Well, there are several reasons for my dietary choice actually. Firstly – my generous proportions make fried food rather a bad idea. Secondly – I actually prefer a nice jacket potato any day of the week but, thirdly, I AM BRITISH and I prefer to call them chips!
I also prefer to talk about TV series rather than seasons, and the phrase ‘Monday through [or even worse, ‘thru’] Thursday’ brings me out in a rage. OK, I must admit I’m probably fighting a losing battle against the American form of our language; it’s arriving daily with TV programmes, advertisements, fast food outlets etc. As a student of the history of the English language I know how our tongue has been influenced since the very beginning by contact with other nations [where would we be without baguettes, shampoo and saunas*?] so I will, perhaps, just have to grit my teeth and bear it.
A very interesting article appeared in The Guardian and I would recommend you take a few minutes to read it. http://tiny.cc/41ccqy
However, despite the fact that I acknowledge that language must change or die, I will never, to my dying day, say ‘Should of’, ‘Would of’ or ‘Could of’ – so there!
I’m sure we’ve all had to do it – we go to the supermarket to buy a few tins of beans or a cabbage – and find them running up and down the aisles doing their best to escape the oncoming shopping trolleys…..No?
I was waiting for a bus this evening and, to pass the time, I was reading one of those light-up message boards in a bargain shop across the road. They had cigarette papers on offer, kitchen equipment and stationary items. I was so happy; I so hate the type of establishment I mentioned in the first paragraph. What am I talking about? Stationa/ery – that’s what. Two very similar words with one important difference – the final vowel.
It’s easy to confuse the words stationary and stationery uness you remember the simple rule….E is for Envelope. So, if you are writing about paper, pens, envelopes etc it’s spelt with an ‘e’ – stationery. If, however, you are talking about something which is totally still [as I prefer my cabbages and beans to be in the shops!] then it’s spelt with an ‘a’ – stationary. Simples.
This is just a quick piece of news I am bursting to share with you, dear reader[s?]. If you didn’t know already, there is a wonderful magazine about language called Babel which I find extremely enjoyable. It’s written in an informative but not overly-academic way and I have previously mentioned a few of its articles on my own Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/starfish4english/.
Anyway, I saw a post on their Facebook page, recently, asking for people to submit articles for their ‘Ask an Expert’ section. Previous questions have included ‘Why do we use the letter X to symbolise a kiss?’ and ‘What is the difference between In hospital and In the hospital?’ I hesitatingly volunteered to research an upcoming question ‘Why is the grammar of the proverb ‘Needs must’ so odd? Needs must… what? Be acknowledged?’ To my amazement they not only accepted my offer, but they liked my answer and it just may feature in an upcoming issue. So, why is the grammar so strange? You’ll have to get yourself a copy of Babel to find out!
You can read more about Babel for yourself on Facebook at
We all know about the Three Kings who visited Jesus in the stable, don’t we? They’re in all the Nativity sets, on Christmas cards and we sing happily about them. We even know their names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. So, that’s that – ok? Not quite.
Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about them. The only gospel to mention them is Matthew. He says ‘Lo three kings/wise men/magi, called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar turned up that very same night. They arrived right after the shepherds and entered the stable where the baby Jesus had just been born.’ – Hmmm, does it really? Let’s take a quick look – the version below is from a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. It makes the words come alive in a very relevant, up-to-the-minute way. [My emphases in bold italics]
Matthew 2:1-12The Message (MSG)
Scholars from the East
2 1-2 AfterJesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:
It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land, no longer bringing up the rear. From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”
7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”
9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.
Not quite what happens in the school Nativity play, is it? No mention of there being three. Who says six might have brought gold, two frankincense and 37 myrrh? [If there were 45, I hope Mary had enough clean cups and saucers in her HOUSE for them all]. Yup, it doesn’t mention them going to a stable, or seeing a baby – it talks about seeing a CHILD in a HOUSE. (https://answersingenesis.org/holidays/christmas/we-three-kings/)
So, what or who were they? The word Magi is an ancient word, defined by the Collins dictionary thus: the Zoroastrian priests of the ancient Medes and Persians.
