Wednesday, 30 September 2015

An End to Pedantry: THAT vs. WHICH

I've used this blog on a number of occasions to debunk rules that are widely believed to represent 'proper' educated usage but which have very little basis in reality. I have for instance argued that data is not in fact a plural, that tomatoes aren't really fruit outside of botanical circles, and that there is no good reason to use an rather than before words beginning with h. I'm far from alone in writing about these imaginary rules but I occasionally feel I can provide a slightly different perspective on them. After encountering some of my posts on these issues, one of my readers asked me to elaborate on what I meant by this:
The only standard by which we can judge the use of a word to be correct or not is whether it conforms to the conventions used by members of the speech community in the particular context in which it is being used. [On falling apples and whether tomatoes really are fruit, Oct 16, 2013]
In particular, this reader was interested in what I thought about the alleged rule for when to use that and which, and whether I think it actually matters whether we follow such rules if our meaning is likely to be understood in any case. What follows is a slightly edited version of the response I gave this reader by email, which I hope clarifies my position.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Pronunciation: WORK vs. WALK

The spelling of the words work and walk is quite unhelpful for understanding how to pronounce them, so it might be easier if you imagine them being spelled werk and wawk.

The vowel sound that appears in work can be spelled many different ways, so if you know how to pronounce these other words, you can use them as a guide:
A nurse heard a birth at work.
And here is a sentence to help you with the vowel sound in walk:
I thought I saw a hawk walk.
The l in walk is silent in all common varieties of English.

In the so-called non-rhotic accents spoken in many British colonies and in most of Britain itself, the r in work is also silent. In rhotic varieties of English spoken in Canada, most of the USA, Ireland, and some parts of the UK including Scotland, Northern Ireland and the South West of England (particularly Cornwall where the locals sound a bit like pirates), speakers do pronounce the r in work.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Stop telling people DATA is plural


















The word data is almost universally used as a singular mass noun in English except among many professional writers and academics who insist that it is the plural of datum, a word that is almost non-existent in English outside discussions of whether data is a plural. The reason usually cited for treating data as a plural is that it was a plural in Latin, which is true but irrelevant since grammatical changes often occur when words are borrowed from one language to another. A perfectly analogous example is the word spaghetti which is a plural count noun in Italian but very clearly a mass noun in English, which is why native speakers of English say This spaghetti is cooked and not These spaghetti are cooked.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Mass and count nouns: INFORMATION

In English, the word information does not have a plural form:
INCORRECTWe need more informations.
CORRECTWe need more information.
CORRECTWe need more pieces of information.
This can be confusing for speakers of languages in which the equivalent word has both singular and plural forms:
French: information [singular], informations [plural]
Italian: informazione [singular], informazioni [plural]
German: Information [singular], Informationen [plural]
English treats the word information as a mass noun, while the equivalents in these other languages are count nouns. For more about what these terms mean, see yesterday's post: The Grammar of Mass and Count Nouns.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The grammar of mass and count nouns

Mass nouns are often the names of substances like water, wood and air that we can measure on a continuous scale. Count nouns, on the other hand, generally label things that come in discrete wholes that we can count like children, houses and hats. To put it simply, the distinction between mass and count is one between stuff and things.

You can usually guess whether a noun will be of the mass or count variety from its meaning, but what ultimately determines whether a word is classified as a mass noun or count noun is the way it functions grammatically.

Mass nouns are always singular, so like singular count nouns, they trigger singular agreement. Mass nouns also have something in common with plural count nouns because continuous substances and groups of countable objects can both vary in quantity. These factors partly explain which determiners you can use with mass nouns and how they compare with the determiners you can use with singular and plural count nouns:

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Sensory verbs: SEE vs. LOOK AT vs. LOOK vs. WATCH

THREE TYPES OF SENSORY VERBS
Sensory verbs come in several different varieties:
  1. Sensing: see, hear, feel, taste, smell
  2. Attending: look at, listen to, touch, taste, smell/sniff
  3. Perceiving: look, sound, feel, taste, smell
We use the first type to talk about receiving sensory information and the second type when the observer is deliberately directing their senses to attend to something. For example, to look at is to direct one's eyes to see something, to listen to is to direct one's auditory attention to hear something, to touch is to direct one's hand to feel something, and so on.

