Tag Archives: grammar

The future of the apostrophe?

Yesterday this tweet appeared from @hazelblackberry on Twitter.

””””””’ pic.twitter.com/pLtEn1gq

It led to this photo:

Wall notice reading "Key's for Shearer's Quarter's Room's Are located on the Utilities' wall inside Shearer's Quarter's Compound."

Used with permission..

What’s so wonderful about this is that every single apostrophe is wrong even in the words which should have one. That takes some doing. It’s slightly disappointing that there are two S’s and an s which don’t have apostrophes, but every s at the end of a word has one. [1]

Given this level of confusion, part of me is wondering whether one day something like this will happen:

Diagram: s without an apostrophe disappears from the alphabet and is replaced by two forms in which the apostrophe is merged with the letter. These then merge together and produce a new letter of the alphabet.

Since the letter s is always used with an apostrophe, the apostrophe becomes part of the letter. First there are two versions, depending on the placement of the apostrophe, but by this stage nobody can remember which is right anyway and it’s such a pain trying to choose between the two different s’s that the two forms merge.

Actually I suspect this won’t happen, since so much English is now typed rather than handwritten. More likely the apostrophe will go out of use unless the very straightforward rules for its use become widely known again. It’s an interesting thought, though. And drawing the illustration gave me an excuse to experiment a bit more with the graphics tablet that arrived the other day. 😉


[1S’s as the plural of S is correct: letters of the alphabet are the sole exception to the rule that apostrophes never make plurals. Consider the other ways of doing it and you can see why. With no punctuation, the plurals of a, i and u would be as, is and us, which are virtually impossible not to read as the standard two-letter words. Try giving the a, i and u italics: as, is, us—almost as bad. Or putting them in single or double quotes: “a”s, “i”s, “u”s, ‘a’s, ‘i’s, ‘u’s. It’s hideously messy and looks rather strange. The simplest solution is a’s, i’s and u’s. If you regard the letters as being short for their spoken names, the apostrophe becomes logical for some letters: t’s is short for tees and z’s is short for zeds for example, with the apostrophe representing the omitted -ee- and -ed-.

A question for grammatically aware Norwegians

Or anyone who knows more Norwegian grammar than I do, really.

Recently—after years of not quite getting round to it—I’ve started learning Norwegian. Or attempting to. Searches for evening classes and the like proved fruitless, as did searches for affordable Norwegian-learning books, so I’ve had to come up with my own process for learning the language. The basic process is:

  • Take a fragment of Norwegian, such as a tweet from one of the Norwegians I follow on Twitter. (Twitter is ideal for this! I never have to try to understand anything more than 140 characters long.)
  • If I don’t understand it and don’t want to look up all the words straight away, use the Opera Inline Translator extension to get a somewhat garbled, but still helpful, idea of what it means.
  • Look up any new words in the rather thin Norwegian dictionary I managed to get hold of. Also,  if possible, look up the component parts of the words.
  • If I don’t understand how the grammar fits together, either look up the relevant section of Louis Janus, Norwegian Verbs and Essentials of Grammar or make a note that I need to. (It’s not sensibly possible to learn all grammar at once, even a tweet at a time. But it is possible to add, say, “adjectives with definite nouns” to a list of things to put off learning learn later.)
  • When in doubt, plague ask a Norwegian. with questions

Today I thought it was time I got to grips properly with the past tense and past participles. (Just for regular verbs; irregular ones are their own particular nighmare.)

Apparently Norwegian regular verbs are grouped into  four classes according to what ending they use to form the past tense: -et or -a for Class I, -te for Class II, -de for Class III, and -dde for Class IV. Past participles are the same but minus the final -e. The book makes some comments about what kind of verb typically belongs to each class.

“Is this Class I, Class II, Class III or Class IV?” isn’t really the sort of question one wants to be asking when looking at a word. The relevant question is “what ending goes on this, and why?” So I’ve tried to re-work the information in the grammar book into something which is easier to remember and use. I came up with these rules of thumb below. They’re just for regular verbs, and I know that irregular ones won’t follow them. But hopefully, if my rules are right, I’ll be able to tell what the irreguarities are, and that will make it easier to learn them.

