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Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before

Globe Theatre


A fascinating discussion of Shakespeare and Original Pronunciation.  Against the backdrop of the glorious Globe Theatre, David Crystal and his son Ben talk about Early Modern English pronunciation and its importance in our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays. They explore what performing Shakespeare in OP brings to the text, and the semantic word play that is lost in RP. Well worth a listen!William_Shakespeare_1609 (1)


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Should I watch it? – Tell me in a (noun) phrase …

It’s really useful to understand the structure of noun phrases. Along with verb phrases, they form the backbone of all our written and spoken language. They can be short and concise (a single word – yes, even a single word can count as a ‘phrase’ because there is always the opportunity to add extra detail …) or they can carry huge amounts of information.

Looking at the brief film descriptions you see in television listings is a great starting point for learning about noun

Simple Noun Phrases

So, we’re going to start with a single word. We call this the head of the noun phrase.

Film genres wordle

Simple noun phrases consist of a single noun (or pronoun), or a determiner + noun.  Each of the genre nouns above is the head of a simple noun phrase. From the denotations and connotations of each word, we can get a good idea of what a film will contain.


a film designed to horrify, usually through the depiction of the supernatural and violence [DENOTATION]

dark tone; monstrous happenings;  associated feelings such as fear, shock, loathing, dread [CONNOTATIONS]


a film based on the biography of a well-known public or historical figure [DENOTATION]

true, but dramatised with some fabrication or manipulation  [CONNOTATIONS]

Complex noun phrases: pre-modification

While a single head noun will give a broad sense of a film’s type,  TV listings will often use words in front of the head to give readers a more precise understanding of a particular film. We call these complex noun phrases because they contain modifiers.

Pre-modifiers come before the head noun in a noun phrase. They can be adjective phrases, nouns or non-finite verbs (usually -ing present participles and -ed past participles).defining film words

The examples above are defining modifiers – they limit the range of reference of the head noun by specifying something distinctive about the film genre. For example, a comic film could be defined as

a slapstick sports comedy

 a battle-of-the-sexes comedy

a fashion-industry satirical comedy

a culture-clash comedy

A Western could be defined as

an epic western

a Spaghetti western

a spoof western

a Civil War western

Each of the modifiers provides additional information refining our expectations: the adjective ‘spoof’ suggests a film that  will mimic the features of a traditional western for comic effect; the noun ‘Spaghetti’ suggests a western in the style of the Italian director Sergio Leone. The words tend to be objective, reflecting qualities that are easily observable or quantifiable.

Modifiers can also be added to communicate a reviewer’s opinions. We call these evaluative modifiers – the examples below have positive connotations.

positive evaluative film words

 These modifiers come before the defining modifiers and are subjective – they reflect a particular person’s point of view.

technically-brilliant, occasionally harrowing war drama

a thought-provoking period drama

a beautifully-rendered animated adventure

a spectacular fantasy adventure

victorian-couple-mdEvaluative modifiers may comment on the physical features of filming (technically-brilliant, beautifully rendered), or may reflect the reviewer’s emotional response (thought-provoking, spectacular).

Evaluative modifiers can also communicate negative opinions.

negative evalutive film words

 an uninspired teen romance

a plodding spy thriller

a rather simplistic action adventure

a heavy-going biographical drama

From these examples, you can see how to build up strings of words before the head noun in a noun phrase to shape the meaning. Non-finite verbs like uninspired, intriguing, plodding, affecting and heavy-going, and  adjectives like enjoyable, dreary, stylish, watchable and crass control our response to the head word. We can use degree adverbs like very, rather, quite, incredibly to refine the modifiers.

Compound modifiers are common because they communicate a lot of information in a small space. For example, effects-heavy, stop-motion, Flintstones-esque, part-animated.  Coordinating conjunctions are also often used to link strings of modifiers, or to create contrasts. For example, crass, gross and witless; frantic but fun.