The third type of sensory verb is used to talk about the state or qualities of perceived objects. Grammatically, this third type is part of a small group of verbs (which also includes be and seem) that can take an adjective as a complement:
  • It is/seems nice.
  • It looks/sounds/feels/tastes/smells nice.

A FOURTH TYPE
There is also a fourth type of sensory verb, which we can think of as a refinement of the second type. The only difference is in the form of the verb for vision to give us watch instead of look at. Both watching and looking at are about focussing one's visual attention so as to see something, but watching involves not only attending to the form of objects but also to changes that occur in them over time. Hence we watch a movie but normally only look at a photograph.

Note that watching isn't merely looking continuously as is often claimed because a person can look at something continuously without attending to changes in it. Consider the following pair of sentences, for example:
  • Jill watched television for an hour.
  • Jill looked at the television for an hour.
Both of these sentences are perfectly acceptable in English, but they mean different things. The first is the more typical case that would apply if Jill were enjoying a television program. The second is a strange thing to do for a whole hour since it would suggest that Jill paid no attention to the changing images on the screen or that the television wasn't even switched on.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

On falling apples and whether tomatoes really are fruit

Imagine a film of an apple accelerating toward the ground under the influence of gravity. If we played this film backwards, what would we see? It may seem odd, but a physicist will tell us that when the film is played backwards, the apple will continue to accelerate downwards! Regardless of whether the film is played forwards or backwards, the apple will accelerate downwards.

It is because physicists use the word accelerate with a slightly different meaning to the one in everyday use that an otherwise trivial fact about the universe can be cast as such a curious statement.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Adjectives: LATE vs. TOO LATE

Something is late if it happens after it is expected to happen. By contrast, something is too late if it happens after it is needed for a particular purpose.

For example, if Jill's flight was scheduled to arrive at 8:45 and her plane landed at any time after this, then you could say:
  • Jill's plane arrived late. [later than it was expected to arrive]

If Jill needed to catch a train from the airport at 9:15, and the late arrival of her plane made this impossible, you could also say:
  • Jill's plane arrived too late to catch the 9:15 train. [later than needed for the purpose of catching that particular train]

Whether something happens too late will depend on which purpose is being discussed:
  • Jill's plane arrived too late to catch the 9:15 train, but not too late to catch the 9:45 train.

Only use too late if you are directly discussing a particular purpose, or when a particular purpose is implied. If you arrive at a meeting after it has begun, you are simply late. If you said you arrived too late for a meeting, native English speakers would probably think you meant that you had arrived after it had ended (i.e., the purpose of attending the meeting was not achieved).


OTHER ADJECTIVES:
Too behaves the same way when used with other adjectives:
  • The coffee was too hot (to drink). [hotter than desired for the purpose of drinking]
  • Jill was refused entry to the cathedral because her skirt was too short. [shorter than allowed for the purpose of entering the cathedral]
  • The soldier was too young to vote, but not too young to serve in the military. [younger than allowed for one purpose, but not the other]
  • Jill works too hard. [harder than desired, presumably for her happiness or health, depending on context]

Nouns: WEDDING vs. MARRIAGE

A wedding is the ritual celebration that marks the beginning of a marriage. A marriage is something that begins with a wedding ceremony and is ended by death or divorce.

Examples:

  • Most couples have their weddings in the summertime.
  • Erica and Michael have the sort of marriage that brings out the best in people because they experience each other's joy as their own.


Some other ways of talking about weddings:

  • Most couples get married in the summertime.
  • Most couples wed in the summertime.
  • Most couples marry in the summertime.
  • Most couples tie the knot in the summertime.
  • Most couples get hitched in the summertime.
  • Most couples walk down the aisle in the summertime.
  • Most couples take their nuptials in the summertime.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

‎'Tis the season for problems of reference

We in the English speaking world use Santa Claus, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle as three interchangeable names for the same non-existent person, responsible for teaching children not to trust their parents. Then we have Saint Nicolas, which is also often used synonymously with these, but sometimes also refers to an alleged historical figure who lacked the reindeer and sled, the penchant for cookies and milk, omniscience about whether we've been bad or good, the elf workshop at the North Pole, and pretty much all of the fun stuff.

What I find interesting about this is the question of how we could possibly determine that at least the first three of these names refer to the same person if that person doesn't exist. To compound this problem, consider the fact that in the Christmas traditions of Germany and some other places, the etymological equivalents of these names do not all refer to the same non-existent person, but to different non-existent people! There's Nikolaus (corresponding etymologically to either Saint Nicolas or its derivative Santa Claus) who delivers presents via a donkey on the night of the 5th/6th of December, often leaving chocolates or other small items in your shoes (not the most hygienic place to store chocolate in my opinion). He dresses in a very ostentatious red and has a white beard suspiciously like what English speakers associate with Santa Claus, but Nikolaus prefers a more saintly looking hat and carries a shepherd's staff.

Manneken Pis in Brussels irreverently
dressed as one or more people who don't exist
There is also the Christkind (corresponding etymologically to Kris Kringle), which literally translates as 'Christ Child', but instead of a jolly fat man, the Christkind is essentially a baby Jesus with wings, who brings gifts on the evening of the 24th of December when children aren't looking. What's more, he makes his delivery early enough to allow everyone to open their presents before going to bed on the 24th! Originally a protestant tradition, the Christkind was consciously established by Luther to compete with Nikolaus, who was a Catholic saint and therefore a heretical form of fun.

Then there's the Weihnachtsmann (literally the 'Christmas man'), but to explain his origins, a slight detour is required into evolutionary theory. When environmental conditions are favorable, numbers of a species will increase and spread out over a wider area. When conditions worsen again, these habitats can shrink leaving pockets of different sub-populations isolated from one another. Without any genetic mixing between these isolated sub-populations, they can come to diverge from each other over evolutionary time as have the distinct species of finches on the islands of the Galapagos. When environmental conditions allow members of these sub-populations to spread out again, the different variants can come into contact with their long-lost cousins and come to live alongside each other as distinct species.

Something like this appears to have happened with the tradition of Nikolaus, which spread far and wide, but mutated on distant shores to include the more efficient reindeer-based method of gift delivery, the remodeled hat and the other things. Presumably because of the cultural success of the American entertainment industry, this mutated form has migrated back to Germany where it exists alongside the original Nikolaus as a distinct species of Christmas man, the Weihnachtsmann, competing with the Christkind to deliver presents on the evening of the 24th.

These men of Christmas raise a number of interesting issues about the reference of names, which also frequently arise in religion. Do Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same god? The desire for peaceful coexistence might lead us to hope so, and we know that historically these religions all developed from the same Abrahamic tradition, but sharing a common tradition hasn't stopped Nikolaus and the Weihnachtsmann referring to different beings.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Adjectives: BORED vs. BORING

What is the difference in meaning between these two adjectives?
  • a boring student
  • a bored student
The first says something insulting about the student. If you want to describe a student who would rather be somewhere else, you should use the second.

A student might describe himself as bored and one of his lessons as boring. It is not a coincidence that these look like forms of the verb bore. Consider the following sentence: 
  • The lesson bored the student.
If we wanted to focus on the role of the subject or the role of the object, we could rephrase it as one of the following:
  • The lesson was boring. [progressive]
  • The student was bored. [passive]
The subject (the lesson) of the active sentence can be described as boring and the object (the student) can be described as bored. It is the same when they are used as attributive adjectives:
  • The boring lesson
  • The bored student
Here are some other verbs that follow the same pattern:

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Causatives: REMIND means cause to REMEMBER

Many languages have only a single word that covers the meanings of remember and remind so speakers of these languages often have trouble knowing when to use each in English and produce errors like the following:

  • INCORRECT: Remember me to buy some bread on the way home.
  • CORRECT: Remind me to buy some bread on the way home.

