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Archive for the category “Linguistics”

If I Lived in the 1920’s…

Ah, the 1920’s. What a glorious time to live in if you were white and rich.

So, THE GREAT GATSBY IS COMING and everywhere I go I am bombarded with news about THE GREAT GATSBY, which IS COMING! SOON!

That got me wistfully thinking (to think any other way is simply no-go) about what I would do were I alive in the 1920’s. So…


Doesn’t Jitterbugging just sound wonderful? Why dance when you can jitterbug?!!! And it makes you sound very young and nimble, “Oh hello chaps, I can’t stay and chat. I’m just off for a spot of  jitterbugging. Pip pip!”

Throw sherry parties

I’ve never tasted sherry and it sounds like it tastes awful but I would drink it if it meant having a sherry party. I don’t think sherry parties are even about sherry, but you’d hardly have a Gin party. So uncouth. So un-sherry.

Throw Sherry

Smug bitch. Thinks she can show up to my sherry parties and make it all about her.

Play bridge

I don’t know how to play bridge and I can’t be bothered to learn but if I lived in the 20’s then oh boy I would be all about bridge. Bridge parties. With sherry! Oh, what a world it would be…

Solve murders

Did well-to-do lads and dames even do anything else besides solve murders in the 1920’s? I mean, seriously? And after you solved a murder you could celebrate by throwing a sherry party!


Actually, I’d probably wait for it to come out in theatres. I hear it’s going to be AMAZEBALLS!

Well sorry chums. I’d love to stay and continue this little list but I really must be off, you see. Throwing another of my sherry parties. Oh yes, there’ll  be bridge and jitterbugging. Such a right royal knees-up. Ta-ta!


New Year’s Resolutions

As 2012 draws to a close and we anticipate the arrival of a new year, many will also start forming their new year’s resolutions. Amidst the resolves to ‘get super skinny’ and ‘stop being so alone’ I think it important that we all resolve to better our own grammar. For a truly wonderful 2013 we should all resolve to:

Use adverbs when they are called for

I’m not saying we need to use adverbs more frequently, just when intending to use one please actually use the adverb and not its adjective form. People run quickly, they do not run quick. My opinion of you drops significantly when you misuse adverbs.

Do not apostrophise plurals

Notice I typed plurals, not plural’s. This actually hurts me when I see this. Apostrophes denote possession, they have nothing to do with plurals.

Learn the difference between Its and It‘s

Its is the possessive, just like hers and his, as in ‘the dog wagged its tail’. It’s is a contraction for it is, as in ‘It’s sunny today’. If anyone says that it’s is the plural of it I will simply die.

Use actual words

Why say ain’t when you can say aren’t and not sound like a half-aborted degenerate? Anyone finding something irregardless will also find themselves copping the full brunt of my most withering glare. Further, there’s no need to say you done something. Say you did it, it’s fewer letters.

Don’t get too caught up in proper grammar

OK, this sounds like a contradiction after everything I’ve just written but there are things more important than proper grammar, like not having everyone hate you. Correct someone’s spelling mistake if it’s for something important; that’s helpful. Don’t bother pointing out spelling mistakes on their Facebook statuses because that’s just being bitchy.

Happy New Year!

Mismatched Meanings

We need to stop doubling up on words. The English language has all these words with multiple meanings that actually contradict one another. These words are called contronyms (or auto-antonyms) – words that due to their multiple meanings, are actually antonyms of themselves. Such as:

Scan – originally it meant to carefully peruse something thoroughly and completely, but it also now means to quickly skim over something.

This is especially frustrating because, unlike other homonyms, which meaning is meant is not always made clear in the context of the sentence.

‘Is she a careful editor?’

‘See for yourself. She scans through all the material.’

Is this promoting her editorial skills or denouncing them? Is she carefully reading through everything or just glancing over it?

Consult – to ask or seek advice

‘I sought consult’ vs. ‘I gave consult’

Custom – may mean the usual or unusual

‘that is the custom’

‘Her jeans are custom’

Dust – Either remove dust or sprinkle something

Fast – quick or unmoving

‘He ran fast’ vs. ‘he was stuck fast’

Handicap – can mean an advantage or a disadvantage

Left – as in ‘who’s left?’ Are you asking who is still remaining or who has departed? Although to be fair, this is only a problem due to the contraction. When you expand it to either ‘who has’ or ‘who is’ the meaning becomes clear.

