dead or alive and alive or dead

The textbook introduced what it called ‘collocation: word pairs’, which were actually two words joined by and or or. As examples and an explanation, it said: “we always say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ at the beginning of a speech, but never the other way round, and we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’. That’s simply not true, as Google Ngrams shows. ‘Gentlemen and ladies’ is used (though obviously much less than ‘ladies and gentlemen’) but Ngrams doesn’t show in which contexts. Similarly, ‘white and black’ is used (again, obviously much less than ‘black and white’). If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.

The activity gave sixteen words in two groups of eight, with the ‘first’ and ‘second’ words being randomly placed in the two. My students had no trouble with matching the words, but the interesting discussion was about why English speakers usually put those words in that order.

The two groups were:

pepper bread ice thunder fork quiet bed forwards
knife peace lemon butter lightning salt breakfast backwards

‘pepper and salt’ is used, and in the 19th century was the preferred form. Salt is a chemical compound, an essential nutrient and widely available. Pepper is a plant (or peppers are plants) grown only in certain areas.

‘butter and bread’ is essentially never used. Obviously, you must put the butter on the bread; that is, you must have the bread first. I started wondering which came first, the domestication of animals, milking and churning, or the domestication of grain, harvesting, grinding and baking.

‘lemon and ice’ is used, and in the late 19th century was the preferred form. Ice can be added to almost every cold drink, lemon to only some. I don’t habitually added ice or lemon to anything I  drink.

‘lightning and thunder’ is used. One student quite reasonably said that lightning causes thunder. I replied by saying that we often become aware of thunder first, for example, if we are inside or it’s daytime or we’re hiking in a forest (which happened to me a few weekends ago). (Compare German ‘Donner und Blitzen’.)

‘fork and knife’ is used. Knives came first in history. One student said ‘How did people eat without forks?‘. Another mimed stabbing with a knife, which is basically the right answer.

quiet and peace is used.

‘breakfast and bed’ is essentially never used. Guests at a B&B typically arrive in the late afternoon, sleep, then eat breakfast the next morning.

‘forwards and backwards’ is used (and indeed ‘forward and backward’ is used more than ‘backward and forward’ (and ‘backwards and forwards’). One student said that ‘forwards’ is the usual direction. This is true, but we generally don’t (have to) specify ‘forwards’. When Jesus saith to the crippled man ‘Rise, take up thy bed, and walk’, he did not have to add ‘forward’.

So, six out of the eight can reasonably be said the other way round. There are other issues besides meaning; for example phonology (high and/or front vowels generally come before low and/or back vowels: ‘bread and butter’) and metrical stress (two equal feet are generally preferred over two unequal ones: ‘bread and butter’ rather than ‘butter and bread‘).

The next part of the activity gave one word and or. There were more choices here, usually equally right:

right or (left or wrong)
now or (then, later, never). ‘Later or now’ is essentially never used, but there are two songs and short movie called ‘Never or now’.
more or (less)
sooner or (later)
all or (nothing, none)
once or (twice)
dead or (alive, live)

Some of these can also be joined by and. Indeed, we spent some time exploring ‘alive and dead’, ‘alive or dead’, ‘live and dead’, ‘live or dead’, ‘dead and alive’, ‘dead and live’, ‘dead or alive’, ‘dead or live’. Of these, ‘dead or alive’ and ‘alive or dead’ are the most used. (For some reason, ‘alive or dead’ spiked during the second world war.)

So, never say never. Usually say rarely. So, rarely say never.

(PS I have blogged about this lesson in this textbook before, particularly about joining two colours.)


5 thoughts on “dead or alive and alive or dead

  1. Interesting findings. The textbook’s premature conclusions point to the tendency to turn, well, tendencies into absolutes; conventions into rules. There are always – I mean usually – exceptions.


    • Having been in and out of textbooks almost every day for more than 10 years, I can certainly understand why writers and publishers want to, or have to, cut a long(er) story short. Sometimes there is ‘one right way’ (or close to it) eg ‘breakfast and bed’. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing ‘the most widely useful way’ eg ‘peace and quiet’ over ‘quiet and peace’. ‘Dead/alive is clearly the most mixed.


      • Yes, it’s often an understandable simplification. But I do wish it was hedged more, if only by e.g. sometimes replacing never and always with seldom and normally, usually, nearly always, etc., which is easily done. It would encourage less dogma about natural, legitimate variation in usage.


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