Sunday, December 4, 2011

Think before you speak

We all get told this throughout our lives. Usually this adage refers to the idea that if you don't think before you speak, you are more likely to say something stupid. I would add that it helps to think before you speak if you intend to write better and/or improve your English grammar skills. I find it helps to always be conscious not only of what I say, but how I say it. Part of the reason that I personally have been careful about my speech is due to having many friends that are non-native English speakers, so I feel somehow that I should provide an example of how to speak well. At the same time, being conscious of my speech has helped me to improve my writing because I, like most others, tend to write how I speak.

What got me thinking on this topic is a friend saying yesterday, "We were eating at 5am in the morning." This is one of my biggest pet peeves, although I would never lose sleep over it, but it's a common thing to say, either Xam in the morning or Ypm in the afternoon/evening. I usually ask a person who says this, "As opposed to 5am in the evening?" That generally elicits a laugh, which is really all I'm trying to produce. However, often we just mimic what we hear people saying rather than being more conscious of what we are saying. A lot of times, people say that they have poor writing skills or bad English, but really, they know the language well and how to write it, only that they're just less conscious about it. So don't be discouraged if this sounds like you!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Plurals of Latin words we use

I've been thinking a lot lately about the plural forms of Latin words that we commonly use in English. Part of this probably comes from my regular job where I need to use the word "alumni" a lot. In case you weren't aware, alumni is the plural of alumnus, which is a male who is a graduate of a school, usually a college or university. By contrast, an alumna is the female graduate. The plural for that category is alumnae, but if you have a mixed gender group, then they are all alumni. A lot of people don't know that, and a lot of people just don't care. And they probably don't need a reason to, for the most part! But it gets me thinking about these other words that we use, like criteria, bacteria, and data, the singular of which are criterion, bacterium, and datum.

Most of the time, I think people use and know the difference between criteria and criterion, but bacteria and data are more problematic. The problem is that people don't know how to conjugate verbs with them in relation to number agreement. I always hear or read people making statements like "the data is" or "what does the data say?" What people should stay is "the data are" and "what do the data say?" The thing is that I think, it has become so common because there's pretty much never a time when we use the singular s that people have started to use data as though it were the singular. I can't think of a time when someone said, "Hey, I need that datum to add it to the rest" or some such thing. I suppose it makes sense grammatically and even logically, but it sounds funny.

Likewise, I realised that even I use incorrect number agreement with bacteria. I might ask, "What type of bacteria is it?" But when I think of an analogous phrase, like "What kind of puppies is it?" when referring to the breed, that wouldn't make any sense, so I guess I should technically ask what kind of bacteria they are. Or maybe I should just reword the sentence completely or be more precise about breeds of puppies rather than types!

There are definitely some that we don't tend to use much anymore, like foci as the plural for focus and loci for locus. People also tend to say curriculums a lot now, too, instead of curricula, although it's funny that my auto spell-check on my browser doesn't recognise either foci or curriculums as valid words. In any case, these are just my thoughts of late, for better or for worse...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Of logins and workouts

As a grammar geek, I have several pet peeves about English language usage. I can't really justify most of my pet peeves as they're really just personal preferences based on standard, more formal English than just regular everyday speech. Having said that, sometimes, the usage is simply incorrect whether formal or informal speech, and the words I'm thinking of at the moment fall under this category. It kind of falls along the same lines as the heteronyms in my last post, but in this case, the pronunciation sounds the same, and it's the separation of compound words that distinguishes between them being a verb or a noun or adjective.

To use the words in my title, I would log in (verb) to my account, but I would need a login (noun) in order to do this. I would go work out (verb) at the gym and hope to have a great workout. If I were an undercover cop, I might have to stake out (verb) a place and want to make sure I was awake for my stakeout (noun). In these instances, the concept of each of these words, regardless of whether they're nouns or verbs, is the same--in the case of login versus log in, they both have to do with the act of gaining access to something, usually an account of some sort that can be accessed electronically. The compound word as a whole can also function as an adjective rather than a noun, as in, "I need a login ID for that." It's not just any ID, but specifically a login ID that's required, so in this case, an adjective was required to specify the type of ID. Other words I can think of off the top of my head are setup/set up, pickup/pick up, backup/back up.

There are some cases in which the noun and verb might not be referring to the same concept. A confusing one might be makeup versus make up. I might go and make up my room, and that would mean I would tidy it and make the bed. If I look at the room makeup, I would be looking at how the room is designed or laid out. This is not to be confused with the makeup I put on my face, and yet I can go make up my face, and that would be the verb to signify I will apply cosmetics to my face. How do you like them apples (to use a colloquial phrase)?

