Harvey’s Guide to English Language Usage and other new delights

Old friends are publishing impressive and addictive books at a shaming rate (I have nothing on the stocks longer than a blog post, myself).  The latest is a magisterial, encyclopaedic Guide to English Language Usage by Peter Harvey, who teaches English in Barcelona to Spanish and other students whose first language is other than English, and his Guide is aimed primarily at "non-native speakers", as its cover proclaims.  But there are many "native speakers", including myself, who would, or do, also find it a goldmine, packed with examples of both acceptable and questionable usage and dealing with many more basic issues than those covered in such classic volumes as Robert Burchfield's third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage :  indeed, Harvey and Burchfield/Fowler complement each other perfectly. 

Harvey's GuideHarvey's Guide, containing 460 articles and 187,000 words, has at least one significant advantage over Burchfield's Fowler:  it exists in downloadable and searchable electronic form as a PDF file (view a sample here), although not currently available commercially as such, and also as an ordinary (or extraordinary) 442-page soft-cover book, costing less than €35 — the exact price depends on where you are buying it from and your VAT status, all explained here; anyway, a snip at the price.  But it's remarkably difficult to consult it quickly and briefly:  whatever you're looking up, the eye catches an adjoining entry which leads on to another, and before you know it, it's dinner time.  If you're interested in buying a copy, send an e-mail to service@lavengro.eu.  (No, I don't get a cut: my recommendation is entirely disinterested, qv [under interest].)

I have already spotted one entry in Harvey's Guide which raised my eyebrows, although when taxed with my doubts, Peter resolutely stuck to his ruling.  It relates to the negative of the term "used to" in the sense of "was at one time in the habit of".  There's no problem with the positive form:  "I used to dip my madeleine in my tea";  but which of these negative formulations would you favour, orally or in writing: (a) "I didn't use to dip my madeleine in my tea", or (b) "I used not to dip my madeleine in my tea"?  (I trust we can all agree to reject (c)  "I didn't used to dip my madeleine in my tea".)  Cast your vote, for either (a) or (b), in Comments, below, and may the better formulation win.

Lloyd on the High CommissionerAnother newly published but otherwise very different book by an old friend is appetisingly entitled Diplomacy with a Difference: the Commonwealth Office of High Commissioner, a study of the little known title, history and role of the high commissioner in diplomacy, amounting in effect to a history and analysis of Commonwealth diplomacy.  It's by a good friend, Lorna Lloyd, who teaches international relations at Keele.  The topic will I think appeal especially, or should, to current and (especially) retired practitioners of my former dubious trade, and to others with an interest in international affairs, not only for its intrinsic interest but also because the book is liberally spiced — or should we say nowadays 'sexed up'? — with wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully indiscreet) quotations from the many ex-diplomats and others whom Lorna has interviewed for the book, from several diplomatic oral history interviews with retired diplomats (now increasingly being made available online by Churchill College), from various diplomatic memoirs, and from a mass of official records in several countries which have yielded some titillating insights.  If you can't afford the €129 cover price (not excessive for an academic work of this kind), press your local librarian to get it for you (and others).  Available, naturally, from Amazon UK.

Dust Suspended, by Sir Francis KennedyYet another recent publication by an old friend, Frank (Sir Francis) Kennedy, is Dust Suspended, his memoir of a scintillating career in the Colonial Service in Nigeria, and subsequently in the Diplomatic Service in a variety of posts:  full of vivid and enlightening anecdotes and stirring incidents, a must-read for current and former practitioners of these two arcane trades.  264pp, The Memoir Club, 2006, ISBN 1841041092, hardback, £19.50 from the Africa Book Centre or from the Memoir Club, or from Amazon.

Tailpiece:  I ought to be, but am not, embarrassed by one thing which all three of these splendid books have in common, indeed all four of them if you include the most distinguished of them all, Burchfield's third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage:  I am among the many humble supporters mentioned in the acknowledgements of all four books, in each case in undeservedly generous terms.  (An earlier work of research by my wife also gets an honourable mention in Lorna Lloyd's book.)  Of course none of the four authors needed my encouragement or suggestions for the success of their end products, but I was happy, anyway, to provide them, and I salute the enormously readable results.


15 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Welcome back, Brian!  Long live the leg, and the rest of you for that matter.

    I prefer "I used not to…".  I couldn't give you a logical reason, but if I listen carefully I can hear my mother's precise voice, and her mother's: they were born respectively in 1896 and 1869 and were both subjected to genteel governesses who would never have tolerated what they considered sloppy speech in the schoolroom.  But times and standards change.

    Brian writes:  Thanks to you (and others) for sympathetic remarks about my wretched leg, still infected and uncomfortable but much less than it was a week ago.  Thanks too for your enlistment in the "I used not to…" camp, along with Alan and Lorna and with my wife and me.  I agree that there's no logical reason for rejecting "I didn't use to…" apart from one's instinct and loyalty to one's own experienced and fastidious ear or eye.  What better criterion could there be, apart perhaps from listening to your mother's and grandmother's silent judgements? 

