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 = Répondez 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.

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."

Monday, 18 May 2020

The Rules

You may have noticed in my last post that I used the word "should." This brings up the vexed question of who decides what a grammar rule is and when it should be relaxed or changed.

F.G.Sykes et. al.

We all obey rules, otherwise cars would crash into each other far more often than they do! We stop for red lights, drive on the left of the road (in the UK) and signal when we are about to turn. Most people do these things without arguing about them and may make other drivers very angry when they don't.

Of course the consequences of disobeying rules of the road are much more dangerous than anything you say or write!

You will hear some people say there are no "rules" in language, just conventions. Nevertheless they follow most of these conventions or their speech and writing would be gibberish.

The main thing is that these rules or conventions have been formed with Standard British English in mind, not dialects or creoles or patois. They relate to formal written English and, to a lesser extent, formal written English. You can't decide to flout or bend them but it's easier to do this when you know what they are and can demonstrate your mastery of them.

It's difficult to find illustrations of grammar!

Most linguists take "grammar" to be made up of "morphology" and "syntax." Don't be put off by these words. Morphology is the form of a word, which in English is not usually variable. It changes far more in inflected languages like Italian or German. In English "the" is always "the," regardless of the gender or number of the word that follows. But we do have a few different forms for verbs:


for example.

Syntax is the way in which words are organised to give meaning in a sentence. You know instinctively that
'reading easy is' is not the right order, unless you are Yoda.

So for one aspect there is not much to learn and for the other you know most of it already.

Grammar is easier than you realise.

Monday, 11 May 2020

The King and I

This is a "common mistake" post. The kind of thing that gets pedants and language snobs like me screaming at the radio. You've all heard it. Gordon Brown did it, Prince Harry did it. Everyone on Made in Chelsea does it. And these are all people who have had the most expensive education money can buy. They will say something along these lines:

"My parents brought my brother and I up to tell the truth." No. It should be "My parents brought my brother and me up to tell the truth." Why? Because both "my brother" and "I" are objects of the verb "bring up." English doesn't have many objective forms (the "accusative" in an inflected language) but it does have them for pronouns, where "I" is the subject form (nominative) and "me" is the object form (accusative).

How to avoid ever making this mistake: Take the other person out of the sentence: "My parents brought I up to tell the truth." Does that sound right to you in Standard English (leaving dialect forms out of it)? Then change it to "me" and put the brother back in the sentence.

I have seen many published books with this mistake in them, which could get me on to the subject of editors. One to keep for another day.

I've named this post because my mother once said excitedly to me, "the king and I are on at the Essoldo!" That's a different kind of mistake, one of number, which we can talk about another day.

Question: Why would it be OK to say "I saw the King and I at the Essoldo" but not "She saw the king and I in the procession"?

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Change of name, change of purpose

This is no longer the Book Maven blog but Grammar Grandma. However the Book Maven archive is still available by date.