It’s not that simple

I recently discovered a blog which I won’t identify because I am about to disagree with one part of one post. It has a number of contributors and most of the posts are very good to excellent. However, I must disagree with part of one. The blogger writes:

British English speakers have the ability to use the phrase “at the weekend”, when Canadian English speakers would normally say “on the weekend.” We [linguists and other people interested in descriptive approaches to language] that Canadian English speakers can’t use “at” in front of “the weekend”; it’s ungrammatical.

But take a short swim across the pond [North Atlantic Ocean], and the Canadian preposition “on” seems very out of place; British speakers don’t say “on the weekend,” so for them this expression is expression is ungrammatical.

It’s not that simple, for two reasons. Continue reading


a done deal

For some  time, the New South Wales state government and the Australian government have been discussing building a second international airport in western Sydney, which was finally announced earlier this year. The proposal has attracted some opposition in the area, for various reasons. Today I went driving and not much bushwalking in the lower Blue Mountains. Several protest posters along the road read (something like) ‘IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL YET. DON’T GIVE UP THE FIGHT.’ Someone, obviously a supporter of the proposal, has crossed out the NOT and DON’T, so the signs now read ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL YET. GIVE UP THE FIGHT.’

The first sentence has been rendered problematic because YET is a negative polarity item – it is only (or usually) used in negative statements and questions. The closest positive polarity item is ALREADY, but ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL ALREADY’ is less standard than‘IT’S ALREADY A DONE DEAL’. These items can often be omitted: the simplest positive statement is ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL’ and the simplest negative statement is ‘IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL’.

Google Ngrams shows that the usage of ‘a done deal’ (an arrangement which is finalised or is seen to be inevitable) has skyrocketed since 1980. I can’t think why. I suspect that it was used in informal spoken English for some time before it was widely written.

acclimation v acclamation

I was reading a blog and noticed that the writer typed acclimation rather than the clearly intended acclamation. I’m not going to name the blog or writer, because I am not a ha-ha-you-made-a-mistake-on-the-internet type of person. Rather, I got thinking about the brain and finger(s) processes which lead to mistypings like this. There are pairs (or trios) of words which sound the same or very similar, and most often the more common word is typed instead of the less common one. (There are exceptions, but that’s the general rule.) According to Google Ngrams, acclimation is slightly more common than acclamation. But not for me. I would never use acclimate and acclimation, though I know they exist. I would use acclimatise and acclimatisation, even though they’re longer. So the chances of me accidentally typing acclimation are very small.

Acclamation is derived from acclaim (verb and noun) and Latin acclāmāre (verb). Acclimate is derived from climate (noun) and Latin clīma (noun). Acclimate seems wrong to me, but has the same form as accompany (ac+noun = verb). Acclimate is the slightly older form, but acclimati(z/s)e was more common until the 1970s.

So, people make mistakes. Just to prove it, I originally typed acclimitisation. Pages for Mac red-underlines my -ise/-isation spellings anyway, so I didn’t originally spot it. WordPress accepts acclimatise and acclimatisation, though. Acclimiti(z/s)ation is just wrong.

The correctly spelled wrong word

Some years ago I read a book which I won’t identify for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help noticing two correctly spelled wrong words: elicit instead of illicit and principals instead of principles. I’m currently re-reading it, and unfortunately have noticed two more: bell-weather for bell-wether and born for borne.

I won’t identify the book or author because 1) I know the author, who is one of Australia’s leading broadcasters and writers on one of my favourite subjects and 2) it is otherwise a very well-written and presented book. Unfortunately, the author and editor both had brain freezes at exactly the same moment. Continue reading

“I taste self but at”

Some linguistic explorations get more puzzling the further I pursue them.  Today’s lesson was about the pattern NP look(s)/sound(s)/smell(s)/taste(s)/feel(s) ADJ and related patterns. The lesson started with look, with photos of actors in emoting in character. Sound was provided on the textbook’s CD, and I explained smell and taste with examples of food (both) and perfume (smell). I mentioned that we might say You smell beautiful to a loved one, but are unlikely to say You taste beautiful even then.

Except some people do. Google Ngrams shows You taste good/wonderful/salty/sweet/delicious/better, all of which emerged in the 1960s and 70s. You taste better, not surprisingly, leads to You taste better than, but Ngrams gives no result for You taste better than *. I am trying to think how I could end a sentence with those words: maybe Here is a list of things you taste better than. Continue reading

argh, arrgh, aargh, aarrgh …

For reasons I might explain sometime, I needed to know the spelling of argh. Or arrgh. Or arrrgh. Or aargh. Or aarrgh, Or aarrrgh. Or aaargh. Or aaarrgh. Or aaarrrrgh. Or possibly multiple gs and/or multiple hs. gives ‘argh or aagh’. Google Ngrams shows argh, aargh, arrgh, aaargh and arrrgh, with no results for aarrgh, aarrrgh, aaarrgh or aaarrrrgh.Multiple as emphasises the length of the vowel, while multiple rs emphasises the throatiness of the rhotic. Multiple gs and/or multiple hs are also possible: Ngrams has arghh, and a general Google search has arghh (1,330,000), arggh (242,000) and argghh (148,000). aarrgghh is also possible (151,000), but the combinations grow exponentially, so I’ll stop there.

There are two meanings: the pirate sound, which is most commonly written as arrr, and the frustration sound, which is most commonly written argh or aargh.

nineteenth-century wifi

I was showing my students about using Google Ngrams to track the rise or fall of words over time. As an example of a modern word, I chose internet, which, not surprisingly, started being used about 1990. I then chose wifi, and was surprised to find that it was used more in the first half of the nineteenth century than since 2000. It’s obviously a scanning/processing error by Google Books, but I can’t think of any word which would be mis-scanned/mis-processed that much. The closest possible word is wife. Other than that, I’m pretty much flummoxed. (That’s possibly the first time I have ever typed the word flummoxed (1830-40; origin uncertain).)