Here’s my attempt:

  • The basic past tense ending is -te after a consonant or -de after a vowel.
  • But Norwegian doesn’t like triple consonants. So if adding -te would produce three consonants in a row, use -et instead (or -a if it suits your dialect).
  • However, -ldte and -ndte are OK, since -ld and -nd act like single consonants. Also -ll-, -mm- and -nn- will be contracted to -l-, -m- and -n-, so the -te ending is still OK for verbs whose stems end with those.
  • -g or -v at the end of the verb stem softens the ‑t in the ending to ‑d, so we get -gde and -vde (not -gte and -vte).
  • If the verb stem ends in a single, stressed vowel, then the -d in the ending is emphasised too, by doubling it so the ending is -dde.
  • For a past particple, use the same endings but without any final -e.

Or more briefly: for regular verbs

  1.  Use -te after a consonant and -de after a vowel.
  2. If a triple consonant other than -ldt or -ndt would result, use ‑et (‑a) instead.
  3. -g and -v soften –te to -de.
  4. A single stressed vowel strengthens -de to –dde.

And my question is: do these rules seem right?

A long-lost newspaper cutting

Talking of things from the past unexpectedly surfacing: here’s a newspaper cutting which I saved in 1985. (Good grief, that’s 25 years ago! Ahem . . . ) I mislaid it for a while, and then was delighted to find it again a few months ago.

It dates from my time living in Bangor, North Wales, and is a letter to the local free newspaper. There was an election coming up. Bilingual leaflets were produced by the parties, in English and Welsh. Well sort of. Here is one resident’s reaction to what came through the letterbox:

Newspaper cutting in deliberately misspelt English, complaining about poor Welsh translations

From the free Bangor newspaper, c. 1984

By the way, some of the spellings in the above make more sense if you’re familiar with the basics of Welsh pronunciation and with the Gwynedd local accent: for example, ffrynt in the first sentence is an almost perfect representation in Welsh spelling of how the English word front would be pronounced locally.

Now the question in my mind is: how bad are the translations in today’s election campaigns? Have they improved at all? My hope is that they have, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that they haven’t.

Anyone know?

A grammar puzzle

English grammar can be strange. Sometimes it seems to have a rule of breaking its own rules, as it were. An example that occurred to me yesterday involves the words less and fewer. I’ll tell you about it shortly, but I need some background first.

A rule

First consider the basic rule about these words:

  • fewer refers to things you can count
  • less refers to things you can’t count: continuous quantities.

So, for example, if you drop one of your plates on the floor while washing up and it shatters, you have fewer plates than you did before. But if you eat a larger piece of cake than planned, there is less cake left than there would have been otherwise.

Some exceptions which aren’t

This seems like a clear enough rule, and it’s one which we mostly adhere to in written English. Fowler [1], though, mentions a few apparent exceptions, such as

  • It is less than seventy miles to London
  • [It] costs less than fifty pounds
  • We have had reliable temperature records for less than 150 years
  • [Please write] fifty words or less.

On closer inspection, the first three of these turn out to fit the rule.Try using fewer in those examples: It is fewer than seventy miles to London sounds (at least to me) as though the distance to London has to be a whole number of miles. But it isn’t: distance is a continuous quantity, which just happens to be measured in miles. We aren’t counting the number of miles, but measuring the distance.

Similarly the time since temperature records began is unlikely to be a whole number of years, and we’re measuring the time, not counting individual years; less than 150 years really means “A time whose length is shorter than 150 years”.

The money example seems slightly different, since money does come in distinct steps. However, the steps are pence, not pounds. Normally you won’t get the correct price of something by counting out a number of pounds, and (at least to my ears) fewer than fifty pounds sounds like doing precisely that. We generally think of money as a thing which we have a lot or a little of, not as a pile of coins which we have many or few of. So it still fits the rule.

Fifty words or less is interesting because, as Fowler points out, it is standard wording for English exams. A whole number of words is definitely what’s wanted. But the emphasis is still really on the length of the passage to be written, not on the individual words.

As a borderline case, Fowler  gives having had in his house at one time no less than five Nobel Prize winners. I’m less happy about that one: I think that in written English it should definitely be no fewer than five of them. Nobel Prize winners seem to me to be something that you definitely have a whole number of, not something that you measure out. On the other hand, maybe when you have a crowd of Nobel Prize winners your attention is on the size of the crowd rather than on the individuals. But I somehow doubt it. Nevertheless, these examples do in fact fit the rule: fewer for things you count, and less for things you don’t. I’m merely a little dubious about the idea of not counting Nobel Prize winners.

