The mission of a dictionary

If you accept a ‘word’ such as ‘alright’ (which I consider to be a mistake) just because it’s in the dictionary, for consistency you will probably also have to accept ‘words’ that you consider to be mistakes. (How accepting do you feel towards nucular?)

Furthermore, if you accept any word that’s in the dictionary just because it’s in the dictionary, you are trapping yourself in an inescapable bit of circular logic.

I’m using it because it’s in the dictionary…
and it’s in the dictionary because I’m using it.

That’s because the mission of a dictionary (these days, anyway) is to document how people actually write, not to dictate how people should write.

Dictionaries are comprehensive. They’re not carved in stone and increasingly they include examples of anything and everything that’s statistically common enough to pass some minimum threshold. There’s no value judgment involved. In fact, descriptivism, the linguistic philosophy that motivates lexicographers, categorically prohibits interference from value judgments. The passing of judgment on any form of linguistic expression is termed ‘prescriptivism’ and is frowned on by academic linguists.

To my way of thinking, then, there’s a huge difference between the mission of dictionary writers and the mission of pretty much any other kind of writer. Writing is all about value judgment—writers must constantly choose what to say and how to say it to best communicate with the audience, for a given purpose, in a given context. Therefore, writers are constantly looking for and giving one another advice on appropriate forms and formulations.

There are many, many books out there that purport to contain well-considered recommendations for word use. They’re just not dictionaries.

Don’t all write ‘alright’, all right?

I must have been told early and often that ‘all right’ must be written as two words because it just absolutely baffles me that anyone would want to write it any other way.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Why don’t we get some other opinions on this?

Below are the first ten Google hits for “all right vs alright”.

  1. Grammar Girl says historically ‘alright’ was always wrong, but that it might somehow be gaining limited acceptability.
  2. says ‘alright’ is acceptable in written dialog and informal writing only.
  3. Oxford Dictionaries says despite the existence of ‘altogether’ and ‘already’ in standard English, it is still inadvisable to use ‘alright’ because it is widely regarded as incorrect.
  4. Writer’s Digest says ‘alright’ technically isn’t a word. Its status could change but hasn’t yet.
  5. Grammarist says that because ‘alright’ has never been accepted by dictionaries or usage authorities, for now you should play it safe and avoid it, unless you’re feeling particularly bold.
  6. Writing Explained says young writers may not even be aware that there’s a debate over ‘alright’ and ‘all right’, and then beats readers over the head with the mnemonic “It’s not all right to use alright.”
  7. Merriam-Webster says you can use ‘alright’ if you don’t care that it’s not the favored form, but points out that ‘all right’ is exactly equivalent, and furthermore keeps you from looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.
  8. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry for ‘alright’ says ‘alright’ is common in dialog and informal writing. (Incidentally, beware of insisting that something “is a word” just because “it’s in the dictionary”.)
  9. Grammar Monster says ‘alright’ is a nonstandard variant of ‘all right’ and is best avoided in formal writing.
  10. Cambridge Dictionaries Online says that ‘all right’ may be written as one word but that it’s less common to do so.

I think there’s overwhelming evidence in favor of avoiding ‘alright’. Unless you’re militantly anti-conservative, linguistically speaking.

In which case, what’s next? A big push for spelling ‘a lot’ as one word?

So, upshot: I may be fighting a losing battle, but according to the authorities, it isn’t lost yet. And I’m not fighting alone, even if it for sure feels that way sometimes. Fight with me! If you’ve read this far, you can no longer claim that you just didn’t know better.

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care.

Man child, age 6

I would like to point out that this is hilarious. From a certain angle.

From another angle, it is also evidence of a good deal of hard work and bravery on the part of the parent…

Imagine you’ve just moved to another country with your wife and son and you have to function in another language, one that you’ve studied but that you didn’t grow up with. Furthermore imagine that it is one that uses a writing system totally different from your own and contains combinations of sounds you can’t accurately pronounce.

You’re going to send your son to a school that uses your family’s language, but you want him to study the local language, too. You go to a private education provider and find a class suitable for your son’s age and language ability level. You decide to register him for classes there.

Then they give you a form to fill out. It’s not in your language.

Even if it were, nobody likes filling out forms.

Or should you say, filling them in? Or up? Why does English have all these pesky phrasal verbs anyway?

You do your best with the form.

Transitive and phrasal verbs and taxis

The word ‘alight’ didn’t used to really be part of my vocabulary, probably because in the US we had a car and we drove ourselves everywhere we couldn’t walk or fly. In Singapore we use buses, trains and taxis to get around. So now I hear automated announcements that say something like:

The next stop is XXX interchange. Passengers traveling to YYY, please alight at the next station.

Please allow passengers to alight before boarding.

That’s all very well and good. I have nothing against the verb ‘alight’. I don’t think there’s necessarily a better word to use, if you want an expression more formal than ‘get off (or out of) the vehicle’.

No, what amuses me is when ‘alight’ is used transitively to mean ‘drop someone off’. Or when someone means ‘drop you off’ and only says ‘drop you’.

