A Singularly Plural Problem

Family-clipart

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?

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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:

 http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/09/agreement-over-collective-nouns/

However, don’t get in trouble with the Police – they are always plural apparently!

 

 

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Let’s Have a Passive Unaggressive.

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?

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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.

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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!

Vacancy Wanted – PLEASE

If only I’d known there was such a job, I would have done all my homework – on time – studied really really hard and not messed about at school for one single minute. Promise. Sadly, I didn’t know back then what I know now – that people are paid to create languages for a living. Oh heaven! It looks like I’m never going to see an advertisement for a brickie in Legoland, so this must have to be just about my dream job.

When the Klingons first opened their mouths in Star Trek, the Dothraki bargained for Daenerys to be Khal Drogo’s bride, or we marveled at the intricacies of Elvish, did you ever stop to consider that somebody had created these languages from scratch?

9780008131395

https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008131395/a-secret-vice

In the book A Secret Vice, Tolkien’s lecture on his creation of the languages of Middle Earth is discussed in mind-blowing detail. He created the original versions of each tongue, then worked out how they would change throughout time by contact with other languages and with changing inflections. He realised that as each group moved slightly further from its original homeland it would acquire new words for the different flora, fauna and other phenomena they encountered. He realised that words would, through time, change meaning or acquire new ones. This is exactly how language works, and Tolkien was a master of the art.

He based his languages on ones he found grammatically interesting, such as Finnish. He created writing systems for them, designing runic characters to give a feeling of ancient mystery. He also understood how a language’s traditional tales and mythology affect its structure and phraseology. The book A Secret Vice makes for fascinating reading.

So, Dothraki, anybody?

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Image from http://nikolina-angelova.deviantart.com/art/Dothraki-308236043

The language was created by David J Peterson who is a leader in this, admittedly niche, area. He also created High Valyrian for GoT, along with languages for many other sci-fi shows.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-man-who-invented-dothraki/471495/

If you fancy learning a few phrases, there is an online course offered, according to this site:

https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/dothraki-creator-game-of-thrones-online-course/

To make a language credible, it needs to have a complete grammar, orthography and other such components which you probably think are best left to Latin teachers! However, if characters just opened their mouths and muttered gobbledy-gook, they would soon sound ridiculous. The rich, full, characteristics of these languages is what gives them their own life and makes them so compelling to listen to.

So, we now come to Star Trek, and Klingon. Did you know that James Doohan, who played dear old Scotty, first devised the phonology and a small vocabulary for it? It was then turned into a full language by Marc Okrand and has been used to write books and an opera; there is even a Klingon language Institute!

One last Star-Trek related fact:

 

When they decided they needed a Vulcan hand gesture for ‘Live long and prosper’ – Leonard Nimoy suggested using the one he had seen used in the synagogue when he was young. Although, in the worship setting, it is done with both hands, the famous gesture is based on the Hebrew hand-sign for Shin. All Hebrew characters have intrinsic meanings and this one stands for Shekinah and Shaddai – names of God. Live long and prosper is, I feel, a lovely sentiment. Knowing the accompanying sign stands for the name of God makes it even more beautiful.

http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/06/the-iconic-live-long-and-prosper-hand-gesture-was-originally-a-jewish-sign/

PS. Sadly, Minion is NOT a language, despite having a wonderfully mixed vocabulary from many, many other languages. They do have real words – and below I have reproduced a handy phrasebook should you ever need it –  but unfortunately the rest of it is utter nonsense. From a Minion, you wouldn’t really expect anything else, though, would you?

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/do-minions-speak-real-language

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Amanda Lichtenberg   https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/456482112202405140/

Well, ha/e/i/o/ullo!

poh

Simple little word, hello, isn’t it? We probably say it several times a day; we use it to answer the phone, to greet customers or clients at work maybe, as a greeting in slightly formal circumstances where ‘Hi’, ‘how do’ or other variants aren’t right, all sorts of ways. Try counting over a couple of days and see what the tally is.

So, Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth I – ‘Hello, your majesty’

Romeo to Juliet ‘Hello, my darling’

The Wife of Bath to The Pardoner ‘Hello Pardoner [or maybe Pardy, they might have been on very friendly terms for all we know!]’

