No matter what you think about the use or misuse of the word literally, the statement about last night’s (my time) eclipse, reported on a news website this morning:

It was literally cold and dark

strikes me as a remarkably clunky way to use literally (as well as a remarkably unimaginative way to describe a total solar eclipse).

(Because of time zones, I wasn’t going to stay up, or set the alarm. I just happened to wake up at 3.53 am, so I went downstairs and watched NASA’s webcast for about an hour.)


Unexplained and puzzling usage advice

I have posted before about unexplained and puzzling advice on language-related websites. This kind of advice is given in terms of ‘that is wrong, this is right’. I stumbled across a website which gives generally correct and useful advice on English vocabulary, grammar and usage for second-language learners. But on one page, among 13 pieces of unexceptional advice, are three pieces of unexplained and puzzling advice on word usage. I won’t identify the website, because I don’t want to name and shame; this person has obviously put a lot of time and effort into the site and the advice is generally correct and useful. The name and photo indicate someone from a major English-speaking country, one sentence uses the spelling center, many of the mistakes sound typical of Indian English, and one sentence mentions Chennai, so draw your own conclusions from that.

The website has a page of ‘Common mistakes in the use of nouns’. Only one piece of advice comes with an explanation:

Incorrect: I am learning a new poetry.
Correct: I am learning a new poem.
Poetry means poems collectively.

The three puzzling pieces of advice are:

(1) Incorrect: He enquired about your state of health.
(2) Correct: He enquired about the state of your health.
(3) Incorrect: My English is very weak.
(4) Correct: I am very weak in English.
(5) Incorrect: Why are you standing in the center of the street?
(6) Correct: Why are you standing in the middle of the street? [my numbering]

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heatable, heatful

I don’t like students depending on dictionaries in class (in fact, I don’t like them using dictionaries at all), for several reasons, another of which I might write about in a future post. Last night the students were practicing changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa (for the sake of completeness, I also added the appropriate verbs and adverbs). Most nouns change to adjectives and vice versa by the addition or subtraction of a suffix. However, there is a group of words which are clearly related but include other changes (long > length, strong > strength etc), sometimes enough to classify them as two  different words (poor > poverty).

One word was heat, for which most students had no trouble finding hot. (Though one student wrote tropical.) Another student then said ‘What about heatable and heatful?’. I said ‘What?!’. He pointed at the dictionary app on his phone. I said approximately ‘Well, I understand I those words but I’ve never seen or heard them in my life. Forget them. If you’ve ever got a choice between hot, heatable and heatful, keep it short and simple, and choose hot.’
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Gift me a verb … VERB!

Much ink and many pixels have been devoted to the topic of gift as a verb (see, for example). I don’t want to weigh in to the wrongs and rights of it, except to say that I don’t and wouldn’t use it as such (except linguobuccally). (I’ve got no general issue with verbing nouns, but why do it when there’s a perfectly good verb available already?) But I have recently noticed three uses of it in a major historical shopping building in the city. One shop has a poster ‘Gift the magic of Provence’, which could easily be ‘give’. Another has ‘Gift UGG this season’, which would still be awkward even with ‘give’.

The building management has provided a ‘Gifting station’. We can’t change that to a ‘Giving station’, but we could call a ‘Gift-wrapping station’ or even ‘Gift-wrapping’ if getting the words onto the sign was a factor.

(I am breaking a long-standing rule about gifting free publicity to commercial entities, but the identities of the companies are relevant.)

The decline of happiness

A major grammar point this week was comparative and superlative adjectives, about which I am preparing a long post, but I’ll start with a much shorter one. One student was prone to writing and saying things like more happy instead of happier. To illustrate the difference in usage, I showed the Google Ngrams graph, which shows that more happy is used (I suspect that some of those are in phrases like more [happy children] instead of [more happy] children), but that happier is clearly the preferred form.

I noticed the general decline in the use of happier and more happy, which also shows up in the graph for happy and happiness. Are we collectively less happy than we were in 1800, or are we talking about it less? Not necessarily. The first caution is Google Ngrams shows the usage of words as a percentage of the total word count. As more and more words enter the language, any given word’s share of the total will decline. The second caution is that the sources which make up the Google Books corpus change over time. The sources for more recent years contain mass media and scientific papers, which are less likely to talk about happiness.

The bright spot is that even though the usage of happy, happier, more happy and happiness declined from 1800 to 1980, there has been a slight pickup since 1980, if only as a result of pop psychology and self-help books.

‘scared’ v ‘afraid’

Wrong: “Can you hold my hand as I am scared of the dark.”
Right: “… as the dark scares me.” or “… as I am afraid of the dark.”

This is one of the most perplexing pieces of English usage advice I’ve encountered. I came across it by accident. Gretchen McCulloch from All Things Linguistic  posted an extract from an article by James Harbeck on BBC Culture on the topic of Singlish, ‘the unofficial language – or dialect? or slang?’ of Singapore, which is more-or-less based on English but with many non-standard features and many loan-words from Malay, various Chinese topolects and Tamil. It functions as the basilect (low form) of Singapore English, on a continuum with the mesolect (middle form), Singapore Standard English and the acrolect (high form), which is consistent with international Standard Basic English.

The Singapore government hates Singlish. In 2000, it launched the Speak Good English Movement. Its website has a page on ‘Common English Mistakes’, one of which I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post.

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