Strictly incompetent: pompous garbage from Simon Heffer

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"The problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others," says David Crystal, "is that they never do so consistently." I'm not so sure I agree that's the problem. Consistency wouldn't be quite enough to excuse grammar fascism. I'd say the problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others by writing books on how to write is that they are so bad at it: though often they are good enough at writing (I have never said that E. B. White or George Orwell couldn't write), they actually don't know how they do what they do, and they are clueless about the grammar of the language in which they do it, and they offer recommendations on how you should write that are unfollowed, unfollowable, or utterly insane.

Both Crystal and I have been suffering the same painful experience — reviewing the same ghastly, insufferable, obnoxious, appallingly incompetent book. It is by Simon Heffer, the associate editor of the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph, who imagined that he could improve the world by offering 350 pages of his thoughts on grammatical usage, uninformed by any work since he was in college thirty years ago — in fact pretty much innocent of acquaintance with any work on English grammar published in more than half a century.

The book is called Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters. It was published in September by Random House (whoa! that's random!). If you can feel your teeth start to itch as you read his title, don't buy the book. Look at it in the front of the bookstore and then put it back on the table. It really is that pompous, and for true bone-headed blundering stupidity about grammar it actually gives The Elements of Style a run for its money.

I know that a few tender souls will feel that there must be something good in everything, and that I really shouldn't be so negative. So I will say one favorable thing about the book. Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease. There. I'm done. Don't tell me I don't know how to be fair and balanced.

David Crystal and I don't actually disagree much about Heffer. We can hardly jam the things we have to say about him into the few hundred words we were allowed, and although we tried desperately to include the very best points we could make about the book's awfulness, we hardly overlap at all. You can see a PDF of his review here (it was published in the New Statesman) and a PDF of mine here (the version I link to includes page references for the charges I make; Times Higher Education published it without them as a matter of house style, but you are Language Log readers and I thought some of you might find my charges unbelievable and would want to creep into a bookstore and surreptitiously look things up).


  1. Dw said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    I note that the THE also changed your "who" to "whom", in accordance with traditional norms. Are you on a campaign to make "whom" obsolete in formal written prose?

  2. fs said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    I love you, gkp. Please never change.

    [Oh, fs, we probably shouldn't think of it as love… But hey, what the heck, it could be almost as good. There can be some real depth in a shallow infatuation. Let's not split hairs; let's just go for it. —GKP]

  3. F. Escobar said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    I deeply respect descriptive linguistics, and wish people would turn to it before espousing or spouting grammatical "rules." But when working as a copy editor there is often little room for a nice, relaxed discussion on the myriad possibilities offered by today's living language, or the complexities of historical variations. Hence style guides come in, and one hopes that those people behind them have really surveyed the field before suggesting one use or another. I'm not saying Heffer is one of those people. But is there a usage or a style guide (other than MW's, perhaps) that Mr. Pullum finds particularly palatable?

    [Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994; also in a newer paperback version almost as good, entitled Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002). —GKP]

  4. John said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    Consider possible brief responses to the question: "Who will be here?"

    "No one." "Not all the students." "Not John."

    Aren't these responses all negative noun phrases?

    In "Neither John nor Jane will be here," the subject seems to be a negative noun phrase. Are the names not negated?

    I have not seen the book, and have no desire to defend it.

    [Not John isn't a noun or a noun phrase; that's why *Not John has read my review is ungrammatical. The word not negates clauses (He has not read it), sometimes by appearing in a subclausal constituent, which can in some cases be a noun phrase (He has read not one single word of it is a grammatical negative clause); but just because Not me! is a possible answer to a question, that doesn't make not me a negative pronoun. —GKP]

  5. Ben C said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Beautiful. The more resistance the world can give to Grammar Nazis, the better. Oh, man, Godwin's Law is working in this thread, I guess. My bad.

  6. Peter Harvey said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    I have written about Heffer's book myself

  7. michael farris said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    "Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease."

    You just want to be quoted in their advertising.

  8. mike said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    F. Escobar — other than any particular in-house usage guide that your institution goes by, for American usage, you can try Garner's Modern American Usage. As with any style guide, Garner has specific suggestions to make, which he does based on explanations that he actually provides and explains. And he spares us the editorializing (ha) about texts that do not follow his particular guidelines.

  9. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    GKP, I thank you for keeping up the good fight against this sort of nonsense. Also, "Both Crystal and I have been suffering the same painful experience — reviewing the same ghastly, insufferable, obnoxious, appallingly incompetent book" was classic.

  10. jamessal said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    F. Escobar, Mike: I use Garner but always check it against Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, all of which is online.

