Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 January 2018
The unhappy few(er)

Live long enough, and you'll notice that grammar and vocabulary change around you. Generally this noticing will be done with a snort and an observation that 'Kids don't speak properly these days.' It was always thus. King James allegedly claimed that St Paul's cathedral was 'awful and artificial' and meant by this that the construction was as filled with art as he was full of awe. Usage changes.

Because of this, there are occasions when one simply has to grit one's teeth and accept that the world has changed. One such example is 'less'. This word is – for absolutely no explicable reason – replacing 'fewer' in everyday speech.

The rule was once simple. We use 'fewer' for countable nouns (there are fewer policemen on the streets) and 'less' for abstract terms (people now feel less safe). 'Less' is going from strength to strength. No-one says 'I feel fewer safe than I did yesterday.' However, the reverse is not true. These days we seem to have less policemen on the streets, less free hours in the day, and less British wins in international sport.

Once you regularly come across this usage in the daily news, you know that the battle is lost. 'Less' will vanquish 'fewer' – it's just a matter of time. Yet why? It's not as if people have trouble with 'much' and 'more' even though the grammar is actually, er ... more complex. (e.g. 'I have more time than I thought' becomes 'much' in the negative.' I don't have as much time as I thought'.)

The people who regularly say 'There are less people on this bus today', never say 'There were much people on the bus yesterday'. They use 'more' and use it correctly. Grammatical ability is not the issue. It is just that the usage is shifting.

Another example which I have discussed before is what must perforce be called the 'declarative me'. (As in 'Who's there?' 'It is me'.) Two generations ago, this would have been properly rendered as 'It is I.' Why we changed the declaration from 'I' to 'me' is inexplicable, especially as we only changed it after the verb. Before the verb, 'I' remains in place. ('Who is there?' can be answered with 'I am' but not 'Me am'.)

This is the sort of thing that make English language learners throw textbooks across the room in frustration, and grammarians yearn for a language police such as the Académie française. However, English speakers will go on merrily mutating the language, and English will survive. But in the coming years expect uses of 'fewer' to become less.
15 November 2017
Why ain't 'ain't' acceptable grammar?

'Teacher, I ain't got a pencil.'
'No, Johnny, you haven't got a pencil. He hasn't got a pencil. We don't have pencils. Do you understand?'
'No, absolutely not. What happened to all them darn pencils?'

If the point of language is to express ideas clearly, here Johnny has done a better job than the teacher. The problem, from the teacher's point of view is the use of the word 'ain't'. Yet, despite the word's poor reputation, this is a contraction I'm coming to like.

For a start, despite protestations to the contrary, 'ain't' is in fact both grammatical and found in most dictionaries. It also does a valuable job of providing a negative first person auxiliary contraction. One can either say 'I am not' – without contraction - or 'I ain't' and be sneered at for using language also used by Trollope, Thackeray and Byron.

The advantage of 'ain't' is that it simplifies a lot of grammar without hindering clarity. Consider
'I ain't here'   'I am not here'
'You ain't here'   'You aren't here'
'He ain't here'   'He isn't here'
'We ain't here'   'We aren't here'

The problem with 'ain't' is pure snobbery. Sometime around the start of the nineteenth century, the upper classes decided that 'ain't' didn't fit with their version of 'proper (Latin-based) grammar'. It was also around this time that it was decreed that sentences should not end with prepositions and other unnecessary foolishness. 'Ain't' was condemned as 'vulgar' and a word fit only for the working classes, despite there being numerous contemporary examples of its usage by the British aristocracy (who rather tend not to care about social rules imposed by the middle class).

These days writers are permitted to merrily split infinitives (as I have just done) and sentences finishing with prepositions are no longer unheard of. Therefore in the spirit of making English more comprehensible, flexible and easier to use,we should welcome 'ain't' back into the regular lexicon.

It, er ... ain't as if the word is not thriving in exile. Despite attempts by Johnny's teacher and other educators across the English world, 'ain't' remains in use pretty much across the USA, New Zealand and Australia and it is fast regaining its foothold in Britain.

And there ain't a thing wrong with that.
15 September 2017
Trouble saying 'Yes'.

Have you noticed how many people struggle with this simple three-letter word? I was watching a TV interview where the studio anchor was interviewing a reporter in the field. Every direct question was answered with 'absolutely' or 'that's right'. It is almost as if there is a standing policy to make sure a reporter never utters the Y-word.

