At the beginning of 4th grade of primary (elementary) school, our teacher gave us a big spelling test. One of the last words was one I spelled conshienshus. He marked it wrong, of course. He gave us the same spelling test the next year (I had the same teacher two years in a row). Either he’d told us that it was going to be the same spelling test, or I’d decided that I’d swot up on that word just in case it was going to be in it. I got it right the second time. Even now, I often have to mentally say con-ski-en-ti-ous, in order to remember the spelling. The etymology is Latin con + scire – conscience comes with knowing.

sci- pronounced /ʃ/ is a rare occurrence in English. I can only find conscience, prescience (which I knew), nescience (which I didn’t, but which I could guess (WordPress’s spell-checker doesn’t recognise it)), conscious, luscious and their derivatives. All other -science words are actually about science. -ti pronounced /ʃ/ is a very common occurrence. Without doing too much research at this time of night (just after 11 pm), I think that all -tion and -tious are pronounced /ʃ/. (There’s a technical term for this.)

I was reminded about this during class, when one of the words on a list of adjectives of personality was conscientious.


The Blue Mountains v Blue Mountain

Yesterday I went driving, exploring and photographing in part of what some of my students call Blue Mountain, and what I insist on calling the Blue Mountains. There’s no place in Australia called Blue Mountain, but there are genuine linguistic reasons why some of my students (and, I guess, many others) change the Blue Mountains to Blue Mountain. Many languages do not have the equivalent of English a and the, and many speakers of English as a second language just aren’t used to saying those two English words. Many languages also do not have the equivalent of English plural s (or, as in Korean, it may be optional). English plural s often makes a double, triple or even quadruple consonant cluster with the final consonant(s) – here ns, which many second language speakers find difficult and want to simplify.

The Blue Mountains cover a large area, and people usually go to only a very small part of them. The officially defined geographic area covers 11,400 km2, almost as large as the Sydney metropolitan area (12,367 km2) and larger than 37 sovereign states. The local government area and the state electorate are, respectively, the City of Blue Mountains and the Electoral district of Blue Mountains, respectively.

And they aren’t blue. The sun filtering through evaporated eucalyptus oil gives the scenery a very slightly blueish tinge, but the trees are otherwise green and the rocks brown. I hope tourist books explain that.

The same linguistic issues arose when a student told me that she’d gone to Southern ’Ighland (viz, the Southern Highlands) the previous weekend. This sounded either like Southern Island (there is no Southern Island anywhere in the physical world) or (in my non-rhotic pronunciation) Southern Ireland (ooooh, a lot of Irish history and politics there).

right and left or left and right

This page of the textbook just keeps on giving. It is on what the authors call ‘collocations’ and ‘word pairs’, though I am not convinced that those are the best terms. It says “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. I have blogged about this page twice before. The first time I picked up about combinations of colours. After the class, I researched on Google Ngrams and found that ‘black and’ is most followed by white, red, blue, yellow, brown, gold, grey and green. Further, ‘black and white’ is most followed by photographs, stripes and marble (among and/or, is/are and in/of/on).

The second time I picked up about the textbook saying “we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’”. That simply isn’t true. Google Ngrams shows that ‘white and black’ is used, though, obviously, much less than ‘black and white’. I researched each of the pairs they give and found that most of them can be reversed – butter and bread and breakfast and bed being the two exceptions (those two are recorded, but are very, very rare). I concluded “If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.”

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C’mon, it’s only 16 years ago!

Oh now I feel old! The topic in the textbook was science, and as a filler I showed the students some science-related movie trailers, starting with the ‘based on a true story’ movies Hidden figures, The theory of everything and The right stuff. Then I showed some science fiction, starting with 2001: A space odyssey. I said ‘How many of you remember 2001’? I was expecting a few hands. I don’t know how old my students are, but I would guess late 20s or even early 30s for some of them. (Others are much younger, possibly late teens or early 20s.) No-one (but me) remembers 2001???? At least they could have said ‘Oh, that was the year I started school’ (as indeed one of my nieces said when I posted on Facebook about this later.)

Then I showed them Back to the future 1 & 2, and 1989’s imagining of 2015 made much more sense to them than 1968’s imagining of 2001. (In general, BttF got more right than 2001.) Along the way I found 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Right, 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Wrong and a parody by CollegeHumor made in 2015 with the benefit of nowsight. I also tried to find the American talk/comedy show which snared Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as guests on 21 October 2015, but I couldn’t find it and couldn’t remember whose show it was on. A Facebook friend later told me it was Jimmy Kimmel.

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(PS I don’t like giving any free publicity to corporate entities, but in this case it’s impossible not to.)

Some years ago (soon after I returned from Korea the first time, I think), I bought a quiz game made by a company called BrainBox. The shop had several in stock, but the one which I bought was of the countries of the world, which seemed most applicable to English language classes.

IMG_4069lowresI have used it several times a year since. On Tuesday I was browsing through a local shop and saw another game from the same company, about Australia. I went back and bought it on Thursday morning and used it that evening in class.



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A few days ago I explored a box of class materials accumulated by a colleague or colleagues unknown. One of them was a set of small, laminated slips of paper with one or two words each:


The aim is obviously to create sentences, but that’s easier said than done. The sentences aren’t from any textbook I’ve used or seen, and searching online for the five names returns nothing useful.

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True or false

Yesterday’s topic in the textbook was ‘crime and criminals’. As an extension, I used an activity from the teachers book of another series on strange laws and social customs from around the world. There is a list of 20 laws and customs, four of which are false; the students have to talk in pairs or groups to identify those. (One is “In Australia, woman are not allowed to sit on the top floor of buses.” When I first used this, there were no  double-deck commuter buses in Sydney (there were and are double-deck long-distance and tourist buses, and there are now a few on commuter routes), so I changed that to ‘trains’.)

One of the items was “In Japan, women mustn’t wear trousers to work”. Students argued both true and false, for various reasons. The book gives the answer ‘true’. I said that it might be a social custom or a workplace rule rather than a national law.

During the break, I tried to find more information. I searched for ‘japan women trousers office’ and it was quickly apparent that a fair sprinkling of the first 20 results were pornographic. At home, I tried again, with a different OS (Mac at home, Windows at work), possibly a different search engine, and the slightly different search term ‘japan women trousers work’. Among ads for trousers for Japanese women, the Japanese Business Resource website says “Women should also avoid wearing pants in a business setting due to the fact that sometimes it is considered offensive” and the Language Trainers UK & Ireland blog says “trousers on women are not generally viewed as acceptable”, both of which make it sound like a social custom rather than a law.

Searching for ‘japan women trousers work’ returned very similar results. I don’t know whether the pornographic results were due to using Windows rather than Mac or using one search engine rather than another, or whether a former or current colleague has been searching for pornography on the computer I use. (I can’t really call it ‘my computer’.)

(That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)