Too many choices

swim    have a swim    go for a swim    go swimming     go to swim

In recent post, I discussed V and have a N, specifically argue and have an argument. In a comment, I added go for a swim. Later, I also thought of go swimming and go to swim.

In general, the first four seem to be interchangeable, but the last may have a different nuance.

I swam    I had a swim    I went for a swim    I went swimming    I went to swim 

The first four entail that I did actually swim. The last doesn’t (automatically): I went (somewhere) with the intention of swimming. In fact, the third might also mean that I didn’t swim. I can think of a difference between We went-for-a-swim and We went (to the beach) for a swim(, but it was closed because of coronavirus restrictions). 

Consider also:

I swam at the Olympics    I had a swim at the Olympics    I went for a swim at the Olympics    I went swimming at the Olympics     I went to swim at the Olympics 

The first definitely means that I was a competitor. The fifth might mean that. The others probably mean that I was a casual swimmer. This difference probably has more to do with the requirements of swim at the Olympics, compare I sang at the Olympics. (True: I was in the massed choir for the opening ceremony.)

I haven’t been able to find go for a swim in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Have a swim is a light verb construction, and go swimming and go to swim are catenative verb constructions, but what is go for a swim? It has some similarities with both, and is obviously a unit of meaning by itself; compare I went for a pizza. The indexes don’t help. I looked under go, for and swim, and the grammatical index doesn’t really help unless you already know what a construction is called (and GCEL often calls things by different names than everyone else). Maybe I’ll let serendipity guide me to the correct entry.



A document referred to a circumstance stymying someone.

Stymying looks wrong, but so does stymieing. Stymie is by far the preferred spelling, but stymy is attested. Stymies and stymied look reasonable. Although it is more often used as a verb (1850s), it was first used as a noun (1830s). Its origin is uncertain, but, given its connection with golf, it is possibly a Scottish dialectal word. 

grave adultery

English (and I suspect every language) has pairs of words which look, sound and mean like they are or might be related, but actually aren’t. I encountered two pairs this week. After work on Monday I had to attend to an official task, so in my last email to my colleagues I said I was going “to adult” after work. The next morning I said that that result of my adultery adulting was that I have to pay more money for an official task than I thought I would. 

So are adult and adultery related? I had vaguely assumed that adultery is something which adults do, which is kind of true, but … ummm … no. Adult is from Latin adultus, grown and adolēre, to make grow, and adultery is from Latin adulterātus mixed, adulterated and adulterāre, compare English alter, change and Latin alter, other. Adultery and adulteration are related, but the former now refers only to sexual activity outside marriage and the latter most often to food(s), milk, goods, article(s), samples, drugs, butter and liquors. I pondered whether the biblical commandment also refers to the latter meaning, given so many other laws against mixing things, but Wikipedia’s article only discusses the first meaning.

One of my colleagues expressed puzzlement at my use of adult as a verb, but it’s reached major dictionaries:

Informal. (of a young person) to do things and assume responsibilities that are associated with being an adult; act like an adult (usually used facetiously about minor accomplishments):

(not necessarily of a young person!)

The internet is full of words and images along the lines of I don’t want to adult today. I don’t even want to person. I want to cat or dog or goat. (Note that in the sense of follow someone or something, dog is a perfectly good verb.)

I’m not sure how I got thinking about the word grave, with its two meanings of a burial hole and solemn, which could be related: a grave mistake is one which will put you in a grave, and your friends will stand around looking grave. But, again, no. The burial hole is from Old English græf, cognate with German Grab. The solemn mistake or looks are from Latin gravis, heavy. But the first meaning is related to engrave and a graven image.

I am in the middle of a burst of activity in researching family history. I have a moderately large amount of material already, so my first task is collate that, but in confirming that with official sources, I have found a lot more. One of my ancestral families has the surname Grace. Along the way, I have found the website Find a grave. Now, I keep mis-typing the two words, especially because c and v are next to each other on the keyboard.

Abominable words

A colleague informed us that today is National Grammar Day. He also has a desk calendar of Shakespearean insults, which often turn out to be strangely appropriate to what’s going on in our team, department and company. The combination of Shakespeare and grammar reminded me of the following quotation, from Henry VI pt 2:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole … thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Jack Cade was the leader of a popular rebellion in 1450. Wikipedia says that this rebellion was “one of the first popular uprisings in England that used writing to voice their grievances” but Shakespeare follows Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and incorporates aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which “was highly anti-intellectual and anti-textual” and “ha[d] people killed because they could read”. The real-life James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, the Lord High Treasurer (= Shakespeare’s Lord Say) was executed for treason.

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going to work

Australia has done a generally good job of containing the spread of coronavirus. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job I can do at home, so I worked at home from the end of March to the end of September (almost as long as I’d worked in the office before then). Then we started on one day per week in the office, then two (most of us Tuesday and Thursday), with the expectation of three from the beginning of next year. It looks like working at home part of the time is here to stay. 

