‘Wilt thou leave me so dissatisfied?’

This week’s chapter of the textbook contained a lot about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa using suffixes, and modifying adjectives using prefixes, including making negative adjectives. English has rather too many ways of making negative adjectives, including a-, dis-, il-, im-, in-, ir-, –less, non– and un-. Of these, a– is the most restricted and the textbook didn’t even mention it. il-, im-, in– and ir– are fairly restricted (compare illegal and unlawful), and –less can only be added to a noun. The three most general are dis-, non– and un-, probably in that order of restriction: we can say ‘uncool’ and ‘non-cool’, but we can’t say ‘discool’. (There are restrictions on the root adjective as well: we can say ‘unhappy’, but probably not ‘unsad’ and certainly not ‘unmiserable’.)

We have sets of words like comfort (verb), comfort (noun) and comfortable, but discomfort and uncomfortable. uncomfort and discomfortable exist, but are vanishing rare. Sometimes two adjectives sit side by side. Some combination of dissatisfying, unsatisfying, dissatisfied, unsatisfied, dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory cropped up in one lesson. dissatisfying and unsatisfying seem to be more subjective and dissatisfactory and unsatisfactory seem to be more objective: a movie might be unsatisfactory because of the picture or sound quality, but unsatisfying because of the story or acting.

Dictionary.com lists unsatisfactory, dissatisfactory, unsatisfying and dissatisfied, but dissatisfying redirects to dissatisfy, and unsatisfied to satisfied. On the other hand, unsatisfy and unsatisfaction don’t exist; the verb and noun are dissatisfy and dissatisfaction. Google Ngrams shows unsatisfactory and dissatisfied considerably ahead of unsatisfied and unsatisfying, slightly ahead of dissatisfying and dissatisfactory. So unsatisfactory and unsatisfying are clear choices, while dissatisfied is the better choice, but unsatisfied is not ‘wrong’. But there are two differences. The first is grammatical: Google Ngrams shows that dissatisfied is standardly followed by a function word (dissatisfied with, and, that, in, as, at, because, than, by and to) (and is therefore standardly used predicatively), while unsatisfied is followed by a noun more often than not (unsatisfied with, and, demand, desire, in, by, desires, longing, longings and curiosity) (and is therefore used attributively and predicatively). The second is semantic: people and demands, desires, longings, and curiosity can be unsatisfied, but only people (and maybe larger animals) can be dissatisfied.

Shakespeare has Romeo ask ‘Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?’, but we can hardly draw any conclusions from on random example from more than 400 years ago.


-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

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Merry birthday

I have a friend who habitually writes ‘merry birthday’ on our mutual friends’ Facebook pages (and mine, when it comes around). There’s nothing grammatically or semantically wrong with ‘merry birthday’, but it just sounds so weird. An internet search returns approx 353,000,000 results for ‘happy birthday’ and 2,650,000 for ‘merry birthday’, so it’s by no means unknown, but used less than one percent as much as ‘happy birthday’. Some of those are references to people whose birthday falls near Christmas. (I know two people born on Christmas Day. One is named Christa. I also know a father and daughter born on leap day.)

Google Ngrams shows many results for ‘happy birthday’ and ‘merry Christmas’ (of course). ‘Happy Christmas’ is used about 1/6th as much as ‘merry Christmas’ but ‘merry birthday’ yields only one result.

In the course of my research, I found this short extract (from a movie I watched more than 20 years ago, but didn’t remember this scene). The Wikipedia page for the movie says that the song was written for this movie ‘to avoid potential licensing issues’ (ie paying royalties to Warner/Chappell, at the time – for more information, see here).

(For thoughts about the song in Korean, see here.)

(PS after I posted this, the friend wished me a ‘happy birthday’ this year.)


‘To the egress’

At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.

Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.

From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.

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Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

I have posted before about unexplained and puzzling advice on language-related websites. This kind of advice is given in terms of ‘that is wrong, this is right’. I stumbled across a website which gives generally correct and useful advice on English vocabulary, grammar and usage for second-language learners. But on one page, among 13 pieces of unexceptional advice, are three pieces of unexplained and puzzling advice on word usage. I won’t identify the website, because I don’t want to name and shame; this person has obviously put a lot of time and effort into the site and the advice is generally correct and useful. The name and photo indicate someone from a major English-speaking country, one sentence uses the spelling center, many of the mistakes sound typical of Indian English, and one sentence mentions Chennai, so draw your own conclusions from that.

The website has a page of ‘Common mistakes in the use of nouns’. Only one piece of advice comes with an explanation:

Incorrect: I am learning a new poetry.
Correct: I am learning a new poem.
Poetry means poems collectively.

The three puzzling pieces of advice are:

(1) Incorrect: He enquired about your state of health.
(2) Correct: He enquired about the state of your health.
(3) Incorrect: My English is very weak.
(4) Correct: I am very weak in English.
(5) Incorrect: Why are you standing in the center of the street?
(6) Correct: Why are you standing in the middle of the street? [my numbering]

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