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15 November 2015
'Two bee' or not 'two bees'?

Consider these two sentences -

'Frightened by the dog, the sheep ran across the field.'
How many sheep are we talking about here – one, or an entire flock?

'While Fred is away, I am feeding his goldfish.'
How many goldfish? One, or a pond full of the things?

Some words in English have no plural form. (Okay, I know that the plural of sheep is allegedly 'shaepu' but try getting away with that in everyday conversation.) These plural-free words are fairly random. We have two sheep, but two cows and not 'two cow', we have three deer, but four rabbits. Fish are remarkably singular, as we see with salmon, trout, hake and other finny creatures. However, remove the fins and we get 'oysters', 'crabs' and other seafood – apart from 'shrimp' which appear to be honorary fish in this regard.

There are several possible explanations for these exceptional words. Some are imports from languages which handle plurals differently. This is why we have one or seven samurai (though no-one can explain why ninjas have been pluralized anyway). Many plurals are food animals, and the argument is that these are somehow uncountable, like 'bread' and 'butter'. Fair enough, but why are 'sheep' singular and 'goats' plural? Or 'buffaloes' plural but 'bison' singular? Anyway, other cases have nothing to do with dinner. We have two aeroplanes, but three aircraft. I weigh 14 stone, but 195 pounds.

The most plausible reason is that most of these words were originally strong Anglo-Saxon neuters, and they failed to develop a plural as the language evolved simply because the need was never great enough. Language generally follows the path of least resistance. Actually when you think about it, plurals are not generally needed. Why do we need words to signal the difference between one and more, but not the difference between two and two thousand? When we do need to indicate number, we can do so specifically (e.g. 'two thousand and five') or generally ('lots', many', 'several'). As sheep and salmon show, we can just as easily do that for indicating one or more.

But we don't.
15 September 2015
Second person plural
Way back when, English actually had a second person singular pronoun as well as a plural. These pronouns were 'Thou' and 'You' respectively. This was very useful, as a speaker could address an individual within a group without appearing to speak to the entire group. In fact this is why other saner languages still have a second person singular. Yet far from repenting of this linguistic folly, English speakers have extended the madness by using 'you' for the impersonal pronoun 'one'.

In the past, the acceptable way to say that people tended to do something was to use 'one'. For example, 'The street signs downtown are so confusing that one can easily get lost.' These days that sentence is often given as, 'The street signs downtown are so confusing that you can easily get lost.' This in turn might provoke the indignant response, 'No, that's rubbish. I never get lost there.'

However the relentless march of 'you' to total pronoun dominance has started to meet resistance. Increasingly, English speakers are starting to develop their own plurals. Watch a TV programme set in the southern United States and you will discover that 'you' is basically a second person singular. The plural is 'y'all'; a contraction of 'you all', as in 'Y'all be coming to Hank's party - except for you, Jeb.' This neat linguistic trick has a further advantage in that it can be adapted to 'y'both' to pick a couple out of a group.

In northern England, and a few other parts of the word, the approach has been equally logical. Much as it might frustrate linguistic purists, 'youse' has become a standard pronoun for many native speakers. 'Are youse going to Newcastle for the football?'

In the western Appalachian mountains there is the specific plural form 'yinz', so when a state trooper there informs the occupants of a car, 'I want yinz out and standing up by the kerb', it is clear he does not want only the driver to exit the vehicle.

The Irish, with their accustomed perversity, have kept to the classical plural pronoun 'ye' – as in 'How're ye keepin' this morning?' but use it as a singular. Making 'ye' into a plural is more awkward, as 'yes' is already taken. However, I've noted that 'yez' is gaining traction – as in 'Get out of here, yez daft idiots.'

In short, native speakers have reacted to a linguistic vacuum by coming up with their own variations to fill the gap. However, I feel special credit should be given to those Yorkshire folk who have faithfully stuck with 'thee' and 'thou', whatever the linguistic fancies and fashions of the rest of the world.
15 July 2015
Let's all learn by accident!
Recently someone showed me an exchange on Twitter which went as follows:

[Girl] I made the decorations for the party, but I also cutted myself.
[Friend] Don't you mean 'cut'?
[Girl] No, its past tents.

This linguistic incompetence is not actually funny at all. Well, it is, rather, but amusement should be followed by indignation that the people supposed to be teaching English to this poor girl have failed her so completely. Not only are educators bringing up a generation of grammatical illiterates, but in some cases they make a point of doing so.

The Telegraph newspaper in Britain recently reported:

Heather Martin, head of languages at St Faith’s, a leading prep school in Cambridge, said, 'My suggestion is that we … scrap standalone English from the curriculum altogether.' This is because pupils can 'learn it by accident'. … She insisted that 'anxiety breeds anxiety' and the 'English problem will not be solved simply by doing more English'.

