Thursday, December 23, 2010

Helpnest Feature #4: Used (to) in So Many Ways

Greetings Grammophiles,

We recently received a request from Kathy asking about the history of the phrase "used to," as in "I used to drink coffee every morning, but now I drink tea" (personal note: this is a complete lie; my mornings are not complete without coffee). There are plenty of Web sites that discuss the grammar and usage of "used to," so I don't want to rehash what can be found elsewhere. If you are interested, here are a few links to The English Club, The British Council, and The Leo Network. However, Kathy did not ask how to use "used to," but rather where it came from. Enter the Oxford English Dictionary.

Apparently the verb "use + infinitive," meaning "accustomed to doing something," has a very long history in the English language. In fact, its heyday has long since come and gone. According to the OED, the verb was in very frequent use around the 1400s, and it shows up in the "Reeve's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

"A theef he was,‥a sly, and vsaunt [v.r. usand] for to stele" (l. 20).

It also appears in my favorite work of literature, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, an imaginative romp through the magical and mysterious world of Faerylond that supposedly teaches the reader how to act like a gentleman. The joke, of course, is that no one in the poem acts like a gentlemen, so all the virtues have to be learned through negative examples, namely what we all used to do but should know better. Here's the reference.

"Her name Mercilla most men vse to call
That is a mayden Queene of high renowne,
For her great bounty knowen ouer all." (5.8.17)

I know what some of you are thinking. Isn't a "d" missing in the first line? Shouldn't it be "used to call?" The short answer is no. Back in the days of late Middle English and early modern English (1400-1600), speakers used "use" in all of its tenses. Even the phrase, "He is accustomed to calling her Mercilla," which still makes a little bit of sense to our tense-sensitive ears, still includes the past participle "accustomed" (may be a verbal adjective--a distinction I leave to the linguists). Nevertheless, the phrase conveys a sense of pastness. A modern translation of Spenser's present tense "use to call," would read something like, "He regularly calls her Mercilla."

Just to prove that I'm not cherry-picking my examples, here's one final example from Milton's History of Britain, this time about trends in English facial hair.

"The English then useing to let grow on thir upper-lip large Mustachio's."

I can't quite place "then useing" in a modern tense context. It has the progressive sense of the "-ing" but instead of a helping verb such as "were" or "had been" to complement the verb, we have an adverb of time "then." Go figure this one, but the point is that "use + infinitive" used to enjoy much more flexibility, especially in terms of tense, in the English language.

Thanks again Kathy for this prompt. It complemented my morning coffee quite well.

Brady Spangenberg

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are adjectives the enemy of the writer?

Duff (2010) freely available from PhotoBucket
The sun sunk in seconds, shimmering and hesitating just above the still waters before it disappeared for the evening.  As it faded it cast its apricot hues through the clouds which hovered low in the sky.
A beautiful sunset

Hello Grammophiles

An oft used adage in journalism is that the adjective is the enemy of the writer.  (Voltaire said they were the 'enemy of the noun'; Hemingway said they were the 'weak writer's crutch'.)

For example, I could say 'it's a splendidly gorgeous day today'  (which it is in Adelaide on this December day).   Alternatively, I could say 'the sun is warming my shoulders, glancing off the footpath and illuminating the leaves on the trees'.

Of course, used sparingly and effectively, adjectives can add colour and cleverness to the writing (as indicated by my esteemed colleague Brady, below).  

In academic writing, adjectives can be florid and over-the-top, weakening a set of data or a rational argument.

For example, 'numerous authors argue...'  is weaker than 'Smith (2000), Jones (2003) and Brown (2005) argue...

How does this:

'Smith's (2000) findings were a notable example of how millions of families use social technology.'

Compare with this:

'Smith's (2000) study of 150 households across three continents suggested children between the age of 13 and 18 preferred the use of Facebook, while their parents still tended to use email.'

Which paper, do you think, will attract more marks?

Can you think of more examples where actions speak louder  than words (as the old saying goes)?


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Help Nest Feature 3: Can You/Are You Able To Do This?

Greetings Grammophiles,

This post addresses a question submitted by Olga in the Ukraine [hello over there, by the way]. She wanted to know if a meaningful difference exists between the modal verbs "can" and "to be able to." Olga specifically referenced these verbs in the simple past (could and was able to), but in this case what holds true for the past is just as true for the present and future. First, you might ask what a modal verb is, and what does it do? Like their name implies, modal verbs indicate modality, a linguistic term that generally refers to the speaker's attitude or perception regarding possibility or preference. Among other things, modal verbs indicate how possible an action is (can she do it?); how well the person likes the action (she likes to run); or what the ethical importance of the action is (she should/must/ought to run).

