More about whom

Whom occurs four times in the standard Holy Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper service of the Anglican Church of Australia, being formal English. I have known this for a long, long time, but on Thursday I decided to write a blog post about it. Before I could do that, I noticed “For whom are you looking?” in this morning’s gospel reading, and wrote about that first.

The first two whoms come in opening prayer:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden …

Not surprisingly, these come after a preposition. But they are not totally equivalent to “For whom are you looking?” because that whom is an interrogative pronoun, while these are a relative pronoun.

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For whom, Who … for?

My wife has said a noticeable number of times:  “What are you looking?”. I think this is inference from Korean, which uses the direct object marker 을/를 instead of a preposition. Maybe I just give a short answer, eg “My glasses”, or say “I am looking for my glasses”, or say “For.  I am looking for my glasses”, depending on how much like an English teacher I feel at the time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “For whom are you looking?”. This is not directly equivalent, because of the switch between what and who/whom. Google Ngrams shows that basically no-one says For what are you looking?

With who/whom, there are four choices: Who are you looking for?, Whom are you looking for?, For whom are you looking? and For who are you looking? Google Ngrams shows usage in that order. Despite the ‘rule’ that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, W/who are you looking for? has always been more common, and must be regarded as normal, standard English. I was surprised to find that Whom are you looking for? is more common than For whom are you looking?. The former sound very awkward to me. If I had to be formal, I would say/write For whom are you looking?

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Past perfect

The textbook’s treatment of past simple v past perfect was very limited, and the students obviously didn’t get it, so I had to look for supplementary material. On one website for ESL teachers I found a worksheet submitted by a teacher, which was reasonable but not perfect. One activity gave ten sentences in past simple, which students had to pair up, then change one half to past perfect, then join them appropriately. 

The first interesting issue was that the sentences could be paired up in different ways. Four sentences were:

Jack decided to have a rest. Peter asked for a cup of coffee. He finished eating. He painted the hall and the kitchen.

The usual/natural/expected pairings are:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He finished eating. 

But several students chose, and there is nothing impossible about:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He finished eating. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. 

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Carmen and James Taylor

One of the choirs I sing in sang two concerts with another community choir – last week on our turf and this week on theirs. Our choir sang excerpts from Carmen, which we will be singing in a concert performance later this year. Our conductor plugged the concert several times. After the concert, a man asked me “Is the opera in English?”. I said “No, it’s all in French”. He said “Oh, I don’t understand French”. (Neither does most of the choir, but that doesn’t stop us singing it.) I said “There’ll be a good explanation in the program, and you can find information on the internet”. He asked “What’s it about, basically?”. I thought for a moment then said “Boy meets girl. Girl meets other boy. Boy fights other boy. Boy kills girl.” He said “I know that story”.

Most of the other choir and some of mine had dinner at a local pub. One of the other choir’s singers said to me “You look like James Taylor”. I said “Oh” because no-one has said that before. Then I thought she said “And you sing like him too”, so I said “Oh thank you”. (I wasn’t sure how she’d heard me closely enough to think that.) She said “I said ‘Can you sing like him too?’”. I said “I don’t know”. And I may never know.

^ James Taylor or me


^ or maybe I look like this!

Conspiracy theorems

I have written before about students choosing the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. Sometimes two words in their language correspond to one word in English, or one word corresponds to two.

The class was practicing ‘first conditional’. The first half of sentences were given, and the students had to write a suitable second half. One was “I’ll do the washing up if …”. The expected answer was “you cook”, but I can imagine a number of other answers which would be suitable (eg, “if you do it tomorrow”). One Korean student wrote “I theorem”. This is obviously wrong and he’d obviously chosen the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. But I wanted to find out what he’d meant, he showed me his translator and there were no other obvious words in sight, but I couldn’t guide him toward telling me anything else about this mysterious household activity. Another student from Korea was there, so I got them to talk about it briefly in Korean, but the other student couldn’t explain either.

When I got home I asked my wife about it, she said that 정리 (jeong-ni) can mean either ‘theorem’ or ‘tidy up’. Google Translate gives ‘theorem’ and ‘arrangement’, so 정리하다 means ‘arrange’. I thought about ‘theory’, which Google Translate gives as 이론, but my wife said “That’s a completely different word”. She couldn’t tell me what the difference was (explaining Korean words (her first language) in English (her second language)), but I’m not sure that I could explain the difference on the spot, either (explaining English words (my first language) and English (my first language).

I know that Pythagoras had a theorem and Darwin had a theory. Hercule Poirot might have a theory about whodunnit, but not a theorem.

Never said (or written) before

A McDonald’s worker who bludgeoned a customer to death in his own home using a statue of the Virgin Mary and a tin of mangoes is jailed for 19 years, but her motives for the killing remain unclear.

(source: ABC news)

Either the statue or the can by itself would have been bizarre enough. And for some reason it just had to be McDonald’s.

Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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