“I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started”

Practicing past perfect tense, a student wrote:

I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started.

This felt (and still feels) strange to me, but I can’t figure out why. It is perfectly clear and follows the general rule of tense sequences. I would naturally say I arrived at the cinema before the movie started, because the sequence of events is clearly indicated by before.

The only reason I can think of for the strangeness is that we rarely use past perfect in the main clause of a sentence. But does that mean we never do? 

I have less problem with more context:

My friends always teased me for being late for everything, but here I was. I had arrived at the cinema before the movie started. 

I also have less problem with reversing the halves of the sentence:

Before the movie started, I had arrived at the cinema.

or the equivalent:

The movie started after I had arrived at the cinema.

(Though in each case, I would probably omit had.)

Continue reading
Advertisement

Pun me

In an online video/chat session with an international social group I typed that I have a colleague who can outpun me. The autocorrect in that software changed that to outrun, which is probably true but it isn’t what I meant to say. I saw the autocorrect in action and changed it back to what I meant to say in the first place. Pages for Mac and WordPress don’t autocorrect it, but red underline it.

Pun can be a verb, but it is usually used intransitively: He can pun on any topic you name. But we can imagine Shakespeare writing: Jest me no jests, pun me no puns. Actually, we can’t, because the word wasn’t used at all until after Shakespeare’s time. 

There is a website called Pun me and an Instagram thread titled Pun me as hard a possible.

For most of my life I’ve been the chief punster in most situations, so it’s taken some getting used to.

exhibit your inhibitions

A few nights ago I had the sudden, crystal-clear thought that inhibition and exhibition should have opposite meanings, but don’t – or maybe they do. They mean ‘to hold in’ and ‘to hold out’ respectively, but we usually hold in feelings, thoughts and behaviour, and hold out behaviour (often to express feelings and thoughts) and artistic/creative works. I can’t have an inhibition of my paintings in my own lounge room, though if I express my feelings and thoughts through my paintings, I might exhibit my inhibitions.

I thought of and jotted down several other similar pairs, which I was going to explore at length, then decided not to: impress and express, impose and expose, intend and extend, and implore and explore, which are all Latinate. (Indeed my use of explore in the last sentence was deliberate.) Related to these are the Germanic income and outcome (and outgo, but not ingo) (but compare Dutch and German ingang). Compare the very definitely opposite: include and exclude, import and export, and immigrate and emigrate (and migrate). 

Which raises another point: hibit, plore and clude are not words, while press, pose, tend, come and migrate are, whose relationships to the in-/im– and ex-/e– words is clearer in some cases and less clear in others.

chew/eat the carpet

A discussion on Language Log considered the expression chew/eat the carpet. One definition is, in the words of Oxford Reference, “to lose emotional control, to suffer a temper tantrum”. 

I got thinking about temper tantrum. I would say, simply, tantrum. Temper tantrum has always sounded redundant to me. What other kinds of tantra are there? It also sounds vaguely American. 

Google Ngrams shows that a tantrum is used about 2 to 6 times as often as a temper tantrum in British English, and about 2 to 3 times as often in American English. In other words, a tantrum is the number one choice, but a temper tantrum is a strong alternative, especially in American English. 

It also shows that temper tantrum sprang into being in 1916, and then increased in use in 1923. I can’t find any reason for this. A discussion on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange cites a psychiatric case at Johns Hopkins University in 1918, where it is rendered in scare quotes, which suggests it was new and unusual then. (That discussion is more about the word tantrum (origin unknown) than it is about the expression temper tantrum.)

The other kinds of noun tantra are toddler, morning and childhood ones, all of which have a minuscule usage compared with temper tantrum. (I’m being silly in using tantra as the plural of tantrum. Whatever its origin, it’s not Latin, so the plural is tantrums.)

melodious song

A colleague was involved in a cultural night. The flyer for it promised “dances, drama and melodious song”. I’ve been pondering the grammar and usage of melodious song, and have come to very few conclusions. 

Dance, drama and song can all be used uncountably and countably: we can present “dance, drama and song” or “a dance, a drama and a song” or “dances, dramas and songs” (or any combination of those – I would have preferred that the flyer was consistent in its usage). But uncountable song seems to be used less than dance or drama: I’m studying dance, ?dancing, drama, *dramaing (because drama is not a verb, therefore can’t become a gerund), ?song, singing. It also seems to resist being modified by an adjective more than dance or drama: we can present classical dance, modern dance, classical drama, modern drama, ?classical song, ?modern song.

One Facebook friend suggested that we expect songs to be melodious, so actually saying so is superfluous. Maybe so, but 20th century ‘modern classical’ composers produced a number of unmelodious songs. Another suggested that the problem is the final /s/ of melodious followed by the initial /s/ of song. I offered harmonious song as a comparison.

