Monday, 19 October 2020

Word of the Week

I'm instituting a new feature: word (or phrase) of the week. It might lead on to an aspect of grammar, punctuation or vocabulary or might be tacked on to the end of a post about something else but there will be a new one to analyse and brood over every week.

It will come as no surprise that this week's word is circuit-breaker.

Here is Wikipedia's definition: "A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current from an overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after a fault is detected. Unlike a fuse, which operates once and then must be replaced, a circuit breaker can be reset (either manually or automatically) to resume normal operation."

I'll tell you something else it is at the moment: a metaphor. For the government of Wales and perhaps soon that of N.Ireland, Scotland and the whole of the UK is not literally going to install electrical switches anywhere. They are going to attempt to halt the spread of Corona Virus by avoiding an overload of cases in their area. So "circuit-break(er)" or "fire-break" in the case of Wales is a technical term being used metaphorically.

What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? A metaphor takes a word or phrase from one semantic field and applies it to another. For example, "the handling of the pandemic has been a total car crash." No actual cars have been involved; it's a metaphor.

A simile (from the Latin "similis" = "like") says that something is like something else. "A total lockdown (metaphor) acts like a circuit-breaker (simile)." It makes the comparison clear which the metaphor just implies.

Both metaphor and simile are "figures of speech." (There are loads more, which might crop up in future weeks).

Monday, 12 October 2020

Nobody likes a pedant

"1a : one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge. b : one who makes a show of knowledge. c : a formalist or precisionist in teaching."

This is the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "pedant." You see you have to get to the third possibility before you find anything positive said. No-one enjoys being corrected so pedants tend to be unpopular. But if you are a pedant, like me (unapologetically so), you actually spend a lot of time not correcting people and biting your tongue.

Just this morning on Facebook I have seen the following:

1. Two children's story's

2.  "Who's school" and "stationary" for "stationery"

3. My friend showed x and I a new way ...

4. Under bed draws

The only one I commented on was the second - because it was part of a meme pointing out that teachers were not getting pay rises, though MPs were.  It seemed to be a bad place to make grammatical or vocabulary mistakes. Even so, someone replied that the message was more important than proofreading. No doubt but it would have been a better post without them.

The first was in an inquiry to a children's book group I belong to; the writer is a newbie and someone I don't know so it would have been unkind to correct her.

The third is common even among people "educated" at Eton. It is just plain wrong. And so easy not to do! Just take out the other person. You would never say "my friend showed I," unless you were speaking dialect. It was in a post by a published author too.

The fourth is seen every day in FB advertisements for items for sale such as "chests of draws."[sic] But this one made me think of Tracy Emin's unmade bed installation.

In an article in the Guardian headed "Why do pedants pedant" David Steele concludes: "So, why do pedants pedant? We don’t really know, but some tangential studies infer it’s to do with a mixture of personality, status-signalling and group identification."


I couldn't find a picture of a pedant, but you can take the one at the top of this post as a real life example. And here is a picture of a "chest of draws," actually so labelled on Wikimedia Commons. Sigh.



Monday, 5 October 2020

New words

Grammar Grandma takes requests! Today, new words and phrases, technically known as "neologisms."

These arouse strong feelings and the request for this post included the statement, "we like 'Normality' which is a Nice Word, and ... we hate 'Normalcy' which is a Very Horrid Word Indeed." Nice words and Horrid Words tend to be defined in the eye of the beholder but let's look at these two.

"Normality"is much older than "normalcy," and, as so often with words that annoy UK speakers of English, the latter is an American import.

                                              Warren G. Harding, who did not invent "normalcy."

Merriam Webster says,

"Warren G. Harding adopted this word in the presidential election of 1920, stating that he was for “normal times and a return to normalcy.” “A return to normalcy” soon became the slogan most identified with his campaign, to the considerable chagrin of many who felt that normalcy was either a corruption of normality, or simply a non-existent word. A columnist in the New Orleans States spoke for many when he wrote “The friends of Senator Harding are defending his language now by saying that “normalcy” is a perfectly good word. Well, so is jackasstical, when applied to fantastic verbiage.”

Normalcy did exist already, although it was not, at that time, a particularly common word. It had a specific function in mathematics, and our earliest known record of the word comes from a mathematical dictionary published in 1855:

If we denote the co-ordinates of the point of contact, and normalcy, by x” and y”, the equation of the tangent is, y-y” = dy”/dx” (x-x”).
—William Guy Peck, Mathematical Dictionary and Cyclopedia of Mathematical Science: Comprising Definitions of All the Terms Employed in Mathematics-An Analysis of Each Branch, and of the Whole, as Forming a Single Science, 1855

Some of the people who savaged Harding for his use of normalcy did allow that the word existed, but felt that since it was a term peculiar to the iniquitous realm of math it should not properly be employed to indicate normal things. However, Harding was also not the first person to have manhandled normalcy out of its jargonistic cocoon; plenty of other, less-famous, people had been using it in such a manner since the 19th century.

