For the Love of Prepositions Part 1 (at)

I have always reserved a special affection for prepositions. I love the way they combine functionality with brevity and beauty and their capacity to effect subtle changes in meaning. I am also fascinated by the various shapes they assume and the way the uses to which they are put shift over time; and the fact that, even when closely related etymologically, they are not easily mapped from one language onto another.

In so far as prepositions serve both to concatenate weightier lexical items into meaningful phrases and as a basis—by way of affixation—for the creation of new words, they can be seen as the linguistic equivalent of the subatomic particles that invisibly glue reality together, and yet, on closer examination, are found to exhibit the oddest quirks and bizarre patterns of behavior.

This series of blog posts will look at some of my favorite prepositions from the combined perspective of someone who is both a poet and a language teacher.

Part 1—AT

‘At’ is one of the trickiest prepositions from the point of view of someone coming to English as a second language. It is one of the last things that even advanced learners manage to master and even those who begin to acquire a taste for it tend thereafter to employ it more liberally than necessary.

The reason why learners find prepositions in general—and the in/at/on distinction in particular—so difficult to acquire is that they have been schooled to think in terms of rules and exceptions, rather than in terms of flavors and patterns.

The problem with the rules and exceptions approach is that language does not work in this mechanistic way and, as a result, exceptions tend to outweigh rules, a situation that, understandably, generates nothing but frustration. Why do people say ‘in the morning,’ ‘in the afternoon’ and ‘in the evening’, but ‘at night’? And, if this is a rule, how is it that things can ‘go bump in the night’? Why do people say ‘at the weekend’ in the UK, but ‘on the weekend’ in the US?

An honest and well-meaning but somewhat facile, supercilious and unhelpful response to such reasonable questions is simply to say “Because they do. Don’t worry about it.” Many teachers these days—rightly wary of grammar books—provide just this kind of answer to students and, given that it is, objectively speaking, indisputably the ‘right answer,’ it is very tempting to do so.

Subjectively, however, such a response sends a very mixed message to the learner. On the one hand, it offers no explanation whatsoever for something the student finds troubling and mysterious; on the other it tells them that this mysterious something doesn’t matter and should not be bothered about. This is akin to telling a small child frightened by a bump in the night that such noises ‘just happen’ ‘so there’s no need to be scared.’ A non sequitur that has kept many an active young mind anxiously awake at night.

How though do we avoid sending this mixed and unhelpful message without falling back on essentially untrue (or at best highly inadequate) formal rules and explanations?

I believe the best way to do this is to learn to see language in a different way—not as a machine whose nuts and bolts need to be unpicked, but as a gourmet dish to be savored or a symphony to be enjoyed and reflected on. That way a peculiarity or an irritating exception can be reconfigured emotionally as a charming detail or pleasing discovery.

I do not—given the weight of pedagogical and social history that urges us to think, act and feel otherwise—underestimate just how difficult it is to effect such a change of mindset. But I am certain that it is the way to go and am increasingly convinced that it is the only way that people ‘properly’ learn a second language.

In this spirit, my ‘explanations’ of prepositions aim to contribute in some small way to this change. I try to use etymology, history, comparison with other languages, speculation and poetry and constant reference to everyday life to convey a ‘feel’ for the language rather than construct an abstract explanation. I attempt neither to shrug mysteries off nor explain them away.

“At” is a very ancient preposition and it crops up all over the Indo-European ‘family’ of languages at various points in space and time. Its form has suffered very little alteration over time from its ancient roots. English ‘at’ is cognate with Latin ‘ad’.

In some Germanic languages (German and Dutch, for instance) it has lost out completely to a preposition cognate with English ‘to;’ while, in the Scandinavian languages, the reverse has occurred, ‘to’ losing out to ‘at’. English, as if often the case, lies somewhere in between the Scandinavian and Continental Germanic languages. “At’ and “to” both still exist, although ‘at’ has ceded a lot of ground to ‘to’. We do not, for example, normally use ‘at’ for movement towards [but see below for a case where we do].

