Free cake

A colleague made a cake for his birthday and brought it to share. He explained that it was “vegan and gluten free”. As legal editors do, we discussed whether that meant it was (vegan) and (gluten free) (probably) or (vegan free) and (gluten free) (probably not), and further what “vegan free food” might actually be (as opposed to “vegan, free food” (which would probably be “free, vegan food” anyway)). 

The phrase can either be ADJ and N free or N and N free. Vegan can be a noun (My cousin is a vegan) or an adjective (?My cousin is vegan, This cake is vegan).  Compare organic and preservative free and additive and preservative free. Hyphens might or might not help: organic and preservative-free, additive- and preservative-free, additive-free and preservative-free.


bad/good boy(s)/girl(s)/guy(s)

Some time ago I posted about boy band and girl group being more common than boy group and girl band, and pondered whether it was simply added alliterative appeal, with no firm conclusions. Recently, for no apparent reason, I wondered whether bad boy(s) and good girl(s) follow the same pattern. Yes and no. Google Ngrams shows that bad boys and good girls are more common (in terms of usage, at least) than good boys and bad girls. In the singular, though, good wins, with good girl and good boy being more common than bad boy and bad girl. I can’t draw any conclusions from that. The 1995 movie Bad Boys is unlikely to have had a significant overall effect. 

There is also guy, which complicates the picture. Good guy is more common than bad guy, but bad guys are more common than good guys. It would seem that girls are more often good, singularly or plurally, and a boy is more often good but boys bad

There is/are also also Guys and Dolls, but good doll(s) and bad doll(s) are very rare.

How many?

I am researching places to go and things to do in South Korea. We’ve booked flights there at the end of Dec and back at the end of Jan. In fact, I ‘ve been researching since before the travel restrictions started. We were just about to book travel to South Korea and Europe. 

The N TERRACE restaurant at N Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower) is 

One of the few most romantic places in Korea!

Unlike one of the only places, which has its defenders but I find meaningless even as I understand what the person is trying to mean, one of the few most romantic places does make sense, mostly. There are romantic places in Korea. This is one of the romantic places in Korea. There are the most romantic places in Korea. This is one of the most romantic places in Korea. There are few most romantic places in Korea. This is one of the few most romantic places in Korea. (Compare One of the few romantic places in Korea!)

It makes sense, but it’s very awkward. We expect the most to be either one or few at most. Having many mosts defeats the purpose of them being most

A Google search shows one of the few most:

stable currencies, important ways, talented and complete musician [sic], natural sites, beautiful Islamic prayer quotes, prestigious museums

In most cases, either few or most would suffice, few if you want to imply a smaller number (one of the few stable currencies) and most if you don’t (one of the most important ways).

One of the few most important musician is plain wrong. Few must be followed by a plural noun. 

We have nothing to be scared of but scare itself

A document said that someone “was scared of people from outside” her immediate family. Unexceptional English, I would have thought, but Microsoft Word’s style checker noted “More concise language would be clearer for your reader” and suggested

feared people

To me, Someone feared people from outside her immediate family isn’t usual, natural English. It’s obviously grammatical and sensical but feared is too formal and strong for this context (unless the someone in question was bordering on phobic. Surprisingly, Google Ngrams shows that feared people is considerably more common than was scared of people and were scared of people combined. I can’t think of any context where feared people would be my usual, natural choice. I don’t have access to any linguistic corpora, so have to rely on a general Google search, which show occasional uses, mostly in the irrelevant forms “the (top/number) most feared people (in some context)”, “this is the moment we’ve feared, people” and “he feared [that] people would laugh at him”. There is one quotation from the Quran (“And you feared people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him”) but that by itself wouldn’t explain the ngrams results, especially because the use of feared people dates back to around 1800. I’m just going to have to admit defeat on this one. My editing job doesn’t involve changing other people’s words anyway, so I didn’t have to decide (and would have rejected the suggestion anyway).

(Comparing feared people and was/were scared of people is complicated by the fact that they are different grammatically. I am also considering feared people as adj + N but that doesn’t get me any further.)

My mind wandered sideways to the words which come after feared and was/were afraid/scared/frightened of. Ngrams’ results for those show, in order:

afraid of anything, afraid of death, afraid of something, feared God, afraid of nothing, scared of anything, scared of something, afraid of everything, afraid of ghosts, scared of heights, afraid of God, feared death, feared something, feared John, feared object, scared of death, feared man, frightened of life, scared of people, frightened of women, frightened of ghosts, frightened of something, frightened of nothing, afraid of work, scared of nothing, scared of everything, scared of snakes, scared of ghosts, frightened of everything, afraid of men, scared of dogs, frightened of change, feared none, frightened of anything, frightened of people, frightened of death, feared Mr, afraid of war, feared anything.

Note that scared of people and frightened of people appear on that list, but feared people doesn’t, calling into question the first search results (and Microsoft’s advice). Obviously, that list would take some analysis to make any sense of. Leaving aside everything, anything, something and nothing, we have death, God, ghosts, heights, John (Mark 6:20 “Herod feared John”), life, women, snakes, men (more people are (or write about being) frightened of women than afraid of men), change, Mr (mostly “feared [that] Mr X would do something”) and war

So, more questions than answers in this post, sorry.

Merry holidays

In a comment to my previous post, I mentioned spotting a question on Stack Exchange from a school music teacher whose principal had banned ‘all holiday-related music from our performances’ because one family had chosen not to attend. S/he later refers to ‘Christmas and Chanuka songs’.

From around mid-December, mainstream and social media abound with opinions as to the rights and wrongs of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’, which I won’t weigh into. These reminded me something I’ve had on my ‘ideas for posts’ lists for several months. A document referred to an applicant returning to his country for ‘holyday’. Not holy day or holiday – holyday

Holidays were originally holy days, when most people didn’t work in order to attend church then feast and carouse on the village green. In Australian English, holiday now has probably three related meanings: a public holiday, on which most people don’t work but essential and service personnel do; annual leave, for most full-time, permanent employees, and a travelling vacation. I would not naturally say or write vacation; it sounds American to me, which Google Ngrams confirms. I would have to use either ‘I’m staying at home these holidays’/‘I’m having a holiday at home’ (some people use staycation but it’s still rare) or ‘I’m going away these holidays’. Because Christmas Day and Boxing Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 were official public holidays. Most Australian businesses shut down completely between 25 Dec and 3 Jan inclusive, with 3 Jan being an official public holiday because 1 Jan also falls on a Saturday.

A vague vagary

A legal officer referred to a claimant’s claims and evidence as vague and inconsistent (which is not unusual) but also as containing significant vagary and inconsistency.

By itself it is possible for claims and evidence to contain significant vagary:

1. an unpredictable or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance
2. a whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action

but the closest noun equivalent of vague is vagueness. In fact, doesn’t have a separate definition for vagueness, redirecting searches for it to the definition for vague. Vagary may at one time have been the best equivalent for vague, but it isn’t now. –ness is a very common and productive noun morpheme. Also, vagaries is much more commonly used than vagary

We most often talk or write about (a/the/-) vague idea(s), sense, feeling, notion(s), term(s), way, hope (they are mostly internal), (a/the) vagary of nature, thought, fashion, fate, fortune/Fortune, imagination, taste, mine, fancy and vagaries of life, nature, weather, chance, climate, fortune, fashion, politics, fancy, imagination (they are mostly external). 

But vague/vagueness and vagary share an origin in Latin vagus, wandering,  vagārī to wander (compare vagrant/vagrancy).

graph and tele

For reasons I won’t explain, I was thinking about the word(s) photograph and photo. English speakers (and I suspect speakers of most languages) often shorten words like these. Investigating using Google Ngrams, I found that, not surprisingly, photograph was used more commonly for most of the word’s history, and that photo overtook it in 1984 (specifying usage as a noun). My preliminary theory is that photograph declined with the rise of digital photo instead of digital photograph, but Ngrams shows that those two phrases are too late and comparatively too little used to have much of an effect overall. 

Similar is/are telephone and phone, for which the latter became more common (as a noun) as recently as 1998. This is plausibly connected to the rise of cell phone and mobile phone instead of cell telephone and mobile telephone, which basically no-one ever used or uses, but phone had been rising in usage since the 1960s. 

Compare the verbs photograph and *photo and telephone and phone (which switched in 1995). Not surprisingly, Ngrams does not record photo as a verb, but surprisingly also does not record photograph, either. At first I thought I’d mis-spelled it, but no, that’s the result. Also not surprisingly, take a photo increased steadily from about 1980 and sharply from about 2000.

Some languages shorten words even more. In Korean, 디지털 카메라 (di-ji-teol ka-me-ra) become 디카 (di-ka) and if 셀프 카메라 봉 (sel-peu ka-me-ra bong) ever existed, it quickly because 셀카봉 (sel-ka-bong, selfie stick).

