About the team
The whichenglish website began on Boxing Day 2008 – in the midst of the stock-market crash and subsequent recession. My idea was to take my mind off it by doing something that I had been thinking about for a while: build a site that answered some of the common questions regarding English usage. Since then I have written and published a book about English – you may see mention of throughout the site – through an Oxford publisher and I am currently working on my next book, which looks at the history of English in America.
EDITOR, JESSE KARJALAINEN
Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, essentially a book featuring 100 ways to improve your English.
He lives in Bristol, UK, where he works as an editor, author and photographer. He is currently working on his next book.
Karriann Cooper joined as an editorial assistant in August 2012. She lives in Kent and has an interest in 'English, owls and puns'.
Mike Edwards used to teach English, and still does occasionally. Among other things he is now an author, currently working on a slightly odd book about sonnets. He also writes sonnets sometimes: it's better than keeping a diary. He would like to make 2014 the year of the sonnet. He joined as an editorial assistant in October 2013.
This site was launched on 28 December 2008.
The intent of this site is to be a source of solutions to problems of British English above all others, addressing ambiguities as well as adressing issues arising from different standards practiced in the United States. Some of you may recognise the contents of this site from my 1.0 version, over at britishdictionary.co.uk, but the project has since expanded to encompass more than just a dictionary. Besides, 'dictionary' is a broad term, and any dictionary no matter the type is at the end of the day a work of reference.
Fowler's first edition of his Modern English Usage was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, yet few would call it a dictionary today. In writing the first dictionary of English that was more than a mere list of words, Johnson's dictionary started a new genre. In the preface to his book, he writes:
Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few. I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.
– Samuel Johnson, Preface to Dictionary of the English Language, 1755.
English dictionaries, in the absence of an English Academie, serve as the only real authorities of English as a language. We turn to them daily for guidance on meaning, pronunciation and orthography. Yet, dictionaries do not provide a complete picture of one important element of language: usage. The authoritativeness of dictionaries is found wanting where points of grammar or ambiguities arise with usage, and do very little to provide answers to the question 'Why?'
The de facto authorities to English usage are books such as Fowler's Modern English Usage or Usage and Abusage. While these books have serve a great purpose, they are arguably and increasingly outdated. The most recent edition Henry Fowler's Modern English Usage was issued in 2004, but is a reworking of a book first published in 1926 – which itself was a reworking (and more alphabetised) King's English, from 1906. Unlike dictionaries, the entries in usage guides can contain long passages that are less that clear. Another criticism of usage guides is that one needs to own more than one such guide because the answer is invariably never in the first book that is consulted.
Third on the rung of authoritativeness are style guides, often the printed 'house style' of a particular publisher or newspaper group. While more up to date than the usage guides, these often plug some gaps in modern usage, but a collection of them often contradict one another or contain that which is only useful to the sub editor. The Times prefers 'eco-warrior' and the Guardian 'ecowarrior'; the Times 'Eastern Europe' and the Guardian 'eastern Europe' (I agree with eco-warrior and eastern Europe.)
The ideas behind the which?english website are threefold: to provide a list of words around which ambiguity usually lies; to indicate clearly areas where British and American variations overlap and cause confusion, with emphasis on the former; and serve as a reference point for those questions often not addressed by one or all of the three forms of English reference tools. Johnson attempted a dictionary that served those areas of language that suffered neglect and were allowed to spread under the direction of chance, the tyranny of time and the corruptions of ignorance; this website is an attempt to address 'doubtful words' in our contemporary knowledge of English usage and serve as a useful tool for those wishing to find out.