Monday, 3 May 2021

Hybrids, or the Greeks had half a word for it


The most common hybrid word is "television." It's formed from two languages: "tele-" from the Greek word for "far" and the Latin -derived "vision." The whole means something like "seeing from afar," which is not to be confused with "far-seeing."

Most hybrids in English are formed from a mixture of Latin and Greek components but it can be from any two languages. I specially like the vintage term "beatnik," where the suffix is Russian.

Both "homosexual" and "heterosexual are hybrids, with "homo-" and "hetero-" being Greek prefixes and "sexual" deriving from Latin.

The suffixes "-phobia," "-ology" and "-ectomy" are all Greek, meaning respectively "fear," "study" and "cutting out." So "claustrophobia," "sociology" and "tonsillectomy" are all hybrids. It would be fun to write a story using all these words.

The prefix "a-" as in "asexual," "amoral" etc. is Greek but is regularly combined with a Latin second part. It's known as a "privative," something that takes something away or "deprives" it of something.

"Automobile," "neonatal," "sociopath" ... all Graeco-Latin hybrids.


They aren't the same as "portmanteau" words, which are combinations of words or affixes from the same language. Lewis Carroll  was good at making these up - "chortle," a mixture of "chuckle" and "snort." "slithy" a combination of "lithe" and "slimy."

"Spork," "smog," "brunch" are all useful portmanteau words.

What are you favourite hybrids or portmanteaux?

Word of the week: microaggression

Pleasingly, this is also a hybrid: the Greek prefix meaning "small" and the Latin word for "attack."

So a microaggression is a "small attack." The term was coined over fifty years ago by a Harvard psychiatry professor, Chester M. Pierce. The reason it is so current now is that it is a very useful term for the small daily insults, misinformation and withholding of validation expressed in words and actions towards marginalised groups.  Not "minorities," since women are on the receiving end of many microaggressions and are in a slight numerical majority.

Microaggressions are everyday exchanges which, cumulatively, wear down the person on the receiving end: a person of colour constantly being asked "where are you really from?," a woman addressed by her first name or a diminutive while male colleagues are called Mr Whatever, a blind person finding that someone speaking to them raises their voice, a person in a wheelchair not being addressed at all but all questions directed to a companion, a black barrister mistaken for a defendant in court, transgender people not being referred to by their preferred pronouns and so on.


Monday, 26 April 2021


I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 the other morning when - shock, horror! - the presenter used a word incorrectly. I know, incredible, isn't it?

It was Justin Webb, I think, and he was interviewing someone about how long we would need to go on wearing masks and using other safety measures against COVID -19. Twice he said something along the lines of "but isn't all becoming a bit performative?" Husband and I both said, "he doesn't know what "performative" means - it means the opposite of what he thinks it does."

It took me right back to my Linguistics years at University College, London where Professor Michael Halliday taught us what a performative verb was. Basically, it does what it says on the tin. If someone says "I promise to marry you," or "I promise you a biscuit if you eat all your dinner," the very act of saying "I promise" means that you have made that promise. (Hence breach of promise lawsuits).

Here are some other examples:

I apologise for upsetting you (= I'm saying sorry now for upsetting you)

Smoking on the plane is forbidden (= this notice forbids you to smoke)

I swear to tell, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (= I am in the very act of promising to be truthful in my answers)

She named the ship Dreadnought (=  she gave the ship that name)

I accept your invitation (= I'm coming)

I advise you not to use that word in my presence (= I'm giving you my opinion of your choice of words)

There are some other verbs, like "confess," "like," "prefer," "declare," etc. which could be considered performative. Justin Webb clearly thinks it means "putting on a performance," or "following an empty  ritual." Shame on him.

Word of the week: Woman of Colour

My husband wants it to be "micro-aggression;" maybe next week. 

But I'm going with "woman of colour" because I keep hearing it today in relation to the winner of the Best Director Oscar yesterday, Chloé Zhao. Now, Ms Zhao is Chinese by parentage and by place of birth. Unless she has specifically asked to be referred to in this way I think it's a very peculiar choice. It makes it clear that what is meant is "non-white," which somehow makes it more racist, not less so.

Here  is my headline: Chloé Zhao wins best Director Oscar for Nomadland.

Tells you everything you need to know, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Who needs Latin?

Last Monday I spent the whole day writing an assignment for my online course on cathedral architecture, about 14th century Lady chapels. It was one way to spend a Bank Holiday, I suppose, but that was why I didn't give you a Grammar Grandma post. I have spent most of today dealing with admin attendant on our house move, four months after it happened. One of the many reasons we intend never to move again.

