Monday, 18 January 2021

Just the article

I've talked a lot about vocabulary recently so let's so back to actual grammar. A friend came up with a fascinating query about the definite article.

She (British) was having an article published in an American journal in which she referred to "the Cromwell Road" in London. The editor queried it. "Why not just Cromwell Road?" This led to quite a discussion on Facebook. A native English-speaker living in London would know that it should be "the Cromwell Road" but not "The Oxford Street," for example.

The Natural History Museum, on the Cromwell Road
                    The Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road, London. Credit: Txllxt TxllxT

And while we are about it, what a lot of words there are for thoroughfares to start with: Road, Street, Lane, Mews, Avenue, Yard, Passage, Alley, Gardens, Square, Court, Place, Close, Terrace, Park - can you think of any more? And plenty that are a single word, like Piccadilly, Angel, Albany. You'd say "the Angel" but not "the Piccadilly."

The question is: how do you know which is right? And how can a learner of English as a second language possibly work out which is which?

Several respondents mentioned this habit was common in Oxford - "the High," "the Broad," "the Turl" but absent in Cambridge; you'd never say "the King's Parade."

Another said  it's also true of larger geographical divisions. We say "the West Country," "the Lake District" but not "the East Anglia." She had been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and said that at the RLF they had tried to work out a good rule of thumb for ESL students but could come up only with guidelines which had lots of exceptions.

It does seem as if this quirk had to be learned for each example and imagine how difficult it must be for a non-native speaker whose own language doesn't have any articles, like Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Many European languages not only have definite and indefinite articles but they are gendered (grammatically) and vary in number too. French has "le" and "la" before masculine and feminine nouns but they are both "les" in the plural. Italian has "il" and "la" but distinguishes gender in the plural too: "i" and "le." (And there's a special definite article "lo" (plural "gli") which occurs before masculine nouns beginning with an "impure s"!)

This is all hard for non-native speakers. An English friend of ours who lives in Germany and broadcasts on classical music topics used to offer to record separately "die" "der" "das" and so on to be dropped into his contributions (he has lived there over thirty years now and taken German citizenship, so presumably has his articles sorted).

                                                     Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini 

Word of the week: Cut

There has been a "non-binding" (another good word) debate and vote in the House of Commons today about whether to continue the extra £20 a week on universal credit after the end of March. The government introduced this extra money during the first lockdown so it is not strictly speaking a cut if they end it in a couple of months' time but a reversion to what UC was before the pandemic.

However, for people struggling on the breadline, it will certainly be perceived as a cut because their weekly funding will decrease and they will feel the loss of every pound.

And since it comes after a decade of actual cuts it will be felt as just another - maybe the unkindest cut of all, as Mark Antony characterised Julius Caesar's stab wound from his friend Brutus, in Shakespeare's play.

My husband usual to work in local government and says that "cuts" were never described thus; they had to be called "savings." Instead of a painful wound inflicted by those with more power on those with less, the word implies thrift, good husbandry, an aspect of a Protestant work ethic rather than a bloodbath. Words matter.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Old slang revisited

It was back at the end of last September that all the dailies published articles about how the slang of my generation was incomprehensible to the under-30s. Words not recognised included "sozzled," "bonk,"cad," "wally," "plonk" and "boogie." (Really, who do these young people blame it on?)

It turned out to be a very small sample of only 300 respondents in that age category, out of a total sample of 2,000, so maybe this was not very representative. Columnists such as India Knight of The Times seized on it though, as exemplifying the loss of all light-hearted, fun words and their replacement with dreary ones like "woke", "gaslight" and "ghost"(as verbs). "The grim-faced removal of things that bring joy."

Jilly Cooper said she felt like writing a "plonkbuster" called Sozzled, the word least recognised by millennials. 

                                                                    Credit: Allan Warren

Even more revealing are the under the line comments, as you might imagine. I have a feeling that this vocabulary reflects a time which might have been more fun for the sozzled cads and wallies than it was for the poor females they wanted to bonk. An image of Terry-Thomas, the gap-toothed would- be seducer was immediately conjured up.

