For the Love of Prepositions and Affixes Part 16 — Inter Alia

The very ancient prefix ‘inter’ is found everywhere these days.

It stretches back to Proto-Indo-European *antar and its form remained relatively unchanged in the Sanskrit of Ancient India, in which language, it is used to refer to the internal world of the soul.

By the time of the Ancient Greeks, it had shifted to the guts; whence enteritis and gastroenterology.

And by the time it reached Ancient Rome, it had been bleached to a mere prefix meaning vaguely ‘among’ or ‘between’ or very little indeed.

Compared with these two humble Anglo-Saxon words, however, ‘inter-’ is a prefix whose stock is definitely on the rise.

We prize intelligence (human or artificial)—literally the ability to pick out the right things from a mass of others.  

We value interaction, interpersonal skills, intercultural exchanges and international relations, and we find out about all these things on the Internet.

Medical treatments, works of contemporary art, urban planning projects, and family discussions with troubled members are now all routinely called ‘interventions’—a bland word, whose only saving grace comes from having ‘inter’ up front to flaunt its modernity.   


And yet, it is precisely in this hyper-interconnected modern world of interventions that we are constantly being interrupted and interfered with: the inner realm of the mind numbed and drained of content; boarded up and put out for sale; silenced and quietly interred.


For the Love of Prepositions and Affixes Part 15: re- and wer-

Here is a little quiz.

What do the words ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ and ‘conversation’ and ‘weird’ ‘worms’ ‘wriggling’ ‘towards’ you have in common with economic ‘worth’, ‘worry’, ‘wrongdoing’ and every word that begins with the prefix ‘re-’: ‘return’, ‘reverse’, ‘revolution’, ‘revision’, ‘remembrance’ and all the rest?

The answer is the Proto-Indo-European root *wer(t)- meaning ‘turn’ or ‘bend,’ which turns up as prefix re- and suffix –vert in Latin, and as a wer- wor- or wr- prefix in Germanic languages such as English.

Tempted we may be to deceive ourselves into thinking that the words ‘word,’ ‘world’ and ‘awareness’ too derive from the same root but alas they do not.

In fact, at least seven other distinct Indo-European roots all turn up as wer- or something similar to it in more modern languages.

There is the wer- of ‘air’ and ‘aura’, of ‘arias’ and ‘aerobics’, ‘arteries’ and ‘meteors’.

And then there is wer- of watching out and warding off, found in ‘aware’, ‘beware’, ‘warden’, ‘warehouse’, ‘wary’, ‘hardware’, ‘software’, ‘reverence’ and ‘veneration’.

And there is the wer- of covering found in ‘warrants’, ‘guarantees’, ‘garnishes’ and ‘garages’.

And there is also wer- meaning human being as in ‘werewolf’ and ‘virility’.

Combined with IE *gher(d), which has also given us ‘gardens’ and ‘yards’, this last ‘werewolf’ prefix also provides us with the very world (*weregherd) of Earth on which, should we need reminding, we are doomed forever to live.

And, were this not enough, there is also the wer- of ‘word’ and ‘verb’, and the wer- of ‘veracity’ and ‘verisimilitude’.

And, more disturbing still, there is also the wer- of ‘war’ and ‘worse’.

‘Dike eris, eris dike’, as the old philosopher put it. Law is war and war is law.

Language is a wayward tangled mess indeed, with sounds and meanings forever converging and diverging as they hurtle through eternity together on the lips of hasty-tongued human beings. What rhapsodies we are apt to wrest from the vortex of adversity into which we are thus thrust by peevish fate.

The /w/ sound is also one of the most prevalent in world languages and one of the first to be mastered by infants. This phoneme is more primordial—more inchoate and pre-maternal—than /m/, reminding us of the womb to which we are wont to revert.

The idea of twisting and bending things is likewise very primeval and it should come as no surprise that it ends up lending its name to our entire universe, wrought as it is of quantum entanglement in our prose and verse, and war of all against all.

Alphabet Soup

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Ask any adult learner of English who already possesses a fairly high level of proficiency in the language to spell their own name. It is more likely than not that they will be unable to do so—or at least unable to do so well.

This may shock you. But, in fact, it should come as no surprise.

As one learner put it to me recently after failing to spell her name:“I was trying to remember the rhyme we learned in school.”

The rhyme she learned in school clearly didn’t help.

This common problem with an aspect of language that seems so basic neatly encapsulates the multiple difficulties that arise when the arduous business of learning a language is further complicated by misguided teaching.

In the case of the alphabet, the traditional approach is encumbered by three fundamental flaws:

1) the alphabet is incorrectly regarded as something very basic;

2) it is therefore taught early on in a course and then forgotten; and

3) it is usually taught in isolation both from social use and from other aspects of the language.

On top of this, there is a whole truckload of ideological and socio-cultural baggage associated with the alphabet.

