Searching for the Dao

This post presents some ideas about the Dào (“Way”) as described in the Dàodéjīng (“Book of the Way and its Virtue”), that legend claims was composed by Lǎozī in the 5th Century BCE. The Dào cannot be explained in words. But that has never stopped anyone from writing about it.

An Incident at Hangu Pass

No one is sure of the season or even the year. It was probably at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), and it would have been appropriate if it were autumn. An old man riding on a water buffalo, together with a young servant, requested passage to the west through the frontier gate at Hangu. They were leaving the violence and corruption of the Kingdom of the Eastern Zhou, which was slowly dissolving into anarchy, a time that was later historians called the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE).

Yĭnxĭ, the head guardsman, realized that the old man was of some importance. In answer to his questions, the old man confirmed that he had been the Royal Archivist at the court of Zhou. He had resigned his position, and was now on his way to the mountains to find peace. Yĭnxĭ requested that the old man not leave without providing him with a summary of his wisdom. The scholar obliged and wrote out a summary of all that he considered important. And then he departed, never to be heard of again.

The writings that he left with Yĭnxĭ became known as the Dàodéjīng – the “Book of the Way and its Virtue” (Tao Te Ching in the old Wade-Giles system of romanization), containing about 5000 characters in 81 brief chapters. The first section of the book (chapters 1-37) dealt with the Dào (“way”), and the second section with (“virtue”). The author became known as Lǎozī – the “Old Master” (Lao Tzu in Wade-Giles). Sometimes the book itself is also referred to as Lǎozī.

I have told the story as best I can. There are several legends about what happened, and I am not sure which are true, or even whether Lǎozī was an actual person (Graham, 1998; Chan, 2000). The story does explain the nature of the book – an anthology of cryptic sayings and opinions on the nature of the universe and how people should behave.

The Eastern Zhou dynasty had its court in Chengzhou, now called Luoyáng. From there the king tried to maintain his rule over the surrounding feudal states. After many years of internecine warfare, the Qin state in the west ultimately prevailed over the others and founded the first Chinese Empire in 221 BCE. 

The frontier gate in the Hangu Pass has been preserved as the centerpiece of an archeological site in Xin’an:

Lǎozī on his water buffalo was portrayed by Chao Buzhi in an ink painting (around 1100 CE) now in the Palace Museum in Taipei:

A carved jade circle from the early 19th Century represents the meeting between Lǎozī (right) and Yĭnxĭ (left) with the Hangu Gate at the top.


In 1938, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) felt definite empathy for Lǎozī. He was living in Denmark, an exile from his home in Germany, which was descending into the horrors of Nazism. He wrote a poem The Legend of How the Tao te Ching Came into Being on Lao Tse’s Journey into Exile, which was later published in Tales from the Calendar (1949, translated 1961). The custom’s officer asks the boy attending on Lǎozī what he has learned from the old man and receives the answer

… Daß das weiche Wasser in Bewegung
Mit der Zeit den harten Stein besiegt.
[That over time the gentlest water
Defeats the hardest stone]

This paraphrases some lines from chapter 78 of the Dàodéjīng

Brecht ends his poem with

Aber rühmen wir nicht nur den Weisen Dessen Name auf dem Buche prangt! Denn man muß dem Weisen seine Weisheit erst entreißen. Darum sei der Zöllner auch bedankt: Er hat sie ihm abverlangt.

[But we should not just praise the Sage
Whose name is displayed on the book.
Since we must retrieve from the Wise their wisdom,
The customs officer should also be thanked
For demanding it of him.]


The Nature of the Dào

The main focus of Lǎozī ’s book is the Dào (pinyin, Tao in Wade-Gilles). The character is composed of the “walk/march” radical on the left (a leg taking a step forward) and the “head/chief” radical on the upper right (a head with hair or horns above a stylized face). The illustration below shows the Small Seal Script version (which would have been used at the beginning of the Qin dynasty) on the left, and the modern version on the right.

As a noun, Dào is most often translated as “way” or “path.” When it is used as a verb it generally means “say” or “explain.” This confluence of “way” and “word” also occurs in the Christian gospel of John (1:1, and 14:6), where the source of everything is called the word (logos) and salvation is obtained through the way (odos) (Ching, 1993, p. 88).

In Lǎozī ’s book, the Dào represents the underlying and enduring principle of the universe, something completely beyond human comprehension (Schwartz, 2000):

The Dào that can be explained is not the eternal Dào;
The Name that can be told is not the eternal Name.

The nameless is the source of heaven and earth,
The mother of everything which can be named.

Free from desire, you can realize its mystery;
Caught in desire, you see only its manifestations.

That these two aspects are both same and different
Is the paradox:

Mystery of mystery,
Gateway to wonder.

[Chapter 1, my translation. I am indebted to Mitchell (1988) for the opposition of “mystery” and “manifestations.” And to Pepper and Wang (2021) for their word-by-word analysis.]

Livia Kohn (2020, p 16) proposed:

One way to think of Dào is as two concentric circles, a smaller one in the center and a larger on the periphery. The dense, smaller circle in the center is Dào at the root of creative change— tight, concentrated, intense, and ultimately unknowable, ineffable, and beyond conscious or sensory human attainment… The larger circle at the periphery is Dào as it appears in the world, the patterned cycle of life and visible nature. Here we can see Dào as it comes and goes, rises and sets, rains and shines, lightens and darkens— the everchanging yet everlasting, cyclical alteration of natural patterns, life and death… This is Dào as natural transformations: the metamorphoses of insects, ways of bodily dissolution, and the inevitable entropy of life. This natural, tangible Dào is what people can study and learn to create harmony in the world; the cosmic, ineffable Dào, on the other hand, they need to open to by resting in clarity and stillness to find true authenticity in living.

Her description fits with that in Chapter 11 of the Dàodéjīng:

Thirty spokes converge on the wheel’s hub,
The emptiness of which allows the cart to be used.

And perhaps point to Eliot’s image in Burnt Norton (1941)

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

As pointed out by Kenner (1959, pp 297-8))

This is the philosophers’ paradox of the Wheel, the exact center of which is precisely motionless, whatever the velocity of the rim.


Yīn and Yáng

The Dào is the source of all the different things in the word. The multiplicity of the world is described in Chapter 2 of the Dàodéjīng (translation by Ursula Le Guin, 1997):

For being and nonbeing
arise together;
hard and easy
compete with each other;
long and short
shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make music together;
before and after
follow each other.

The source of this multiplicity is proclaimed in Chapter 42 (my translation)

The Dào gives birth to one
One gives birth to two
Two give birth to three
Three gives birth to the myriad things of the world.

These carry Yīn on their back and Yáng in their arms
And together they achieve harmony

Yīn is water, earth, night, female; Yáng is fire, sky, day, male. Through much of the Dàodéjīng, Lǎozī is more partial to Yīn, the eternal female. Yīn and Yáng mix to form a third type of being and from this intermingling comes everything – Wànwù (ten thousand things). This process is depicted in the Tàijítú symbol: the outer circle represents the whole while the light and dark areas represent its opposing manifestations. The Tàijítú in turn becomes the center of the Bāguà (“eight symbols”) map, representing all the different elements of the world.

The Rule of

The character for (pinyin, Te in Wade-Giles) contains on the left the radical for “step/road.” The upper right of the character represents “truth” – something placed on a pedestal to be examined. The lower right is the radical for “heart.” The character thus embodies the idea of following the path of the true heart. is translated as “virtue” or “morality.” The illustration below shows the Small Seal Script version on the left and the modern version on the right.

According to Lǎozī, virtue is attained by behaving in harmony with the Dào. Exactly how one does this is not completely clear. When he wrote his book, Lǎozī had decided that he needed to retire from the world, and much of his thought espouses the concept of wéiwúwéi – “acting without acting.” He urged leaders not to interfere with the lives of their people and not to overburden them with taxes. He urged generals to exercise restraint and patience.

Acting in harmony with the Dào meansdoing things for the good of all rather than the benefit of one. Occasionally Lǎozī does recommend particular virtues. The following is from Chapter 67 of the Dàodéjīng:

I have three treasures
that I hold and protect:
first is compassion,
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel.

Because I am kind I can be valiant,
Because I am frugal I can be generous
Because I am humble I can be a leader.

[My translation owes much to Red Pine (2004), from whom I took the names of the treasures. Other expressions derive from Pepper and Wang (2021).]

The Religion of Dàoism

In the 2nd Century CE, Zhāng Dàolíng was visited by the spirit of Lǎozī, and proclaimed himself the first “Celestial Master” of the Dào. (Ching, 1993; Hendrichke, 2000, Kohn 2020; Robinet, 1992; Wong, 1997). Dàoism became an organized religion. Lǎozī was deified. Various other sages and believers were raised to the rank of “Immortals.” The descendants of Zhang Dàoling have continued to lead the religion to the present day. Dàoism as a religion provided its adherents with rituals, prayers, scriptures, talismans, and divination. Some of the “austerity’ of Lǎozī was perhaps lost in the proliferating ceremonies.