                                                                        Author unknown

Of course slang words change and tend to be generation-specific. That's a necessary part of each new generation of young people coining words to define and describe their experience of life, which must be different from those of their parents.

Are there words whose passing you regret?


Words of the week: Insurrection, Sedition, Coup

No prizes for guessing why! An insurrection is an uprising against a sitting government; sedition is speech encouraging insurrection and a coup is a successful insurrection that overturns the government.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Two nations divided by a common language

I used to think this quotation was from Winston Churchill, he being half-American. But no, this perceptive remark was made by George Bernard Shaw (Americans would say "Bernard").


I have been reminded of it twice this week, first by an American acquaintance on Facebook, castigating "The Crown" TV series for making an egregious grammatical error. It was "made" by a young Prince Andrew and addressed to the Queen: "Like other second sons I could mention, I'd obviously be better at it than him." My American friend thinks it should be "than he," with "is" understood. She is right about American English but not about British Standard English, which we can assume HRH was using, where a pronoun takes the accusative form after a preposition. Sorry to have to say that Prince Andrew was correct, even in a work of fiction, but so it is.

I ran into this difference with my American editor for The Falconer's Knot (published by Bloomsbury on both sides of the Atlantic).

The other occasion came from watching my favourite TV cop show, Spiral, which returned on Saturday for its eighth and last season. It's a French series, named "Engrenages" in France, so it has to be watched with subtitles. But who creates these English versions?

                                                       Caroline Proust from Spiral by YanRB

I am sad enough to be part of a Forum discussing Spiral after every two episodes and some of us are quite exercised about the use of American terms in the subtitles, when we are watching it in the UK. There are objections to the use of "laundromat" where a young boy's body has been found, when we would say "laundrette." And then, out of the blue, Laure Berthaud, played by Caroline Proust (pictured above), when asked what she has found out, "says "nothing, nowt." Now, I'm pretty sure that's not part of American vernacular!

When I was working on a project with an American publisher, she didn't know what I meant by someone not being "a patch on his father."  But then, I didn't know what she meant by a "blowhard." Truly, divided by a common language.


Word of the week: Challenging

The use of this word is growing, especially during political interviews and briefings. Homeschooling your special needs child is "challenging," Coping with the latest Covid restriction is "challenging." I wish more interviewers and questioners would "challenge" the use of this word, which is rapidly becoming an anodyne euphemism for "extremely difficult" or "impossible." It implies that if people fail to rise to the "challenge," they are somehow failing. 

Monday, 28 December 2020


On 21st December, Eddie Izzard announced that she would be using the pronouns "she" and "her" in future, because she identified as gender-fluid and was wanting to be in "girl-mode" now. She hasn't as far as I know chosen a new name, just moved to female pronouns.

A month earlier Jan Morris, who used to be James, died and received mostly respectful obituaries, having changed both gender and pronouns in the late 60s and early 70s, in a long transition as one of the first high profile transsexuals in this country.

Traditional grammar offers a small group of pronouns which differ in inflection according to number, gender and function in the sentence. But traditional grammar can't keep up with changing ideas about identity and orientation and new pronouns have entered the language:

