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.