I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.

The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading


Running nose v runny nose

An alternative health practitioner in the suburb where I work treats, among other things, “running nose”. I would unhesitatingly say runny nose, but is running nose ‘wrong’?

No. Running nose was the preferred form until about 1970, when runny nose took off, and is still used today. It was more common and for slightly longer in British English  than in American English, but not significantly.

If there is a difference, runny is a ‘real’ adjective, while running is a gerund-participle used, in this case, as an adjective. ‘Real’ adjectives can take very and be used in comparative and superlative forms, and gerund participles can’t:

My nose is very runny. My nose is runnier/?more runny than yours. This is the runniest/?most runny nose I’ve ever had.

*My nose is very running. *My nose is more running than yours. *This is the most running nose I’ve ever had.

‘The Little Piano Piece’ by Debussy

Wikipedia informed me that today is the birthday of the French composer Claude Debussy (the hundredth anniversary of his death in March this year seems to have passed without too much observance in the music world).

The first piano piece of his I played was titled by him The Little Nigar (performance). I remember that the book I used placed the last word in inverted commas. Debussy wrote it in 1909 for a piano tuition book. In 1934, it was published as an individual piece, now titled The Little Negro and subtitled Le petit nègre. (strong language warning) Continue reading

rugged v ragged

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born). Continue reading


Today’s psalm began “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion” (Psalm 126, KJV).

English has three pairs of words which have two alternative forms: amid/amidst, among/amongst and while/whilst. The shorter forms are used more often, and are recommended in most style guides, whilst the longer is very rare in American English and rare even in British English, where it has a formal or even archaic flavour (see what I did there?).

Again and against started the same way, but developed different meanings. Using a different translation, we might say “When the Lord turned against the fortunes of Zion” but that would have the opposite meaning. Turning again might be positive or negative (more likely positive, as here), but turning against is always negative.

The same psalm later uses among, where amongst is possible: “Then said they among(st) the heathen”. Of the I don’t know how many translations on Bible Gateway, most use among, and none uses amongst. (Modern translations also use nations rather than heathen.)

If you have a choice, use amid, among and while, unless you are deliberately aiming for formality, and be careful of the difference between again and against.

They are the Doctor

One of the most vehemently contested issues in modern English grammar and usage is ‘singular they’, specifically its use to refer to a person of known gender, or to someone who has chosen not to identify as a specific gender.

Over lunch, I was browsing through the Wikipedia article on Doctor Who. My eye was caught by the sentence ‘The Doctor often finds events that pique their curiosity’. Since late last year, when Jodie Whittaker took over the role, it is impossible to refer to the Doctor as he, and it was always impossible to refer to him, ummm, them as it.

The Wikipedia writer(s) use(s) they once again:

All that was known about the character in the programme’s early days was that they were an eccentric alien traveller of great intelligence

(even though in the program’s early days the Doctor was definitely he).

Alongside their in the usual plural sense:

There have been instances of actors returning at later dates to reprise the role of their specific Doctor.

there is another use of their the singular sense:

The Doctor has gained numerous reoccurring enemies during their travels.

Continue reading

hearten and encourage

An article I edited during the week quoted a person connected to a certain organisation saying that a recent event was “heartening and encouraging”.

Hearten and encourage are, basically, ‘the same word’. Courage is derived from French cour/coeur, which in turn is derived from Latin cor, heart which is related to Italian cuore, Spanish corazón, and Portuguese coração. Heart is related to Dutch hart, German Herz, Danish and Norwegian hjerte and Swedish hjärta. Both words have the morpheme en, on the end of hearten and the beginning of encourage.

In fact, the further back in history you go, the more literally ‘the same word’ heart etc and cor etc are. The Proto-Indo-European word was *k̂erd. In some languages, the /k/ remained as /k/ (Greek καρδιά kardia, Latin cor and its Romance derivatives). In others, it became /h/ (English heart and its Germanic cognates) and in some it became /s/ (Polish serce, Russian сердце serdtse). These changes are not random, and can be seen in a number of other words such as Latin cornu and centum (originally and still classically pronounced with a /k/) and English horn and hundred. Experiment a bit, and you will hear and feel how similar /k/ and /h/ are – a matter of a few millimetres at the back of the throat. /k/ and /s/ might seem further away, but consider electric and electricity. These changes have happened many, many times, which is how scholars have been able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European from the evidence of modern and documented historic languages.