(Converse, 1884)
thon is laughingI called thonthons eyes gleamthat is thonsthon likes thonself
(Rogers, 1890)
e is laughing I called em es eyes gleam that is es e likes emself
(Rickter, c. 1973)
xe is laughing I called xem xyr eyes gleam that is xyrs xe likes xemself
(Elverson, 1975)
ey is laughing I called em eir eyes gleam that is eirs ey likes eirself
(Piercy, 1979)
per is laughing I called per per eyes gleam that is pers per likes perself
(Hulme, c. 1980)
ve is laughing I called ver vis eyes gleam that is vis ve likes verself
(Humanist, 1982)
hu is laughing I called hum hus eyes gleam that is hus hu likes humself
(Spivak, 1983)
E is laughing I called Em Eir eyes gleam that is Eirs E likes Emself
ze, mer
(Creel, 1997)
ze is laughing I called mer zer eyes gleam that is zers ze likes zemself
ze, hir
(Bornstein, 1998)
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs ze (zie, sie) likes hirself
(Foldvary, 2000)
zhe is laughing I called zhim zher eyes gleam that is zhers zhe likes zhimself
sie, hir
(Hyde, 2001)
sie is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs sie likes hirself
(Dicebox, 2012?)
peh is laughing I called pehm peh's eyes gleam that is peh's peh likes pehself
ze, zir
(anon., c. 2013)
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called zir/zem zir/zes eyes gleam that is zirs/zes ze (zie, sie) likes zirself/zemself
fae fae is laughing I called faer faer eyes gleam that is faers fae likes faerself

Here the sheer range is dazzling (I took the chart from Wikipedia). And there is no clue to what recent gender-identities they relate to. Non-binary, gender-fluid, pansexual, intersex, transgender people might choose to use one of the above, use traditional singular pronouns or opt for the very versatile "they, them. their" choice.

The problem is the lack of universal agreement, with such a lot of choice. But there is a movement now for people to introduce themselves by pronoun as well as name: "I'm Mary; I use she and her pronouns," "My name is Sam; I use they and them pronouns." This can only be helpful.

The new pronouns are not "gender-neutral" but "non-binary."

Word of the week: Granularity

According to the Cambridge dictionary this can mean: the quality of including a lot of small details. "Granular" and "granularity" has become extraordinarily popular with politicians in the run up to the UK/EU Brexit trade deal.

Monday, 14 December 2020

No Wifi

 Grammar Grandma moved house on Friday and is having WiFi installed so no post today. She hopes to be sorted enough to post next Monday. Please send your words of the week/month/year. She is wondering about "granularity."

Monday, 7 December 2020

Tom Lehrer knew it all decades ago

One of the presents I gave my husband for his birthday last month was a CD of Tom Lehrer songs. It was surprisingly difficult to track down one with enough of the songs I remembered from the 60s: National Brotherhood Week; the Vatican Rag; the Masochism Tango.

We listened to it in the car on a long journey yesterday. Songs about pollution and VD seem remarkably topical. But there's a plethora of tracks about WW3 and nuclear warfare - We'll all go together when we go; So long Mom (I'm off to drop the bomb); Who's next? and Wernher von Braun - conjuring up memories of the fears I had growing up and why I joined CND as a teenager.

All this was much as expected but the second half of the disc has songs I never about, written for an educational series on PBS.

Since Tom Lehrer, still alive in his nineties, recently made all his lyrics and music copyright free for a few years, I was able to find the words on the Internet.   

Here is a song to teach the diphthong "-ou-:"

"I'm a very quiet hound. 

I don't bark or run around. 

I just lie here on the ground, 

With my head upon this mound. 


No one knows where I can be found. 

If they knew, then they'd be bound 

To come and take me to the pound. 

That's why I don't dare make a sound. " 


I may have told you before that from 1977 to 1995 I was the Reading Consultant to BBC Schools series Look and Read. Eighteen very good years. We had a little character called Wordy to sing songs written by people like Gordon Snell and occasionally myself. When I took over from Joyce Morris in 1977, recommended by her, the series concentrated largely on phonics. Words like sing and ping and looking would be clustered together solely on the grounds of sound.

When I joined, I moved the emphasis to meaning, so that the "-ing" would be taught as  a morpheme, conveying the sense that something was going on. We had a song with the cartoon character Bill the Brickie, singing : Why don't you build yourself a word?/Build yourself a word with an "-ing"/ To show it's happening.

