Monday, 3 August 2020

Lie, Lady, Lie

We're taking a break from punctuation this week to look at the difference between "lie" and "lay."

Have you looks at my Parts of Speech page? One important part of speech - well, they all are really - is the verb. Verbs can be transitive or intransitive and all that means is that the transitive ones take an object. That sounds rather abstract so here are some examples:

"I live in a house" vs. "I love my house." In the second example "my house" is the object of the verb "love." So love is a transitive verb. You need to love something. "Live" is intransitive, i.e. it has no object. You can live your life, in which case the verb has become transitive because "life" is the object.

Many verbs can be both. You can sing a song or sing beautifully. But some are resolutely intransitive, like "sleep." But you can say "I slept a long sleep," even though it isn't very idiomatic.

How does this help with "lie" and "lay"? Well, "lie" is intransitive; it doesn't have an object. Whereas "lay" requires an object:

"I always lay the table half an hour before a meal."

"Our best hen lays an egg every day."


"If I lie down on my bed after lunch, I always fall asleep."

The confusion arises because the past tense of "lie" is "lay."

What? Why? Don't do that to me!

Hold on; take a deep breath and it will be OK. Let's put those sentences in the past tense.

"I always laid the table half an hour before a meal but then I got a life."

"Our best hen laid an egg every day till she died."

"If I lay down on my bed after lunch, I always fell asleep."

The problem is that US English uses "lay" intransitively. Hence the Bob Dylan song, "Lay, Lady, Lay."

Credit: Rowland Scherman, 1960s

So, if Bob had been using Standard British English, he would have entitled his song, "Lie, Lady, Lie," but then he'd have lost the sexy overtones of another meaning of "lay" with an object.

Monday, 27 July 2020

You're OK

The most common grammar "mistake" I see is the confusion between "your" and "you're."

"I hope your OK" is never right. Why not? "You're" is a contraction of "you are" - remember last week I said that apostrophes mean something has been left out? In this case, a space and the letter "a." It's difficult to find a picture to illustrate this, so here is a cat from Portugal:

Photo credit: Alvesgaspar
You're quite sure it's not your cat? (see what I did there?)

Speaking of "there," another pitfall awaits with there/they're/their.

"They're quite sure their cat is still over there." There's that apostrophe replacing the "a" of "are" again.

What about "its" and "it's"? Well, it's a cat = it is a cat. It looks like the king of its territory. "Its" because there is no letter or letters missing.

But you said apostrophes can mean possession!

I know I did and they can and do. It's OK to write "the cat's territory" but not "it's territory."

Why? I don't know. With "it" it's only "it's" when the "i" of "is." is missing.  This is one you're just going to have to learn; I feel your pain.

Here is a picture of a cake:

Photo credit: James Petts

Monday, 20 July 2020

Apostrophes don't mean plural!

Or, to put it another way, plurals don't need apostrophes. I talked last week about the many ways in which different words form plurals, BUT APOSTROPHES ARE NOT ONE OF THEM! Sorry to shout but this really does need emphasis.

Apostrophes mean two things:

1. Possession

2. Omission

Possession - On Look and Read, the BBC Schools TV programme where I was Reading Consultant for eighteen years, we had little animated songs to teach aspects of learning to read.  There was one that went like this:

'That bike belongs to Tim, it must be Tim's
That car belongs to Sid, it must be Sid's
That bike is Tim's
That car is Sid's.
If a thing belongs, use apostrophe s.'

Straightforward, if a bit non-inclusive. But what if the name or noun ends in "s"? This car belongs to Jess - it must be Jess's. Or "It's Jess's car." The bike belongs to James - it must be James's. Or "It's James's car."

Some people think it's more elegant just to use the apostrophe and leave the possessive s off when dealing with a name or noun ending in an s sound already: It's James' bike. But I bet they never say it that way even if they write it so.

Plural possession - Hang on - didn't she say apostrophes have nothing to do with plurals? No, I didn't. I said they don't mean plural. And they don't.

When I was eleven I won a scholarship to a single sex private school in Dulwich. It was called James Allen's Girls' School, universally known as JAGS. I have always said it was a lesson in punctuation in itself. The apostrophe goes before the s in Allen's because the school was founded by (i.e. belonged to) the one man, James Allen. The apostrophe goes after the s in girls,' because the school was for girls, plural.

Where are the girls' bikes? Where are the witnesses' statements?

Omission - Look and Read had a song for that too and this one is on YouTube:

"I'm an apostrophe
Come and take a look at me.
I'm not a comma,
I'm not a full stop.
Don't put me on the line.
I go at the top!

See how we use an apostrophe
To shorten what you say to me..."

Followed by examples like I'm, can't, don't and that's, showing how I am, cannot, do not and that is lose a few letters and replace them with an apostrophe.