Here is a short list of common modal verbs:

can, must, should, to be able, ought, like, will, may

Now, to Olga's question. Does a meaningful difference exist between could and was able to? The general consensus seems to be no with a few exceptions. In many cases, these two modals can (are able to) be substituted for each other without altering the meaning one bit. See, it's just that easy! However, you can take a few differences into consideration when searching for the "right" one.

1) can is shorter than is able to. It requires fewer short, choppy words, so it conveys your point more easily. Simply put, can is an easier, quicker, and therefore more attractive alternative.

2) can does tend to convey a more general meaning regarding ability as opposed to is able to. For example, the sentence, "I could catch the bus," reflects only your theoretical ability to catch the bus (if you wanted to), but the sentence, "I was able to catch the bus," sounds much more definitive and factual to our Anglicized ears (you actually caught it).

3) can does not imply tangible results (resultative), so in these situations, is able to is more appropriate. The sentence, "I ran so fast, I was able to catch the bus," shows the result of your running. If you were to substitute could in the second clause, it would not make sense.

So, Olga, should you continue marking your students' papers wrong if they use could instead of was able to? Yes, in two specific cases. If you are focusing on style and smooth prose, could often presents a better alternative because it is shorter and does not involve that lame, general verb "to be." If, however, your students are writing about results (one thing caused something else to happen, and that something else was enablement/ability to do something), then they should and ought to use was able to.

Whew! I hope I was able to help (or was it "could help"?).

Brady Spangenberg

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Some Favorite Words from Paradise Lost

Greetings Grammo- and Logophiles!

In honor of an upcoming marathon reading of John Milton's Paradise Lost being held at Purdue on October 20, I thought I would highlight a few of our favorite words to read and say. Milton was a great wordsmith to say the least; by scholar Gavin Alexander's count, Milton coined at least 630 new English words, that compared to John Donne's 352 and Shakespeare's 229. Some of his more well-known coinages include "pandemonium," the name given to the devil's new fortress, or "lovelorn" to describe a forsaken nightingale. But these are too familiar; we are looking for obscure words that you can use to impress your friends.

I asked Purdue's resident Milton scholar, Professor Angeilca Duran (who is also coordinating the marathon reading), about her favorite MIlton words and phrases. She responded that she loves dwelling over mythological names like "Serapis," "Asmadai," or "Gorgonian." Even I had to look up Asmadai (6.365), who as it turns out is a traditional pagan god whom Milton identified with the fallen angels. If you aren't slumped over your computer yet with yawning boredom, here are few more philological oddities that are sure to impress both the ladies and the gentlemen.

* celestial panoply (6.760): a full suit of armor, bright and shiny

* hubbub (2.951): a confused noise often includes shouting and yelling

* verdurous (4.144): flourishing green

* jocund and boon (9.793): mirth, cheer, trivial gaiety
[MIlton uses this phrase to describe Eve just after she eats the fruit from the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge. Remember that next time you order a fruit smoothie!]

I would love to hear your favorite words from Milton or any other writer as well as some suggestions for other writers deserving of a place in the Wordsmith Hall of Fame.

Happy Hunting,
Brady Spangenberg

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Your life in one sentence

Hello Owls and Possums!

We have had some very grammar dense postings lately so I thought I would lighten us up by inviting readers to write their life in one sentence.

Many famous people have used this technique to inspire themselves and to achieve great things.
Our Grammar Gang challenge is to describe your life, or what you would like to be remembered for, in one sentence.
A simple sentence contains one idea. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a fullstop.

Watch this two minute video clip:

Give it some deep thought and send us your sentence -grammatically correct of course!
Susanna Carter

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Over-Adjectivalization of English?

"Yet when it comes to race, Obama's first year has shown us again and again that race does not matter in America the way it used to. We've come more than a mere long way - we're almost there" ~ John McWhorter

Greetings Grammophiles!

From the quote above, you might think this post is about race. Well, it is only in a roundabout way. Rather, this post is about the words we use when discussing tricky, complicated subjects. Does any phrase strike you as odd in the above quote? Perhaps a word string that requires a second glance just to make sure you read it right? If you selected "mere long way," you and I have a similar filter for grammatical oddities. Here we have two adjectives followed by a noun (mere + long + way), or is it one adjective followed by a noun phrase (mere + long way)? Either the way is long and mere or the long way is mere. To be fair to Mr. McWhorter, who writes for a living (while I just write for a hobby), the contrasting, multi-functional phrase achieves its desired effect. It makes the reader stop and think how exactly far have Americans come in terms of race? What words best describe our progress?

