I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.
The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading →
One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born).Continue reading →
Today I edited an article which described someone as “a devout lactose-intolerant”. The first question is whether we can or should describe anyone as “a lactose-intolerant”, in the the same way as we might “a diabetic”, which has comfortably made the leap from adjective to noun. Can we? Obviously. Should we? Most style guides prefer the ‘person-first’ style: a person who is lactose-intolerant, or a person who has/with (a) lactose intolerance.
The second question is whether we can describe a person who is lactose-intolerant as “devout”. Devout is more often used to describe beliefs or behaviours. I can imagine someone being a devout vegetarian or vegan, or devoutly following a lactose-free diet, but being lactose-intolerant is not a belief or behaviour.
This person’s company’s website describes him as “a lactose intolerant guy”, and there is no recorded use of “a devout lactose-intolerant” or anything like it on the internet (but there will be in a few minutes, right here).
I asked my journalist colleague who wrote the article what he meant, and he said he didn’t know; he took that directly from the material the person (or someone at his company) had sent him. We discussed various options, then I decided to keep those words, but in quotation marks. [Update: in the end, that whole story was scrapped for reasons of space.]
And until I checked the definition, I had no conscious knowledge that devout is related to devoted.
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 →
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.
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’.”
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.)