Oversight – to watch over or supervise vs. a failure to notice something

Temper – tempering metal means to solidify, yet tempering chocolate means to melt

Seriously, the English language can just be bizarre at times.

Grammar Nazis: What are the Limits of Tolerance?

Everyone knows one: that person that takes their love of grammar too far. (how could such a thing be possible!) Their Facebook wall consists only of correcting mistakes in other’s statuses. They see mangled syntax as sinful, grow tense when someone uses the wrong tense, and are averse to misused adverbs.

On the other hand we all know someone who flies in the face of all that is holy in grammar. To them, punctuation is merely a suggestion, not a rule; there isn’t enough time in the day for spell checking; they have a strong affinity for the caps lock key.

But which is worse: those that defy any attempts at proper grammar or those that enforce its every rule?

The point of grammar is to achieve clarity when reading, writing and speaking. We need clarity if we are to effectively communicate with others. So grammar definitely has an important role to play. But does it matter if we occasionally misspell or misuse a word? No, as long as your intended meaning is still clear. The stakes can be high when it’s the difference between ‘Let’s eat, Sarah’ and ‘Let’s eat Sarah’.

I do have my gripes though. I can’t help but add ‘ly’ to everyone’s adjective when they meant an adverb. ‘I ran quick’, ‘I laughed loud’, ‘I spoke rude’ all make me want to hit someone. (Preferably the person saying these.)

Incorrect tense is also annoying. ‘I done this’ is probably my most hated saying of all time. ‘I done this good’ just makes me cry. ‘I done this real good’: Now you must die.

I think we should also be more lenient with informal writing. I don’t care if somebody doesn’t capitalise the beginning of each sentence when they’re messaging me or there’s the occasional sentence fragment. Recently, a friend asked me ‘Weather’ I was free on the weekend, and I was able to cope with that because it was obvious what she meant. Abbreviations are usually fine as well when writing informally. You can take the ‘g’ off of ‘swimming’ and I’ll still understand what you mean, but I draw the line when ‘U start talkn Lyk dis cOs u a ganGsta’. And please, don’t just take the vowel out of every word. That’s not how you abbreviate.

So yes, little mistakes are fine as long as the meaning is still understandable. We should all aim for clarity but not get too caught up in getting everything write all the time. See?

Y: The Secret Vowel

Everyone knows what a vowel is: A, E, I, O and U. But those are vowels, so what is a vowel actually? According to Professor Google, a vowel is a speech sound produced by a relatively open or free vocal passage. Everyone’s taught that all words need a vowel. But not every word does contain a vowel. Could there be a secret vowel? I present to you the letter Y: the craftiest of all the letters. Covert consonant and undercover vowel. In most circumstances it is a consonant but Y is actually considered a vowel in certain contexts where the Y sound is created with an open vocal passage. There are a surprisingly large number of words that allegedly contain no vowel, but thankfully do because of Y’s resourcefulness. How many can you think of?

My, Try, Sky, Fry, Why

Gym, Hymn








And drumroll for the longest word ‘without’ any vowels (but we know better!):



Poor Mr. Y. He works so hard and never gets his dues. Y, I support you.

Words We’re Saying Wrong

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And what Alice found there)

Previously I wrote about common phrases and sayings that a lot of people misuse. Well, I now bring to you words that have been bastardised so much most people no longer realise their proper meaning.


Most people describe something fortuitous as being lucky or fortunate. In fact, most people would presume it is derived from ‘fortunate’. Fortuitous is actually derived from the Latin word ‘forte’ meaning ‘by chance’. Thus, fortuitous actually refers to something that has happened by chance or accident.


The misuse of nemesis particularly irks me because Agatha Christie has a book titled Nemesis in which the proper meaning of the word is applied. People nowadays use nemesis as synonymous with enemy. You would undoubtedly have heard people describe someone as their nemesis who they disliked or were in competition with. But the word actually derives from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of justice and retribution. Its formal meaning is a deserved punishment or defeat that is unavoidable. Basically, it stands for retributive justice. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it became associated with a person or event that brings about someone’s downfall. Still, this meaning has little to do with an enemy.


‘Disinterested’ is very often confused with ‘uninterested’. While there is only a matter of different prefixes there is a fairly considerable difference in meaning. Most people would think disinterested to refer to boredom or lack of interest in something. This is actually the meaning of uninterested. Disinterested means impartial or free from bias. So if someone is disinterested, they have no stake in the matter. Thus, they have no interests to protect.