So that's it. Apostrophes mean possession or omission. THEY NEVER MEAN PLURAL.

Sorry; I'm shouting again.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Incorrigibly plural

Plurals, more than one of something, are easy in English, aren't they? You don't have to worry about grammatical gender or whether the word is the subject or object in English; you just add "s."

One dog, two dogs, lots of dogs.
Photo credit: Markus Trienke

So far, so straightforward. But what about the women and children?

One woman, one child, two women, lots of children. Why don't we say "two womans" and "lots of childs," as we would in most European languages. Let's take the children first. A plural form in English is made up of two morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in language. "S" is pretty small and it carries all the meaning we need = there is more than one of something here.

In "children," the morphemes are "child" and "ren." The only unfamiliar thing is "ren." It's a leftover from Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which uses "en" to make some plurals. We have a few we still use in Modern English, like "brethren" and "oxen," but they have mostly disappeared. Including, regrettably, "been," "toon," and "shoon," replaced by "bees," "toes" and "shoes."

What about the "r," I hear you ask. Ah, well, that is another Middle English way of making plurals and some dialects still use "childer" for children. Is as if at some point we decided there were just so many kids around we need two ways to pluralise them: child + (e)r+en.

Much language usage changes but I don't think we will see "childs" replacing "children" in my lifetime.

And the women? That's another way of making plurals: changing the vowel. "Man>men," "woman>women." These are not the only ones; think of "tooth>teeth," "foot>feet,""goose>geese."

No wonder English is considered a hard language by non-native speakers! Why do parts of the anatomy at different ends of the body pluralise by changing the vowels when pretty much everything in between just adds "s"? Arms, legs,  lungs, kidneys, tummies. Imagine if they were "erm," "log," "lang," "kidnay," and "tommy."

Why is it "mouse>mice," "louse>lice" but not "house>hice"?

Anyway, there's another way for words ending in "f" sounds. Of course there is
"Calf>calves,"half>halves,""hoof>hooves." There is some argument about "roof" and "dwarf" with some people preferring "roofs" and "dwarfs" to "rooves" and "dwarves." But it's usually "elves" and "shelves" and "wolves."

An elf on the shelf,looking plural. Credit: A Knight Errant
Some words just give up on plurals altogether and move to a different word. So one person but two people, except in the expression "murder by person or persons unknown."

It's beginning to seem as if English plurals aren't so simple after all.

But now we come to my favourite thing ever in linguistics: the plural of "sheep." There are several words like this which appear not to change whether you have one or more than one. Another is "fish," although you can say "fishes" while nobody says "sheeps."

Remember how I said that plurals are made up of two morphemes? The noun and the morpheme that indicates plurality? Well - hold on to your hats - if you talk about lots of sheep, the word "sheep" is composed of the noun plus a zeromorph! Isn't that wonderful? It appears that there is no plural signifier there but it is provided by the context so that we know there's a hidden one all the time. It's that kind of thing that made me happy as a bee in clover studying Linguistics. Or several been.

Word ending in "o" tend to add an "e" before the pluralising "s." (Though the jury seems to be out on "avocadoes"). This can lead to back formations such as the one that tripped this fellow up.

"On June 15, 1992, Vice-President Dan Quayle altered 12-year-old student William Figueroa's correct spelling of "potato" to "potatoe" at the Muñoz Rivera Elementary School spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey. He was the subject of widespread ridicule for his error."

What doesn't signify plural is an apostrophe. I almost put the Caps Lock on for that one. 
Tomato's, Potato's, GCSE's - it hurts to write them. It's so common with vegetables that this is sometimes known as "the greengrocer's apostrophe."

But apostrophes need a whole Grammar Grandma post to themselves - and that's what you'll get next Monday.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Less cheese, fewer eggs...

No, not an evangelical call to veganism, although I wouldn't mind that. It could as easily be "less cabbage, fewer peas."

Any idea what I'm talking about?

Image by Frank Schulenburg
Image by Vmenkov
This is a post about "count nouns" and "non-count" or "mass nouns." "Cheese" is a mass noun, so if you want not so much of it, you would say "less cheese." "Eggs" is a count noun, so if you are not so keen on them, you'd say "fewer eggs."

Of course, everyone will understand what you mean if you say "less eggs." So why I am talking about a rule here? It's not really a rule; it's a convention of Standard English. And I like them. I also like helping people to know what they are and use them if they want to.

So what characterises a count noun? For a start, you can make it plural, by adding an "s." Now, you can make "cheese" plural too and talk about "cheeses" but then, crucially, you are talking about kinds of cheese, not cheese in general.

"I wish x would use less cheese in her cooking" versus "I like most cheeses apart from goat."

But nobody says "fewer cheese"; the problem arises with count nouns.