In neo-Latin languages ‘ad’ is still very much alive and kicking in the form of “a” and has retained both of its original meanings of ‘movement towards’ and ‘location in’ a place. In European Portuguese it is routinely used with verbs in the infinitive to convey a progressive or continuous aspect, a feature absent from Brazilian Portuguese, but a very interesting one with an intriguing parallel in English (to which I shall return later).

Like all prepositions, ‘at’ has a tendency to shift from a purely spatial meaning to adopt a temporal one as well. We thus say “at six o´clock” by analogy with “at home.” The prefix a- (in ‘away’, ‘aside’, ‘about’, ‘around’ etc.) may also be related to ‘at’, but this is more controversial and it is clearly not related in a direct fashion.

There is a strong feel to ‘at’ of something that is fixed in the ground at a specific point, and by extension at specific points in time. To my synesthetic poet’s mind, the final –t even has the sound of someone hammering a post into the earth to demarcate territory.

We are thus ‘at home’, when we are at home; and we reside at an address. By extension, the bookkeeping symbol @ (pronounced ‘at’ and used to refer to price/cost per unit), made obsolete by the advent of electronic spreadsheets, has now been universally adopted to indicate an e-mail address.

We do not, however, live “*at Birmingham”, because Birmingham is a vast sprawling conurbation surrounding us. We live in Birmingham, in the West Midlands, in England, in the United Kingdom, in Europe. Such geographical frames of reference are not specific or personal enough to merit ‘at’. They embrace us; but it is difficult for us to embrace them.

Following the metaphor of the post in the ground, ‘at’ is also the natural preposition of choice for signposting and the giving of directions. “Turn left at the crossroads.” “There are a lot of people at the bus stop.” “I’ll meet you at the library.” “The train stops at Birmingham.” (i.e. at the railway station—a point on a rail network—passengers are not at liberty to get off and wander around in Birmingham for a while before continuing their journey!)

This signposting usage extends both to time and to written or spoken text. “at the start”, “at the end” “at the bottom of the page” “at the start of his speech” etc. etc.

This may also (and it is a big MAY) explain “at night” and “at the weekend” (in UK usage). Different from morning, afternoon and evening, the night is traditionally regarded as a time of repose, when people are at home, asleep. The night is more a point of positional reference, marking one day from the next, than a period of time in which people go about their business. Ghosts, however, do not go to sleep at night; they move about in it making bumping noises. Likewise, the weekend marks one week off from the next and is a time of repose, when people are at home rather than at work.

Why then do we say “at work” meaning “at one’s place of work?” This is arguably yet another extension of the fixed-in-the-ground flavor of ‘at’. We say that we are ‘at’ a place or an institution, when we are there for some specific practical purpose for which that place or institution is designed. Worshippers are ‘at church’ worshipping; while tourists are ‘in the church’ taking selfies. “My daughter is studying at the university,” but escaped convicts are found hiding “in the university.” Yet again we get a clear flavor of fixed in space, fit for a specific purpose and emotional attachment in the case of ‘at’, while ‘in’ is enclosing, non-specific, and neutral, if not alienating.

The same principle may also apply loosely to a wide range of fixed phrases: “at peace,” “at war”, “in doubt,” “in despair”, “at rest”, “in confusion”, but this may be a speculation too far.

There are some cases where ‘at’ retains its older meaning of ‘movement towards’. These are confined to prepositional and phrasal verbs and always overlaid in some way with something of the fixed in the ground flavor I have outlined above.

If I throw a ball to someone, I intend them to catch it; but if I throw a ball at someone, I intend to hurt or startle them. In the first case, I am, to some extent, at least temporarily, relinquishing ownership of the ball and it leaves my emotional space and enters that of another. But in the latter, I am using the ball to invade their emotional space or co-opt them into mine—telling them, in contemporary colloquial parlance, “where I am at.” Likewise, if I talk to someone, I am having a mutual conversation or expecting them to listen to and mull over what I am saying; whereas, if I talk at them, I am merely giving orders or letting off steam, regardless of whether they are listening or likely to respond.

