Archive for Grammar

Another victim of oversimplified rules

On page 4 of the Metro newspaper today (it's distributed free on all the Edinburgh buses, so whatever its faults, the price is right) I read this sentence:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months, taking the total created over the past five years to 184.

A grammar tragedy. It's a verb agreement error. The writer recalls being told sternly that the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject noun phrase, and number seems to be the head noun, so common sense has been thrown to the winds, and the verb has wrongly been put into the singular agreement form—which, of course, is what the simplistic how-to-write books seem to demand.

In this case the correct agreement form happens to be the one that comports with the meaning: the University of Edinburgh has not been forming a number over the past year; it is the companies that have been formed, a record number of them. The singular agreement makes no sense. Lesson: verb agreement is not as mechanical and syntactic as the oversimplified handbook versions would have you believe.

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Free souvenirs

From Randy Alexander in Xiamen / Amoy, Fujian / Hok-kiàn, China:

Saw this on my trail run today and got a laugh. It's easy to see how this came about — verbs get translated with "to" mindlessly stuck in front of them.

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A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

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A thousand things to say… Not!

It is not clear to me whether Chris Lonsdale, the managing shyster director at the language-teaching company Chris Lonsdale & Associates, is an out-and-out liar or merely has pork for brains and believes the nonsense he spouts. But what is clear to me is that not enough people are paying attention to the conjecture I mention in one section of this paper: that almost all strings of English words are ungrammatical.

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A Dartmouth grad's contribution to the development of Hangul

The current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine includes an article by Karl Schutz and Jun Bum Sun that made me sit bolt upright:

"The Chosŏn One:  The influence of Homer Hulbert, class of 1884, lives on in a country far from his home" (Jul-Aug, 2015).

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He's (very) good / well / fine in Mandarin and Cantonese

When I first started learning Mandarin in 1967, one of the things that troubled me most about Chinese grammar was the fact that when I wanted to say "He's fine / good / well", I couldn't just say tā hǎo 他好 ("he [is] good"), I had to say tā hěn hǎo 他很好 ("he [is] very good", but without really meaning the "very".   That bothered me, because I couldn't understand the function of hěn 很 in the simple sentence tā hěn hǎo 他很好 ("he [is] very good").  My teachers told me not to worry about it, that hěn 很 in these sentences didn't really mean anything.

At least I wasn't saying *tā shì hǎo *他是好 (*"he be good") or *Tā shì hěn hǎo *他是很好 (*"he be very good") like some of my fellow students, who felt the need to insert the copular "is" shì 是, even though hǎo 好 by itself is an adjectival / stative verb, i.e., "is good".

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A proliferation of hyphens

In comments to "Suffer the consequences " (4/19/15), Jongseong Park and Bob Ramsey bemoaned what they considered to be the overuse of hyphens in the transliteration of Hangeul.  In a later comment, I explained that the hyphens between virtually all syllables in the transliterations were due to the Hangeul converter we've been using, which automatically inserts them.  In the future, we'll try to remove most of the hyphens.

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Lojban just got harder

Matt Treyvaud forwarded this from the Lojban mailing list:

"Lojban changes to hanzi writing system" (4/1/15)

Some people complained that although the spelling in Lojban is very easy to grasp the grammar is not. So the committee for the development of Lojban (BPFK) decided to fix this issue and to make the spelling hard as well.  Especially for those people who are not familiar with hanzi (Chinese characters).

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A Sino-English grammatical construction

As I was preparing a recent post comparing Pekingese and Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) sentences, I encountered an unusual (to me) expression that, at first, I didn't know how to interpret, namely "笑CRY".  The two morphemes (pronounced "xiàoCRY", one Chinese and one English, mean "laugh" and "cry".

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Bad advice on being a good writer

Part 2 of the Wikihow listicle "Be a Good Writer" is about learning vital skills, and item 3 of part 2 says you should "Learn the rules of grammar". Where should you turn to find out what they are? The article (as accessed on March 2, 2015) says:

If you have a question about grammar, refer to a grammar book, such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White or The American Heritage Book of English Usage.

And the link attached to the title The Elements of Style is to an online reproduction of the text of the original 1918 edition of Strunk's dreadful little book of drivel.

O God, grant me thy precious gift of patience… and I need it right now.

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Nervous cluelessness and getting there first

An email correspondent working for someone who is (evidently) a clueless would-be grammar purist appealed to me recently for help:

I am working with a client who insists that it is grammatically incorrect to use Get There First as a tag line. For the life of us, we cannot figure out what is grammatically incorrect about this phrase. Can you shed any light on our mystery?

Of course I can! Here at Language Log we solve half a dozen grammar mysteries of this sort before breakfast. I can not only finger the client's reaction as classic nervous cluelessness; I think I can identify the etiology of the mistake.

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Past, present, and future

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the future:  "Mirai".

The ensuing discussion was quite animated, touching upon the nuances and implications of words for the future in many different languages.  I concluded by saying that I would write a separate post about past, present, and future:  here it is.

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Don't even know the rules of their own language

Bob Ladd points out that a commenter ("RobbieLePop") on a Guardian article about Prince Charles (the opinionated prince who is destined to inherit the throne under Britain's hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

With he at its head ? Let's face it, the traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in English are simply a mystery to many speakers.

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