If you ever get confused about it, the verbs do function as phrasal verbs. That's why I log in to my account, rather than log into it, because "to log in" is the verb, and in this instance, "in" doesn't function as a preposition, so it can't be combined with "to" in order to create the preposition "into". My rule of thumb, if you're not sure if the word functions as a noun or a verb when you want to use it, try to use the past tense. For example, you couldn't say: I loginnned to my account, or I workouted at the gym. You also couldn't say you loggedin to your account or that you workedout at the gym. These are clearly not correct, so that means the word should be separated into its component parts so that you are using the verb and be able to log in to your account and work out at the gym.

I see these words written out incorrectly all the time, and it drives me batty! This is why I have to rant about it here, I think. It's such a therapeutic outlet ;o)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Is it research or research?

You might be asking yourself a question about my title, and I can guarantee I am not being redundant!

I remembered learning in my very first linguistic anthropology class about a category of words that were spelled the same but were pronounced differently, and that difference changed the meaning of the word. I could not for the life of me remember what the name of the category was, and even with the prowess of a Google search, I wasn't sure I would know what key words to use in my search. It wasn't easy, but after searching for about 15 minutes, I managed to find out that this category name I was looking for is "heteronym."

In my linguistic anthropology class, we mostly focused on words where the grammatical category changed depending on pronunciation, such as CONtest (noun, a competition between 2 or more parties) and conTEST (verb, to dispute something). I used the word "research" in my title because that's the only one I really struggle with in spoken communication. Common usage in North America has us using the same pronunciation regardless of whether we are using the verb or the noun, REsearch, when the noun should actually be reSEARCH, and the other pronunciation only used for the verb. It's not always easy to remember to pronounce it in one or the other way, depending on which one I need!

In any case, in my search for heteronyms, I learned that there are many more heteronyms than I thought there were, as in, they don't just refer to words that become verbs or nouns depending on the pronunciation. So I thought I would share an interesting web site that has a fairly good list of them and also explains what heteronym means relative to homonym, homophone, and homograph. Have fun!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Is "shrank" a word?

While driving today, I passed by a sign advertising a sale at a furniture store stating "Honey they shrunk the prices." This phrase is a play on the movie title "Honey, I've Shrunk the Kids," and if I remember correctly, I've seen this used in advertising from time to time. At the point of remembering the movie title, it made me wonder if the statement the furniture store was using was grammatically correct. At the time, I couldn't remember what the past participle versus the past tense of "shrink" is. I was certain that "shrunk" is the past participle, but the past tense conjugation is what I couldn't remember. Shrink is actually not a word I use a lot, and then I couldn't stop thinking about whether or not the past tense was "shrank" or "shrunk." It would be nice to think that it follows the rules of a verb like "drink," but I know English well enough that I can't make such an assumption--or at least my characteristic of over-analysing everything causes me to think that maybe "shrink" is one of those verbs that's an exception to the rule when it comes to conjugation.

As I ended up being out most of the day and not in a position to check online on my smart phone for the answer, I waited until I got home to look it up. Even with other languages I speak, I often use an online verb conjugator, and I happened to find this really good one: I discovered that indeed, the past tense of "shrink" is "shrank," meaning that the advertisement I saw today is grammatically incorrect. Score 1 for the Grammar Geek. I wonder if the company would care if I were to point this out to them! Tee hee :o)

Friday, June 17, 2011


I haven't had the chance to try doing a video about superlatives yet, and although I doubt many of you have been sitting on pins and needles to hear it, I thought I would change up the format a little bit in the sense that instead of a regular lesson-style entry, I would share my thoughts on the topic instead. To introduce the topic, I require a bit of background.

You have probably noticed some of my posts being more about context-specific English usage, and this stems a lot from my background in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics. These types of posts as well as a recent discussion on a friend's Facebook page about the types of deep-seated personal feelings exist in relation to a topic (grammar) that most people claim they don't like made me realise that I do think about language and grammar and syntax a lot. For example, we used to have a German restaurant in town called Gasthaus zur Mühle, and while passing by it one day, I tried to figure out what Mühle was. Noticing there was a windmill on the restaurant, I guessed that's what Mühle meant, but to support my theory, I reasoned this was the most likely meaning because in French, the world for windmill is "moulin" and for something that is milled, it's "molido" in Spanish. Being that both of those languages are Indo-European, it stood to reason that windmill was the most likely definition. These were the days before smart phones, so when I got to work, I checked an online German-English dictionary, and sure enough, I was right. But really, who has these conversations in their head?

Or today, I saw a sign for tofu chicken burgers, and I wondered how that might be different from chicken tofu burgers. Does the order of words change the connotation of what the item is? Is tofu chicken just another way of saying fake chicken? If it was chicken tofu, would it be more like chicken-flavoured tofu, or are they just all saying the same thing?

My bigger question is, do other people think about these things?