Dàoism was immensely popular. Temples sprang up everywhere. Dàoism was particularly attracted to the mountains, perhaps because this is where Lǎozī attained his immortality after leaving through Hangu Pass. Statues of Lǎozī and the immortals abound. The following is a large statue of Lǎozī created during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is located in the Qingyuan Mountain Park near Quanzhou city in Southern China.

The Art of Dàoism

Much of the art associated with Dàoism concerns the activities of the Immortals (Little, 2000; Little & Eichman, 2000). However, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when the Mongols controlled China and ruled an Empire that spread as far west as Europe, several artists evolved a style of landscape painting that attempted to portray the simple power of nature (Barnhart, 1983; Cahill, 1976; Scott, 2006).


Probably the most famous of these painters was Ní Zàn (1301-1374), an aristocrat who gave up his worldly goods and retired from public life to live as an ascetic. One of his last paintings, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is entitled Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (1372).

The poem appended to the top of the painting identifies where it was created and concludes:

We watch the clouds and apply our paint;
We drink wine and write poems.
The joyous feelings of this day
Will linger long after we have parted.

The painting portrays the stillness of the water in the lake and the power of the mountains on the further shore. These seem to embody the eternal forces of Yīn and Yáng. In the foreground are a few of the ten thousand things that make up our particular world. The most powerful part of the painting is that which is not painted – the water representing the force of Yīn.

The spirit at the center of all is called the dark female,
Gateway of the foundations of heaven and earth,
Which lasts unbroken and forever: use it.
[Dàodéjīng, Chapter 6, my translation]

Final Thoughts

Most people believe that the universe is governed by rules. Many believe that such rules are purposeful and that the universe is evolving toward some goal. We are a hopeful species and we like to think of this process as benevolent rather than blind. Many of our religions urge us to fit our individual intentions to this more general goal. Of all this we are unsure. But there is something behind it all:

Something there is, whose veiled creation was
Before the earth or sky began to be;
So silent, so aloof and so alone,
It changes not, nor fails, but touches all:
Conceive it as the mother of the world.
I do not know its name;
A name for it is “Way.”
[Dàodéjīng, Chapter 25, Blakney (1955) translation]


Some Translations of the Dàodéjīng (in order of publication)

Julien, S. (1842). Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu. Imprimerie Royale

Chalmers, J. (1868). The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of the “Old Philosopher” Lau-tsze. Trübner & Co.

Legge, J. (1891). The Tao Teh King, In Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXXIX. Oxford University Press.


Waley, A. (1936). The way and its power: a study of the Tao tê ching and its place in Chinese thought. George Allen & Unwin.

Blakney, R. B. (1955). The way of life. A new translation of the Tao tê ching, New American Library.

Feng, G., & English, J. (1972). Tao te ching. Vintage Books. Third edition (2011) has introduction by J. Needleman and acknowledges T. Lippe as co-author.

Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te ching. Harper & Row.

Addiss, S., & Lombardo, S. (1993). Tao te ching. Hackett.

Red Pine (1996, revised 2004), Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching with selected commentaries from the past 2000 years. Copper Canyon Press.

Le Guin, U. K., & Seaton, J. P. (1998). Tao te ching: a book about the way and the power of the way. Shambhala.

Star, J. (2001). Tao te ching: the definitive edition. Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam.

Lin, D. (2015). Tao te ching: Annotated and explained. SkyLight Paths.

Minford, J. (2018). Tao te ching (Daodejing): The Tao and the power. Viking

Pepper, J.& Wang, X. H. (2021). Dao de jing in clear English including a step-by-step translation. Imagin8 Press.



Barnhart, R., & Wang, C. C. (1983). Along the border of heaven: Sung and Yüan paintings from the C.C. Wang family collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Brecht, B. (1949/1961). Tales from the calendar; the prose translated by Yvonne Kapp; the verse translated by Michael Hamburger. Methuen.

Cahill, J. (1976). Hills beyond a river: Chinese painting of the Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368. Weatherhill.

Chan, A. K. L. (2000). The Daodejing and its tradition. In L. Kohn (Ed.) Daoism handbook. (pp.1-29).  Brill

Ching, J. (1993). Chinese religions. Macmillan.

Eliot, T. S. (1941). Burnt Norton. Faber and Faber.

Graham, A.C. (1998). The origins of the legend of Lao Tan. In Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (eds). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. (pp 23-40). State University of New York Press.

Hendrichke, B. (2000). Early Daoist movements. In Kohn, L. (2000). Daoism handbook. (pp. 134-164). Brill.

Kenner, H. (1959). The invisible poet: T.S. Eliot. McDowell, Obolensky.

Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (1998). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. State University of New York Press.

Kohn, L. (2000). Daoism handbook. Brill.

Kohn, L. (2020). Daoism: a contemporary philosophical investigation. Routledge.

Little, S. (2000). Daoist Art. In L. Kohn (Ed.) Daoism handbook. (pp.709-746). Brill.

Little, S., & Eichman, S. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. The Art Institute of Chicago

Robinet, I., (1992, translated by Brooks, P. (1997). Taoism: growth of a religion. Stanford University Press.

Schwartz, B. (1998). The Thought of the Tao te ching. In Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (eds.). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. (pp. 189-210). State University of New York Press.

Scott, S. C. (2006). Sacred Earth: Daoism as a preserver of environment in Chinese landscape painting from the Song through the Qing Dynasties. East-West Connections: Review of Asian Studies, 6(1), 72-98. 

Wong, E. (1997). Taoism: an essential guide. Shambhala.


Thoughts on the Kaballah

The Kabbalah is a body of Jewish thought based on mystical insight into the nature of God and an imaginative interpretation of the Torah. The word itself means “received.” According to legend this special knowledge was imparted by God either to Adam in Eden or to Moses on Sinai, and handed down thereafter from generation to generation to an enlightened few, who preserved the received wisdom and taught it to their students. This post presents some thoughts about the Kabbalah from someone who, though neither Jewish nor fluent in Hebrew, is fascinated by the intricacy of its ideas. 

Early Origins of the Kabbalah

Since at the beginning the Kabbalah was largely unwritten, we have no clear ideas about its origins. However, in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, various books on the Kabbalah were written down using the Aramaic language in the region of Syria-Palestine (Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007; Hoffman, 2010; Matt, 1996a, Ogden, 2016).

One of these foundational texts of the Kabbalah is the Sefir Yetzirah – the “Book of the Creation,” or “Book of Formation.” The universe was created by God engraving in light upon the darkness the 32 letters and numbers of the Hebrew language (Sefir Yetzirah I:1, Kaplan translation, 1990):

With 32 mystical paths of Wisdom
     engraved Yah
          the Lord of Hosts
          the God of Israel
     the living God
          King of the universe
     El Shaddai
          Merciful and Gracious
          High and Exalted
          Dwelling in eternity
          Whose name is Holy —
               He is lofty and holy —
And He created His universe
     with three books (Sepharim),
          with text (Sepher)
          with number (Sephar)
          and with communication (Sippur).

Text and number define the nature of the universe. Its qualities are described by language, and the quantities of its components are described by number. Communication allows the universe to exist – as divine speech. Note that the Hebrew root S-F-R using the letters samech (s), pay (p/f) and resh (r) is the basis of many words denoting writing and books, counting and numbers.

Another text probably written in that period, the Sefer HaBahir – the “Book of Illumination” –associated the ten numbers with ten different ways that God was manifest in the universe that He created: the Sefirot (Verses 124-193, Kaplan translation, 1979). These divine emanations became a way to understand all things.

The following illustration shows the 10 Sefirot (singular Sefirah) together with 22 linkages, each denoted by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. As well as the 10 Sefirot, the idea of Da’at or “knowledge” is represented in the upper half of the diagram. Originally this was not directly connected to any of the Sefirot. Rather it appeared to be entangled in the network: knowledge develops through the study of the Sefirot and their interactions. Kaplan (1990, p 25) suggests that it is “the point of confluence between Wisdom and Understanding.” Other interpretations consider Da’at to be one of the 10 Sefirot, and consider Keter as the Divine Will that infuses the whole underlying structure of the universe.    

The Sefirot are arranged in three linked columns. The middle column represents the main flow of energy from the Creator to the Creation. The left column tends toward the female aspect of the Divine, and the right column toward its male aspect (Kaplan, 1990, p 34). However, in some formulations, Malkhut is also considered as the female aspect (Shekhinah) of Keter. We shall return to this idea when we examine the Zohar.

