It’s rather hard

I spent my childhood in various country towns in the Australian state of Victoria. My last year there was my first year of high school. Even now I remember that our science teacher pronounced graph as /gra:f/ (with the same vowel as in palm), in contrast to the prevailing pronunciation of /græf/ (with the same vowel as in trap). The next year we moved to a country town in South Australia, where I quickly discovered that absolutely everyone said /gra:f/ and absolutely no-one said /græf/, not even me after a few days.

In my previous post, I said that for words like bath, the pronunciation with /a:/ is more common in Australia. Between trap and palm is a spectrum of words which some people pronounce with /æ/ and others with /a:/. Graph is one example, but not graphic, which everyone pronounces as /græfɪk/, as far as I know. 

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Many years ago, air hostesses archetypally asked passengers

“Tea or coffee?”

The possible answers were

“No, (thank you)”
“(Yes), tea(, please)”
“(Yes), coffee(, please)”

In the last case, the air hostess would then ask

“Tea? Or coffee?”

This can also be written as “Tea or coffee?” but is distinguished by a rising intonation on “tea”, followed by a small pause, then a falling intonation on “coffee”, compared to an overall upward intonation for the first “Tea or coffee?”.

English grammar distinguishes polar (or yes/no) questions and alternative questions. The answers to “Do you want a hot drink?” are “Yes(, I want a hot drink)(, please)” and “No(, I don’t want a hot drink)(, thank you)”. Offering tea and coffee as a choice doesn’t fundamentally change that. Strictly speaking, the only two answers are “yes” and “no”. Answering “yes” is not non-cooperative; answering “yes, tea” or “yes, coffee” is cooperative, but not required.

On the other hand, the answers to “Do you want tea? or coffee (?)” are “Tea(, please)” and “Coffee(, please). Answering “Yes(, please)” is decidedly non-cooperative, and may result in a cup of coftea. (There are more choices; I found a 50-page academic paper titled Responding to alternative and polar questions. And less academically:


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The muggers are very dangerous

One topic in the textbook this week is crime, and one grammar point is the passive voice, which allows us to say things like ‘The man was heard having an argument with the victim, seen leaving the scene of the crime, reported to the police, investigated, questioned, arrested, charged, tried, found guilty, condemned to death, hanged, drawn and quartered, and buried in unconsecrated ground’. Who by? By witnesses, the police, the crown prosecutor, the jury, the judge, the Lord High Executioner and four horses, and someone. Crime is an ideal context in which to practice the passive voice as it typically has an active participant (a do-er), a transitive verb and a passive participant (a done-to).

Much nonsense has been written about the passive voice (among other things, many people who write negatively about it a) can’t actually identify it, and b) use it quite naturally in the course of writing negatively about it), but it is a full part of English (and many other languages), is often used and often very useful. (It is, of course, sometimes (?often) badly used.) (Without consciously trying, I used four actives (underlined) and three passives (bolded). This is way more passive than the overall average of about 15%.)

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Most often used words in speech and writing

One of the books on my holiday reading list is the Cambridge Grammar of English by Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (a bit tragic, I know, reading grammar textbooks during the holidays). One of their focuses is the differences between spoken and written English. On p 12 they list and briefly discuss ‘the twenty most frequent word-forms in spoken and written texts’. I want to explore those lists further.

The 20 most-used words in spoken English are:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – yeah – that – of – in – was – it’s – know – is – mm – er – but – so – they

The 20 most-used words in written English are:
the – to – and – of – a – in – was – it – I – he – that – she – for – on – her – you – is – with – his – had

Twelve words appear on both lists:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – that – of – in – was – is

The eight other words on the ‘spoken’ list are:
yeah – it’s – know – mm – er – but – so – they

and the eight others on the ‘written list are:
he – she – for – on – her – with – his – had

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