And another thing…

On the Singapore classical music station, I am hearing the phrase “as well as” used in place of “and” before the last item in a series.* That irks me at least as much as the host’s pronunciation of “genres” as “John Rez”, which I didn’t even understand the first twenty times I heard him say it.

I mean, would this sound right to you? It’s wrong!

I read fantasy, science-fiction, romance novels, as well as literary fiction.

It could just be a list of four items, in which case, the sentence should just use “and”. If the sentence is going to contain “as well as”, then it should say:

I read fantasy, science-fiction, and romance novels, as well as literary fiction.

Now the sentence isn’t just a list; it means, “Of course I read literary fiction. However, in addition, I also read fantasy, science-fiction, and romance novels!” The list of three surprising genres is followed by the one obvious genre separated by the phrase “as well as”.

Here’s another correct example of how to use the phrase “as well as”:

I, as well as my dad, am allergic to cats.

This sentence doesn’t just mean, “My dad and I are allergic to cats.” It means, “Not only is my dad allergic to cats, but guess what? I am, too!”

And yes, though maybe you think the verb sounds weird, coming, as it does, right after “my dad”, it should indeed be “am” and not “is” or “are”.

The upshot here is that the phrase “as well as” is not a fancier version of the word “and”. When I hear it used that way, the I feel like something is missing, unbalanced, and off-kilter.

But hey, don’t rely on my intuition. Ask the internet. Here is a particularly good set of explanations that adds a surprising note about -ing verbs, as well as upholding what I’ve already said:

http://site.uit.no/english/grammar/aswellas/

 


* …an opera full of passion, sacrifice as well as beautiful arias…

Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World by Roger E. Axtell

Basically, this book is full of meaningless trivia on a subject I happen to like. It was amusing but not deep or scholarly.

I learned, among other things, that:

  • “blimey” is a contraction of “God blind me!” (60)
  • “biro” is pronounced “by-row” and refers to the kind of ballpoint pen invented by Lazlo Biro (60)
  • to express disbelief in German, say “My hamster is scrubbing the floor.” (88)

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap in Colorado.

Genre: nonfiction (reference / language)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-16 to 17-Jul-16
Length: 202 pages
ISBN: 9780785825289 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 1995
Amazon link: Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World

One Mississippi

That’s the name of a folk song sung by Steve Seskin*. The chorus goes:

The seconds turn to minutes
The minutes into hours
The hours into long, lonely days
This waitin’ on you, darlin’
Is takin’ all my will power
I keep countin’ all the moments you’re away
One Mississippi, two Mississippi
Without you, girl, I’m blue Mississippi.

It struck me that people who don’t live in the U.S. probably don’t use ‘Mississippi’ to count the passing of seconds. The only other placeholder I could think of was ‘one hundred’. But there are lots! What’s strange is that some have two syllables, some have three, some have four, and some have five, so surely they’re not all equally accurate…

I wonder what words people use in other languages?


*I met Steve Seskin while I was on Qwest West in 1998.

The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo

The Three Circles of English is a collection of conference papers published in Singapore on 2001.

The title refers to the varieties of English in the inner circle, outer circle and expanding circle of the “three circles” model invented by Braj Kachru.

I’m glad I read this book, though parts of it were eye-stabbingly inarticulate and other parts contained opinions that went all the way through defensive and out the other side…

I now have more sympathy for people who feel that although they have grown up speaking English, they can never really achieve a respectable level of English, simply because they weren’t born and educated in places where the local variety of English is automatically respected. I mean, how unfair is that? Especially since all our enshrined standards are nothing but historical accidents. I’m not saying that we don’t need standards, or even, necessarily, that they should change or multiply, just that it stinks if you’re on the receiving end of one, so to speak, through no fault of your own.

For a list of the papers and what I found interesting about them, keep reading. (TL;DR? Try this summary instead.)

Continue reading The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo

The mission of a dictionary

If you accept a ‘word’ such as ‘alright’ (which I consider to be a mistake) just because it’s in the dictionary, for consistency you will probably also have to accept ‘words’ that you consider to be mistakes. (How accepting do you feel towards nucular?)

Furthermore, if you accept any word that’s in the dictionary just because it’s in the dictionary, you are trapping yourself in an inescapable bit of circular logic.

I’m using it because it’s in the dictionary…
and it’s in the dictionary because I’m using it.

That’s because the mission of a dictionary (these days, anyway) is to document how people actually write, not to dictate how people should write.

Dictionaries are comprehensive. They’re not carved in stone and increasingly they include examples of anything and everything that’s statistically common enough to pass some minimum threshold. There’s no value judgment involved. In fact, descriptivism, the linguistic philosophy that motivates lexicographers, categorically prohibits interference from value judgments. The passing of judgment on any form of linguistic expression is termed ‘prescriptivism’ and is frowned on by academic linguists.

