Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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You and I

The grammar point in the textbook was ‘future forms’ (strictly speaking, English doesn’t have a ‘future tense’), the section was be going to V, and the prompt was David and I ________ a movie. Many students saw I and wrote David and I am going to see/watch a movie. But David and I functions are we, so the sentence must be David and I/we are going to see/watch a movie.

One student asked “Should that be David and me are going to see/watch a movie?”. I’m aware of variation within English, but I had to be standard and say “No, David is going to watch a movie and I am going to watch a movie, so David and I are going to watch a movie”. I are sounds wrong even in that context, but so does me are.

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“I’m travel go home”

For the past two weekends I have been filling in for my colleague who teaches the beginner class, and it is very frustrating. Almost all of the students come from two closely related countries which speak more-or-less the same language, and spend more time speaking that language than they do English. Today, one student said he was travelling to his country for a holiday tomorrow, and I said “Safe trip” as a throwaway comment. We immediately got bogged down on the difference between travel and trip. It would be nice if one was purely a verb and the other purely a noun, but both are both, and while travel has basically the same meaning as a verb or noun, trip is entirely different as a verb. When the student used his translator, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t getting the stumble meaning. (Also, travel as a noun is uncountable, while trip is countable.)

He then flicked back a few pages in his notebook and said “Can I say I’m travel go home?”. I had no idea where to start with that one. The short answer is no. The only thing I could salvage from it is that I understand what he means – almost.

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Passively accepting grammar check suggestions

I don’t use the grammar check on Pages for Mac at home, but I do on Word for Windows and Mac at two workplaces. Even if I ignore it nine times out of ten, it saves my backside the tenth time, with all the copying/cutting, pasting, adding and deleting of text I do. A few weeks ago it flagged three instances of passive voice. It correctly identified passive voice, but its suggestions for change were wrong. (It actually flagged more than that. I took photos of three then gave up.)

Firstly, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice such that it needs to be flagged every time, in the same way as, say, subject-verb number disagreement, which is always wrong. Even the most anti-passive style advisers, such as Strunkandwhite and George Orwell, use passive voice  perfectly when appropriate. Secondly, if you’re going to suggest changing it, then make absolutely sure that your suggestion is right.

But that is not easy for a computer to do, as these three (slightly adapted) examples show. 

1) Protection is provided by defining a safety area, whose shape and dimensions must be specified according to a risk assessment.

Suggestion: Defining a safety area, whose shape, provides protection [plain wrong]

2) Alerts and reports are provided by [this software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format.

Suggestion: [This software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format provides alerts and reports [mostly wrong]

3) Areas of the multi-purpose centre have already been made available for use by community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers.

Suggestion: Community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers have already made areas of the multi-purpose centre available for use [possibly right, but not]

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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

log in, tap on

A few days ago, the class was practising phrasal verbs. On one list was log in (or on) and out (or off). The first logs were lengths of wood from trees, and the first logging (not in or on or out or off) was cutting trees down and into lengths. Some time later, sailors measured the speed of a ship by throwing a log off the stern, to which was connected a rope with knots at specified intervals. By counting the number of knots in a specified time, the captain could calculate the speed, then record it (as well as the direction and other relevant information) in a log book. Even the Starship Enterprise has a captain’s log.

Log books came ashore to be used to record any repeated information, including the times of arriving at or leaving work, or starting or finishing a particular task. From there it was a short step to computers, where logging on ensures that only people authorised to use that computer, or any function of it, do so, and records who does what on it, when. All these logs and logging are from Middle English noun logge or lugge.

A student mentioned log tables in maths. These are not related, being tables of logarithms, from Greek logos, word, speech, logical principle and arithmós number (compare arithmetic). A search for log book shows work-related record books, while a search for log table or log table book shows mathematical resources. (The use of logarithms has largely been replaced by calculators and computers.)

[PS 13 Nov: I knew there was another angle. From the 1990s, online diaries etc became known as web logs, weblogs and blogs. There are also vlogs (video-based diaries), which has to one of the ugliest words ever coined.]

So do we log in and out, or on and off? Google Ngrams shows log on and off to be slightly more common than log in and out, but login as a noun has become one word. (Dictionary.com also records logon, but only to define it as login.) Continue reading

Describing adjectives

I feel pretty

Oh, so pretty

I feel pretty and witty and bright!

Maria feels pretty. And she tells us so many times. 

Pretty and witty and bright are adjectives, which qualify nouns or pronouns, often describing an attribute of a person, thing or place.

There is no consistent marking of adjectives in English. In other words, we can’t tell just by looking at it whether or not a word is an adjective. Many English adjectives end in -y, such as pretty and witty in the lines above. Others used later in the song are dizzy, sunny, fizzy and funny. Witty, sunny, fizzy and funny are derived from the nouns wit, sun, fizz and fun, but pretty and dizzy aren’t derived from pret or prett and diz or dizz. In those cases, the nouns are derived from the adjectives: prettiness and dizziness. We can also make wittiness, sunniness, fizziness and funniness, but these are awkward and far less used than wit, sun, fizz and fun.

But not all words ending in -y are adjectives: later in the song, Maria sings “And I pity any girl who isn’t me today”. Pity here is a verb, and can also be a noun (“It’s a pity that every girl isn’t me today”). The related adjectives are the sometimes confusing pitiful, pitiless, pitiable and piteous. (Pity can’t be an adjective because we can’t say I adjective (or I noun).

And, clearly, not all adjectives end in -y. Others in the song are: charming (n and v charm), alarming (n and v alarm), stunning (n and v stun); attractive (n attraction, v attract); wonderful (n and v wonder); advanced (n and v advance), refined (n refinement, v refine). –ive and –ful are common adjective endings. -ing and -ed are also verb endings: charming, alarming, stunning and entrancing are gerund-participles, and advanced and refined are past participles. Well-bred is also a past participle verb (an irregular one), but the relationship to the verb breed is less obvious: She is well-bred. She was well-bred by her parents. Her parents well-bred her. Her parents bred her well. All Puerto Rican parents breed all their children well. Continue reading