Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls

For all too many people, the English language is a minefield. They’re afraid that if they take one wrong step, something will blow up in their face.

hidden cove NTIt gets worse when they learn you’re a writer, a teacher, or (gods forbid) an editor. Some people laugh nervously. Others clam up.

Many of those explosive devices we’re so afraid of are shibboleths. Like “Never end a sentence with a preposition” and “Don’t split infinitives.”

What’s a shibboleth? Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary had to say:

  1. A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.
  2. a. A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword.
    b. A commonplace saying or idea.
  3. A custom or practice that betrays one as an outsider.

old courthouse rd 2Readers and writers, teachers and editors, are forever getting them mixed up with rules. How to tell a rule from a shibboleth? Rules usually further the cause of clarity: verbs should agree with their subjects in number; pronouns should agree with the nouns they refer to. Shibboleths often don’t. No surprise there: their main purpose isn’t to facilitate communication; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t.

To complicate matters even further, the language is continually evolving. New words are born. Meanings morph. Nouns get verbed and verbs get nouned. If you’re too far ahead of the pack in adopting a new usage, someone‘s not going to be happy about it.

If that’s not enough, we’ve also got such everyday confusables like ensure/insure/assure, affect/effect — and is it irrespective that’s OK and irregardless that’s verboten, or is it the other way round?

No wonder English starts to look like a minefield, even to native speakers who use it all the time.

Editors have been known to make it worse. Been there, done that. It’s an occupational hazard. An example:

As an apprentice editor, I was initiated into the mysteries of the which/that distinction. “That” was for restrictive (essential) clauses: “The sweater that I’m wearing was made by my mother.” (This implies that I have other sweaters and my mother probably didn’t make all of them.) “Which” was for non-restrictive clauses: “The house, which was built in 1850, has been in his family for decades.” (The building date is extra information. It doesn’t specify which house has been in his family for decades.)

security signHoo boy, did I go wild or what. Anyone who hadn’t mastered the which/that distinction was an ignoramus. I got to look down my snoot at them. I got to educate them.

Then I learned that British English (BrE) was managing to get along quite nicely without the which/that distinction. BrE writers liberally used which” for restrictive clauses.  Their editors weren’t changing every “which” to “that.”

Wonder of wonders, I had no trouble understanding which clauses were restrictive and which weren’t.

By that time I’d so internalized the which/that distinction that it came naturally to me. This was an asset when I started copyediting for U.S. publishers, many of whom require copyeditors to change every restrictive “which” to “that.” Fortunately most writers won’t fight about this. Many have internalized the which/that distinction just the way I did. When editing the work of a BrE writer, I’ll generally stet the restrictive “which” and note it in my style sheet so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious decision on my part, not a (gods forbid) mistake.

Another shibboleth is the widespread notion among U.S. copyeditors that “toward” is American English and “towards” is British English. They mechanically knock the “s” off every “towards” they come to. A few years back, Jonathon Owen, linguist, writer, and editor, did his master’s thesis on this very subject. As reported in his excellent blog, Arrant Pedantry, his research suggested that U.S. editors are creating the perception that “toward” is AmE and “towards” is BrE. For writers, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. In edited manuscripts, however, “toward” overwhelmed “towards,” 90% to 10%.

In a recent online discussion, an assortment of editors took on the difference between “such as” and “like.” (If you haven’t heard of it, worry not: I’d been editing for 10 years before I was initiated into this particular mystery. Till then I thought “such as” was simply a more formal synonym for “like.”) According to those who observe the distinction, if I refer to “movies such as Lawrence of Arabia,” I am including Lawrence in the group. If I write “movies like Lawrence of Arabia,” I’m not.

Most of the editors participating in the discussion thought the such as/like distinction was a made-up “rule” — a shibboleth. I rarely use “such as”; when I use “like,” I’m not excluding the item(s) that follow from the group. I’ll wager that most writers do likewise, and — even more important — so do most readers. What this means is that if it’s important to know whether the item(s) are included or not, you better not rely on the such as/like distinction alone to get the message across. (The discussion suggested that readers of scientific literature were alert to the distinction, so if that’s your audience you’d best observe it.)

A caveat: English is riddled with sound-alike and look-alike words that don’t mean the same thing. These aren’t shibboleths. They facilitate communication. If you write or read, they’re worth learning. As an editor, I’m always on the lookout for them. The very capable author of a recent editing job consistently confused “imply” and “infer.” (A speaker implies that something is true. Her listeners may infer the truth from what she said.) I made the necessary changes and explained the difference to the author. He said he had a hard time keeping those two words straight.