Finally, I turn to speculation regarding the use of a- as a prefix in English, especially the archaic use of a- plus the –ing form of the verb (a circumfix—lovely word!) to indicate continuity or persistence of action. It is not possible to say for certain whether this is related to ‘at’, in fact, it is most likely that, strictly speaking, it is not. The now largely non-productive a- prefix in English derives from the corruption and conflation of various archaic prefixes. The situation is muddied, perhaps irreparably so, by the fact that the prefix has been used in this way by various English poets and song-writers over a long period of time to produce a kind of faux archaic effect, to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the fake from the genuine article in extant historical corpora.

But does this matter? The apparent connection between ‘at’ and the modern use of the progressive is so tantalizing it is hard not to believe that there is some truth in it. The continuous form of the verb in modern English emerged somewhat suddenly and mysteriously and most scholars now concur that it is not related to a similar Anglo-Saxon form, which had a different structure and function.

A more promising suggestion is that the form reflects a very similar one in Celtic languages. But this theory begs serious historical explanations as to why such a substrate should suddenly pop up again. Recent archaeological and genetic research and new historical methodologies have cast considerable doubt on traditional accounts of how England was populated and thereby how English developed as a language. Unfortunately it would inflate this post very greatly, if I went into all this in any detail here.

Instead, I’ll go back to intuition and feel.

Language is nothing if not perverse when looked at in terms of rules. According to Salikoko Mufwene of the University of Chicago, the functions of the present continuous in modern English can be summarized as follows:

  • [I]t converts events expected to be punctual into longer-lasting, even if transient, states of affairs [e.g., “Nancy is writing a letter”];
  • it [con]versely converts those states of affairs expected to last long (lexical statives) to shorter-lasting / transient states of affairs [e.g., “Tom is living with us”];
  • and it simply presents those verbs whose denotations are neutral with regard to duration as in process / in (transient) duration [e.g., “The wall is cracking”], though duration is most expected of statives.

Though this explanation may appear to tie common-sense into Mobius-strip-like knots in one’s brain, it is actually the best description (objectively speaking) of the use of the form that I have so far come across. The present continuous/progressive can be used to lengthen an action that would otherwise be perceived to be punctual or very transient, shorten an action that would otherwise be perceived to be permanent or long-lasting, or convey the fact that we care about neither of the above. It can be used to produce opposite effects or to indicate the presence of neither. Wow!

I shall analyze this extensively and in a more serious manner in one of my future posts on the nature of the English verb. Here I am more interested in whether the scent of ‘at’ can be detected in any of these distinctions. “Nancy is writing a letter” could easily be an erosion of “Nancy is a-writing a letter” (a form that is attested but archaic, perhaps faux archaic) or “*Nancy is at writing a letter.” (a form that is frustratingly absent from the written record). She has her mind fixed on this activity; she is dominating it; it is not dominating her. Modern constructions such as “Nancy is good at writing letters,” although somewhat different in meaning, suggest at least, the possibility of some such connection, as do the tantalizing similarities with Celtic languages and modern European Portuguese.

As studies of etymology and historical linguistics tend to end, with all the inevitability but none of the implicit optimism of scientific papers that urge the ‘need for further research’, ‘we will probably never know.’

This is the point where science and language most radically diverge. In science, everything is potentially knowable; in language, most things will always remain unknown.


The Truth about English Verbs Part 2

2. The Relative Frequency of the English Verb Forms in Natural Discourse

Even using modern computer technology and corpora (large collections of digitalized texts and transcriptions of spoken discourse) it is more difficult to count the frequency of verb forms or—harder still—the uses to which they are being put than it is to calculate the prevalence of individual words. Such a task still largely has to be done by human hand and brain. However, even a superficial investigation, reveals some clear overriding patterns.

The statistics I present here are culled from a 1969 Czech thesis (Krámský, 1969), which was merely the one I found most readily to hand on the Internet and most easily adaptable for use by non-linguists. Modern linguistics tends to use terminology and categories that differ significantly from those still employed by language teachers and in popular parlance. However, since my aim here is to investigate the prevalence of precisely those categories still regularly employed in language learning, a more old-fashioned study is more useful. The subject of the usefulness or not of modern scientific linguistic categories for language learning purposes is one to which I will return in future posts, but it is not my main focus here.

