An ingenius genious

I have seen the spelling

genious

enough times to notice it. It seems to be used either by mistake or sarcastically in response to something someone else has posted. It’s not a variant spelling; it’s plain wrong, which varius other people on the internet have pointed out. But inquiring linguistic minds want to know why. 

ius is a vary rare English suffix. In fact, it is arguable whether it is an English suffix. Dictionary.com lists 13 words ending with –ius, of which genius, radius and trapezius are the most common. All of them come directly from Latin, and some would only be found in ancient Roman contexts, for example denarius. All of them are nouns (as far as I can tell), but –ius is not a productive noun suffix. We can’t create new English words with it, unless we are trying to evoke an ancient Roman mood.
ious is a common English suffix. Dictionary.com lists 276 words, including various. Most of them come directly or indirectly from Latin, but there is no restriction on the contexts in which they can be used. All of them are adjectives (as far as I can tell), and –ious is a moderately productive adjective suffix. Some unknown person in the 19th century coined bodacious and Roald Dahl coined vermicious knid.

The relevant Latin adjectives had the forms -ius and -iosus, seemingly interchangeably, but the path from Latin to English is obscure because online sources don’t give examples from every step through Old French, Anglo-French and Middle English. The modern French equivalents are génie (compare Arabic jinn and English genie) and divers (compare diverse), which doesn’t help, but see furieux/furieuse

In You are a genius, genius is undoubtedly a noun. In That is a genius comment, it is still a noun but looks, sounds and feels more like an adjective (indeed, some dictionaries define attributive uses of nouns as adjectives). If any change of spelling ever happens, it will be that the second use becomes genious and the word becomes a genuine adjective. But not if word processor programs can help it – Pages for Mac just changed genious to genius and is red-underlining it now I’ve changed it back. Genius as a head noun is unlikely to change spelling, and all those –ious adjectives are simply never going to become –ius

Complicating all this is ingenious, which is undoubtedly an adjective but which is more distantly related, coming from genus and not genius (though those two words are related further back). So some geniuses are born and others are made.    

Signs of ambiguity

Youtube more-or-less randomly showed me two ads with similar taglines: 

We’re built for growing businesses.

and:

Your business matters.

Ambiguity in English arises for a number of reasons. One is that a gerund-particle (like growing) can be used in a noun-type way (We’re built for the purpose of growing businesses), or an adjective-type way (We’re built for businesses which happen to be growing). In this case, the ambiguity is small, and probably deliberate. 

Compare Moving pianos can be dangerous (which can have both interpretations), Tuning pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the noun-type meaning) and Falling pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the adjective-type meaning). Note that the ambiguity can be resolved by using a different verb tense: Moving pianos is dangerous (gerund) v Moving pianos are dangerous (participle).

Another reason for ambiguity is that many words ending with –s (like matters) can be a plural noun or a 3rd person present simple verb. In this case, the full stop probably forces the verb interpretation. Even without the full stop, most people would find the verb interpretation, which creates a complete sentence, in preference to the noun interpretation, which creates a noun phrase: compare Your business matters are important to us

Last weekend we went for a drive in the Blue Mountains. I saw a sign saying Falling rocks, and thought that it probably doesn’t, especially from the height of the cliffs there. Another sign said Slow buses, in which slow might be an adjective or an imperative verb. In this case, most people would find the incomplete adj + noun interpretation. In the imperative verb + noun interpretation, there are further options if you are the bus driver, a super-hero or a pedestrian. 

Today we drove in another direction. We visited a business which proclaimed Growing since 1919. Especially apt for an orchard/nursery/garden supplies business. One of the banners in the outdoor furnishing section stated Dark matters, which I couldn’t quite figure either way.  

A log truck

A few days ago my wife and I visited some friends in the country. On one road there was a sign warning of log trucks. If a log cabin is a cabin made of logs, then a log truck is likewise a truck made of logs. Ummm, no … it’s a truck designed to transport logs. In fact, in some parts of the English-speaking world, such as Wikipedia, they are logging trucks, which term I had never consciously encountered. Compare a wooden truck, which is (?toy/model) truck made of wood, and a wood truck, which is a truck designed to transport wood. 

English allows the modification of a verb by another verb, which I would call a noun modifier but which Wikipedia calls noun adjuncts and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls nouns as attributive modifiers (p 537). The two nouns can have a wide range of meanings, but neither of those sources has a comprehensive list. Most of the time we have no difficulty understanding the meaning, but there is ample scope for ambiguity, eg a brick factory.  (A glass house v a glasshouse (greenhouse) raises another issue, which I won’t go into.)

Some sources classified or classify noun modifiers as adjectives. They’re not – they can’t do adjective-y things like being further modified by very, making comparative or superlative forms or forming adverbs: *a very log truck, *a logger truck than the previous one, *the loggest truck I’ve ever seen, *The truck drove logly.

Sesquipedalianistics

I love long words, but I don’t set out to use them in real life. For some reason, I find 20-letter words more satisfying than 19- or 21-letter words, or any other length. I started collecting them but the internet has made it less fun than randomly encountering them (search and I’m sure you’ll find). Recently I randomly encountered the word fundamentalistically. 

English words can gain prefixes and/or suffixes, but the latter are more likely than the former. Fundamentalistically is fundament (N) + al (adj) + ist (N) + ic (adj) + al (adj) + ly (adv). It is questionable whether fundamentalistical is a ‘real word’ and, if so, means anything different from fundamentalistic. Google shows 54 results for fundamentalistical, mostly on websites which I wouldn’t willingly read. Word for Mac doesn’t like fundamentalistically, autocorrecting it to fundamentalistic ally, then red-underlining it when I change it back, or fundamentalistical.