  2. Lorna says:

    Alan & I also prefer ‘I used not to’.

  3. Yes, good to have Brian back to give us something to argue about, but I don't think we should pull his leg too much about it. Anyway, hope you're in less discomfort now, Brian.

    What exactly is the objection to the negative form with “do”? To Brian such a form as, "He didn't use to excel…." is “awkward, if not downright ugly”. I’m afraid I don’t accept  that language has its own aesthetic. There are people who will tell you that Italian is beautiful and that German is ugly but I see no objective basis for such a position. What makes any language or piece of language ugly?
    Professor Trask (in “Mind the Gaffe”) perhaps offers the most helpful comment on all of this in saying that, “I didn’t use to dance” is informal whereas “I used not to dance” is formal. Being an informal sort of person I’d be more likely to use the former. But I have a feeling that the two variants might be class indicators as well.

    What are we to make of “didn’t used to”? By all the prescriptive rules this is plain wrong. It’s of a kind with “should of” for “should have”. The spelling in both appears to be an attempt to replicate the sound. In the first case, as Peter Harvey has said, “didn’t used to” is indistinguishable in speech from “didn’t use to”. In the second, “should have” is often pronounced as “should’ve” which is close to “should of”. If we believe that speech has primacy and that the written word follows it, can we not envisage the day when these “illiterate” spellings will one day become standard?
    Stranger things have happened. “Pea” started life as singular “pease” (as in “pease pudding”), but was later taken to be a plural because of the “s” sound at the end, so “pea” became its singular through a process of back-formation. “Apron” should have been “napron”, "adder", "nadder" and "auger" (the tool), "nauger", but the initial “n” attached itself to the indefinite pronoun instead. The noun “derring-do” is a misconstruction of a late Middle English formulation for “daring to do”. All of these are “illiterate” developments, but we now accept them as parts of the standard language. I say this not to defend the present use of “didn’t used to”, or  "should of", but merely to suggest that language moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

    Brian writes:   Thanks for these provocative and lively comments, Barrie.  You won't expect me to agree with you about language not having its own aesthetic.  We have had this argument before, and it's too uncomfortable typing with one leg elevated for me to be tempted to spell it all out again at any length. 

    Briefly, therefore: you seem to be advancing two quite different propositions:  first, that the concept of beauty or ugliness can't be applied to a phrase (such as "You didn't use to do that"); and, secondly, that the concept of beauty or ugliness can't be applied to a whole language.  Neither proposition seems to me tenable; at any rate, I disagree with both.  This all comes close to the other well-worn dispute that rears its snake-head every time linguistic issues are discussed, namely whether there can be correct and incorrect uses of language or whether the only yardstick is what people — any people — say and write.  Again, I take the former position, and you, as I understand it, the latter.  Actually I believe there's a fatal disconnect between (a) what your obedience to current egalitarian propriety and your fear of being thought snobbish — spot the clue in your reference to class — oblige you to argue, and (b) what your instincts and sensibilities tell you, since you respect language and treat it seriously.  If you can't hear the ugliness in "You didn't use to do it", then there's nothing more to be said.  But I pay you the compliment of believing that you can; and that the reasons for your unwillingness to acknowledge it, being a complex of social and psychological factors, are probably outside the scope of this discussion.  Your Professor Trask's squeamishness in labelling one formulation "informal" and the other "formal", when what he obviously means is that one is wrong and ugly and the other right and aesthetically acceptable, suggests that he's a stablemate of yours! 

    To pre-empt the retort that I'm being squeamish myself in avoiding the claim that "You used not to do it" is 'beautiful', I should add that indeed I wouldn't apply such a description to that particular phrase, which is simply inoffensive and acceptable but not beautiful;  but there are plenty of other phrases (or sentences or lines or passages) in our beautiful language <g,d,r>, especially perhaps in its poetry, which are 'beautiful' by any definition, to any sensitive ear or eye.  But, as we have said to each other before, we're just going to have to agree to differ on these very fundamental, partly subjective, and perhaps ultimately personal issues.

  4. Prof. Trask is actually quite prescriptive, especially in his excellent "Penguin Guide to Punctuation".

    I don’t deny that beauty is a relevant quality to consider in literature, but beauty in language itself can surely only be by association (Devon accent = bucolic existence = good, Midlands accent = dark, satanic mills = bad; Italian = sunshine and song = good, German accent = high seriousness, lack of humour = bad). By what criteria do you consider  "You didn’t use to do it" to be ugly? It can’t be enough just to say it doesn’t sound right.

    I must resist the charge of being obedient "to current egalitarian propriety" and "fear of being thought snobbish". I have no particular axe to grind, but try to comment objectively on the linguistic phenomena that come my way.

    Let’s hear more, on either side, from others. Peter might like to revert.

  5. John Miles says:

    Sorry, Brian, I've really no idea why it's come out like this.

    I'll have one more go.

