“to the best of me ability”

Not Microsoft Word this time, but a similar spelling/grammar checker. I typed “to the best of my ability” and it blue-underlined my, suggesting me: “to the best of me ability”. No, no, no. Certainly not in formal writing (though I note that Pages for Mac and WordPress don’t question me ability (or, less surprisingly, my ability). Just maybe in very informal, non-standard speech, by some people. 

I can find very little information about this usage, probably because it is so informal. This inconclusive ELL Stack Exchange discussion is the only one so far. It’s probably a variant pronunciation of my rather than actually me. People who say to the best of me ability don’t say to the best of you/he/she/it/us/they ability instead of your/his/her/its/our/their ability (the only possible pronunciation is ya ability). Compare I’ll do my best, I’ll do m’best and I’ll do me best with to the best of my ability, *to the best of m’ability and ?to the best of me ability. Note also that me in this usage can’t be stressed: Me car’s been stolen! v Not your car, me car!

All of Google Ngrams’ results for me *_NOUN are from the bigger construction V me N; for example, me something from tell/give/show/teach me something.

I wouldn’t be able to program a spelling/grammar check, so maybe I shouldn’t criticise, but I ever did, I wouldn’t question my N (unless is was part of a V me something construction).


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.

A prescriptivist’s playlist

I’ve been listening to a lot of pop song compilations recently. With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek:

All shaken up
Another somebody did somebody wrong song
Bobby McGee and I
Doesn’t it make my brown eyes blue?
I can’t get any satisfaction or I can get no satisfaction
I have you, babe or I’ve got you, babe 
Lie, lady, lie
Lo que será, será
Love me tenderly
Mrs Jones and I
There isn’t any mountain high enough or There’s no mountain high enough
Two fewer lonely people in the world
You haven’t seen anything yet or You’ve seen nothing yet

1) One of these definitely doesn’t belong here, because the original is unquestionably correct (or at least is questionable in another way). A free lifetime subscription to this blog to anyone who can point out which.

2) I stuck with titles, being easier to search for. I’m sure there are many more titles and many, many more lyrics. You can search for ‘pop music grammar errors’ to find more examples of ‘errors’, including within song lyrics. Some of these ‘errors’ actually are, but most of the lists fail to take into account that …

3) Informal spoken (or sung) English exists. I can (in some cases only just) accept each of the originals here as common informal spoken (or sung) English. That doesn’t mean that I say or write them, or would accept them without question in an ESL class. I said many times “Many people say X, but ‘correct, exam English’ is Y”.

[PS It’s possible that Two less lonely people in the world is prescriptively correct, too, if it is interpreted as Two + less lonely + people. But it’s hardly romantic to say “Before I met you, I was lonely. Now I am … less lonely.”]

“I wish to apologise”

A document quoted someone’s written submission, which started “I wish to first sincerely apologise for the delay”. Microsoft Word helpfully suggested “Avoiding multiple words between ‘to’ and a verb is best”. At least it didn’t say “Adding any words between ‘to’ and verb is always a no-no”. So far, so good, but its suggested rewriting, “I wish to first apologise for the delay sincerely” is not an improvement. (I first typed “hardly an improvement”, but I’ll be definite here.)

The basic sentence is “I wish to apologise for the delay”, and there are six places the two extra words can go. First(ly), with first (which is more marginal to the sentence anyway):

1 First, I wish to apologise for the delay.
2 I first wish to apologise for the delay.
3 I wish first to apologise for the delay.
4 I wish to first apologise for the delay.
5 I wish to apologise(,) first(,) for the delay.
6 I wish to apologise for the delay first.

(Mentioning then ignoring “I wish to apologise for the first delay”.)

Second(ly), with sincerely:

7 Sincerely, I wish to apologise for the delay.
8 I sincerely wish to apologise for the delay.
9 I wish sincerely to apologise for the delay.
10 I wish to sincerely apologise for the delay.
11 I wish to apologise sincerely for the delay.
12 I wish to apologise for the delay sincerely. 

I won’t discuss these at length, but note that in 8, sincerely clearly modifies wish and in 10 apologise, while 9 is ambiguous, and that some are clearly more formal or informal, or stylish or unstylish. To me, none is completely wrong, but 4, 6 and 12 are the most awkward. (Microsoft’s suggestion is basically 4 + 12.)

There are 42 possible combinations of both words (because when both are in the same slot they can be in either order), which I’m not going to list. You might want to try some out. My choice is “Firstly, I wish to sincerely apologise for the delay”. Fortunately, proscription of the so-called split infinitive is now less common than it used to be. (Even Microsoft Word’s advice doesn’t reach proscription.) The benefit of placing sincerely there is that it is perfectly clear what I am sincerely doing (or doing sincerely).

(I have a vague memory of encountering someone’s thorough analysis of adverb placement, but I don’t think I saved it.)

Shall I compare thee?

Person A has $20 million. Person B has $19 million.

1) A is rich
2) A is not poor
3) A is richer than B
4) A is more poor than B
5) A is less poor than B
6) A is not poorer than B
7) A is no poorer than B
8) A is not as poor as B
9) B is rich
10) B is not poor
11) B is poorer than A
12) B is more poor than A
13) B is less rich than A
14) B is not richer than A
15) B is no richer than A
16) B is not as rich as A 

(PS I later thought of A is the richer of the two, and I’m sure there’s more.)

