Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Morphology: Word Structure' Category

The Fate of English Plurals

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Jan Miele sent me the following note today:

I’ve just this MOMENT received an email with this subject line: “Hurry, there’s only a few hours left to pick your offer.” Shouldn’t this read instead as: “Hurry, there are only a few hours left to pick your offer.”

I’m seeing this sort of thing all the time now! What’s up with that?

My response was as follows:

If you are a linguist, read Lorimor, H., Bock, J. K., Zalkind, E., Sheyman, A., & Beard, R. 2008. “Agreement and attraction in Russian.” Language and Cognitive Processes 23, 769-799, and the works on English listed in the references by Kay Bock. She thinks there is some change in the grammar of English taking place, whereby agreement marks the last word in the subject noun phrase, for example “a group of girls have arrived” instead of “a group of girls has arrived”.

I disagree with my former student. I think that English is losing the category ‘plural agreement’ in verbs and there is no consistency or pattern in verbal agreement. The tendency for the verb to agree with the final noun in a noun phrase is just a logical speech error in the transition. Bock’s position doesn’t make sense grammatically; it would defeat the purpose of agreement, which is to show the head of a subject noun phrase.

Your example confirms my position, since there is no noun phrase involved here. Actually, I’ve heard the example you sent so often, I sometimes catch myself making the same mistake, if it is a mistake in a transitional stage of development.

Laying the Lie-Lay Confusion to Rest

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Ted Whittier is at it again:

“Thanks, again, for your interesting and informative daily word pieces. I enjoy them immensely.”

“I do have a question however. Has the use of the words lay and lie changed since I went to school? In your word piece today for crepuscular, in the Notes section, fifth sentence, you state: ‘. . . so we mustn’t just let it lay there.’ I seem to recall that if we lay something down we then let it lie not lay. What say you, good Doctor?”

Ted, when you’re right, you’re right. I had written “lie there” and was called on it by one of my editors, but then forgot to correct it.

Lie differs from lay in that it is intransitive (can’t take a direct object) and lay is transitive can take a direct object, so “I lie down” but “I lay the paper down”.

The problem is, and has been for centuries, the past tense of lie is lay—lie, lay, lain. The parts of speech of lay are lay, laid, laid.

I’ve written on this problem somewhere else on the website and forgot in the heat of getting out the Good Word (usually late at night) my own advice.

Thank you for catching that.

Romnesia in the Lamestream Media

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

President Obama has introduced a new word into the political debate: romnesia. Romnesia is a good word, politically loaded in just the right way. It is better than the Repuslican near synonym, flip-flop, because flip-flop existed previous to the Bush – Kerry faceoff and when we hear this word we see a pair of plastic sandals. The runner-up comes from the last presidential campaign, Sarah Palin’s lamestream media, a blend of lame-brained and mainstream media.

Romnesia edges out lamestream media by a hair since it is a properly constructed single-word blend of Romny and amnesia. It really isn’t a strict synonym of flip-flop or even etch-a-sketch. Because of its implication of loss of memory, it has a jocular implication that Romney can’t keep up with where he stands on a particular issue from appearance to appearance.

All these words are all nonce words, of course, used for political purposes over the course of presidential campaigns. There is little chance that they will remain in the language after the election. (Flip-flop is the exception since it was in the language already.)

Of Desnorolators and Other Things

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My wife and I returned the favor to our 7-year-old granddaughter, Abigail, and did a “sleepover” with her and her sister. Their parents wanted to attend a concert which would run late and, from their perspective, what we were doing was mundane baby-sitting.

When we arrived the first topic to come up was my legendary snoring. I explained that we had both brought our c-paps, a medical device intended to prevent sleep apnia, but which doubles as a snore preventer. Abigail apparently didn’t know the word “c-pap”, for she immediately responded, “Did you bring your desnorolators?”

Desnorolators? How did she, indeed, how could she come up with that word? We totally understood her, told her, “Yes, we did,” and watched the event pass quickly into family legend. We all agreed that the word she had just concocted was far more fanciful and memorable than c-pap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word pronounced c-pak.

Upon closer examination we can see that Abigail did a remarkable job of word formation. She knew that the prefix de- meant “not” and that the suffix -at(e) was a suffix that converts nouns to verbs. She knew the suffix -or converts verbs to personal nouns. She also got them in the right order. The only slip she made was to build a Latinate derivation from a Germanic verb, snore. But since she does not speak Latin we can forgive her that error.

Children are learning machines, particularly when it comes to language. But such complex lexical constructions should be well beyond the capabilites of a 7-year-old.

Attending to the Problem of ‘Attendee’

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Aubrey Waddy dropped me a line right after the Good Word mentor appeared. Here is the gist of our conversation:

“Thanks for the daily exploration and today’s word, mentor: good fun as usual. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a boy, in English I hasten to add, and they were great adventures; I’d forgotten Mentor.”

“Your use of the word advisee, however, prompts me to ask whether you can address the abominable word attendee. I pedantically make a point of using attender, but it’s a lost cause.”

This confusion is a result of the two different meanings of attend: “to take care of” (intransitive) and “to go to” (transitive). There is an old tendency in English to use (1) -ee (standee, devotee, retiree) and (2) -ant (congregantclaimant, and applicant) as the personal (agentive) suffixes for intransitive verbs, words that cannot take a direct object in some sense. The suffix -er at one time applied only to transitive verbs like drinker, eater, player, words that can take a direct object.

