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?



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]”.)

Continue reading

The justice of scales

A few days ago, I mentioned that hadn’t seen the bathroom scales since before we moved house in early October. My wife replied that “it is in the kitchen cupboard”.

For me, scales are ‘uncountable plural’; that is, they always take are, were, these, those etc. Google Ngrams shows that the scale is/was is more common than the scales are/were. But this is complicated by the fact that there are three kinds of scales: snake/fish, weighing and music/map. Snake/fish and music/map scales are countable and therefore can be singular or plural, and Dictionary.com’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

Continue reading

illumine v illuminate

One of the prayers for Christmas morning asked God to “illumine” us or some people or the whole world (I can’t check because I didn’t bring the service sheet home). Illumine and illuminate are both valid English words. Both are from Latin illuminare (verb) and lumen (noun). According to Dictionary.com, illumine is earlier  (1300-50), but it is defined only as “to illuminate”.  Illuminate dates from 1400-50, and –ate is certainly a more common verb ending. 

Illumination covers actual and metaphorical light. Sometimes the Bible talks about actual light and sometimes about metaphorical light, and sometimes it is hard to know which is meant. This morning’s Gospel reading was from John 1, which includes “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it” (vv4-5 NIV, see also vv8-9).

Even though illumine is the older form, Google Ngrams shows that it was very rarely used until about  1700. From about 1750 to 1900, it hovered around a quarter of the frequency of illuminate, after which illuminate has grown and illumine has declined in use.

To me, illumine sounds more poetic, and more metaphoric (no doubt the growth of actual illumination after 1900 largely accounts for the growth of illuminate). While it is possible to ask God to (metaphorically) illuminate us, it would be very unlikely for a movie director or director of photography to ask the gaffer (chief lighting technician) to (actually) illumine the set in a certain way. 

Unlike preventive and preventative, where I would unhesitatingly recommend the shorter alternative, here I would recommend the longer version, illuminate.

Word frequency

A few weeks ago, I submitted an application for an online editorial job. The ad stated that the company uses US English style, so I doubled-checked for anything I could incorporate. I was able to include search engine optimization, but the only Honours was part of the official name of my linguistics degree, so that had to stay. I then thought about serial commas, which I don’t usually use. (They have their uses, but if in doubt, leave it out.) I searched for and, and was surprised to find 63 ands in a 938-word document, or 6.71% of the total. 

And is the third or fifth most common word in English, depending on which list you consult. One site gives its frequency as 2.67%, which means I used it more than average. I could avoid almost all of them. I could write:

I hold qualifications in linguistics. I hold qualifications in teaching English to speakers of other languages. I hold qualifications in classical music. I have worked as a legal publishing editor. I have worked as a magazine subeditor. I have worked as an English language teacher.

But it is more natural to write:

I hold qualifications in linguistics, teaching English to speakers of other languages and classical music, and have worked as a legal publishing editor, magazine subeditor and English language teacher.

Three ands in 29 words is just over 10%, without being particularly noticeable. 

Continue reading