Race is one of those subjects that does not lend itself to simple explanations. It is a tricky, complicated idea that involves biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics--just to name a few. As a consequence, simple phrases and sentence constructions never quite seem adequate. Complicated subjects require complicated expressions. In this way, "mere long way" seems more poetic than descriptive, but poetry can sometimes create more confusion than understanding. Just ask Ovid, who found himself banished to Tomis on the Black Sea for a few lines about love.

There is a grammar lesson in all of this, I swear. How many adjectives can be strung together and still be "grammatical"? Well, as many as you like, provided that they are all "coordinate" (have relatively similar meanings, for more on this idea see here). Here's an example:

Mr. Q was the biggest, fastest, strongest, smartest, most excellent human being on the planet.

Every adjective relates to Mr. Q's superlative nature in some way. But throw in the word "weakest" anywhere, and we start asking questions. How can he be the fastest but also the weakest? The same principle applies to "long" and "mere," two contrasting expressions, in the same adjective string. How can the way be "mere" but also "long?" Can a "long way" be "mere?"

To his credit, Mr. McWhorter's poetry seems to be catching on. Frank Gardner used the same expression to describe the progress being made by Afghanistan's fledgling army (see here). However, the expression does appear in the same sentence with the phrase, "like a newborn calf struggling to stand up on its feet." Ahh, and they say English majors do nothing but sit and read poetry all day! Well, someone has to figure out these crazy, convoluted simple concepts.

As always,
Brady Spangenberg

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Counting Nouns

Greetings Grammophiles!

In theory, the number aspect of subject-verb agreement seems like a very easy task. Just make sure that if you have more than one subject, a plural subject, you use a plural verb. All you need to do is decide between "one" versus "more than one" and you have your answer.

But some nouns do not allow themselves to be counted (non-countable nouns), while others function as plurals even though there is really only one thing. One of my favorite examples is "homework." Back in college, I had a German friend who always said "homeworks," which works great in German (Hausaufgaben) but is rather jarring to the English ear. Homework, it seems, always functions as a singular subject, no matter how much of it there is. In this respect, homework is like weather, water, sand, and coffee. You can fill an entire beach with sand or a large pot with coffee, but they are generally still singular in usage.

This rule seems simple enough. But what about the "sands of time" or the "coffees of South America" or Keats's "moving waters at their priest-like task"? This is where the confusion begins. Many nouns have both countable and non-countable senses, so it isn't enough to say that one can never use "sands" or "waters."

However, some noun-countable nouns do seem more resistant to pluralization than others. "Homework" would be one. Yet other nouns, such as "experience," seem perfectly at home in either the non-countable or countable camps. "In my experience" expresses an idea almost identical to "from my experiences I can tell you." How can we know how much or how many experience(s) we have had? Here is a list of certain "problem" plurals a best-guess recommendation for usage. As always, I welcome any additions, suggestions, or amendments to my list.

experience: a toss-up. Just try to consider whether you want to discuss your experience as a collective whole or individual experiences over time.

homework: non-countable. It is possible to have homeworks (my spell-checker flags this word by the way), but usually these are expressed in phrases like "pieces of homework."

time: both. As an abstract concept, like in "time flies," it is non-countable. As shorthand for various points in time, it is countable. An example would be a singer discussing his performance "times" or a track runner referring to the "times" she ran in a previous meet.

water: generally non-countable. I have only really seen "waters" in poetic or proverbial contexts (the waters of the ocean blue). For general usage, stick with "water," and if you must pluralize, go with phrases such as "bottles of water."

weather: always non-countable. I can imagine saying "the weathers have been terrible," but I have never heard or read such a thing. Stick with the singular.

In closing I just want to point out that there are also certain nouns that are always expressed in the plural even though they represent a single object. The three most common are "glasses," "scissors," and "jeans/pants/shorts." Just as my German friend had a little trouble with "homeworks," I too had some trouble in Germany when I kept referring to my jeans in the plural. If it's a pair of jeans, then that means there are two, right?

Best Regards,
Brady Spangenberg

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Help Nest Feature 1: Mind your p's and q's

Hi D.T.
This was your comment: Is it P's and Q's or Ps and Qs or p's and q's or ps and qs? What about this one? Ben wanted to yell Help but he was ashamed. Is it Help, "help," help, or what?

