Friday, December 24, 2010

A schadenfreudian slip?

Christmas is the 'season of good will to all men', and I had really meant to leave the pedants to their roast turkey, but this took the biscuit. By the time I saw it however, it was too late to post a counter-comment, so 'Have Blog Will Speak Out'. I'm talking of a comment to an article by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Christopher Hitchens, his hero for 2010, under the 'Comment is Free' rubric at the Guardian. Both Dawkins and Hitchens are committed atheists and Dawkins had written:

He [Hitchens] laughs off the spiritual vultures eager for a death-bed conversion, and dismisses – but with unfailingly gracious courtesy – the many schadenfreudian prayers for his recovery

Now don't worry, I'm not going to get into an atheism versus religion debate, this is not the place. But my hackles were raised when I saw this comment by a certain GoloMannFan (my emphasis):

Your grotesque offences against both the English and German languages aside, is there any actual evidence that Schadenfreude is the motive for such prayers? You know, evidence. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. You bang on about it often enough.

OK, I get the impression GoloMannFan doesn't have much time for Dawkins. That's fair enough, even some atheists don't like Dawkins's proselytising very much, but why bring his language into it (I assume he doesn't like the word schadenfreudian). As soon as you see the words: 'grotesque offences against ... [the] English ... language ...', you know that they're going to be nothing of the sort.

Lots of sex please, we're British. But perhaps we should just disguise it a little.

Annotated discussion and quiz related to various types of (mostly slightly naughty) humour.

I would like to do a post in the next couple of days about pantomime, commonly called panto, a quintessentially British theatrical tradition which takes place at Christmas time. Panto is often described as including risqué double entendre and innuendo, which are specific types of humour. Before we look at pantomime itself, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the different types of humour we might expect to meet in traditional pantomime.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, sex became somewhat of a taboo subject among ‘polite’ society. This attitude lasted well into the twentieth century, summed up in the title of the 1971 London musical, ‘No sex please, we’re British’. This prudishness didn’t however, stop ‘impolite society’ having a good laugh at sex, mainly in Music Hall, a type of popular variety theatre which mixed comedy, song and dance, and acts such as magicians and acrobats.

Perhaps for this reason, there has been a long tradition in British comedy of alluding to sex in indirect ways, such as double entendre and innuendo. So now let’s look at some of the terms involved:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas cracker joke matching quiz

What lies in a pram and wobbles?
A jelly-baby ?
Why did the tomato blush?
Because it saw the salad dressing ?
How do you hire a horse?
Stand it on four bricks ?

Christmas cracker jokes are notoriously bad, relying heavily on awful puns (word play). Mouse over the ? above for explanations.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two Christmas cracker quizzes

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Two gapfill quizzes on the subject of Christmas crackers

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I wonder if people will still say shall in the future.

An annotated grammatical investigation into the uses of shall
Quiz 1 - Future forms
Quiz 2 - Future expressions
Quiz 3 - Advanced question tags

One thing about this blogging lark, especially when you blog about language, is that you start noticing the words and structures you've used. I was preparing some notes on conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs the other day, when I noticed I had written:

Profits have been down this year. Consequently, we shall have to cut back on costs.

And I wondered why I had written 'shall' and not 'will'?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prescribers and describers - the strange case of the pedantic pronoun

Annotated article and 'singular they' quiz

Many famous newspapers and magazines have their own style guides, to make sure that there is some consistency in grammar and punctuation, and in how they refer to various aspects of the news. Some of them, such as the Economist, are freely available on the web.

However, many newspapers in the United States don't have their own guides, but use that of the Associated Press (AP). This makes the AP guide very influential, especially amongst journalists. There's a website, Newsroom 101, where you can do quizzes based on the AP rules, and I've been having fun doing some of them. The majority of AP rules are eminently sensible and in fact quite useful, but there are a few which I find quite weird, and which can result in language I find rather unnatural. Nonetheless, I'm sort of getting the hang of how they think.

I've also recently discovered a grammar and usage website called EnglishPlus, which seems to be mainly aimed at American college students and university entrants. If a bit spartan, the entries are refreshingly clear and most of them are completely uncontroversial. But in a few areas where there might be some room for debate, such as the use of object pronouns with the verb to be and the use of singular 'they' (see below), EnglishPlus doesn't even admit different ways of doing things might exist. They simply prescribe what is correct or incorrect, even if that leaves most of us speaking 'incorrect' English.

Playing around with pronouns, and a quiz

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Compare with or compare to

In a recent post, I said I was surprised '... that somebody would want to compare language to maths.' Looking back at that sentence later, I thought, 'Hang on. Don't we usually compare something with something, not to something?' But then I remembered Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?' and the Sinead O'Connor hit 'Nothing compares 2 U' (to you); so I reckoned I was in good company. But what exactly are the rules as to when to use 'with' and when to use 'to'?

