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.”]



Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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“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.)

Biblical gramma

I occasionally attempt to learn some biblical Greek. During my last burst, I spotted three slightly related words. 

The first is μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural). In any other context, this would be translated as learner, student, follower or adherent, usually of a philosopher or rhetorician, but in biblical translations, it is usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus).  

The second is απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural); not surprisingly, apostle. This means one who is sent (ἀπό-, apó-, from + στέλλω, stéllō, I send). The closest Latin word is delegate (dē-, from + lēgātus chosen, selected, appointed), and I can’t think of any Germanic word except sendee, which Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline. (There is an old joke that an epistle is the wife of an apostle. One of my first linguistic musings was why epistle had an ‘i’ while apostle had an ‘o’. I later found out that the words are not e + pistle and a + postle but epi + stle and apo + stle.)   

The third is γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), which is not related to grammar in the modern sense but to writing (γράμμα grámma) (compare Latin scrībō). Originally, it was anyone who wrote for a living, but in biblical terms is a scribe of the religious law (Hebrew סוֹפֵר sofér).

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More about whom

Whom occurs four times in the standard Holy Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper service of the Anglican Church of Australia, being formal English. I have known this for a long, long time, but on Thursday I decided to write a blog post about it. Before I could do that, I noticed “For whom are you looking?” in this morning’s gospel reading, and wrote about that first.

The first two whoms come in opening prayer:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden …

Not surprisingly, these come after a preposition. But they are not totally equivalent to “For whom are you looking?” because that whom is an interrogative pronoun, while these are a relative pronoun.

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