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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For whom, Who … for?

My wife has said a noticeable number of times:  “What are you looking?”. I think this is inference from Korean, which uses the direct object marker 을/를 instead of a preposition. Maybe I just give a short answer, eg “My glasses”, or say “I am looking for my glasses”, or say “For.  I am looking for my glasses”, depending on how much like an English teacher I feel at the time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “For whom are you looking?”. This is not directly equivalent, because of the switch between what and who/whom. Google Ngrams shows that basically no-one says For what are you looking?

With who/whom, there are four choices: Who are you looking for?, Whom are you looking for?, For whom are you looking? and For who are you looking? Google Ngrams shows usage in that order. Despite the ‘rule’ that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, W/who are you looking for? has always been more common, and must be regarded as normal, standard English. I was surprised to find that Whom are you looking for? is more common than For whom are you looking?. The former sound very awkward to me. If I had to be formal, I would say/write For whom are you looking?

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Past perfect

The textbook’s treatment of past simple v past perfect was very limited, and the students obviously didn’t get it, so I had to look for supplementary material. On one website for ESL teachers I found a worksheet submitted by a teacher, which was reasonable but not perfect. One activity gave ten sentences in past simple, which students had to pair up, then change one half to past perfect, then join them appropriately. 

The first interesting issue was that the sentences could be paired up in different ways. Four sentences were:

Jack decided to have a rest. Peter asked for a cup of coffee. He finished eating. He painted the hall and the kitchen.

The usual/natural/expected pairings are:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He finished eating. 

But several students chose, and there is nothing impossible about:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He finished eating. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. 

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Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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“I don’t think so”

Some sentences might be right, but just aren’t, and it seems a bit weak to say to students “It just isn’t”. One sentence in a grammar review was “I ____ pass the exam”. Alongside one obviously wrong choice were “think she won’t” and “don’t think she’ll”. Several students chose “I think she won’t pass”. 

Actually, it’s not wrong. It’s perfectly grammatical, and makes more sense – I think + she won’t pass the exam compared with I don’t think + she will pass the exam (clearly, I do think something) – and could be used for emphasis: I think she won’t pass the exam. But it is used way less that I don’t think she’ll (and equivalent sentences with all the other pronouns (per Google Ngrams)), which is the usual/natural choice. Saying I don’t think she’ll pass doesn’t mean I think she won’t pass, but that I think she might or mightn’t pass. I’ve said equivalent sentences to my wife, who has picked up on the second half of the sentence without processing the “I don’t think”. PS Australia has had a very long and late summer, but some nights recently have been cooler. As I was drafting this post, my wife asked “Will we need an extra blanket?”. I replied “I don’t think so”.

A similar question required students to put the given words into order. The expected, usual/natural sentence was “Who do you think is going to win the next election?”. One student wrote “Do you think who will win the next election?”. This is wrong – the question word must come first, but compare “Do you think [name/party] will win the next election?”. 

Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism

While I was researching for my previous post, I stumbled across an extraordinary book titled Frontier Experience or Epistolary Sesquipedalian Lexiphanicism from the Occident, by J.E.L. Seneker. The first paragraph gives a taste of its style:

Most Sophomorical Sir:–

Your Græco-Latin epistolet or cabalistical abracabra, lies before me, deciphered and eclaircised to the best of my linguistic, pasigraphical, and exegetical ability. As merited castigation therefor, and to test your wonted longanimity, I shall recalictrate by effunding upon you, in epistolic form, my scaturient cornucopia of lexiphanic sesquipedalities, Johnsonian archaisms, exoticisms, neologianisms, patavinities, et id genus omne.

A little is explained in the front matter to the book. In the Prefatory Remarks by the Author, he states that after some study, he spent:

several years in the far west, Mexico, California, British Columbia, Alaska, Ontario, &c., &c. These fustian letters, a few copies of which I have, at the request of many of my friends, printed, give, to a limited extent, that part of my varied experience in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico:– at that time wild west frontiers … I have greatly amplified the original text, and incorporated many lexiphanic words.

In other words, as I understand it, he wrote the letters as a young man, and published them in an expanded form later. 

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