I'm starting another online course, on the Wars of the Roses on 26th so there might be further hiatuses  but I am much more comfortable with that material, Plantagenets being like mother's milk to me, so I hope not to be so distracted.

And so to today's question, "who needs Latin?" Educational policy-makers decided decades ago that most of us didn't and dropped it from the curriculum of State schools long before their was a National one. If you went to an independent school, as I did (on a scholarship), the opposite decision was made. The two forms both started with French for a year and then the A stream added Latin and the less clever form were taught German. Isn't that disgraceful?

It took a while for me to fall in love with Latin but I chose to do it at A level and added Classical Greek a year later. I can honestly say I use them every day. But Latin is now seen as a great divider. Only horrible, snobbish, privately-educated people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson use Latin tags and they do it to show off and make other people feel inferior.

You might well feel you know no Latin and never use it but if you've ever said or written "et cetera" or used "e.g". to mean "for example," had a "bonus"at work in addition to what you were paid "per annum," or even said a sporting event was one team or person "versus" another, you are using Latin.

You might talk about being "pro-" one political party and "anti-" another. You might take it for granted in reading or watching a crime story that suspects will have an "alibi." The victim of a murder will be subject to a "post mortem." A criminal might use an "alias."

And if you're a fan of the film Dead Poets Society, you will surely know "Carpe diem," usually translated as "seize the day," though the verb is more like "pluck" as you would do a flower. Your meetings at work will certainly have an "agenda" and you might need to analyse "data."

This "dead" language certainly gets about.

Word of the Week: Consort

A "consort" is the spouse of a reigning monarch, at least in the UK. Only Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, has been officially styled as "Prince Consort;" the recently deceased Prince Philip was never given that honour. Indeed for ten years he wasn't a prince; although born one, he renounced all titles along with his Greek citizenship before marrying Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and was styled HRH the Duke of Edinburgh until 1957 when he was again given the title of "Prince."

Of course "consort" can also be a verb, usually with a rather negative association, as Oxford defines it: "habitually associate with (someone), typically with the disapproval of others."

Monday, 5 April 2021

No post today

Grandma is not just recovering from a surfeit of chocolate but has had to write a university assignment for submission tomorrow. Back next week.

Monday, 29 March 2021

That or which?

This is a request post, to satisfy the need of one Philip Ardagh. He is in want of something to dispel uncertainty about when to use "that" and when "which" in introducing a relative clause. Happy to oblige, Philip, but you'll need to pay attention; this is a tricky one.

Indeed, the acknowledged authority on English usage, Henry Watson Fowler, said in 1926: "The relations between that, who and which have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, and plainly show that the language has not been constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could."

The distinction is between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, or in older terminology, defining and non-defining clauses. To make things easier for Philip:

Not Philip Ardagh

"The beard that I saw coming round the door preceded an extremely tall, bespectacled children's author," contains a restrictive or defining clause. It refers to that beard and no other of the many I might have observed during the day.

"The beard, which he had been growing since puberty, now measured twelve inches long," is non-restrictive or non-defining clause. It provides some additional information about the beard (though perhaps not about Philip's own beard; I made this bit up).

Word of the week: garden office

This is a very personal word of the week. In our new house - or rather outside it - I have a garden office. It is a stone-built room that shares a party wall with our garage. It already had a door, which is a bit of a pre-requisite for any room, but we added a window. Then it had to be insulated, painted, shelved and the WiFi made to work before I could start to use it. I took up residence a week ago. 

Last November, we ordered a garden shed, a humble wooden 7 x 5ft building to house garden tools, lawn mower etc. We were told it wouldn't be delivered till May 2021! We couldn't think why, until we realised the company that makes sheds also makes garden offices, which can be quite elaborate, with not just windows and doors but verandahs and other fancy extras. And since the first lockdown and the exhortation to work from home, everyone has been buying them!


Monday, 22 March 2021

A marked improvement

You may have missed the story last autumn that the OED had to revise its definition of the term "woman" after equality campaigners challenged the use of "bitch," "bint" and "wench" as synonyms.

An open letter signed by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi and others from Women's Aid, the Women's Equality Party and several linguists began:

"Did you know that if you are a woman, the dictionary will refer to you as a “bitch” or a “maid”? And that a man is “a person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness” or “a man of honour” and the “man of the house”?

These are, according to the dictionary, the synonyms for “woman” alongside a wealth of derogatory and equally sexist examples – “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman” or “Don’t be daft, woman!”'

There was also a protest that the entry for "man" was much longer than the one for "woman." Among the many things that interest me in this story, which concludes well with the OED revising its examples, is that "woman" might be - at least linguistically - the marked form and "man" the unmarked.