Much like the disinterested/uninterested distinction, people often confuse ‘anxious’ with ‘nervous’. However, ‘nervous’ is usually confined to negative states of worry whereas ‘anxious’ can be a positive or negative mood state. another subtle difference is that ‘anxious’ implies anticipation of something whereas ‘nervous’ does not. For example, if you were nervous about an overseas trip it might be because you are scared of flying or travelling long distances. If you were anxious, however, you might be anxious about flying but you might also be anxious to leave now because you are excited for your trip. This way, anxious can be similar to eager.


Scan is the opposite of skim and yet these days they seem to be used fairly interchangeably. To scan something means to look at it closely and thoroughly. Alternatively, to skim something means to look over it briefly. Looking at how else the words are used shows this difference. If something skims over the water, it does so lightly and rapidly. A computer scanner reads the entire page and records it exactly.


Most people actually seem to know the difference between literally and figuratively, and yet ‘literally’ is still used as a hyperbolic exaggeration. When somebody proclaims it to be “literally raining cats and dogs” they of course don’t mean it to be actually raining cats and dogs. What they mean is ‘figuratively’. Literally is not a synonym for ‘really’ but means ‘in actual sense’.

Although, this meaning is still divergent from the original meaning of ‘word for word’. ‘literally’ used to only apply to instances where something had been copied out word for word or letter for letter. It had no application for non-literary situations. So when we chastise people for not using ‘literally’ to mean ‘actually’ we are also failing to use the word in its original sense. Literally!


I also need a special mention for ‘irregardless’. This must be the most commonly misused word of all time because it is (literally!) not a word! People use ‘irregardless’ to mean ‘regardless’. So why use ‘irregardless’ then? The suffix ‘less’ at the end of ‘regard’ means without regard to, so adding the prefix ‘ir’ to regardless negates the suffix. It’s just one of those bizarre mistakes people make and that somehow catch on.

He Said, She Interpolated

It’s a debate for the ages: is ‘he/she said’ enough or is there room for alternate speech tags?

There is some heated discussion over this question and most people seem to have a very firm belief about which is correct. As I’ve shown before I believe all rules should be used as a guideline; there is always room for interpretation and it usually comes down to a writer’s individual assessment of the particular situation.

Personally, ‘said’ will usually be enough to get by on. Due to its commonality ‘said’ is almost like a punctuation mark: readers instinctively know how to read it and it doesn’t distract from the story. This is essentially what the debate boils down to. A reader is interested in the story, not how many variants of ‘said’ you know, and they will respect you for your commitment to the story over the showing of your eloquence.

There are variants of ‘said’; however, that are appropriate in the proper context and are actually more appropriate than ‘said’ in these contexts. ‘Asked’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’, ‘laughed’ and ‘interrupted’ are all useful, suitable replacements for ‘said’ that are clearer and less conspicuous where appropriate.

It is easier to read:

‘What’s that?’ she asked.    than

‘What’s that?’ she said.


‘There’s something I need to tell you’, he whispered.     and

‘Don’t go in there!’ she shouted.    easily convey a tone of voice that mightn’t be apparent with ‘said’.

So common variants of ‘said’ are fine to use where the situation calls for them but lesser-known speech tags can create confusion and distract from the story, especially when a reader doesn’t know what the word means. Therefore it’s probably best to stay away from tags such as ‘enunciated’ when you mean ‘said’, ‘tittered’ when you mean ‘laughed’ or ‘elucidated’ when you mean ‘explained’.

But what about adverbs? Is it alright to spice up plain old ‘said’ with a few modifiers like ‘she said: softly, harshly, quickly, quietly or hesitantly’. Some might say it’s unnecessary and that what a character says should make it clear how they said it but I still believe adverbs can be used, as long as they are used properly, effectively and sparingly. A few adverbs can make apparent exactly how somebody spoke when ‘said’ just doesn’t cut it but, like anything else in writing, if they’re covering the page it soon becomes distracting for the reader.

Remember also that sometimes a speech tag isn’t needed at all. In brief conversations or when there is only one or two people speaking, the reader is able to determine who is talking without the use of a speech tag every time somebody speaks.

Like Stephen King once said, ‘I didn’t say that!’

