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.



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