Those are interesting questions. I don't know about the US, but in Australia we have a helpful Commonwealth of Australia Style Manual, with lots of information for grammar geeks like me. The latest edition (2002, p. 88) says that the form p's and q's is the best one. Italics and no apostrophes are possible (ps and qs), but not so clear. In general, letters of the alphabet should take an apostrophe in the plural. Decades, however, have no apostrophe, so that the decade of the nineties is referred to as the 1990s. The Style Manual also says that 'most shortened words and phrases are made plural simply by adding s, without a preceding apostrophe' (pp. 152-153). That means we have MPs, TVs and CDs. By the way, we don't need to use full stops (periods) with contractions and acronyms, so that we have Mr (not Mr.) and NATO (not N.A.T.O.). We do have full stops when an abbreviation consists of only the first letter of a word, such as p. (page) or fig. (figure).
That also reminds me of the difference between ed. (editor) and edn (edition), where ed. takes a full stop because 'd' is not the last letter, but end has no full stop because 'n' is the last letter of the word!
Some Latin short forms seem to keep the full stop: e.g., et al., etc., but not MS (manuscript), NB (take note) or PS (postscript), all of which are written in capitals. How does that sound? As clear as mud? (That's a British English expression whose meaning you can probably guess!)
In regard to the second question about yelling 'help', I think I'd say:
Ben wanted to yell 'Help!', but he was ashamed. This is similar to the example in the Style Manual (p. 116): He heard the Speaker call 'Order!'
In that case it's a direct quote, so you can use quotation marks.
Have fun writing, and don't forget to dot your i's and cross your t's!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Announcing the Owl & Possum Help Nest

Greetings Grammophiles,

Beginning June 1st, this blog will become the new electronic home for the retiring print version of the Purdue OWL Help Nest. In the past, the Help Nest served as a forum for discussing difficult questions about grammar, style, and usage. But because the Help Nest appeared as a regular component of the monthly Purdue OWL Newsletter, it became increasingly difficult to address all of our users' questions in a timely fashion. In short, the Help Nest needs to move into the digital age.

Secondarily, the Help Nest's audience has largely been limited to newsletter subscribers. It is time for the Help Nest to expand its reach beyond what the OWL editorial team can fit into the newsletter's currently limited size and scope.
What better way to achieve both of these objectives than to move the Help Nest over to The Grammar Gang blog? Thanks to the Grammar Gang's international team of coordinators as well as its global audience, we believe the Help Nest will definitely be able to expand its reach. We also hope that the Help Nest will become more discussion-oriented and have less of a dictatorial, top-down feel (no more: this is the right answer because we said so!).

How will it all work? We invite any and all questions about grammar, style, or usage to this thread (or any other for that matter). In turn, the editorial team will select one or more questions for a more detailed biweekly "write-up." Particularly thorny questions will also be taken from the Purdue OWL's email service.

As we have noted in previous posts, we do not claim to have all the answers, and especially not the definitive right answer to grammatical dilemmas. We will, however, try to put these issues in some sort of rhetorical context. Grammar questions often do not hinge on "correct or incorrect" but rather "right time and wrong time." So the next time someone scolds you for splitting your infinitives, you can say, "Ah, yes but I read on the Help Nest that to never split infinitives is like never saying 'gonna.'" There's always an exception.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

The Owl and Possum Help Nest

Monday, May 10, 2010

A cup of coffee or: I'll have a super supremo grande please!

Have you ever noticed how confusing the names of coffee cup sizes are?

Long gone is the logical small medium or large - there is a whole new world of coffee sizes out there.

Starbucks is calling its coffee cups: ''Tall'' (meaning ''not tall,'' or ''small''), ''Grande'' (meaning ''medium'') and ''Venti'' (meaning, just guessing here "smallish').

One of our own possums Andrea has just ordered a "medium" coffee and received a "large" while she actually inspired one coffee shop to call its largest size ''jumbo'' because they were constantly giving her a medium coffee instead of the tallest one which is what she thought she was ordering.

But I think that Brady's comment takes the prize. He writes: As per the ordering size chaos that is infecting every shop in the US ... if you ever happen to visit a Coldstone Creamery (fancy ice cream shop), the sizes are "Like It / Love It / Gotta Have It." I just say "small please."

Our most trendy coffee shop chain here in Australia, Cibo, call their coffee "small", "grande" and "alto" and look at you sideways if you try to order anything else!

Share your coffee cup size confusion! Why is this happening?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Dictionaries are fun!