The numbers and letters in this representation of creation could be used in various ways – to explain the nature of things, to predict the future, to ward off disease and to exert magical control. The practice of Gematria (a Hebrew word likely deriving from the Greek grammateia, knowledge of writing) represents words by the sum of their letters according to the alphanumeric cipher given in the preceding figure. Thus, the word for father av can be considered as 3 – the sum of alef (1) and bet (2): Similarly, mother em can be considered as 41 – the sum of alef (1) and mem (40). Adding father and mother together leads to the word for child yeled which has a value of 44 – the sum of yod (10), lamed (30) and dalet (4). (I am indebted to Tokarczuk, 2022, p 579 for this example).

The use of Creation’s numbers and letters in magic was the basis of Kaballah Ma’asit (practical), as compared to Kaballah Iyunit (contemplative). Amulets containing magical words were used to treat or prevent disease. The legendary Prague Golem (illustrated on the right by Philippe Semeria) was formed out of clay and brought to life by writing the Hebrew letters alef, met and tav upon his forehead – these make the word emet, “life.” Once the Golem became dangerous, he was returned to clay by erasing the first of these letters so that the word became met, “death” (Scholem, 1965/1996, pp 158-204)  

Many are the ways in which the world and its history can be mapped onto the Sephirot. One analysis relates these different emanations to the sayings of God as reported in the first chapter of Genesis (Kaplan, 1990, pp 6-7). God spoke and the universe came into being. The following are the words introduced by “And God said…” as they flow from Keter into the other nine emanations

3 Let there be light (Chochmah, Wisdom) 
6 Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (Binah, Understanding) 
9 Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear (Chesed, Love) 
11 Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind (Gevurah, Power) 
14 Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night (Tif’eret, Beauty) 
20 Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. (Netzach, Endurance) 
24 Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind (Hod, Splendor) 
26 Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Yesod, Foundation) 
28 Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Malkhut, Kingdom) 

Likewise, each of the ten commandments as given in Exodus 20 may relate to a particular Sefirah (Bar-Asher, 2022). However, exactly which commandment goes with which Sefirah varies from one commentary to the next. Most accept that the first commandment (“I am the Lord thy God …. Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) relates to Keter.   

The ten Sefirot can be mapped to the primordial human body in many ways. The following illustration shows an amalgam of several (Kaplan, 1990, p. 151; Berenson-Perkins, 2000; Atzmon, 2003). These relations are in keeping with the idea that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).

Little definite is known about the history of Kabbalah scholarship between these early origins in Palestine and the 13th Century in Provence, France, where Rabbi Isaac the Blind (about 1160-1235 CE) wrote a commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah (Scholem, 1987, Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007). He and his colleagues were the first to organize the 10 Sefirot in the way (see preceding figure) in which they are now most commonly considered (Dan & Kiener, 1986, pp 32, 73-86). He described the Sefirot as the emanations of a boundless God – Ein Sof, words meaning “no limit” and denoting that which is both infinite in space and eternal in time (Valabregue-Parry, 2012). Ein Sof is everything but is also nothing because it is not anything in particular. The concept of Ein Sof is therefore related to the idea of Ayin or “nothingness” (Matt, 1990). The words Ein and Ayin use the same Hebrew letters. Ayin and Ein Sof work through he first Sephirah Keter – to create the other Sefirot.

The study of the Kaballah then spread from Southern France to the Jewish communities in Spain. In Gerona, Rabbi Azriel (about 1160-1238 CE), who had studied with Rabbi Isaac the Blind, wrote

Anything visible, and anything that can be grasped by thought, is bounded. Anything bounded is finite. Anything finite is not undifferentiated. Conversely, the boundless is called Ein Sof, Infinite. It is absolute undifferentiation in perfect, changeless oneness. Since it is boundless, there is nothing outside of it. Since it transcends and conceals itself, it is the essence of everything hidden and revealed. Since it is concealed, it is the root of faith and the root of rebellion. As it is written, “One who is righteous lives by his faith.” The philosophers acknowledge that we comprehend it only by way of no.
Emanating from Ein Sof are the ten sefirot. They constitute the process by which all things come into being and pass away. They energize every existent thing that can be quantified. Since all things come into being by means of the sefirot, they differ from one another; yet they all derive from one root. Everything is from Ein Sof; there is nothing outside of it. (quotation from Matt, 1996a, p. 29)

The Spanish Rabbi Josef Gikatilla (about 1248-1305), whose name comes from the Spanish Chiquitilla (little one) wrote in his Sha’are Orah (“The Gates of Light,” translated by Weinstein, 1994):

The depth of primordial being is called Boundless (Ein Sof). Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called Nothingness (Ayin). If one asks, “What is it?” the answer is, “Nothing,” meaning: No one can understand anything about it. It is negated of every conception. No one can know anything about it—except the belief that it exists. Its existence cannot be grasped by anyone other than it. Therefore its name is “I am becoming.”

The final comment refers to the name “I am that I am” – Eheyeh asher eheyeh – of God in the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. Since Hebrew does not clearly indicate the tense of the verb, this can also be translated as “I am who I shall be” or “I shall be who I am.”

In the Sha’are Orah, Gikatilla related the ten Sefirot to the various names of God in the Torah (this table derives from the Wikipedia article on Gikatilla):

The illustration below shows the frontispiece of a Latin translation of the Sha’are Orah (Portae Lucis) by Paulus Ricius, published in Augsburg in 1516, from the collection of the British Museum. The engraving shows a Kabbalist meditating on the Sefirot.

Mystic meditation on the ten Sefirot allows one to gain access to the nothingness of Ein Sof. Matt (1996a, p 119) quotes an anonymous Kabbalist from 13th Century Gerona:

When the soul comes into the One, entering into pure loss of self, it finds God as in nothingness. It seemed to a man that he had a dream, a waking dream, that he became pregnant with nothingness as a woman with child. In this nothingness God was born. He was the fruit of nothingness; God was born in nothingness. (quoted in McGinn, 1981).

The Zohar

Toward the end of the 13th Century, Moses de León (1240-1305), a Kabbalah scholar in Guadalajara, began to publish a set of Aramaic writings that he claimed had been written by the great Hebrew sage Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi) in the 2nd Century C.E. Rabbi Shimon is buried in Meron, Galilee, the sight of an annual ecstatic gathering of his adherents. The collection of these texts came to be known as the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Radiance), or more simply the Zohar. The legend has that Rashbi withdrew to a cave for 13 years and there, under the inspiration of the prophet Elijah, wrote the Zohar. Various lines of evidence suggest, however, that these texts were actually written by Moses de León, and that the Zohar is an example of religious pseudoepigrapha, works falsely attributed to a past author:

The quest for truth knows of adventures that are all its own, and in a vast number of cases has arrayed itself in pseudoepigraphic garb. the further a man progresses along his own road in this quest for truth, the more he might become convinced that his own road must have been trodden by others, ages before him. to the streak of adventurousness which was in moses de leon, no less than to his genius, we owe one of the most remarkable works of jewish literature. (Scholem, 1945/1995, p 204)

We have no contemporary portrait of Moses de León. The following illustration shows two modern representations: on the left a print by Arnold Belkin and on the right a bust by Luis Sanguino:

The following is the Zohar’s commentary on the first verse of Genesis. I have used Matt’s 2004 translation but I have in some places used the explanatory annotations in Matt (2002, 2004) instead of the literal translation:

On the authority of the King (i.e., Ein Sof), He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed (i.e., the first and most hidden Sefirah, Keter) from the head of Ein Sof — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a measuring line, yielding radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit (Beginning), first command of all.

The enlightened will shine like the Zohar (radiance, brilliance, splendor) of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12: 3)

Zohar! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point. Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Hokhmah) (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all.

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. this palace is called elohim, god. the secret is: Be-reshit bara Elohim, With beginning, ___ created God.

The final lines in this section propose a complete re-interpretation of Creation. Rather than the usual translation (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”), the new interpretation proposes that God is created (together with the heaven and the earth) by the unknowable and unnameable force of Ein Sof.  The Zohar proposes that since Elohim follows the verb bara, it is the object rather than the subject of the act of creation. This would fit with modern colloquial Hebrew, although there are many examples in the Hebrew of the Torah where the subject follows the verb, e.g. Genesis 1:4, Wayyar Elohim et-ha’owr, God saw the light.

Some scholars have remarked about how the expansion of the universe from a “single concealed supernal point” at the beginning of Creation might represent the Big Bang (Friedman, 1995; Matt, 1996b). we should be very cautious in relating science to scripture. Early Kabbalah ideas related the ten sefirot to the now obsolete idea that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by the sky and eight crystalline spheres carrying the moon, sun, the five known planets, the fixed stars, and the empyrean heaven (Chajes, 2020).

The Zohar (Matt, 2004, sections i: 53ab) makes some intriguing comments on the sin of Adam and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The tenth Sefirah is called Malkhut (kingdom) and represents the actual world which contains both good and evil. However, the Sefirah also represents Shekhinah. This word means “dwelling,” or “presence,” and as such it has come to mean the presence of God within the real world. At another level of interpretation, Shekhinah is the female counterpart of Keter or the bride of Tif’eret. Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil brought evil and death into the world and distanced Shekhinah from the other Sefirot. It was not that God drove Adam out of Eden, but that Adam drove Shekhinah out of God. The goal of Judaism is then to repair this cleavage between the Creator and his Creation, to join male and female back together. These concepts were to be expanded in the teachings of Isaac Luria, which will be considered later.

Christian Kabbalah

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, Renaissance scholars began once again to study scientific, philosophical and religious works written by the Ancients but long unread by teachers only concerned with Christian Scripture. Early Kabbalah writings such as the Sefir Yetzirah were some of the sources of knowledge that were thus “reborn” during the Renaissance. Placing these ancient Hebrew writings in the context of Christian philosophy led to the formulation of a Christian Kaballah (Forshaw, 2016).

Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) in Germany published De Arte Cabbalistica in 1517. He tried to reconcile some of the ideas of the Kabbalah with Christian theology, and mapped the Christian Trinity to the upper levels of the Sefirot. The early 16th Century saw the beginning of a campaign to facilitate the conversion of the Jews in the Holy Roman Empire by burning all their books. Reuchlin successfully argued against this (Price, 2011).

The other famous Renaissance scholar of the Kabbalah was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) (Copenhaver, 2019, 2020; Howlett, 2021; Hanegraaff, 2012, pp 53-68). This young nobleman studied at the universities of Ferrara, Padua and Paris, becoming proficient in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He then became a member of the Medici court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. His beautiful face and long chestnut hair was widely depicted in renaissance art. The illustration below shows him represented (posthumously) in Raphael’s School of Athens (1511) in the Vatican (upper left), in Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco Niracle of the Sacrament (1486) (lower left), and holding a medallion of Cosimo de’ Medici in an anonymous engraving (right).

In 1486 Pico published a set of 900 Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae in Rome, and offered to defend these propositions in debate with any scholar who wished to challenge them. He also published a general defense of his conclusions in his oration on the dignity of man, which became the foundational text of the new humanism, wherein man became the measure of all things:

For, raised to the most eminent height of theology, whence we shall be able to measure with the rod of indivisible eternity all things that are and that have been. (Caponigri translation, p 27).

Many of Pico’s Conclusions derived from his readings in the Kabbalah. The following are three examples (from Copenhaver, 2019, Appendix C):

Ein Sof is not to be numbered along with other Numerations (Sefira) because it is the unity of those Numerations, removed and uncommunicated, not a coordinated unity.

Someone with a deep knowledge of Kabbalah can understand that the three great fourfold names of God contained in the secrets of Kabbalists ought to be assigned to the three persons of the Trinity by a wondrous allocation so that the name אהיה (Ehyeh, I am) belongs to the Father, the name יהוה (the tetragrammaton, Yahweh) to the Son, the name אדני (Adonai) to the Holy Spirit.

One who has thought deeply about the novenary number of beatitudes that Matthew writes about in the Gospel (Matthew 5: 3:12) will see that they fit wonderfully with the novenary of nine Numerations (Sefirot) that come beneath the first, which is the unapproachable abyss of the Deity.

Pope Innocent VII considered many of Pico’s proposals, particularly those related to the Kabbalah, as heretical. He forbad the proposed debate and banned any subsequent publication of the Conclusions.


Pico treated all his different sources – Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, Egyptian magicians and Hebrew sages – as equal. His was a philosophy of “syncretism” (from the Greek syn together and krasis mix). The Christian Kabbalah thenceforth became part of a tradition of secret knowledge, a strange amalgam of Gnosticism, Hermetism, Alchemy, Astrology, Freemasonry, and Kabbalah. The word “cabal” entered the lexicon to denote a secret society conspiring to bring about political change by means of intrigue.

Hanegraaff (2012) characterized those systems of knowledge that are rejected by the majority yet followed by a secret few as “esotericism” – the “academy’s dustbin of rejected knowledge” (Hanegraaff, 2013, p 13). The popularity of such esoteric systems waxes and wanes. In the late 19th and early 20th Century various aspects of the occult – spiritualism, Tarot, theosophy – became popular. Later in the 20th Century various “New Age” religions made their impact. 


In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and the great flowering of Spanish Kabbalah ceased. Kabbalah scholars moved to other regions of Europe and the Middle East. The city of Safed in in Galilee, then part of Ottoman Syria, soon became an important center of Kabbalah learning. Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), also known as Remak, was one of the most important scholars in Safed. His name indicates that his family originally came from Cordoba in Spain. The following is from Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, “Orchard of Pomegranates” (1548):

In the beginning Ein Sof emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. … Imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot—the variegated stained glass—judgment or compassion prevails. (quoted in Matt, 1996a, p 38).

Cordovero was followed by Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1532-1572), also known as HaARI, “the lion.” He did not leave any writings of his own, but his teachings were later recorded by his disciples. He proposed that during Creation Ein Sof initially contracted (tsimtsum) so as to make space for the universe, and that when light was emanated into the Sefirot there was some unavoidable fragmentation (shevirah). The task of the faithful is to repair (tikkun) what was broken by means of good works, charity, social justice and prayer (Drob, 2000, pp 384-433). Matt (1996a, p 15) summarized these concepts:

Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center” of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. . . . Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah.


Final Thoughts

There is much that is foolish in the teachings of the Kaballah. The use of the Kaballah in magic makes for wonderful stories but in reality is nonsense. The use of the Kaballah to predict the future is foolish. Sabattai Zevi (1626-1676) used the Kabbalah to claim that he was the Messiah. After gathering together thousands of followers, he was imprisoned by Sultan Mehmed IV and ultimately converted to Islam. He augmented rather than decreased the sum of human suffering.   

The great Kaballah texts are magnificent works of the imagination. They present a view of a universe infused with number and language. In the general sense that we cannot understand or control anything without number and language, these teachings are true. The writings of the Kaballah also provide meditative tools to facilitate individual mystical encounters with the infinite. 

Over the past century we have come to consider particular things as dependent on universal principles. Noam Chomsky has shown that different human languages are all related to a universal grammar; Claude Lévi-Strauss has proposed that different human societies all follow some basic rules for how human beings interact with each other. Perhaps the ideas of the Kaballah can provide us with a general structure with which to understand things – a template for the infinite. These issues are well discussed (though ultimately not resolved) in Levi’s 2009 paper “Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of mysticism or mystifications of science?”

Structural anthropology and Kabbalah, although on cursory appraisal having nothing in common—insofar as they stem from entirely different intellectual domains, the one being a modern social science and the other an ancient form of jewish mysticism—on deeper examination actually share a number of epistemological and ontological postulates. These include, but are not limited to, the idea that surface diversity conceals an underlying unity, specifically truth is discoverable within a layered model of reality, and that space, time, and matter are characterized by entropy and fragmentation.

Perhaps we might end this post with the concept of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”) as proposed in the Kabbalah teachings of Isaac Luria. this is one of the most powerful justifications of human ethics: we should be good not to benefit ourselves but to make the world a better place.


Atzmon, L. (2003). A visual analysis of anthropomorphism in the Kabbalah: dissecting the Hebrew alphabet and Sephirotic diagram. Visual Communication 2(1), 97-114.

Bar-Asher, A. (2022) Decoding the Decalogue: Theosophical re-engraving of the Ten Commandments in Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah. In Brown, J. P.  & Herman, M. (Eds). Accounting for the commandments in medieval Judaism: studies in law, philosophy, pietism, and Kabbalah. (pp. 156-174). Brill.

Berenson-Perkins, J. (2000). Kaballah decoder: Revealing the messages of the ancient mystics. Barrons.

Chajes, J. H. (2020). Spheres, Sefirot, and the imaginal astronomical discourse of classical Kabbalah. Harvard Theological Review, 113 (2), 230-262. 

Copenhaver, B. (2019). Magic and the dignity of man: Pico della Mirandola and his Oration in modern memory. Harvard University Press.

Copenhaver, B. (2020). Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Dan, J., & Kiener, R. C. (1986). The Early Kabbalah. Paulist Press.

Dan, J. (2007). Kabbalah: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Drob, S. (2000). Symbols of the Kabbalah : philosophical and psychological perspectives. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Forshaw, P. J. (2016). Christian Kabbalah. In Magee, G. A. (Ed). The Cambridge handbook of western mysticism and esotericism. (pp. 143-155). Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, R. E. (1995) Chapter 10: Big Bang and Kabbalah. In The disappearance of God: a divine mystery. Little Brown.  

Gikatilla, J. (translated by Weinstein, A., 1994). Gates of light = Shaʼare orah. HarperCollins.

Hanegraaff. W. J. (2012). Esotericism and the academy: rejected knowledge in western culture. Cambridge University Press.

Hanegraaff. (2013). Western esotericism: a guide for the perplexed. Bloomsbury.

Hoffman, E. (2010). The Kabbalah reader: a sourcebook of visionary Judaism. Shambala. 

Howlett, S. (2021). Re-evaluating Pico: Critical political theory and radical practice. Springer.

Kaplan, A. (1979, 1989). The Bahir. Weiser Books

Kaplan, A. (1990, revised 1997). Sefer Yetzirah (The book of Creation). Weiser Books.

Levi, J. M. (2009). Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of mysticism or mystifications of science? Anthropological Quarterly, 82(4), 929–984.

Matt, D. C. (1990). Ayin: the concept of nothingness in Jewish mysticism. In Forman, R. K. C. (Ed). The problem of pure consciousness: mysticism and philosophy. (pp. 121-159). Oxford University Press.

Matt, D. C. (1996a). The essential Kabbalah: the heart of Jewish mysticism. Harper.

Matt, D. C. (1996b). God and the big bang: discovering harmony between science and spirituality. Jewish Lights.

Matt, D. C. (2002). Zohar: annotated & explained. SkyLight Paths 

Matt, D. C. (2004-2017). The Zohar (Pritzker edition.). Stanford University Press. (12 volumes).

McGinn, B. (1981) The God beyond God: Theology and mysticism in the thought of Meister Eckhart. Journal of Religion, 61(1), 1-19

Pico della Mirandola, G. (1486, translated by Caponigri, A. R., 1956). Oration on the dignity of Man. Gateway Books. 

Price, D. H. (2011). Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books. Oxford University Press. 

Tokarczuk, O. (2014, translated by Croft, J. 2022). The books of Jacob . Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Scholem, G. (1941, reprinted 1995). Major trends in Jewish mysticism. Schocken Books.

Scholem, G. (1965, reprinted 1996). On the Kabbalah and its symbolism. Schocken Books.

Scholem, G. (1987). Origins of the Kabbalah. Princeton University Press.

Shokek, S. (2001). Kabbalah and the art of being: the Smithsonian lectures. Routledge.

Valabregue-Parry, S. (2012). The concept of infinity (Eyn-sof ) and the rise of theosophical Kabbalah. Jewish Quarterly Review, 102(3), 405-430.


The Changing English Language

The purpose of a language is to communicate with our fellows. All languages must change to fit the times. New words become necessary. Old words take on new meanings. The way in which words are put together evolves. The rules we learnt as children do not last forever.

In the preface to his seven-volume A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (1909-1949), the great Danish linguist Otto Jespersen remarked

It has been my endeavour in this work to represent English Grammar not as a set of stiff dogmatic precepts, according to which some things are correct and others absolutely wrong, but as something living and developing under continual fluctuations and undulations, something that is founded on the past and prepares the way for the future, something that is not always consistent or perfect, but progressing and perfectible – in one word, human.

He restated this principle in his briefer Essentials of English Grammar (1933), and went on to describe some of the forces that serve to vary and to fix a living language:

Language is nothing but a set of human habits, the purpose of which is to give expression to thoughts and feelings, and especially to impart them to others. As with other habits it is not to be expected that they should be perfectly consistent. No one can speak exactly as everybody else or speak exactly in the same way under all circumstances and at all moments, hence a good deal of vacillation here and there. The divergencies would certainly be greater if it were not for the fact that the chief purpose of language is to make oneself understood by other members of the same community; this presupposes and brings about a more or less complete agreement on all essential points. The closer and more intimate the social life of a community is, the greater will be the concordance in speech between its members. In old times, when communication between various parts of the country was not easy and when the population was, on the whole, very stationary, a great many local dialects arose which differed very considerably from one another; the divergencies naturally became greater among the uneducated than among the educated and richer classes, as the latter moved more about and had more intercourse with people from other parts of the country. In recent times the enormously increased facilities of communication have to a great extent counteracted the tendency towards the splitting up of the language into dialects – class dialects and local dialects.

The following print Speech (1985) by Carla Kleekamp illustrates the idea of language as communication between people in the context of a society. The picture was used on the cover of Levelt’s 1989 book Speaking: from intention to articulation.

Countries such as France have an Academy to review the language and promote its proper usage. The endeavors of l’Académie Française (founded in 1635) often fail: speakers of French much prefer “weekend” to fin de semaine; they “go jogging” rather than faire la course; they send “emails” rather than couriers électroniques. In 1712, Jonathan Swift proposed to the government of the newly United Kingdom that it should establish a similar society to oversee the rules of English, but the government ignored his request. Thankfully, no one has therefore provided us with the proper English words for avant-garde, cliché, or savoir-faire.

With no formal academy, the care and maintenance of the English language was left to lexicographers and grammarians. These scholars tended toward one of two approaches: descriptivism simply portrayed how the language is normally used; prescriptivism defined rules for its proper usage (Linn, 2006; Peters, 2006). Both are necessary. The language should evolve, but basic standards of usage should be taught so that we can understand each other. As in all things, freedom must be tempered with restraint. 

Two main processes therefore determine how the language changes. First, those who speak the language will invent new ways to say things. Some of these may be worthwhile, some not. What survives will become accepted usage. Second, a few people will promote rules for how to speak and write properly. Their intent is (or should be) to enhance communication and prevent ambiguity.

A Brief History of English Grammars and Dictionaries

Those who speak a language as their mother tongue have little need of grammar. The earliest grammars of the English language were used to teach those learning it as a second language. The cases and tenses of English were compared to those of Latin or French, even though English handled these very differently: noun-cases in English are largely determined by word order, and verb tenses are often handled using auxiliary verbs rather than word-endings. 

The first grammar of the English language written in English was that of William Bullokar (1586). The first widely used grammars were those of Joseph Priestley (1761), who is more widely known for his scientific research, and Robert Lowth (1762), an Anglican Bishop:

Priestley addressed his grammar to the middle and lower classes in order to help them obtain an education. He was more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist (Fernández Martínez, 2012):

we need make no doubt but that the best forms of speech will, in time, establish themselves by their own superior excellence: and, in all controversies, it is better to wait the decisions of Time, which are slow and sure, than to take those of Synods, which are often hasty and injudicious. (p xix-xx, Priestley, 3rd Edition, 1772).

Lowth addressed the upper classes and tended toward prescriptivism. Some of his rules were to completely ban the split infinitive, not to strand prepositions at the ends of sentences they were part of, never to use a double negative, and to ensure the proper cases for personal pronouns. Lowth found examples of grammatical barbarisms in the works of great writers. Modern grammarians look to these writers for examples of accepted usage.

Since Priestley and Lowth, many books have described how best to speak and write in English. The most famous of the 20th-Century style guides are Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, first published in 1959. Pinker’s Sense of Style (2014) and Dreyer’s English (2019) are helpful guides for our present century.  

The first real dictionary of English with the meanings expressed in English was Cawdry’s Table Alphabetical (1604). The magnificent dictionary of Samuel Johnson, first published in 1755, provided definitions and etymology for some 40,000 words. Though he was not the first to provides multiple meanings for single words, Johnson provided quotations to illustrate the different senses, and noted whether these were obsolete. On the right is a portrait of Johnson. His dictionary’s original entry for the verb “dress” is illustrated below – note the long-s (ſ) form of the letter “s”

Most of the dictionaries that followed Johnson suggested which usages might be preferred, but tended not to adamant evaluations. Dictionaries are predominantly descriptive (Landau, 2001; Lynch, 2009). In retrospect, it seems strange that Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1961 should have been so pilloried for describing the usage of such words as “ain’t” and “irregardless.” (reviewed in Pinker, 2014, pp 187-201). 

Although we hope that our categories reflect true differences among things, more than not the borders between them are fuzzy. One only has to look at a set of simple objects such as the those on the right (from Löbner, 2013) to see that what one might call a vase, a cup, or a bowl is not absolutely clear, and will change if we think of flowers, coffee or cereal. We have come to terms with this in perception. We should also come to terms with in our understanding of language (Aarts, 2004).

Our minds have more thoughts than our language has words. In any current dictionary almost 40% of the words have more than one meaning or “sense” (Ravin & Leacock, 2000). Sometimes, this might have occurred by chance, as words that were once differently spelled and spoken became the same (homonymy). For example (from Löbner, 2013, pp 44-48), the English adjective “light” derives either from the German licht meaning the opposite of dark or from the German leicht meaning the opposite of heavy. At other times different meanings occur evolve as the word is applied in different contexts (polysemy). Most dictionaries provide several additional senses for the adjective “light” that originally just meant the opposite of heavy: undemanding as in “light entertainment,” easy to digest as in a “light meal,” of low density as in “light traffic.”  

This multiplicity of meaning is illustrated in the following poem by Richard Wilbur (1973):

The opposite of fast is loose
And if you doubt it you’re a goose,
“Nonsense!” you cry. “As you should know
The opposite of fast is slow.”
Well, let’s not quarrel: have a chair
And see what’s on the bill of fare.
The opposite of fast is feast.

The word “starve” initially meant the same as “die.” However, “die” became the general term, and “starve” came to denote the specific way of dying from lack of food. Ultimately, “starve” assumed another sense: to suffer from a severe lack of food, without necessarily dying.

“Eke out” initially meant supplement, it but it can now more commonly means barely subsist, only just obtain, or frugally consume:

He eked out his meager wages by driving a taxi in the evening. 
They eked out a minimal existence in the desert.
The team eked out an overtime victory.
They could survive by eking out the remains of the meal over the succeeding days.

As the language evolves some words may even become “autoantonyms” with meanings that are the opposite of each other: “cleave” can mean either stick together or split apart.

Despite the fact that there are too few words for our ideas, many words are sufficiently related that they may indicate the same idea (synonymy). Some would propose that each word actually has its own specific domain of meaning. For example, “change” is a more general term than “alter” which suggests conscious intent:

Hems are altered.
Seasons change.

Semantically similar words can be distinguished by estimating how frequently they occur with other words. For example, Kaminski (2017) has found that the near-synonyms “fake, artificial, false and synthetic” can be used interchangeably, but they each occur most commonly with certain other words. Only “fur, pearls, chemicals, fibres and pitch” are commonly used with more than one of the near-synonyms:  

Nevertheless, despite the hopes of writers like the Riding-Jacksons (1997) that every word should precisely indicate one and only one idea, the boundaries between domains of meaning remain fuzzy.

Grammatical categories tend to be more clearly defined than words, but they too are affected by fuzziness. Words like “before” and “after” may have begun as prepositions, but they were later also used as conjunctions and adverbs:

before the revolution.
before I was born
Have you been here before?

Though it began as a preposition, “like” is also used as a conjunction, especially since “as” has various meanings (because, while) in addition to comparison.

Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

In recent years “like” has become over-used as a “discourse-marker” in conversational English. Phrases, words or sounds such as “um, oh, eh, and, but, so, I mean, you know” are used between units of discourse (Schiffrin, 1987). They can serve as auditory punctuation, highlight particular parts of the discourse, comment on something, request attention, or connect one section to another.

So, James was like feeling under the weather.

Over time English adjectives have sometimes become used as nouns (often with the definite article)

the good, the bad and the ugly

and sometimes as adverbs without requiring the suffix “-ly” though this is unusual

He ran fast
He ran quickly

Usage often allows a noun to become a verb and vice versa. Thus “impact” can mean to have an impact upon, and “produce” can mean that which is produced. Verbs can be derived by back-formation from nouns: “enthuse” from enthusiasm, “liaise” from liaison, and “emote” from emotion. Purists may object, but this is how language works: it is far better to use these new verbs than to say “be filled with enthusiasm,” “form a liaison,” or “display emotion.”

Nevertheless, even evolution makes mistakes. In biology these die out; in linguistics they may persist. Sometimes words evolve new senses that are more confusing than helpful. Word mavens correctly advise us not to use “infer” (conclude something from some evidence) in the same sense as “imply (suggest or entail). The words inhabit the same semantic neighborhood, but “infer” derives a conclusion and “imply” presents a hypothesis:

He inferred from the cancelled ticket stubs that I had been at the theater.
He therefore implied that I was lying when I claimed not to have seen the play. 

And we should not qualify our superlatives even if others do:

*From his rather unique position

As an aside, we would be better off not qualifying any adjectives, let alone superlatives, with vacuous words like “rather, quite, really, actually” (cf Dreyer, p 3-4)

Although the grammatical rules governing syntax tend to be more clearly defined than those that relate to the parts of speech, all rules have exceptions. The most obvious involves the verb “to be” which, unlike other verbs, uses the subjective case for the noun that follows it (though we only notice this if what follows is a pronoun).

Furthermore, the rules change over time. After acknowledging the importance of the rule of law, Benjamin Dreyer remarks:

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have. (Dreyer, 2019, p 6).

He then goes on to recommend some reasonable rules that, at least for the time being, can increase the clarity of the language.

Given the fuzziness of definitions and the plasticity of rules, this posting will consider some of the changes that English language has undergone, evaluate some current trends, and suggest what might happen in the future. In the examples that follow, an asterisk denotes a usage that is considered “incorrect,” and a diamond means a usage that some might consider “improper.”

Changing the Old Orders.

(i) splitting the infinitive

English differs from most other languages in that the infinitive of a verb is composed of two words: the preposition (although in this usage it is just considered a marker) “to” and the basic form of the verb. Many early grammarians proposed that one should not disrupt this two-word combination by inserting an adverb between the marker and the verb.

◊to fully believe

Students were taught the rule so thoroughly that the sight or sound of a split infinitive was painful. I remember a mentor telling me that reading or hearing a split infinitive felt like silk catching on a nail. Some teacher extended the idea of unsplit verbs to mandate that one should not separate an auxiliary verb from the main verb, as in the oath of office (Pinker, 2009):

◊I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States

These rules have neither logic nor style. They were finally laid to rest in the introduction to the 1966 television series Star Trek where the mission of the Starship Enterprise was

◊to boldly go where no man had gone before:

Now that we have learned how to split the atom (which originally meant a particle that could not be split), we have no reason not to split the infinitive. Nevertheless, we must be aware of differences in meaning that occur with the adverb in different locations. The adverb typically follows the verb it modifies:

He decided rapidly to go home. [a rapid decision]
He decided to go rapidly home. [a rapid movement]

Split infinitives are not wrong, but they can still sound uneasy:

◊He decided to rapidly go home.

Unsplit infinitives can sound even stranger or completely change the sense, as in the third example:

We expect the price to almost double by next year.
◊We expect the price almost to double by next year.
*We expect the price to double almost by next year.  

Negatives do not generally follow the infinitive.

He decided not to go home.
◊He decided to not go home.
*He decided to go not home.

(ii) shall and will

For a long time, various prescriptive grammarians (e.g. Lowth, 1763, p. 62) insisted that the English future tense was formed with the auxiliary verb “shall” in the first person (I and we) and “will” in the second person (you) and third person (he, she, it, they). They further insisted that the opposite usage – “will” in the first person and “shall” in the second and third – conveyed the meaning of promise or threat (in the first person) or promise, threat or command (in the second and third). Fries (1925) reviewed the actual usage of the words over the years in English drama and found no evidence to support this usage. No one knows how the bizarre rule came about. Perhaps it was an affectation of a small group of speakers. The rule has been completely abrogated. Nowadays we use “will” to express the simple future for all persons and “shall” to express promise or compulsion. There is no more ringing first-person promise than Churchill’s

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Probably because it is no longer used for the simple future, the word “shall” has become much less frequent over the past century. The following is from Google Books Ngram Viewer. Note that the scales are different for the two words with “shall” occurring half as frequently as “will”

(iii) Dangling modifiers

Many grammarians insist that all modifiers (such as phrases and participles) must clearly and unambiguously link to a word in the superordinate clause of the sentence. Thus

◊Climbing higher, the view became more and more beautiful.
As we climbed higher, the view became more and more beautiful.
Climbing higher, we found the view more and more beautiful.

Most examples of this problem, as in the first example, are innocuous. No one would think that the view was doing the climbing. Many participles are used quite correctly in this dangling way (see Pinker, 2014, p 211)

Excluding a miracle, Donald Trump will win all the states where the Missouri river flows.  

However, one must beware of ambiguity:

*Having killed a man and shown no remorse, I do not believe that we should parole the prisoner.

Perhaps we should not worry about dangling per se but just ensure that that we do not dangle ambiguously.

(iv) adverbial disjuncts.

Many grammar books define an adverb as a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. However, adverbs have long been used to modify whole sentences. Quirk and his colleagues (1985, pp 612-620) called these adverbs “disjuncts.” They distinguished two kinds: style disjuncts, such as “honestly” or “sadly,” that convey information about the speaker; and content disjuncts such as “really” or “understandably” that convey information about the truth or value of the sentence or clause they are attached to. These disjuncts often come at the beginning of a sentence, as in Rhett Butler’s famous last line in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind:

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.   

However, disjuncts can also come later in the sentence:

We believe that he probably murdered his wife.

He did not murder in a probable manner. What is probable is the truth of the statement that he murdered his wife. However, we must beware of ambiguity, since some adverbs can modify the verb as well as the sentence. This may be why there was such an upset when the adverb “hopefully’ became popular in the sixties. This adverb can be used to mean “in a hopeful manner” as well as “it is to be hoped that:”

We travelled hopefully to London, but we were unable to find work.
Hopefully, we travelled to London to find work rather than to escape our responsibilities.

Nevertheless, many stylists quickly expressed outrage about “hopefully” as an adverbial disjunct. This reaction came in part from a prolonged dislike of dangling modifiers – words and phrases that did not precisely link to other words. However, much of the outrage was likely against the type of person who used the word rather than the word itself:

hopefully in the sense of ‘it is to be hoped (that)’ has never been respectable. When someone says or writes, ‘Hopefully, the plan will be in operation by the end of the year,’ we know immediately that we are dealing with a dimwit at best. The most serious objection to the use of hopefully in a dangling position, often signalled by a following comma, is not that it is not good English, though it is not, nor that it is a trendy usage, though it is, nor even that the thing remains obstinately afloat after many well-aimed salvoes of malediction, but that it is dishonest. In the example given, all that is really meant is, ‘I/we hope the plan will be in operation by the end of the year,’ or still less dishonestly, ‘With luck, the plan,’ etc., but the type who says or writes hopefully puts on a false show of nearly promising something while actually saying precious little. (Amis, 1997, pp 158-9)

The following illustration shows how frequently the disjuncts “hopefully” and “frankly” occur in Google Books using the Ngram Viewer. I have used the case-sensitive option to limit the search to words that begin sentences:

As indicated in the diagram, “hopefully” is now accepted by several style guides. In 2012, Charles Osgood expressed his grief at this development: 

The Associated Press Stylebook now accepts the adverb “hopefully” and the way that it’s been misused by so many for such a long time. As in, “Hopefully, it won’t rain today.” Now, arguably, if the same mistake is made by enough people for a long enough time, it becomes okay. But the late Edward Newman, network newscaster and writer of books on English usage had a sign in his office which read, “Abandon all ‘hopefully’ ye who enter here.” He hoped to discourage us from using “hopefully” the way the Associated Press now says is perfectly okay. “It raineth on the just and on the unjust” as we know, and on those who speak correctly and on those who don’t. And so, perhaps it doesn’t matter if grammar’s rules pertain, but I have Yankee tickets and I hope it doesn’t rain.

Hopefully, such indignation might in future be channeled to defeat injustice rather than to denounce a simple word.

(v) impersonal relative pronouns

Some early rules about the relative pronouns are now no longer observed. “Whose” was originally meant to indicate only personal possession, but modern English uses also uses this pronoun for inanimate relations:

◊an idea whose time has come
an idea the time of which has come.

The former is so much more fluent.

“That” has also come to be used as a relative pronoun for persons as well as things, as in Gershwin’s song:

◊The man that got away

This usage may be partly related to an old distinction between “that” and “which/who” for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. A clause that restricted or defined someone or something was generally formed without punctuation and with “that.” Gershwin’s song refers to the particular man that got away. A non-restrictive clause, one that simply provided extra information, was isolated by commas and introduced by “who” or “which.”

The man that lives next door won the prize.
John Smith, who lives next door, won the prize.

Nowadays “who” and “which” can also be used with restrictive clauses. What is important is the absence of the commas:

The man who lives next door won the prize.


Times are Changing

(i) Cases for pronouns

English does not differentiate between subjective and objective cases other than for some personal pronouns (“I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them”) and the relative pronouns “who” and “whom” (and variants thereof). English generally distinguishes between subject and object by means of word order. Subject precedes and object follows the verb, except occasionally in rhetoric and poetry, when both may precede.

We have defeated the enemy, and liberated our country.
The enemy we have defeated, and our country we have liberated.

Perhaps because we are not used to cases, errors in the cases of pronouns abound. The most notorious of these is

*between you and I

How this usage came about is not known. Perhaps it occurred as an overcorrection following a teacher’s instructions not to use “me and you,” but to politely put the first person in the second place and use the subjective case.

*Me and you will be good friends.
You and I shall be good friends.

However, the cases are not clearly thought out. Modern English often uses the objective case for pronouns after the verb to be:

◊Hello, it’s me again.

Saying the more correct “It is I again” sounds wrong.

Another point of contention is what case to use after “than.” Prescriptivists have proposed that we use the subjective case in the following construction:

John is taller than I.
◊John is taller than me.

They argue that “than” is being used as a conjunction and that the word “am” has been elided at the end of the sentence. However, “than” is a preposition as well as a conjunction, and many modern stylists would consider both examples correct. To me the second example is preferable. 

What is going to happen to the English personal pronouns? The use of “me/him/her/them” after the verb “to be” will become more common. I think that the objective case will still be used after other verbs and after prepositions.  

However, with the relative pronouns “who/whom” everything is in flux. The objective “whom” should be used after a proposition or when the pronoun is the object in the main clause that it introduces: 

The man from whom he took the book …
The man whom Mary loved …

However, if the preposition is not directly attached to the pronoun, most people nowadays use “who:

◊The man who he took the book from …

Similarly, when the pronoun represents the simple object, “who” sounds easier:

◊The man who Mary loved …
◊Do you see who I see?

In questions, “who” seems much more reasonable, perhaps because questions are more common in informal speech than in writing:

Whom should we elect as President?
◊Who should we elect as President?

One of the disadvantages of “whom” is that we are sometimes tempted to use it improperly:

*The candidate whom I believe should be elected president is not Donald Trump.

In this particular example, the pronoun is not the object of “believe” but the subject of “should be elected.”

However, the sentence is far too convoluted for its own good, and could be much better expressed as:

I believe that Donald Trump should not be elected president.

As Greene (2018, pp 13-14) points out, no one would suffer much if we were to do away with “whom.” The word has significantly declined in frequency over the past century. Perhaps it will soon only be used when it immediately follows a preposition. The following is from Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the frequency of words in the books that Google has digitized. Note that there are separate scales for the two words, with “who” generally occurring more than five times more frequently than “whom.”

(ii) Singular they

In recent years it has become obvious that human gender is not restricted to either male or female. Both biology and psychology allow for individual genders between these two extremes and for some fluidity in their location. The language therefore needs a personal pronoun that does not specify male or female. Many have suggested that we use “they” in the both singular and plural forms like “you.”.  

The singular “they” has caused a great outcry among those that fear that the language is losing its clarity and world becoming irrational. However, it is but simple politeness. If someone goes by the name “Michael” they should not be called “Mickey.” If someone wishes to be referred to as “they,” they should not be called “he” or “she.”

The English language has struggled for years to refer to a person without defining their gender. For example, once schools became coeducational, they needed to instruct both male and female students:

The student should write his or her name on the exercise books. He or she should carefully complete all assignments. 

Both “his or her” and “he or she” are clumsy. Varying “he or she” with she or he” sounds even clumsier. The generic “he” meaning either “he” or “she” has long been used, but this is as confusing as it is misogynistic.

Baron (2020) has reviewed the many words that have been coined to refer to a person without mentioning gender – from “ou” to“e” to “thon” to “zie.” None became widely accepted. However, as Baron points out, the answer has been there all along. The English language has used the singular “they” for centuries in constructions with “everyone”:

Everyone indicates their vote by placing an X beside the name of the candidate they wish to elect.

Now we all know what has happened over the years to the right of women to vote if we substituted in this sentence the generic “his” for “their” and “he” for “they.”

Politeness, linguistics and politics all justify the singular “they.” What is interesting is that verb that goes with singular “they” is typically plural. In the last example, we do not say “they wishes.” This seems to be an interesting feature rather than a significant bug.

(iii) subjunctives

Many languages use a subjunctive form of the verb to express actions or states that are hoped for (optative) or commanded (mandative). In the English subjunctive, for all persons both singular and plural, the verb is in the base form. This makes it easy to recognize for the verb “be” since the base form does not occur in the actual present tense

He insisted that I/you/we/he/she/they be kept informed.
I hope that my sins be forgiven.

For other verbs it is only noticed by the missing ‘s’ in the third person singular.

He insisted that she come to the meeting.

However, the meaning of the subjunctive can easily be expressed using modal auxiliaries

He insisted that I must/should be kept informed.
I hope that my sins may/might be forgiven

This approach allows one to qualify commands (“should” is less insistent than “must”) and hopes (“may” is stronger than “might”)

However, using the simple future instead of the subjunctive does not offend the modern ear.

He insisted that I will be kept informed.
I hope that my sins will be forgiven

In all probability the English subjunctive will soon die out, though it may survive in certain idiomatic expressions such as

God forbid …
Long live the Queen!

