I made joke in Korean and my wife and her friends totally failed to get it. We had dinner at a harbourside fish and chip shop, and she bought ginger beer for me, despite that fact that she’s next seen me drinking ginger beer, which is because I never do. I said “I don’t drink this. I don’t like this.” She said “It’s beer. You drink beer.” I said “진짜 beer?” (jin-jja beer, (is it) really beer?). Haha.

I found out later that 찐자 (jjin-ja) means ‘steamed’, so with my pronunciation it might have been possible that I was asking whether it was steamed beer (whatever that is). I asked her after we got home, and she said she thought I had simply said ginger beer.

Ginger, 진짜 and 찐자 aren’t homophones, but are close enough for the joke to potentially work. Ginger is actually closer to 찐자 so if I ever have steamed beer, I’ll try again.


‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Aw’

I have seen, enough times to notice, people writing in Facebook comments ‘Here, here’ instead of ‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Awe’ instead of ‘Aw’ (or ‘Aww’ or ‘Awww’ etc). These are homophones – they sound the same when spoken. 

Hear, hear!’ began in the British Parliament as ‘Hear him, hear him!’ – an imperative to other members to pay attention to what the speaker (the main speaker, not the person saying ‘Hear, hear’) was saying. Now, on Facebook, there is no element of ‘hearing’, and ‘here’ is a more common word than ‘hear’. Also, someone can signal their agreement by saying or writing ‘Same here’. Intriguingly, Google Ngrams shows that ‘here here’ is more common than ‘hear hear’, but I can’t find any examples of it other than in internet forum comments or in discussions of ‘here here’ v ‘hear hear’. I also can’t think of any context in which ‘here here’ would even be possible.

‘Awe’ is a real word, while ‘aw’ is an interjection which can express ‘sentimental approval or commiseration’ or ‘disbelief, disgust or protest’ depending on the intonation’. It is possible that a Facebook commenter is expressing awe at a video of a dog and cat playing together, but I doubt it. I also wondered whether the most common spelling is ‘aw’ or ‘aww’ or ‘awww’ etc). Google Ngrams shows ‘Aw’ a long way ahead, and has an entry for ‘aw’ but not for any of the other spellings.

You should join his class.

I took some of a colleague’s classes while she was overseas. A student from that class is now coming to mine. She said she likes my teaching. She said she told her brother about me, and:

[1] He said you should join his class.

I was confused. Where is his class and why should I join it? I asked her something along those lines, and she said either:

[2] He said, “You should join his class”.


[3] He said I should join your class.

One of the rules of changing direct quotations into indirect ones is pronoun changes, especially I and you. Another is that direct quotations are usually indicated in speech by a slight pause before the quoted words. She hadn’t paused, or hadn’t paused long enough. 

Interpreting [1] as an indirect quotation, as I did, gives:

[1’] “He [brother] said you [teacher] should join his [brother’s] class”. 

This is the equivalent of:

[4] He said, “He should join my class”.

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When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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Live life

The noun life, the verb live and the adjective live often cause confusion for English language learners, especially the plural noun and the 3sg verb lives, and the base verb and the adjective live (in each case, same spelling, different pronunciation). Life can only be a noun, but even then could be uncountable or countable singular. 

Especially when they are reading out loud, students might say something like “Computers and mobile phones are an essential part of our /lɪvz/“. This is partly because of the fact that the plural of life is lives, not lifes – I don’t think any student would mistake “our lifes”. I usually explain it by comparing his life and their lives with they live and he lives.

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lative and fluous

I often encounter the word superlative in my English language teaching, but it also cropped up recently in a business magazine article I was subediting. When I first encountered superlative, I reasoned that it was pronounced super-lative, just as superfluous was super-fluous. But they’re not: they are su-per-luh-tive and su-per-flu-ous respectively.  

 Even though super comes from Latin, most English words starting with that morpheme are modern, and are attached to real English words, whether nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Super retains its usual stress and so does the real English word following it. Lative and fluous aren’t English words, but many others based on Latin ferre/fero/latus and fluere/fluo/fluxus are. Note also that superlativus and superfluus were/are real Latin words. Wikitionary says that the pronunciation of superfluus was as in English, but that of superlativus was super-lativus. (By the way, the literal meanings in Latin and English are ‘carried over’ and ‘flowing over’.)

There are three other English words which are pronounced su-per rather than super: superb, superior and the rare supernal. –b, –ior and –nal are clearly not English words, and in fact represent the Latin suffixes –bus, –ior, and –nalis – the Latin words were superbus (not super-bus), superior and supernalis (not sure of pronunciation).

To sum up: don’t embarrass yourself in public by pronouncing these two words as super-lative and super-fluous.

photopic, biopic, photography

An article mentioned photopic vision, which I guessed was pho-topic, which turned out to be correct, but I commented to our editor that it might just be photo-pic. Photopic is photo, light + opic, relating to sight, or the vision of the human eye under well-lit conditions, compared to that in low light.

One word that is often mentioned in many discussions of ‘words which I though were pronounced somehow until I found out that they aren’t’ is biopic, which many people think is bi-opic, no doubt influenced by bionic, biology and biography. The common meaning is bios, life, but bio + pic is blend of biographical picture (movie), with the ‘pic’ representing a real word rather than simply being a suffix like -(o)nic, –logy and –graphy. Speaking of which, another article mentioned bionic design, that is, “the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology”. I just had to have the headline “We have the technology”.

In my other job, I’m fighting a losing battle against photo-graphy. In the medium-to-long term, this word may develop two pronunciations, one by native speakers and the other by second language learners.