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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, August 31, 2012

Don't misplace your modifiers

Talk about going to extreme lengths for advertising.

“Hung as the signage for Mojo's Cycles, the owner says the bike is a Sears model.” But unless he, and not the bike, really is suspended above his store, this sentence, found in a Toronto newspaper, illustrates the grammatical error called a misplaced modifier.

I know you expect your weekly Wordlady to be a word history rather than a grammar lesson, but this very common mistake really bugs me, so bear with me while I rant.

Make sure that descriptive phrases are properly attached to the thing they describe, to avoid unintended and sometimes hilarious consequences like the following, all found in Toronto newspapers. Those of you who would never misplace a modifier can just laugh or feel smug. But judging by the frequency of these errors, many people can just not see what the problem is, so I have highlighted the misplaced modifier in red and the thing it is grammatically (but not intentionally) modifying in green.

Small enough to take with you on your next shopping trip, wine experts Phillips and Harradine guide you through the best-value wines at the LCBO.”

“A 53-year-old Winnipeg truck driver, who has been in Canada since he was a baby, has been deported to England, where he was born after being convicted on drug charges.

Built for people on the go, Oakville's Mariel Bradley has produced a cookbook.”

Meant to reflect the newly revamped ROM, the station's leaky, moldy tiles have been replaced by five column designs.”

And the all-time, cringe-inducing winner:

“This latest contraceptive is a flexible ring, about the diameter of an egg, worn as far up your vagina as you can push it for three weeks at a time.


For another entertaining misplaced modifier, see my "Casting dispersions" post.

Friday, August 24, 2012

What the h...?

With the Olympics over, thank God we won't have to hear every last thing being described as "historic" any more. But is a new world record "a historic event" or "an historic event"?

A recent facebook poll I conducted showed "an historic" favoured over "a historic" by 60% of respondents, and this seemed to cut across generational lines. This is such an intriguing phenomenon. Typically in English, we use "a" before a pronounced h (as in "history") and "an" before silent h (as in "hour", "honour", etc.). So why do so many people (you've probably guessed I'm not one of them) do the counterintuitive thing and say "an historic" even though the h is pronounced?

If you look on the ever-helpful internet, you will find all sorts of wacko "rules" about this, depending on whether it's a noun or a verb, whether the first or second syllable is stressed, how many syllables the word has, what happens in French (in French!) and many other variables. Why do people make their lives this complicated?

Especially when THERE IS NO REASON TO DO THIS!! It's just a result of a quirk in the history (or should I say istory?) of English spelling and pronunciation.

"Historic" and "historical" didn't come into English till the Renaissance, but "history" has been around much longer. In Latin it was historia, but the Romans stopped pronouncing the h long before Latin morphed into Old French. The French didn't pronounce it (still don't) and being sensible people back then, didn't put an unpronounced letter in the spelling. VoilĂ : istorie. We borrowed the word, h-less in both spelling and pronunciation.

But then the Renaissance came along, and we developed a mania for putting silent letters in our spellings to reflect the original Latin word. So "istory" and its derivatives acquired an h in the spelling, but still not in the pronunciation. It therefore was perfectly natural to say "an history" or "an historic event", just as we still say "an hour" or "an honour".

 It was not until the end of the 19th century, and the advent of both mass literacy and social opprobrium for people who "drop their aitches", that we started pronouncing the h in "history" and "historic" (and many other words besides). But for some reason, although we all sensibly adjusted our indefinite article from "an" to "a" before "history", some of us didn't do the same before "historic".

Mastering counterintuitive linguistic "rules" like this is a good way to make you feel superior to those who do the opposite --but naturally idiomatic-- thing, and I believe this has something to do with the survival of "an historic". I am not saying that all my friends who say this are consciously asserting their linguistic superiority, but  I think they must be channelling something they were taught in school.