Basic rules and a quiz

Full verb - compare with

We use compare with when we examine two things to see what their similarities or differences are:
  • The police compared the signature on the stolen credit card with that of the original owner.
  • So, let's compare Sinead O'Connor's version with Prince's. How do they stack up?
We also use compare with when we might use a comparative structure:
  • Her last album doesn't compare with her previous one. (It's not as good as)
  • When we compare our new house with our old one, this one has much more space. (It's bigger)

Full verb - compare to

We use compare to when we find a similarity between two things, even though they might really be quite different from each other. This is often metaphorical:
  • The critics compared his work to that of Martin Amis.
  • Scientists sometimes compare the human brain to a computer.
    (American Heritage Dictionary)
We could often use the word like in these circumstances. To paraphrase Shakespeare and O'Connor:
  • Shall I say you are like a Summer's day?
  • There is nothing (else) like you.

In gerund and present participle clauses

The same distinction would seem to apply as with full verbs, as these two examples from The Guardian show:
  • Why do critics insist on comparing one artist with another?
    = making a comparison between one artist and another
  • Wild claims comparing YouTube to TV misunderstand what TV is and the reasons why people watch it
    = saying YouTube is like TV

In past participle clauses - usually interchangeable

Compared with and compared to are often interchangeable, for example when we are making a general comparison, especially in participle clauses:
  • This road is quite busy compared with/to yours
    (Cambridge Online Dictionary)
  • Standards in health care have improved enormously compared with/to 40 years ago
    (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
  • Compared with/to our old house, this one has more space.


As a general rule then, it's probably safer to use compare with, except where you are pointing out the similarity of something to something else, where you could use a construction with like instead of compare. Then use compare to.

Quiz - In each group of three sentences, one definitely takes 'to', one definitely takes 'with', and the third can take either (in my judgement). Use the selectors to choose which takes what.

1a.Your garden is so beautiful compared mine.
1b.There are far more flowers in it, and it's much better designed, when you compare it mine.
1c.I hear the local newspaper has compared it the famous garden at Sissinghurst.
2a.Some people have compared the 2008 crisis the Great Depression of the thirties.
2b.But if we compare now then, unemployment and inflation have been much lower.
2c.And the world economic system is very different, compared then.
3a.The snow has come early this year, compared last year.
3b.The newspapers are already comparing it that really cold winter of 2005.
3c.But we don't have enough statistics to compare it 2005 yet. It's only November.
4a.Jenny is very successful, compared her brother.
4b.Yes. Compared him, she has a lot more money and a much better job.
4c.Mum compares her her aunt Susan, you know, the one who started her own business and became a millionaire.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nowadays awesome is not quite so awesome as it used to be.

In my last post I think I fairly definitively nailed my colours to the mast of anti-pedantry. So it might seem strange that I'm now going to give vent to a pet peeve. But if even Stephen Fry, in his marvellous paean to linguistic freedom, 'Don't mind your language ...' (see below), can admit to 'nails on the blackboard' moments that make him 'wince', then I feel I'm allowed to do the same, just this once. (That's a lie for a start; I bet there will be more at some stage later.)

In language, two and two can be four, or a foursome, or a quartet or maybe two couples, but it doesn't equal anything

I recently saw this extraordinary statement on a language blog:

We have often noted that often repeated language and grammar errors seem to become “correct” usage. Wouldn’t it be weird if math used that philosophy? When enough people said 2+2=5, it would! It would still equal 4, of course, but it would also equal 5.

Quite extraordinary! And I’m not referring to the frequency of the word often. Nor to the quotation marks around 'correct' and the corresponding lack of them round 'errors'. But to the fact that somebody would want to compare language to maths.

Sorry for buggering up the commas post

An apology and a quiz
Update: commas quiz now works OK

A couple of weekends ago, I wrote what I thought was a really neat program, to test a theory I had about the use of commas. That is, that they almost always denote a pause. I spent all of Saturday writing the program, and it worked perfectly on a normal web page on my browser. So, feeling rather pleased with myself, I then wrote the text for my commas post.

On Sunday I started 'translating' the Javascript program for Blogger, which is a bit of a bugger. You have to change parts of the code, known as 'entities', which I'd already learnt the hard way that you had to do, so I wasn't expecting much trouble. But when I posted the blog, and clicked on the relevant button - nothing. 'Bugger!', I thought, and spent a couple of hours trying to find the problem. The real bugger is that to try it out on a normal web page you have to translate it back again, and so forth and so on.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Commas - perhaps there's more than meets the eye.

Update: everything is now in working order.