But we did do some songs about sounds and I remember writing the -ar- song (Dog detective is chasing ar/what a wonderful thing!.) And there was the "S+T+R" song from Badger Girl and "I'm listening, I'm listening/for an -ow- inside a tower" from Dark Towers (RIP Peter Mayhew, who was our Tall Knight).

Anyway, the minute I heard the -ou- song, I realised Tom Lehrer had done it all before, about twenty years earlier!

(You can find most of the Look and Read songs on YouTube - but there is a scurrilous version of Bill the Brickie, I should warn you!)

Monday, 30 November 2020

What can't you bear?

I belong to an online Forum called Gransnet. There is quite a lot of grumbling on Gransnet, especially about fairly hopeless-sounding husbands. And a lot of the Grans get on very badly with their daughters-in-law - and vice versa. But they also like to have rants about language.

This was a recent post, headlined "English language - where is it going to?"

"Maybe I'm being unreasonable and very menopausal but there are words that are getting under my skin.

* "Co-worker" seems to be a new word for colleague.

* "Super" this and "super" that instead of "very" or "huge", etc.

* "Denied", e.g. as in "he/she was denied entry" - instead of "refused entry", or other cases where the world "refused" would make more sense than the word "denied".

* Where has the word "donated" gone to. It's now "gifted".

* I get confused when reading a newspaper or magazine article where people are now referred to by their surnames only without the Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms. I lose the plot as to who is who confused. I'd prefer to referred to as Mrs Surname or my first name." 

                                                            A cow worker or a co-worker?

This one got a lot of replies (195 in fact). Here are some of the words and expression that Grans just won't be having with:


My bad

Meet with


Task (as a verb)

Going forward


Off of

Gift (as a verb)


At this moment in time

Fur baby (for a pet)

                                                        Credit: Nancy Wong Is this a fur-baby?

Can I get ...?

Reach out (for contact)

Park up

Invite (as a noun)

Beginning sentences with "so."

You can see they are a militant, not to say belligerent gathering of grans.

                                                        Raging Grannies by Grant Neufeld

A lot of the dislikes are for American expressions: "meet with," "reach out" (which I've seen elsewhere is OK if you are one of the Four Tops, otherwise not), "woke," "Can I get...?" "Awesome." But there was a lively discussion about "gotten," which is an American import that was originally an English export. Tricky.

A lot use an unnecessary preposition in post-position: "off of," "inside of."

But over to you. What are your pet language hates?

Word of the week: Celebrity

A noun that used to mean "fame" but now means "someone famous."  It was Chris Patten who defined it in 2011 as "someone I've never heard of." There was news today that the NHS is planning a series of ads with celebrities, serious ones, advocating having the Covid-19 vaccine. Who would you choose? I think John Craven, Trevor MacDonald, Judi Dench, Marcus Rashford, David Attenborough, Mary Berry, Juliet Stevenson.


Monday, 23 November 2020

OED word list 2020

Not a word of the week, nor yet a word of the year, which the OED usually decide on at this time, but a whole list of words, over forty of them. Not surprisingly, most are linked to the Coronavirus pandemic. But others relate to political activism, like "allyship" and "BLM."

Some, like "Veronica bucket" and "sanny" are quite new to me. How many do you know and use and do you think the OED has left any out that you would have included?

allyship n. active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it

anthropause n. a global slowdown of travel and other human activities

anti-masker n. a person who opposes the wearing of face masks

anti-vaxxer n. a person who is opposed to vaccination

BC. before Covid/before coronavirus

Black Lives Matter n. a movement formed to campaign against systemic racism and violence against black people.

blended learning n. a style of education in which students learn via electronic and online media as well as traditional face-to-face teaching