"I wish there were less repeats on TV." As I said before, perfectly intelligible and if that's what matters to you above style, then go ahead. But I imagine you come here because you'd like to know what is "correct" in Standard English. So it's "fewer repeats," "less rubbish."

Monday, 29 June 2020

Mayday, mayday!

Starlight, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

This is a blog post about when to use "may" and when "might. It's about possibility, not permission. So not "may I have another cup please?" which is a polite way of asking "can I have..."

As with every post, I'm going back to basics, assuming that if you are consulting this blog, you are a bit uncertain about something and would like a firm rule or at least a steer about grammar, usage, meaning or perhaps pronunciation.

Actually, the battle for "might" may be over. Mighty as it sounds, this word is being vanquished by mimsy little "may."

Take this sentence, from reports, written and spoken, on a pretty horrible case of murder, maiming and suicide ten years ago:

"Raoul Moat said that he may hurt any police officer he comes across."

This is not verbatim but there were many reports of this kind. What's wrong with that sentence? Nothing, as far as meaning is concerned. A man who would shoot and kill his former girlfriend's new lover and badly injure the young woman herself, believed that she was having an affair with a police officer; consequently all male members of the police force were at risk.

The issue here is Direct Speech versus Reported (or Indirect) Speech
If the reporter had said or written: 'Raoul Moat said, "I may hurt any police officer I come across,"' then"may" would OK, because that's what he actually said, the words withing the speech marks or inverted commas.

The minute you use "that" after "he said," you are not quoting Moat's (or anyone else's) actual words but reporting them at one remove. So the verb "may" goes into the past tense, "might."

"May" is also OK in the sentence "RM says that he may hurt any police officer he comes across,"
because it's reported speech in the present. "May" is the  present tense and "might" the past.

If you wanted to make an excruciating political joke, you might name the ex-Prime Minister Theresa Might.

(Sorry about that!)

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

A few days ago I received an email from our estate agent, writing "they should of told you."

How has this mistake come about and why is it now so widespread that a reasonably well-educated person can write it?

It comes from spoken language. "Could have," "would have" and "should have" are all elided to "could've," "would've" and "should've" in speech. And, because they sound almost indistinguishable from "could of," would of" and "should of" that's what they have become in writing.

Can you imagine Eliza Dolittle singing "I could of danced all night"?

Sat and stood

A university teacher friend asked on Facebook today asked if she must now accept "he was sat" and "she was stood" in students' writing. It's a dialect form from the north of England, which is beginning to replace "he was standing" and "she was sitting" in Standard English. Why?

"Stood" and "sat" are past participles of the verbs "stand" and "sit." "Standing" and "sitting" are present participles. My theory is that in their determination to express a past action, the user of this form doesn't want to rely on the little word "was" but needs to emphasise the timing of the action by putting the participle into a past form too.

Photo Blanche Morin
 Is this meerkat sitting or standing?

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Proof and the Pudding

Sounds like a pub name, doesn't it?

I heard it used only this morning on Radio 4 and it made me think I must write about it. The commentator said "The proof is in the pudding." The expression is:

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

That means "you won't be able to tell if something has worked out all right until you put it to the test." So imagine making what should be a delicious pudding but you have used salt instead of sugar. The "proof" of that pudding, i.e. "does it taste nice?" would be refuted by the eaters, who would find it disgusting.

What can "the proof is in the pudding" possibly mean? I often receive proof pages or "a proof" from publishers but they never arrive baked into a pudding. Pity, you might say, but I don't miss it; I think the yummy surroundings would be offset by grease and crumbs on the sheets of paper.

Photo by James Petts

Of course, I am visualising these soggy pages as being in a sweet pudding but steak and kidney would be even worse.

You might say about the UK government's plans to beat or reduce COVID -19, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," meaning, "let's wait and see if this turns out well.

But "the proof is in the pudding" is definitely gaining ground.

Here's another: "You've got another thing coming."

What is that thing? It sounds quite ominous, doesn't it? The actual expression is:

"You've got another think coming."

Odd, isn't it? We don't usually talk about "thinks" as a noun when we mean "thoughts." It's the second half of a sentence, "If you think that, then you have ..." That is, you've thought something that is wrong and you are going to have to revise your opinion. And it is quite vehement.

There's some overlap here with my last post, about homonyms and near homonyms, but while looking up phrases commonly got wrong, I found hilarious examples I'd never even seen or heard like, Statue of Limitations for Statute of Limitations and "Escape Goat" for "Scapegoat." I'd love to see images for these! And for "Card Shark" and "taken for granite."

What has happened here is that someone has heard a phrase, rather than read it, and assimilated it to another word they know. Fair enough. And a "card shark" is just as likely as a the actual common term.
Photo by Vahe Martirosyan

But what has happened to meaning in "Escape goat" or "the proof is in the pudding"?