Grammarians (e.g. Greenbaum, 1996, pp 268-9) have also described a “past subjunctive” (equivalent to the simple past) that is used to express something that is not true (counterfactual) or hypothetical:

If I were a rich man …

This usage is only evident in the first or third person singular of the  verb “to be” since otherwise the form of the verb is the same as the simple past. As Pinker (2014, pp 232-30) points out, this usage is actually neither past nor subjunctive, but rather represents an “irrealis” mode. Although “if I were” will likely persist, its meaning can also be expressed by using the simple past tense to refer remoteness in fact rather in time:

If I was a rich man …

(iv) the dying of the gerund

In English adding the suffix “-ing” to a verb makes either the present participle – an adjective that describes how a noun is acting – or a gerund – a noun that describes the action. When acting as the unmodified subject of a clause or sentence, the sense of the gerund can sometimes also be expressed with the infinitive:

To err is human
◊Erring is human
Swimming is prohibited

Once it is used in other parts of the sentence, the gerund becomes confusing. According to the old rules of grammar the subject of a gerund should be in the possessive case:

I was upset by John’s insinuating that the business was a scam.
◊I was upset by John insinuating that the business was a scam.

However, most people prefer the second version. John is the subject of the gerund, not the possessor thereof. Numerous examples can show how strange the possessive can sound in this situation (e.g. Pinker, 2014, p 212):

*I was annoyed by the people behind me in line’s being served first
*She objects to men’s making more money than women for the same work.

With this problem tentatively solved, another immediately arises – what to do with pronouns?

I was upset by his insinuating that the business was a scam.
◊I was upset by him insinuating that the business was a scam.
*I was upset by he insinuating that the business was a scam.

In the second (more common) usage, the pronoun takes the case of the gerund which is the object of the preposition “by.” However, this does not work if the gerund is the subject of the sentence, where only the possessive sounds correct.

His insinuating that the business was a scam upset me.
*He insinuating that the business was a scam upset me.

My feeling is that the gerund is far too confusing to persist much longer in any language that aims for clarity of communication. Sentences with gerunds can and should be recast using some other verb form:

I was upset by his insinuation that the business was a scam.
I was upset that he had insinuated that the business was a scam.

(v) apostrophes

Over the years the apostrophe has been used in many different ways, some of which are no longer considered proper English (Crystal, 2019, p 215). Its first use, derived from the French, was to indicate omitted letters, which happen much more frequently in French (l’homme, n’est-ce pas): than in English (didn’t, won’t)

In addition, adding an apostrophe plus “s” to a noun has come to denote the possessive case. This rule is not true for pronouns, which have their own possessive form:

The dog’s ears are pointed. [one dog]
*It’s ears are pointed.

The rule for the indicating the possessive for plural nouns is simply to add the apostrophe after the “s”

The dogs’ ears are pointed. [more than one dog]

For names ending in a sibilant, simply add the apostrophe plus “s” though some would recommend that for foreign names ending in a sibilant, perhaps just add the apostrophe:

Charles’s son
Texas’s cities [though “the cities of Texas” or “Texan cities” would be far better]
Sophocles’ plays

Much recent outrage has been expressed about the improper use of the apostrophe, for example to indicate the plural:

However, in the 18th Century the apostrophe was correctly used to indicate the plural for words of foreign origin ending in a vowel, for example “comma’s” (Piton & Pignon, 2010), though this particular usage is no longer accepted as correct.

I am happy at present to follow the rules that copy-editors suggest. But I am unaware of a case where an improper apostrophe has led to ambiguity or a failure to communicate. And I shall not correct those who do not follow the arbitrary rules.

If the apostrophe of possession were to die out in the near future it would not be missed. We could write “dogs” and, as in speech, the context would indicate whether we meant the plural or the possessive, or both. We could then simply use the apostrophe to indicate missing letters. This is the etymological meaning of the word (from the Greek “turning away”).


The best advice for writing or speaking English is to make sure that what you say is clear. Grammatical rules are there to make this possible. The best advice about how to be clear is to check (and recheck) to see if what you have written or what you are about to say is ambiguous. When applied to linguistics, Murphy’s law states that if something can be misinterpreted it will be. And even if it isn’t, the possible misinterpretation will have to be considered, and will thus slow down the correct interpretation.

The other main rule is that your sentences should not be so convoluted that they become incomprehensible. If your reader or listener has difficulty figuring out how the parts of your sentences fit together, they will get tired and have no energy left to understand their meaning. Henry James may have written sentences containing tens of clauses and hundreds of words but you should not. Precision is always better than prolixity.


The goal of language is to communicate. We should still keep and teach sensible rules that facilitate this goal. However, if the sense of the words is clear, one should not greatly care if these rules are broken. And, as the following brief story Ships in the Night (Bush, 1994) illustrates, it is probably best not to correct each other:

I had only just arrived at the club when I bumped into Roger. After we had exchanged a few pleasantries, he lowered his voice and asked, “What do you think of Martha and I as a potential twosome?”
“That,” I replied, “would be a mistake. Martha and me is more like it.”
“You’re interested in Martha?”
“I’m interested in clear communication.”
“Fair enough,” he agreed. “May the best man win.” Then he sighed. “Here I thought we had a clear path to becoming a very unique couple.”
“You couldn’t be a very unique couple, Roger.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“Martha couldn’t be a little pregnant, could she?”
“Say what? You think that Martha and me….”
“Martha and I.””
“Oh.” Roger blushed and set down his drink. “Gee, I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t.” I assured him. “Most people don’t.”
“I feel very badly about this.”
“You shouldn’t say that: I feel bad….”
“Please, don’t,” Roger said. “If anyone’s at fault here, it’s me!”


Historical References (Available at Archiv.org and other websites)

Bullokar, W. (1586). Bref Grammar for English.  London: Edmund Bollifant. (Transcription available in pp 331-285 of Plessow, M. (1906). Geschichte der Fabeldichtung in England bis zu John Gay (1726). Berlin: Mayer & Müller.)

Cawdry, J. (1604) A table alphabeticall. London: Edmund Weaver.

Jespersen, O. (1933). Essentials of English grammar. New York: H. Holt and Company

Jespersen, O. (1909-1949, reprinted 1961). A modern English grammar on historical principles. 7 Volumes. London: Allen & Unwin.

Johnson, S. (1755). A dictionary of the English language. London: J. and P. Knapton; T. and T. Longman; C. Hitch and L. Hawes; A. Millar; and R. and J. Dodsley. Volume I, Volume II, transcription

Lowth, R. (1763). A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes (2nd Ed.). London: A. Millar and R. and J. Dodsley.

Priestley, J. (1772). The rudiments of English grammar. (3rd Ed). London: J and F. Rivington.

Swift, J. (1712). A proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue. London: Benjamin Tooke.

Current References

Aarts, B. (2004). Fuzzy grammar: A reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aarts, B., Bowie, J., & Popova, G. (Eds.) (2020). The Oxford handbook of English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aarts, B., & McMahon, A. M. S. (Eds.) (2006). The handbook of English linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Baron, D. (2020). What’s your pronoun? Beyond he & she. New York: Liveright (W.W. Norton & Company).

Bush, L. (1994). Ships in the night. New York Times, April 4, 1994, p A21.

Crystal, D. (2019). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 3nd Edition. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

Dreyer, B. (2019). Dreyer’s English: An utterly correct guide to clarity and style. New York: Random House

Fernández Martínez, D. (2012). Authority in Lowth’s and Priestley’s prefaces to their English Grammars. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 47/4.

Fowler, H. W. (1926, edited and revised by Burchfield, R. W., 2004). Fowler’s modern English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fries, C. C. (1925) The periphrastic future with “shall” and “will” in modern English. Publications of the Modern Language Association 40, 963–1024.

Greenbaum, S. (1996). The Oxford English grammar. London: Oxford University Press.

Greene, R. L. (2018). Talk on the wild side: The untameable nature of language. London: Economist/Profile Books.

Kaminski, M. P. (2017). Visualisation of collocational preferences for near-synonym discrimination. Lexikos, 27, 237-251.

Landau, S. I. (2001). Dictionaries: The art and craft of lexicography. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Linn, A. (2006). English grammar writing. In B. Aarts and A. M. S. McMahon (Eds.) The handbook of English linguistics. (pp 72-91). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Löbner, S. (2013). Understanding semantics. London: Routledge

Lynch, J. (2009). The lexicographer’s dilemma: the evolution of “proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York: Walker & Co.

Peters, P. (2006). English usage: prescription and description. In B. Aarts and A. M. S. McMahon (Eds.) The handbook of English linguistics. (pp 759-780). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Pinker, S. (2009) Oaf of office. New York Times, Jan 21, 2009.

Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. New York: Viking

Piton, O., & Pignon, H. (2010). “Mind your p’s and q’s?”: or the peregrinations of an apostrophe in 17th Century English. arXiv

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., & Svartvik, J. (1985). A Comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.

Ravin, Y., & Leacock, C. (2000). Polysemy: Theoretical and computational approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Riding Jackson, L., Jackson, S. B., (edited by Harmon, W., 1997). Rational meaning: A new foundation for the definition of words, and supplementary essays. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

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Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2009). The elements of style. 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Pearson Longman: