In my dreams

Two recent dreams have involved language. I don’t usually remember my dreams in much detail but these were short and involved language. Two days ago Facebook informed me that it was the birthday of one former student who returned to Hungary. I wished him happy birthday in English and he replied in English. That night I dreamed I was in a classroom. The first student greeted me in Korean, which I speak to some extent. The second student greeted me in Hungarian. Hang on … I don’t speak Hungarian, so how did this person in my dream speak it, and how did I know that it was Hungarian? Either I have absorbed some Hungarian, somewhere, some time, somehow, or my subconscious just made up something which sounded approximately appropriate and I just knew it was meant to be Hungarian.

Longer ago I had a dream in the thriller genre. The only part I remember is one person pointing a gun at another person, and the other person saying:

Do not shoot.

Do not shoot and Don’t shoot mean the same thing, but contracted forms are less formal and, in this case, more urgent. I can’t imagine anyone facing the business end of a gun saying Do not shoot instead of Don’t shoot, but that’s what my subconscious made that person say. Do not shoot (until, unless …) is more like something said or written in a firearms safety course, or said by a police/military commander. Google Ngrams doesn’t help, processing do not and don’t in the same way. A general Google search shows about 15 million results for “don’t shoot” (in quotation marks for exact match) and 2.5 million for “do not shoot”. 

I don’t (or do not) know what conclusions I can draw from these dreams.

I kept an extensive diary during my first stay in Korea 2006-09, which often throws light on my own usage. There are 6 instances of do not and 200 of don’t, including 58 of I don’t know, so I obviously spent most of that time in a state of considerable ignorance.

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Every cloud possesses a silver lining

Writing about David Essex yesterday reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about another song of his, “Hold me close“.

Twice, he sings:

Every cloud’s got a silver lining

But the final time, he sings:

Every cloud has a silver lining

I was going to write at length about ‘ve/’s got v have/has (note that very few people say/write have/has got in full), but I got very confused very quickly and don’t want to confuse you. I thought more about I’ve got and I have because we talk more about I than we do about every cloud. As well as I’ve got and I have, there’s also I got and I’ve gotten, as well as have as a main verb and have as the auxiliary of the perfect. I’ve got a is slightly more associated with British English, but even there I have a is by far the most common.

But I got thinking: do people say or write Every cloud’s got a silver lining or Every cloud has a silver lining? Google Ngrams shows absolutely no results for Every cloud’s got a silver lining, which means that its dataset does not include 1970s English pop songs. A general Google search shows about 1,050,000 results for “every cloud has a silver lining” (in quotation marks, for an exact match) and about 1,040 for “every cloud’s got a silver lining”, most of which are references to this song. Worryingly, Google suggests every clouds got a silver lining, for which there are 935 results, most of which are references to this song. I’m not surprised that people who create websites of song lyrics don’t how to use apostrophes, but I’m worried that Google doesn’t. 

Many proverbs circulate in slightly different forms, but this one is remarkably stable (and also Every dog has its day, which sprang to mind).

(I thought I’d written a previous post about I’ve got and I have in pop songs, but I can’t find it.)

Contractions

The legal writing guide of a mid-level university states “Do not use contractions in your academic writing, Using contractions can give your writing an informal or colloquial tone, which is not appropriate.”  Unfortunately, one of its examples, alongside can’t, shan’t (who writes shan’t anyway?), they’re, wouldn’t and it’s, is o’clock, which is a contraction of of the clock. So don’t use o’clock in your academic writing; use of the clock instead.

That said, contractions are generally avoided in academic writing, but some contractions are now standard. Google Ngram shows that o’clock is about 200 times as common as of the clock. I suspect that no-one actually uses of the clock; they just mention it in the course of talking about the origin of o’clock.

Talking about contractions, the conductor of one of the choirs I sing in told us that the soprano soloist for a recent concert has just had a baby … after 62 hours of labour.

Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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Who’s eating whose pizza?

Who’s eating whose pizza?
Someone’s eating someone’s pizza. (or her/his/their)
My cousin’s eating my cousin’s pizza. (or her/his)
Alex’s eating Alex’s pizza. (or her/his)
I’m eating my pizza.
You’re eating your pizza.
She’s eating her pizza.
He’s eating his pizza.
It’s eating its pizza.
We’re eating our pizza.
They’re eating their pizza.

Who’s and whose, you’re and your, it’s and its and they’re and their (and there) are some of the most easily confused pairs (and trio) of words in English, and dominate examples and discussions of ‘grammar fail’ on the internet. It is easy, tempting and, for some people, irresistible to say “Gotcha” and cast aspersions on the writer’s intelligence and/or education, but language is never pure and rarely simple, so it is worth taking the time to consider all the issues.

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