They don’t quite ring true, do they? The word hello is, actually, not that old at all. The OED records its first use as a greeting in 1853; not very long ago, is it? It had been  recorded being used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as 1826, but still, where and how did it suddenly become the default greeting for the English speaking world?

Raleigh would probably have said ‘Good Morrow’ to Bessy 1; Romeo might have said ‘How farest thou?’ to his Julie and Bathy could have greeted Pardy along the lines of ‘Ey, maister, welcome be ye’*.

The etymology of Hello is not totally clear – and why it suddenly grew in popularity is also open to discussion. It can, with varying degrees of frequency, be spelt hallo, hullo, hillo and even hollo apparently.  The tale goes that Thomas Edison decided the word was clear enough to be heard from 20 feet away and, therefore, would make a perfect opening greeting for the new-fangled telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, meanwhile, was insisting the word Ahoy was the correct way to open a telephone conversation. Thankfully, despite his inventing the phone, his idea of how to use it did not catch on. For more about this, see, among others, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/05/garden/great-hello-mystery-is-solved.html

So, where did it come from? Bill Bryson, in his book Mother Tongue,** informs us that it is a derivative/contraction of the Old English hal beo thu [hale be thou] – in a similar way to modern goodbye being a form of God be with ye. The OED, however, states that it originated in old High German halâholâ  –  being used to attract attention, especially of ferrymen.

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                     “Death as a ferrryman”, a satirical drawing from Punch, 1858

Hmmmm, if this is what a shout of ‘Hello’ could bring, maybe ‘Ey maister’, or even Ahoy could be safer words to use after all?

Picture from Kankakee Community College Power of Hello campaign. http://www.kcc.edu/campaigns/pages/power-of-hello.aspx
*http://www.zora.uzh.ch/44707/1/Jucker_2011_Chaucer_proofs.pdf
**https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/56790/mother-tongue/

Shun the disingenuous equivalent and Avoid the shifty metonym

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Hmmm, what on Earth does that title mean? Even Spock* looks puzzled. What it started out as, before I searched online for replacement words, is:

Beware the sneaky synonym.

Ok, why am I prattling on like this? Well, today a member of my family asked me for help with a cover letter for an application she was writing. As I was quite busy, most of the conversation was done by text messages:

Her: What’s another word for interesting?

Me: Tell me the rest of the sentence.

a few minutes passed………

Her: It’s ok, I found one.

Me: [Having been wrestling with good synonyms for interesting ]What, exactly?

Her: Intriguing.

I was firstly puzzled, then slightly alarmed, then I just had to stop what I was doing and phone her. I could not think of a single thing which she could describe as intriguing in a formal cover letter.

The original sentence had been What I find most interesting is palliative care. **

Now, although, when you look on a site such as Thesaurus.com and enter interesting in the synonym finder, it will return intriguing, it gives you many other suggestions too. Among these are:

alluring; amusing; delightful; exotic; fascinating and provocative.

Yes, they are all, in the right context, exchangeable for interesting. Surely, though, nobody would say What I find most amusing is palliative care. Please…you wouldn’t, would you?

The good old OED gives these two definitions:

Interesting; adj

That concerns, touches, affects, or is of importance; important.

Intriguing; adj

That intrigues; forming secret plots or schemes. Also, that excites interest or curiosity; fascinating.

As you can see, although they are similar in some ways, they are very different in others. The English language [as we were taught in my undergraduate days by Dr Vikki Hulse] has no exact synonyms.  Sites such as Thesaurus.com, and the synonym tool on Word, are very helpful when you’re not wanting to repeat a particular word too often. Remember, however, to avoid the shifty metonym at all costs and, whatever else you do, shun the disingenuous equivalent .

*image from http://abcwednesday-mrsnesbitt.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/i-is-for-intriguing.html
** the version we finally agreed upon was ‘The aspect of nursing which I am most drawn to is palliative care’

 

If you need help with a CV, cover letter or similar, please get in touch through the blog’s contact page or email me: starfishenglishservices@gmail.com

How Do You Do?

It’s a simple question, isn’t it? Not that we are expected to reply!