Why does any of this matter? Here I turn to “Rules That Eat Your Brain,” by Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and frequent writer on English grammar and usage. “Zombie rules” are shibboleths by another name.

Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language.

If the language really were a minefield, what fool would venture out into it? Be brave. Write on.



10 thoughts on “Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls

    • Yeah, I sometimes wonder if imply/infer is going the way of “comprise.” So far most of the authors whose work I edit are using “imply” and “infer” the way I understand them, and mixing them up often changes the meaning of a sentence. (Also AHD‘s Usage Note agrees with me. I love authorities when they agree with me!) These things are not true of “comprise.” When an author writes that a whole comprises its parts, I stand up and cheer. It doesn’t happen often — and most of the writers whose work I edit are very good. When I read “is comprised of,” I know what the author meant.

      When someone uses “comprise” correctly, though, I don’t know if s/he’s observing the comprise/include distinction I learned as a novice: that, e.g., New England comprises six states, but New England includes Rhode island and Vermont. (There’s more to New England than Rhode Island and Vermont.) When an author uses “comprise” correctly, I don’t know for sure whether what follows is an exhaustive list. So far it’s never mattered enough to query. If it does matter, I wouldn’t want it to depend entirely on the reader’s knowing the difference between “comprise” and “include.” Sort of like “such as” and “like”! A little redundancy won’t hurt, might help.


  1. Interesting read. 🙂

    My dilemma is just when I think I have it down, I realize I may not. Take punctuation and quotation marks, for example. I’ve researched and thought I had it right. Punctuation WITHIN quotation marks (at all costs) for American English.

    If any word or words are wrapped in double quotation marks and are followed by punctuation of any sort, that punctuation must reside within the quotation marks. There are a few examples in your text above. One example, though, leaves me to question what I think I know–quotations ending at a sentence break a la SEMICOLON. I’ve researched this to death before, but clear examples elude me. I need a nauseatingly deep explanation of the quotation-punctuation rule with all possible scenarios/examples to nail it down once and for all. Does such a thing exist? I’d be THRILLED if you could share any resource you think could be of help.


    • Punctuation will drive you crazy if you let it! 😉

      In American English (AmE), commas and periods nearly always go inside the quotes. Colons and semicolons nearly always go outside. Question marks and exclamation points go inside when they’re part of the quoted material, outside when they aren’t. Sometimes it takes a second or third look to figure out which applies, especially when you’ve got a quote within the quote. For instance —

      She asked, “When are you leaving tomorrow?”
      Did you hear her say “I’m leaving at six o’clock sharp”?

      Dashes can be used in pairs to indicate a break in dialogue. Where they go depends on whether the speech is interrupted or not.

      “I’m leaving –” she paused to look at her watch “– in fifteen minutes.”
      “I’m leaving” — at this point a car horn honked out front — “in five seconds.”

      I’d read the second example to mean that the speaker didn’t pause while the horn was honking.

      My absolute favorite go-to reference for basic AmE is Words into Type. It hasn’t been revised since 1974, but its sections on grammar, including punctuation, are well organized, and the basics don’t go out of date. Copies can still be had online and in secondhand bookstores.



  2. Another great post! Your discussion of shibboleths reminds me of McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma that both point out how arbitrary some rules are and how they have evolved over time. (And it also reminds me of that West Wing episode of that name, since shibboleth isn’t a word I come across too often.)

    My first reader has a better grasp of grammar than I can aspire to, and generally corrects my which/that, who/whom, toward/towards errors–and I usually follow her advice unless I have a reason (speech patterns or sentence rhythm) not to.

    Anyway, loved this post and discussion.


  3. Great article, thanks so much! I’m a linguist and I agree wholeheartedly that many of the so-called rules people toss around in writing circles are bogus and stifling. People who aren’t aware of the existence of minor dialectal and register variations can be little Hitlers about their own traditional choices! The thing is to read and read (and read some more.) Then hire a good editor, like you!

    And thanks for the refs, to Arrant Pedantry as well as to Words in Type.


    • Thank you for the support and encouragement! Editors (some of whom also have training in linguistics) discuss these things among ourselves a lot. Often we feel locked in by clients’ house styles — some reputable publishers really do insist on some of those shibboleths and “zombie rules,” and when you’re a freelancer working in isolation, you can’t sit the production editor down and explain that these “rules” aren’t rules at all. It can be frustrating to mechanically change every “violation” of one of these non-rules, not least because there’s a good chance you’ll overlook something important in the process.


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