McDonald's Unhappy Over McJob Addition To Dictionary

It's true. Dictionaries are great. They can give us so much information. Did you know that you can use a dictionary for lots more than spelling and definitions? Try some of the following links to check out the word 'blog', for instance. The first three are British English, with American variations, while the Merriam-Webster's is an American dictionary. They are all designed specifically for advanced learners of English, but are great for native speakers too.
Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
Macmillan English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary
What did you find when you looked up 'blog'? The definition, pronunciation (UK or American variants, but not Australian, unfortunately), grammatical information (it's a countable noun, which means you can make it plural), related words and example sentences. How's that for help with your English? If you look up other words you'll find additional information, such as labels that tell you when to use the words (eg formal, engineering, legal etc) and collocations (words that go before or after it, such as prepositions like 'on' or 'in'). That means you can work out how to use the word appropriately in a sentence. Now try 'possum'. You'll find slight variations in most of the dictionaries, giving you a different perspective on the animal.
Of course, dictionaries come in paper format too, and some are available as applications for mobile phones, or in pocket translators. What dictionaries do you have? Check your pocket translator - you might be surprised at what you find there!

One word I've been asked about recently is the term 'boyfriend'. Is this only appropriate for younger people? How old can a boyfriend be? Could two people in their fifties describe each other as boyfriend and girlfriend? There seems to be no real agreement on this, so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, whatever age you are. Somehow, 'girlfriend' seems more acceptable for women, whatever their age, while 'boyfriend' sounds a bit young. It's a complicated issue though, like the question 'How many hairs does a bald man have?'. A man can have three hairs, say, and still be described as bald. Or 25 hairs. Or 50 hairs. Or . . . When does he cease to be bald? So at what age, if any, are the labels 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' inappropriate? And is there an alternative word? One friend prefers 'partner', but that seems to imply the two people live at the same address, whereas the boyfriend/girlfriend label suggests that the person is not there permanently. Another friend suggested an acronym, such as POOR (Person in an Ongoing Optimal Relationship). Can you imagine that in introductions though? 'This is my poor friend James/Mary . . .' Hm. Maybe not. What are your thoughts on this?

To round things off, I thought I'd go to a completely different topic, for a laugh. Have you ever found going to school a bit of a drag? This young girl in Ireland did. She seems to delight in prank phone calls. I'm not entirely convinced that it's spontaneous though, as there are various language features that suggest it may be scripted. See what you think. She's also keen to find a boyfriend - presumably a youngish one, since she's only 8 years old. Now that's a case where 'boyfriend' would be the appropriate term.

Don't forget to add your thoughts to the blog. If we can come up with new terms for boyfriend/girlfriend they could even appear in a dictionary!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dungeonate and Snuggify

Greetings Grammophiles!

The spring semester starts next week here at Purdue, so I have one more week to fool around until the "real work" begins again. As you may have heard, the Midwest was blasted with a series of blizzards, which led to a moderate case of cabin fever for everyone involved. With lots of down time and feverish complexions, my brother and I took to one of our favorite pastimes, tossing around new words in an effort to decorate our otherwise uneventful lives.

My brother noted that two of his college friends live in a basement. Whenever these two wordsmiths aren't studying or attending class, which apparently is most of the time, they spend their time relaxing down in the depths. In short, they "dungeonate." This sounds like a close relative of "marinate," one of the favorite expressions among my old soccer club mates. What are you up to today? Nothing, just a little dungeonatin' and marinatin'.

Even though it is vacation, my scholarly interests have not completely vanished, so I googled dungeonate to see what I could find. Incidentally, "to google" is one of the more famous "new" additions to the English language, named Word of the Year in 1998 by the New Oxford English Dictionary. Dungeonate, however, seems relatively unused, though one gamer posted that he will "be able to dungeonate" over the weekend (i.e. hang out in dungeons). For now, only college kids from Iowa spend their time dungeonating in basements.

The same, however, cannot be said for my latest creation, "Snuggify." Like any other good American who didn't know what to get his relatives for Christmas, I picked out a leopard-print Snuggie® for my brother (let me know if the Snuggie® craze has taken over other parts of the world yet). But saying "sitting around wearing my Snuggie®" is way too cumbersome; there had to be a better way to describe this most cabin feverish of actions. So, "snuggify" was born (def: to sit around in a Snuggie®), and from my googling, it seems like many other Americans have come up with the same idea, such as blogger Cassandra Lotus in "Snuggify Your Life".

As for what the scholars say, the word "snuggify" even appears in a 1972 article on "Latin-English Hybrids" in The Classical Journal! The author, J. D. Sadler, claims that "Latin can appear in English in every possible form of hybridization." Sadler includes "snuggify" in a list with "happify" and "typsify" as examples of Latinate hybrids that have not gained widespread acceptance. If only Dr. Sadler could have foreseen the cultural impact of the Snuggie®!

So, I'd like to hear what new words have worked their way into your vocabulary over the holidays or any other time for that matter. I especially want to hear from our friends Down Under. Good luck in the New Year and all the best.

Brady Spangenberg