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Image from http://simonelia.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/how-do-you-do.html

Informally we often ask ‘How are you doing?’ Another simple question – inviting a proper answer, unlike its more formal cousin.

so-how-you-doing-hippo

Image from http://weknowmemes.com/2012/05/so-how-you-doing-hippo/

But recently I was asked by a foreign language student of mine ‘What does doing mean?’ Hmmmm, well that’s….errrr……actually not so simple. Doing and also Do don’t actually mean anything. Except they are quite vital to English sentence structure. The sharp-eyed among you will notice I had to use don’t = do not in the sentence before last. I quite probably will again. But….WHAT DO THEY MEAN??? [Yup, I used it again just there. Aaaargh]

The OED has a few suggestions:-

Do:

n  The action of doing, or that which is done; action, business.

vb  I. As a main verb.

1.trans.

a. To put, place. to do onoffinout,

Doing:

The action of do v.; action, proceeding, conduct, behaviour; performance or execution of something. Frequently with possessive, attributing responsibility to a specified agent.

So, there you have it – Do is the action of doing and doing is the action of do. What more could we need to know?

The best way I could try to explain this pesky word in any meaningful way was that it doesn’t [yup, there is is again!] really mean anything, but can be used as a sort of ‘catch-all’ verb to cover a range of activities:

Do the dishes [including washing, drying, putting away]

Do the housework [Hoovering, doing the dishes, dusting, emptying bins…not a range of activities I do very often!] [Yup, another 2 uses of it just there]

Do homework [reading a book, writing an essay, conducting an experiment in nuclear physiscs……I have no idea what homework might entail nowadays!]

But, you get the general picture – and, thankfully, so did they.

However, it doesn’t [another one] stop there. We need do to make negatives and questions. It doesn’t add anything of any semantic value to the sentence, but it is quite vital in English .

I like coffee – I do not like tea

Do you like tea? No, I don’t.

In this context, do has a rather wonderful name grammatically – the Dummy Do. Lovely isn’t it? Much better than fronted adjectival phrase or similarly boring titles. A vital, very useful, much-used word in the English language that really means very little at all. One last thought – should I tell my students about one of the other ways it can be used?

Maybe next week………we’re not learning about coarse language just yet!

 

 

It’s a Timey-Wimey, Spacey-Wacey Thing.

Imagine….no please don’t burst into a John Lennon impression…but imagine people who think of time differently from the way we conceptualise it in English. People who see the past as in front and the future as behind them. People who see time as static and humans moving through it. And…people who really don’t measure it in any numerical way.

 

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Photo: Shutterstock

Whilst I was away last week at a language and linguistics conference at Colchester University [more about the beautiful city itself on my Travelling Hamster blog site], one of the speakers explained how she has been researching Amazonian villages where they only have the numbers 1 to 4, where they have no concept of how old people are, and..best of all…no concept of ever being late 🙂

It blew our minds as we sat through the talk. Time is, well, however long something takes. Words for tomorrow, today and yesterday simply don’t exist. They have stages of life which are marked by new names;  being ready to marry, being too old to work,  yet these are whenever they occur for each individual – not some arbitary age of consent or retirement age such as we have in our culture.

They use concepts such as rainy and dry seasons, height of the sun, depth of the flood-waters to refer to events, but again these simply happen when they happen – there is no set clock or calendar date to  announce the first day of summer and other similar chronological divisions. Somehow, in a way incomprehensible to we time-obsessed cultures, time does not exist as a separate concept to the event which is happening. How happy would Alice’s white rabbit be at that thought?

 

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For more on languages which encode time in different ways, the following may be of interest:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13452711
http://language.ucsd.edu/papers/language-time.pdf – Boroditsky – How languages Construct Time
https://www.google.co.uk/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=isbn:1483506088 – A Walk in the Garden of Time

And, the paper by the speaker at the conference [whose name is Vera and is great fun to have curry with]

https://www.academia.edu/32901057/When_Time_is_Not_Space_2016_from_Lewandowska_ed.pdf – Da Silva Sinha

The History of Geography

cockledick

 

On Thursday, I had the chance to travel to Liverpool on the bus again [see my post A Change of Pace  http://tiny.cc/bx9qly from a few weeks ago]. Once more, although the weather wasn’t as nice this time, I enjoyed looking at the countryside and, again, the oddly-named lanes we passed. Near Southport I saw Cockle Dicks Lane once more, and also Sugar Stubbs Lane, and spent time pondering how these came about. Then, I noticed one I must have overlooked last time – 800px-benkid77_ralph27s_wife27s_lane2c_banks2c_lancashire_120809

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘there must be a story behind this place-name?’, so when I reached home, after several reviving cups of coffee, I  hit Google in search of the answer.