Speaking colloquially

I’ve not studied the speech aspect of this, but it’s clear that many (maybe most) people often don’t adhere to this rule when speaking. They say things like I’ve got far less things to do today and might treat less things to doless work to do and less to do as equivalents which are all variants on the idea of doing less.

Are they speaking “incorrectly”, or are they using a different set of rules of “correctness” for speech? I’m not sure: to me this one does feel more like not noticing a word that doesn’t fit properly, thereby getting it wrong,  than like using a different rule  to determine what fits. But at the same time, carefully using fewer can feel artificial at times, creating too much formality, especially in situations where it’s harder to say or when speaking to someone who doesn’t use it. Far fewer feels more awkward to the mouth than far less, for example, and I think there probably is a “rule” in speech  of using phrases which have a smoother sound to them. Maybe sounding nice sometimes takes precedence over “correctness”. But whether it actually sounds nice to the listener will of course depend on how alert they are to the grammatical structures, how bothered they are by it, and whether it affects clarity of meaning.

The puzzle

OK, that was rather a lot of background. Here is the puzzle, though it may be that I just hear things a particular way which other people don’t share. I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on it. It concerns the situation where, say, someone has some things to  do and then does one of them. The situation afterwards can be expressed in a variety of ways. Some feel more natural than others; some seem more grammatically logical than others. This is how it looks to me, though it may be different for someone else:

  • I now have fewer things to do.
  • I now have one less thing to do.
  • I now have one thing less to do.

These all feel to me like natural ways of saying it.

Less acceptable
  • I now have less things to do.
  • I now have one thing fewer to do.

Less things to do feels natural as a spoken expression, but either wrong or borderline as a written one. One thing fewer is verging on awkward: not exactly wrong, but not a very natural expression either.

Unacceptable (to my ears)
  • I now have one fewer thing to do. (No no no! One less!)
  • I now have one fewer things to do. (“One things?!”)

And there’s the puzzle.

  • How many things do you have to do? Fewer. You have  fewer things to do.
  • How many fewer? One. You have one fewer things to do.

And yet, far from being the correct expression, one fewer things to do is the most unambiguously wrong one of the lot.

On the other hand, if two tasks are done instead of one,  fewer becomes OK again: I have two fewer things to do.

At first sight, this is all very puzzling. The questions are ones like these:

  • Why can I have fewer things to do but not one fewer things to do?
  • Why can I have  one less thing to do but not one fewer thing to do?
  • Given that the things to do are ticked off my list one by one, why does less rather than fewer end up being the apparently correct word?

Attempt at an answer

The problem with the two versions I listed as “unacceptable” seems to be  that however much we may want them to be logical, they refuse to read that way.  One fewer things to do insists on reading as though fewer qualifies one things, so singular and plural are mismatched. One fewer thing to do tries to make fewer thing into a valid element. But we know that fewer applies to more than one of something. What’s rather strange, though, is that one less thing to do doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problem, even though less thing isn’t really any more valid an element than fewer thing. Maybe it’s chosen simply because it doesn’t leap out quite so blatantly.

(By the way, I really wish I had a quick way to draw some sentence diagrams here.)

From my list, I think the three “least incorrect” versions are

  • I now have one less thing to do.
  • I now have one thing less to do.
  • I now have one thing fewer to do.

In all cases, there is one thing which has already been done. This leaves less/fewer [things] to  do. But if we test the structure by removing fewer or less from the sentences, we see that they are all versions of I now have one thing to do, which isn’t the situation. The one thing is precisely the one which doesn’t need doing.

So the grammar is confusing because it tries to have its cake and eat it. Structurally, less to do and fewer to do are firmly attached to the one thing. But in their actual meaning, they refer to something entirely different: all the other things to do, which are nowhere to be seen in any of the three sentences. They’re trying to refer to two conflicting things at once.

Finally, if we instead remove the one thing from the three sentences to see what structure is left, we end up with

  • I now have less to do
  • I now have fewer [things] to do.

If the most natural phrase were I now have one thing less to do, this would give us our answer: it means “I now have less to do, by one thing”. Interpreted this way, the sentence is grammatically correct and self-contained. However, I think the most natural one is one less thing, not one thing less, so either some illogicality remains, or something unidentified is still going on.

I would welcome any thoughts on this! In particular, on whether my feeling as to the relative acceptability of the different constructions coincides with yours. There may be regional or international differences, or you might simply have gravitated towards a different usage from mine.


[1] R W Burchfield (ed.). The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 295. Back

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .