Truth – plain and simple.
As you may or may not know, I’ve been studying for my MRes at the University of Central Lancashire for most of the past 2 years. It’s been a fascinating journey – I’ve climbed mountains [cue Julie Andrews!], overcome obstacles, learnt new skills and been to the pits of despair and the heights of elation. However, all this time I have mostly just been focused on my own research topic, the English Dative Alternation* – more specifically between the years of 1410 and 1680. Sometimes it feels as though I eat, sleep and dream it. Sometimes it feels as though there is nobody or nothing else in the world apart from my area of study. Sometimes I wonder if anybody else could give a proverbial.
Today, however, was the undergraduate dissertation conference at UCLan. Being a lofty post-grad student I had vague memories of the terror I went through before I had to present my paper. This time, though, I wasn’t presenting, I didn’t know any of the presenters and I had no real involvement whatsoever. It was bliss! I could just sit and listen from a vantage point of academic interest.
There were some fascinating topics. How sleep is represented in literature, Textual analysis of the New Testament, neologisms in Harry Potter, the rhetoric of Donald Trump and forensic analysis of the language of Brendan Dassey’s interview transcripts**
Nothing was really relevant to my own thesis, and in a way it could have been considered a waste of a day which I could have spent preparing for my exam [or playing with my Lego – much nicer!] However, as I walked away, after the delicious cakes at the closing remarks, I felt strangely refreshed. I realised why – it was as though I’d been on a coach trip of English Linguistics; admiring, enjoying, learning a little bit here and there, but with no obligations whatsoever – a nice little mental holiday in fact. Nice 🙂
*English Dative Alternation: In a nutshell, the difference between I gave flowers to her and I gave her flowers.
Should you be interested in any of the topics I have mentioned, I would be happy to point you in the direction of the researchers involved.
Feel free to email me: StarfishEnglishServices@gmail.com
This article appeared on the BBC News website a week ago. It’s actually a very hopeful story, but I had to read, read and re-read the headline before I could make sense of it:
Wearable Tech Aids Stroke Patients
WHAT! I thought – when we’re under the weather are our FitBits getting a bit too up close and personal? Am I in danger of being fondled by a pair of headphones? Will those virtual reality headsets start kissing their wearers? Thankfully, [or maybe not, depending on your viewpoint?] no – well not yet it seems. The above headline is a classic example of ambiguity at its best. The wearable tech aids in question have not been stroking people lying in hospital beds – but wearable tech has been aiding patients recovering from a stroke.
Usually, a well-placed punctuation mark can make all the difference between two similarly worded sentences; for instance:
Let’s eat Grandma – Let’s eat, Grandma.
In cases such as the over-friendly tech aids, however, there is actually nowhere a comma or other helpful punctuation mark could have been inserted – the whole ambiguity is down to the actual words used. The problem the writer did not realise is that aids can be a noun or a verb – similarly stroke can be a verb or a noun. Were this particular sentence read aloud, the whole misunderstanding would be cleared up by intonation – try it yourself and see. A stress on the word aids gives a very different meaning to a stress on the word stroke.
Later on, I must mention, the headline had been changed to the clearer, but much less amusing:
Wearable tech could help stroke patients with recovery
I couldn’t help wondering who had noticed the problem with the first one and spoiled my fun!
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.
Picture [of hopefully stationary pebbles] © Zen Pepples. Maurice Alexandre F.P. / Getty Images
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
or their site can be found at
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]?
Picture from: https://drawception.com/game/9hZ3EsCfbM/ummm-hi/
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
Before I start, apologies for the lack of posts recently, my thesis has now been submitted and normality is resuming. You have been warned. OK, as I was saying:
Ever been to France? Have you ever noticed the lack of female French people? No? Look harder!
Picture from: https://lynnlchin.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/the-french/
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!
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…
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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?
Image from: http://tiny.cc/saznny
A while back, however, I came across this small piece of genius on the Grammarly blog which makes remembering almost foolproof. The link is here: http://tiny.cc/0dznny
In a nutshell, if you can add ‘by zombies’ to the end of the sentence then it will be in the passive voice, as opposed to the active.
Image from: http://tiny.cc/7aznny
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…….
Images from: http://tiny.cc/lbznny http://tiny.cc/1lznny http://tiny.cc/xnznny
So, rather than making the passive so aggressive and zombiesque, I prefer to hamsterfy it….The football was kicked/ cake was eaten/ car was driven by a hamster…. and the proof is in the pictures!