As for superlatives, I've been getting really annoyed when people say things like, "It's more funny like that," or "He's more small than she is." This happens a lot, I've observed, rather than saying "It's funnier like that" or "He's smaller than she is." I even catch myself making this mistake from time to time, and that really bothers me! But it also leads me to the question of whether it's right to be so outraged about this change. I think I've mentioned before that language is dynamic; that's one of the main lessons we learn from language studies. Dynamic because it's constantly changing and evolving. That means that perhaps this is a new trend in the English language, and maybe there is nothing I can do to stop it--and nothing I should be doing! There are definitely logical reasons for using "more" instead of the -er ending to signify a superlative relationship between items because it would simplify the whole process. All adjectives would be the same, and one wouldn't have to worry anymore about which ones you need to add -er to and which ones you don't!

Feel free to share you thoughts about this, whether it's your reaction to superlatives or just your thoughts about how much you think (or don't think!) about language.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bad or Badly?

It's a common expression for us to say, "I feel badly" about something. Recently, a friend mentioned someone had told her that it's actually incorrect and that you're supposed to use "bad" instead of "badly." She wasn't sure who was right because she, like many of us, have been instructed in the past to say "badly."

As it turns out, the quick and dirty answer is that it is indeed incorrect to say "I feel badly" and that you should say "I feel bad." Question answered. Still, there are some of you that probably want to know why this is.

"Badly" is an adverb, meaning it describes verbs (action words). You could say, "John performed badly on his test" or "Jane sings badly." In both cases, the action the person is doing is being described.

"Bad" is an adjective, meaning it describes nouns (objects, places, things). You could say "The economy is bad" or "That accident was bad." In both cases, the thing itself is what is bad. What makes the use of this word tricky is that it is also used with states of being. To say "I feel (adjective)" means you are describing your state of being, which is why we have to say "I feel bad." Think about any other adjective you could use in place of bad, such as happy instead of the adverb happily, strange instead of the adverb strangely, and any other adjective you can think of with an adverbial counterpart.

This is definitely something that I think many people never get adequate instruction about, so if you were one of those people, you don't have to feel bad about it!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Language is Dynamic

One of the things we learn in anthropology is that culture is dynamic. In other words, it changes, it evolves, and stopping this process actually stifles a culture and can cause it to die. Linguistic anthropology teaches us that language, like culture, is also dynamic and that language and culture are not mutually exclusive from each other. Sometimes I do struggle with this, disliking the way that English is changing, being frustrating with particular grammatical phenomena becoming acceptable when they were not so during my childhood. At the same time, when I remember how so much of our rules were chosen for arbitrary or political reasons, I can't really get too upset because that process continues to happen. A friend sent me a great read on the topic. It's a long article, but well worth reading. When I look back at my first posts, I realise I never stated at any time that my personal style of judging grammar is much like that of the author in this article: I believe there are certain rules that should be followed when using Standard English, which is generally used for formal occasions like report writing, official documentation, and so forth, but that daily speech is governed by local sociocultural norms. People have often told me they're afraid to write to me because they feel like I'll judge their grammar. The truth is that I do notice typos and grammatical errors because I can't turn off my ability to do so, but I don't make any judgments about the people committing these errors. Considering I've worked with and for PhD holders who have fairly atrocious writing skills yet are competent, intelligent people--with doctorates, no less!--it wouldn't really be fair to judge people on their knowledge of Standard English. Furthermore, instances where friends and family are writing to me are informal anyway, so why should there be the same rules? So although you might classify me as a snoot (as described in the article), my snootiness is limited only to instances where Standard English would be expected or required. For the rest of you, don't worry!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Video Lessons

I doubt many of you have been holding your breath in anticipation of my post on superlatives, but I decided to try to do it in video form instead. The only problem is that I haven't had the chance to do the video, so hopefully I'll get a chance to do so soon!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing Lessons from Benjamin Franklin

I read this excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I wanted to post a link to it here in my blog. I think most of us don't really reflect on our own styles of writing or communication, but I'm one of the oddballs who does. I think about who influenced how I write, why I write the way I do, and I try to be conscious in how I state my opinions. I identified very strongly with Franklin's statement about how he stopped using words such as "undoubtedly" or "certainly" when whatever he was saying could indeed be disputed, regardless of how small the possibility. I adopted this practice starting in high school when my history teacher pointed out how it was imposing on the reader your own values by using such words, which also include "interestingly" and the like. Unless you are consciously attempting to sway a reader or listener to your own beliefs, it's presumptuous to think that the reader will not doubt or will find something as interesting as you do. In later years, I began to reflect even more on how I say things. I won't lie; I love to share my opinions, some of them less educated than others. The reason for increasing my reflection was on account of one of my linguistic anthropology classes where we learned that in some First Nations cultures, there is actually a suffix used in the language to signify the equivalent of "in my humble opinion." Elders specifically, though respected and considered to be wisdom, will not presume to be experts in anything and will state their opinions or lessons under the belief that it is true to their understanding and experience, but they are not absolute authorities. I suppose I should quit rambling and post the article. Here it is!

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on superlatives (try to contain your excitement!).