This may in fact be the case. Radio operators, for example, are taught not to reply with 'yes' but to use the polysyllabic 'affirmative' instead. This is because radio reception is often far from ideal, and a simple 'yes' can get lost in a wave of static. It is possible that the same sort of sound interference might affect a reporter covering a hurricane or a riot.

Yet even in everyday life, a simple 'yes' is rare. Ask someone if they would like a coffee and the reply will be something like, 'Yes, I would thanks.' or 'A coffee would be great.' A simple 'yes' seems to be considered abrupt and therefore rude. It is the sort of monosyllabic answer given when a couple are fighting.

'Are you okay, dear?'
Are you sure?

As a result we tend to extend our polite yesses by saying things like 'Yes, indeed' or 'Yes, I am', or by imitating TV reporters and replacing 'yes' with something else altogether. The modern favourite appears to be 'totally'.

This leads to some odd-sounding agreements - such as when someone recently phoned to ask if a colleague was in the room with us. The reply of 'totally' led to some speculation as to where his incomplete parts would have been if the colleague had not been totally present.
15 July 2017
What's in a name? Or before it?

One of the things that frustrates language learners is that there is a whole portion of the language that cannot be understood just by learning grammar and vocabulary. A foreigner can master both of these aspects of English and still not understand a conversation because of the sub-text which native speakers take for granted.

Consider for example the use of articles and identifiers before use of a name. Let us use the imaginary example of a committee looking at a list of candidates for a job. If someone mentions just the name without any preliminary ('Now we have Bill Smith') the assumption is that everyone knows who this person is, or alternatively, everyone will soon know who this man is.

But now change this opening remark to 'Now we have a Bill Smith'. The indefinite article before the name tells listeners that all the speaker knows of this person is the name. He is one of many possible Bill Smiths and the other committee members may or may not know him. You will often hear this usage when a receptionist phones through to announce a visitor. 'There is an Emmanuela Wetherspoon here to see you.' The use of the indefinite article here is not because the nation has Emmanuela Wetherspoons by the indistinguishable dozen, but because the receptionist wants to say that she knows neither the person, nor her connection with the individual whom she wants to see.

On the other hand, if either Bill Smith or Emmanuela Wetherspoon are household names in sport media or any other field of human endeavour, that person will be announced with repetition and a definite article. 'Now we have Bill Smith. The Bill Smith'.

While it is vaguely insulting to have oneself presented in the indefinite article, and very flattering to be awarded a definite article, both are usually preferable to the appellation 'that'. 'That Bill Smith' is the Bill Smith who was the subject of local scandal, either as the perpetrator or the victim. This is why teenagers shudder with horror at the thought of being known as 'That guy' or 'That girl'.

Yet the use of 'a', 'the' or 'that' before a name is only the start of our multi-layered approach to nomenclature. Again, it says a great deal about who is speaking and why if our Bill Smith is referred to as 'Bill', 'Mr Smith' or just as plain 'Smith' without any preliminaries. Perhaps the most scary of all for the individual concerned is when he is called 'Mr William Smith'. Among English speakers, the formal use of your full name seldom means anything good, especially when it is pronounced by mothers, wives or government minions.
15 May 2017

Recently I've been hanging out with a bunch I've met on the internet. The 'net being what it is, it's not totally clear where this lot are from, but they are definitely of a western persuasion. There's a couple of idioms they've used that are worth sharing with a wider public, as they manage to cover a range of meaning that is hard to express otherwise.

'That dog won't hunt'. This basically means any idea that won't work, an inadequate excuse, or a tool that is not up to the job. For example, 'Nah, you can't fry an egg with a hair-dryer. That dog won't hunt.'

Another one I rather like is someone who is 'all hat and no cattle'. The basic idea is that a rancher wears a western Stetson, so someone wanting to be taken for a rancher might wear this headgear. Someone who is all hat and no cattle is all about appearance with nothing to back it up. 'Don't be fooled by that fancy car – he's all hat and no cattle. And no money in the bank either.'

Finally if you are going to let things develop on their own and see how they work out, you can 'let that pony run'.

So putting it all together, I can imaging a mother talking with her friend in a coffee bar – probably somewhere with a name like 'The Dry Gulch Cappuccino' - and saying, ' The girl wants to go off with him and set up an internet business. Well, that dog won't hunt, because any fool can see the boy is all hat and no cattle. Well, you know what? I'm just going to let that pony run. Some things a girl has to find out for her own self.'

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