Complex noun phrases: post-modification

Noun phrases can also be post-modified by adding information after the head noun. The most common linguistic structures are prepositional phrases (starting with a preposition), relative clauses (starting with the relative pronouns who, which, that, where i.e. ‘in which’), and non-finite clauses (starting with non-finite verbs: usually -ed past participles or -ing present participles).

a charmless sports comedy based on a true story 

(non-finite -ed clause)

a spectacular adventure brimming with breezy black humor

(non-finite -ing clause)

Low-budget action movie about a daring escape from a PoW camp

(prepositional phrase)

a compelling thriller that paints a devastating picture of the global finance industry

(that relative clause)

a nail-biting creepy classic horror which is a spine-tingling delight

(which relative clause)

 As you can see from these examples, the post-modifiers can also include defining modifiers (true, global finance) and evaluative modifiers (breezy, devastating, spine-tingling). This is because there are also noun phrases embedded in the post-modifying structures:

  • post-modifying prepositional phrases are made up of a  preposition + noun phrase

special-effects-laden sci-fi comedy about a teenager who travels back in time

film-noir horror with a mean and moody landscape

quirky animation for the discerning 

uplifting fantasy from the makers of the award-winning cartoon

  • post-modifying non-finite clauses are made up of a non-finite verb (+ preposition) + noun phrase

tremendously exciting action thriller showcasing amazing martial arts skills

decent romance featuring A-lister Hollywood stars

period drama telling a tale of doomed love in 19th-century New York

brash musical adapted from the hit Broadway show

  • post-modifying relative clauses are made up of a relative pronoun  + verb + noun phrase/adjective phrase

classic western which exploits the tragic resettlement of the Cheyenne by the US government

whimsical comedy that becomes increasingly thought-provoking


relative pronoun + noun phrase + verb 

comedy where the new girl struggles to find her way in an American high school 

dreary adventure in which an assassin is hired to hunt down a girl in witness protection

 A noun phrase can carry a huge amount of information – by carefully selecting the type and tone of the pre- and post-modification, TV listings can help us to choose whether we will enjoy a particular film .

Are you going to watch?

Use the examples below to test your knowledge.  Find the head noun; work out what kinds of modification have been used; and finally, think about the semantic effects created. Which films would you want to see?

Well-played but predictable comedy in which an uptight 30-something reconnects with her hippy mom

Commendable mystery

Tedious zombie-slaying adventure

Stylish and gritty drama based on a true story

Misfiring fantasy featuring four interconnected stories

Warm-hearted animation for the whole family

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Are you hangry? Do you think Sheldon Cooper is adorkable? And has someone defriended you recently?

I must apologise for the lack of activity in recent months, but other commitments have prevented me Smiling Face Clip Artfrom posting. I promise to do better soon and to get back to more regular updates …

In the meantime, here’s an interesting seventeen-minute talk on dictionaries and contemporary language change by the language historian Anne Curzan (Professor of English, Michigan University). Well worth a listen …


 TED is a non-profit organisation which spreads ideas through short talks on all kinds of topics linked to science, business, language, global issues etc. Their aim is to get you thinking …


[PS Thank you Karen Turner for tagging me]


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When a phoneme matters!

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Earlier this month, Pope Francis was delivering his weekly Sunday blessing from the Vatican, when people listening in St Peter’s Square and around the world were taken by surprise.

What happened? Well, a slip of the tongue …

And within minutes it was being reported on Italian media and had been posted on YouTube.

So what was all the fuss about?  A single phoneme!

Intending to say caso, the Pope accidentally said cazzo. The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ was replaced by a voiced alveolar fricative /z/. Apparently, an easy slip for native Spanish speakers to make when speaking Italian.

The problem was that the apparently insignificant change of sound – so easy to do unintentionally in connected speech – had a rather significant semantic impact. The noun caso means ‘example, instance, case’, but cazzo is used as an expletive and a vulgar term.  Calmly self-corrected, this epic moment has added to Pope Francis’ reputation as a man of the people.

Change a phoneme and you change the meaning … ‘bin’, ‘sin’, ‘pin’ (initial phoneme) … ‘bet’, ‘bat’, ‘bit’ (medial phoneme) … ‘sit‘, ‘sip‘, ‘sir ‘ (final phoneme).  Usually, we take these sound changes for granted because they are central to the construction of meaning,  but the results can be humorous!