All I could find were some threads on a discussion post, and there seemed to be two main schools of thought on the subject. The first one was that Ralph was a local fisherman who sometimes brought home some illicit booty too. His loyal wife would walk to the end of this lane with a lantern to guide his boat in to the secret unloading point. One night he didn’t make it back, but she stayed there, faithfully waiting, and ultimately froze to death on the marshes.

The other theory is that she was given land on the lane as part of a divorce settlement. Nowhere near as romantic and, as the name of the Lane seems shrouded in history, were there many divorces among ordinary people back then? I think I prefer the first version ❤

As I looked for an image of the name, I came across this page – it seems the Hesketh/Southport area is prone to strangely named lanes.

http://nmfhssouthport.myfreeforum.org/archive/local-street-names__o_t__t_845.html

Knob Hall lane

Now there’s a nice address  😆

Oh Auto-Predict! You’re no poet.

I was sending a text to a friend recently about foggy Frisco [San Francisco]. As I hit ‘send’ I noticed that the predictive texting had changed it to ‘fight frisco’. Hmmmmm. What else might it get up to? I decided to give it a real test…….Jabberwocky 🙂

Jabberwocky

So, with many, many apologies to Lewis Carroll…here’s the first verse, courtesy of my phone:

‘Twas brilliant and the slight gives

Did gyre and marble in the wave

All mimsy were the borogro estate

And the moment rather outgrabe.’

OK, so it would appear that gyre mimsy and  outgrabe are genuine English words it has no need to change at all. Off to the trusty OED for clarification.

Gyre, v.  appears as a genuine, though rare word, dating back to c1420. It means to Turn, or whirl round.

It is also a noun, from c 1566 meaning:  A turning round, revolution, whirl; a circular or spiral turn.  The word must have its etymology in the same root as words such as gyroscope then. Mr Carroll obviously knew his obscure old words.

Mimsy, it says, is a blend of miserable and flimsy,  nowadays meaning unhappy but…

Only in Carroll and later allusions. So it IS a word, though one apparently created by good old Lewis.

So, finally, we come to the most interesting of all – Outgrabe.

According to the OED, this is a factious word [sounds like another of Lewis Carroll’s creations, that!] and is the past tense of Outgribe. I have copied the entry below:

 

intr. A nonsense word; (most frequently) to emit a strange noise.

Etymology: A factitious word introduced by Lewis Carroll (used in the past tense), and described by him as follows:

1855   ‘L. Carroll’ Rectory Umbrella & Mischmasch (1932) 140   Outgrabe, past tense of the verb to outgribe. (It is connected with the old verb to grike or shrike, from which are derived ‘shriek’ and ‘creak’.) ‘Squeaked.’
1871   ‘L. Carroll’ Through Looking-glass vi. 129   ‘And what does “outgrabe” mean?’ ‘Well, “outgribing” is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.’

Apparently intended by Carroll as a past tense, but generally understood subsequently as a regular verb, with present tense outgrabe and past tense outgrabed.

If you have access to the OED online, more can be read here:

 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/133662?redirectedFrom=Outgrabe#eid

So, if you thought Jabberwocky was just a lot of nonsense words created to sound amazing, it looks as though Lewis Carroll actually knew his etymology and used it very cleverly indeed. RESPECT!

 

 

The Roman God of Dodgy Definitions

 

 

 

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As this post is written in English [ok, apart from the bits which are in Double-Dutch] I am making the huge assumption that you understand the definition of many English words.

Words such as:

Fast

Dust

Cleave

Left.

Simple, right? However, all these words – along with many others – are known as Contronyms, or Janus words.

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That’s him, old two-face himself. Janus looks both forwards and backwards; he’s the Roman god of doorways, and the deity from whom we derive the name for January.

So, what has he got to do with the words in the list above? Well, each of these can mean the exact opposite of itself ;

You can dust furniture or dust a cake – in one you remove dust, in the other you add a dusting of sugar or some-such.

You can cleave something into two parts, or a couple can cleave together in marriage.

Something fast might be stuck fast or moving very quickly

A bus may have left the bus station or be left in it.

According to my in-depth research* [a quick search on Google!] there are 75 examples of contronyms in English, something for word-nerds to maybe use to spread confusion far and wide. Thanks, Janus!

*http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/