The relationship between these two verbs is the same as that between the verbs kill and die. Just as the verb kill means cause to die, the verb remind means cause to remember. Here are some examples:

  • That smell reminds me of our holiday in Tuscany.
    [The smell caused me to remember the holiday]
  • I had forgotten about the bread until Jill reminded me.
    [Jill caused me to remember the bread]

  • I remember it snowed more when I was a kid.
    [No mention of something causing the memory to be recalled]


ADVANCED:

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Articles: A vs. AN and THE vs. THE

A versus AN
When learning a second language, people usually learn the written form at the same time as the spoken form. With English, this can be confusing because the spelling is very irregular. This is especially true for the rule about when to use a versus an, but if phrased in terms of pronunciation rather than spelling, the rule is extremely simple:
RULE: Use a before words beginning with a consonant sound and an before words beginning with a vowel sound.
The spelling often agrees with the phonetic rule, as in the following example:
  • a cat
  • an old cat
But the spelling isn't always so kind:
  • a university (because university begins with the y sound of youth)
  • an umbrella (because umbrella begins with the u sound of up)
  • a xylophone (because xylophone begins with the z sound of zoo)
  • an x-ray (because x-ray begins with the e sound of extra)
  • a hat (because the h is pronounced)
  • an hour (because the h is silent)
The rule is about pronunciation rather than spelling, so the rule still holds perfectly in these examples, even if the spelling is unhelpful. If you know how to pronounce the next word, you'll always know whether to use a or an. Of course, for speakers of languages like Italian and French who have trouble hearing the h sound, this isn't so simple.

Note that there are a few people who believe that an should be used before certain words that begin with an h sound in modern English, and consider this 'proper' educated usage. The most common example of this occurs with the word historic:
  • an historic event (rare usage)
The belief that this is grammatically correct is probably due to another unhelpful effect of spelling. The reason we can find 'an historic' written in old texts is that there was a time when the h of historic was silent in many people's speech. It's like the word herb in modern varieties of English. Some people pronounce the h and some don't. Those who pronounce the h write 'a herb', and those who don't pronounce the h write 'an herb'. Text preserves the spelling, but not the pronunciation that goes along with it, so after the pronunciation of historic settled on its modern form, people who saw 'an historic' written in older texts probably mistook this for a rule that applied to modern pronunciation.

In general, if native speakers have to be taught a rule that doesn't come naturally, there is probably something fishy about the rule. Misguided rules of this kind are almost not worth mentioning, except that people benefit from an awareness of them when they, for example, end up working for people who believe them.

THE versus THE
Like a, the pronunciation of the varies depending on whether the next word begins with a vowel or consonant sound. Before a word beginning with a consonant sound, the vowel of the is usually reduced to what's called a schwa, represented by the ə symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet:
  • the cat (pronounced ['ðə] with a short middle vowel)
  • the old cat (pronounced ['ði] to rhyme with bee)
This is one of those details that native speakers almost never notice about their own language (again probably because it's not reflected in the spelling) and which they never need to be taught.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Comparatives: CURIOUSER vs. MORE CURIOUS

With almost no exceptions, comparative adjectives are formed either by adding -er or by using more:
  • Jill is smart -> Jill is smarter than Penny.
  • Jill is intelligent -> Jill is more intelligent than Penny.
The same pattern occurs with the superlative forms -est and most (Note that if an adjective takes the -er form, it will also take the -est form, and likewise for more and most):
  • Jill is the smartest student.
  • Jill is the most intelligent student.
Non-native speakers of English often find it difficult to know when to use the -er form and when to use the more form. Unfortunately, there isn't a perfect rule for this, but you can still improve your chances of guessing right with a few simple tips.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Prepositions: OVER vs. ABOVE

Native speakers of English usually find it very difficult to explain the difference between the prepositions over and above, but nevertheless have very clear intuitions about when each should be used. Today's post will be getting into some detail about the factors driving these intuitions. The system is quite beautiful in its logic and very revealing about semantic structure.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Weirdness with plurals

The grammatical distinction between singular and plural does not map perfectly onto the meanings one and more than one.

One way to check whether a noun phrase is singular or plural is by seeing whether it triggers singular or plural agreement with a verb when it appears as the subject of a sentence:

  • Singular: This monkey likes bananas. [and not This monkey like...]
  • Plural: These monkeys like bananas. [and not These monkeys likes...]

Another way, also illustrated in the above examples, is by looking at whether a singular or plural determiner is used (in these examples, the determiner this is singular and the determiner these is plural), though with a determiner like the, the form doesn't change, and there are a few cases where the determiner appears to be singular, but plural agreement is triggered:

  • Plural: A few/dozen/hundred/million monkeys like bananas.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Adverbially adjectival: GOOD vs. WELL

Many adjectives have an adverbial form produced by adding an -ly ending:
  • quickquickly
  • accidentalaccidentally
  • locallocally
  • recentrecently
  • frequentfrequently
  • happyhappily [replace -y with -ily]

Other adjectives have an irregular adverbial form:
  • goodwell [instead of goodly]
  • earlyearly [adjective already ends in -ly]
Modern theories of grammar include adverbial forms of adjectives within the class of adjectives much as singular and plural nouns are included within the class of nouns. The reason is because they share most of the behaviour of the adjectives they are derived from. For example, gradable adjectives and adverbs both behave the same way in comparisons:

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Pronouns aren't the only pro-forms

The way pronouns work is familiar to everyone. If someone has just mentioned the old man with green hair who lives in an apple tree by the lake, you can save some time by using he and him to refer to him afterwards.

But pronouns are a special case of a more general category known as pro-forms. While pronouns stand in place of noun phrases (NPs), other pro-forms stand in place of preposition phrases (PPs), verb phrases (VPs) and adjective phrases (APs). Some examples:

A PP pro-form:
  • Jill will stay at the hotel.
  • Penny will stay there too. [there interpreted as at the hotel]

A VP pro-form:
  • Jill will stay at the hotel.
  • Penny will do so too. [do so interpreted as stay at the hotel]

An AP pro-form:
  • Jill was angry with the priest.
  • Penny was even more so. [so interpreted as angry with the priest]

Friday, 1 April 2011

How many is A LOT?

Among quantities like a couple, several, many, a few, and a lot, some can be mapped to specific values. A couple usually means two (or approximately two), a dozen means 12, and there is a long tradition of dictionaries trying to place limits on others. For example, Merriam-Webster defines several as "more than two but less than many".

But another way of thinking about these expressions is that they tell us where a quantity lies in relation to standards and expectations. From this perspective, the word several is used to counter the expectation that a number is limited to one or two:
It is possible to send an email to several people at once. [several, not just one or two]
WRONG: The news said that many people were injured in the protest, but only several were. [several can't usually be contrasted with many]
The same several people you sent an email to could be described as a few people when you want to say the number is fewer than someone thinks it is:
I did email those naked pictures to several people.
She thought I emailed those naked pictures to everyone, but I only sent them to a few people.
It is impossible to say approximately how many items a few, a lot and many refer to without knowing the context. Four is a lot of fish for one person to eat, but it isn't a lot of fish to find swimming around in a lake. The interpretation of a lot depends on our understanding of how many items there should be in a given context. A lot is a large enough number to impress and a few is close to none.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Prepositions and time: FOR vs. SINCE

Use for to introduce durations like 1 second, 3.8 billion years, a long time and a little while.
Life on Earth has existed for about 3.8 billion years.
I listened to a Lady Gaga song for a little while.
Since is used to introduce the point in time when something became true and must always be used with a form of the perfective have.
I have lived on Earth since 1975.
I have been listening to Lady Gaga since 3 o'clock.
Some common mistakes involving since:
WRONG: I have lived here since 30 years. [You can't use a duration with since]
WRONG: I am living here since 1981. [You must use since with a form of have]
See the tag prepositions for related posts.