Krámský’s thesis is based on a fairly crude, but sound, descriptive statistical analysis of three kinds of corpus (middle-brow novels, plays in colloquial modern language, and academic textbooks). I have checked his findings using three texts of my own choosing (a different, more modern, middle-brow novel, a TV screenplay, and an academic paper—in the field of medicine) and my results (not given here) largely concur with his, suggesting both that Krámský’s findings are broadly accurate for these three kinds of text and that there has been little change over the past 45 years.

I summarize Krámský’s findings in the following table:

Frequency of Verb Forms by Type of Text
Novel/Prose Narrative Drama/Conversational Discourse
Verb Form Frequency (%) Verb Form Frequency (%)
Preterite Simple Active 48.5 Present Simple Active 44
Present Simple Active 30.1 Preterite Simple Active 26.6
Pluperfect Simple Active 5.1 Present Perfect Simple Active 7
Present Perfect Simple Active 3.1 Future Active 5.1
Conditional Present Active 3.1 Present Continuous Active 5.1
Present Continuous Active 2.7 Conditional Present Active 3.6
Preterite Continuous Active 2.3 Pluperfect Simple Active 1.9
Preterite Simple Passive 2.1 Present Perfect Continuous Active 1.5
Future Active 1.3 Preterite Continuous Active 1.4
Conditional Past Active 1.3
Present Simple Passive 1
TOTAL 98.3 TOTAL 98.5
All other verb forms 1.7 All other verb forms 1.5
Academic Total
Verb Form Frequency Verb Form Frequency
Present Simple Active 67.5 Present Simple Active 44.1
Preterite Simple Active 10.2 Preterite Simple Active 27.6
Conditional Present Active 4.8 Future Active 4.5
Present Perfect Simple Active 3.8 Present Perfect Simple Active 4.1
Present Simple Passive 2.9 Conditional Present Active 3.8
Future Active 2.4 Present Simple Passive 3.8
Present Continuous Active 2.2 Present Continuous Active 3.3
Pluperfect Simple Active 1.2 Pluperfect Simple Active 2.4
Preterite Simple Passive 1.8
Preterite Continuous Active 1.5
All other verb forms 5 All other verb forms 3.1

These figures require a number of comments, explanations and criticisms.

Krámský uses the term Preterite, where I use Past. Both terms are in current use, but I think that Past is now the more common, at least in the ELT community, and more easily understood, so I shall continue to use it here. Likewise Krámský uses the term Pluperfect where I follow more recent usage in referring to this form as the Past Perfect.

It is not clear whether Krámský’s ‘Future Active’ refers to the ‘will+bare verb’ form or to all the various forms used to express a future action or prediction. I presume the former. Likewise, it is unclear whether the Present Continuous categories include both the use of the form for a continuing action and to refer to the near planned future or just a continuing action. Again I presume the former. Given this, the ‘Future’ may be somewhat underestimated in the analysis of these corpora.

Krámský does not include the infinitive (bare or not) constructions involving modal verbs or the –ing form of the verb, except where this is construed as part of a ‘continuous’ construction.

These limitations, however, (except perhaps for the one relating to the various ‘future’ forms) are mere quibbles; the overall pattern is clear.

The conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  1. In all forms of discourse the simple active past and present forms are overwhelmingly the most prevalent: 78.6% in the case of narrative prose; 70.6% for drama as a proxy for conversational discourse; 77.7% for academic writing; and 71.6% overall.
  2. In prose narrative, the past simple accounts for 48.5% of the total, compared to 30.1% for the present simple. In drama, this pattern is reversed, with 44.0% for the present simple and 26.6% for the past simple. In academic discourse a full 67.6% of verbs are in the present simple form, with only 10.2% for the past simple. This distinction between prose narrative and spoken discourse in this respect concurs with common-sense intuition, but the overwhelming prevalence of the present simple active in academic discourse belies the commonly-held belief or anxiety that this kind of discourse is especially complex, difficult or deliberately alienating. The most complex style of discourse, according to these statistics, so far as verb forms are concerned, is, in fact, spoken conversational discourse and the reality of such discourse, as opposed to a skilled playwright’s imitation of it, may be more complex and varied still.
  3. Continuous forms of the verb are far rarer than simple ones in all forms of discourse. 5%+<1.7% in prose narrative, compared to 93.3%+<1.7% for simple forms. 8%+<1.5% in drama, compared to 90.5%+<1.5%. 2.2%+<5% in academic discourse compared to 92.8%+<5%; and 4.8% +< 3.1% compared to 92.1% + < 3.1% overall. This is vastly disproportionate to the quantity of content and priority accorded to this form in textbooks and classrooms. A matter upon which I shall expand in the next section.
  4. Perfect forms account for 8.2+<1.7% of all verb forms in prose narrative, 10.4% + <1.5% in dramatic discourse, 5% + < 5% in academic writing, and 6.5% + < 3.1% overall. Perfect forms are thus considerably more frequent in all types of discourse than continuous ones.
  5. Passive forms are very rare, even in academic discourse, the approximate frequencies being 2.1%, 1%, and 2.9% in narrative, conversational and academic discourse respectively, and 5.6% overall.