A little wine at once warms them into candor and normalcy, and then grand airs fly off like a covey of partridges, not to return, at least the same evening.
The Chicago Times, 14 Feb. 1875

The party appetite may have become etherealized, changed to babe-like normalcy.
Vermont Watchman & State Journal, 8 Mar. 1893

They want money of over-full value. It is the return to normalcy in monetary value that they wish to prevent.
The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), 7 Sept. 1896

Many newspapers, in reporting on Harding’s use of normalcy, stated that it was in several contemporary dictionaries. Harding himself made this point, when he was asked on the campaign trail to define the word: “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary, and I did not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I did find, and it is a good word.” However, given that this was taking place at a time when information spread less rapidly than it does today, it is understandable that many people thought that it must have been invented recently."

I hope that helps. If you think "normalcy" is a Horrid Word, like my correspondent, you can still use "normality." 

Personally, I find "herstory" to be a Horrid Word, even though it was coined by my generation of feminists to reclaim history from the chaps.

Polonius thought "beautified" to be a "vile phrase" in Hamlet's letter to his daughter Ophelia; these things are very subjective.

Some neologisms I admire and use: "mansplaining," though just as linguistically hybrid as "herstory," does the job without need for further explanation. Apparently, there is also "hepeating," to mean making a point by a man that a woman has already made and had ignored. I can imagine using that.

Here are some more for you and you can judge if they are Nice or Horrid:

Al desko - eating at your work desk (cf Al fresco)

Chugger - a charity "mugger."

Covidiot - one who does, thinks or says stupid things during the current pandemic

Fatberg - a disgusting drain or sewer blockage of fat and other detritus

Frenemy - a mixture of friend and enemy

Glamping - glamorous camping


Photobomb - getting yourself into someone else's photo without their knowing.

Twerking - dancing provocatively, using a lot of bottom


Tell me which are the ones you like and which you hate, even if not listed here. Personally, I use the word "cromulent" which comes from American TV show The Simpsons and means something like viable, acceptable. It has even made it into the OED.


Monday, 28 September 2020

Saying the same thing twice

Tautology is a concept taken from logic. In everyday language it means saying the same thing twice. You may think you never do this but it is quite common to say "ATM machine," "ID card," "Please RSVP." All of these are tautologies. ATM = Automated Teller Machine; ID stands for Identity Document; RSVP = R├ępondez si'il vous plait (Please reply).

I'm sure you can think of others: a dry desert, a dead corpse, pre-pay in advance etc.

Sometimes tautology is deliberate, for effect, as in "It is what it is," "It's over when it's over,""Enough is enough." My father used to get very angry about "a new innovation." (You see pedantry can be inherited) But I gradually realised he was wrong: after all, if you had an innovation last year but this year have thought of an improvement, it is exactly that, a new innovation. 


This post was prompted by my middle daughter, who is annoyed by "global pandemic" (oh dear - it's being passed to the next generation). There were more than 300 comments about this phrase on Reddit. The WHO definition  is:

   "A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease".

By that criterion, "global pandemic" would indeed seem to be a tautology. But look at this article, "What is a pandemic?" in the Journal of Infectious Diseases 2009, co-authored by one Anthony Fauci.

"The sudden emergence and rapid global spread of a novel H1N1 influenza virus in early 2009  has caused confusion about the meaning of the word “pandemic” and how to recognize pandemics when they occur. Any assumption that the term pandemic had an agreed-upon meaning was quickly undermined by debates and discussions about the term in the popular media and in scientific publications. Uses of the term by official health agencies, scientists, and the media often seemed to be at odds. For example, some argued that a level of explosive transmissibility was sufficient to declare a pandemic, whereas others maintained that severity of infection should also be considered" 

The authors conclude: "There seems to be only 1 invariable common denominator: widespread geographic extension." So, as long as the definition does not insist upon "worldwide," I suppose Fauci and co would not regard "global pandemic" as tautologous.

Aldersgate street is a tautology
                                                           Aldersgate Street is a tautology

What about Oxymoron? It's a term from ancient Greek, meaning literally "sharpdull," so that it comes to symbolise words or phrases which contradict each other. We pretty much accept "bittersweet," "love hate relationship," "a deafening silence," and so on.

