as free as a bag

A sign at a supermarket says Single-use plastic bag free from [date]. I know what they mean — [Single-use plastic bag]-free — but it’s awkward. When the unwanted item is one word, it’s easy to write, say gluten-free (uncountable) or car-free (uncountable note that this is ‘free of cars’, not ‘free of car’), but when it is a multi-word phrase, itself with a hyphen, we can’t write Single-use-plastic-bag-free. The best I can suggest is to rephrase the whole thing as No single-use plastic bags from [date].

At least they didn’t write Single-use plastic bags free from [date]. Single-use plastic bags have always been free, which is part of the whole problem.

(Note that there’s “free as in speech” free software, which is “distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions” and “free as in beer” freeware, which “may be used without payment, but is most often proprietary software and usually modification, re-distribution or reverse-engineering without the author’s permission is prohibited”: see here. I have no idea what “free as in gluten” software might be.)


“Experienced criminal secretary”

I saw a job advertisement for an “experienced criminal secretary”. There are several possibilities of interpreting that. The ad itself specifies that they are a law firm specialising in criminal law and are looking for a legal secretary.

Many other ads seek a “criminal lawyer”.

1004 angels

Driving home from my sister’s house this afternoon, my wife suddenly said “Angel”. I said “What?”. She said “That house”. I said “What about that house?”. She said “Cheon-sa” (which I know is the Korean word for angel. I said “What about it?”. She said “That house has the number 1004. Cheon-sa.” Okay, okay, I’ll get Korean puns eventually.

Some Korean (actually Sino-Korean) numbers are pronounced the same as real words, or parts of real words. Il (one) can also be day or work, i (two) can also be this or the surname Lee. (There is nothing unusual about this – English one can also be won, and two can be to or too). With no context, it is impossible to know whether cheon-sa is 1004 or angel.

Even in context, it might be ambiguous. In the “Catalogue Aria” of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leporello lists the Don’s sexual encounters, ending “In Spain, one thousand and three ”. So he can presumably say to the next one “You are my cheon-sa”. If he knew Korean and if he wasn’t dead by the end of the opera.

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.

Continue reading