  11. F. Escobar said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Thanks, Mike, and Jamessal. I have been using GMAU for a while, and find it very useful. As Mike said, the explanations are good; also, the evidence is abundant and forthcoming. But Garner does slip in a few tirades against "liberal" linguists, so I was wondering if G. Pullum would find those bits (and perhaps other, more substantial parts) too odious to endorse the book as a whole. (The "language change index" used in GMAU3 is particularly interesting–and yet I always wonder how scientific or strictly Garnerian it is.) Perhaps Chicago16 avoids activating Geoff's gag reflex?

    [I have commented on Garner's contribution to the Chicago Manual: —GKP]

  12. Dan K said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    I'm curious to know one thing I couldn't find in these reviews. GP's review says that Heffer writes "ex cathedra," implying that Heffer doesn't feel that he needs to appeal to any authority or evidence to support his beliefs. I took this to be slightly tongue-in-cheek — surely Heffer doesn't really believe that the ultimate truth on questions of English comes from one original source, and that source is him. But I'm curious to know just where he does think it comes from. I.e., if he were forced to argue one of his points, would he simply say, "I know this to be true," or does he have a collection of preferred sources to cite? Does he have anything to say about this?

    If I have one gripe with the GP review, it would be that some of the anecdotal arguments are a little unconvincing. It would be more compelling, I think, to know that Orwell, Wilde, Roosevelt, and Johnson made Heffer-errors (Hefferrors?) often than to have so much detail on single instances. But I think it does a nice job, especially given what I assume are fairly tight space restrictions. I know to stay away from books like this instinctively, but I appreciate the effort put into helping others avoid the misfortune.

    [I have hundreds of examples; but they give you 800 words total, and don't allow page references or bibliography. —GKP]

  13. Cavity Lee said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I was surprised to see one of Crystal's examples of ridiculous things that Heffer would have us do: saying "a die" rather than "a dice".

    Is singular "dice" common in the UK? I don't remember ever hearing it here in the US– by which I of course don't mean to claim that I've actually never heard it, but I am confident that people around me who aren't insufferable pedants say "a die" with some regularity.

  14. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Hmm, I agree with Cavity Lee–I spent time with a lot of people (Americans) who play tabletop and board games, and thus the topic comes up a lot. Only one of those friends says singular "dice," and it always sounds odd to me. On the other hand, I wouldn't be really surprised if non-gamers said "a dice," but I would (privately) think they were saying it incorrectly. :P I just wouldn't say or blog or write anything about it. Uh, you know, unless it came up.

    My parents also say "a die," though, and they aren't exactly spending time on …

  15. Paul Clarke said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    In my experience singular "dice" is more common than "die" in the UK.

  16. Mark Etherton said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    Heffer’s day job as a newspaper columnist seems to entail his views on any subject being those of a furious, panting, red-faced buffoon: perhaps the resulting déformation professionelle means that even when he is writing about the importance of clear and accurate drafting he cannot avoid ill-informed hectoring.

    I am English and much of an age with Heffer and no one has ever said ‘a die’ in my hearing for what you throw in a board game, even though I remember the instructions for some games (mainly, I think, US ones) referring to ‘a die’ rather than ‘dice’.

  17. Sawney said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    I'd say singular 'dice' is very common in the UK – at any rate in the spoken language. The only person I actually heard referring to a 'die' during a game was a girl from California. It just sounded, well, stuffy – almost as if she were trying too hard to impress.

  18. Hyman Rosen said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I live in New York, and have always referred to one of a set of dice as a "die". Saying "a dice" sounds to me like "a geese", a plural form when a singular is wanted.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Re 'dice': I wonder if the context in which one knows them makes a difference. If you are familiar with games that use more than one, you will frequently have reason to speak of 'the dice' in the plural, so 'a die' for just one of them remains useful; if you normally use just one at a time, it may be more natural to call it 'a dice'.

    I do find Crystal's remark here odd, though. I don't think he's just commenting on Heffer's precriptivism, complaining that he insists on 'a die' when 'a dice' is in fact acceptable. Rather he's saying 'If you follow Heffer's advice you'll say "a die"! How absurd! Obviuosly no one in their right mind would say that.' And this does not seem to be in line with actual facts of usage.

  20. KevinM said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Never say die?
    I'd like to cling to the old usage, but I guess the dice is cast.

  21. Jake said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    I'll stick my hand up for Crystal too on this one. I'm a Brit, and know very few Brits that use singular 'a die', and game instructions using 'die' look odd. It was an unfortunate choice of example, but I think Crystal just forgot that singular dice wasn't common the English-speaking world over.

  22. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    KevinM: Strikingly, that joke was made by Ambrose Bierce in the Devil's Dictionary, written in the Nineteenth Century. (Die: singular of dice, not much used nowadays because of the saying 'Never say die'. He does also go on to mention 'The die is cast'.) This suggests that the usage has been in retreat for a long time, so if it hasn't gone away entirely yet, perhaps it never will.

  23. michael farris said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    I'm very familiar with die as a singular of dice (and I'm sure I have been since I was a child) but I'm not sure if I would use it. I think of 'roll the dice' as a set expression.

    I wonder if the apparent more frequent use of die in the US is a relict of role playing game culture. I've never played but I'm pretty sure I've read/heard of singular die in connection with them.

  24. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    Another die ~ dice speaker here (NYC, 19 y.o.), although admittedly I have little occasion to use the latter and almost none to use the former.

  25. groki said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    From GKP's pdf: "But there is nothing conservative about bone-headed ignorance."

    Oh, I don't know: pontifical moral pronouncements; reliance on outdated texts; "outrageous, whales-are-fish howlers"; rank dismissal of evidence — there's a recipe for quite a number of modern conservatives.

  26. Rose Fox said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    This review is amazing.

    I'm a book reviews editor. I now want to include "Did it give you a rash?" in the reviewing checklist I send out to my freelancers. You know, just to be sure we're being fair and balanced.

  27. James said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    Funny, I generally regard singular "dice" as incorrect, but I very often find myself saying it or right on the verge of saying it before stopping myself and correcting. Now that I know it is common in Britain, I might just let myself go.

  28. Dan T. said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    It's more common to roll multiple dice than a single die; many games from Monopoly to craps involve rolling two dice, while games like Yahtzee and Farkle have even more of them. Still, there is the saying "the die is cast". In role playing games, as noted above, a wider variety of dice of different shapes and numbers of faces are used, sometimes singularly.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    COCA gives 7 hits for "dice is" in AmE sources, but 6 of them are false positives (e.g. the non-plural subject with which "is" agrees is an NP such as "a roll of the dice"), and the 7th ("every time the dice is thrown, you don't know what's going to happen") is from a tv show transcript and could well be a slip of the tongue. On the other hand, quickly skimming the 105 hits for "die is" didn't come up with any definite positives for a singular N "die" in the sense we're talking about, as opposed to the broader mechanical sense seen in "tool and die shop" (where I don't think the plural would be "dice"), except in versions of the "die is cast" fixed phrase. This tends to confirm my sense that I haven't had much conversational occasion to use singular die (which is definitely what I would use if I had to) since I stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons nearly three decades ago. I think if I were e.g. playing Monopoly with my daughter and the issue came up I might avoid taking a position on the singular by using a locution like "one of the dice just rolled under the couch."

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    One of my college D&D friends said dice for the singular because of the "never say die" joke. I didn't know it went back to Bierce. All the rest of us said die. Or twenty-sider.

    Based on very little data, I'd estimate that half of AmE speakers say dice and half say die. I say a die and consider a dice non-standard.

    Anyway, thanks for the links to the enjoyable reviews.

  31. Mary Bull said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Just want to add my thanks for the beautiful post and the links to the two book-review PDFs.

    In re the die/dice discussion: One of my delightful classmates in the women's college I attended as an undergraduate lo these 67 years ago, in the days when nylon stockings were precious, famously asked, one Sunday morning, "Who knows where my other hoe is?" (We'd never heard of pantyhose at that time. Were all stockings-and-garter-belt-girls.)

    So, die-dice, hoe-hose. Maybe there's a parallel. Oh, I dunno. Just forget it. :)

  32. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Funny that the discussion has boiled down to "die" vs. "dice." I think Crystal's point isn't that "die" is wrong; it's that insisting on it as the only correct singular is absurd. That makes sense to me (what Crystal says, I mean), ever though I would never say "a dice."

  33. Sili said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    I love you, gkp. Please never change.


    To whom should I address the check?

  34. Ken Brown said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    Since D&D popularised various other kinds of dice, dice wargamers and role-players have often said "d6", "d12", "d20", and so on. Pronounced "dee-six". Being British, I use "dice" as singular. A pair of d20s marked 0 to 9 twice are "percentage dice". There are, or were once, also "average dice", as used in Wargames Research Group rules in late 1960s and early 70s. And also of course poker dice.

  35. Christopher Henrich said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    Why are there so damn many books of prescriptivist grammar?

    Because they meet a need. They meet it badly, but the need is real. Anyone whose work requires him to put words together for others to read must care about how to do this as well as he can. We want all the help we can get.