The French have a good one: "joli-laid"(m) and "jolie-laide" (f). It means "pretty-ugly." And it has been used of some of their most attractive celebrities.

                                                                       Jean-Paul Belmondo

                                                                          Jeanne Moreau

Do tell me your favourite oxymorons, even if you have invented them yourself.

Monday, 21 September 2020

A field day

Hard hat, jodhpurs, saddle, stables, gymkhana, curry comb, crop, mucking out. 

 What is Grandma on about? I've just listed a group of words and phrases that create what linguists call a "semantic field." If you see them all grouped together, you know that what is being referenced is horse riding. Every activity or academic discipline has its own semantic field. (It is sometime called a "lexical field). Whatever it is called, the link is the meaning of all these terms.

It could be apron, wok, saucepan, chopping board, knife, bain-marie, spatula - and the semantic field would be cookery. I'm sure you could think of your own examples.

In the 19th century a German called Konrad Duden invented a wonderful sort of cross between a dictionary and a thesaurus. He compiled regular dictionaries too: there are twelve volumes of his work. But what is now known as a "duden" is a kind of pictorial dictionary which takes one semantic field at a time and labels all the elements. I have the "Oxford Duden of Pictorial Italian" and jolly useful it is too.

In the last six or seven months we have been bombarded with social distancing, lockdown, hand sanitiser, PPE, shielding, second wave, moonshot, world-beating, test and trace, Covid-19, coronavirus, hotspot, quarantine, herd immunity, super spreader, self-isolation ... no guesses as to the semantic field there.


And then there's pandemic. I have been asked to write about "global pandemic" so next week's post will be about tautology. Is "global pandemic" tautologous or not?


Monday, 7 September 2020

Easily confused?

 This is a vocabulary post. There are pairs of words whose meanings are different but look so similar that some people find it hard to know which to use in any given situation. Take "uninterested" and "disinterested."

If you are "uninterested" in something, as I am in all sport except Men's Grand Slam tennis, it means you take no interest in it; it is not for you.

"Disinterested" is what you want those adjudicating sport to be, whether umpire, referee or line judge, having no personal or financial "interest" in the outcome. It's the same as "impartial." It never means not having an interest in something, in the sense of not finding it interesting.

Then there's "imply" and "infer." I imply; you infer. In other words, to imply is to suggest something - "I wouldn't buy a used car from him," whereas to infer is to pick up the suggestion - "You mean he isn't trustworthy?"

"Affect" and "effect." To affect something is to have an effect on it! "Knowing his past history with women affects my decision whether to go out with him" and "The effect of what she told me made me say no."

"Complement" and "compliment." You "complement" something by adding to it, making it more effective or complete. "That colour really complements her red hair." Whereas to "compliment" someone or pay them a "compliment" means to say something nice to someone. "She complimented her friend on her new dress" or "He paid her the compliment of listening to what she had to say."

"Emigrate" and "immigrate." You can't to one without the other. You "emigrate" from the country you are leaving and "immigrate" to the country you are moving to. When we talk about "immigrants," we should remember that they are "emigrants" from somewhere and think about why.

"Flaunt" and "flout." I see this mistake in printed books. They are both verbs. You "flaunt" your good looks, your car, your superior grasp of grammar. You "flout" the rules or the conventions.

"Loose" and "lose." One is an adjective and the other a verb. "Loose" is the opposite of "tight." And "lose" is the opposite of "win." They don't even sound the same.

"Stationary" and "stationery." These do sounds the same. The way to remember the difference is that "stationery" is sold by a "stationer." Whereas "stationary" means static or standing still.

"Fawn" and "faun." A fawn is a baby deer and gives its name to a sort of beige colour. A faun is a creature like Mr Tumnus in Narnia and is human above, goatlike from the waist down. Its also sometimes called a satyr.

"Hoard" and "horde." Another pair that sound the same. A hoard of gold is what Smaug the dragon sits on and a horde of people is a crowd, often a hostile one.

                                                                      A hoard of treasure
                                                     Statue of Attila the Hun and his horde

Monday, 31 August 2020

The Preposition Proposition

Remember what prepositions are? You can always check up on terms in the Parts of Speech page on this blog.

Prepositions are usually very small words, like "in," "on," "for," "from." Their use is much more stable that that of other parts of speech. Linguists sometime refer to them as "grammatical words," (along with articles and pronouns), as opposed to "lexical words," which carry the main content of a sentence. So, in the sentence:

He ran recklessly over the railway track without looking

"he," "over," "the" and arguably "without" are grammatical words, little units that give you the who and where and how, while "ran," "recklessly," railway track" and "looking" give you the meat of the meaning.