686px-It_came_up_from_the_mud_(323809965)In June 2009, the BBC weather forecaster Tomasz Shafernaker had to contain his amusement after accidentally replacing the alveolar fricative /s/ with palato-alveolar fricative /∫/ – the ‘muddy site’ he was predicting for the Glastonbury festival became something rather less formal!

If you’d like to hear the slip for yourself, follow the link:

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It’s a limit not a target – or the art of analysing a poem

To start, an anecdote … (thank you Leah) ….

13167190531844420519Mandatory Speed

Approaching each speed sign, a driving instructor’s mantra was “It’s a limit, not a target.’ One sign – two meanings. Does the number in the red circle tell us what to aim for? Or, does it define a boundary? A driver who always drives at the speed indicated on the sign, hitting the target like an elite bowman, interprets the sign as a goal; the driver limiting speed to below the 30mph in urban areas or the 70mph on motorways is perhaps recognising the boundaries set to ensure the safety of pedestrians or other road-users.

This example is not really ambiguous since we all understand the function of a speed sign, but the principle holds for poetry. One word – two fields of reference. Two fields of reference – semantic ambiguity that engages the reader in a dramatic tension.

A poem like the short lyric ‘Spellbound’ written by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) provides a perfect example …


The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me:
I will not, cannot go.

So how do we begin our analysis?

Having read through the poem from beginning to end, try to answer the questions below. After each question, a sample paragraph will explore some of the ideas you may have considered. The important thing to remember is that the interpretation offered here is just one possible reading. If you come to different conclusions, try writing your own sequence of paragraphs in order to explore your personal response to the poem.

1. Introduction

What is the main focus of the content?

The content of ‘Spellbound’ focuses on a storm, and the repetition of the first person pronoun”I” suggests that the poem offers a subjective account of a personal experience. We see the scene as the narrator sees it – the poem is a very private expression of one individual’s response. The writing is powerful and intense, reflecting both the external physical landscape and the internal emotional state of the narrator.  

2.  Key ideas: nouns and modifiers

What do the nouns and modifiers tell us about the content?


Brontë gives the landscape a physical presence with the concrete nouns linked to the natural world (“trees”, “boughs”) and the weather (“winds”, “snow”, “storm”, “clouds”). The atmosphere, however, is created through adjectives like “wild”, “bare” and “drear”, and the adverb “coldly”. These words tell us something about the literal scene, but also reflect the narrator’s mood. The use of pathetic fallacy helps us to understand that the poem is about more than just a description of a place at a certain moment in time.

3. Key ideas: themes

How does the poet use the words, the rhyme scheme and the form to develop her central themes?

The theme of vulnerability is developed in the perspective of the poem. The attributive adjective “giant” and the contrasting prepositions “above/below” make the narrator seem insignificant in the landscape. This is reinforced by the parallel noun phrases “Clouds beyond clouds” and “Wastes beyond wastes”, which define the vast scale of the natural world. The abstract noun “wastes” contributes to the bleak tone because its negative connotations enhance the apparent isolation and loneliness of the narrator. She has no control over her surroundings and is motionless while the present tense verb “blow” and the present progressive verb phrases “are darkening” and “is … descending” create a sense of on-going movement around her.
418px-Shishkin_na_severe_dikom1   The narrator seems trapped – not just by the approach of night and the storm, but by something more intangible. This is clear in the abstract noun “spell”, with its connotations of bewitchment, and in the attributive modifier “tyrant” with its connotations of control and manipulation. It is also evident, however, in the very form of the poem itself. The tight rhyme structure mirrors the narrator’s feelings of being imprisoned: long vowel sounds (“blow/snow”) and even the words themselves  (“me/go”) recur in an inescapable cycle.   The grammatical structure of the sentences is cumulative: the comma splicing (ll.1-2) and the patterned sequence of initial position co-ordinating conjunctions (“But … And … And yet … But …”) drive the reader inescapably onwards. The mood of oppression is underpinned by dynamic verbs like “bound” and “weighed” as the poem builds to a climax in the repetition of the negative modal verb “cannot” (ll.4, 8). The initial position conjunction (“And”) and the caesura (l.4) make this an emphatic statement: the narrator feels physically and emotionally helpless.