This is the argument that used to be jocularly characterised as "man embraces woman." In other words, "man" is both the generic and specific term, grammatically speaking. I always found it specious, since the famous example "man, being a mammal, breastfeeds his young" always makes people jump.

Ida Frisell published some research at Lund university which expands this idea.

Words like "fireman," "policeman," "spokesman," "chairman,"  are gradually being replaced by "firefighter," "police officer," "spokesperson," "chair(person),"  though many people really object to the "-person" suffix and regard it as political correctness gone mad.

But, back to marked and unmarked. The unmarked form is often male: dog, tiger, lion; if we said "a pack of bitches" we would mean something different from "a pack of dogs." "The tigress was dangerous" refers to a specific gender of the animal - same with lioness.

The marked form is sometimes male: we say ducks, sheep, cows, not drakes, rams and bulls, unless we are being specific about the gender. No-one says, "I'm going to the park to feed the drakes" or "try counting rams to get to sleep."

There has been a movement away from using feminising suffixes in recent years, with "stewardess" being replaced by "flight attendant" or both sexes using "actor." I certainly remember with distaste a trend lasting into the 1960s to refer to female students as "undergraduettes," but that was as much about the users' linguistic ignorance as it was about feminism.

Tsar Nicholas ll of Russia


Word of the week: Tsar

Prompted by news that the Queen has appointed a "diversity tsar" to modernise the monarchy's approach to race, after Megan Markle's revelations in the interview she and her husband gave to Oprah Winfrey. The word "tsar" derives from the Latin "Caesar" and was used in Slavic countries for their supreme leader. 

Now you can be a tsar of anything. Maybe I'll be appointed Language Tsar? And perhaps change my surname to Hoffperson? It's a thought.

Monday, 15 March 2021

"Shudder" words

Vocabulary again and from that rich source, Gransnet. This time "words that make you shudder," prompted by a poster's son-in-law's visceral reaction to the word "moist." He is not alone. In 2012, university researchers in Ohio and Texas, ran a study to find out why "moist" was such an unpopular word (about 20% of the population can't stand the word). Possibilities considered were negative sexual connotations, combination of phonemes  and the way that pronouncing the word forces the face into a kind of grimace. Reactions were affected by age, general squeamishness or neuroticism and not a response to sound alone ("foist," "hoist" and "rejoiced" elicited no such reactions). 

There is a Facebook page "I hate the word moist" with around 3,000 followers.  Even the counterbalancing associations with "cake that is not dry" can't deflect the haters. It's known as "word aversion" and we all have our pet hates. On Gransnet many respondents said, "I can't even bring myself to write the word." But they did and responses ran to 14 pages!

I broke them down into categories:

Associations with the word meanings

Mucous, phlegm, snot, sputum,  vomit, discharge - sorry, everyone!


Pass (away), toilet, love handles, pensioner, girls (for breasts)


The get go, train station, guys, "you do the math," gift (as a verb), movie 


Chrimbo, hubby, fur baby, hollibobs, comfy, yummy, babe, tummy, bestie

Class differences

Lounge, serviette, settee, sweet or afters (for pudding), "pardon?" and possibly nanny, nan or nana for "grandmother"

Clearly "U" and "Non-U" live on.

Nancy Mitford


gob, belly, bog and all swearwords

Corporate speak

Going forward, blue sky thinking, reach out 

Grammatical tics

"of" for "have," "so" at the beginning of sentences, "haitch," "off of," "less" for "fewer," "like" as a hesitation marker.

Elon Musk
Some seemed quite random. "Elon Musk" for instance or an aversion, by several posters, to "all the trimmings" about a meal. Actually, several didn't like "meal." Others objected to overuse of trendy words like "woke" or coy expressions/beliefs like "the rainbow bridge." Lots didn't like "kids" or "fall pregnant," which might also be a class thing.

Anyway, please tell me your "shudder" words in the Comments below. Mine are "hubby," "banter," "prank" and "parboil."

Word of the week: Vigil

It comes from a Latin word meaning "staying awake."  In the Middle Ages in England a squire would spend the night keeping vigil, bathing, fasting and praying until the morning when he would be knighted. In Christian liturgy it means the night before a major feast: the Easter vigil used to be at midnight on Easter Saturday, though it is usually earlier now. Likewise, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

But it has come to have a strong secular meaning as a silent gathering to mourn the death of a person, such as Sarah Everard, or in commemoration of an event.

A vigil is not a protest or demonstration, although it may contain elements of both because of what the mourning stands for.

