Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

In the play and movie Amadeus, Antonio Salieri is insanely jealous of Mozart, actively thwarts his musical opportunities in Vienna and encourages him to work to nervous exhaustion on his Requiem.

In real life, in his last (surviving) letter, Mozart wrote:

… at 6 o’clock I fetched Salieri and Madame [Catarina] Cavalieri with a carriage and took them to my box [in the theatre where The Magic Flute was being performed] … Salieri listened and watched with great attention, and from the overture all the way through to the final chorus there was not a single number that did not elicit from him a “bravo” or “bello”. He and Cavalieri went on and on thanking me for doing them such a great favour. [Robert Spaethling  (trans and ed), Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, (2000)]

Of course, he just might have been faking it!

Wikipedia calls the play “a highly fictionalised account” and says that Peter Shaffer ”used artistic licence in his portrayals”. I haven’t found anything from Shaffer himself on the topic. (See:



Mistakes are interesting because they tell us something about what we notice easily and what we don’t notice without training.

– commenter ktschwarz on a Language Log post


Sanitation has gained importance on the global development agenda, starting in 2008 with the UN International Year of Sanitation, followed by the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation in 2010 and the call for an end to open defecation by the UN Deputy Secretary General in 2013.

You’d think the UN Deputy Secretary General would have known better …

Oh, wait …


My wife and I are in the process of selling one house, buying another and moving. While writing comments on Facebook, I noticed that its spell-checker was red-underlining removalist. (Pages for Mac and WordPress do, too.) lists removalist as “Australian”, which surprised me. I asked my North American friends on Facebook, and they said they would only use mover but would understand removalist in the context of moving house. (By the way, moving house or just moving are both reasonably strange things to say. One student once told me that she’d spent the weekend “moving my house”.)

Some of my Facebook friends also mentioned packers. I have been doing most of the packing myself, and we won’t be paying specifically for packing (the removalists may do some incidental packing). Many years ago I attended a party for a friend whose company was relocating her to Melbourne. She said that the company was paying for the move, including the packing. Later in the evening, someone else commented on the lack of cardboard boxes around the apartment. I said “Kerry and Jamie are coming tomorrow morning”. She looked puzzled, and so were my North American friends when I told that story on Facebook. Anyone not from Australia is welcome to guess my meaning before I update with the answer.

One of my Australian friends mentioned a play (later a movie) by the Australian playwright David Williamson titled The Removalists. Given that there is only one actual removalist in the play/movie, it is possible that there is a double meaning in the title.


I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.

The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading


A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

Continue reading

“He’d run them all”

I’ve read a few books by Sir Terry Pratchett, but I’m not a big fan. I know of one Discworld novel titled The last continent, in which the ?hero Rincewind  is magically transported to the continent of XXXX” (pronounced Four-ex), loosely based on Australia.

Today I was reading through the synopsis and quotations, for no particular reason. My eye was caught by this one:

Rincewind had always been happy to think of himself as a racist. The One Hundred Meters, the Mile, the Marathon — he’d run them all.

Haha. Race has two meanings, athletic and anthropological, which are unrelated. In real life, racist can only mean “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to others”. It does not mean “someone who takes part in an athletics competition” (though Wikipedia notes that Rincewind “spends most of his time running away from bands of people who want to kill him for various reasons. The fact that he’s still alive and running is explained in that, although he was born with a wizard’s spirit, he has the body of a long-distance sprinter.”)

In particular, my eye was caught by “he’d run them all”. This is perfectly ambiguous between “he would run them all” and “he had run them all”. Grammatically, the first is an infinitive verb (compare “he would swim them all”), and the second is a past-participle verb (compare “he had swum them all”). This ambiguity is possible only with the two small groups of verbs in which the infinitive form and the past-participle form are the same: come, become and run; and burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut (with perhaps a few others).

I have previously posted about saying to a student “I wish you’d come on time”, in which the same ambiguity arises.