Language Reference

Language Reference encompasses the wide range of dictionaries and A–Z guides dedicated to the learning, use, and study of language. Oxford Reference provides access to Oxford’s unrivalled English dictionaries (with dedicated dictionaries for different English-speaking regions including America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK), thesauri, and also bilingual dictionaries for the languages of French, German, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Latin, and Welsh. Additionally, this subject area includes more than 295,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on the subjects of slang, semiotics, rhetoric, abbreviations, etymology, phrase & fable, and usage. Written by trusted experts and lexicographers for language researchers at every level, our coverage comprises authoritative, highly accessible definitions of the latest terminology, theories, techniques, people, and words relating to all areas of language.

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FEATURED AUTHOR

JEREMY BUTTERFIELD

Jeremy Butterfield

Jeremy Butterfield is an OUP author, language expert, writer, and lexicographer. For many years he worked in senior editorial positions in Collins English and Bilingual Dictionaries. He is the author of the popular book on the English language, Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare (2009), the Oxford A-Z of English Usage (2013), and has recently thoroughly revised and updated both the much-cherished Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), and the concise version of the same text (2015). He blogs regularly about language matters.

Author Q&A

What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area? 

I think there are two broad – and actually related – misconceptions. The first, particularly common among professional linguists, is that usage guides are both old-fashioned and irrelevant to the way the general public uses – or should that be ‘use’ – English in practice. That view is far from being the case. 

First, modern usage guides, including Fowler’s, are kept up to date to reflect contemporary language, and often use the same objective data that linguists use. Second, people often have real uncertainties – even anxieties – about how to use a specific word or phrase, and therefore turn to usage books for reassurance.

The second misconception is that usage guides are automatically ‘prescriptive’, which is a highly loaded term. What usage guides do is to identify where there might be a language issue, and then give a clear, firm rule, where that is possible; however, when that is not possible, they describe the problem, and weigh up the pros and cons so that readers have enough information to make up their own minds, as with the split infinitive

Which figure in your subject’s history would you most like to invite to a dinner party? What would you ask him/her?

First, I would panic about the cooking – in fact, I’d probably hire a proper cook to do it, so that I could talk calmly to my ‘famed’ (yuck! what a word!) guests. Those guests would bring enormous cachet to my dinner table: they would, of course, be the Fowler brothers, Henry and his younger sibling Francis, who worked together on the celebrated original A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), among other books. 

I would have so many questions I wouldn’t know where to begin, but they would include: 

Which brothers in classical mythology or literature mean the most to you?

How did you decide which words to leave out of your Concise Oxford Dictionary?

What would your advice for achieving clear, elegant writing be?

What do you think of American English? 

Since we’re talking time travel here, I’d also ask what they thought of the way we speak and write now, and which words they found most surprising. 

Finally, if the conversation had been going swimmingly, I would also ask them a question they might otherwise find a bit infra dig:

Which is/are your least favourite word(s) and why? 

With that question, I might be letting myself in for a protracted and rumbustious discussion. The good humour – or otherwise – of that discussion would determine whether I also asked them, conversely, which their favourites were!

What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why? 

This might strike some as a strange choice, but the concept I would choose is ‘the passive’. I choose it not because people aren’t aware of it – I think a lot of people have heard the term – but rather, because many people, I suspect, are familiar with the term but do not fully understand what passive verb forms are, and how useful they can be in presenting information. 

On the one hand, it is a well-established truism, propagated for decades by language pundits – including Orwell – style guides, and professional editors, that you ‘should never use the passive when you can use an active instead’. On the other, there is often deep confusion about how to identify a passive clause, and sentences which do not contain one can be slated for being passive, such as ‘The case took on racial overtones’ and ‘Bus blows up in central Jerusalem’. Both fail the standard syntactic tests defining passive clauses, i.e. that there should be a past participle of the main verb (-ed for regular verbs, taken and blown in the previous examples) and a form of the verb to be.