Monday, 8 March 2021

A heart-warming story

The word "cliché" comes from a term used in printing. It means in one sense a cluster of words that can be predicted, something that would speed the task up in the long-winded task of typesetting, putting letters into a "forme." If you like, it was an early kind of predictive text. If someone wrote "red as a ..." it was more likely to be followed by "rose" than "a screaming baby's face," for example.

The word itself is the past participle of the French verb "clicher," which means "click." I have seen various explanations that the term referred to a clicking sound made during the process of forming a "stereotype," which was a whole page of pre-set text, which could be used over and again. How interesting that two things writers are encouraged to avoid - clichés and stereotypes - should both come from processes that made printers' lives easier! 

Anyway, the transferred meaning of "cliché" is a tired idea ,expressed in an over-used and hackneyed way. "A heart-warming story," defined, tongue-in-cheek as "one with a dog in it," is a cliché. So is "heart-rending" (though the modern regular mis-use of "heart-rendering," in which, presumably, the organ is melted down to a gooey liquid, might escape the charge).

The more that is written, the harder it is to find a new way of saying something. Wikipedia tells me it was Gérard de Nerval who said, "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." Here are some clichés for you:

 "Hot as hell,""Cold as ice," Light as a feather,"  "High as a kite," "Fit as a fiddle," "White as snow," "Green with envy,"  "Stubborn as a mule," "Quiet as a mouse," "Brave as a lion." 

All these are similes, a trope where something is compared to something else. But there are many other forms of cliché - mostly folksy and trite ideas like "time is a great healer" and "don't get mad, get even." Of course just because something is trite doesn't mean it isn't true, a point often made about clichés.

What is the cliché you most often find yourself about to use and do you have any favourites?

Word of the week: Reform

(There have been a lot of words this week already, which have curtailed my time for a Grammar Grandma post. I have been writing an assignment for the online course on medieval English cathedrals so my mind has been full of words like "crocket," "Romanesque,""rib vaults," and "arcades."

But these are currently personal to me.) 

At my college there was sometimes an item on the dinner menu called "Reformed lamb chops." (I was not a vegetarian then). I mused every time on why something as innocent as a lamb needed reforming and how it would help the dish if they truly repented. But then I was studying English Literature and mused a lot about language even then.

So I suppose these culinary delights were actually "re-formed," though why anyone would want to take apart a lamb chop to re-form it is equally beyond me. The point is we use the word "reform" without thinking of its original meaning and now there is a political party called Reform UK. I've known this for a while but it came to my attention today because Nigel Farage is stepping down as its leader and Richard Tice, co-founder with Arron Banks of Leave UK, is taking his place.

Reform UK is the successor to the Brexit party. Inherent in the idea of reformation is the idea of improvement. I will leave it at that.



Monday, 1 March 2021

Your Honour ...

Today's post is about Honorifics. You know, that long menu of courtesy titles from which you have to pick how you would like to be addressed. It was prompted by last week's news about Mr Potato Head, of whom more anon.

I was very keen to have the courtesy title Ms after 1972 when I got married, because neither Miss nor Mrs was correct. I could not be a married Miss and Mrs Hoffman suggested I had married myself! My bank couldn't understand it and I had to change my account name from Mary Hoffman to Mary Hoffman. My parents couldn't understand it, until I explained it was like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. My mother-in-law, who had the same name as I was being encouraged to adopt (as did her successor) didn't understand it and sent gorgeous flowers to our honeymoon hotel addressed to Mr and Mrs B,,,,,


That was largely about the lack of surname change but the "courtesy" of giving me a title and surname which is not mine persists 48+ years later on some greetings cards, with an implied rebuke that I should have followed convention (particularly if the sender did so herself).

With some struggle I got myself the first British passport to allow Ms as the title (I think they don't have them now). Well, maybe not the first but in the first cohort, after making a fuss.

On one of my more memorable hours long calls with BT in the past, a lovely Geordie customer service person encouraged me to choose "Lady" and I was "Lady Hoffman' on bills for some years. It's quite a nice fantasy to be a baroness but I'm happy with Ms really.

Someone people hate it and say they can't pronounce it. (Nonsense - it's "muz" in the UK, "miz" in the US). The New York Times didn't recognise it till 1986. Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine in 1969, two years before I joined the Women's Movement and three before I married so I was pretty what we would now call "woke."

As late as 2017 this article mentions women thinking that the "Ms" answer to the "is it Miss or Mrs?" question means the respondent is being rude or has something to hide.  She might be a divorcée - or even a lesbian! (shock, horror). Do men think this? 