I think the trouble is that people don't expect common phrases and words to mean anything! Yet Semantics (The study or science of meaning) is a discipline within Linguistics. It's a crucial aspect of language, usage and grammar.

Here are some more commonly misused words or phrases.

"He has prostrate cancer." No, he really doesn't. "Prostrate" means lying on the floor, face downwards. The gland that may get cancer is the "prostate." Of course, such a diagnosis might make a man want to lie down on the floor but that is not the word you want here.

"Can I have an expresso, please?" No you can't; it's an "espresso." "Expresso" gives the idea of the coffee coming fast, and I hope it will when you need that caffeine shot. But "espresso" is Italian for "expressed," meaning put under pressure, which is how this is made:

I can see a little bit of logic in "expresso" but what are we to make of "Doggy dog world"? The expression is "Dog eat dog world." That is, a world like financial dealing in the City where the normal laws of nature are suspended and anyone will do anything to get on. But please, someone, tell me what "doggy dog world" can possibly be supposed to mean? It sounds the opposite: a sort of cuddly, shaggy, happily panting and tail-wagging environment.

There's a little bit of logic in "expatriot" when "expatriate" is meant too. It's quite judgmental: implying someone who has left their country of origin to settle in another land has forfeited the right to be patriotic. It's usually shortened to "expat" anyway, so people don't have the opportunity to see the correct version in writing.

But what are we to make of someone saying "pass mustard" when the phrase is "pass muster"? It's true that the word "muster" has fallen out of use, because not many of us are subjected to military inspection, which is what it means in the phrase.  If you "pass muster" you come through some sort of test or assessment successful. But goodness only know what happens to you if you "pass mustard"! It sounds most uncomfortable and explosive.


Monday, 8 June 2020

The current bun monitor and other vocabulary issues

(Grammar Grandma was "on holiday" last week, i.e. off the Internet)

Image: Rainer Knäpper, Free Art License

I'm a big fan of Barbara Trapido, who came to prominence with her novel Brother of the more Famous Jack. I once had breakfast with her in Venice, but that's another story. She likes playing with language, as do I, and in her book Temples of Delight has fun with a homonym.*

One of her characters, a schoolgirl called Jem, has been writing a sensational novel called The Divine Miss Davidene Delight and her friend Alice is reading it from her exercise book. Jem's novel is set in the Moated Grange School for Young Ladies and her character Christabel is described as "the current bun monitor."

"Don't you spell 'current' with an 'a'?" asks Alice.

"She wasn't the 'currant bun monitor,' for heaven's sake," said Jem. "She was the bun monitor for that week."

An easy mistake for Alice to make.

Another pair of homonyms is pour/pore. If you say someone is "pouring" over a book I immediately wanted to know what they are pouring (maybe their tea, which they are consuming with a currant bun?). If you mean they are studying it carefully, it's "poring."

Perhaps the business of near homonyms accounts for a couple of other common mistakes in vocabulary?

I have heard, and seen, the expression " a damp squid."  Squids live in the sea so that's logical, isn't it? They will all be damp, if not positively sopping. But the phrase is "a damp squib." A squib is an old term for a kind of firework, which you may never have seen, and a damp one would not not light and erupt into glittering sparkles. Hence the expression, meaning something disappointing, an event that didn't quite come off.

However, the one featuring squid is now so common that it might replace the original altogether and all meaning be lost.

Something similar is happening with "slither." I have several times seen it used in printed books where the writer is referring to a very small slice of e.g. cake. The word they want is "sliver." "Sliver" is a noun meaning just that, while "slither" is a verb describing the movement of perhaps a snake or of a slippery silk dress falling to the ground.

I have heard this used by quite eminent people, including a famous children's author.

More next Monday.

* A homonym is a word that sounds like another word but is spelled differently.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The difference

It's a matter of prepositions. Forgotten what they are? Take a look at the Parts of Speech page.

This illustration, from Wikipedia Commons, depicts a ball which is, from Right to Left: above, below, inside, outside, behind, on, beside, under and between a box or boxes. So far, so straightforward but it's harder to depicts some of those pesky little words like "to" and "from," which are a bit more abstract.

So what preposition should follow the adjective "different"? Should? If you read last week's Grammar Grandma post on "the rules" of grammar, you might be imagining I'm going to tell you what you should say and write. No.

I'm going to tell you what the Standard English form is and it is "different from." This is because one thing "differs from" another, not "to" or "than" it. And yet these forms are more and more popular in speech and writing.

"Different to," I can just about understand because a comparison is being made - though "compared with" vs. "compared to" is a another disputed grammatical construction!

But how to account for the now ubiquitous "different than"? I suppose it runs thus: you can have bigger than or taller than or older than so why not different than?

Why not, indeed? I can only tell you that I'd never do it, in speech or writing. And I don't think you's say one thing"differs than" or "differs to"another.

You can't go wrong
with "different from."