Google Ngrams shows:

popular~new~old~first~same~little~beautiful~sweet~following~sacred song,

a(n) new~popular~old~little~good~beautiful~sweet~single~ancient~comic song,

the same~first~old~popular~last~following~whole~new~sweet~choral song,

popular~news~old~other~many~such~patriotic~spiritual~sacred~national songs and

the old~same~popular~other~new~best~sacred~sweet~choral~national songs,

all of which suggests … something about uncountable and countable song(s) and a(n) and the, which I can’t figure out right now.

Melodious song is certainly used, but only about half as much as sacred in the first search.

If I was creating or advising about that flyer, I would probably choose or advise “dance, drama and song”. Keep it simple and keep it consistent.

Gives rise to

A document included a sentence stating that some circumstance in the matter “gives rise to” some legal consequence. Nothing wrong with that, but Microsoft Word’s grammar checker’s green underline didn’t like it. Its suggestion? “Gives raise to”. What kind of grammar suggestion is that? “Gives raise to” is grammatical only in contexts of headlines about pay increases, which situation certainly occurs, but wasn’t the case here. It could only be “gives rise to” here.

In fact, the more I searched, the more occurrences of “gives raise to” in place of “gives rise to” I found. People actually write “gives raise to”, albeit a tiny percentage of those who write “gives rise to”. But I’ll say “it’s wrong”, and a grammar checker simply shouldn’t be suggesting it. What do the people who compile the rules for this grammar checker do all day?

Fair enough, “gives rise to” is an unusual phrase, but it’s perfectly established.

dirty stinking

Dirty and stinking are usually used negatively, but an advertisement for headphones highlights the “big dirty stinking bass” provided by them, purportedly quoting a user.

Dirty is most often used to describe: work, clothes, water, trick(s), hands, linen, business, streets and shirt, being a combination of literal and figurative dirtiness. Stinking is most often used to describe: water, breath, fish, mud, smoke, hole, smut, fume, oil and savour, most of them literal stinkingness. Stinking smut isn’t pornography, but another name for common bunt, a disease which affects wheat. Wikipedia doesn’t record whether it actually smells, compared with just any old smut. Stinking savour is found only or mainly in the Authorised Version of the Bible: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour” (Ecclesiastes 10:1). This sounds unusual to me, because I would immediately think that savour as a noun was a positive word. Modern translations (eg New International Version) give: “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” See also a fly in the ointment.

Google’s only result for dirty, stinking *_NOUN is insects. I’m not sure how many dirty stinking insects there are – I can’t immediately think of any, apart from stink bugs, which aren’t necessarily dirty. Otherwise, dirty and stinking appear close together in The planet of the apes (but not  in the Simpson’s parody Stop the planet of the apes, I want to get off).

herbed bread

A café menu offered:

garlic and herbed bread

I would unhesitatingly say and write herb bread, but herbed bread isn’t wrong. Google Ngrams shows that its used about a fifth to a quarter as much as herb bread. But a general Google search shows that some of those are in larger noun phrases like herbed bread twists and herbed bread pudding.

But herbed bread is awkward. Most adjectives ending in –ed are based on verbs. We can talk about buttered bread, which is bread which has been buttered. What are you doing? I’m buttering the bread. But herb is a noun. Herbed bread is not bread which has been herbed, but bread which has herbs. What are you doing? *I’m herbing the bread. (Butter was a noun first, but is now well and truly also a verb.) 

Continue reading

Let’s do breakfast!

Sometimes, in order to cut a long story short, I have to tell my students something I know isn’t true. 

A textbook activity had the standard format of a box with base-form verbs at the top, then sentences with a gap in each, with the instruction to choose the right verb and change it to the right verb tense. One sentence included breakfast, and one student chose the verb do. I said “We don’t do breakfast. What do we do?” (Hmmm, there are two dos in that question … There’s another blog post there.) He said “Eat”. I said “But eat isn’t in the box. What else do we do?” He looked and said “Have”. I said “Right. Now change the verb tense.”

Other things we can do to breakfast include get, make, cook, prepare, buy, enjoy … and do. Some people “do breakfast”, or “do lunch”, or “do dinner”. Mostly “do lunch” and mostly in the form “Let’s do lunch (sometime)!”. 

This is a modern usage. Google Ngrams shows that do lunch has rocketed in usage since the mid-1980s, with do dinner and do breakfast also increasing, but less dramatically. 

Continue reading

‘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 Dictionary.com has an entry for ‘aw’ but not for any of the other spellings.