So against the Miss or Mrs conundrum am I that it was a motivating factor behind considering doing a PhD at my Alma Mater (or DPhil at Oxford).  But it would now cost me £4-5K in college fees, not to mention the tutorial costs. I shall just have to wait for an honorary doctorate but would love to adopt "Dr."

Genuine female holders of Doctorates, not to mention medics have this escape route as a reward for many years of study. It means they don't have to reveal their marital status, a privilege men have always enjoyed. Other academics might be addressed at Professor, clergy as Rev, judges as Justice etc. And there is a whole Burke's Peerage-worth of honorifics when it comes to nobles and royalty.

Of course, as with gender neutral pronouns, we now have the gender neutral courtesy titles: Mx, Ind. or Misc. It might be assumed that users of these courtesy titles are non-binary but beware assumptions (see above).

Other countries have already dropped the assumption that women have to reveal their marital status in their titles without taking a new one. "Mademoiselle" has virtually vanished from France, where all women are now "Madame" and in Italy they are all "Signora."

I was prompted to this post by a radio report that Mr Potato Head was dropping his honorific. It ended with a reference to "single sex potato families," which I could not resist. But it appears that news of the re-branding might be premature.

Word of the week: Henge

Not usually found on its own, the affix "-henge," most often known through the neolithic monument in Wiltshire, "Stonehenge," is a back formation. It gradually got attached to other words, just as the "-gate" from "Watergate" is used to mean any kind of political scandal. (I haven't seen "Test and Tracegate" yet but it's only a matter of time).

But apparently Stonehenge is not a "true henge" as its ditch lies outside its bank. Baffling, isn't it?

Our oldest daughter used the word "siliconhenge" for one of her websites/email addresses. Good coinage that.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

You say tomato...

This week I heard Emma Barnett, the new presenter of  Woman's Hour pronounce "mores" to rhyme with "whores," rather than with "forays." It jolted me a bit, as temporarily I had no idea what she meant. Then, on Facebook, someone asked what pronunciations annoyed people and opened the floodgates.

This got me thinking about pronunciation (it has a "nun" in the middle of it, btw; it's not "pronounciation).

I'm not talking about accents; that's different. I have a friend in Liverpool who is very annoyed by the long 'a' of Received Pronunciation (RP) and to him it sounds as if southerners are putting an "r" in "masks" and "France." 

The top hate in the Facebook thread was "chester draws" for "chest of drawers" but I'm not sure I would hear the difference in RP. The two I chose were "lasanyer" for "lasagne," as if it were French and not Italian, and "longeray" for "lingerie." I realise these are both non-English words. For the same reason, I changed from dubbing to subtitles to watch Lupin on Netflix because it was distracting the way the American dub artists said "Lupon" and not "Lupan."

Americans and Brits (and doubtless Aussies and Kiwis too) pronounce the same English words differently, as in the famous Gershwin song, Let's call the whole thing off (though I have never heard anyone say "pohtahto" or "ersters").

Just think about "vitamin," "schedule," "vase," "leisure" and "missile." When there was an American audiobook of one of my titles, I was amazed to discover "shone" pronounced as "shown."

What pronunciations feel "wrong" to you?

Words of the week: Irreversible and roadmap

For a start, "irreversible" does not mean what members of the cabinet think it does!  It means "unable to be reversed or undone," such as (most) vasectomies and tattoos. What politicians are expressing is a desire  not to have another lockdown. Most things are reversible and this government should know this more than most after all the vacillations, U-turns and policy changes.

"Roadmap" is interesting. A Guardian reader pointed out on their Letters page that hardly anyone uses one any more; everyone has a SatNav, on their smartphone if not actually in their car. But anyway, a map is not a route, even if politicians are using them to mean the same.


Monday, 15 February 2021

Falling out of love

This is a terrible subject for the day after Valentine's! But I meant to post it last week when the dangers of blogging over a house move were brought home to me by BT being about to cut off my phone, email and Internet, because they had confused the new address with the old one! Many hours on the phone later and it is resolved and everything works.

What we have this week is book- or CD- shelves being installed in five rooms. Huge quantities of material have arrived and two men are laying sheets of cardboard in the hall and plastic on the stairs. This makes for somewhat distracted posting but at least the electrician is not here today, cutting off power or broadband.

I am currently without a study and working on the dining table (brings back memories) but my garden office is being painted this week and its bookshelves installed the week after. Perhaps by the spring normal service will be renewed at Grandma's.

Anyway, back to falling out of love. You may have seen recently reports of a study, which used couples' messages to each other on Reddit to analyse if you could tell a relationship was breaking up months before it actually disintegrated. (I have tried to gain access to the original research paper as all the print media are clearly working from a Press Release, but it wasn't to be. I need a user name and password which my "institution" could provide if the London Library were answering the phone, but instead it is getting on with the more important business of sending me books).

Sarah Seraj is an Psychology PhD student at the University of Austin in Texas, who, together with Kate G. Blackburn and James W. Pennebaker, looked at a million messages between couples on Reddit and saw how the language of them changed over a period before a break-up (the team found 6,803 people who admitted going through a breakup, on the subreddit r/BreakUps. They then tracked their other Reddit posts a year before and after the breakup to see if there were any hidden signs of what was about to happen - looking at posts where they talked about all types of subject matter, not just the posts about their relationships).

I wish I could say that their findings would enable the more apprehensive of you to look at text messages, WhatsApps or whatever and have your fears confirmed or rebutted that things in your relationship were not going well. But it's not as straightforward as that.

Seraj says the main changes are in the use of prepositions, pronouns and articles but these changes can be so subtle that even the poster, let alone the recipient, might not know yet that the relationship was heading for the rocks.

So - to the changes. There is an increased use of "I" and "we" pronouns. "Would," "should," "result" and "because" also become more common. There is an increased use of "very," "really," "no" and "never." But other "functional words," like “a”, “the”, “in” and “at” fall off, indicating a loss of logical thinking.

You could try plotting these changes against recent communications from a loved one but the research offers no advice on how to reverse the changes. Maybe you need to keep an eye on the pronouns and start putting the articles back in?

Here is my poem for yesterday:

Roses are red

Violets are mauve

We go together

Like Brighton and Hove


Word of the week: (vaccine) passport

There are much talk of a "vaccine passport" at the moment. It seems a bit of a misnomer, since this document on its own would not get you across any border. The word comes from Old French "passe-port" (c.1500), a document that would enable the holder to pass through a seaport. 

The vaccine passport, on the other hand, might grant you access to shops, festivals and other venues. There is confusion in the Cabinet about whether such a thing will ever exist but there is an App in development and I wouldn't be at all surprised.

So if we ever get to travel abroad again, we might be asked for both our passports, the one to confirm our identity and the one that shows we've had - presumably two - vaccinations.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

No post this week

 Grammar Grandma is not posting this week, owing to a string of domestic crises and problems with BT.


Monday, 1 February 2021

School Grammar

Not Grammar Schools but the kind of grammar being taught to Primary School children, which is different from the grammar taught to their parents and grandparents. (Actually, if my experience of raising three daughters in the 1980s and 90s is anything to go by, parents probably weren't taught any grammar at all). It is also different from anything a linguist would recognise.

Last week Michael Rosen wrote an article in the Guardian in the form of an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Now, Michael Rosen is a recent survivor of the Corona virus; he nearly died and suffers from a range of Long Covid symptoms and side effects. There has been an overwhelming wave of love and support for him during and after his illness and, though he might hate the idea, this accomplished, versatile and prizewinning writer is now something of a National Treasure - a sort of literary Captain Tom Moore. As well as producing his bestselling books, poetry and memoirs and  YouTube videos with a huge following, Mike presents Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme and is already back in the metaphorical saddle doing that again.

All this could mean that Williamson might take note of what he said but, whether he did or not, Mike makes some excellent points: It's only now that so many parents are home schooling their children that they are realising how "the primary curriculum now includes all this so-called grammar, which to many of us is a package of outdated, rigid, misleading, prescriptive, disputed terms, all based on the false assumption that “grammar” is either right or wrong."

"So-called grammar" is spot on and one of the most made-up things about it is the dreaded "fronted adverbial," the meaning of which many much-published and highly-educated people do not know. (Does Gavin Williamson know?)

There is nothing wrong with having a language-with-which-to-talk-about-language. It is, after all, what this blog is about. There is Descriptive Grammar, which is what the discipline of Linguistics is about and Prescriptive Grammar, which tells you what is right and what is wrong. 

It is worth re-stating here that Grammar Grandma is concerned with what is used in Standard English, while acknowledging the many differences in dialect, slang, register and idiolect. If you use those variants, that is completely OK,  but you might find it useful to know what SE does differently, for occasions when you want to use the formal language of a job application, UCAS personal statement, etc.

(It's the same as "translating" a family word in a context outside the family. I have to remember every week that Sainsbury's will not understand "squinges" or "nubbles" if I type them in my order).

Michael Rosen's point is that Primary Schools are not only teaching Prescriptive grammar but are then going further and pretending that this will make you a better write: "Somewhere along the line – have you noticed? – these grammatical features turned into instructions to children on how to write. So now, I gather, they have to create sentences using fronted adverbials, relative clauses and expanded noun phrases – preferably after a preposition."

It seems to me there is nothing wrong with teaching what an adverb is and noticing that where it appears in a sentence might change its emphasis but why on earth make up a new name (I have the same problem with "phonics") and then ask children to use lots of them in their writing?

Wouldn't it be better to look at how interesting writers make a book inviting and exciting by choosing a superbly right word or making up a new one or yes, even putting an adverb right up there at the front? I would place a large bet that no good writer every wrote a good book - or even a good sentence - by thinking "I must put in lots of fronted adverbials."

This is why children thrill to the poems and stories of Michael Rosen and no-one has ever felt the slightest frisson while listening to Gavin Williamson or any other Education Secretary (Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Kenneth Baker? - we've had a few doozies)


Word of the week: vaccination

On Saturday, I went, an hour after my husband, to our new local GP Practice to be vaccinated against Covid-19. And a very well-organised procedure it was too. But I started musing on the word, which clearly begins with a cow. Apparently it is because the first "vaccine" (for Smallpox) was developed from cowpox and "vacca" is Latin for "cow."

You could use "innoculation" or "immunisation" instead but "vaccination" is certainly the popular word for it now and "vaccine" a useful word for what you are vaccinated with. I saw no cattle at the health centre.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

A word to the wise

Just word of the week this time, as I have an electrician working in the new house and he often has to turn the router off. I hope to return to normal service next week.

Word of the week: Lockdown learning

Not specifically the BBC's new platform to help school students, which I applaud, but online learning in general. Have you tried it and how do you get on with it?

I registered for Oxford University Department of Continuing Education online course on the Architecture of English Cathedrals. It officially started yesterday and is all online: no Zooms, no Teams, no face-to-face. I got my login details soon after 9am, filled in my profile, got on to the course through the Portal but I might as well have tried entering through my wardrobe.

I went to the Introductions Forum and there was no-one there but me and e-tumbleweed. In the course of the day others arrived and this morning I found a whole new forum discussing the themes of the first unit. It will be fine. But I take my hat off to all those students and teachers trying to teach and learn in this new way.

Of course lockdown learning doesn't have to be digital. I did retrieve some of the losses of yesterday by reading a chunk of one of the set books, which felt more comfortable because familiar. We hear all the time about people who have used one or all of the three UK lockdowns to learn a new skill - a foreign language perhaps, a new-found gift for cordon-blue cookery or at least baking sourdough loaves and banana bread. Some have written a whole book, bought a dog, made a baby.

But the online community is also full of exhortations to be kind to yourself and not worry if you have spent the time lolling about but count it as a win if you have got washed and dressed every day. This applies to adults and children, with a strong emphasis on survival and sanity.

Still, you could always decide to learn more about grammar. See you next week.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Just the article

I've talked a lot about vocabulary recently so let's so back to actual grammar. A friend came up with a fascinating query about the definite article.

She (British) was having an article published in an American journal in which she referred to "the Cromwell Road" in London. The editor queried it. "Why not just Cromwell Road?" This led to quite a discussion on Facebook. A native English-speaker living in London would know that it should be "the Cromwell Road" but not "The Oxford Street," for example.

The Natural History Museum, on the Cromwell Road
                    The Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road, London. Credit: Txllxt TxllxT

And while we are about it, what a lot of words there are for thoroughfares to start with: Road, Street, Lane, Mews, Avenue, Yard, Passage, Alley, Gardens, Square, Court, Place, Close, Terrace, Park - can you think of any more? And plenty that are a single word, like Piccadilly, Angel, Albany. You'd say "the Angel" but not "the Piccadilly."

The question is: how do you know which is right? And how can a learner of English as a second language possibly work out which is which?

Several respondents mentioned this habit was common in Oxford - "the High," "the Broad," "the Turl" but absent in Cambridge; you'd never say "the King's Parade."

Another said  it's also true of larger geographical divisions. We say "the West Country," "the Lake District" but not "the East Anglia." She had been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and said that at the RLF they had tried to work out a good rule of thumb for ESL students but could come up only with guidelines which had lots of exceptions.

It does seem as if this quirk had to be learned for each example and imagine how difficult it must be for a non-native speaker whose own language doesn't have any articles, like Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Many European languages not only have definite and indefinite articles but they are gendered (grammatically) and vary in number too. French has "le" and "la" before masculine and feminine nouns but they are both "les" in the plural. Italian has "il" and "la" but distinguishes gender in the plural too: "i" and "le." (And there's a special definite article "lo" (plural "gli") which occurs before masculine nouns beginning with an "impure s"!)