I even see the tendency spilling over onto other words starting with h. In the last few months I have seen all of the following:

an helicopter
an hospital
an horrific
an hilarious
an Hispanic
an hibiscus

and there is ample evidence on Google for all of these. Admit it, you "an historic" types, you're thinking, "But those are ridiculous!". Aren't you?

(For another example, "an heritage", see this post.)

Something has to give, though.  It's just too much work -- and not natural English -- to say "an" and then pronounce your h afterwards, so either the n or the h has to go. Indeed, I heard a CBC-TV reporter talking about one of those multitudinous historic events at the Olympics, and it certainly sounded to me like "an istoric day". Some linguists believe that the pronounced h"is doomed to die in Standard English as it has done in so many languages, and perhaps this is a sign of it ailing, though there are vast numbers of words in English with a very healthy initial h.

My advice is:

Use "an" before the FOUR (count 'em!) words and their approximately twelve common derivatives, that start with a silent h in standard English (i.e. not those varieties of English, like Cockney, in which all initial h's are silent):

heir, honest, honour, hour

For Americans and about 50% of Canadians, the word "herb" is also in this category.

Use  "a" before h's that are pronounced (everything else). EVEN "HISTORIC"!! (For some speakers, "humour" and "human" also have a silent "h", but since those words start with a "you" sound, they also take "a".)

How easy is that?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Please stand!

Over the past few weeks we have heard many national anthems played at the Olympics, and meanwhile in my church choir I've been singing another kind of anthem, a choral setting of a biblical text.

Where does this word "anthem" come from? It has come a very long way, having its ultimate origins in the Greek elements anti (against) and phone (sound). This became the church Latin word antiphona (a composition sung with one choir responding to another), which has given us the word "antiphon".

But antiphona was fated to have another evolution as well. When the Anglo-Saxons were confronted with this church Latin word, they decided to drop a few syllables and thus turned antiphona into antefne. Even for the Anglo-Saxons, though, antefne was a hard mouthful of consonants, so gradually the f became an m and the final ne dropped off altogether, leaving us with "anthem" by about 1500.

Throughout this time, it maintained the original meaning of an antiphonal composition, but starting with Chaucer, it also meant a piece of scripture set to music. Any singer who has ever made it through Holy Week can sympathize with the speaker in Henry IV part 2 who said "For my voice, I have lost it with hallowing, and singing of Anthems." The word "anthem" for such pieces tends to be used of English compositions and the Church of England. On the continent and in Catholic churches such religious choral pieces are more likely to be called "motets", a diminutive of the French word mot (meaning "word"): a "little word".

Shakespeare also used "anthem" more figuratively to mean any song of praise, and this led ultimately to its being used to describe the royalist song that gained popularity in the mid-1700s. But even in late Victorian times, pedants were complaining that "anthem" was not the "right" word for "God Save the Queen", and that it should be called a "national hymn" instead (as indeed national anthems are in French and German and other languages). This just shows that pedants never win out in matters lexical. Just think how they would react to the latest evolution of the word, as in "Technohead's irresistibly zany pro-marijuana anthem". Definitely not suitable for the Olympics. Or church!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

It ain't easy doing adagio

Over on my ballet website, I've started a weekly series on the history of some ballet terms. We start with "adagio", and how it is surprisingly related to the words "easy" and "adjacent". Please click here.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of mice and men

With the Olympics monopolizing the airwaves for the last two weeks, a lot of muscle has been on display. But lest you think athletes have a monopoly on muscle, you might want to contemplate these pictures of ballet dancers. (You will probably want to contemplate them no matter what you think!)

Canadian dancer Matthew Golding of
Dutch National Ballet
photo credit: Erwin Olaf
Yes, male ballet dancers, the people that popular culture, in one of the world's inexplicable mysteries, considers to be "wimpy".