These results back up my claim in the previous section that the English verb system is much simpler than it is held to be by learners, teachers and linguists alike. The more complex forms of the verb appear, when viewed from this perspective, as exotic, largely decorative, lace-like features, lining an otherwise fairly easily produced and reproduced, and much more extensive, fabric of simple past and present forms. These forms are ‘simple’ both in the technical grammatical and vernacular sense of the word.

This simple finding, documented over forty years ago in an obscure journal from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, but easily replicated today, raises numerous issues.

Why do materials used in the English language teaching community still today tend not to reflect this clear pattern of usefulness and frequency? If contemporary scientific linguists are right in claiming that more in-depth and extensive empirical studies of such language features invalidate traditional categorizations and terminology and learning methods, why have these supposed advances in language science not yet been taken up by language-teaching professionals? Why have apparently obviously needed reforms not been introduced into language teaching and why is any attempt to do so vigorously opposed or ignored by learners and teachers alike?

These are hard questions, more easily brushed aside by the various institutions and individuals that have competing stakes in them than confronted head-on. In the following sections of this series, I shall attempt to scratch away at the hard surface of these three crucial questions as best I can.

In Part III, I will endeavor to show how and suggest why language-teaching materials almost universally diverge, in terms of content, emphasis and order of priority, from actual natural usage. In Part IV, I explore, as best I can, how the principles of modern linguistics both undermine and replicate the prescriptivism of classical rhetoric and how they have thus failed to gain much traction in the actual business and practice of language teaching and learning. In Part V, I reflect on why the apparently eminently commonsensical ‘lexical approach’ to language teaching methodology has had such little impact on the industry, despite having been around for over twenty years. Finally, in Part VI, I shall attempt to pull all these threads together and present the issues in a broader historical, political, economic and ideological context that may prove more illuminating than any narrow focus on linguistic prescription and abstraction.


Krámský, Jirí (1969) “Verb-form Frequency in Englishin Brno Studies in English Vol. 8.

Poetry Rehab 101-Away

I could not resist posting this poem from ten years ago as my contribution to Poetry Rehab 101- Away. It seems to fit so well with Mara’s prompt this week.

This is the last and gentlest in a series of five very, very loose translations of elegies by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius on the theme of ‘conjugal discord in a context of international conflict’ that I produced between 2003 and 2005. Like the other four ‘translations,’ which are much more vicious than this one, it is written in the voice of an imaginary character who is neither myself nor the author of the original work. The voice I am aiming at here, different from that of the raucous, rough-hewn characters who inhabit the earlier poems in the series, is that of a relatively well educated person who is world-weary and resigned to his fate. The numerical titles of these poems refer to the numbering of Propertius’s poems in standard editions, should anyone be interested in looking them up.

All feedback, as always, is welcome.


III xxi


Gotta get away.

Gotta get somewhere far from here.

Some place serious with a university

& sort out my serious woman troubles

on the long way.

‘Cos your girl worries only grow & grow

when you bump into her every day;

love fuels itself.

Everything is a temptation;

and the business of it bothers even my dreams.


There’s only one thing for it:

change address as often as she changes

mind and mood.

That way

I’ll keep love a safe distance from my soul.


& so, off we go again. Let’s launch

off into the air, Captain.

Put our fate in the hands of metal wings,

nose our way through the clouds into a jet-stream.

Let it carry us on our long-haul through the sky.