Notice, however, I say ‘tendency’ not ‘rule”, for the tendency is dying out now in favor of a general suffix -er: runner, swimmer, walker. This probably relates to the difficulty in keeping transitive and intransitive verbs straight. Run, swim, walk may all now be used transitively, as to run the course, swim the river, walk the dog.

Now, getting back to attendee. Someone who attends to someone might be called an attendee but for whatever reason attendant seems to be preferred, probably because this word is a borrowing from French. To attend a meeting, however, implies a transitive verb, suggesting attender the correct form. So you are right in claiming that attender is more appropriate than attendee; in fact, I see no room for attendee under any guise with its current meaning.

But don’t expect a change any time soon; this word is too firmly embedded in the vocabulaty now.


Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

I received a question from Jerrel de Kok today which I thought might interest those following this blog. First, let me apologize from my long silence. Lexiteria, the parent company of alphaDictionary, has been working on a large order for highly customized frequency lists for 25 languages from Google. It has taken over my life for the past year but today I am happy to announce it is completed.

Now for the question:

Do you have a service where I could enter a definition and get the appropriate word to use? The situation that got me thinking about this is as follows. I got an email from a service member and in it was contained the expression; ‘WAAA-FRIEKING-HOOOO!’ I would think the English language has a word describing the interjection of one word into the middle of another.

It does, indeed, Jerrel, though you might have trouble pronouncing it: “tmesis”. You might prefer the old fashioned linguistic term “sandwich word”, since the interloping word is sandwiched in between the first and second part of the matrix word. The interloper is usually vulgar: abso-damn-lutely, far-freaking-out, kanga-bloody-roos.

They are not always vulgar, however, as any-old-how, what-place-soever, and a-whole-nother demonstrate. The misanalysis of the latter matrix word is giving rise to a new word in some dialects.

Sandwich terms are speech flourishes we use in order to maximally emphasize a word. Most linguists would not consider them a legitimate part of English grammar.

How Many Meanings of “UP”?

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Up, up, upLou Ann Freeman finally sent me a really funny essay about the many meanings of the word “up”, so I’ll take the opportunity to write up my thoughts on this subject. It was on my agenda the year I retired from academia, but I never quite found time to look up up. You may very well be among the very first to understand exactly how it operates.

To get us started, here is the beginning of the essay that Lou Ann sent:

  • “People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.
  • To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP  is  special.
  • And this is confusing:  A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.
  • We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP   at night.
  • We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!”

Well, no, we aren’t. It is true that up has several functions. It can be an adverb, as when prices go up. I can be a preposition as when the monkey goes up the flagpole. It is a verb when we up the ante.  Finally, it can be a verbal particle, which is quite different from a preposition, though most prepositions server double duty as a verbal particle.

So, what is a verbal particle? English uses verbal particles the way other Indo-European languages use prefixes.  The English verb chase out corresponds to the German hinausjagen made up of the prefix hinaus “out” + jagen “to chase”. In Russian gnat’ means “to chase” and “chase out” = vygnat’ with the prefix vy- “out”.

So out in chase out is a verbal particle, predictable by the fact that it does not require an object and moves around freely in a sentence: “I chased the cat out” or “I chased out the cat.” The verbal particle up behaves similarly: “I dressed up the cat” or “I dressed the cat up.”

Since particles behave like prefixes and suffixes in other languages, it means that they are not real words but function words, words that represent grammatical categories, like past tense, plural, and comparative. Up the verbal particle expresses the perfect aspect, a verb category that indicates a completed action. It is very consistent in this expression.

In most cases, it can be translated as “completely” for this adverb indicates the absolute completion of an action. So the difference between opening a store and opening it up a can, let’s say, is the fact that the can has been completely opened. A drain that is clogged up is one that is completely clogged. (A clogged drain might still let some water pass.) If you dress, you put on clothes but if you dress up, you are completely dressed, that is, as best you can be dressed.

Before I finish up, let me say this: I enjoyed Lou Ann’s essay; the writer brought up about as much humor from this misconception as may be found there. However, when properly used, language is very consistent. It is about 2-3% irregular but, considering the species that uses it, that is a modest deviation.  Up is not one of the irregularities.

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)

The Tale of Two Thans

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden and Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira), has complained about the use of the objective case with than in several of our recent Good Words. Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I have to respond more fully.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with current English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa’s Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences, translated by James Sandford (1569:165): “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

Nor is it uncommon or unexpected. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (than, as, but—as in everyone but her), even the occasional prepositional phrase (alongside).

While many careful readers try to use than purely as a conjunction, the examples drawn from various sources over the centuries in the OED show that this change is not an example language degeneration. I see nothing wrong with going with the flow here, given the origins and histories of conjunctions.

Silly Words in English

Friday, November 19th, 2010

This is just a note to alert blog readers that over the week of November 13-18 I will be featuring silly English words, most of which were just too silly to be included in The 100 Funniest Words in English. The five I chose are:

Let us know on the contact page at if I missed your favorite. If we like it, too, we’ll see if we can see if it has a good story and run it in the series.