4. Change of direction

Where does the poem change? What has changed? What effect does it have?

The poet has built up a negative tone through her choice of words and the structure. The last line, however, moves us in a new direction. Instead of repeating the modal verb “cannot”, Brontë replaces it with “will not”. The change in meaning is significant – suddenly there is a sense of personal choice. The tone is emphatic: the positioning of the personal pronoun at the beginning  of the line and the sequence of three consecutive stresses on the monosyllabic words reinforce this unexpected certainty. The change in tone is not sustained since “will” is quickly replaced by “cannot”, but for a moment there is an ambiguity that adds another dimension to the poem. The narrator both desires and fears the literal and figurative storm that envelops her.
   It is at this point that we have to consider the title of the poem. The adjective phrase “Spellbound” repeats the Miranda_-_Frederick_Goodallmeaning of the simple sentence “(But) a tyrant spell has bound me” in an intensified form. As a grammatical fragment, it is a dramatic introduction, drawing our attention to an idea that is clearly going to be central to the poem’s meaning. The poet’s implicit repetition is a signpost that we need to pay particular attention to this. On first reading, we  inevitably interpret the simple sentence as evidence that the narrator has been bewitched against her will because of the connotations of the words and the repetition of the negative modal verb in the next line. In the light of the final line and the title’s repetition of the idea, however, we need to reassess. There is an important ambiguity: as well as bewitched (negative), we feel that the narrator is also mesmerised, enthralled (positive). “Spellbound”: one word – two fields of reference. Some part of her finds a sensual pleasure in the physical and emotional storm. It is as though the passion of feeling, however painful, is better than the cold detachment of being numb. 

5. Conclusion

How does the context of the poem relate to its meaning?

As a Romantic poet, Brontë draws on the natural world as a means of exploring her inner state of mind. She shows awe in the face of the storm’s natural magnificence and the tone is heightened by the intensity of her private experience. In a traditional lyric poem, we may expect the weak-strong iambic metre to be dominant. In Brontë’s poem, however, there are only three entirely iambic lines (ll.1, 5, 7). Since iambic metre is closest to the rhythms of informal speech and is often described as harmonious and lilting, Brontë chooses something more in keeping with the mood of her poem. Her experience is extraordinary and the disrupted metrical patterns reflect this. In some lines, the iambic rhythm is broken by a medial (ll.2,6) or initial spondee (ll.8, 11); in others, the dominance of trochees inverts the song-like melodies of iambs to create a harsher tone (ll.3-4, 9-10). The unpredictable metrical patterns result in an ecstatic expression of a profound experience as the poet tries to record something that is almost beyond words.  Caspar_David_Friedrich_032_(The_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog)
   Brontë’s presentation of the natural world reflects the nineteenth century interest in the ‘sublime’ – an idea associated with an almost religious awe for the vastness and magnificence of the natural world, and with the expression of strong emotion. The Greek teacher Longinus (born around 213 AD, although very little is known about him) first explored the concept, describing the immensity of natural objects like stars, mountains, volcanoes and the oceans in his treatise ‘On the Sublime’. His work, translated into French in the seventeenth century, influenced the Romantics of the nineteenth century when Edmund Burke wrote a treatise entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This put a new emphasis on the element of violence in the natural world and Burke describes the power of experiences which are:


capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror … Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect …

Brontë’s poem creates a sense of the natural world’s majestic grandeur and its violence. She is subsumed in the moment, immersed in a physical and emotional storm which does both horrify and delight. As readers, we are drawn into the world Brontë creates, experiencing the physical and emotional storm through the stark simplicity of her lyric.

Writing for exams

For those of you who are sitting examinations, this account of the poem fulfils the requirements of the main Assessment Objectives.


It is organised into paragraphs which logically develop, and it is written accurately. It uses a range of terminology at word class (abstract/concrete noun, adjective, dynamic/modal verb, adverb etc), phrase (noun phrase, present progressive verb phrase, adjective phrase) and sentence level (comma splicing, simple sentence, grammatical fragment). It also applies relevant concepts from literary frameworks (pathetic fallacy, tone, theme, narrator).


