“I taste self but at”

Some linguistic explorations get more puzzling the further I pursue them.  Today’s lesson was about the pattern NP look(s)/sound(s)/smell(s)/taste(s)/feel(s) ADJ and related patterns. The lesson started with look, with photos of actors in emoting in character. Sound was provided on the textbook’s CD, and I explained smell and taste with examples of food (both) and perfume (smell). I mentioned that we might say You smell beautiful to a loved one, but are unlikely to say You taste beautiful even then.

Except some people do. Google Ngrams shows You taste good/wonderful/salty/sweet/delicious/better, all of which emerged in the 1960s and 70s. You taste better, not surprisingly, leads to You taste better than, but Ngrams gives no result for You taste better than *. I am trying to think how I could end a sentence with those words: maybe Here is a list of things you taste better than. Continue reading


one, two three, first, second, third

There is statistical law called Benford’s law or the first-digit law, which states that in many naturally occurring collections of numbers, the first digit is significantly more likely to be 1, 2 or 3, and significantly less likely to be 7, 8 or 9. 1 is the first digit about 30% of the time, and 9 about 5%.

This also generally applies the written words one, two, three etc. Google Ngrams shows that one to six appear in exactly that order, then ten, eight, seven and nine. Ten gets a boost because of its use as the base for the decimal system, while eight is a power of two, and we prefer counting in even numbers.

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right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

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Merry birthday

I have a friend who habitually writes ‘merry birthday’ on our mutual friends’ Facebook pages (and mine, when it comes around). There’s nothing grammatically or semantically wrong with ‘merry birthday’, but it just sounds so weird. An internet search returns approx 353,000,000 results for ‘happy birthday’ and 2,650,000 for ‘merry birthday’, so it’s by no means unknown, but used less than one percent as much as ‘happy birthday’. Some of those are references to people whose birthday falls near Christmas. (I know two people born on Christmas Day. One is named Christa. I also know a father and daughter born on leap day.)

Google Ngrams shows many results for ‘happy birthday’ and ‘merry Christmas’ (of course). ‘Happy Christmas’ is used about 1/6th as much as ‘merry Christmas’ but ‘merry birthday’ yields only one result.

In the course of my research, I found this short extract (from a movie I watched more than 20 years ago, but didn’t remember this scene). The Wikipedia page for the movie says that the song was written for this movie ‘to avoid potential licensing issues’ (ie paying royalties to Warner/Chappell, at the time – for more information, see here).

(For thoughts about the song in Korean, see here.)

(PS after I posted this, the friend wished me a ‘happy birthday’ this year.)


get divorsed

Last week I posted about the segment in the textbook on collocations with get. On Friday, there was a section of the weekly test devoted to it. There were eight sentences with a gap in each, and 11 collocations with get in a box at the top. (Very often, textbook activities and tests have exactly the same number of choices as there are questions. I think providing extra choices is a very good idea, because speakers of a language (even second language learners) always have more choices than they need. Providing the exact number of choices often means that students can guess the last one or two.) Several students got all of the questions right, so the section was possible. However, several other students made choices ranging from plausible to unlikely to plain wrong. Some choices were made by more than one student.

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frock off

This morning one of the segments in the textbook was on collocations with get, one of which was get married. As an example, I showed a photo of my wife and me on our wedding day. Various students said ‘How beautiful’ about her and ‘How handsome’ about me, then the student from Italy asked ‘Are you wearing a …?’ something that sounded like /frɒk/. I certainly wasn’t wearing a frock, so I quickly searched for images of ‘frock coat’, but I wasn’t wearing one of those, and that’s not what he meant anyway. He tried again and it sounded more like /flæk/, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a flak jacket. There was only a limited number of possibilities: the first sound was /f/, the second was /r/ or /l/, the third was /ɒ/ or /æ/ and the fourth was /k/ or /g/, and it wasn’t frock, flock, flak or flag. I continued with the lesson, and fortunately he found frac, which I certainly wouldn’t have figured, but which is the perfectly good Italian word for ‘morning dress, white tie and tails’ (Wiktionary). I was wearing a tail coat, but with a black tie. I don’t naturally use the term morning dress. (Among other things, it has always sounded too much like mourning dress. I remember my father referring to the funeral director wearing morning dress for an afternoon funeral.)
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‘put away the table for dinner’

I’ve written a number of posts on the topic of one of the ‘wrong’ answers to a test question being at least partly right. Last week’s chapter included the topic of housework, and one of the housework tasks was ‘lay the table’. I suspect that very few people in English-speaking countries actually lay the table every day, only for special occasions or maybe Sunday lunch if that’s a fixture in the house. (People who only eat tv dinners wouldn’t ever lay the table. In my last year in Korea, I ate at my office desk, reading, viewing or listening to something on the computer.)

During the revision activity one sentence was something like ‘Please ____ the table for dinner’, with two of the choices being ‘lay’ and ‘put away’. A Korean student chose ‘put away’. I suddenly thought about traditional Korean tables, which look like this:


Older tables had/have fixed legs, but modern tables have foldable legs and the table can be put away in a cupboard or other storage space. The Korean student had obviously interpreted ‘the table for dinner’ as ‘the table from which we have just eaten dinner’, so putting it away is a valid choice. In English, ‘the table for dinner’ is ‘the table from which we will soon eat dinner’. In English, the command for putting away a foldable table would be ‘Please put away the table’.

Eating at these foldable tables is highly efficient – except for foreigners with bad backs. For Korean New Year (Jan-Feb) and Thanksgiving (Sep-Oct), my wife’s family could fit 15-20 adults and older children around two of these tables, with younger children coming and going and the foreigner with a bad back perched on the couch. Just as well chopsticks gave me extra reach.

By the way, Google Ngrams shows that ‘set the table’ is far more common than ‘lay the table’, especially so in AmEng, but even now in BrEng.