OK, class, stop drooling now, and apply your mind to more intellectual pursuits, to wit: the etymology of the word "muscle". (If you want to see Matthew's muscles in the flesh, you could always come with me on a ballet trip to Holland next May .)
"Muscle" ultimately derives from the Latin musculus (little mouse), mus meaning "mouse" and culus being a diminutive ending. The Romans saw a similarity in shape between muscles (especially the biceps) and mice (hey, this is an excuse for you to look at those pics again to check just how much those biceps look like mice). OK, are you back with me now? Another mouse-shaped thing also called a musculus was the bivalve mollusc Mytilus edulis, which you and I know as a ... mussel.
mussels: tasty, but less exciting than muscles

"Mussel" came directly from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, much earlier than "muscle", which arrived in English via French in the 14th century. They both seem to have kept the "K" sound from the Latin origin (as indeed the French word muscle still does) through the 16th century, at which point the "MUSSLE" pronunciation won out. The spelling distinction, with "muscle" reserved for the body part and "mussel" for the shellfish, was not definitively established till the 19th century. It is not surprising that an anatomical term kept a silent letter reflecting the original Latin spelling of the word, while a food term did not, anatomy being the purview of learned folk while eating is for ordinary folk.

If all this leaves you wondering why the French word for "mouse" is souris instead of some derivative of the Latin mus,  this is  a typical case of Old French deriving its vocabulary from Popular Latin (i.e. Latin slang) rather than Classical Latin. In Popular Latin, the word for "mouse" was sorex, which in Classical Latin meant "shrew" (ie the rodent, not the ill-tempered woman).

Now, I  don't want to leave you without giving you a chance to see those beautiful balletic muscles in action, so here you go. MUCH better than the Olympics!
If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips in 2012-13 by clicking here.

Robert Tewsley and Julia Kraemer in the comic Le Grand Pas de Deux:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Casting dispersions

Reading a recent article in my local newspaper, I stumbled on this malapropism:
"I cast no dispersions, but I know in my heart there's got to be a better way."
 According to Google, this is a not uncommon mistake for "cast aspersions". "Aspersion" comes from the Latin word  aspergere (sprinkle), and was first used of the act of sprinkling the faithful with holy water. But, who knows why, it almost immediately came to acquire the figurative sense of "damaging imputations or unjust insinuations", a rather genteel version of the image we get from the synonymous "mud-slinging".

In this case, I suspect the mistake was made by the reporter recounting the speaker's words rather than the speaker himself, because the article was rife with howlers:

Thanks to a misplaced modifier, Toronto police acquired an unusual new uniform and weapons:
"A patient walked out of Toronto East General Hospital and was later shot by police wearing a hospital gown and wielding scissors."
I guess budget cuts account for the fact that the police had only one hospital gown amongst them (and goodness knows they're hard enough to fasten up the back when there's only one body in them!) .

Apparently,  the demands of the heart are such that hospitals need an alarm code to cover the eventuality of patients running off to get married:
"The most high profile incidents in the past year have been the two code yellows (the hospital code for a missing, wandering, or eloped patient)."
 Did they really mean "eloped"? Perhaps there's some legal usage of the word I am not familiar with (if so I am sure an eager reader will let me know), although the only strictly legal definition the OED gives is the one it phrases so delightfully.

Of a wife: To run away from her husband in the company of a paramour.

 I'm thinking that definition may be up for review when the lexicographers get to the letter E!

Mountains are to be found in hospital offices:
"a tour of the hospital Friday morning giving a peak inside the security office"
For the difference between "peak", "peek" and even "pique", see this post.

But I don't think the reporter can be blamed for this particular gem of bureaucratese:
"If there's a person in crisis that we believe less lethal support could be used."
I think this means "we probably shouldn't shoot mentally ill patients dead."  It does rather suggest that the speaker thinks that such a thing as "lethal support" could exist, but there are less lethal options available. I tend to think of "lethal" (when being used literally) as absolute; something either kills you or it doesn't.
But perhaps I shouldn't cast dispersions on him for his language use.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.