They were definitely men of learning. They were certainly men of great learning. The word Magi comes from the greek word ‘magos’ (where the english word ‘magic’ comes from). Magos itself comes from the old persian word ‘Magupati’. (https://www.whychristmas.com/story/wisemen.shtml)
Chances are, they looked a bit like this – no cardboard crowns in sight! So, whoever these wise, definitely wealthy and learned men were [sorry, ladies – the Bible is clear on that point, they WERE men!] their story has somehow turned into our well-known ‘We Three Kings’. They saw a star, they knew it meant the birth of a king, and they came to worship the King of kings. Wise men indeed. And they have given us some nice shiny costumes for the annual play – not to mention some lovely Christmas stamps. Have a happy, blessed Christmas and a great 2018.
We all pepper our speech with those little not-quite-words such as ‘umm’ and ‘errr’, don’t we? Had it ever occurred to you that you were speaking English when you made those sounds [called fillers in Linguistics, should you want to know]?
Apparently, one of the most common ways of showing you are not a native speaker of a language – no matter how proficient you may be – is to forget to use that language’s own fillers during speech.
In Polish, for instance, the sound equivalent to ‘Umm’ is yyy or eee.
Japanese has ええと [pronounced eto I am informed] and Welsh has iawn.
So, should you be chatting away in Polish and you state – with perfect grammar and pronunciation – that ‘I think I might, ummm, try a new hairdo’ [Myślę, że mogę, ummm, spróbować nowej fryzury], that ‘ummm’ has just betrayed your non-Polish nativity. *
Say Myślę, że mogę, yyy, spróbować nowej fryzury, on the other hand, and nobody would suspect a thing [unless they spot your penchant for watching Coronation Street without Polish subtitles]. Novice spies – take note!
By the way – she waffles, off topic, isn’t fryzury a lovely word to describe a hairdo. Mine is definitely quite fryzurish every morning!
For more on this subject, [fillers not fryzury-style hair], try these links to get you started.
* Nativity – lovely word we don’t use often enough, except at Christmas. And it IS darned near Christmas [there’s virtual snow on this site and real snow on the streets outside], so I feel justified in using it. Happy Christmas everybody and a blessed New Year
French, along with many, many languages, [far too many if you ask me] has no neutral pronouns. Huh? Sorry – I’ll put it another way. In English, we talk about males as ‘he’, females as ‘she’ and inanimate objects as ‘it’ [ok, maybe not ships … but mostly we do]. If we are talking about a group of people we only have the words ‘them, they’ etc…nicely gender-neutral.
Because of this, we don’t pluralise He and She for groups of males or females and talk about ‘hes’ or ‘shes’. Imagine:
‘Here come the bridesmaids…shes look lovely, don’t shes?’
Just not English, is it? However, in French, the word elles is a plural for a group of females, as ils is for a group of men. The trouble starts when talking about a mixed group. Instead of some gender-neutral plural, the masculine ils is used by default, meaning that you would have no way of knowing just from this if the group included females or not.
Many generations of language students in English-speaking countries have puzzled over this; cries of ‘SEXIST’ have reverberated round many a classroom, yet we always presumed the French were fine with it. We thought they just gave a Gallic shrug and said something along the lines of c’est la vie.
It has emerged, though, that French women themelves are not happy about the inherent sexism in their language. This article from the Daily Telegraph sums it up:
One reason for the current state of affairs, cited in the article, is…shall we say…slightly controversial –
Above all, it was applied for “political” rather than linguistic reasons, they argue, citing a 17th century work by linguistic state advisor Dupleix on French linguistic “purity”. This reads: “Because the masculine gender is more noble, it takes precedence alone against two or several feminines, even if these are closer to their adjective.”
OK, have you calmed down yet, dear female readers? [I haven’t!!!!] Sadly, even those who are pushing for a change appear to be struggling to find a sensible solution. One such idea being mooted is the inclusive approach:
The inclusive approach splits up words using a mid punctuation point, so the plural for all friends becomes “ami·e·s”. Dear friends becomes “cher·e·s ami·e·s”.