It is regarded in popular discourse, for instance, as something proverbially very basic or childish and hence easy to acquire. We say, in English, that something is ‘as easy as ABC’. In Portuguese, the term ‘alfabetização’ refers both to ‘literacy’ and to the first years of elementary school. People who are unable to read or write are termed ‘analfabetos’, literally ‘unalphabeted’. Learners naturally, therefore, feel a certain shame at seeming not to have mastered this very basic learning stage.

In fact, the alphabet is not basic at all and it is not a stage on the way towards anything.

This is not only because children happily learn to speak and to understand spoken language at a very early age with no recourse whatsoever to a written alphabet. It is also because the very process of learning the names of letters and reciting them in a certain order is not something that is fundamental for any essential communication skill. You can talk and listen to people talking and even read and write perfectly well without ever doing this, as the existence of many a competent adult language learner who has forgotten the alphabet readily attests.

Should you doubt this, try writing down the names of the letters of the English alphabet and try to spell them correctly. I guarantee that, unless you are a regular Scrabble player, you will find this difficult, if not impossible. The answer, should you be interested, can be found at the end of this post.

For the purpose of reading and writing in a first language, there is a good argument for teaching the alphabet to children early on in school. But is this true for adults? And what function could such a procedure possibly serve if adult learners are already literate and already use the Latin alphabet in their own language? Even if they use a very different writing system, they will undoubtedly profit much more greatly from preliminary lessons that focus more on basic spoken communication skills.

No need then to teach the alphabet early on in a course at all.

 I am of course not advocating that the pronunciation of the names of the written letters should be removed from the language learning curriculum altogether. I suggest only that it should be covered at a relatively advanced stage and that it should be related always to those (relatively few) practical contexts in which the alphabet is actually needed.

When giving one’s name, for example, it is often useful to spell it out loud. But this would normally be in the context of a situation such a telephone conversation, which already presupposes quite advanced listening and speaking skills.

A good way to introduce the alphabet, therefore, is not through the arbitrary traditional order of the signs, but through the spelling out loud of common words and names, beginning with listening. Another helpful method would be to draw the attention of learners to commonly used acronyms such as DJ, MC, CNN and BBC. Learners are thus introduced to the names of letters of the alphabet in a sequence that reflects the commonness of their occurrence in real discourse, as they are (or should be) with other words.   

The fact that so many language courses and course books still begin with recitation of the alphabet is a sign of how little has really changed in the business of language learning.

This failing also however encourages us to reflect one of the fundamental principles that should underpin any attempt to learn or teach a second language. The content of a language learning course should always be firmly embedded in real-life natural language use and as far possible avoid the employment of artificial devices, such as alphabets.

The alphabet jingle may jangle in your memory for the rest of your life. But it will not help you spell your name when you need to. This requires practice of a very different kind.   


The names of the letters of the alphabet in English are traditionally written as follows: a, bee, cee, dee, e, ef (or eff), gee, aitch, i, jay, kay, el (or ell), em, en, o, pee, cue, ar, es (or ess), tee, u, vee, double-u, ex, wy (or wye), and zee.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 14 — Round and Around

Round and Around

In my previous post in this series I remarked on the fact that the Ministry of Truth that appears in George Orwell’s 1984 is frequently misquoted as ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Such almost universal misquotations are much commoner than one might imagine. Michael Hoey in his eye-opening study of Lexical Priming notes that the Jules Verne novel, the title of whose first official English translation was Around the World in 80 Days, is almost universally misquoted by journalists as ‘round the world’ especially in articles on yacht races, luxury cruises and the like.

Hoey notes that the original translation of Verne’s title (Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours) is infelicitous. ‘Round’ is the more commonly used preposition where literal circular motion is involved, while ‘around’ is used when we mean ‘all over’ or ‘throughout’. Writers would thus seem to prefer to follow prevalence of use rather than accurate citation. Some more recent translations reflect this.

‘Round’ and ‘around’ also provide a good illustration of different phases in the historical process of language change that linguists call grammaticalization.

A corruption of the Latin adjective ‘rotundus’ meaning ‘like a wheel’ (rota), ‘round’ still preserves its original lexical sense and can be used as an adjective to mean ‘circular’ or ‘spherical,’ as in the phrase ‘The earth is round.’

‘Around,’ on the other hand, has been fully grammaticalized and lost this more specific meaning. In fact, ‘around’ can be used to refer not only to approximate values but also to anything vaguely located in time or space. “They live around here” means “They live somewhere in this neighborhood”. ‘I’ve been around a long time’ is a euphemism for ‘I’m old’.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 13 — For it is sweet…

A recent translation forum debate regarding the correct preposition to use in the names of government departments reached a consensus that, while ‘of’ is the most appropriate preposition for the more prestigious ministries, lesser government agencies with longer more descriptive names tend to be less resistant to the use of ‘for’. ‘Ministry of’ is thus the proper nomenclature for Health, Education or Defense, but ‘Department for the Environment, Housing and Planning sounds OK too.

While few countries around the world have graced their major offices of state with the title of ‘Ministry for’, the phraseology is certainly very common in translation and this suggests that some underlying change is in fact afoot. In the case of government agencies that opt to call themselves departments rather than ministries, the changeover from ‘of’ to ‘for’ is already quite advanced.

In 1992, in the UK, for example, the one-time Ministry and then Department of Education (in existence since the Second World War) was transformed into the Department for Education and, despite various infelicitous name changes since then, the ‘for’ has remained firmly in place.

A similar pattern emerges with other UK government departments. The Department of Transport swapped its ‘of’ for ‘for’ in 1997, and various other newfangled divisions of Her Majesty’s Government have been baptized likewise in recent years.

The purpose of this shift to ‘for’ is clear. ‘For’ connotes a caring agency rather than a grim bureaucracy and suggests the friendly encouragement of self-help rather than the doling out of benefits. For the same reason, the pompous- and—since George Orwell published 1984—somewhat sinister-sounding ‘ministry’ is being pushed out in favor of ‘department’ or ‘office’, both of which are words and concepts that voters will be familiar with from their own workplaces.

Even Orwell of course named his dystopian ministries the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love. ‘For,’ in this context, would in fact sound even creepier. Perhaps we have good reason to be wary of ‘for’.

A quick Google search for “Ministry for Truth” shows that the name of the authoritarian institution in 1984 is in fact frequently misquoted this way. More interestingly still, this usually occurs in contexts that are themselves clearly using the term for propagandist purposes.

A Sky News podcast likens Antifa to Orwell’s Ministry for Truth (sic). The Daily Telegraph warns us that Orwell warned us of a coming ‘Ministry for Truth’. And, in a peculiar twist, the Guardian newspaper misquotes the Sun quoting Orwell’s dystopian novel correctly when accusing David Cameron’s government of operating a ‘Ministry of Truth’.

A left-wing blogger freely moves back and forth from ‘Ministry of Truth’ to ‘Ministry for Truth’ in a single post attacking Teresa May, and Time Out, in a review of a lefty gig, remarks that the University of London’s Senate House provided the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Both extremes of the political spectrum would thus seem to agree that “Ministry for…” sounds far creepier than “Ministry of…” and yet this is precisely the terminology that is becoming fashionable and finding increasing favor in government circles these days.

A recently published science fiction novel about environmental catastrophe entitled The Ministry for the Future has won plaudits from Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The imaginary international organization that gives the book its title is described as being ‘“charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves” and is clearly intended to inspire our praise.

Herein, however, lies the problem with ‘for’. An organization that speaks or acts for groups of individuals who would otherwise be deprived of a voice can be seen as liberating in so far as it advocates for the rights of those who go unrepresented in modern democracies, but it could also be viewed as sinister in so far as it presumptuously arrogates to itself the right to speak for groups (such as animals or the unborn) who are a priori incapable of speech or opinion and, by extension, for other supposedly ‘silent majorities’ who do in fact have their own voice.

As the ideological diversity of the misquotations from Orwell cited above suggests, no one single party or political persuasion has a monopoly on this tendency. Activists on the left claim to speak for the workers or the planet, while those on the right stand up for the nation and the war dead.

‘For it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’, a long-dead poet once pronounced on behalf of heroes who had long since lost their right to voice their own point of view.

‘For’ is a preposition that has a long history of sweetening such subterfuge.

For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob- continued…

[Another post in my ongoing series on prepositions and affixes]

For the Love of Prepositions Part 10b

Ob- continued…

‘Against’, ‘at’, ‘before’, ‘towards’, ‘upon’, ‘with regard to’, ‘in the way’: the Latin prefix ob- and its Greek counterpart epi- are by no means short of meanings.

But, while Greek ‘epi-‘ has become the preserve of esoteric erudite terms such as ‘epistemology’ and ‘epidermis’, ‘epideictic’ and ‘epinephrine’, Latin ob- remains earthily ensconced in common parlance and has, over time, accrued a semantic crust that specializes in signifying obstruction.

And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this somewhat obstreperous reputation, ob-, through objectivity and observation, has somehow insinuated itself into the very nerves and sinews of our modern empiricist, scientific view of the world. Ob- has gotten under our skin indeed.

Object has a strange history; that of observe is stranger still.

Meaning literally something thrown before us like an apple of discord, the litigious Romans used the term obiecta primarily to refer to the charges brought against the defendant in a court of law.

By extension, Medieval scholars came to use the word to refer to things obvious to sense-perception and hence also that to which cognition reaches out. The grammatical sense derived from this appeared much later and is not found in English until well into the 18th century boom in linguistic prescriptivism.  

The Romans called the case of this part of speech ‘accusative’ by way of mistranslation of Greek aitiatike, which would more accurately be rendered ‘causative’.

