“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.

Continue reading

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]

Continue reading

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


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.

Continue reading

“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 …


This digitally edited photo shows 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.]

Passive voice is often misunderstood — by students, teachers and people who write about it in books and online. Ignore anyone or anything which tells you not to use it, or to prefer active voice to passive.

Active and passive voice are ways of focusing our attention on one person (or thing) or another. In sentence (2) we are focused on the Prince and in sentence (2’) we are focused on Romeo.

But there are many restrictions of grammar and usage about how passive voice can and can’t be used. Sentences like (1a-c) and (5) can’t be changed into passive voice, while sentences like (3a’-b’) and (4’-4a’’) are possible but sometimes awkward and sentences like (2’) are very possible, often the better choice and sometimes the only choice.

Usually, to be able to be changed into passive voice, an active voice sentence needs a “do-er” (person or thing) (subject), an action (verb) and a “done to” (person or thing) (direct and/or indirect object). In sentences (1a-c), Juliet doesn’t “do” anything, she simply “is”. In sentence (5), she “does” something, but all by herself; she doesn’t do anything to another person or thing. Compare Juliet kills [someone or something].

In sentence (2), the “do-er” is the Prince, the action is banishment and the “done to” is Romeo. Passive voice doesn’t change these roles. In sentence (2’), the Prince is still the “do-er” even though he’s at the end of the sentence, and Romeo is still the “done to” even though he’s at the beginning.

In sentence 4, the “do-er” is Friar Lawrence and the “done tos” are the potion (directly) and Juliet (indirectly), which is why there are so many choices for that sentence.

In sentences (3a-b), the “do-er” is “This” (that is, Romeo’s banishment by the Prince), which is part of why sentences (3a’-b’) are awkward. But the whole sentence structure doesn’t really suit passive voice: (?) Juliet is made sad by Romeo’s banishment, Juliet is saddened by Romeo’s banishment, (?) Juliet is made to cry by Romeo’s banishment.

It is almost always possible to tell a story entirely in active voice, as in the original sentences. It is impossible to tell a story entirely in passive voice; sentences (1a-c) and (5) simply can’t be changed to passive voice.

Unfortunately, passive voice combines three of the hardest grammar points in English – verb be (usually), the past participle form of main verbs (usually) and subject and object pronouns (sometimes).

The active voice verb tells us the main verb and a verb tense. The passive voice equivalent needs verb [be] in that verb tense and the V-pp form of the main verb.


> is


banishpresent simple

bepr simp


Banish is a regular verb and its V-pp ends in -ed. Give is irregular (give~gave~given).


> was


givepast simple



Present simple and continuous passive involve a choice between are, am and is, and past simple and continuous passive involve a choice between were and was, depending on the subject of each sentence.

I, she, he, we and they as the subject of an active voice sentence become me, her, him, us and them in the “by x” part of the passive voice equivalent, and me, her, him, us and them as the object of an active voice sentence become I, she. he, we and they as the subject of the passive voice equivalent. (You and it do not change.)

So we can say The Prince banished Romeo or Romeo was banished by the Prince, while the Prince can say I banished Romeo or Romeo was banished by me and Romeo can say The Prince banished me or I was banished by the Prince.

Present perfect (simple and continuous) passive and past perfect (simple and continuous) passive need have/has/had been V-pp.

Modal passive (including will for future) needs can/couldwill/would be V-pp (simple), can/couldwill/would be being V-pp (continuous), can/couldwill/would have been V-pp (perfect (simple)) and can/couldwill/would have been being V-pp (perfect continuous). There is also be going to for future, which works similarly to the present tense verbs.

So the complete table of active and passive voice verb tenses is:




perfect continuous

present – active

give / gives

are / am / is giving

have / has given

have / has been giving

– passive

are / am / is given

are / am / is being given

have / has been given

have / has been being given

past – active


were / was giving

had given

had been giving

– passive

were / was given

were / was being given

had been given

had been being given

modal (inc future) – active

will give

will be giving

will have given

will have been giving

– passive

will be given

will be being given

will have been given

will have been being given

be going to (for future) – active

are / am / is going to give

are / am / is going to be given

are / am / is going to have given

are / am / is going to have been giving

– passive

are / am / is going to be given

are / am / is going to

be being given

are / am / is going to have been given

are / am / is going to have been being given

We most naturally use passive voice when the “done-to” or the action is more important than the “do-er”. This often happens when the “do-er” is unknown, irrelevant or obvious, or when the most important information is in an adjunct of place or time.

Someone informed the Prince that Romeo had returned to Verona. (possible)

> The Prince was informed that Romeo had returned to Verona (usual/natural).

Who by? We don’t know, or if we do, we don’t care. What’s important is that the Prince was informed.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in the early 1590s and the Lord Chamberlain’s men first performed in the Globe Theatre, London. (possible)

> Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare in the early 1590s and first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the Globe Theatre, London. (possible)

>> Romeo and Juliet was written in the early 1590s and first performed in the Globe Theatre, London. (usual/natural).

The first sentence combines one fact about “Shakespeare” and one fact about “the Lord Chamberlain’s Men”. The second and third sentences combine two facts about “Romeo and Juliet”. In fact, we often use passive voice to keep the focus on the same person, place or thing across two or more sentences: Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It was written in the early 1590s and first performed in the Globe Theatre, London.

But don’t use passive voice just because you can. Using it too much will become very awkward very quickly.

So why do some people say or write that we mustn’t or shouldn’t use passive voice? The most common reason is that it is “vague on agency” — that it, about the “do-er”. But Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare is just as clear about the “do-er” (Shakespeare) as Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.

In many cases, though, the “by x” part can be omitted. After Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt, Benvolio tells the Prince what happened and the Prince summarises: Romeo killed Tybalt because Tybalt killed Mercutio (active). He might say Tybalt was killed by Romeo because Mercutio was killed by Tybalt (full passive), but doesn’t say Tybalt was killed because Mercutio was killed (short passive), because “by who?” is crucial here.

But there are other sentences where no-one would ever omit the “by x” part: Romeo and Juliet was written, though we can easily say Romeo and Juliet was written in the early 1590s.

But active voice can be equally vague on agency. We have Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion (active), Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence (full passive) and Juliet is given a potion (short passive). But we might just as easily say Juliet received a potion (active voice, but no mention of “by who?” (actually, “from who?”)).

In real life, people sometimes use passive voice deliberately, in order to be vague on agency. During a political crisis in the USA, someone said Mistakes were made. By who?

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 …”.