A small group of verbs have two past tense forms – an irregular one ending in -t and used more in British English and a regular one ending in -ed and used more in American English. The most common six are burn~burnt/burned, dream~dreamt/dreamed, lean~leant/leaned, learn~learnt/learned, smell~smelt/smelled and spill~spilt/spilled. Note that the pronunciation of the vowel changes with two of these: dream~/drɛmt/ / /dri:md/ and lean~/lɛnt/ / /li:nd/.

In general, my Australian English usage is closer to British than America, but I have consciously decided to write -ed and say /dri:md/ and /li:nd/, probably because students are more likely to understand them.

A few days ago, I was talking to an English-as-a-second-language speaker. He asked me something which required me to use the past simple of lean. Without thinking about it, I found myself saying /lɛnt/. If he is not familiar with that pronunciation, I hope the context made it clear. I said something like “I lent over to pick up a sock and when I stood up, I knocked my head on the door handle”.

Svmer iʃ icumen in

Some people decry any change to language as the first step on a slippery slope which will end with us communicating in incoherent grunts. But language has always changed, and always will. We can easily test this in English by looking at written sources across more than a thousand years. My example for this post doesn’t date that far back, merely approximately 750 years.

One of the choirs I sing in is presenting a concert based on the theme of summer. One item is the old song Sumer is icumen in, which dates from before 1264, which is when the manuscript it is preserved in was copied. It is recognisable as English, but obviously a lot has changed since then. The original words are: 

Svmer iʃ icumen in
Lhude ʃing cuccu
Groweþ ʃed and bloweþ med
and ʃpringþ þe wde nu

Sing cuccu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc ʃterteþ bucke uerteþ
murie ʃing cuccu

Cuccu cuccu
Wel ʃingeʃ þu cuccu
ne ʃwik þu nauer nu

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learn up

A colleague said something which gave me the opportunity to talk about the time one of the choirs I sing in sang part of a concert in Welsh.  I said, among other things, “We learned up several items in Welsh”. He took that at face value, but another colleague was horrified that I said “learned up”, even though she understood me perfectly.

We quite happily say brush up (on) and swot up (on), so why not learn up (on)? Google Ngrams records learn up, but it may be part of longer units such as Learn up to 16 languages with our easy and fun app, or Learn up to 10 times as fast as with any other language app. Google records companies, websites and apps named Learnup, LearnUp and Learn Up. But no-one seems to use learn up. I was hoping to be able to say to her “So there!”. You saw it here first.

There’s a lot more to be said about English phrasal verbs, but it won’t be tonight.

I seen

One of my Facebook friends mentioned the usage I seen in very unfavourable terms. Unfortunately, what might have been an interesting linguistic discussion got sidetracked, partly by my fault. 

Without a doubt, I saw is standard English and I seen is not standard English, but its usage is widespread in some varieties of English, so it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Most commenters online are immediately very unfavourable, some in most unhelpful terms. Of the few that provide an extended discussion, Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford University Press Blog starts by calling it “substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English”, and Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the Grammarphobia blog note that it is heard “in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland” (to which I would add Australia), and quote the Dictionary of American Regional English, which calls it “widespread” in the US, “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”

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intends genuinely

(I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. It is a discussion of a linguistic issue arising from one piece of Australian legislation.)

Clause 500 of the Australian Migration Regulations covers student visas. One of the requirements is that “the applicant intends genuinely to stay in Australia temporarily” (that is, it is not a permanent visa). The wording intends genuinely struck me as awkward. Throughout the Regulations, intends genuinely is used four times, alongside genuinely intends 12 times and genuinely intend twice.

The linguistic questions which arise are: is intends genuinely ungrammatical, if so, why; and if is it grammatical, why does it sound so awkward?

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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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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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