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’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

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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, 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. 

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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.

Rocks the size of analogies

A newspaper website headline in Australia says that the volcano in Hawaii is spewing rocks the size of microwaves. How big (or small) is that? 1 metre to 1 millimetre. A one-millimetre rock is not a rock. The first paragraph of the story then says ‘boulders the size of small cars’, which are presumably the size of radio waves.

That said, I wouldn’t want to be landed on by a one-metre rock spewed from a volcano.

[update 27 May: I saw a headline from a US paper which referred to ‘fridge-sized boulders’, so maybe the Australian headline referred to microwave ovens, not microwave radiation. There’s a difference in size between a microwave oven, a fridge and a small car.]

Write on queue

A few days ago I had to ring a government department. I hate ringing government departments, but I couldn’t find anything on their website about this particular issue. The call took an hour and 44 minutes in total, being about one minute talking to the first person, about one minute talking to the second person who the first person put me through to, about three minutes talking to the third person who the second person put me through to, and about an hour and 39 minutes listening to ‘on hold’ music, announcements about the information I could find on the website, and automated recordings telling me that I was now the [number]th caller in the queue, starting from 59th between the first person and the second person, and 68th between the second and the third  and gradually counting down.

I mentioned this on Facebook, and one online friend who lives in another English-speaking country commented, using the spelling que three times in an otherwise perfectly written comment. I sent her a private message asking whether that was her usual spelling, or was widely used in her English-speaking country. Continue reading