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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Could you read this blog post, please?

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was polite requests and responses, which reminded me of an incident which happened when I was teaching English in Korea in 2006-2009. I didn’t post it on my travel blog at the time or even record it in my diary, for no particular reason.

For part of that time I taught at a government high school. The students had varying levels and interests in learning English. One day I introduced the grammar or vocabulary point, set the students going on the practice task and wandered round checking their progress.

One student was sitting by herself, not doing the task and instead applying copious amounts of makeup. I asked, “Could you please put your makeup away and do your work?”. She smiled sweetly and continued applying her makeup. 

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said, “Please put your makeup away and do your work”. She replied in Korean, so I said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean”.

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said “Put your makeup away and do your work!”. She looked at me, smiled sweetly and said

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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?”. 

Who’s eating whose pizza?

Who’s eating whose pizza?
Someone’s eating someone’s pizza. (or her/his/their)
My cousin’s eating my cousin’s pizza. (or her/his)
Alex’s eating Alex’s pizza. (or her/his)
I’m eating my pizza.
You’re eating your pizza.
She’s eating her pizza.
He’s eating his pizza.
It’s eating its pizza.
We’re eating our pizza.
They’re eating their pizza.

Who’s and whose, you’re and your, it’s and its and they’re and their (and there) are some of the most easily confused pairs (and trio) of words in English, and dominate examples and discussions of ‘grammar fail’ on the internet. It is easy, tempting and, for some people, irresistible to say “Gotcha” and cast aspersions on the writer’s intelligence and/or education, but language is never pure and rarely simple, so it is worth taking the time to consider all the issues.

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Hail, Driver!

Two days ago I saw a local bus with a sign saying “Please hail driver” in the front window. My first thought was ancient Rome or 1930s-1940s Germany. My second thought was the driver would understand my hail to mean that I wanted to get on the bus, which I didn’t, and even if I did, it was on the other side of a big traffic intersection.

Given that they asked so politely, I kind of feel bad about not hailing the driver.

So, do we have to hail the driver every time, or only when we are standing at a bus stop wanting to catch that bus?

greatful

A former student observed Australia Day and Indian Republic Day by saying on Facebook how “greatful” she is for life in her new country. It’s an easy mistake to make, even for native speaker writers and especially for second language speaker writers (the issue doesn’t occur in speech – who knows how a speaker is ‘spelling’ a word?). A well-known search engine reports about 7,750,000 results for greatful, most of which are dictionaries or usage guides saying “greatful is not a word”.

If greatful means anything, it mean “full of great[ness]”. She might say that her new country is full of greatness, but she can’t say that she is (well, some people may be full of greatness, but most of them probably wouldn’t say so themselves). So what are we full of when we are grateful? Basically, we are full of gratitude. There was an adjective grate, meaning “agreeable, pleasant” from Latin gratus, pleasing, first describing the favoured object or person. Then the thing or person was grateful, that is “full of agreeableness or pleasantness”, then we were grateful for the thing or person.

Meanwhile, great first referred to size, related to Dutch groot and German groß, from West Germanic *grauta, course, thick, then later referred to a subjective evaluation: a great idea doesn’t have to be a big one. A gross idea probably isn’t great idea.

Descriptive linguists have a problem here. Someone who would argue vehemently that irregardless is a word would probably have no hesitation in saying that greatful is simply a mistake. (The spell-checkers in Pages for Mac and WordPress accept irregardless but reject greatful.) I didn’t point this out to the former student. I wouldn’t even if if this was a Facebook post by a current student. But I would if a current student wrote it in class.

PS the opposite switch happened with pitiful, which changed from meaning the one being full of, or showing, pity to meaning the one in need of pity, or even deserving contempt.

Ms, Miss and Mrs

Yesterday I filled in and submitted a mail redirection form with Australia Post. In the list of names I wrote MR my name, MRS my wife’s name and MS our niece’s name. The clerk checked the form and asked ‘What is that? M-Z?’. I said ‘M-S’. She asked ‘So she’s been married and divorced?’. I said ‘No, never married’. She said ‘I’ll change that to MISS, then’.

I was already mildly annoyed for various reasons, and thought that arguing the point would only result in unpleasantness, so I didn’t.

So 1) an Australia Post clerk doesn’t know what MS represents. 2) an Australia Post clerk thinks it’s appropriate to change MS to MISS. 3) it is quite possible for people to receive mail address to different courtesy titles – MS and MISS, MRS and MS, DR and MR/MRS/MS/MISS or PROF and DR (and MR/MRS/MS/MISS). (It is even possible for people to receive mail addressed to two different names. We knew Dr Susan Green / Mrs Susan Prince (name slightly disguised). Not to mention many mis-spellings of names.*) 4) postal deliveries don’t rely on courtesy titles anyway. Australia Post doesn’t even use them. A few minutes ago I stumbled on their letters to my wife and niece in October notifying them that their mailing address had been changed by someone (me). Both are addressed to GIVENNAME SURNAME and there is no salutation. (*Apropos of not much, one of my sisters once worked as a secretary in a very small town. One day the post office delivered a letter for her boss addressed to “Grandpa, [name of town]”.)

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