BLM. Black Lives Matter

Blursday n. a day of the week that is indistinguishable from any other

bubble n. (during an outbreak of an infectious disease) a restricted group of people whose members are allowed to be in close proximity when maintaining a physical distance is otherwise required

cancel culture n. a culture in which there is a widespread practice of publicly rejecting or withdrawing support from people or things regarded as promoting socially unacceptable views

circuit breaker n. (a) an automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit as a safety measure; (b) an automatic, temporary halt placed on stock trading, typically as a means of inhibiting panic selling; (c) a short period of lockdown intended to inhibit the spread of an infectious disease

community transmission n. transmission of an infectious disease or pathogen between members of a community, especially as a result of casual contact

coronavirus n. any of a group of RNA viruses that cause a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological diseases in humans and other animals; (specifically) a coronavirus responsible for an outbreak of serious respiratory disease in humans, especially the major pandemic beginning in 2019 

Covid-19 n. an acute disease in humans caused by a coronavirus, which is characterized mainly by fever and cough and is capable of progressing to pneumonia, respiratory and renal failure, blood coagulation abnormalities, and death, especially in the elderly and people with underlying health conditions; (also) the coronavirus that causes this disease

covidiot n. (depreciative) a person who disobeys guidelines designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19

decolonize v. to free (an institution, sphere of activity, etc.) from the cultural or social effects of colonization

defund v. to cease to fund (something)

doomscrolling n. the action of compulsively scrolling through social media or news feeds which relate bad news

flatten the curve v. to take measures designed to reduce the rate at which infection spreads during an epidemic, with the aim of lowering the peak daily number of new cases and extending the period over which new cases occur

furlough originally associated with members of the armed forces going on leave, and was chiefly used in the US. In March and April 2020 though, when it started to be used in other countries as employers were given grants to pay employees who were not working, usage shot up

hygiene theatre n. cleaning practices which give the illusion of sanitization without reducing the risk of infection

infodemic n. a proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety

Juneteenth n. 19 June, celebrated as a holiday commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves in Texas on that date in 1865.

learning modality n. a method of delivery of teaching and learning

lockdown n. a state of isolation, containment, or restricted access, usually instituted for security purposes or as a public health measure; the imposition of this state

mail-in adj. designating ballots, surveys, etc., in which results are collected by mail

moonshot n. an extremely ambitious and innovative project

net zero n. a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

pandemic n. a disease which is epidemic over a very large area and affects a large proportion of a population; an outbreak of such a disease

personal protective equipment n. clothing and equipment designed to provide the wearer or user protection against hazardous substances or environments, or to prevent transmission of infectious diseases

plandemic n. a planned pandemic

PPE = personal protective equipment

R number n. reproduction number, the average number of cases of an infectious disease arising by transmission from a single infected individual

rona n. (informal) coronavirus; Covid-19

sanny n. (chiefly Australian) hand sanitizer

self-isolate v. to undertake self-imposed isolation for a period of time, typically in one’s own home, in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

social distancing n. the action or practice of maintaining a certain physical distance from, or limiting physical contact with, another person or people (especially family and friends), especially in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

superspreader n. an individual infected with a (pathogenic) microorganism who transmits it to an unusually large number of other individuals

systemic racism n. discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group (typically one that is a minority or marginalized), arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within society or an institution

take a knee v. to go down on one knee as a peaceful means of protesting against racism

twindemic n. the simultaneous occurrence of two pandemics

unmute v. to turn on (a microphone or the audio on an electronic device), especially after having temporarily turned it off

Veronica bucket n. a type of sanitation equipment consisting of a covered bucket with a tap fixed at the bottom and a bowl fitted below to collect wastewater

virtue-signalling n. (depreciative) the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue

wet market n. (South-East Asian) a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce

wokeness n. the fact or quality of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice

workation n. a working vacation; a holiday during which one also works

Zoombombing n. the practice of infiltrating video conference calls on the Zoom application, and posting violent, pornographic, or offensive content

Monday, 16 November 2020

Hearing voices

Today's topic is Voice, an aspect of the Verb.

Perhaps you are already familiar with the difference between the Active and Passive voice? Here's a quick refresher:

"The dog bit the man" and "the man bit the dog" are both sentences in the active voice. They have the same grammatical structure, even though the event described is different.

