“I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started”

Practicing past perfect tense, a student wrote:

I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started.

This felt (and still feels) strange to me, but I can’t figure out why. It is perfectly clear and follows the general rule of tense sequences. I would naturally say I arrived at the cinema before the movie started, because the sequence of events is clearly indicated by before.

The only reason I can think of for the strangeness is that we rarely use past perfect in the main clause of a sentence. But does that mean we never do? 

I have less problem with more context:

My friends always teased me for being late for everything, but here I was. I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started. 

I also have less problem with reversing the halves of the sentence:

Before the movie started, I had arrived at the cinema.

or the equivalent:

The movie started after I had arrived at the cinema.

(Though in each case, I would probably omit had.)

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Stranding prepositions (or not)

I had seen several approving references to the book Origins of the specious: Myths and misconceptions of the English language by Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, and last week saw a copy on sale, so I bought it. They generally do a very good job of explaining why most of the prescriptivists’ ‘rules’ are wrong (of course, I already knew about most of it), but I have to disagree with them on half of one point.

I agree with them that it’s a myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. They trace the “final-preposition bugaboo” (their words) to John Dryden (who complained that Ben Johnson put “the Preposition in the end of the sentence: a common fault with him”) then add “The bee in Dryden’s bonnet later took up residence in the miter of an eighteenth-century Anglican bishop, Robert Lowth, who wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn’t belong at the end of a sentence in formal writing”.

No he didn’t.

Later, they write that he “condemned the preposition at the end of a sentence”.

No he didn’t.

Later again, they refer to Lowth as “the fellow who helped popularize the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition”.

If he did, if was because those who read his book misunderstood what he’d written.

What did he actually write?

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Further thoughts about passive voice

Many explanations of active and passive voice state that in active voice, the subject does the action, and in passive, it receives it. This explanation is inadequate, because there are many transitive verbs (that is, verbs requiring a direct object) in which there is no action, or if there is, the receiver of the action is not the direct object. There are several groups of these.

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You and I

The grammar point in the textbook was ‘future forms’ (strictly speaking, English doesn’t have a ‘future tense’), the section was be going to V, and the prompt was David and I ________ a movie. Many students saw I and wrote David and I am going to see/watch a movie. But David and I functions as we, so the sentence must be David and I (=we) are going to see/watch a movie.

One student asked “Should that be David and me are going to see/watch a movie?”. I’m aware of variation within English, but I had to be standard and say “No, David is going to watch a movie and I am going to watch a movie, so David and I are going to watch a movie”. I are sounds wrong even in that context, but so does me are.

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slew

A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

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A kind of affliction

Last Tuesday was an interesting day linguistically, even if it was a slow day work-wise. I noticed three separate issues twice each in different contexts. The first time each, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and the second time I thought “Hang on, I’ve seen that before”.

During a lull in my work, I was browsing through some of Geoffrey Pullum’s old Language Log posts. In one, titled ‘Another victim of oversimplified rules‘, he discusses a sentence which he found in a free newspaper on Edinburgh’s buses:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months.

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nerdview

Two days ago I went to an automated teller machine to withdraw some money. I inserted my card, entered my personal identification number (PIN), selected “withdraw”, selected the amount, touched “Display balance on screen” (that is, don’t print a receipt) and touched “No” to answer the question “Do you want to save this as your favourite transaction? – at which point the machine told me that I had had entered my PIN incorrectly. Right, then, why didn’t you tell me that immediately after I’d entered it? In fact, I had entered it correctly, but I’d used my credit card instead of my cash card. (It was Monday morning and my two cards are the same colour.) Continue reading

or

Many years ago, air hostesses archetypally asked passengers

“Tea or coffee?”

The possible answers were

“No, (thank you)”
“(Yes), tea(, please)”
“(Yes), coffee(, please)”
or
“Yes.”

In the last case, the air hostess would then ask

“Tea? Or coffee?”

This can also be written as “Tea or coffee?” but is distinguished by a rising intonation on “tea”, followed by a small pause, then a falling intonation on “coffee”, compared to an overall upward intonation for the first “Tea or coffee?”.

English grammar distinguishes polar (or yes/no) questions and alternative questions. The answers to “Do you want a hot drink?” are “Yes(, I want a hot drink)(, please)” and “No(, I don’t want a hot drink)(, thank you)”. Offering tea and coffee as a choice doesn’t fundamentally change that. Strictly speaking, the only two answers are “yes” and “no”. Answering “yes” is not non-cooperative; answering “yes, tea” or “yes, coffee” is cooperative, but not required.

On the other hand, the answers to “Do you want tea? or coffee (?)” are “Tea(, please)” and “Coffee(, please). Answering “Yes(, please)” is decidedly non-cooperative, and may result in a cup of coftea. (There are more choices; I found a 50-page academic paper titled Responding to alternative and polar questions. And less academically:

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