Last week there was a small (by world standards) outbreak of coronavirus in another part of my city, and on Sunday we got a text message to work from home for the four days before Christmas Day and until further notice (most of us have next week off anyway). On Monday evening, my wife asked me “Are you going to work tomorrow?”. I said “No, umm yes, umm I’m going to work-at-home tomorrow”. 

Go can be a main verb and going to is one way to talk about the future, and work can be a noun or verb. Maybe she’d meant “Are you going (main verb) to (the place where you work (noun)) tomorrow?” (no) or “Are you going to (auxiliary verb) (perform the action of working (verb)) tomorrow?”.

Of all the possibilities, “Are you going to go to work tomorrow?” is possibly the clearest, but most people find going to go a bit of a mouthful. “Are you going to go the/your office tomorrow?” has the same problem, so “Are you going to the/your office tomorrow is probably the best choice all round.

For once, the problem wasn’t my wife’s second-language English, but something intrinsic to the language. On Wednesday evening, she asked me “Are you working at home tomorrow?”.

Relatedly, I would naturally say work at home, but work from home is more widespread.


First there was a log, a cylindrical portion of wood from a tree. Then someone tied a knotted rope to one and used it to calculate the distance and speed of ship. (These were later refined and standardised.) Then someone recorded distances and speeds, along with other relevant data, in a book. Then someone recorded any recurring data. Then someone recorded it on the world wide web (a world wide web log > blog). Then someone added video (a video world wide web blog > vlog (which I think is a horrible word, not least because vl- is not an allowable initial consonant cluster in English)). Then someone made one about their travels on a motorcycle (a motor bicycle video world wide web log > motovlog) and Youtube suggested that I watch it. The activity and word is common enough that Wikipedia has a short article about it.  

Along the way, log, blog and vlog (and probably motovlog as well) also became verbs. Pages for Mac doesn’t like vlog, autocorrecting it to blog and red-underlining it when I change it back, or motovlog, which it doesn’t autocorrect to anything.

There is some variation between motor– and moto– in these kinds of words, but motorhome, motocross and motovlog seem to be more common than their alternatives. 

(Surprisingly related to logarithms and their tables and books, being log + arithmós number (compare arithmetic).)

This amounts to bad English grammar advice

It’s Microsoft Word’s grammar checker’s turn today. It suggested turning this amounts to either this amount or these amounts, and this weighs to either this weigh or these weighs. But this amounts was in a context like This amounts to a convincing argument for the plaintiff, and this weighs was in a context like This weighs heavily in favour of the respondent. 

Amount can be a noun, in which case we must use either this amount is or these amounts are, but can also be a verb (usually followed by to), in which case we must use either this (argument) amounts to or these (arguments) amount to. (I don’t know if the noun or verb came first.)

Weigh can only be a verb; the corresponding noun is weight. We can only say this weight is or these weights are, and this (submission) weighs and these (submissions) weigh. Microsoft’s suggestions of this weigh and these weighs are just not English grammar as I know it. 

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take a look v look

Today I consciously realised something that I have unconsciously known since primary school at the very latest, and that is that while ‘take a look’ basically means ‘look’, ‘take a seat’ doesn’t mean ‘seat’ – it means ‘sit’. This is because look is both a noun and verb, while seat is a noun (usually) and sit is a verb. The longer form with ‘take a’ has to be followed by a noun (I’m kicking myself now how obvious that is), while the short form by itself has to be a verb.  

There are subtle differences in usage. Saying ‘After work this afternoon, I walked’ sounds strange, while ‘After work this afternoon, I took a walk’ sounds usual/natural. (Following it with ‘the dog/to the station/(for) one hour/(for) five kilometres’ all add to the possibilities.) Being asked to ‘Sit’ would sound far too abrupt (‘Sit, please’ is just possible), while being asked to ‘Take a seat’ sounds usual/natural. The only other noun/verb pair I can think of which we would use here is bath/bathe. Saying ‘Have a bath’ sounds usual/natural, but saying ‘Bathe’ by itself sounds really strange, and it’s not helped by adding ‘please’. 

Google Ngrams shows that the things we most often take are a look, a step, a seat, a walk, a chance, a turn, a position, a part, a view and a recess. Not all of those are interchangeable with the relevant imperative verb. There’s also ‘have a’, which is most often followed by lot, chance, look, right, place, tendency, number, mind, copy and bearing, which list raises even more questions. The only word on both lists is look. Historically, ‘have a look’ was more common in British English, but this has now been overtaken by ‘take a look’, which was previously often seen as an Americanism.

Slightly related: when I was at primary school I noticed that teachers often said ‘Sit up (straight)’, ‘Sit down’ and ‘Stand up’, and commented on this to a teacher, who explained it is possible to ‘stand down’ from an important position (which I hadn’t encountered at that point of my schooling). But this phrasal verb doesn’t necessarily involve standing at all. One can stand down while staying seated. 

“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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