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Passive voice is not used by Churchill (in this example)

Writing about passive voice yesterday reminded me of another instance of dodgy advice about it, which I encountered several years ago but didn’t write about here at the time. I was able to retrieve it from a series of emails I exchanged with an eminent linguist. 

To be fair, this writer doesn’t actually state that his example is passive voice, but he certainly implies it:

“As a rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive – e.g. ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ is active and more effective than ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer’.” 

This example comes from English writer/broadcaster/Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth’s book Have You Eaten Grandma? (which I won’t link to). For my thoughts about a similar example, see this post).

When a writer advises against passive voice, check three things: 1) the sentence they use as an example, 2) why they say we should avoid it and 3) how they use passive voice in their writing elsewhere. 

1) Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer isn’t passive voice. The only verb is are. The passive equivalent of Churchill’s famous sentence is Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat is had by me (or Nothing to offer is had by me … or Nothing is had by me …). No-one, least of all Churchill, needs to be to told to avoid writing sentences like that because no-one, least of all Churchill, ever writes sentences like that. (Note that have can be used in passive voice, for example the mostly jocular A good time was had by everyone (or all), rather than Everyone had a good time or All had a good time.)

2) If he’d written “As a general rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive” I might just have agreed with him, but it it easy to find sentences where the passive is just as effective, if not more. Vladimir Putin’s been assassinated! is more effective than Someone’s assassinated Vladimir Putin! because it focuses on Putin (who we know about) rather than someone (who we don’t, at least initially).

3) On page 1 of the same book, Brandreth writes: “I was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it”. Not “Teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it educated me”, because the whole introduction is about I

“Passive voice is avoided in English”

And sarcasm is avoided in blog posts.

Theories and practices in teaching English as a first language have changed and changed back over the years.  A draft new syllabus for New South Wales has just been released, and the Sydney Morning Herald website has an article about it. Among other things, English teachers will be chiefly responsible for teaching the ‘nuts and bolts’ of English. 

The English Teachers Association opposes the changes, partly because they “would hand them an unnecessary burden because literacy skills differed from subject to subject” (possibly the journalist’s paraphrase; at least not presented as a direct quotation). “Science, for example, used the passive voice, which was avoided in English” (also possibly the journalist’s paraphrase, but s/he indirectly quotes the association’s executive officer in the sentence before, and directly quotes her in the sentence after). 

*cough*

which was avoided in English

*cough*

It is almost impossible to write about avoiding passive voice without actually failing to avoid using it.

Take a photo for me

A document contained a sentence by an applicant similar to:

The police searched my office and took a photo for me with [another person].

The context made it clear that they took a photo of him. Take a photo of me has at least two meanings, but take a photo for me probably has only one (the second is possibly possible, but I can’t think of a context in which it would be a reasonable interpretation).

In the movie Airplane!/Flying High! a group of reporters attends the airport’s control tower (looking very un-1979). After asking the flight controller some questions, the chief reporters says to his colleagues, “Okay, boys, let’s get some pictures”. They then physically remove some framed photos from the wall. Get some pictures has two meanings in that context, but I’m trying to think of whether it would in my original sentence: The police got some pictures of me. 

I slept (or sleeped) and dreamt (or dreamed)

Some time ago I posted about the alternation between leaned and leant, dream and dreamt etc. I said that I had more-or-less decided to use leaned and dreamed, mostly because they are clearer for second-language listeners to understand, but then I quite naturally used leant when talking to one second-language listener. 

My work team has been working from home (mostly full-time but at least part-time) for almost two years. Alongside work-related emails, we send social/personal ones. One of my colleagues is studying psychology and is particularly interested in dreams. I can’t remember enough of most of my dreams, but occasionally one will persist after I wake up. A few days ago I sent an email with a brief description of my dream, starting “I dreamed …”. Another colleague picked me up this, so I explained the alternation and my decision, with a link to my blog post. She commented that the song from Les Misérables really couldn’t be I dreamt a dream. (With a side thought about the alternation between I dreamed/dreamt a dream and I dreamed/dreamt, and also I had a dream.) 

Along the way, because of its connection with dream, I also thought about sleep, which has the strong irregular form slept. But sleep now means something like to place a computer into a power saving mode. We can sleep a computer, and sleeping a computer is also common, but do we say I slept my computer or I sleeped a computer? At the moment, the usage isn’t common enough to be sure. There are a handful of results for I slept my computer and one for I sleeped my computer. Most people avoid the problem by putting their computer into sleep mode. Compare Stephen Pinker’s example of The batter flied out to centre (<my Australian-set auto-correct changed center to centre), not The batter flew out to centre. Because of my almost zero experience of baseball, I don’t have to worry about that, though.

Despite what I wrote in the title to this post, I definitely slept, but I may have dreamt or dreamed.

Verb it!

I’ve been struggling for ideas for posts, so I turned to the online discussions I had with my classmates during my masters study in 2010-12, which we were able to save as text files.

One involved the use of technology-related nouns and verbs. The discussion thread was Google it! As the name of a website, Google is a noun (and upper case), but people soon began using it as a verb and writing it in lower case. Many people decry the verbing of nouns and/or using registered company or product names as generics (see generic trademark) but both are common procedures in English. I can remember people faxing (though fax was never a proper noun, and was an abbreviation of facsimile (another common procedure in English – I don’t think anyone ever facsimilied (btw when was the last time you sent a fax?))), and references to people telexing (which was originally an upper-case proper noun). Before that, people telephoned, then ’phoned then phoned. All of these are transitive verbs: Google it, fax the document to me, fax it to me, fax me the document, ?/*fax me it, phone me, ?telephone me. (See also telegram, telegraph (including its metaphoric use) and wire.) (I can also remember an advertisement (?for a graphic designer) informing us that we could ‘fax or modem’ our requirements to them.)

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