The Greeks of course got it right. It is the object that causes action in the subject, not vice versa.

The object from this more ancient perspective is thus not something summoned into being or subject to our will but something beckoning to be reached out to: an essential part of the essentially graspable comprehensible, intelligible world.

And yet there remains something mysterious about objects that entices and yet remains fundamentally unidentifiable: celestial bodies, UFOs and foreign objects embedded in human tissue, in the stomach or the eye.  Objets trouvés in unclassifiable museum displays.

The object is the cause of our curious inquiry. The object of epistemology.

While ‘object’ has shifted meaning over time, the verb ‘observe’ sprang into the language of the Ancient Romans already decked out in its full array of modern meanings and collocations. It means as it has always meant ‘keep watch’, ‘wait’, ‘guard’, ‘notice’, ‘care for’, ‘heed’, ‘respect’, ‘abide by’, and ‘obey’.

The underlying root of ‘servus’ slave is now somewhat obscured but still makes its presence felt, standing at once over and under us, like a patient guard(ian), hiding in plain sight.

Watchers serve their charges by blocking the way. We observe patients in hospital to keep them safe from harm and we observe convicts in panoptical penitentiaries to keep us safe from them.

We observe laws and we observe the movements of stars and planets in the heavens. We observe customs and holy days. Our social life is grounded in observance and our science in observation.

In laboratories and observatories we keep careful watch over a world full of daemons and baleful celestial beings that have no reason to wish us well. With our reason we attempt to keep these always ultimately unidentifiable objects firmly within our purview. Held tight or kept at a safe distance, we ensure that they are always kept closely in check.

Plurality in Question

The Linguistic Concept of Number and its Diversity

Number in linguistics clearly goes far beyond the simple arithmetical concept. Grammatical number overlaps with other arguably more primordial categories, such as countability and definiteness, and may carry significant cultural connotations also.

Many languages make no distinction between singular and plural or at least possess no marker of this distinction. Most internationally prestigious modern languages, however, distinguish singular (one) from plural (more than one) for either nouns or verbs or both and sometimes for adjectives also.

Theories of Countability in English

Grammar books normally assert that nouns in English can be countable or uncountable (other terms, such as ‘mass’ and ‘count’ nouns are also sometimes used) and it is often argued that this is similar to the way that nouns are classed as masculine or feminine or according to some other classification in other languages.

It is, however, a significant oversimplification to equate countability with grammatical gender. Mass and count words in English do not fit cleanly into categories or classes but range about along a relatively flexible continuum. Conservative estimates put the number of clear clusters along this spectrum at five, while eight is often cited as the agreed number among scholars of such matters.

These distinctions can be subtle, such as that between wine (uncountable) in general and wines (countable) meaning different kinds of wine, or somewhat more substantial, as in that between countable lambs (meaning the young animals skipping in the field) and uncountable lamb (the meat on a dinner plate). In some cases countable and non-countable versions of the same word may have distinct if not entirely unrelated meanings (e.g. uncountable ‘room,’ meaning space, and countable ‘rooms’ meaning the rooms of a house).

Countable nouns can be used in the plural, with numbers or with the indefinite article, while resiliently uncountable nouns cannot. Uncountable nouns form collocations with the quantifiers ‘much’ and ‘(a) little,’ while countable ones take ‘many’ and ‘(a) few’.

Furthermore, it is important to note that individual items of lexis may move back and forth along this spectrum over time.

Countability and Language Change in Present-Day English

One common shift over time is from the nearly always uncountable category to one of the categories that allow for countable uses (with or without some degree of difference in meaning).

The causes of this shift may be obscure but there can be no doubt that the phenomenon occurs among users of English as a second language. For example, the plural form of ‘research’ ‘researches’ is becoming common in international academic journals.

Some words, however, such as ‘information’, ‘equipment’, ‘music’ and ‘bread’ have proved more resistant to pluralization/countabilization even though they are used as such by many non-native speakers. Unlike ‘researches’, one is unlikely to find ‘informations’ in a major international publication. Interestingly, in the case of ‘researches,’ this plural form was in fact acceptable and not uncommon in the not too recent past.

It remains to be seen at which point instances of the use of such language become sufficiently commonplace to be deemed normative. For now, however, they clearly constitute non-standard forms of the language and should be corrected in more formal discourse.

More problematic, is the case where a traditionally uncountable word is made countable (usually by way of permitting pluralization) for ideological reasons or to express a new perspective on a subject.

As with other linguistic developments that fall into the somewhat pejorative category of ‘political correctness,’ the motivation for such wording ranges from a genuine need for greater precision, a marker of ideological purity, to, in the worst instances, mere imitation in an attempt to appear scholarly and/or progressive.

‘Feminisms’ plural, for example, meets a genuine need to indicate that the feminist movement embraces a wide diversity of theories and approaches but may also be employed by writers keen to demonstrate to their readers that they are sufficiently open-minded to be aware of this diversity. ‘Technologies’ used willy-nilly with no clear difference in meaning from ‘technology’ is, however, in my opinion, purely decorative and thus inelegant.   