It addresses meaning in terms of the connotations of words and the groups of words which develop central themes. It explores the semantic effects of structural features (rhyme, caesura, metre) and form (lyric).


It considers the poem in its context in terms of changes to traditional genre (lyric), contemporary literary movements (the Romantic poets) and ideas (the sublime). It addresses reader-response.

And finally …

One important thing to remember is that the title of a poem cannot always be taken at face value – and it’s not always a good starting point for understanding the semantic richness of a poem. A title can be a defining limit, but it can also be a target. Having analysed a poem, therefore, it is important to revisit the title to see whether it can be reinterpreted. Think about its relationship with the poem as a whole, and look out for any semantic ambiguity.

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Stephen Fry on dictionaries

Stephen_Fry's_BirthdayIf you’re interested in the English language, or studying a language course, it’s worth making time to catch up with Fry’s English Delight on Radio 4.  In this week’s programme, Fry looks at the emergence of English dictionaries and the ever increasing number of words in the English lexicon. There’s a useful introduction to the first single language dictionaries, a maha-sketch on Indian English written by Nina Wadia (based on a list of Indian-English words which may make it into the English language in 20 years time), and a discussion of the effect social networking is having on language.

‘Words without end’


As the title of this week’s programme suggests, the number of words in the English language continues to increase dramatically. Fry cites the number of entries recorded in the first and second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to demonstrate this, but going back further reinforces the point he is making.

  • 1604 Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall – 2,500 words
  • 1755 Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language – 40,000
  • 1928 Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition) – 400,000
  • 1989 Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) – 600,000

A post exploring the key English dictionaries in more detail will follow soon.

Oxford English Dictionary

Editors are now working on a third edition of the OED (begun in 1993) with revisions published online every three months since 2000. New words are being added and entries revised so that definitions, derivations, and pronunciations are accurate. Follow the link below to find out more:

Tune in before it’s too

If you’d like to listen to Fry’s English Delight, use the iPlayer Radio link below. The programme and additional clips and related links are available until 10 pm Monday 16th September.

And finally …

479px-Maharaja_mysore1895If you were wondering, maha is an Indian prefix meaning ‘great’. It’s used in familiar expressions like Maharaja (‘Great King’) and Maharishi (‘Great Rishi’). In Nina Wadia’s sketch maha is used as an adjective for comic effect (maha-pleasure, maha-damage).

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Language change in action

File:Rhubarb in Borough Market.jpg

The internet is changing traditional spelling patterns of words with silent letters.  Simpler versions of commonly misspelt words are becoming acceptable because they appear online so frequently. David Crystal has been exploring these changes looking at the spelling of words like ‘rhubarb’ and he concludes that within the next 50 years the new simpler forms will probably be standard. If you’d like to read more, follow the link:

I decided to carry out some research of my own …

You write yogurt and I write yoghurt

 yogurt-mdThe ‘h’ in yoghurt is also in the process of disappearing. Typing yoghurt into a search engine gives 28,700,000 hits, but typing yogurt produces 154,000,000 hits. This reflects the kind of findings Crystal has reported for ‘rhubarb’.

This may be an indication of a USA-centric online search engine, but a trip to the local supermarket suggests that change is most certainly afoot. A quick scan of the chilled shelves reveals an array of yogurt products. Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Yeo Valley, Onken, Ski, Rachel’s Dairy, Danone, Alpro, Weightwatchers, Müller. All the products marketed by these companies have no ‘h’ – the only pot with the traditional spelling was the brand Chobani. This American company uses the simplified American version, but adopts the ‘h’ for their UK products.

The straightforward relationship between the phonetic and the orthographic probably appeals to marketing departments, but the fact that yogurt is the standard spelling in American English will no doubt play its part in the choices made by global companies.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the Tesco aisle marker, the hanging sign which can be seen from a distance, still uses the traditional yoghurt. This is concrete evidence of language change in action. Producers regularly redesign packaging which means it’s easy to reflect linguistic changes as they happen. The signage of a store is a fixture, however, staying the same over a long period, replaced only when it’s time for a re-fit. In this case, the store appears to be heroically flying a flag for a spelling which is no longer considered standard by its suppliers. 

