illumine v illuminate

One of the prayers for Christmas morning asked God to “illumine” us or some people or the whole world (I can’t check because I didn’t bring the service sheet home). Illumine and illuminate are both valid English words. Both are from Latin illuminare (verb) and lumen (noun). According to, illumine is earlier  (1300-50), but it is defined only as “to illuminate”.  Illuminate dates from 1400-50, and –ate is certainly a more common verb ending. 

Illumination covers actual and metaphorical light. Sometimes the Bible talks about actual light and sometimes about metaphorical light, and sometimes it is hard to know which is meant. This morning’s Gospel reading was from John 1, which includes “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it” (vv4-5 NIV, see also vv8-9).

Even though illumine is the older form, Google Ngrams shows that it was very rarely used until about  1700. From about 1750 to 1900, it hovered around a quarter of the frequency of illuminate, after which illuminate has grown and illumine has declined in use.

To me, illumine sounds more poetic, and more metaphoric (no doubt the growth of actual illumination after 1900 largely accounts for the growth of illuminate). While it is possible to ask God to (metaphorically) illuminate us, it would be very unlikely for a movie director or director of photography to ask the gaffer (chief lighting technician) to (actually) illumine the set in a certain way. 

Unlike preventive and preventative, where I would unhesitatingly recommend the shorter alternative, here I would recommend the longer version, illuminate.


Another rabbit hole confounds me

Another day, another linguistic rabbit-hole.

On Sunday, we sang Universi qui te expectant by Michael Haydn, which I had not previously known. The Latin of the two verses (Psalm 25:3-4) is:

Universi qui te expectant non confundentur, Domine
Vias tuas Domine notas fac mihi et semitas tuas edoce me.

No English translation is given in the score, but at the rehearsal one of the choir members quickly found:

Let none that wait on thee be ashamed
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. [KJV]

Hang on, though. A little bit of Latin shows that Universi is everyone/all, and that non confundentur is will not be confounded, so the verse should be translated:

Everyone who waits for you will not be confounded.

(The more common Latin word for everyone/all is omnes, which can be followed by a noun: omnes gentes or omnes generationes.) Continue reading


A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

Continue reading


Today’s psalm began “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion” (Psalm 126, KJV).

English has three pairs of words which have two alternative forms: amid/amidst, among/amongst and while/whilst. The shorter forms are used more often, and are recommended in most style guides, whilst the longer is very rare in American English and rare even in British English, where it has a formal or even archaic flavour (see what I did there?).

Again and against started the same way, but developed different meanings. Using a different translation, we might say “When the Lord turned against the fortunes of Zion” but that would have the opposite meaning. Turning again might be positive or negative (more likely positive, as here), but turning against is always negative.

The same psalm later uses among, where amongst is possible: “Then said they among(st) the heathen”. Of the I don’t know how many translations on Bible Gateway, most use among, and none uses amongst. (Modern translations also use nations rather than heathen.)

If you have a choice, use amid, among and while, unless you are deliberately aiming for formality, and be careful of the difference between again and against.

extraposition and dislocation

Yesterday during my bible study, I spotted the following sentence in discussion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Whether this outlook is “gnostic” in the nontechnical sense that it merely placed an unusually high premium on “knowledge” (gnōsis) and “wisdom” (sophia) or in the more technical sense that it stemmed from a system of thought resembling second-century *gnosticism is a matter of ongoing debate.

(You can ignore the theology and church history; this post is about language.)

Continue reading

shall pt 2

After posting about shall yesterday, I noticed it several times during the church service this morning. Looking at everything again on the train home, it became apparent that the earlier sources (two 19th century hymns and a congregational response based on a bible verse) used shall exclusively and the later sources (a 20th century translation (or two) of the bible – I’m not sure which one(s) we use) used will, regardless of I/we v you/she/he/it/they and simple v strong intention.

The hymns were:

And those who put their trust in thee / Nor death nor hell shall harm


I shall not fear the battle / If thou art by my side
O Jesus thou hast promised … That where thou art in glory / There shall thy servant be

The congregational response is:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

This is based on Matthew 8:8, where a Roman centurion says:

Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed. (KJV)

Bible Hub has 25 versions; 16 use will and 9 (apparently the more traditionally based ones) use shall.

Continue reading

The Axe of the Apostles

At church this morning (Easter Day), the first reading was from The Axe of the Apostles – sorry, The Acts of the Apostles. English allows final consonant clusters of two, three and four consonants, but almost everyone simplifies these in some way (natives speakers probably only the three- or four-consonant clusters; second language speakers/learners even two-syllable clusters. I have even noticed that some students tend to drop any consonant at the end of a word.). Acts = /ækts/. I suspect that most native English speakers reduce to this to /æks/ = axe most of the time, even in the very formal setting of a major historic parish church on Easter Day. (The reader was otherwise impeccably enounced.) Many second language speakers/learners, on the other hand, drop the s, especially if plural marking is optional or non-existent in their language and/or it does not allow many/any final consonant clusters and/or /s/ is not permitted at the end of those which are allowed.