Cheerio towerblocks! Cheerio friendless city!

Ciao, ciao! Darling whatever you were!

& there I’ll be:

stuck in a seat with a safety belt,

being waited on by stewardesses,

held 30,000 feet up in the turbulent air,

praying there’ll be no in-flight incident,

to the incessant roar

of engines against earth’s resisting atmosphere.

Till they turn them off

& all turns eerily placid and still

& we begin our calm fall

through the air. Touch

earth with a bumping jolt of relief.

Even then, it’s not over.

The airport is a long isthmus

fingering the sky. You sit,

impatient, as the huge, metal pterodactyl,

lithe in the air,

taxis clumsily in from the runway.

Take a bus to the labyrinth of escalators

& queues of Terminal 2.


So, there I’ll be. What’ll I do now?

Check out a copy of Adam Smith

& set about putting myself straight

in local libraries. Hang around parks

and gardens of stately homes designed

by Capability Brown. Brush up

on my rhetorical skills in the armories

of Dr. Johnson, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke.

Relish the wit of Coward and Wilde.

& see which Turners or Gainsboroughs still take my fancy

in the V & A. Or better still, bronzes

and objets trouvés in the Tate.


& the empty years stretching out before me

& the wide moat of the ocean

& the sky will sterilize and heal

the lesions of love within me.

For, if I do not die, sillily, over a girl;

but quiet and alone in bed:

that, surely, will have been—

a worthier death.

The Truth about English Verbs (Part I)

This is one of many writings, based on my experience as a language teacher, language learner and student of linguistics, that I have been working on for a long time now. Since just this one text is already growing to gargantuan proportions (as befits the breadth and depth and controversial nature of the issues involved), I am breaking it up into six more manageable and hopefully more readable sections, which I hope to post fairly regularly over the coming weeks.


Verbs are often a source of much anxiety and difficulty for language learners. The array of forms, endings, auxiliaries, tenses, aspects, moods, not to mention the frequent irregularities, and the complex, often overlapping and ambiguous, ways in which they map onto reality, seem to pose a daunting obstacle to mastery of a foreign tongue.

Things, however, may not be quite as complex as they are frequently made to appear by teachers and grammar books. I shall suggest here six reasons why learners need be less wary of verbs than they usually are and why teachers should rethink the way they introduce them.

  • The Ghost of Latin

Latin is no longer routinely taught in schools. We have long since abandoned the long-held belief that the prescriptions of Roman rhetoricians regarding the erudite use of their own language are universally applicable. Most English teachers would, therefore, vigorously refute any suggestion that their teaching methodology bears any resemblance whatsoever to how Latin was taught in the past.

The shadow of Latin, however, still hangs heavily over language teaching, even in the English-speaking world. Although archaisms such as the subjunctive have now fallen out of fashion, we still regularly talk about tenses, infinitives, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, present, past and perfect, and we still tabulate verbs in the form of conjugations. None of these concepts—or descriptive techniques, as I would prefer to call them—while applicable to some extent to Latin and neo-Latin languages—are especially well-suited to a description of modern English.

Words in English are, for instance, not clearly divided up into nouns, verbs and adjectives. Many—even those of Latin origin—are (or have the potential to be) employed for any or all of these functions. Consider the word ‘partition’ in the following three sentences, taken at random from recent texts published on the Internet:

  • The Syrian regime is preparing for partition of the country (function = noun)
  • In DOS systems, you can partition a disk (function = verb)
  • A partition wall is a wall that divides a room (function = adjective)

The concept of ‘tense’ is another case where descriptive Latin forms do not apply well to English. Latin has forms that clearly refer to the past (perfect or imperfect), the present, and the future, to which the concept of tense or ‘time’ can aptly be applied. In Modern English, however, the Present Simple does not refer to the present moment, the Present Continuous can be used to refer to the future, the past can be referred to using either the Past Simple or the Present Perfect ‘tense’ (the latter being, as the name suggests, a present tense). Furthermore, most distinctions (especially those regarding various degrees of speculation about the future) are made by way of the use of auxiliary verbs and other devices rather than endings and conjugations.

