a veterate liar

A user on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange asked if inveterate is always pejorative. We most often talk/write about an inveterate liar, and not an inveterate philanthropist. Other users provided examples of inveterate readers, writers and travellers, and of inveterate habits, which might be positive or negative. Clearly, inveterate is not always pejorative.

I wondered about the origin of this word, which is not immediately clear. It turns out the root is Latin vetus, old, the same root as veteran. So why don’t we have veterate liars; people who only occasionally tell lies? The in– of inveterate doesn’t mean not; it means in, into. Inveterate liars are those who tell lies into old age, for example, [insert name of disfavoured politician here].

Interestingly, several dictionaries online record veterate as “Of long standing; inveterate”, which means that veterate and inveterate mean the same thing (compare flammable and inflammable).


Romeo loves Juliet?

English has a number of ways to ask questions, with some smaller or bigger differences in effect.

We can ask:

Romeo loves Juliet?

by adding an upwards inflection at the end. This probably indicates that I haven’t heard you properly, or surprise on my part.

We can emphasise one, two or even all of the words:

Romeo loves Juliet? Who did you say? Did you say Romeo? or I thought Tybalt loved Juliet. 
Romeo loves Juliet? What did you say? Did you say he loves her? or I thought he hated her. 
Romeo loves Juliet? Who did you say? Did you say Juliet? or I thought he loved Rosaline.  

Romeo loves Juliet? Let me get this right – we’re talking about Romeo, and you’re saying he loves her.
Romeo loves Juliet? etc
Romeo loves Juliet?

Romeo loves Juliet? probably Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: RomeolovesJuliet? (I can’t even …)  

Continue reading

“Yeah, right”

There is a joke which circulates in slightly different forms, but a typical version is:

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

“Yeah, right” can express a negative, but it doesn’t always. Its default interpretation is positive: “Do you want to eat a pizza?” “Yeah, right”. It becomes negative only when rendered as sarcasm by context and intonation. It’s always fraught to say “every language” or “not a single language” when talking about grammar, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that there’s no language in which the default interpretation of a double positive is negative. Or if there is, it needs a better example than “Yeah, right”. If a double negative is something like “I didn’t do nothing” (which is negative, despite what the MIT linguistics professor said), then a double positive is something like “I did something”, which certainly isn’t negative, and can’t be rendered as sarcasm. 

Many years ago, a particularly obnoxious newspaper columnist wrote about Saddam Hussein having approximately five nuclear weapons, and how much of a danger to world peace that made him, and how much Western nations were justified in invading Iraq. I emailed her to point out that George W Bush had thousands of nuclear weapons ready to launch. Her reply, in its entirety, was “Yeah, right”.

Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

Continue reading

“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?”. 

qualified and unqualified

Today I edited an article featuring a pharmacy that offers its customers, among other things “qualified advice”.

Qualified has developed two almost opposite meanings, for reasons none of the dictionaries I’ve looked at explains: “1a) officially recognised as being trained to perform a particular job; certified; 1b) competent or knowledgeable; capable” and “2) not complete or absolute; limited.” (Oxford Living Dictionaries Online)

A qualified pharmacist would usually give unqualified advice, while an unqualified assistant would give, at best (or at least), qualified advice.

I assume that the advice given in this pharmacy is “of or pertaining to someone who is qualified”. I can’t really change it to “this pharmacy offers unqualified advice”.

Google Ngrams shows that qualified advice (in whatever meaning(s)) is more common than unqualified advice, while unqualified opinion (likewise) is more common than qualified opinion.

a done deal

For some  time, the New South Wales state government and the Australian government have been discussing building a second international airport in western Sydney, which was finally announced earlier this year. The proposal has attracted some opposition in the area, for various reasons. Today I went driving and not much bushwalking in the lower Blue Mountains. Several protest posters along the road read (something like) ‘IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL YET. DON’T GIVE UP THE FIGHT.’ Someone, obviously a supporter of the proposal, has crossed out the NOT and DON’T, so the signs now read ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL YET. GIVE UP THE FIGHT.’

The first sentence has been rendered problematic because YET is a negative polarity item – it is only (or usually) used in negative statements and questions. The closest positive polarity item is ALREADY, but ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL ALREADY’ is less standard than‘IT’S ALREADY A DONE DEAL’. These items can often be omitted: the simplest positive statement is ‘IT’S A DONE DEAL’ and the simplest negative statement is ‘IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL’.

Google Ngrams shows that the usage of ‘a done deal’ (an arrangement which is finalised or is seen to be inevitable) has skyrocketed since 1980. I can’t think why. I suspect that it was used in informal spoken English for some time before it was widely written.

Is it “wrong”? If so, why?

A few days ago my class was doing a activity based on prompts like “I like …”, “ I spend time …” and “I am good …”, with various variations. There is a small number of ways in which each of these can be completed, so I started by eliciting some of the most common.

One student completed the prompt “I’m quite good …” with “at nothing”. This flummoxed me. I can’t think of any reason why “I’m quite good at nothing” (and “I’m very good at nothing”) aren’t possible, but no-one has ever said or written them where Google can find them. It is possible to say “I’m good at nothing”, though “I’m not good at anything” has overtaken it in the last 90 years. “I’m not quite good at anything” is also non-existent, while “I’m not very good at anything” has a different meaning – “I’m good at many things, but not very good at anything”.

It was impossible for me to explain why “I’m very good at nothing” was ‘wrong’ (if indeed it was). I tried to accentuate the positive and find something – anything – she is good at, but her English is limited. I eventually said “Are you good at [her language]”. She brightened and said “Yes”. Continue reading

Romeo loves Juliet

I have recently been thinking about the range of nuances that are available in English. Take the statement “Romeo loves Juliet”.

We can emphasise the whole statement:
Romeo loves Juliet! (Gosh, I’m so excited!)”.

Or we can emphasise each word. In fact, each word might receive one of two levels of emphasis:
“Who loves Juliet?” “Romeo loves Juliet.” v “Paris loves Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”
“Romeo likes Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet.” v “Romeo hates Juliet.” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”
“Romeo loves who?” “Romeo loves Juliet” v “Romeo loves Rosaline” “No, Romeo loves Juliet!”

In fact, too much emphasis on “loves” can turn the statement into sarcasm: “Romeo LOVES Tybalt!”

(It is very difficult to indicate the exact level of emphasis typographically!)

Continue reading