To my way of thinking, then, there’s a huge difference between the mission of dictionary writers and the mission of pretty much any other kind of writer. Writing is all about value judgment—writers must constantly choose what to say and how to say it to best communicate with the audience, for a given purpose, in a given context. Therefore, writers are constantly looking for and giving one another advice on appropriate forms and formulations.

There are many, many books out there that purport to contain well-considered recommendations for word use. They’re just not dictionaries.

Don’t all write ‘alright’, all right?

I must have been told early and often that ‘all right’ must be written as two words because it just absolutely baffles me that anyone would want to write it any other way.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Why don’t we get some other opinions on this?

Below are the first ten Google hits for “all right vs alright”.

  1. Grammar Girl says historically ‘alright’ was always wrong, but that it might somehow be gaining limited acceptability.
  2. Dictionary.com says ‘alright’ is acceptable in written dialog and informal writing only.
  3. Oxford Dictionaries says despite the existence of ‘altogether’ and ‘already’ in standard English, it is still inadvisable to use ‘alright’ because it is widely regarded as incorrect.
  4. Writer’s Digest says ‘alright’ technically isn’t a word. Its status could change but hasn’t yet.
  5. Grammarist says that because ‘alright’ has never been accepted by dictionaries or usage authorities, for now you should play it safe and avoid it, unless you’re feeling particularly bold.
  6. Writing Explained says young writers may not even be aware that there’s a debate over ‘alright’ and ‘all right’, and then beats readers over the head with the mnemonic “It’s not all right to use alright.”
  7. Merriam-Webster says you can use ‘alright’ if you don’t care that it’s not the favored form, but points out that ‘all right’ is exactly equivalent, and furthermore keeps you from looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.
  8. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry for ‘alright’ says ‘alright’ is common in dialog and informal writing. (Incidentally, beware of insisting that something “is a word” just because “it’s in the dictionary”.)
  9. Grammar Monster says ‘alright’ is a nonstandard variant of ‘all right’ and is best avoided in formal writing.
  10. Cambridge Dictionaries Online says that ‘all right’ may be written as one word but that it’s less common to do so.

I think there’s overwhelming evidence in favor of avoiding ‘alright’. Unless you’re militantly anti-conservative, linguistically speaking.

In which case, what’s next? A big push for spelling ‘a lot’ as one word?

So, upshot: I may be fighting a losing battle, but according to the authorities, it isn’t lost yet. And I’m not fighting alone, even if it for sure feels that way sometimes. Fight with me! If you’ve read this far, you can no longer claim that you just didn’t know better.

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care.

Man child, age 6

I would like to point out that this is hilarious. From a certain angle.

From another angle, it is also evidence of a good deal of hard work and bravery on the part of the parent…

Imagine you’ve just moved to another country with your wife and son and you have to function in another language, one that you’ve studied but that you didn’t grow up with. Furthermore imagine that it is one that uses a writing system totally different from your own and contains combinations of sounds you can’t accurately pronounce.

You’re going to send your son to a school that uses your family’s language, but you want him to study the local language, too. You go to a private education provider and find a class suitable for your son’s age and language ability level. You decide to register him for classes there.

Then they give you a form to fill out. It’s not in your language.

Even if it were, nobody likes filling out forms.

Or should you say, filling them in? Or up? Why does English have all these pesky phrasal verbs anyway?

You do your best with the form.

Transitive and phrasal verbs and taxis

The word ‘alight’ didn’t used to really be part of my vocabulary, probably because in the US we had a car and we drove ourselves everywhere we couldn’t walk or fly. In Singapore we use buses, trains and taxis to get around. So now I hear automated announcements that say something like:

The next stop is XXX interchange. Passengers traveling to YYY, please alight at the next station.

Please allow passengers to alight before boarding.

That’s all very well and good. I have nothing against the verb ‘alight’. I don’t think there’s necessarily a better word to use, if you want an expression more formal than ‘get off (or out of) the vehicle’.

No, what amuses me is when ‘alight’ is used transitively to mean ‘drop someone off’. Or when someone means ‘drop you off’ and only says ‘drop you’.

May I alight you here?

May I drop you here?

I don’t think it’s just taxi drivers who use ‘drop’ to mean ‘drop off’, though. I think non-Singaporean native English speakers say that too, don’t we?

This is language evolution in progress. Why shouldn’t any verb be able to take an object? Why shouldn’t we just kill off—I mean, um, kill—all those pesky phrasal verbs? Maybe this is the future.

No Smoking Prohibited By Law

The sign says:

No Smoking
Prohibited By Law

But it should say:

No Smoking
By Law

or

Smoking Prohibited By Law

or

No Smoking
Smoking Is Prohibited By Law

Why? Because it almost sounds as if not smoking is not allowed. In other words, it sounds like everyone must smoke.

Obviously people are not really going to conclude that they must smoke when they see this sign, but all the same, the English is not quite right.