Music’s Biggest Grammar Crimes

Pop songs: the pinnacle of grammar. Perhaps not. We can forgive singers taking some liberties with grammar in order to achieve the proper rhyme, rhythm and meter but we shouldn’t have to put up with utter nonsense. For your musical pleasure, I have compiled my own mix-tape of grammar gaffes of current and classic songs.

Double Negatives

Everyone should know double negatives are wrong because they just sound so wrong. Apparently these bands didn’t get that memo.

The Rolling Stones sang about how they ‘can’t get no satisfaction’. They can’t get no Nobel prize for literature, either.

In Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall they tell us they ‘don’t need no education’. Sorry Floyd but I think you do.

Similarly, TLC’s No Scrubs outlined the many reasons they ‘don’t want no scrubs’. Apparently, no education isn’t one of them. It sounds like the members of Pink Floyd would be a perfect match.

Misuse of Pronouns

A lot of people have difficulty knowing when to use ‘I’ and ‘me’. When you’re the subject of the sentence it’s ‘I’, as in ‘John and I chased a cat.’ When you’re the object of the sentence, it’s ‘me’, as in ‘The cat chased John and me’. If you’re always getting confused, don’t worry too much because a lot of singers have the same problem.

In No One, Alicia Keys just wanted ‘you and me together’. Oops, she actually meant ‘I’.

On the opposite end, Lady Gaga dedicated a whole song to the incorrect pronoun in You and I. ‘There’s something about, baby, you and I’ and it’s the incorrect use of the pronoun ‘I’. Miss Gaga goes on to hammer home her disdain for the word ‘me’ by shouting ‘you and I’ seven times in a single refrain.

Katy Perry’s song The One That Got Away would have been more appropriately titled The One Who Got Away, as long as the subject of the song does in fact refer to a person and not a thing. Maybe she really misses her dog that ran away.

Special mention goes to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games, which is a confusing mess due to her confusing use of pronouns. To understand, I’ve had to post the first three stanzas:

Swinging in the backyard
Pull up in your fast car
Whistling my name

Open up a beer
And you say get over here
And play a video game

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watching me get undressed
Take that body downtown

The first two lines get this confusing mess of pronouns rolling. The absence of a pronoun in the first line makes it difficult to know just who is swinging in the backyard. Is it you or Lara? Similarly, who’s opening the beer? The third stanza brings in ‘his’, so is she in the favourite dress of some man who is separate to the ‘you’? Also, is it his favourite sun dress of hers or his own?  Who’s watching her get undressed? You? Him? The sun dress?  Then she tells us to take ‘that’ body downtown. It’s not her body or your body. Maybe it’s the body of whoever’s swinging in the backyard. Lana, please sort out your pronouns and then get back to me. I’m horribly confused.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Like double negatives, most people can instantly tell when a subject is in agreement with its verb. This obviously doesn’t include pop stars.

In ringmaster Britney Spears’s Circus ‘there’s only two types of people in the world’. Poor Britney, it sounds fine until you expand the contraction ‘there’s’ and realise she said ‘there is’ instead of ‘there are’.

In Rich Girl, Gwen Stefani tells us what would happen if she ‘was a rich girl’. Hopefully, she’d enrol in some English courses.

Timbaland asked us if we could handle him ‘the way I are’. The answer is a resounding no, at least until he sorts out the am/are distinction.

Non-Existent Words

I don’t mean to pick on Lana Del Rey but when she’s not mixing up her pronouns she’s just plain making up words.  Again in Video Games, Lana says that you’re ‘the bestest’, which is a lovely sentiment but terribly idiotic. She even had the right word and then kept adding to it, presumably trying to make it betterer.

Elvis Presley meanwhile tells us we Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog. While I refute your claim, Elvis, you aren’t anything but a poor grammarian. Even if dear Elvis had correctly used ‘aren’t’, the fact is he is still guilty of a double negative.

The Black Eyed Peas sing I Gotta Feeling. Presumably they were aiming for ‘I’ve got a feeling’ but took a wrong turn in the land of bad grammar.

When Justin Timberlake informed us that What Goes Around comes around he also told us ‘When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl’. Fair enough, with all that internal bleeding you’re apt to make a few poor word choices.

Misunderstanding of Irony

I reserve an honorary spot just for Alanis Morissette and her horribly wrong Ironic.

