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."