Commas were the last thing I thought I'd be writing about on this blog. Surely using commas is just like breathing, isn't it? Or pausing for breath, perhaps? Apparently not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Idioms from Horse racing and betting - explanation and quizzes

Horse racing is a very popular spectator sport in the UK and Ireland, and has a very long history. There are currently about sixty race-courses in the UK, with two or three meetings happening on any given day. People don't of course watch the 'gee-gees' out of a simple love of animals, but because it involves betting on the horses, in other words gambling. If you walk into a 'bookies' (bookmakers shop) in the UK, the screens will be dominated by horse racing.

Horse racing, and more particularly the betting associated with it, has given a lot of idioms to the English language, especially in the areas of probability, risk and competition. They are therefore used a lot in business. Let's take a look.

Racecard - Erewhon 14.30 'Happy Humbugs' Handicap Hurdle

No.Name of horseFormWeightBet
1 Fine and dandy 2351-5211-43/1
2 Finnegan’s Wake 2/61-P3110-144/1
3 Lucky Blighter 12212111-103/5
4 Captain Bennett PP-428610-625/1
5 Greased lightning 16772311-04/1

This is an (invented) racecard typical of those you will find on the website of a racing newspaper such as the Racing Post or the Sporting Life, although I've left out certain information such as the names of the jockey, trainer and the owner. The first thing we are going to look at is the bets column on the right.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Word corner - antidisestablishmentarianism

At 28 letters, antidisestablishmentarianism is commonly thought to be the longest word in the English language (although apparently it has its competitors). It is not, however, the longest word in Britain, that distinction going to the name (in Welsh) of a village in Wales usually referred to simply as LLanfair P.G..Which is understandable given its full name of, I think, 58 letters.

To understand what antidisestablishmentarianism means, we need to break it down into its component parts.


anti negative prefix meaning against
dis another negative prefix, here meaning something like undo
establish the Church of England is established as the state religion by law
ment suffix to create an abstract noun from establish
arian a second suffix - someone who believes in this
ism a third suffix - the belief system, movement

Now look at the following article and matching exercise.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Confusing words quiz - the verbs rise, raise and arise

These three verbs can be confusing for students both in meaning and form.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween in Scotland, articles quiz

Read about Halloween in Scotland and at the same time test your use of articles.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Video vocabulary quiz and a look at some collective nouns

A recent post (Let's not call a spade a spade) included the expression ‘to know someone in the biblical sense’, meaning to have a sexual relationship with them. This expression is informal and is usually used humorously. In a sketch from the British TV comedy show ‘Not the nine o clock news’, 'Gerald the gorilla', there is a rather more obvious variation - ‘to live with someone in the biblical sense’, with the same meaning.
What on earth is a 'a congregation of crocodiles'. We take a look at the strange world of collective nouns.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Intensifiers are ridiculously easy to understand

This post is mainly a discussion of one intensifier - ridiculously. For a more general lesson on intensifiers, please see my new post here
The Grammarphobia Blog recently published a post where a reader complained about the use of the adverb ridiculously as a substitute for tremendously and gave this example sentence:

She’s ridiculously chic

And the writer of the blog more or less agreed with him, saying:

What you’re seeing or hearing here is the use of “ridiculously” as an intensifier meaning very, extremely, extraordinarily, and (as you point out) tremendously.

And they found what they claim is an early example of this usage, by the writer Monica Enid Dickens:

The gravel drive, where even a tired horse used to jog-trot because his stable was near, was ridiculously short.

(A drive is a small private road which connects a private house to the public road. Gravel is the very small stones sometimes used to make these roads. Jog-trot is a way a horse moves. What she's saying is that the drive was so short that even if the horse was tired it started going faster because it knew it was nearly home.)

But does ridiculously simply mean very, or perhaps very, very? Was Dickens being careless in her choice of words? Is it that ridiculously simple? I think not.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Let's not call a spade a spade - the language of euphemisms

Euphemisms - we all use them; when we want to be less direct, or to be diplomatic or make something nasty sound not so bad. Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary defines euphemism as 'a word or phrase used to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word'.

To call a spade a spade is to be very direct and to the point, even if what you say is unpleasant or impolite. In other words the exact opposite of a euphemism.

Take this quiz, which includes euphemisms old and new, and see if you can work out what they refer to.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Of scams and conspiracies - the language of climate change

An annotated rant, a look at the expression ad hominem and a vocabulary exercise based on words to do with dishonesty

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wedding vocabulary anagram quiz

This is a bit of an experiment with a new exercise format.

Two exercises to test your knowledge of the language of weddings in the English-speaking world.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Who you are is what you eat 2 - Follow up exercise

Here is a vocabulary follow-up exercise to Who you are is what you eat

Who you are is what you eat

In Britain people can have different names for certain meals, depending on their social background. It's just another example of our strange eccentricities.

Random Idea English investigates, and reminisces ...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Loop back to me and we'll touch base about this offline.