Confused? You should be. The last paragraph sounds complicated, not because the English verb system itself is, but because I (like many others before me) am trying to explain the structure of the English language using Latin concepts and terms.

English verbs, in fact only have three endings –ed (pronounced in three distinct ways) to indicate the Past Simple or the adjectival form of the verb, -s (again pronounced in three distinct ways) to mark a Present Simple verb whose subject is a 3rd person singular, and –ing to transform a verb into an adjective or a noun and, by extension, indicate continuity of action.

Of these only –ed and –ing mark genuinely important distinctions and, for this reason, -s is omitted in many dialects. It is in fact quite possible to communicate effectively, if imperfectly, without using any of these endings—a feature of many pidgins based on English.

English verbs can, therefore, be understood and applied in practice using a very narrow range of endings. There are no conjugations; and the language is perfectly serviceable without using any of the suffixes that currently persist.

Thomas de Quincy, in his early-19th century autobiography, bemoans the fact that English was not, at that time, taught in schools. Students were drilled in the classical languages to the point where, as de Quincy puts it, he could easily ‘harangue a mob in Attic Greek’, but were unschooled in the subtleties and beauties of Shakespeare, Milton and Keats, still less the various dialects spoken by ordinary people across the British Isles and its present and former colonies.

When English did come to be taught in English schools, it was overlaid with a cumbersome template of Greco-Roman grammar and rhetoric and a certain snobbery privileging the somewhat strained and bizarre version of the native tongue spoken by the aristocracy and aspired to by the middle classes.

This fuss about language was just one feature of a larger picture of promoting upper-class or increasingly upper-middle-class values and demeaning those of others. Dickens’s Hard Times begins with the principal of a ‘model’ school—Mr. Gradgrind—berating a working-class student over her preferences in wallpaper and carpet patterns. She likes horses and flowers; the teacher mocks her lack of taste and promotes geometric abstraction instead. “You must use… for these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colors) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration… This is fact. This is taste.”

The ghostly conjugations and rhetorical terminology that still linger in contemporary language learning in many ways resemble Mr. Gradgrind’s ‘figures… susceptible of proof and demonstration.’ They purpose to ground language in the universal authority of facts, while, at the same time, imposing a certain narrowly elitist view of manners, method and style. However, this ghost of Latin, I shall argue in the coming posts in this series, reflects neither the facts of the English language nor common-sense and ‘good taste’.


(sources quoted directly in this section [†]and studies that inform the text as a whole[*])

Bybee, Joan et al. (1994) [*] The Evolution of Grammar. Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. University of Chicago Press.

De Quincey, Thomas (1997) [†] Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Penguin Popular Classics. (first published 1821-22).

Dickens, Charles (1994) [†] Hard Times. Penguin Popular Classics. (first published 1854)

Lewis, Michael (2002) [*] The Lexical Approach. The State of ELT and a way forward. Thomson/Heinle. (first published 1993).

Poetry Rehab–Rubbish

The most entertaining take on this theme that I am aware of is James Fenton’s The Skip I had the good fortune of hearing Fenton recite this poem live, with much more youthful verve than he does in this clip, in Oxford in the mid-1980s, and of being tutored in New Testament theology by his loveably eccentric father.

I had a dream last night about Andrew Marvell’s mower poems—a loose mini-series of darkly delicate 17th century pastoral pieces on the theme of Isaiah’s “All flesh is grass.” This week’s prompt, therefore, encouraged me to write the following nasty little poem.

I apologize in advance to anyone who may be offended by the language, content or general tone and, above all, for not being anywhere near as funny as Fenton or as profound as Marvell.


[mid-14c “discharge of semen other than during sex,” later “desecration, defilement” (late 14c) from Late Latin… Sense of “contamination of the environment” first recorded c. 1860, but not common until c. 1955.

–Online Etymology Dictionary]

Rubbish, trash, garbage, litter,

filth, dirt, crap, excrement;

compost and manure.

Grit, grease, soil, mud, earth;

dust, ash and scree.

Detritus, debris, rubble, ruins,

clutter, junk.

Slurry, sediment, effluent, sludge;

slush, smog, soot, fumes.

Tears, sweat, blood-spatter,

guts, brains.

All life is waste;

language its gutters and drains.