I would suggest, however, that, in most cases where there is some degree of flexibility with regard to countability, the word has been uncountable in the past and this usage is thus simply being revived.

This is the case with ‘research’, as seen above, and also of ‘history’, which is often pluralized nowadays in an academic context to underline the fact that there can be no single objective interpretation or account of historical events: women’s history differs from men’s history and even within these there are various different ‘histories’. This usage still seems borderline unorthodox today but it was not so long ago that ‘history’ and ‘story’ were synonyms and could both be used countably or uncountably. Indeed, the title of the first book of history in history—Herodotus’s Histories—contains the word history in the plural in its traditional English translation.   

Non-standard usages relating to Concordance

Moving on from issues relating to countability, another area where confusion between singular and plural may arise and in which non-native speaker language use may have some influence concerns agreement in number between subject and predicate. Errors in this regard may be compounded by the question of countability.            

This issue is often presented in grammar books in terms of cases where a plurality of subjects each possesses a certain object.

[1a] The two men put their hats on their heads.

[1b] *The two men put their hat on their head.

In some languages 1a would sound strange because each man only has one hat, but in English 1b strikes the reader as very unnatural, even though the normal English rendering leaves room for some doubt as to whether each man wore one hat or more.

As is often the cases with grammar books and grammar exercises, however, such examples are both infrequent and atypical. More common is confusion between phrases such as

[2a] People’s everyday lives

[2b] ?People’s everyday life

in which the ‘wrongness’ of the second is far less obvious.

In my experience, it is far more frequent to encounter cases of concordance error where countability issues also play a role. 

The following sentence, for example, is entirely correct and sounds quite natural in English.

[3a] Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatment for patients.

Many non-native speakers, however, will write this sentence as follows:

[3b] ?Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatments for patients.

The logic is that many patients receive many different kinds of treatment and, indeed, the same patient may receive multiple treatments. Singular therefore would be wrong.

However, to a native speaker, while not wrong, the over-precision of this sentence sounds a little strained, as if the writer were laboring the obvious. As a general rule, English prefers vagueness, where meaning can reasonably be inferred from context.

If we replace the word ‘treatment’ with a word that falls into the resiliently uncountable category, such as ‘care’, the plural sounds very strange indeed and would be considered by most native speakers to be non-standard or wrong.

 [4] *Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing cares for patients

Note the following, however:

[5a] Patients undergoing multiple treatments must be especially careful with their medication.

[5b] Patients undergoing treatment …

Here we need to add the word ‘multiple’ because otherwise the plural would sound strange. The singular, on the other hand, implies a certain specific kind of treatment.

As noted at the beginning of this section, movement from countable to uncountable status may combine with an urge to provide the kind of unnecessary precision discussed here.

In phrases, quite common these days such as

[6a] ?The course provides various insights into the psychologies of young children.

it is by no means clear whether the author intends to emphasize the plural nature of child psychology or perspectives on it, or whether they are opting for over-precision, on the grounds that any one child can evidently be affected by more than one psychological condition.

In cases, where these strategies overlap in such a way that the making of a valid point becomes indistinguishable from error, I think it is justified to categorize such usage as non-standard. Especially since such sentences can almost always easily be reworded to avoid the ambiguity.

[6b] The course provides various insights into the psychological states and conditions of young children.

Brevity and familiarity of discourse may however play a role in such linguistic decisions on the part of writers and speakers. If so, ‘psychologies’ could be regarded as acceptable shorthand for ‘psychological states and conditions’.

A related, although somewhat marginal and self-contained issue concerns the agreement of seemingly singular quantifiers such as ‘a number of’ and ‘the majority’.

I think that most native speakers of English would baulk at the sentence

[7a] *?A number of issues was raised in the meeting

and prefer [7b] A number of issues were raised in the meeting.

Opinion regarding the following pair, however, may be more divided.

[8a] ?The majority of British families now possesses a washing-machine

[8b] The majority of British families now possess a washing-machine

To native speakers of a neo-Latin language, however, [7b] and [8b] sound outright wrong and such individuals will actively resist [7a] and [8a], because so much importance is attached to this particular ‘grammar rule’ in their schools.

Such concordance issues are not accorded so much emphasis in schools in English-speaking countries and it is not therefore uncommon for even educated writers to produce non-standard sentences such as:

[9a] *The quality of information technology courses have been on the decline in recent years

rather than

[9b] The quality of information technology courses has been on the decline in recent years.

Some US tests of English as a foreign language still include Use of English questions of this type.

This suggests that international cultural differences also play a role in determining the extent to which forms of use of the singular/plural distinction are acceptable or not. Different cultures entail different patterns of prescriptivism and such different cultures may co-exist within a single language community. 