Hmmm, can’t see that catching on, can you? So, as the debate continues across the channel , let’s leave THEM to it and have a nice cuppa instead!
Recently, one of my students asked me why her tutor had returned her work with a lot of words circled [in that angry way which only university tutors can]. The phrases which seemed to have caused this person the most outrage were ones such as ‘the company posted their profits’. Why should something as seemingly innocuous as this cause marking-pen overdrive?
Let’s look at the nice drawing above – it’s a family, ok? So what is your family like? OR….what are your family like? Hmmmm, both questions are acceptable grammatically, are they not?
I’m a sucker for Victoria [ITV Sundays 9pm – do NOT phone or text me, ok?]. In last week’s episode, one of the characters remarked that ‘my staff is arriving tomorrow’ [or something along those lines – please don’t quote me]. The point is, this person must consider their staff, of several if not hundreds of people, as a singular unit.
Back to my perturbed student. She clearly considered the company she was writing about to consist of a group of individuals and, therefore, used the plural to refer to it. The posh person in Victoria looked upon their staff as a unit which acted and functioned as one entity so used the singular.
This got me thinking about other similar collective nouns –
Government [is in session/are discussing?]
Team [had its best match ever/ played their best today?]
Crew [sails the ship/ sail for Africa]
I’m sure we could put our heads together and come up wth many, many more…but my tea’s cooking!
One golden rule, though. However you view the team/family/government/your staff – once you have decided on singular or plural, then be consistent in your choice throughout. The company posted its year-end profits and announced their floatation on the stock market…………no, no, no!
There are actually some rather pernickity rules, but this blog post from the OED is more than good enough for me:
Experience is the most effective teacher (I learned more Spanish in three days in Barcelona than I did in two years of high school Spanish class). But one of the most interesting things about the human psyche is that we’re wired to learn from other people’s experiences, as well. There’s something divinely intentional about the way we not only sympathize but empathize with others, the way we “take the journey” with them.
Your job as a storyteller–as a fiction writer, or as an essayist or teacher using an illustration–is to take us there. Aristotle called it catharsis, our tendency to process or “purge” our own feelings by identifying with another’s experience. Joseph Campbell called it “the hero’s journey.” But catharsis doesn’t just happen with epic heroes (Odysseus, Frodo, Luke Skywalker), it happens with down-to-earth protagonists, as well (Woody in Toy Story, Pony Boy in The Outsiders). If it feels…
When I am helping students with their English assignments for school or college, one problem many have is remembering what the passive voice is. The classic, grammatical answer, is that the subject is a non-active patient of the verb…..hmmmm, yeah, that makes it a lot clearer, doesn’t it?
So, it’s not really good English to say ‘Jack ate the cake by zombies’…that doesn’t really make much sense [unless, maybe, there was a party of zombies picnicing nearby?] If, however, you were to say ‘the cake was eaten by ……. ‘ and in the space you could insert either ‘Jack’ – the sensible option, or ‘zombies’ – the more interesting option, then you have a passive sentence. The cake is, basically, sitting minding its own business when it gets eaten. I’ll leave it to Sherlock to decide by whom.
One problem though….zombies don’t usually eat anything as mundane as cake. Nor do they often play football or drive cars. Hamsters, however…….
Basically, a columnist wants the company to remove the apostrophe from their sign. On the face of it, I agreed at first, but then realised it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems.
How many boys are there? That must be the nub of the question. If there are more than one, then – yes – the apostrophe needs some amendment. But…should it be removed altogether or simply placed after the word boys?
This establishment could be one, singular, boy’s shop. It could be several, plural, boys’ shop. Or, Pretzel Boys could simply be the title of the business.
Think of The Fabulous Bakin’ Boys.
This is the company’s name – ok, they have an apostrophe elsewhere – we’ll not go there in this post!
But, maybe we’ll leave the last word to Sainsbury’s, and their response to Mr M. He asked them why their name has an apostrophe – read their reply here: