Free cake

A colleague made a cake for his birthday and brought it to share. He explained that it was “vegan and gluten free”. As legal editors do, we discussed whether that meant it was (vegan) and (gluten free) (probably) or (vegan free) and (gluten free) (probably not), and further what “vegan free food” might actually be (as opposed to “vegan, free food” (which would probably be “free, vegan food” anyway)). 

The phrase can either be ADJ and N free or N and N free. Vegan can be a noun (My cousin is a vegan) or an adjective (?My cousin is vegan, This cake is vegan).  Compare organic and preservative free and additive and preservative free. Hyphens might or might not help: organic and preservative-free, additive- and preservative-free, additive-free and preservative-free.


An awful lot of words

(Or a lot of awful words.)

While I was writing a recent post, I started thinking about the following words (and there are more similar):

awe (n) – awe (v) – awesome / awful (adj)
dread – dread (v) – ?dreadsome / dreadful (adj)
fear (n) – fear (v) – fearsome / fearful / afraid (adj)
fright (n) – fright / frighten (v) – ?frightsome / frightful / frightening / frightened (adj)
terror (n) – terrify (v) – terrible / terrifying / terrified / terrific (adj)

The questions which arise are ‘Who does what to whom?’/‘Who feels that way?’ and ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’. Awesome is good, but awful is now almost always bad. Originally, we were full of awe, but there are references to God being awful. The most common uses of awful now are in the noun phrases an awful lot and an awful thing. An awful lot and an awful thing aren’t full of awe, and probably we aren’t, either. 

This is even more so when these words are used as adverbs:

It was awesome/awful of you to do that v It was awesomely/awfully kind of you to do that.
It was dreadful of you to do that v It was dreadfully kind of you to do that. 
It was fearful of you to do that v It was fearfully kind of you to do that. 
It was frightful/frightening of you to do that v It was frightfully/frighteningly kind of you to do that. 
It was terrible/terrifying/terrific of you to do that v It was terribly/terrifyingly/terrifically kind of you to do that. 

This process is called semantic bleaching, or “the reduction of a word’s intensity”, which is really very common, as Merriam-Webster explains.

(By the way, dreadsome and frightsome are in dictionaries, but are obviously very rare. If I was writing a historical fantasy novel, I would have a character nick-named Dreadsome.)

(I seem to remember a cartoon in which a primary school teacher says to a student something like “There are two words I will not tolerate in this classroom. One is cool and the other is groovy.” The student replies “Cool! What are they?” I can’t find that, but there is definitely one of a father saying to two children “There are some words I will not tolerate in this house – and ‘awesome’ is one of them”. There’s nothing wrong with awesome – it’s just overused.) [Edit: it may have been swell and lousy – see the comments below.]

An ingenius genious

I have seen the spelling


enough times to notice it. It seems to be used either by mistake or sarcastically in response to something someone else has posted. It’s not a variant spelling; it’s plain wrong, which varius other people on the internet have pointed out. But inquiring linguistic minds want to know why. 

ius is a vary rare English suffix. In fact, it is arguable whether it is an English suffix. lists 13 words ending with –ius, of which genius, radius and trapezius are the most common. All of them come directly from Latin, and some would only be found in ancient Roman contexts, for example denarius. All of them are nouns (as far as I can tell), but –ius is not a productive noun suffix. We can’t create new English words with it, unless we are trying to evoke an ancient Roman mood.
ious is a common English suffix. lists 276 words, including various. Most of them come directly or indirectly from Latin, but there is no restriction on the contexts in which they can be used. All of them are adjectives (as far as I can tell), and –ious is a moderately productive adjective suffix. Some unknown person in the 19th century coined bodacious and Roald Dahl coined vermicious knid.