This is all hard for non-native speakers. An English friend of ours who lives in Germany and broadcasts on classical music topics used to offer to record separately "die" "der" "das" and so on to be dropped into his contributions (he has lived there over thirty years now and taken German citizenship, so presumably has his articles sorted).

                                                     Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini 

Word of the week: Cut

There has been a "non-binding" (another good word) debate and vote in the House of Commons today about whether to continue the extra £20 a week on universal credit after the end of March. The government introduced this extra money during the first lockdown so it is not strictly speaking a cut if they end it in a couple of months' time but a reversion to what UC was before the pandemic.

However, for people struggling on the breadline, it will certainly be perceived as a cut because their weekly funding will decrease and they will feel the loss of every pound.

And since it comes after a decade of actual cuts it will be felt as just another - maybe the unkindest cut of all, as Mark Antony characterised Julius Caesar's stab wound from his friend Brutus, in Shakespeare's play.

My husband used to work in local government and says that "cuts" were never described thus; they had to be called "savings." Instead of a painful wound inflicted by those with more power on those with less, the word implies thrift, good husbandry, an aspect of a Protestant work ethic rather than a bloodbath. Words matter.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Old slang revisited

It was back at the end of last September that all the dailies published articles about how the slang of my generation was incomprehensible to the under-30s. Words not recognised included "sozzled," "bonk,"cad," "wally," "plonk" and "boogie." (Really, who do these young people blame it on?)

It turned out to be a very small sample of only 300 respondents in that age category, out of a total sample of 2,000, so maybe this was not very representative. Columnists such as India Knight of The Times seized on it though, as exemplifying the loss of all light-hearted, fun words and their replacement with dreary ones like "woke", "gaslight" and "ghost"(as verbs). "The grim-faced removal of things that bring joy."

Jilly Cooper said she felt like writing a "plonkbuster" called Sozzled, the word least recognised by millennials. 

                                                                    Credit: Allan Warren

Even more revealing are the under the line comments, as you might imagine. I have a feeling that this vocabulary reflects a time which might have been more fun for the sozzled cads and wallies than it was for the poor females they wanted to bonk. An image of Terry-Thomas, the gap-toothed would- be seducer was immediately conjured up.

                                                                        Author unknown

Of course slang words change and tend to be generation-specific. That's a necessary part of each new generation of young people coining words to define and describe their experience of life, which must be different from those of their parents.

Are there words whose passing you regret?


Words of the week: Insurrection, Sedition, Coup

No prizes for guessing why! An insurrection is an uprising against a sitting government; sedition is speech encouraging insurrection and a coup is a successful insurrection that overturns the government.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Two nations divided by a common language

I used to think this quotation was from Winston Churchill, he being half-American. But no, this perceptive remark was made by George Bernard Shaw (Americans would say "Bernard").


I have been reminded of it twice this week, first by an American acquaintance on Facebook, castigating "The Crown" TV series for making an egregious grammatical error. It was "made" by a young Prince Andrew and addressed to the Queen: "Like other second sons I could mention, I'd obviously be better at it than him." My American friend thinks it should be "than he," with "is" understood. She is right about American English but not about British Standard English, which we can assume HRH was using, where a pronoun takes the accusative form after a preposition. Sorry to have to say that Prince Andrew was correct, even in a work of fiction, but so it is.

I ran into this difference with my American editor for The Falconer's Knot (published by Bloomsbury on both sides of the Atlantic).

The other occasion came from watching my favourite TV cop show, Spiral, which returned on Saturday for its eighth and last season. It's a French series, named "Engrenages" in France, so it has to be watched with subtitles. But who creates these English versions?

                                                       Caroline Proust from Spiral by YanRB

I am sad enough to be part of a Forum discussing Spiral after every two episodes and some of us are quite exercised about the use of American terms in the subtitles, when we are watching it in the UK. There are objections to the use of "laundromat" where a young boy's body has been found, when we would say "laundrette." And then, out of the blue, Laure Berthaud, played by Caroline Proust (pictured above), when asked what she has found out, "says "nothing, nowt." Now, I'm pretty sure that's not part of American vernacular!

When I was working on a project with an American publisher, she didn't know what I meant by someone not being "a patch on his father."  But then, I didn't know what she meant by a "blowhard." Truly, divided by a common language.


Word of the week: Challenging

The use of this word is growing, especially during political interviews and briefings. Homeschooling your special needs child is "challenging," Coping with the latest Covid restriction is "challenging." I wish more interviewers and questioners would "challenge" the use of this word, which is rapidly becoming an anodyne euphemism for "extremely difficult" or "impossible." It implies that if people fail to rise to the "challenge," they are somehow failing.