    Dictionaries help. Dictionaries of usage help a lot.

    For the village wordsmith who wants to cultivate a good "style," there are some useful books. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams is good.

    But between the dictionaries and the essays or books about style, there is a gap. It would be bridged by books on grammar – how sentences work and how they are put together. Traditional school courses in English did this for my generation, somewhat imperfectly: the linguistic science upon which they were based must date back to the early Roman Empire. Something more up to date, written by sensible grownups and addressed to sensible grownups, is desired.

    David Crystal, in the review mentioned above, speaks of "the fine grammars written in the past forty years." Peter Harvey cites two "monumental" grammars in his review. Are there less monumental volumes, informed by modern linguistics, aiming to instruct the general reader?

  36. Charles Gaulke said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    Why does ANYONE think that declaring their disinterest in evidence is anything but an admission of irrelevance? Whether you are a Creationist or a grammar pedant, all you're saying is that you aren't interested in answers – you just want everyone to stop asking questions. Any argument so constructed has precisely the same educational value as the command, "Shut up."

    [I quite agree. According to Andrew Anthony's article on Christopher Hitchens in The Observer, "Hitchens once wrote a line that has almost gained the status of philosophical epigram or even scientific dictum: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’." Quite so. Do we want to hold beliefs about important matters like writing well, without evidence being even a possible consideration? —GKP]

  37. Dave M said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    As a pedant and geek, I say neither "twenty-sided die" nor "twenty-sided dice" but instead "icosahedron."

  38. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    We have a shorter usage book by Garner somewhere around here. One thing I remember getting annoyed by was his preference for "opossum" over "possum"– I don't think he knew that they're different animals ("possum" is a colloquialism for the North American marsupial, but it's the standard common name for various Australian ones).

  39. Kapitano said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    I teach EFL and I'm a strictly amateur linguist. Recently I ran into a trainee translator who is (a) very good at translation and (b) utterly convinced that split infinitives are ungrammatical in English and only used by lowlifes. And that most Spanish people don't speak real Spanish. I was astonished.

    There is of course a big difference between a linguist and a translator – as there's a difference between a nutritionist and a chef – but someone who trains to be a translator needs some grasp of theory. So why is it always bad theory from 50 years ago, and how can they still be competent at their jobs with all that idiotic theory in their heads? Can in be they just use a different, implicit theory when translating?

    Anyway, I suppose if 90% of teachers misunderstand their subject (and in the humanities, they do) but get students to pass exams, it's not surprising if 90% of translators are in a similar situation.

  40. Anthea Fleming said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    Perhaps one should remark that in an engineering workshop the plural of 'die' is in fact 'dies'.

  41. marie-lucie said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    Kapitano: There is of course a big difference between a linguist and a translator – as there's a difference between a nutritionist and a chef.

    Excellent simile.

  42. J. Goard said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    American (California) and longtime role-player. Singular dice drives me up the wall. But I'll be the first to acknowledge that this reflects my somewhat unusual frequency of exposure the singular and plural uses. The general population is surely far more familiar with dice in the plural, and have a much lower token frequency even for the plural form. I suspect that louse (as in literally the animal, not an old-fashioned way to say "douchebag") is on its way out, for similar reasons, but will surely hang around much longer among entomologists.

  43. MJ said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

    F. Escobar: MWDEU is an excellent resource on usage; another one is Visser's An Historical Syntax of the English Language (alas, hard to find in book form in a complete set for a reasonable price — I rely on the various digitized parts that can be found on Google Books). MWDEU won't necessarily help you in debates with other copy editors or with client/publishers, because those who have a prescriptive bent tend to dismiss it at the outset on the grounds that it's descriptive, but for checking a choice an author has made that usage manuals might call nonstandard, it's very useful.

    As far as usage manuals go, another one similar in spirit (i.e., moderate) to Garner's is Edward Johnson's The Handbook of Good English.

  44. Ray Girvan said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    @ Christopher Henrich: Why are there so damn many books of prescriptivist grammar? Because they meet a need

    I suppose the bone of contention is what that need is. Historically, prescriptivism has always tightly entwined the practical (the aim of stylish and effective communication) with the ideological (learning a set of shibboleths that define people as higher social class). I don't think that's changed much.

  45. Roger Lustig said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    Then die! Dice! Die! Dice! Die! Dice! Die!

    Worst of all, "alea iacta est" (or, as Suetonius seems to have had it, "iacta alea est") can refer to one bone or several. "Alea" can mean a set of dice or a single cube.

    We didn't invent this mess. Classical Latin was confused already.

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 2:15 am

    Short and cruel review in the Guardian, focusing on the inconsistencies.

  47. Dierk said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 3:58 am

    @Christopher Henrich

    A personal favourite of mine is Michael Swan's Practical English Usage – rather short, focussed on everyday problems.

    On another note, Heffer proclaims sentences do have a full stop at the end, let's assume he meant, sentences end in a definite punctuation mark, just didn't think of question and exclamation marks when he wrote that. But even with this editorial amendment he comes out slightly … disingenuous. For, what about ellipses? Even worse, he's the editor of a newspaper, and I am quite sure his does not use full stops in headlines; usually only effect's marks [exclamation, question] are used even for fully formed sentences.

    And what does his non-amended claim say about his book editors [and himself], shouldn't they have squashed the Bug of the Full Stop before going to press, change it to, for instance, my version above?

  48. John F said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:58 am

    The Daily Telegraph style guide is published on its website and the section holds many of Mr Heffer's own internal memos on the Telegraph's output. They were only regularly published for a few months and there have been no recent ones published, but I did find them to be informative, particularly that 'prestigious' does not mean what I thought it did.

    Dice for singular is abomination and should be resisted at all costs! Not enough people play table-top wargames or role playing games where many varied dice are used and knowing exactly how many and what type of dice are to be used is of the utmost importance.

    I like the usage promoted by Games Workshop, where "D6" is a 6-sided die (hence a 4-sided die is a D4, 8-sided is D8 and so on, but the D100 is just 2 D10 where one is used for units and the other for tens, unless you have this

  49. Samantha said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 5:04 am

    GKP, you are the reason I read LL. Do any of the authors whose books you trash ever come back to you and address your criticisms? Do any of them admit they were wrong and repent? I sure hope that your arguments against incompetent, pompous garbage bring change to the world, or at least keep book sales down.

    [Address my criticisms? Admit wrongdoing? Repent? Sweet Samantha, you live in a dreamworld. No; they live long and happy lives ignoring me. They swill champagne purchased with their royalty earnings, chat with each other at literary festivals, and make a mint of money on the after-dinner-speaker circuit. They spit on Language Log — those few who have even heard of it. This is why my harsh reviews of these dopes never do anyone any harm. It's not as if I whack these authors' heads off; I just blog, and they ignore it. Never forget, the truth is that (no reverse another cliché) the sword is mightier than the pen. —GKP]

  50. Ray Girvan said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    @ John F: particularly that 'prestigious' does not mean what I thought it did

    That one baffled me until I looked in the OED. Presumably Heffer means he doesn't like the way its meaning has drifted from

    Of the nature of or characterized by sleight of hand, juggling, conjuring or trickery; deceptive … now rare


    Having, showing, or conferring prestige or high status; inspiring respect and admiration.

  51. SAM said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    @Ray Girvan
    The drift of 'prestigious' isn't even recent. The word seems to have acquired its current meaning in the 19th century. Heffer's method seems to comprise looking up the etymology of a word in the dictionary and deciding that one of the previous meanings (it does not even have to be the original) is correct and all variants (including current standard usage) are barbarous.

  52. onymous said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    There may be nothing conservative about bone-headed ignorance, but there is a great deal of bone-headed ignorance among conservatives.

  53. F. Escobar said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    MJ: Thanks for suggesting the E. Johnson book; I've already found it on Amazon and wish-listed it. You described quite accurately one of the problems with MWDEU; the other is that, most of the time, people whose work is being edited just want to know if a certain word or sentence is "right", and MWDEU's long-winded explanations, illuminating as they may be (and they are), don't always fit the bill.

    Thanks, GKP, for the reference to MWDEU and for pointing to your review of Garner/Chicago. I was very curious to know your opinion on both Garner and Chicago. I love to read your posts, by the way. This particular Heffer was particularly deserving of some form of sacrifice.

  54. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    Weirdly, according to Plutarch what Caesar actually said was 'Let the dice' (definitely plural) 'fly high', in Greek. (Plutarch wrote in Greek anyway, but he actually specifies that Caesar said it in Greek.) So it is a bit of a puzzle how 'Alea iacta est' became the standard form. Notwithstanding that, 'the die is cast' is now an acepted expression in English, and no doubt plays a part in preventing 'die' from disappearing.

  55. Caitlin Burke said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Oh no, someone's going to give this book to me at Christmas, I just know it. *sad face*

  56. Dan T. said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    Shouldn't the singular of "dice" be "douse"? And the plural of "house" "hice"?

  57. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    @Andrew – didn't 'alea iacta est' catch on because that's the phrase Suetonius gave him ('iacta alea est')?

