelling.

First, Alan Smith read out a business piece which included a claim that there were increasing vaccines in several industries (vacancies?), and today, Arlene Fleming has twice (at both one o’clock and six o’clock) talked about events in Suburbiton near Kingston upon Thames.

What is going on? Does nobody check what they’ve written before delivering it to the newsreader?

July 10, 2021
by Graham

A chasm in education

It never ceases to amaze me how people can find new ways in which to mispronounce words.

I have just heard a writer (a writer, and so one would assume a person who is interested in words) on The Radio 4 programme Saturday Live, pronounce, in all seriousness, the word chasm with the same initial sound as in the word church. Yes, I have heard it said like this as a joke, poking fun at English spelling conventions, but never as what was clearly the speaker’s belief that it was the usual way to say the word.

It isn’t even such a rare word. He must have heard ‘kazzm’ many times in the course of his life. Has he never connected the two?

April 30, 2021
by Graham


This is the Scots Gaelic name for Scotland, and has been chosen by Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland for the Scottish National Party, as the name of his new party, set up in opposition to the SNP after his ‘disagreements’, to put it politely, with his former colleagues.

I have been very surprised to hear some of the BBC’s news presenters – although not all – use a pseudo-Gaelic pronunciation for the name. They appear to be trying to follow the pronunciation given by Wikipedia, which uses this IPA transcription for the Scots Gaelic: [ˈal̪ˠapə]. Such a pronunciation will be very hard for non-Gaelic speakers to get their tongues around. Wikipedia does also give the usual English pronunciation as [ˈælbə]. Most Scots – the vast majority of Scots in fact – do not speak a single word of Gaelic, and it has not been spoken natively by Scots in Edinburgh and points south for hundreds of years. It therefore seems to me perverse to want to inflict a pronunciation which is not intuitive to most of the listeners and viewers, who will simply wonder what is going on.

Is this a subtle way of trying to influence the audience in its attitude to the party?

Will pressure be put on the Pronunciation Unit to make the ‘Gaelic’ version its official recommendation?

April 4, 2021
by Graham

Richard III – The Reunion

I have always thought the Radio 4 programme The Reunion as being reliable and well presented. When Sue MacGregor was leading it, I never had any quibbles with it, but this morning, the programme about the discovery of Richard III’s body in a car park in Leicester (they didn’t ask why he was buried in a car park, fortunately), perpetuated the canard that there are at least three descendants of Richard, including Benedict Cumberbatch. I wrote about this some years ago, when the body was first discovered (see post entitled Genealogy).

Kirsty Wark also perpetrated two pronunciations which I am sure I should never have heard from Sue M: she used ‘lay’ as the past tense of the verb ‘lay’ (while Richard’s coffin was lying in the cathedral at Leicester, people ‘lay’ flowers there) instead of ‘laid’, and she pronounced genealogy as if it were spelt ‘geneology’. To paraphrase Maureen Lipman, family historians have an ‘alogy’, not an ‘ology’.

Scots will always tell you that they speak the ‘best’ English. Don’t you believe it – they slip as often as the rest of us.

March 6, 2021
by Graham

Perpetuate or perpetrate

In the interview that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have given to Oprah Winfrey, the Duchess implied that Buckingham Palace (not mentioning individual names) had been “perpetuating falsehoods about us”.

When I heard the clip for the first time, I was puzzled: did she mean that there were falsehoods circulating, and that the Palace was disseminating them further, or did she mean to say that the Palace was perpetrating the falsehoods, i.e. initiating them?

This is a frequent source of confusion, and this morning (Saturday 6 March 2021), Nick Robinson, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, actually said that the Duchess had accused the Palace of perpetrating falsehoods.

I wonder if a view of the complete interview will clarify the Duchess’ meaning.

January 19, 2021
by Graham

The Queen’s English – literally

Serendipitously, not long after writing my last post, I watched a TV programme called “The Queen: in her own words“, which, as it said on the tin, included many examples of her speaking, the extracts used coming from the whole of her public life, from the first radio broadcast during the Second World War, when she was a teenager, up to the present day.

It was immediately obvious that over that period, nearly 80 years, her accent had changed. This was commented on by the narrator, and Jane Setter, the Professor of Phonetics at Reading University, as most of my readers will know, was asked about this (starting at around 50 minutes into the programme). It was probably a result of the cutting, which is always done for journalistic priorities rather than factual accuracy (I speak from personal experience!), but Jane appeared to be saying that the Queen had deliberately changed her accent in order to sound more approachable and more ‘like one of us’ rather than distant, speaking from somewhere ‘up there’.

Unless there is any documentary evidence for this, I think it is far more likely that as a result of her exposure to a much wider range of accents, her own has, like mine, changed by imperceptible degrees, just as all accents are gradually changing. As a child, the Queen and Princess Margaret did not go to school, but had a governess. Their language models were probably restricted to a very narrow range of variation. Starting when she was allowed to join the ATS when she was eighteen, and learned to drive as her contribution to the war effort, she would begin to experience a wider variety of speech. There would not be an immediate effect, but perhaps this was what started the change.

In the 1970s and 80s, it became noticeable that the TRAP vowel was changing from its relatively high front quality to a more open version. Princess Anne and the actor Anna Massey were both pilloried in the press for using this pronunciation, and often spelled “Princess Unne” and “Unna Mussey” to show that adherents of the older pronunciation felt they were replacing it by the STRUT vowel. And also to imply that they were doing it deliberately to show that they were trying to sound more egalitarian. This criticism has disappeared, presumably because most people now use the more open version of TRAP, and the old one belongs to what is often described as a ‘cut-glass’ accent.

It is strange how assumptions can change and reverse direction. Calling an accent “cut glass” appears to imply that it is an affectation, and yet when Princess Anne was accused of using the less cut-glass version of TRAP, this in its turn was ‘blamed’ on affectation.

Are these not just more examples of accentism?