The relevant Latin adjectives had the forms -ius and -iosus, seemingly interchangeably, but the path from Latin to English is obscure because online sources don’t give examples from every step through Old French, Anglo-French and Middle English. The modern French equivalents are génie (compare Arabic jinn and English genie) and divers (compare diverse), which doesn’t help, but see furieux/furieuse

In You are a genius, genius is undoubtedly a noun. In That is a genius comment, it is still a noun but looks, sounds and feels more like an adjective (indeed, some dictionaries define attributive uses of nouns as adjectives). If any change of spelling ever happens, it will be that the second use becomes genious and the word becomes a genuine adjective. But not if word processor programs can help it – Pages for Mac just changed genious to genius and is red-underlining it now I’ve changed it back. Genius as a head noun is unlikely to change spelling, and all those –ious adjectives are simply never going to become –ius

Complicating all this is ingenious, which is undoubtedly an adjective but which is more distantly related, coming from genus and not genius (though those two words are related further back). So some geniuses are born and others are made.    

Signs of ambiguity

Youtube more-or-less randomly showed me two ads with similar taglines: 

We’re built for growing businesses.


Your business matters.

Ambiguity in English arises for a number of reasons. One is that a gerund-particle (like growing) can be used in a noun-type way (We’re built for the purpose of growing businesses), or an adjective-type way (We’re built for businesses which happen to be growing). In this case, the ambiguity is small, and probably deliberate. 

Compare Moving pianos can be dangerous (which can have both interpretations), Tuning pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the noun-type meaning) and Falling pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the adjective-type meaning). Note that the ambiguity can be resolved by using a different verb tense: Moving pianos is dangerous (gerund) v Moving pianos are dangerous (participle).

Another reason for ambiguity is that many words ending with –s (like matters) can be a plural noun or a 3rd person present simple verb. In this case, the full stop probably forces the verb interpretation. Even without the full stop, most people would find the verb interpretation, which creates a complete sentence, in preference to the noun interpretation, which creates a noun phrase: compare Your business matters are important to us

Last weekend we went for a drive in the Blue Mountains. I saw a sign saying Falling rocks, and thought that it probably doesn’t, especially from the height of the cliffs there. Another sign said Slow buses, in which slow might be an adjective or an imperative verb. In this case, most people would find the incomplete adj + noun interpretation. In the imperative verb + noun interpretation, there are further options if you are the bus driver, a super-hero or a pedestrian. 

Today we drove in another direction. We visited a business which proclaimed Growing since 1919. Especially apt for an orchard/nursery/garden supplies business. One of the banners in the outdoor furnishing section stated Dark matters, which I couldn’t quite figure either way.  

A vague vagary

A legal officer referred to a claimant’s claims and evidence as vague and inconsistent (which is not unusual) but also as containing significant vagary and inconsistency.

By itself it is possible for claims and evidence to contain significant vagary:

1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance
2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action

but the closest noun equivalent of vague is vagueness. In fact, doesn’t have a separate definition for vagueness, redirecting searches for it to the definition for vague. Vagary may at one time have been the best equivalent for vague, but it isn’t now. –ness is a very common and productive noun morpheme. Also, vagaries is much more commonly used than vagary

We most often talk or write about (a/the/-) vague idea(s), sense, feeling, notion(s), term(s), way, hope (they are mostly internal), (a/the) vagary of nature, thought, fashion, fate, fortune/Fortune, imagination, taste, mine, fancy and vagaries of life, nature, weather, chance, climate, fortune, fashion, politics, fancy, imagination (they are mostly external). 

But vague/vagueness and vagary share an origin in Latin vagus, wandering,  vagārī to wander (compare vagrant/vagrancy).


The hymn Just as I am, without one plea (Charlotte Elliott) (or at least some versions of it) contains the verse

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Breadth, length and depth, as well as width, are a small group of words in which the noun is formed from the adjective by changing the vowel and adding -th, which was obviously a standard procedure at one stage in the history of English. Height doesn’t quite fit, but heighth is a “chiefly dialectal” alternative. To these we might also add strong > strength. Alongside the noun is another formed by adding –ness to the adjective, and we can also add a verb ending with –en:  

broad – breadth/broadness – broaden
long – length/longness – lengthen
deep – depth/deepness – deepen
high – height/highness – heighten 
wide – width/wideness – widen 
strong – strength/strongness – strengthen 

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Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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convenient stores

A submitted review of a scenic drive in South Korea mentioned the 

convenient stores

located along the way.

Most of us unhesitatingly say 

convenience stores

but why do we, and why does convenience stores sound so wrong?

Most N stores tell us what items are sold in that store: grocery, hardware, liquor, drug, (I suspect there’s an extra word here eg sporting) goods, jewelry (I use jewellery) and food, but some don’t: a department store doesn’t sell departments, but is divided into departments, a chain store doesn’t sell chains, but is part of a chain of stores, and a convenience store doesn’t sell convenience (well, sort of), but is … convenient. 

On the other hand, most ADJ stores describe the store, but some may be speaking metaphorically: general, retail (I would classify this as a noun, but Google Ngrams thinks it’s an adjective), great, new, good, little, large, small, rich and vast. Overall, N store and ADJ store are roughly equivalent in usage; grocery store and department store are by far the most common, but from then on it’s very close.

Our niece told me that the nearest Korean equivalent is 편의점 (pyeon-e-jeom) and that 편의 means convenience, which I didn’t know. Korean textbooks generally explain the inter-relation between words. I had said 화장실 (hwa-jang-sil) so many times before discovering that 화장 means make up and 화장실 means make-up room.

So why does convenient store sound so wrong? I don’t have an answer to that. Is it simply (lack of) familiarity?

Also, by itself, I would usually say shop rather than store, but convenience shop sounds almost as wrong as convenient store. I would also not say department shop or chain shop. To me, a chain shop is even more strongly a shop where you buy chains.

Shall I compare thee?

Person A has $20 million. Person B has $19 million.

1) A is rich
2) A is not poor
3) A is richer than B
4) A is more poor than B
5) A is less poor than B
6) A is not poorer than B
7) A is no poorer than B
8) A is not as poor as B
9) B is rich
10) B is not poor
11) B is poorer than A
12) B is more poor than A
13) B is less rich than A
14) B is not richer than A
15) B is no richer than A
16) B is not as rich as A 

(PS I later thought of A is the richer of the two, and I’m sure there’s more.)

At this point my brain started asploding. I have little chance of explaining the nuances of all these, but as a native speaker I instantly understand them when I hear or read them, and have no hesitation in using the right one in the right context. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has sections on ‘Equivalences and entailments’ and ‘Relative infrequency of comparisons of inferiority’, which cover some of this ground. Clearly, 1), 3), 9), 11) and 16) are the most standard. All the others are recorded, but Google Ngrams doesn’t give any context.

Similar comments apply to old/young and tall/short. 

Things are even more complicated with hot/warm/cool/cold, even taking just -er and -est. 

Location A is 35 degrees (centigrade). Location B is 25 degrees. Location C is 15 degrees. Location D is 5 degrees.

A is hot, hotter than the other places and the hottest place of the four.
B is warm. It is warmer than C and D, but also hotter than C and D. It is cooler than A, might be colder than A but it’s not *warmer than A. It’s not *the warmest place of the four.
C is cool. It is warmer than D, but it sounds strange to say that it’s hotter than D, and it’s not *cooler than D. It’s cooler and colder than B, and ?cooler and colder than A. It’s not the coolest place of the four. 
D is cold. It is colder than the other places and might be cooler than C, but it sounds strange to say that it’s cooler than A or B. It’s the coldest place of the four. 

group international legs questionnaire rating restless scale study syndrome

A document referred to someone completing the 

International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group Rating Scale questionnaire

English allows the premodification of nouns by one or more adjectives and/or other nouns. There is a hierarchy of modification, which most listeners and/or readers can figure out immediately, though sometimes there is ambiguity. 

Someone completed a questionnaire, which scores a rating scale, developed by an international group which studies restless legs syndrome.

The order of words is highly constrained. There are nine words and theoretically 9 factorial = 362,880 orders of those words (for example the alphabetical order in this post’s title), but very few of them make any sense. Restless legs syndrome has to belong together, as does study group and rating scale. Perhaps international is the most flexible. It might be the international restless legs syndrome study group rating scale questionnaire, or the restless legs syndrome international study group rating scale questionnaire, or the restless legs syndrome study group international rating scale questionnaire, or the restless legs syndrome study group rating scale international questionnaire.

[PS It has just occurred to me (three weeks late) that restless is an adjective]