    I do pity GKP having to read a whole book of Heffer's tripe, let alone a whole book of prescriptive claptrap. I can't even read his editorials.

  58. Vance Maverick said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    Dave M. writes,

    As a pedant and geek, I say neither "twenty-sided die" nor "twenty-sided dice" but instead "icosahedron."

    So, for "six-sided die", do you say "cube"? And is the problem pedantry and geekishness, or is it that you're ashamed to admit you play games of chance?

    John F's comment is curious in that it manifests some symptoms of prescriptivism (a hint of word rage in "abomination", a hint of masochism in the bit about "prestigious" not meaning what he thought), but doesn't engage with any of the brisk antiprescriptivist polemic in the original post.

  59. áine ní dhonnchadha said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I'll be honest: I'm a gamer geek girl and while I do say "pass the dice", I rarely use the singular "die" because I am used to asking for the "dee four", i.e D4, or similar, as mentioned above. When you play a game that uses d4, d6, d8, d12 and d20 ("percentile" replaces d100 because you roll two d10, one for each digit, with 00 = 100), you rarely ask someone to "pass the die" – you have to specify.

    Still, I'm a Southern New Englander (RI) and if someone asked me to pass them the dice, they'd get more than one. "Pass me that die" would be what I expected for one die, and it sounds nearly as odd to me as asking for "a geese" for someone to ask for "a dice". There's an audible -s plural on that thing and in English, spelling is often irregular.

  60. Doreen said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    With regard to the die/dice issue, I'll bet Simon Heffer would be extremely miffed if someone were to point out that he's effectively advocating a current Americanism over the widespread British usage.

  61. fiona hanington said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    @Jerry Friedman — Thanks for posting that link to The Guardian review. It is indeed cruel, but also wonderfully clever and amusing.

  62. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Down my way it sounds a bit pretentious to say 'die'. It sounds like you're saying, "Pass me the dice, and listen to my command of number in English nouns." Not unlike a graffito, though not as bad.

  63. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    didn't 'alea iacta est' catch on because that's the phrase Suetonius gave him ('iacta alea est')?

    Well, yes – but why should speakers of English quote a Latin version when he actually said it in Greek?

    I think 'die' does have an air of pedantry about it – I have been using it since childhood (in the '60s), but have always had a sense of 'Ho! I am speaking correctly!' when I use the term. But in this case there is a large enough community of pedants, overlapping signficantly with the people who have most reason to use the term, that it remains a living usage.

  64. Acilius said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    Growing up in the northern US, I never heard the singular "dice." I don't know if that is so much a regional matter as it was a result of living near a number of tool & die factories. My wife, on the other hand, is a southerner who not only uses "dice" in the singular, but often uses "die" in the plural.

  65. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one) said: "'Let the dice' (definitely plural) 'fly high', in Greek."
    Are you sure?
    Isn't κύβος sg masc nom??
    But then, wadda I know?

  66. Xmun said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    Andrew (not the same one): "Well, yes – but why should speakers of English quote a Latin version when he actually said it in Greek?"

    For the same reason, I suppose, that we all seem to believe that Caesar said "Et tu, Brute?" rather than "Kai su, teknon?"

  67. Xmun said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    GKP says "It's not as if I whack these authors' heads off; I just blog, and they ignore it."

    Somehow I doubt whether Simon Heffer can really be unaware that he's been made a laughing stock in two British print publications as well as in LL.

  68. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    richard howland: Well, now, that's weird. I could have sworn he said 'dice' in the plural. I wonder if the translation I first saw it in was using 'dice' as singular. I don't know, translators these days….

    Xmun: Yes, the same reason, undoubtedly. Whatever that is.

  69. Mark P said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    Is this business about Caesar speaking Greek like Spock saying he though Sherlock Holmes was better in the original Vulcan? Or did educated Romans speak Greek?

  70. Jennifer said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    After reading your review, I find that I'd actually like to look through this book for the same reason that I pull out Strunk and White once in a while: to laugh hysterically over the pompous, self-important presentation of ridiculously, demonstrably worthless "rules" as God's gift to English speakers. Good to know that if I ever do happen to pick it up, I won't develop any terrifying skin diseases; thank you, GKP, for putting yourself at risk for our sakes!

  71. The Ridger said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    Mark P – that was Klingons who said Shakespeare was better, not Spock. And educated Romans absolutely spoke Greek. In fact, for a while Greek was the lingua franca (so to speak) of the civilized (ie Roman) world.

  72. Ken Brown said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    Mark P, yes, effectively all educated Romans learned Greek from maybe the 3rd C BC to 3rd C AD, or even later.