Linguistically, this is called clipping. Different parts of different words are omitted or kept. Photograph could not become graph, because that had an existing meaning. Once telephone at least sometimes became phone, television could become telly (or tv), but not vision.

“thwart with danger”

Some years ago, a distant cousin wrote and self-published a book detailing the history of our mutual family. A great-great-great-grandfather and -mother, a great-great-grandfather and four other children arrived in Sydney in 1855 and settled on the mid-north coast of NSW, with four more children born in Australia. Eight of those survived to adulthood and six produced large families, so this is the biggest branch of my family tree. (I might call it a limb or a bough but I don’t know which is meant to be larger.) I have just re-read parts of it while conducting family history research. Among other things, she writes that life on farms and in small towns was difficult, and childbirth in particular was

thwart with danger

I can understand why someone would mix up fraught and thwart – they are relatively uncommon words, they rhyme (at least for people with non-rhotic pronunciation) and the differences are very small (fr and thw), and both collocate with danger: fraught with danger and thwart danger. Fraught here is an adjective and thwart is a verb. 

An online search found about 3,430 instances of “thwart with danger”, 5,150 for “thwart danger” and 2,580,000 for “fraught with danger”.

Fraught is from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German and is related to freight, both most basically meaning full of, fraught in a negative way (and now only as an adjective) and freight in a positive way (as a noun and verb). Common collections are fraught relationship, fraught situation and fraught heart, process is fraught, life is fraught, situation is fraught and system is fraught, and relationships are fraught, studies are fraught and lives are fraught. Thwart is from Old Norse and basically means across; as a verb, to lie across, oppose, frustrate or prevent. Common collocations are thwart God, thwart efforts, thwart attempts, thwart justice and thwart competition, thwart a person/man/child and thwart a takeover, thwart the will, thwart the plans and thwart the efforts.

Either way, don’t beg the question

Some prescriptivists insist that beg the question means, and can only mean, assume the conclusion of a philosophical argument, and doesn’t mean, and cannot mean, raise the question. The esteemed Mark Liberman of Language Log traces the whole history from Greek to Latin to English in probably more detail than you will ever need or want (brief summary: almost everyone now uses it to mean raise the question) and concludes: 

If you use the phrase to mean “raise the question”, some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ “misuse”, you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean “assume the conclusion”, almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

The reason I am mentioning this is that a few days ago I was watching a TED-X Talk in which the (native US English) speaker said:

Which begs me to ask another question …

No it doesn’t.

PS 26 Aug: A commenter on a Language Log post seems to have used the phrase in its original sense, judging by his punctuation: “”Is this the best way to approach the problem of the lack of scientific terminology in African languages ?”. I think that this begs the question. Is there any evidence that the lack of scientific terminology in African languages is a problem ?”

Too many choices

swim    have a swim    go for a swim    go swimming     go to swim

In recent post, I discussed V and have a N, specifically argue and have an argument. In a comment, I added go for a swim. Later, I also thought of go swimming and go to swim.

In general, the first four seem to be interchangeable, but the last may have a different nuance.

I swam    I had a swim    I went for a swim    I went swimming    I went to swim 

The first four entail that I did actually swim. The last doesn’t (automatically): I went (somewhere) with the intention of swimming. In fact, the third might also mean that I didn’t swim. I can think of a difference between We went-for-a-swim and We went (to the beach) for a swim(, but it was closed because of coronavirus restrictions). 

Consider also:

I swam at the Olympics    I had a swim at the Olympics    I went for a swim at the Olympics    I went swimming at the Olympics     I went to swim at the Olympics 

The first definitely means that I was a competitor. The fifth might mean that. The others probably mean that I was a casual swimmer. This difference probably has more to do with the requirements of swim at the Olympics, compare I sang at the Olympics. (True: I was in the massed choir for the opening ceremony.)

I haven’t been able to find go for a swim in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Have a swim is a light verb construction, and go swimming and go to swim are catenative verb constructions, but what is go for a swim? It has some similarities with both, and is obviously a unit of meaning by itself; compare I went for a pizza. The indexes don’t help. I looked under go, for and swim, and the grammatical index doesn’t really help unless you already know what a construction is called (and GCEL often calls things by different names than everyone else). Maybe I’ll let serendipity guide me to the correct entry.