This is about as intelligent as suggesting that people can learn arithmetic by doing their taxes, and how to drive by taking a car on to the motorway (where they really will learn by accident.). Also, much as I hate to contradict the learned head of languages, 'the English problem' can indeed be solved by doing more English. The process is called practice, and it works.

It is the part about 'anxiety breeds anxiety' that really annoyed me. With all due respect, ma'am, classrooms are for learning, and mistakes are a part of the learning process. If your students get anxious about making mistakes, this is because you are a lousy teacher. Furthermore, if you want real anxiety, how about your students worrying that when they write a comment in social media it will expose them to shame and public ridicule? How about the anxiety they will feel when they have written a job application, or applied for a university place? They might suspect that their application contains fatal grammatical and spelling errors, but you haven't equipped them with the grammatical toolbox to correct, or even recognize those errors. That's when your students will feel real anxiety.

Let us hope that the newspaper has taken a thoughtful discussion about language learning by an academic and quoted it out of context. Otherwise, quotes like this are truly worrying. 'For our children, English just ‘is’; it’s not something to be analysed and interrogated.' That simply should not be true about English, or about how it is taught.
15 May 2015
Too blue and taboo
'Taboo' is a word first used in English by Captain Cook, who apparently picked it up from Polynesian islanders while he was exploring the Pacific. The word meant something set apart, something between cursed and sacred, and not to be touched. In modern English 'taboo' refers to an activity which is anti-social. It might be illegal, but even if it is not, it is not something people would want the neighbours to know they are doing. The same is true of taboo words.

The thing about taboo words is that the definitions are generally inoffensive. Very often they describe body parts possessed by fifty percent of humanity or biological activities which are not only commonplace, but essential for human survival. Furthermore, these body parts and activities are often described with different words in mainstream media, and even in sacred religious books without giving offence. As the expression goes 'It's not what you say, it's how you say it'.

The whole point of taboo words is to shock and offend. There is an idiotic trend today of young males popping up in live TV broadcasts and shouting an explicit sexual comment in the crudest possible terms. The problem is not the activity described by the comment, since without it none of us would be here, but the fact that the language used is deliberately offensive, and therefore anti-social. Taboo, in fact.

For non-native speakers of English this can be a problem, because taboo language varies between social groups. In 'polite' company we often use euphemisms, such as 'making love', or 'using the bathroom'. Since everyone knows what is meant, there is no logical reason why the more basic – and accurate - Anglo-Saxon should be more offensive.

Indeed, in some social groups the basic Anglo-Saxon is used casually and without causing offence. It has been shown that adults and teenagers both use these words with equal frequency - but the words become taboo when adults and teenagers are together.

It is all rather circular – the language is offensive if the person who uses it wants to offend, and we are offended less by the meaning than by the speaker's wish to be offensive. The entire linguistic conundrum is rather well summed up by the exclamation overheard by a language commentator in the streets of New York. 'Oh, s___! I've just trodden in some doggie do-do.'
15 March 2015
We are all Greengrocer's
These days most news websites on the internet have a 'social media' section where readers can comment on the headlines of the day. Naturally we cannot expect Joe and Jane Public to have the high standards of professional writers, so some poor grammar and spelling is to be expected. Nevertheless one thing that stands out in the 'comments' section is the extent to which the poor apostrophe is misused and abused.

Of course, you and I know that 'apostrophe' comes from the ancient Greek word meaning 'to turn away' and therefore the apostrophe is used when certain letters are denied entry into a word. (You did not know that? Tut, tut.) This is why we have an apostrophe in 'you're' because we have rejected the space and the letter 'a' from 'you are', and why poetry is full of strangely placed apostrophes (such as 'o'er' for 'over') from the days when poets had to make their lines scan. These days we always say – for example - 'six o'clock' for the time instead of 'six of the clock', which is the phrase with all the bits put back in.

Back in the olden days, English often used to mark a possessive with 'es'. So you had the 'kinges crown' for example. However, once the habit developed of omitting the 'e' and putting an apostrophe instead, this expanded to become the standard use for all possessives. In fact if a word already ends in 'es' today the possessive 'es' is replaced entirely by the apostrophe. This is why we have 'the Jones' cat'.

Sadly, in English we also mark plurals with the letter 's'. This has proven to be something of a challenge for those people who have forgotten – or were never taught – the difference between a plural and a possessive. So social media abound with comments such as 'Your welcome' instead of 'You're welcome' and ' their mother's and father's should worry' - to use examples extracted from one news website just this morning. Or should that be a 'new's website'?

Random apostrophes inserted into plurals are called 'Greengrocer's Apostrophes' – an affectionate reference to signs you can still see on every English high street which say things like 'Banana's £1.50 per Kg.' However, now that social media allow anyone with an internet connection to express an opinion, we can see that greengrocers have been unfairly picked on. When it comes to the apostrophe, we are all greengrocers.

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