"The man was bitten by the dog" and "the dog was bitten by the man" are both in the passive voice. They are describing the same incidents as in the first two sentences but with a different grammatical structure. (Followers of Chomsky might say they had the same Deep Structure as the first two).


All clear so far? 

What about these examples:

"The wine cost £10 a bottle"

"This dress washes at 40 degrees"

"The cake cooks well in the fan-assisted oven"

"Her books sell well"

"I photograph really badly" 

                                              Image: PETER LUNGILE CHIDOTHE

They are neither active nor passive. When I started to learn Classical Greek I was charmed to discover it had a Middle Voice that fitted the above examples perfectly. (It also has an extra number - dual, an extra mood - optative, and extra tense - the aorist, though it sadly lacks one case in  noun declension - the ablative. You have to use the genitive absolute in Greek, which sounds vaguely rude).

Once you have noticed the middle voice, you will see it everywhere.

Word of the week: Nocebo

Here, I was at first inclined, like Polonius, to exclaim, "vile phrase!" But it is a perfectly "cromulent" word as The Simpsons would say. It crops up in a report about people's reactions to taking statins. It is:

"a word that means in Latin "I will harm," as placebo means "I will please." A placebo makes patients feel better for reasons unrelated to the specific healing properties of the treatment. A nocebo makes patients feel worse (or does other harm) in the same way." Harvard Health


Monday, 9 November 2020

Harold be thy name

This is a post about "mondegreens," which is in some ways linked to the one on malapropisms

A Mondegreen results from a mis-hearing of a phrase or word in a poem or song lyric. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing that as a girl, when her mother read to her from Percy's Reliques, she had misheard the lyric "layd him on the green" in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray, as "Lady Mondegreen."

 I'm sure many of you have heard of the mondegreen, "Gladly, thy cross-eyed bear," taken from mis-hearing a hymn line: "gladly thy cross I'd bear." And I've always liked "Our Father, which art in Heaven/ Harold be thy name. (I like to think of God's real name being Harold). 

But I hadn't realised how widespread they were and that they work in other languages than English too. Wright said that the point about them and why they needed a term coined for them was that they are often better than the original wording.

"They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen" 

does make one wonder about Lady Mondegreen and why she had to die too! 

Yet the mishearing of The Star-spangled Banner to produce the nonsense adverb "donzerly light" perhaps doesn't quite make up in mystery for the lack of meaning.

A Monk Swimming by Malachy McCourt is so titled, according to Wikipedia, because of a childhood mishearing of a phrase from the Catholic rosary prayer, Hail Mary. "Blessed art thou amongst women" became "a monk swimmin'." And I can just see that monk doing the front crawl to approach the BVM.

Likewise, Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children's book by Vivian Walsh, which borrows its title from a mondegreen of the line, "all of the other reindeer" in the famous Christmas song about Rudolph. 

You can have reverse mondegreens too, as in the song which goes:

                     Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey

A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?


The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

This makes it clear that the last line is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?" 

This was apparently sung to me as a baby, since my mother was called Ivy (though not spelled in the standard way) and, by extension, my father sometimes called me "Mairzy doats," which makes me a sort of Lady Mondegreen myself! 

Word of the week: Mail-in ballot 

We call them postal votes in the UK and they seem a very good idea, especially in a pandemic. CNN say 'This is a blanket term for any ballot mailed to voters, though the completed forms can be returned by mail, to a dropbox or in person to officials or polling places. In three critical states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- officials weren't able to start processing any of these ballots until Election Day, which led to huge backlogs and slowed down the count."

But Donald Trump referred to them just as "ballots" which confused me, as every vote is a ballot and, when he said, "if there were no ballots, there would be no problem," he seemed to be saying, "if there were no votes, the election wouldn't be problematic."

Actually, he probably does think that at this moment. Ironically, he voted by mail-in ballot himself.