    If it doesn't work, or you can't edit it , just scrub round.

    Brian writes:  I think the next version is all right: sorry you have had this formatting problem.  But I haven't been able to get rid of this plague of italics in the original comments (as distinct from my comments appended to them):  in editing mode they disappear! 

  6. John Miles says:

    Glad you’re back, hope the leg clears with no more problems.

    "You ask for the negative of "I used to dip my madeleine (whatever that may be) in my tea.

    Of the choices you offer I would go for (b), if forced.

    But only if forced.

    In real life I’d be more likely to say:

    "I never used to …"

    "I used to eat my madeleine without dipping it in my tea," or

    "I used to drink my tea without dipping my madeleine into it."

    It seems to me to be a mistake to expect language to be as logically symmetrical as mathematics.

    In this instance "used to" is a "modal" verb used to express a one-time wont.

    Why should we think a one-time non-wont is best expressed by simply negativing the modal verb?

    If language really were that symmetrical we’d be using words like "gruntled," "crepant" and "couth."

  7. Those of us who know our Wodehouse may indeed use "gruntled" from time to time.

    To complement the great "used to" debate  here underway, I have posted a new topic on the Language Group message board (which Ephems readers may be interested in anyway).

  8. John Miles says:

    After visiting Barrie’s Language Group message board I’m more or less converted to thinking that "used to" is lexical, not modal.

    As for his Browning quote – "Die at good old age as grand men use," I think "use" here probably means "normally do," or "are wont."

    After all, in Olde English "use" often means "habit," "wont," or "custom."

    Try these:

     "If good , why do I yield to that suggestion

    Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

    And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

    Against the use of nature? (Macbeth)



    Were it not better done, as others use,

    To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,

    Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair? (Lycidas)


    These things are beyond all use,

    And I do fear them. (Julius Caesar)


    O … that the Everlasting had not fixed

    His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O god! O God!

    How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

    Seem to me all the uses of this world (Hamlet).


    This meaning still survives both in "usual," meaning something like "customary," "everyday," or "habitual," and "used to," meaning "accustomed to."

  9. The Milton quotation is particularly illuminating being, as it is, of a kind with the Browning. Both show that "used" once had a present tense and that in turn sheds light on present usage.

    I should say that I do not have exclusive ownership of the Language Group. I have three co-founders of whom Brian is one. We need more contributors, so we’d be glad to see John and others there.

  10. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you so much Brian for your kind mention of my book. I am interested to see the discussion that it has caused. My views on used to are set out elsewhere, but I might mention that in addition to the examples that Barrie mentions an orange was once a norange and that the Mayor of London should etymologically be an expert in ewts, just as he is no doubt in the related efts without the intrusive n; it would not, however, be for me to suggest that the man is an inny or, as we say nowadays, a ninny. Moreover, the h in ghost and the s in island are both ‘mistakes’ in that they have no etymological basis at all.

    The electronic version of my book has been withdrawn from sale for the simple reason that a pdf file cannot provide sufficient security against the thieves who think that other people’s intellectual property is fair game for them to appropriate and distribute. I have had no problems so far but my legal advice is very clear: if I leave it in that format, sooner or later (and probably sooner), the file will be floating around the internet and I will have lost all control over it.

  11. John Miles says:

    First, I’m very interested in what Peter has to say about "ninny."

    I’ve always assumed it’s a hypocoristic diminutive of "nincompoop."

    In the unlikely event that I’m right, presumably this comes, in turn, from "incompoop."

    What’s the true explanation of these peculiar words?

    Second, how did the "h" get into "ghost?"

    Third, nobody’s mentioned my favourite instance of a vanishing initial "n:"

    Umpire – originally from Latin, by way of French, "non par," "not equal."

  12. The Shorter OED claims an uncertain origin for "ninny", but suggests a possible derivation from "innocent". It also suggests that the spelling "ghost", established in the late 16th century, may be from Flemish "gheest", although the more ancient languages from which it is derived (Old Frisian and Old Saxon) do not have the "h".

    Thank you, John, for mentioning the origin of "umpire" of which I was previously unaware.


  13. Peter Harvey says:

    Nincompoop is from non compos mentis.

    The h in ghost does indeed come from Flemish. The early English printers learnt their trade there and imported the erroneous spelling into English. They also used gh to represent the English letter yogh, for which they had no symbol. Scottish printers used z, which is why Menzies, Dalziel and so on have their unusual pronunciation.

    Brian writes:  Fascinating!  However, see also some examples, etymologies and examples from the OED in my second post of 28 July here

  14. "Non compos mentis" is ingenious, but I wonder. Are there any other words that have compressed a Latin phrase in this way?  Shorter OED gives:  "Origin uncertain: perhaps from male forename Nicholas or Nicodemus (cf. French nicodeme, simpleton) with -n- due to association with NINNY + POOP [elsewhere defined as deceive, cheat,  cozen,  befool]"

  15. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you once again Brian for the mention of my book. I have already received an order for it as a direct result of your post.