Number and Definiteness

Singular and plural can also be used to indicate subtle differences in the degrees of definiteness and in such cases the use of the definite article also plays a role.

[10a] Farmers need more support from the Federal Government

[10b] The farmer needs more support from the Federal Government.

The former sounds more natural nowadays, but the latter is commonly found in the political discourse of a few hundred years ago and is still not deemed non-standard today.

The definite article plus singular form persists in scientific treatises such as

[11a] “The Anatomy of the Horse”, i.e. the horse as an ideal type.

A book entitled [11b] “The Anatomy of Horses” suggests a more accessible guide for horse-owners.   

Definiteness and number overlap in creating the desired effect.

Language is necessarily flexible and tolerates a certain quite large degree of ambiguity. Most patients will not complain or sue their doctors if their (indefinite/general) ‘cancer treatment’ in fact involves several different (definite/specific) kinds of treatment.

Anglo-American philosophers who are interested in the subject of generics attempt to distinguish subtle distinctions between different ways of saying very similar things. Their focus is somewhat different from mine in that they are interested both in the way concepts are supposedly organized in the human mind and in the nature of reality (if at all accessible), while I am interested here purely in linguistic patterns of use.

From the latter point of view, all of the following are possible ways of expressing the idea that members of the species of bear referred to in common parlance as ‘grizzly bears’ are biologically programmed to hibernate:

[12a] Grizzly bears sleep in the winter

[12b] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

[12c] The grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

or [12d] The grizzly bears sleep in the winter

While an urge to avoid ambiguity, produces a clear preference for the first of these nowadays, a specific context may, however, lead our preference to shift to one of the others, as follows:

[12e] [contrasting groups] The polar bears hunt all year round, while the grizzly bears sleep in the winter.

[12f] [logical induction from general to specific] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter, so this one won’t bother us at this time of year.

[12g] [a natural history documentary] The grizzly bear sleeps through the winter, while much of the forest fauna continues to go about its everyday business.

In political discourse, nowadays, the generic with the definite article (such as ‘the farmer’, ‘the soldier’, ‘the voter’) seems to be being avoided in favor of the bare plural form ‘farmers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘voters’. This may reflect a concerted effort to avoid (or to be seen to avoid) stereotyping or homogenizing members of a diverse group. It may constitute an attempt to disambiguate the phrase. Or indeed may seek to accomplish both simultaneously. This same desire may underlie some of the less acceptable-seeming politically correct usages such as ‘child psychologies’.

Number in Legal English

While everyday English tends to prefer ambiguity and vagueness if a choice exists, legal language needs to be clear and its distinctions crisp. In legal usage, therefore, it may be necessary to provide explicit explanation to the effect that ‘the singular includes the plural’ or vice versa.

The [13a] ‘right to bear arms’ includes the right to carry just one weapon. A law stating that it is [13b] ‘illegal to discharge a fire arm in a public place’ does not imply that it would be permissible to use a whole arsenal.

Descriptivism, Tolerance and Prescriptivism in a Polarized Age

It is important in matters of language, as in all things, to strive to uphold a crisp distinction between subjective and objective criteria.

Linguistics has long been beset by a prescriptivist element that confuses the objective and subjective ‘rules’ and even some supposedly scientific descriptivist linguistic studies may justly be accused of this. Linguistic arguments that seem silly today were once considered highly objective. In the case of number, we need go back no further than Logan’s 1941 article on countability in US spoken discourse to find prejudice against language change donning the guise of objectivity. His “instances in which the plural adds nothing to the clarity of the statement, though the authors probably thought they were making a valuable distinction” include some turns of phrase that seem quite normal today. On the other hand, this same author also provides numerous examples of needless use of the plural that I feel would be unlikely to occur today. Few modern writers, for example, I think would follow Dickens in describing an after-dinner speaker as ‘toasting the healths’ of the guests.

It is, therefore, important that we remain alert to the possibility that over-tolerant anti-prescriptivism may itself become intolerant and prescriptivist. This will surely be the case if we accept the standards of our own age as the norm and, for instance, tolerate non-standard forms in which political correctness is at play, while baulking at non-native speaker errors such as ‘musics’ and ‘equipments’. More controversially, any full description of a language should surely include a description of any and all instances of perceived prescriptivism on the part of its many different users.

A Typology of Non-Standard Uses of the English Plural

By way of a tentative attempt to provide a typology and tolerance guide with regard to this particular feature of the English language, I suggest the following types of non-standard usage of plural/countable forms, presented here in order of increasing acceptability:

[A] Simple grammatical error [*The men is old]

[B] Use of plural form for resiliently uncountable nouns [*?The house has many furnitures]

[C] Over-precision in use of a plural form [?The doctor provided treatments for many patients]

[D] Plural applied for merely decorative purposes [?The school uses a variety of educational technologies]

[E] Plural applied to make an ideological point [?Feminisms in History]

[F] Plural applied for reason of greater accuracy (academic/legal English) [The 18th century saw the publication of numerous histories of England]

For anyone interesting in exploring this topic further, I include a short bibliography.