At this point my brain started asploding. I have little chance of explaining the nuances of all these, but as a native speaker I instantly understand them when I hear or read them, and have no hesitation in using the right one in the right context. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has sections on ‘Equivalences and entailments’ and ‘Relative infrequency of comparisons of inferiority’, which cover some of this ground. Clearly, 1), 3), 9), 11) and 16) are the most standard. All the others are recorded, but Google Ngrams doesn’t give any context.

Similar comments apply to old/young and tall/short. 

Things are even more complicated with hot/warm/cool/cold, even taking just -er and -est. 

Location A is 35 degrees (centigrade). Location B is 25 degrees. Location C is 15 degrees. Location D is 5 degrees.

A is hot, hotter than the other places and the hottest place of the four.
B is warm. It is warmer than C and D, but also hotter than C and D. It is cooler than A, might be colder than A but it’s not *warmer than A. It’s not *the warmest place of the four.
C is cool. It is warmer than D, but it sounds strange to say that it’s hotter than D, and it’s not *cooler than D. It’s cooler and colder than B, and ?cooler and colder than A. It’s not the coolest place of the four. 
D is cold. It is colder than the other places and might be cooler than C, but it sounds strange to say that it’s cooler than A or B. It’s the coldest place of the four. 

It’s not grammar

Last year (I think), a friend fulminated on Facebook that an ABC newsreader had said something like “The robbers took money off the people”. She asked rhetorically “Where’s your grammar?”. I replied that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with saying off instead of from; it’s a matter of semantics (meaning) or usage.

The father of another friend died recently. The funeral was livestreamed, which I missed, but it’s still available to watch. My friend said that his father was insistent on grammar. Asking “Can I have a glass of wine?” would be answered by “I think you mean ‘May I have a glass of wine?’”. Again, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with Can I have.

Google Ngrams shows that take money from people is used far more commonly than take money off people (for all inflections of take), so my first friend may be worrying unnecessarily. In any case, her time might have been better spent sending an email to the ABC than posting on Facebook. On the other hand Can I have and May I have have a mixed history. According to Google Ngrams, Can I have was more common  until about 1900-1910, at which point it lost favour to May I have. The latter reached its peak about 1940-1950, then suddenly lost favour again, and was overtaken by Can I have about 1980. (The results vary with case sensitive, but the overall trends are clear.) The horse has bolted, and you can shut the barn door if you want to. The peak of May I have corresponds to my friend’s father’s school years, and the rebirth of Can I have corresponds with my friend’s school years.

Most comments about (other people’s) grammar are more often about meaning, usage, variety, formality/informality, spelling or punctuation. Speaker English native make rarely mistake grammatical.

Like it or not, when older (usually male) people (including me) say X is wrong, you should say x or Y, they are almost always on the wrong side of linguistic history.

I remember teaching a lesson about this during my first stay in South Korea. I said (to summarise) that according to formal English, can means ability and may means permission, while according to normal English, can means either ability or permission and may means permission. I’m sure my friend’s father wouldn’t have agreed with me.


On the back window of a car was a sticker saying


Ummm … is she a physical bitch, a psychotic bitch or both? Sitting in a different car, I didn’t get the chance to ask.

It is very easy to get the phys– words and the psych– words mixed up, and to mis-spell them even when you’ve got the right one (especially if you’re writing in ALL CAPS). The phys– words come from Greek φυσική physike (nature) and Latin physica (study of nature) and the psych– words from Greek ψυχή psyche (breath, soul) (note that ph, ps and ch are all one letter in Greek).

In any not-completely-informal use, physcho is wrong, but some people use it, whether deliberately or accidentally (definitely accident with reference to Alfred Hitchcock (who is more associated with the word than Robert Bloch is)). Did the sticker company use it deliberately, thinking either that the people buying it wouldn’t notice, or would notice but wouldn’t care, or accidentally, realising later (in which case the two previous questions again) or not?

And to think that I saw it in a Dr Seuss book

In 1937, Vanguard Press published And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, by Dr Seuss, known to his family and friends as Theodore Seuss Geisel. The original edition referred to “a Chinaman”, which was later changed to “a Chinese man”. Chinaman is now seen as offensive though possibly not taboo, and no new children’s book would use it. As far as I can find, there are no direct equivalent instances of [Country] + man. The closest is Indiaman, but that didn’t/doesn’t refer to a person, but rather to a large ship engaged in trade between Europe and India. Dictionary.com notes that Chinaman was originally as neutral as Englishman and Irishman. The difference is that Chinaman is [Country]-noun + man (compare *Englandman and *Irelandman), while Englishman and Irishman are [Nationality]-adj + man (compare *Chineseman). 

The Wikipedia article on Chinaman (linked above) mentions that Chinese uses 中國人 (zhōng-guó rén, China man/person), and I am familiar with Korean 중국 사람 (jung-guk sa-ram, China person). 중국 남자 (jung-guk nam-ja, China man) and 중국 여자 (jung-guk yeo-ja) are both also possible. I would not be surprised if many other languages use this formula. It is certainly not inherently racist. (Also, the Chinese word for a Western foreigner, 鬼佬 (gwei-lo), means ghost or devil man. Hmmm …)

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The armpit of life

An esteemed Korean friend posted on Facebook a photo of an early spring scene with a comment which Facebook automatically translated into English for me, which I’ll get back to in a moment. His original is:

따스한 햇볕 잠자던 생명의 겨드랑이를 툭 치니 우후죽순처럼 일어나 춤을 춘다.

I can pick words out of that, but the whole sentence is way beyond me. If you know more Korean than I do, have a go.

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