May I alight you here?

May I drop you here?

I don’t think it’s just taxi drivers who use ‘drop’ to mean ‘drop off’, though. I think non-Singaporean native English speakers say that too, don’t we?

This is language evolution in progress. Why shouldn’t any verb be able to take an object? Why shouldn’t we just kill off—I mean, um, kill—all those pesky phrasal verbs? Maybe this is the future.

No Smoking Prohibited By Law

The sign says:

No Smoking
Prohibited By Law

But it should say:

No Smoking
By Law


Smoking Prohibited By Law


No Smoking
Smoking Is Prohibited By Law

Why? Because it almost sounds as if not smoking is not allowed. In other words, it sounds like everyone must smoke.

Obviously people are not really going to conclude that they must smoke when they see this sign, but all the same, the English is not quite right.

Queue for taxi

at the National Skin Centre
at the National Skin Centre

The sign says “QUEUE FOR TAXI”.

I wonder whether it means “[This is the] queue for [getting a] taxi” or “[Please ] queue [here] for [a] taxi”.

In one case, ‘queue’ is a noun, and in the other case, ‘queue’ is a verb. Actually, I think ‘queue’ is probably a verb.

Not that it really matters.

It only matters if the sign is trying to say, “[This is the] queue for [the] taxis [themselves]” because then it would be a singular/plural error.

The sign should just say “taxi queue” like most of them do.

In the US, we don’t really use the word ‘queue’. Which is fine with me, since as far as I can tell, ‘queueing’ is pretty much the only English word that has five consecutive vowels (HT XKCD).

In other news, ‘strengthlessnesses’ is a plausible hypothetical word with surprisingly few vowels, all of them ‘e’.

On a related note: at some point, Gallup chairman Dr. Donald O. Clifton apparently decided to name his awesome analysis tool  The Clifton Strengthsfinder, ensuring it would be unpronounceable even to native speakers of English and completely inconceivable to anyone else. I mean, ‘strengths’ is bad enough, but to then follow it up with a word starting with ‘f’? What was he thinking? I guess he never taught a small child how to read.

Salt Water Giant Arachnoid

at an educational supply store called Nurture Craft at Forum The Shopping Mall

The front of the box says:

Children may be awesome and scary to this direct but simple eight-feet reptile animal. After the fuel battery is activated by the salted water, the metal magnesium plate (3PCS) can successively provide the spider with 4-6 hours of power. Do to it is too real-like, the player may stop it during the time of playing. You can simply remove the fuel battery module and just clean it with running water, hang and dried it. All the material applied on this toy are environment-friendly, safe and clean. There is no any other toxic substance or waste. It won’t produce heat as well, which makes it absolutely safe for the children.

Unfortunately my picture of the side of the box was out of focus, so I can’t show you what it said. I’m sure it was hilarious.

The giant arachnoid is also available on Amazon.

As you might imagine, reviews are mixed.

Happy year of the Caprinae!

in Chinatown

According to the Chinese zodiac, most of 2015 is the year of the 羊. The word 羊 (‘yáng’) can refer to both sheep and goats, hence the confusion over what to call this zodiac year in English (sheep/goat/ram). Wikipedia kindly informs me that the most accurate translation of ‘yáng’ would be Caprinae, a Latin word corresponding to the biological subfamily that encompasses sheep and goats.

Therefore, I wish you a happy year of the Caprinae.

Pesky conjunctions

The same taxi had two signs prohibiting eating and drinking. One said “no food and drinks” and the other said “no food or drink”.

“No food and drinks” is wrong. It assumes that the ‘no’ applies to one combined entity, food-and-drinks. One could imagine this syntax being valid if someone said, “You can’t come in, you have no suit and tie.”

It’s also weird that ‘food’ is treated as a noncount noun and ‘drink’ is treated as a count noun. It would sound slightly better, though still wrong, if the sign said “no food and drink”. Then I would, perversely, wonder whether it would be okay to have just food or just something to drink, as long as I didn’t have both. The ‘no’ doesn’t distribute, so “no food and drink” doesn’t mean “no food and no drink”.

Now I wonder why we don’t say “no food and no drink”. And what verb would you use? “No food and no drink is/are permitted in this taxi.”

I wonder why we don’t use ‘neither… nor’ on signs like this. “Neither food nor drink is permitted in this taxi” would be correct.

“No food or drink” sounds normal. At least, I thought it did. Now I’ve been thinking about it too much and everything sounds strange.

“No eating or drinking” would be good. It wouldn’t rule out someone bringing food and drink into the taxi, but perhaps that’s okay anyway. Certainly I’ve transported groceries, snacks and leftovers in taxis.

But not durians! Some taxis have signs specifically prohibiting them:

“No Eating / Drinking”. That slash adroitly dodges the whole issue of the conjunction! Well done.

The reminder on the far right to “please state your preferred route” is to protect drivers from being scolded at the end of the trip for taking the surface streets when obviously going by the highway is faster, or for taking the highway when obviously going by the surface streets is cheaper, or whatever.