Aarts, B., Denison, D., Keizer, E., and Popova, G. (Eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: a reader. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Corbett, G.G. (2004) Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Downing, A. and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar: a university course. Routledge. New York and London.

Gillon, B. S. (1992) “Towards a Common Semantics for English Count and Mass Nouns” in

Linguistics and Philosophy 15(6), pp. 597-639

Hamm, F. and Hinrichs, E. (Eds.) (1998) Plurality and Quantification. Springer. Dordrecht.

Huddleston, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Jespersen, O. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Einar Munksgaard and George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Copenhagen and London.

Landman, F. (2011) “Count nouns – mass nouns, neat nouns – mess nouns” in The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. Volume 6 – Formal Semantics and Pragmatics. Discourse, Context and Models. Retrieved from   

Logan, C. T. (1941). “The Plural of Uncountables”in American Speech, 16(3), 170. doi:10.2307/486884 

Massam, D. (2012) Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar in Use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate learners of English. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (1979) Mass Terms: some philosophical problems. Springer. Dordrecht.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (2010) Kinds, things, and stuff: mass terms and generics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.  

Sharvy, R. (1978) “Maybe English Has no Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics” in Studies in Language, 2(3), pp.345–365. doi:10.1075/sl.2.3.04sha 

Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. Master’s Dissertation. University of Tampere, Finland.

Storch, A. and Dimmendaal, G. J. (Eds.) (2014) Number – Constructions and Semantics: case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia

If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

The Politics of Stress

[In the final week’s runup to the US presidential elections, I publish two posts on language related to this event. This is the first of them.]

The Politics of Stress

The prosody of Present-Day English is dominated by stress. This means that certain syllables in a word are given greater or lesser degrees of emphasis. A stressed syllable is usually louder than an unstressed one and may also differ in pitch.

Words of two syllables in English are usually stressed on the first (DUM-di), as in ‘MOther’ and ‘LANGuage’. Sometimes, however, the stress falls on the last syllable. This can be used, in some instances, to distinguish nouns from verbs. Note, for example, how the difference in stress in the word pairs ‘REbel’ : ‘reBEL,’ ‘UPset’ : ‘upSET’ distinguishes the noun (the first of the pair) from the verb (the second), even though these are indistinguishable in spelling.     

The most common stress pattern for a three-syllable noun in English is DUM-di-di. In this, English follows the practice of its Germanic neighbors and forerunners.

Deviations from this norm, therefore, frequently indicate a word of foreign non-Germanic origin.

A stress on the final syllable, for example, often occurs in the names of exotic animals, such as kangaroos, or exotic dishes such as vindaloo. Likewise, a stress on the penultimate syllable marks a word or name as foreign in origin: potatoes, tomatoes, and volcanoes are not native to English soil.

Given names tend to follow the same general pattern. The stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable in traditional English or invented names, but can fall elsewhere in names of foreign origin or names on which the giver intends to confer an exotic feel. The latter, for some reason, tend to be more common among women and girls.

Thus, more traditional, anglicized or obviously Germanic girls’ names tend to be stressed on the first syllable in three-syllable names: Márgaret, Ísabel, Cátherine, Álison, Híllary, Émily, Hárriet, Stéphanie, Béthany, Mádison and so forth all obey the rule. [Stressed syllable marked artificially by an acute accent] The same applies to names of more than three syllables, such as Elízabeth and Victória. Invented names such as Pámela, Jénnifer and Jéssica, irrevocably fall into step with the usual pattern.

Names that diverge from this tend to have a deliberately foreign or classical sounding feel to them. Historically, such names have often been preferred by aristocratic elites—as Diána and Camílla both attest, but also among post-Civil Rights Movement African Americans keen to disassociate themselves from names given them by white slave owners. In recent years, this fashion has spread more widely to all sectors of society.

There is therefore good evidence to suggest that modern English has a strong preference for a stress on the antepenultimate syllable of polysyllabic words (including names) and that stress placed elsewhere is associated with loan words or foreign names.

As a corollary of this, English speakers will tend to mispronounce unfamiliar foreign words by moving the stress from penultimate to antepenultimate position, especially if the penultimate syllable is followed by a single consonant. When this ‘error’ becomes the norm, it suggests that the name, concept or word borrowed from abroad have been fully assimilated into the host language. Márgaret is fully Anglicized; there is no hint that the original French name was stressed on the last syllable Marguerite. No-one would call Margaret Thatcher, Marguerite Thatcher, unless they were making some heavy-handed point about the un-Englishness of her ways.

Speakers, may also, however, do the opposite and hypercorrect, placing the stressed syllable on the penult in foreign words even when it is incorrect to do so, in order to make them sound more foreign. This may, as in the recent case of mispronunciation of US vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s first name by Republican senators and the current US President, be done deliberately. In this case, the error clearly serves the explicitly racist purpose of making the individual seem more alien than she in fact is. In this context, such behavior is a form of linguistic exclusion or shunning.