According to Alanis, irony is ‘rain on your wedding day’, ‘a free ride when you’ve already paid’ and ‘good advice that you just didn’t take’. Unfortunately for Alanis, none of these are ironic; they’re just unfortunate or annoying situations. The type of irony Alanis was attempting to explain is situational irony: an outcome or event that is the opposite of what would have been expected. It raining on your wedding day is unfortunate but in no way ironic. Perhaps if you had actively ‘ensured’ against it raining on your wedding day by holding your wedding in a desert where it hadn’t rained for three years and it raining anyway would be ironic. A free ride when you’ve already paid isn’t ironic. You don’t expect to be offered a free ride after paying but you also don’t expect to not be offered a free ride after paying. You just really don’t consider either option. It would perhaps be ironic if after paying you were offered a free ride which you accepted but the free ticket had expired and you were fined for fare evasion.

Sadly, it seems the only ironic thing about Ironic is that none of the situations she sings about are ironic. ‘Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?’

Death of the Adverb

It’s always open season on adverbs. No other word class attracts such contempt. It’s fashionable to hate adverbs; many so-called ‘pros’ will demand total adverb abstinence and many people subsequently remove adverbs with reckless abandon. Why? Because that’s what people say to do. Well that’s a stupid reason to do something so again I ask, ‘why?’

Adverbs are redundant. Anyone will tell you. Consider the following sentence:

She ran quickly.

Obviously, the adverb – ‘quickly’—is unnecessary in the sentence because ‘ran’ already establishes her quickness. Or does it? Does everybody run quickly? What if the subject is an eighty-year-old infirmed obese lady? Is the quickness of her running so clearly established?

So adverbs can be useful in modifying verbs but if the quickness of the person isn’t established by ‘ran’ then rather than modifying the verb what about changing it? There is a multitude of interchangeable verbs that carry their own connotations.

She hobbled

She sprinted

She darted

She scurried

She loped 

She shuffled

All of these verbs describe a different sort of movement that is much more evocative than the simple ‘ran’. So we can understand why the argument against adverbs makes sense. Rather than using an adverb to modify a weak verb it is far better to change the verb to a more suitable one.

The problem isn’t that adverbs are redundant. The problem is that people are making poor word choices and are trying to fix this with adverbs. While adverbs are one solution, better word choice is the better solution.

Adverbs aren’t the problem. But they’re also not the solution. So what to do with them?  Avoiding all adverbs is foolish because it shows an ignorance of the scope of what adverbs actually do. Adverbs modify not only verbs but adjectives and other adverbs as well.

She was the least impressive dancer.

The adverb ‘least’ is modifying the adjective ‘impressive’.

The letter should arrive very soon.

The adverb ‘very’ is modifying the other adverb, ‘soon’.


There are also two categories of adverbs that do more than just modify single words. They modify the entire sentence. They are crucial to the meaning of the sentence, and to remove them changes the sentence’s meaning.

The first of these – conjuncts – include words such as hence, however, therefore and thus. Similar to conjunctions – which join smaller parts of sentences together – conjuncts join whole sentences together.

So we might have something like:

Marcia’s in trouble. However, I don’t want to go out in the rain.

The use of ‘however’ joins the ideas of the two sentences and shows a clear link between them. Without ‘however’ the two sentences aren’t necessarily linked and the relation between the two is lost. So removing conjuncts from sentences is not a great idea.

The second category of adverbs – attitudinal adverbs – express an attitude that relates to the overall proposition of the sentence.

In the following sentences, attitudinal adverbs are italicised.

Maybe she will come.

Sadly that’s not the case.

Fortunately Stephanie Meyer has many years of writing ahead of her.

In each sentence, the attitudinal adverb changes the entire tone and overall meaning of the sentence.

‘Maybe she will come’ has an implication distinctly different to ‘She will come.’ It would be awfully silly if we were to remove attitudinal adverbs from sentences.

Here are some other really useful adverbs that you probably use all the time and just can’t do without:

Also, never, not, next, often, seldom, then.


So we definitely don’t want to remove all adverbs from our writing. I think the crusade against adverbs needs itself to be modified. Rather than fighting against adverbs we should be fighting for clear and efficient writing. Always strive to write accurately what you mean. Often, modifying the word choice with a synonym rather than modifying the word with an adverb will provide you with a more accurate depiction of what you are attempting to say. Sometimes you just won’t be able to find a more appropriate word and it is perfectly fine to make use of an adverb. If the adverb is contributing to the meaning and there isn’t a simpler, more appropriate way of doing so, keep the adverb. If the adverb is trying to hide poor word choice, then dispose of it.

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