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.

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“I’m travel go home”

For the past two weekends I have been filling in for my colleague who teaches the beginner class, and it is very frustrating. Almost all of the students come from two closely related countries which speak more-or-less the same language, and spend more time speaking that language than they do English. Today, one student said he was travelling to his country for a holiday tomorrow, and I said “Safe trip” as a throwaway comment. We immediately got bogged down on the difference between travel and trip. It would be nice if one was purely a verb and the other purely a noun, but both are both, and while travel has basically the same meaning as a verb or noun, trip is entirely different as a verb. When the student used his translator, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t getting the stumble meaning. (Also, travel as a noun is uncountable, while trip is countable.)

He then flicked back a few pages in his notebook and said “Can I say I’m travel go home?”. I had no idea where to start with that one. The short answer is no. The only thing I could salvage from it is that I understand what he means – almost.

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eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading

Afraid of what?

A few days ago the chapter of the textbook was about comparative and superlative adjectives, and one question was something like “What are you most afraid of?”. One student said “I am afraid of ” something that sounded like duck or dog. Was she afraid of ducks (the bird) or duck (the meat), or dogs (the animal) or dog (the meat, in some countries, see later)? I might have asked for clarification then, but decided to let her keep talking. She said that when she was young, the toilet was accessed from outside, so she always asked one of her parents to take her. So did they have ducks or dogs in their backyard? I finally said “I don’t know whether you said duck or dog”. She said “No – daakk”. Aha. “Afraid of the dark.” Why do we say “the dark” rather than “dark”. Would Dracula say “I am afraid of light” or “I am afraid of the light”? Google Ngrams shows that afraid of the light is about twice as common as afraid of light. Continue reading

furnitures

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

A kind of affliction

Last Tuesday was an interesting day linguistically, even if it was a slow day work-wise. I noticed three separate issues twice each in different contexts. The first time each, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and the second time I thought “Hang on, I’ve seen that before”.

During a lull in my work, I was browsing through some of Geoffrey Pullum’s old Language Log posts. In one, titled ‘Another victim of oversimplified rules‘, he discusses a sentence which he found in a free newspaper on Edinburgh’s buses:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months.

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