A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

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“He’d run them all”

I’ve read a few books by Sir Terry Pratchett, but I’m not a big fan. I know of one Discworld novel titled The last continent, in which the ?hero Rincewind  is magically transported to the continent of XXXX” (pronounced Four-ex), loosely based on Australia.

Today I was reading through the synopsis and quotations, for no particular reason. My eye was caught by this one:

Rincewind had always been happy to think of himself as a racist. The One Hundred Meters, the Mile, the Marathon — he’d run them all.

Haha. Race has two meanings, athletic and anthropological, which are unrelated. In real life, racist can only mean “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to others”. It does not mean “someone who takes part in an athletics competition” (though Wikipedia notes that Rincewind “spends most of his time running away from bands of people who want to kill him for various reasons. The fact that he’s still alive and running is explained in that, although he was born with a wizard’s spirit, he has the body of a long-distance sprinter.”)

In particular, my eye was caught by “he’d run them all”. This is perfectly ambiguous between “he would run them all” and “he had run them all”. Grammatically, the first is an infinitive verb (compare “he would swim them all”), and the second is a past-participle verb (compare “he had swum them all”). This ambiguity is possible only with the two small groups of verbs in which the infinitive form and the past-participle form are the same: come, become and run; and burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut (with perhaps a few others).

I have previously posted about saying to a student “I wish you’d come on time”, in which the same ambiguity arises. 

I want …

Somewhere on the internet (though I can’t find it right now) is a digitally edited photo of Freddie Mercury, the former leader singer of the English rock band Queen, as a contestant on the tv quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire? The ‘question’ is ‘I want …’ and the ‘answers are ‘… it all’, ‘… to break free’, ‘… to ride my bicycle’ and ‘… to make a supersonic man out of you’ — lyrics from four Queen songs.

Every English (and possibly every language) verb comes with rules about what other elements must or can or mustn’t follow it, usually related to the meaning of the verb. The first meaning of want is that we want something: Freddie wants it. And once we want it, we can specify ‘how much of it?’ (all), and ‘when?’  (now). Another is that we want to do something: Freddie wants to break, to ride and to make. These last three verbs also come with their own rules about what other elements must or can or mustn’t follow them. We usually break something, but we can also break out, loose, away or free. We usually ride something or on or in something, but we can just ride (but usually something is implied: I walked and Freddie rode (his bicycle)). We usually make something, but we can also make sure or out.

A third pattern after want is that we want someone else to do something. I can’t recall that Queen provides an example, but Cheap Trick does. 

Grammarbites part 11 – passive voice

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 10 – determiners

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

9.1 – Passive voice

(1a) Juliet is a young woman.
(1b) Juliet is in love.
(1c) Juliet is happy.

(2) The Prince banishes Romeo. > (2’) Romeo is banished by the Prince.

(3a) This makes Juliet sad. > (3a’) (?) Juliet is made sad by this.
(3aa) This saddens Juliet. > (3aa’) Juliet is saddened by this.
(3b) This makes Juliet cry. > (3b’) (?) Juliet is made to cry by this.

(4) Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion. > (4’) Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence. >> (4’’) (?) A potion is given Juliet by Friar Lawrence.
(4a) Friar Lawrence gives a potion to Juliet. > (4a’) A potion is given to Juliet by Friar Lawrence. >> (4a’’) To Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence.

(5) Juliet dies.

[For more about these sentence types, see here.]

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I wish you’d read this

Monday’s lesson was about the patten “I wish you/people would …” and “I wish I could …”. Yesterday’s was about “I regret doing that. I wish I hadn’t done that” and “I regret not doing that. I wish I had done that”. I gave some textbook examples then elicited real-life examples from the students. Some time into the lesson, one student arrived late. I said “I wish you’d come on time”, then immediately thought “Oohh, I’ll have to talk to them about that”.

“I wish you’d come on time” is perfectly ambiguous between “I wish you would come on time” and “I wish you had come on time”. With most other main verbs, we can tell the difference, because would is followed by the base form of a verb, while had is followed by the past participle form. Taking a similar verb as an example, we can tell the difference between “I wish you’d arrive on time” (would) and “I wish you’d arrived on time” (had).

This ambiguity arises only when the base and past participle forms are the same, which is the case only with come, become and run; burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut; and read (but only in writing, which I didn’t think about until I came to write the title of this blog; how did you interpret that?).

If I was talking to a student who was usually on time but wasn’t on this occasion, “I wish you’d come on time” would be inferred to mean “I wish you had come on time (today)”. But this student is habitually late (I think she comes directly from work), so there is no immediate way of telling the difference. Of course, I could always clearly say “I wish you would …” or “I wish you had …”. 

You is all I want for Christmas

A few days before Christmas 2009 a colleague at the college arranged for all the students to join together and watch a video of the movie Love Actually.  Towards the end of the movie, the character Joanna (Olivia Olson) sings the song All I want for Christmas is you, which a) is not really about Christmas – it might as well be All I want for any occasion is you, b) I am likely to have in my head all day now, and c) you are likely to have in your head all day now.

After the movie, a student said to me “She was singing ‘Is you?’. Should that be ‘Are you?’?”. I said (I paraphrase) no, because she was singing about “All I want for Christmas”, not about “you”. “All I want for Christmas” is singular, even if “All I want for Christmas” is “five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and partridge in a pear tree”. The singularity or plurality of the gift(s) doesn’t affect the the form of the verb. On the other hand, if we invert the sentence and say “You _ all I want for Christmas”, then “you” determines the form of the verb.

Also late in the movie, the character Jamie (Colin Firth) travels to Portugal to make a declaration of love to Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) … in very bad Portuguese. A student from Brazil was sitting in front of me (maybe he was the one who asked the question afterwards), and he cracked up completely during that scene. 

Grammarbites part 6 – sentence types

Part 1 – introduction

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

1 – Five basic sentence types

(1a) Juliet is a young woman.
(1b) Juliet is in love.
(1c) Juliet is happy.

(2) The Prince banishes Romeo.

(3a) This makes Juliet sad.
(3b) This makes Juliet cry.

(4) Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion.

(5) Juliet dies.

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