  73. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    They knew Greek, and I dare say this was a situation you would have wheeled it out for – when you felt the shadow of history fall upon you and decided it was time for something aphoristic. And a third person imperative would give it a nice epic grandeur.

    But I'm not sure there's any reason to think that Plutarch didn't just put a good line in his mouth.

  74. John Atkinson said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    J W Brewer mentions the other use of "die", in engineering workshop practice. The ordinary meaning today of "cast" is also the engineering one, to make a casting. You don't "cast" the dice these days when playing a board game, you throw them. Of course, we still have "cast off", but that's different again, a phrasal verb. So, though of course I know where the phrase "the die is cast" came from originally, when I hear it my immediate interpretion is in the engineering sense: "We've already cast the die for that part, if you change the design now we'll have to throw it away and cast another one, which we're not about to do." Which makes just as good sense as a metaphor. Does anyone else think of the phrase this way?

  75. empty said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    Yes, I for one had a moment of doubt yesterday as to whether this was about molds and machine shops.

    You can also cast a fishing line, a wide net, a shadow, your lot, or aspersions.

  76. Mark P said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    The Ridger – A little Googling and I find that it was actually Shakespeare that was better understood in the original Klingon. So much for memory.

  77. Dave M said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    Vance asks "So, for "six-sided die", do you say "cube"? And is the problem pedantry and geekishness, or is it that you're ashamed to admit you play games of chance?"

    Well, I no longer play any games which require one to distinguish between dice of different shapes, so "dice" is what I say now for d6s. I think the main reason for "icosahedron" as a word for the d20 was actually, now that I think of it, that I only ever played one game which requires one (Stratomatic baseball) with a graduate student in ancient history, and we liked to work Greek terms into our conversation (so, pedantry and geekishness then).

    Speaking of ancient Greek, I did not know that about "iacta alea est" was originally Greek. And I never heard Pflaumbaum's term "third person imperative" before. Is that the same as the jussive subjunctive, or is it a different form entirely?

  78. Amy Stoller said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    @John Atkinson: Not having read my Caesar, yours was the origin I had assigned to "the die is cast" until now. I had also never heard of "a dice" before reading this thread. It has always been "a die" for me (NS of AmE).

    You live and learn.

  79. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    Dave M: A third person imperative in Greek corresponds to a jussive subjunctive in Latin. (It can't be called a subjunctive in Greek, as it's a quite different form from the actual subjunctive.)

  80. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    I also had always thought "the die is cast" referred to the engineering sense, possibly because one of my earliest work experiences was in a factory where I used dies and a hydraulic press to emboss designs in leather belts. And we had our own designer who cast his own dies and tested them out on my machine and didn't tell me he had been there and changed the settings . . .

  81. Dave M said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    Thanks Andrew n.t.s.o. – I'll have to drag out my Chase and Phillips and check that out.

  82. Chris Brew said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 12:51 am

    "stuffy – almost as if she were trying too hard to impress."

    is about as good a characterization of my reflex reaction to educated American English usage as I have ever encountered. I frequently find myself having to wind back an impulse to ridicule fragments like "the data are collected from cucumbers". As a sop, I allow myself a subdued campaign to get the form "datums" used as much as possible for things like "there are three datums well above the regression line". And yes, the period belongs inside the quotes, but for heaven's sake do lighten up, people!

  83. Paul Mulshine said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 1:06 am

    In regard to "the passive voice of a transitive verb." Does this expert think there is such a thing as the passive voice of an intransitive verb?

  84. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    @ Paul Mulshine
    Heffer probably wasn't thinking about it, but there are languages that allow passivization of intransitive verbs, e.g. German: "Hier wird nicht geraucht".

  85. Dave M said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    Thanks Pflaumbaum, that's interesting — I never thought of that English one.

  86. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    @ Dave M – Latin has third person imperatives too, in the kind of legalistic 'future imperative': amato – 'let her love' (in the future). esto – 'let it be', which is the same word in Greek, was the normal imperative for the verb to be in the 2nd and 3rd person. You can also get them in English:

    Oh, someone bludgeon Simon Heffer to death for me.

    [Hey, I hope that's an example sentence and not a menacing tweet. Language Log does not allow menacing. With certain rare exceptions. —GKP]

  87. John F said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    Regarding the drift of the meaning of words, I was reading Heffer's latest on the economic woes of Ireland and he was talking about the EU 'sovietising' Ireland's economy. Now, from what I recall, 'soviet' essentially means municipal council and I think Heffer must be re-purposing the word to mean central planning as practised by the USSR instead of the local planning the word itself implies.

