Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

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 pounds 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.

15 January 2015
That powerful, but invisible, strange attractor

I like advertisements. Apart from politicians, no-one else uses English as creatively as advertisers to give the impression of saying one thing but meaning another. As someone who used to write advertising copy for a living once said 'The art of writing [advertising] copy is to make the reader think the words mean much more than they do.' Separating what the advertisements say from what they appear to say has become a minor pastime during breaks in the football.

Take the word 'save'. If a furniture store is selling a sofa for for 400 pounds that used to cost 600 pounds the store advertisements will insist that you are 'Saving 200 pounds!!!'. This kind of 'saving' is also known as 'running behind a taxi'. It comes from the story of a man who told a friend that he had saved the bus fare by running to work behind the bus. 'You are a fool' his friend told him 'you could have saved three times the money by running behind a taxi.' In other words that 200 pounds is only a saving if you had to spend 600 pounds on a sofa, and for some reason no less than that. In any other circumstances you have not saved 200 pounds, you have spent 400 pounds. This is especially true for things like luxury cruises and prestige cars. You can't save money on these purchases, you can only spend less, which is a very different thing, as a look at your bank account at the end of the month will tell you. We will also swiftly pass by the creative use of 'unique' and 'totally re-designed' automobile advertisements once we understand that the 're-definition of transport' consists of adding independently-heated rear view mirrors (or whatever), and that 'all-new' might merely mean that the product contains no second-hand parts.

On the other hand, some advertisers are moving away from traditional offerings and presenting advertisements which appear to make no sense whatsoever. These advertisers may have been sold on the idea that they should better 'know how to successfully choose Phonemes and place Third Gravitating Bodies' in their message - as one promotion puts it in a message aimed at advertisers. If you want to know how a 'third gravitating body' works in an advertisement, well, it 'triggers patterns within patterns ... which cannot be managed by the unaided, rational, intellectual left hemisphere, thus triggering a powerful, but invisible, strange attractor within the mind'.

Perhaps this all makes perfect sense to someone and is indeed a logical way of selling toothpaste. However, I get the feeling that for all their clever use of English, advertisers are as vulnerable as the general population when it comes to succumbing to a seductive marketing message.
15 November 2014
The same but different

You would think that British and American English would be merging into a single language by now. After all, there are few Britons who do not watch at least one or two US television programmes every week, and US English is also common in paperback books, pop songs and the speech of celebrities. Yet despite this, the Atlantic Ocean remains as much a linguistic divide between the two nations as it is a physical one. Britons and Americans continue to adhere stubbornly to their own versions of the language.

On a personal note I noticed this when I ordered a burger with chips while on a recent visit to the USA. As a Brit, I expected that the burger would come with the usual potato sections fried to a tasty golden brown. Instead beside the burger was a little bag of what a Briton would call 'crisps'. Had I wanted 'chips' in the British sense, I should have asked for 'fries'.

Yet even the difference between individual words is slight compared to the difference in colloquial expressions. Suggest to an American that something is worth 'taking a butcher's at' and that American will look around for a dealer in pork chops. In fact, the term means that something's worth looking at or considering. There was also a recent case of a Briton who was charged in the USA for homophobic remarks when he loudly remarked that he could 'kill a fag'. It took a while to sort out that 'fags' can mean 'cigarettes' in the UK, and a desire to kill one simply means the speaker is desperate for a smoke.

In the same way, some idioms are rooted in the native culture and just can't travel. A Briton would not talk of 'sophomore mistakes' because the British education system does not have sophomores, while the verb 'quarterbacking' in the sense of organizing who goes where and does what only works in a country where football teams include quarterbacks.

In short, despite technical advances, even in an era of instant communication, Britain and the USA seem doomed to remain what George Bernard Shaw called 'two countries divided by a common language'.
15 September 2014
Me, myself, I.

How many times have you heard these usages?

'I said 'me' when he asked if anyone wanted to go to the restaurant'. Or 'Fred and myself went to the restaurant.' How about this one? 'The waiter told Fred and I that the restaurant was closed for renovations.'

The thing with all of these usages is that they are technically incorrect, but used so frequently that they have a good chance of becoming standard English in the coming decades. While this will not be a problem for the average English speaker - who is already happily (mis)using the personal pronoun in these ways, it's a nightmare for grammarians, who are going to have to write some odd exceptions into the rule book.

Let's see. 'The personal pronoun has a subject form 'I' and an object form 'me' and a reflexive form 'myself'. However, when used alone, the personal pronoun takes the object form 'me', instead of the subject form 'I'. e.g. 'Who's there?' 'Me.' However, if the pronoun is combined with a verb in the short answer it keeps the subject form. e.g. 'Who likes ice cream?' 'I do.'

Also, when there are two objects in a sentence, the forms 'I' or 'myself' may be randomly substituted for 'me'. So for example 'He told Fred and I/myself' is acceptable, while these pronouns without another object ('He told I/myself') are obviously wrong.'

There are a number of such oddities developing in modern English. In an earlier post, I pointed out that 'less' has become an accepted substitute for 'fewer' but 'much' is never used in place of 'more'. Why is 'There are less cars on the road these days' acceptable, but 'There are much cars on the road these days' is still wrong?

Perhaps English is becoming more of a free-form language, in which some regular grammar structures become optional. If so there are two ways to regard this development - the language is becoming more flexible and tolerant of individual expression, or it is sliding down the slippery slope towards inchoate madness.

Me, I'm keeping my opinion to myself.

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