Today’s psalm began “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion” (Psalm 126, KJV).

English has three pairs of words which have two alternative forms: amid/amidst, among/amongst and while/whilst. The shorter forms are used more often, and are recommended in most style guides, whilst the longer is very rare in American English and rare even in British English, where it has a formal or even archaic flavour (see what I did there?).

Again and against started the same way, but developed different meanings. Using a different translation, we might say “When the Lord turned against the fortunes of Zion” but that would have the opposite meaning. Turning again might be positive or negative (more likely positive, as here), but turning against is always negative.

The same psalm later uses among, where amongst is possible: “Then said they among(st) the heathen”. Of the I don’t know how many translations on Bible Gateway, most use among, and none uses amongst. (Modern translations also use nations rather than heathen.)

If you have a choice, use amid, among and while, unless you are deliberately aiming for formality, and be careful of the difference between again and against.


mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen,  신사 숙녀 여러분

At the opening ceremony of the winter olympic games (video, article), announcements were made in French, English and Korean. French is a holdover from the pre-World War I origin of the IOC. The opening formulas in each language are mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen and  신사 숙녀 여러분 (shin-sa sung-nyeo yeo-reo bun, gentleman/men, lady/ies, all people) (thanks to my wife for the last one; it hasn’t cropped up in Korean for foreigners books, as we are unlikely to be giving formal speeches).

French and English puts the women first. Is this just courtesy to the “fairer sex”? I once read somewhere that the formula was originally ‘my lords, ladies and gentlemen’, addressing the men and women of the nobility and the men with knighthoods, but I can’t find anything about that now. And that doesn’t explain the French. Most French nobles had their heads or titles removed during the revolution. The wording “gentlemen and ladies” does exist, but is about one-tenth as common as “ladies and gentlemen”. Conversely, “boys and girls” is about four times as common as “girls and boys”. “Gentlewoman” is now obsolete. Continue reading

extraposition and dislocation

Yesterday during my bible study, I spotted the following sentence in discussion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Whether this outlook is “gnostic” in the nontechnical sense that it merely placed an unusually high premium on “knowledge” (gnōsis) and “wisdom” (sophia) or in the more technical sense that it stemmed from a system of thought resembling second-century *gnosticism is a matter of ongoing debate.

(You can ignore the theology and church history; this post is about language.)

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On Tuesday a student about the difference between lay and lie. I gave a brief explanation to the effect that lay is transitive. It needs a direct object – hens lay eggs and humans lay tables. Lie is intransitive. It does not need, in fact it actively resists, a direct object – hens do not lie eggs and humans do not lie tables. (But some people use lay intransitively – Bob Dylan invites a lady to lay on his big brass bed and Gloria Gaynor’s ex-boyfriend thought she’d lay down and die, to varying degrees of horror from the purists.) I said to the student that it is very easy to get these two verbs mixed up, and many native English speakers do. (It does not help that the past simple form of lie is lay.)

By coincidence, Wednesday’s listening included the adjective laid-back, which I didn’t comment on at the time, because I knew Thursday’s lesson expanded on hyphenated adjectives. But it struck me that laid-back is built on the transitive lay-laid-laid and not the intransitive lie-lay-lain. If you are laid-back, then presumably it’s because someone or something has laid you back somewhere, and not because you have lain back somewhere. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and searched generally online, but I can’t find anything about this. Maybe the concept is reflexive: you have laid yourself back. Or maybe informal words don’t have to follow the rules of grammar.

In yesterday’s class, I briefly mentioned this to the student, then said ‘The word is laid-back, whether it comes from lay or lie’. Another student then asked about the other lie, to tell an untruth.

rest eternal and light perpetual

When I was drafting my previous post, I realised that I wasn’t sure about the exact wording of the funeral/memorial sentence Rest eternal rest grant (unto) them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine (up)on them.

The Latin original is Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Latin adjectives standardly follow the noun they modify (though word order in Latin is relatively free), so requiem (rest) aeternum (eternal) and lux (light) perpetua (perpetual). I searched online for an English translation. About half said rest eternal and light perpetual, and half said eternal rest and perpetual light. English adjectives standardly precede the noun they modify, but can follow them in certain circumstances, one of which is to produce an air of formality, perhaps because of the echo of Latin. (From a brief browse, no source switches word order mid-way: rest eternal and perpetual light or eternal rest and light perpetual.)

I noticed that the sources which use rest eternal and light perpetual tend to be Anglican/Episcopalian, and those which use eternal rest and perpetual light tend to be Roman Catholic. In fact, the Wikipedia article about this prayer says that Lutherans use the noun-adj order and Methodists use the adj-noun. I’m not sure what conclusion, if any, we can draw from that.

One of the many choral settings of the Latin.

grammar, meaning, style

Quick brown fox jumps over lazy dog.
The quick brown dream jumps over a lazy nightmare.
A lazy dog was involved in a jumping-related incident with a quick brown fox.

The problem in the first sentence is grammar. While it is acceptable headlinese, it is not standard English, which requires every singular countable noun to be preceded by a determiner: a/the/this/that/one/another/my/your etc fox and dog. It is, however, almost perfectly understandable.

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아빠, 아버지

This morning’s New Testament reading was Romans 8:14-17. Of particular linguistic interest is verse 10: ‘you received the Spirit of sonship [fn: Or adoption]. And by him  we cry, “Abba, Father.”‘ (NIV) Abba is the Aramaic word for father, which Paul uses alongside the Greek equivalent: Αββα ὁ πατήρ (abba ho pater). (Paul uses it twice, here and in Gal 4.6, and Mark once, in 14.36.) Some commentaries state that the Aramaic word has connotations of intimacy and childlike trust (indeed some paraphrase it as ‘Daddy, Father); others that it is the usual, natural, neutral word. If there is a connotation of intimacy, it is because Aramaic was the language of the home and everyday life, whereas Koine Greek was the lingua – um  – franca of international communication (which is why the New Testament was written in it).

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