"Over" and "without" are the prepositions here, doing their job in holding the sentence together, like the mortar between bricks, to mix my metaphors.

Very occasionally prepositions take on a new meaning or use. Take "into." As well as conveying "inside" and a notion of entering, a couple of decades ago, it took on the meaning of having an interest in, as in 

"She's really into geology."

And then came the inventive use, for millennials, of innocent little "into" to mean "sexually attracted to."

This movie dates from 2009 but I'd heard the expression years earlier on Friends or Sex in the City. (Incidentally, it's always that way round; no-one seems to use "she's not that into you.")

And then there is the relatively recent use by train announcers of  "The train is arriving into Banbury." (usually followed by the equally redundant "Banbury is your next station stop," where either "station" or "stop" would do the same work.) "Arriving" already tells you that the train is drawing into the station.

Train arriving at Banbury station
                                                       A train arriving at Banbury station

(By the way, "into" is written as one word and "on to" is heading that way. I never write "onto" myself but I see it everywhere so it will soon be the norm).

Another change in preposition use that I've noticed is "for" after "excited" and similar words instead of "about." E.g.

"I'm excited for your birthday party" rather than "I'm excited about your birthday party."

"I'm happy for your exam result" rather than "I'm happy about your exam result."



Has anyone noticed any other new usages of prepositions? Tell me in the Comments below.

Monday, 24 August 2020

The menace of the full stop

I was going to write about prepositions this week and how their use is changing but an item on the radio today derailed me and prepositions will have to wait.

The item was about how teenagers or Generation Z find it intimidating for people to use full stops, or periods, in text messages, tweets, WhatsApps etc. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph (the latter behind a paywall) had screaming headlines:

Now snowflakes are triggered by FULL STOPS: Sensitive readers find the humble dot 'weird, mean or too blunt' (Daily Mail)

Generation Z feels intimidated by full stops, experts find (Daily Telegraph)

The thing is, these "experts" were academics in New York, who interviewed 126 undergraduates in 2015. So why does this rear its head again now? The researchers found that the very limited number of subject responded to statements couched as text messages as "insincere" if ended with a full stop. There was no such reaction if the statements were presented as hand-written notes. (I have been unable to read the full article as my "institution," the London Library, does not stock Computers in Human Behavior, which is the journal it appeared in).

But that fine linguist David Crystal, perhaps responding to their research in his blog in 2016, said:

"Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing:

John's coming to the party [statement of fact]
John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!]"

He gave the same example on Radio 4 this morning and I must admit it's a puzzle to me but then your Grandma is the sort of person who uses semi-colons in emails and wouldn't dream of leaving out punctuation in a text.

                                                                 Photo credit Jennie Scott

What do you think? Do you find full stops in short messages insincere or intimidating? It is certainly true that the use of full stops is changing. You don't find them after Mr or Ms these days or after initials in a name like T S Eliot, where once they were de rigueur. I am currently reading Berdardine Evaristo's Booker-prizewinning novel Girl, Woman, Other, where she eschews full stops and capital letters at the beginnings of paragraphs and sentences. (The title should be girl woman other, really)

Interestingly, Blogger would not allow Girl, Woman, Other as a tag, because the commas create separate tags.

Monday, 17 August 2020

As you like it

Alas, this is not an essay on Shakespeare's comedy set in the Forest of Arden. Though there may be some of Jacques' cynical view of human nature. No; the title was designed to draw you in and talk about the use of "like" in contemporary English.


If you are a grammar nerd, like your Grandma, you might still be fighting a losing battle against "like I do." But I think the use of "like" instead of "as" for a conjunction is here to stay. I would say, "as I do" or "like me," but I accept I'm an old fuddy-duddy about this usage.

 What annoys more people than me is the use of "like" to punctuate speech. It's employed as what linguists call a "filler" or a "hesitation marker." Others are "er" and "um' or that strange waffling noise our Prime Minister makes. A filler gives the speaker time to think, even if only for a second, while searching for the next word. 

Watch this YouTube clip from 2016 in which two London teenagers are teaching the interviewer about the use of terms such as "gassed" and "bookey." They are quite unaware of how often they are using "like" as a filler. 

"It means, like, to be, like, excited or wowed by something," says Lily, defining "gassed." There's no sense of any comparison here; it's just a filler.

Also interesting and equally annoying to some, is the use of "like" to mean "say" or "said." Imagine this report of a dialogue:

"He was all like 'I got my A* in English' and I'm like 'well, I got a C because of this f***ing algorithm."

There's no "he said, she said" any more apparently. It's all "he's like, she's like." But it doesn't work in writing.