I wish you’d read this

Monday’s lesson was about the patten “I wish you/people would …” and “I wish I could …”. Yesterday’s was about “I regret doing that. I wish I hadn’t done that” and “I regret not doing that. I wish I had done that”. I gave some textbook examples then elicited real-life examples from the students. Some time into the lesson, one student arrived late. I said “I wish you’d come on time”, then immediately thought “Oohh, I’ll have to talk to them about that”.

“I wish you’d come on time” is perfectly ambiguous between “I wish you would come on time” and “I wish you had come on time”. With most other main verbs, we can tell the difference, because would is followed by the base form of a verb, while had is followed by the past participle form. Taking a similar verb as an example, we can tell the difference between “I wish you’d arrive on time” (would) and “I wish you’d arrived on time” (had).

This ambiguity arises only when the base and past participle forms are the same, which is the case only with come, become and run; burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut; and read (but only in writing, which I didn’t think about until I came to write the title of this blog; how did you interpret that?).

If I was talking to a student who was usually on time but wasn’t on this occasion, “I wish you’d come on time” would be inferred to mean “I wish you had come on time (today)”. But this student is habitually late (I think she comes directly from work), so there is no immediate way of telling the difference. Of course, I could always clearly say “I wish you would …” or “I wish you had …”. 


Travelling in boots

A few days ago I was scrolling through the complete New South Wales road rules (for work-related purposes). My eye was caught by rule  headed ‘persons must not travel in or on boots’. I immediately thought of footwear, but why specify boots? And what kind of boots? Think of all the people travelling in workboots or fashion boots (or, in western Sydney, ugg boots). But how do people travel ‘on boots’?

Oooohhhh … not those boots, but the rear luggage compartment of car, what my North American readers would call trunks, but ‘persons must not travel in or on trunks’ is a) not standard Australian English and b) really not much better. The actual rule states ‘A person must not travel in or on the boot of a motor vehicle’. Oh, all right then.

This rule is redundant, anyway. A previous rule prohibits travelling in a part of a car which is ‘designed primarily for the carriage of goods’, unless it is enclosed and there is a seat with a seatbelt, which covers the rear-most part of an SUV or station wagon. So that covers travelling ‘in’ boots. Another sub-rule of the same rule prohibits travelling ‘in or on a motor vehicle with any part [or all parts] of the person’s body outside a window or door of the vehicle’. So that covers travelling ‘on’ boots. (There are a few exemptions, which are not relevant.) There is no specific rule against travelling on the bonnet/hood or roof, so why specify boots?

(I guess that very few people actually read the complete road rules. Learner drivers are given the Road Users’ Handbook (also available online) and do a computerised Driver Knowledge Test, but the is no formal requirement for reading, studying, knowing or being tested on the road rules beyond that. (And, for many drivers, it shows.))

“Make someone ugly cry”

Last year I downloaded a trial version of one of programs of a major software developer (no free publicity), and have since been receiving marketing emails, despite unsubscribing several times. The latest one had the subject: Make someone ugly cry. [This major software developer] can help.

At first reading, this is Make (someone ugly) cry, but the text of the email reveals a different story. I’ll put the page break here so you can think about it.

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It’s all relative

In a conversation today I referred to “one of my wife’s brothers”. I have one wife, who has two brothers, and the man I was referring to is “one of the brothers of my wife”. I was immediately aware, though (and, by the look on his face, so was the man I was talking to) that it sounded very much like I have multiple wives, and that I was talking about “one of the brothers of one of my wives”. There is a distinction, though: the second (hypothetical) person is “one of my wives’ brothers”, but this is easily missed in general speech.


Yesterday we celebrated the engagement of one of my nieces and her fiancé. So who is engaging whom, or are they both engaging each other?

The past participle form of a verb can used as a verb to show a process, or as an adjective to show the result of that process.

My employers engaged me to teach English. I was engaged to teach English by my employers. I am engaged in teaching English.
She engaged me in conversation. I was engaged in conversation by her. I am engaged in conversation with her.

The change from to teach English to in teaching English and by her to with her is a sign that something has happened to the grammatical status of engaged in each case.

In my niece and nephew-in-law-to-be’s case, presumably:

He engaged her. She was engaged by him. They are engaged.

Ummm ….

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Many years ago, air hostesses archetypally asked passengers

“Tea or coffee?”

The possible answers were

“No, (thank you)”
“(Yes), tea(, please)”
“(Yes), coffee(, please)”

In the last case, the air hostess would then ask

“Tea? Or coffee?”

This can also be written as “Tea or coffee?” but is distinguished by a rising intonation on “tea”, followed by a small pause, then a falling intonation on “coffee”, compared to an overall upward intonation for the first “Tea or coffee?”.

English grammar distinguishes polar (or yes/no) questions and alternative questions. The answers to “Do you want a hot drink?” are “Yes(, I want a hot drink)(, please)” and “No(, I don’t want a hot drink)(, thank you)”. Offering tea and coffee as a choice doesn’t fundamentally change that. Strictly speaking, the only two answers are “yes” and “no”. Answering “yes” is not non-cooperative; answering “yes, tea” or “yes, coffee” is cooperative, but not required.

On the other hand, the answers to “Do you want tea? or coffee (?)” are “Tea(, please)” and “Coffee(, please). Answering “Yes(, please)” is decidedly non-cooperative, and may result in a cup of coftea. (There are more choices; I found a 50-page academic paper titled Responding to alternative and polar questions. And less academically:


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