While teaching at a large bank recently, I started talking about business jargon, and more precisely business buzzwords. I said that for many native-speakers, this sort of language can be incomprehensible, sound pretentious or just sound plain ugly.
In the UK many employees say they feel cut off from management, as they haven’t a clue what management are talking about. [1]. It has got so bad that the government has even sent out a list of ‘forbidden words’ to local councils. [2]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oh Brother! Labour has a new Ed.

The Sun

Labour MP and Environment Minister in the previous government, Ed Miliband has just narrowly beaten his elder brother David in the race for the leadership of the British Labour Party.

The British press have puns of fun finding suitable headlines. Newspaper word-play mini-lesson.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some words are simply outwith some people's understanding. A rant in defence of the word 'outwith'.

Related post

If you'd prefer to read a more concise post about outwith, you can find a few examples and various links at another (much shorter) post I wrote on this subject more recently: Q and A - Is outwith a word
I was once explaining the Edinburgh Festival to some English friends. I told them about the ‘Official festival’; this is how people in Edinburgh refer to the Edinburgh International Festival. For most people in Edinburgh, the Festival is really the Fringe, cheaper (although less so nowadays) and less High Culture. Anyway, I went on to say that there was also the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival, a film festival and God knows what other festival, but that they were all outwith the main (official) festival. And they looked at me in a strange way. ‘You mean they’re not part of the main festival?’. Yes, I said, rather puzzled, for these were educated people and I had no idea that there was anything particularly special about outwith. So I looked in my trusty Chambers, and it was only then that I discovered that outwith was a Scottish word.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Video lesson - Mr Mann's disappointed horse

I sometimes use short comedy videos in class and I find that students usually really like this particular one, a clip from the BBC series Little Britain. I've gone off the show a bit now, but I still think this one of the classic sketches of British comedy.

The vocabulary in this clip is not easy, but I've found that when students do these exercises first, they can 'get' most of the jokes.

Random thoughts on the Subjunctive

I once came across an article at, wondering why we bother to teach inversion. You can speak perfectly good English without ever using it, and it seems to give students a lot of headaches. But the certificate examination boards insist on it, so we have to teach it. You can read the article here. I have some sympathy for this point of view, and have a similar feeling about the Subjunctive.

Fumbling about with the style rules of English

These style rules come from a variety of sources, and have been adapted a bit by me. The principle with all of these rules is that each 'rule' contradicts itself. The original versions have been variously attributed to:
  • The Fumblerules of Grammar by William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, Nov 4, 1979,
  • The Little English Handbook by Edward P. J. Corbett
  • How To Write Good by Frank Visco
There are over forty. Here is a real challenge for advanced students, an exercise based on a sample of them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Follow up exercise to those random thoughts

In the previous post I talked about certain differences between US and UK English, and one of the examples I gave was the attitude to possible options in defining relative clauses. So it seemed appropriate to follow it up with an exercise.

Some random thoughts about UK and US grammar

There’s a scene in the film Bhaji on the Beach, where three British-Indian women go to the airport to meet their Indian cousin who has just arrived from Mumbai (Bombay). As they come to greet her, she says: ‘My God, you’re all wearing saris. No one in Bombay wears saris nowadays.’ And it is true that, very often, immigrant communities hang on to customs and traditions long after they have fallen out of fashion in their old home country. This is not really surprising as it is a way of clinging on to their identity. You can see a clip of this excellent film, by the way, at Veoh.

I sometimes think the same is true of language. The first American settlers were immigrants too, and in some ways they too hung on to the old (linguistic) ways.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Do U h8 txt msging lingo or do U thnk its just gr8?

I recently did a lesson on the language of texting (SMS) - and Internet slang - LOL, BTW  etc, and got to thinking about how old the use acronyms and abbreviations is. Acronyms, BTW, are those abbreviations that are said as a word. So the UN is an abbreviation (we say the individual letters), but UNESCO is an acronym, we say it as a word. In English we tend to use fewer acronyms, than for example French, where they seem to be able to make every group of letters into words.

More on Scottish islands and renewable energy.

Two wind turbines on Eigg (Wikimedia Commons)

A little bit more the use of renewable energy sources on Scottish islands

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

More on Samsø

Some more links for Samsø.

Photo by Phil LaCombe at  Flickr (some rights reserved)

Solidarnosć thirtieth anniversary

Solidarnosć strike at Gdańsk 1980 (Wikipedia)

 NB This is a discussion lesson for Polish students of English

This is the thirtieth anniversary of Solidarnosć (The Polish trade union Solidarity). What are your first comments / reactions?

Energy Islands

Wind turbines at Findhorn, Scotland

These are the notes from a lesson about the use of small-scale renewable energy, with examples from the Danish island of Samsø and Scotland. It was originally intended for people working in the energy industry.