  88. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    @ Dave – me neither, I looked it up in the CGEL (p925-6). There's a very interesting discussion on the grammatical status of the various let and let's constructions there too.

  89. Colin John said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    When I was growing up in the UK some 40+ years ago I used to say singular 'die' out of pedantry, because it was hardly ever used. It appears to me now that it's far more common. (but maybe that's because I'm more exposed to US usage).

  90. John Cowan said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    The great thing about Bierce's definition of "die" is that it contains everything.

    DIE, n.
    The singular of "dice." We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die." At long intervals, however, some one says: "The die is cast," which is not true, for it is cut. The word is found in an immortal couplet by that eminent poet and domestic economist, Senator Depew:

       A cube of cheese no larger than a die
       May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.

  91. Dan T. said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Well, "federal" also implies, in its original meaning, a somewhat decentralized system of constituent states with a degree of autonomy and limited powers delegated to the central government, but to "federalize" something in modern terminology implies centralization (though not to the oppressive extreme as "sovietize").

  92. Gareth said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I'm surprised no-one's mentioned Kingsley Amis's 'The King's English'. It's unfanatical as well as funny. It may, however, be a little dated now.

    What do you think of it GKP?

  93. James Wimberley said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    Let's start a different niggle war (pettifogomachy). Can hands be disfigured? I say only faces.

  94. Aaron Davies said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    @Dan T.: as opposed to "federate", which, in computer science, still refers to cooperative decentralization.

  95. Xmun said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    I'm not GKP, but I'll testify that I still have the paperback edition of Amis's The King's English on my shelves and consult it from time to time — for amusement, it has to be said, rather than instruction. What still astonishes me is the pronunciation he gives for some of the items listed under "French expressions". The funniest entry of all, methinks, is "Pidgin Latin".

    The book was first published in 1997. Can that really be already a little dated?

  96. Peter G. Howland said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    @Chris Brew – You’re absolutely correct. A ‘datum’ is a single item of data, and the plural ‘datums’ is several such items. But during my years as a technical writer and illustrator at Stanford Research Institute back in the way-early 1970s, I never heard ‘datums’ used by any of the research staff. They would simply say “there are three ‘data points’ above the line” or whatever. But, hey, what did they know? They couldn’t possibly have been as swift as we linguistically sophisticated folk are now, right?

    By the way, BrE vs. AmE rules and conventions be damned, when I’m finished writing a quote, I end it with the punctuation relative to that quote (!, ?, etc.), then I close my quote (”) and then I end the whole thing with a period after (.) whammo! indicating that I’m all finished with the quoting business. American English editors don’t like it, but that’s their problem. *wicked snicker*

  97. maidhc said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    In semiconductor manufacturing, when a silicon wafer is diced, the resulting small silicon rectangles are called dies, which are then mounted on lead frames using a die-bonding machine. I've also heard the plural dice used.

    I think this is a different usage than "tool and die" because of the initial dicing step, which is of course similar to dicing a carrot.

  98. Spectre-7 said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 6:07 am

    I think this is a different usage than "tool and die" because of the initial dicing step, which is of course similar to dicing a carrot.

    Which, to take things full circle, means to cut something into small cubes. Like dice.

  99. Gareth said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    @Xmun I think it was Amis himself who was a bit dated in 1997.

  100. Pincrete said,

    October 14, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    I read about 20 pages of Heffer's book at Amazon (where a part of the book can be previewed…. for those prepared to endure the experience). I agree wholeheartedly with GKP's WONDERFUL reviews, both here and at TES.

    What annoyed me as much as the silly rules recommended by Heffer, were the sneering or patronising asides delivered to anyone who doesn't happen to share his prejudices.

    BTW as a UK English speaker, I know nobody who would use the singular 'die' for dice. I vaguely remember learning somewhere in my life that 'die' was the correct singular, but dismissed the information as irrelevant – as nobody I knew would understand what I was talking about. Also, I had always assumed that the expression 'the die is cast' referred to 'the molten metal has been poured into its mould' (as in cast-iron). Ah well, you learn something every day!

  101. Elena said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    I have a question. Simon Heffer writes in his book STRICTLY ENGLISH, in chapter 4 – BAD GRAMMAR – in the first part:
    "[…] a surprisingly large proportion of mistakes seem to have had their origins in the writer's failure to understand, or remember, whether the items or people being discussed in a particular sentence are singular or plural."
    Isn't it incorrect? The subject is: A SURPRISINGLY LARGE PROPORTION (of mistakes), so it's singular.. but he refers the verb SEEM and the possessive pronoun THEIR to the word MISTAKES; isn't it incorrect? Thank you.
    By an English learner.

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