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. 

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make

The textbook was exploring the different ways we use the word make. I searched Google Ngrams for the most used phrases in the patterns make N, make an N, make a N and make the N, and got:

make sense
make an effort
make a difference
make the world a better place

A patient patient

I have posted before about the dangers of students picking the wrong meaning from a dictionary or translator, because many words have multiple meaning or senses. Sometimes the two words are related, sometimes they’re not.

Today, a sentence included patient as an adjective. One student used his dictionary/translator, then about a minute later said “What does this sentence mean?”. I said “You wrote down that word. You tell me what it means.” He said “A sick person”.

Interestingly, patient-noun = a sick person and patient-adjective = bearing with fortitude without complaint are related, through Latin pati, patiens to undergo, suffer, bear. A patient is someone who is suffering illness or injury. They are patient if they do so without complaint, but a patient can be very impatient (and many are). Conversely, a doctor can be patient (and, at times, a patient) or impatient.

The relationship between patient-noun and patient-adjective may not be obvious, but the two words share the same form. Also today, another student said that the adjective related to happiness is happen (and immediately realised their mistake). Happen is not an adjective, but, surprisingly, is related to happy and happiness. The connection is the very old (1150-1200) noun hap, meaning one’s lot or luck – something that occurs for some reason. Happen dates from 1300-1350 and means the actual occurrence of a hap. Happy emerged at the same time and means the feeling resulting from a fortunate occurrence – not the feeling resulting from any occurrence. Finally, happiness dates from 1520-30. Generally speaking, the more basic form came first and the more affixed form came later (though there is also the opposite process of back-formation). Hap is now a very rare word, alongside mayhap, but perhaps (by lot or luck) and maybe are very common.

Die death

A few days ago I posted about the noun life, the verb live and the adjective live, which got me thinking about the noun death, the verb die and the adjective dead. In some ways, these three are easier (for example, there are no overlapping forms like the plural verb and 3sg verb lives (different pronunciations) and the base verb and adjective live (again, different pronunciations), and in other ways they are harder. 

The noun death has the uncountable and countable singular form death and the plural form deaths. The verb die has the forms die, dies, dying (note the change in spelling) and died. The adjective dead has the comparative and superlative forms deader and deadest (which are only ever used metaphorically). 

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Live life

The noun life, the verb live and the adjective live often cause confusion for English language learners, especially the plural noun and the 3sg verb lives, and the base verb and the adjective live (in each case, same spelling, different pronunciation). Life can only be a noun, but even then could be uncountable or countable singular. 

Especially when they are reading out loud, students might say something like “Computers and mobile phones are an essential part of our /lɪvz/“. This is partly because of the fact that the plural of life is lives, not lifes – I don’t think any student would mistake “our lifes”. I usually explain it by comparing his life and their lives with they live and he lives.

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incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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damp airs

Our editor wrote and posted an article including that some circumstance was ‘putting a damper on’ some company’s activities. While he was at lunch, a colleague asked me if that should be ‘putting a dampener’. After some thought and no research, I said that both were correct, and that I wouldn’t change anything our editor wrote unless is was clearly incorrect.

I asked my Facebook friends what they would say/write, and their answers were basically split down the middle. I did some research and found that damper is used far more than dampener, including in the phrase ‘put a damper on’. 

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