incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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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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“Let us all Thy grace receive”

If there’s anything worse than a linguistic rabbit hole, it’s a theological rabbit hole.

At choir practice on Thursday night, we rehearsed an anthem on the famous hymn Love divine, all loves excelling by Charles Wesley. For the first time, I noticed the ambiguity in the line:

Let us all Thy grace receive.

Is that:

(Let) (us all) (Thy grace) (receive)

or

(Let) (us) (all Thy grace) (receive)

?

Linguistically, there’s no way to decide in this case. Both are grammatical and usual/natural. In both, the word all can be omitted, perhaps with a change of emphasis but not of basic meaning. To the extent that I’d ever thought about it, I had always assumed the first reading.

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“I’m going to work”

You wake up and complete your morning routine. You say to your partner:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting in your car/bus/train. Your phone rings. Someone asks you where you are. You say:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting at your desk at 9.02 reading a non-work-related website. Your boss passes by and reminds you of the time. You say:

I’m going to work!

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Not so fast!

I was editing an article about intermittent fasting (that is, not eating for all or part of a day, interspersed with normal (possibly restricted) eating on other days). 

Inevitably, I got thinking about the various meanings of fast, as an adjective or adverb meaning quick(ly), as an adjective or adverb meaning firm(ly), secure(ly) and as a noun or verb meaning an abstention/to abstain from food. Dictionary.com doesn’t help. It lists the quick(ly) and firm(ly) meanings together, and notes that they are “akin to fast2” (that is, the noun/verb).

Etymology.com has possibly too much information. As I understand it, the firm, secure meaning came first. The abstain from food meaning came next, and means, basically, to hold oneself firmly. The quick meaning came last. If you run firmly, you run quickly. (Fast asleep means firmly, securely asleep, not quickly asleep, which might be confusing to young children, who almost certainly encounter the quick(ly) meaning first.)

From hold fast has come holdfast, which means a firm grip, a staple or clamp, or an organ by which an aquatic plant or animal can attach to a surface. Note also Holdfast Bay, Adelaide, South Australia, which got its name after Colonel William Light, the SA surveyor-general found anchorage there in a storm.

Hang on, though, I’ve encountered the meaning of a small fortress. But that appears to be used only in fantasy novels; Wikipedia’s disambiguation page gives GRR Martin’s A song of ice and fire series as an example.

PS At a funeral this afternoon, the word steadfast was used.

Passively accepting grammar check suggestions

I don’t use the grammar check on Pages for Mac at home, but I do on Word for Windows and Mac at two workplaces. Even if I ignore it nine times out of ten, it saves my backside the tenth time, with all the copying/cutting, pasting, adding and deleting of text I do. A few weeks ago it flagged three instances of passive voice. It correctly identified passive voice, but its suggestions for change were wrong. (It actually flagged more than that. I took photos of three then gave up.)

Firstly, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice such that it needs to be flagged every time, in the same way as, say, subject-verb number disagreement, which is always wrong. Even the most anti-passive style advisers, such as Strunkandwhite and George Orwell, use passive voice  perfectly when appropriate. Secondly, if you’re going to suggest changing it, then make absolutely sure that your suggestion is right.

But that is not easy for a computer to do, as these three (slightly adapted) examples show. 

1) Protection is provided by defining a safety area, whose shape and dimensions must be specified according to a risk assessment.

Suggestion: Defining a safety area, whose shape, provides protection [plain wrong]

2) Alerts and reports are provided by [this software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format.

Suggestion: [This software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format provides alerts and reports [mostly wrong]

3) Areas of the multi-purpose centre have already been made available for use by community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers.

Suggestion: Community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers have already made areas of the multi-purpose centre available for use [possibly right, but not]

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