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 Kn√§pper, 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.