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.

Advertisements

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). 

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

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’. 

Continue reading

Further thoughts about passive voice

Many explanations of active and passive voice state that in active voice, the subject does the action, and in passive, it receives it. This explanation is inadequate, because there are many transitive verbs (that is, verbs requiring a direct object) in which there is no action, or if there is, the receiver of the action is not the direct object. There are several groups of these.

Continue reading

put on, take off and phrasal verbs in general

An article about safety work boots described their major features in complete sentences and some minor ones in a bullet point list. My editor doesn’t like bullet point lists, so I either rewrite them as complete sentences if they are interesting or delete them if they’re not. One feature in the bullet point list was that the boots, in addition to laces, had a side zip for ‘easy on and off’. 

Standard English uses ‘put on’ and ‘take off’ or remove’. There is no standard synonym for ‘put on’. If there was, I could have written ‘for easy ____ and removal’. Instead, I had to write ‘for easy putting on and taking off’, which is not completely elegant.

‘put on’ and ‘take off’ are both phrasal verbs. Many phrasal verbs have a single-word synonym which is usually longer and usually more formal. One feature of phrasal verbs is that the opposite is not formed simply by changing its second element to its opposite. ‘Put off’ and ‘take on’ both mean something completely different.

Continue reading