Kamala is a name derived from the Ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. It means ‘lotus flower’. The name is stressed on the first syllable in the original Sanskrit and thus follows exactly the same stress pattern as that of the vast majority of two-syllable English words. Furthermore, in view of Ms. Harris’s status, the correct pronunciation of her first name is well known in political circles. There is, therefore, no reason other than racism to pronounce the senator’s name otherwise.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 12 …in the time of coronavirus

In this time of global pestilence and need for isolation, many people have understandably been posting on social media about immunity. The preposition they use after this word or after the corresponding adjective ‘immune’ varies. Sometimes it is ‘to’, sometimes ‘from’.

I am not a prescriptive grammarian and the purpose of these blogposts is never to police the way people employ language but to reflect on the social meaning of shifting language norms… In this case, however, the precise use of terms may determine the way people perceive a lethal disease and behave in response to it. There may therefore be some justification for greater caution in this specific instance.

‘Immune to’ and ‘immune from’ are both correct but they have different meanings.

The first is a medical term. It means that your body has developed antibodies that may protect you from contracting a disease. Usually, you have developed these antibodies as a result of already having been exposed to infection. Of course, like many technical terms, it can also be used figuratively.

[1] I am immune to criticism

means ‘you can criticize me, but it doesn’t upset me’.

‘Immune from’ by contrast is a legal term. It means that a judge has decreed that you are exempt from something, usually some kind of burden or penalty. If a witness is ‘immune from prosecution,’ it means that they cannot be charged with a crime, even if they have in fact committed one. This may be the case in plea deals, for example. Again, the term can be used figuratively.

[2] I am immune from criticism

means ‘people aren’t allowed to criticize me’.

There is clearly a big difference between statement [1] and statement [2]. The latter suggests arrogance or unfair privilege; the former indicates forbearance.

The legal use of the term is much more ancient. It goes back to Latin and Roman Law. Immunology, is, unfortunately, a field of knowledge that is much younger than the legal profession. It is therefore understandable that laypeople tend to use ‘from’ in all contexts and think legalistically about issues that have nothing to do with the law. This is especially likely to occur if these issues involve relatively novel complex concepts, such as immune responses and antigens. However, in a medical context, use of ‘from’ may be misleading… fatally misleading in fact…

No-one is immune from a virus, even if they are immune to it. To suggest the former is possible at best invites complacency, at worst justifies eugenics. To expect the former invites mistrust with regard to vaccination. Both are dangerous attitudes in a time of crisis.

Of course, few who use ‘immune from’ inappropriately in this way have any conscious malign intent. However, over time, persistent repetition of such imprecise use of language nudges people unconsciously as a herd in the direction of complacency, callousness, mistrust, and lack of care.

People who do not care about language probably do not care about people either. This is a malady as insidious as any disease.

There is, however, another preposition that is used with ‘immune’, albeit far less frequently. This alternative is ‘against’.

Use of ‘against’ in this context could be conceived as wrong, if we define ‘wrong’ linguistically-speaking to mean ‘insufficiently frequent to be considered standard usage’. If, however, we define linguistically wrong as meaning ‘lacking due precision,’ there are perhaps good logical arguments in favor of a shift to ‘against’ in medical contexts. It is, therefore, no surprise that use of the phrase ‘immunity against’ is more common among scientists, especially those whose native language is not English, for whom the turn of phrase does not sound ‘strange’.  ‘Against’ is also more common with the abstract noun than with the adjective. This again suggests that it is preferred in more technical contexts.

‘Against’ has the advantage of echoing the Latin prefix used in scientific neologisms such as antibody and antigen. It also suggests the metaphor of an ongoing battle that may be won or lost, which is more appropriate than that of inviolable protection from… It would not be the first time that non-native speakers taught us how best to use the English language.


A Brief Statistical Survey

I checked the frequency of occurrence of all three prepositions with the words ‘immune’ and ‘immunity’ in texts accessible through Google. To simplify the search, I restricted it to ‘chickenpox,’ in order to rule out non-medical uses and avoid ongoing controversies surrounding Covid-19.

The results were as follows.

  immune immunity
to 13700 (73%) 15300 (66%)
from 4510 (24%) 3290 (14%)
against 648 (3%) 4720 (20%)



Someone asked me about ‘for’. To my mind, this sounds very strange with the adjective but not with the abstract noun. I, therefore, checked the figures for this preposition. ‘Immune for’ registers a frequency of 10 (0.0%); ‘immunity for’ registers 1,900 (7.5%) in the context searched for above. This confirms my instinct and justifies not (yet) considering these as forms in standard use.

I will in future post long overdue discussions of ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘of’ as part of this ongoing series on prepositions and my love of them.