So who does still go the extra mile to add the silent ‘h’?

Looking at a sample of the search engine hits, it would seem that the traditional spelling is adopted by traditional institutions, distinctively British companies, or international retail outlets responding specifically to their British markets:  

  • UK newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The
  • Thorntons (“Yoghurt Coated Strawberry Pieces”)
  • Brown Cow Organics
  • Starbucks UK (“Creamy Natural Yoghurt”)

And then there are those who seem to be mid-change … The BBC ‘Good Food Guide’ uses both forms, as does the UKTV ‘Good Food Channel’.

If we track the orthographic history of yoghurt, we can see that there have always been spellings without the ‘h’. What is new is the fact that until recently these forms have always been in the minority.

yogurt-md (1)1600s    yoghurd, yogourt 

1800s    yahourt, yaghourt, yogurd, yoghourt, youghort, yughard, yughurt, yohourth

1900s    yoghurt, yoghourt

If David Crystal is right, within 50 years, yoghurt will be a thing of the past … We will all still know exactly what we are eating, but the word will have lost its orthographic link with the word borrowed from the Turkish yōghurt in 1625!

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Otherwise engaged …

Writing My Master S Words Clip Art

Other work commitments are preventing me from posting at the moment, but I will be up and running again in a few weeks …

Please keep browsing in the meantime – and if you’ve got anything you’d like me to cover, just get in touch!


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-ism and -ist: helpful suffixes

A suffix is an ending we can attach to a word to express grammatical relationships (inflectional suffix) or to create a new word (derivational suffix).

Inflectional suffixes

Inflectional suffixes can be used to mark:

  • a plural noun e.g. house → houses (-s, -es or -ies suffix)
  • a past tense verb e.g. walk → walked (-ed suffix)
  • a possessive noun e.g.  dog → dog’s (-‘s or -s’ suffix)
  • a 3rd person singular present tense verb e.g.  jump → jumps (-s suffix)
  • a present (-ing) participle e.g. fly → flying (-ing suffix)

These endings carry grammatical information. They usually change the form of a word rather than its class – although the -ly suffix is added to an adjective to create an adverb e.g. slow → slowly.

Derivational suffixes

We use derivational suffixes to create new words which often have a different word class to the original word or base.

  • kind (Adj) + -ness → kindness (N) [-ness is a Latin suffix denoting ‘quality of’]
  • defence (N) + -less → defenceless (Adj)  [-less is a Latin suffix denoting ‘without’)
  • able (Adj) + -ity → ability (N) [-ity is a Latin suffix denoting ‘state’, ‘condition’]
  • dedicate (V) + ion → dedication (N) [-tion is a Latin suffix denoting ‘act of’]
  • pac (N, peace; from the Latin pax) + ify → pacify (V) [-ify is a Latin suffix denoting ‘to make’]

-ism and -ist

But enough about the general cases, the source of this post was a radio discussion about the lack of older women on television news. The presenter used the word lookist to describe our society and it seemed a great place to start … 

The OED cites its use as an adjective in the phrase ‘an unrepentant lookist pig’ (i.e. relating to discrimination on the pig-cartoon-mdgrounds of appearance’), and as the noun lookism (i.e. prejudice or discrimination on the basis of appearance) as early as 1978 In 1990, the noun lookist  (i.e. a person who discriminates on the grounds of appearance) is recorded.

This word formation follows a well-worn pattern using the Greek suffixes -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’) and -ist (i.e. ‘one who believes in’).


Many of our traditional -ism nouns use a Greek base, often loans which have entered English through Latin and French borrowings.

aestheticism: belief in or pursuit of what is beautiful or attractive to the senses, rather than appealing to the ethical or rational (first use 1840)
From the ancient Greek αισθητικòς (= aesthetic i.e. ‘of or relating to the senses’) + -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’)

amateurism: belief in or pursuit of the amateur (first use 1868)
From the French amateur and the Latin amator (‘lover’), amare (‘to love’) – from the 18th century, a person who does anything as a pastime rather than as a profession (now often disparaging)

714px-Cannibals.23232 cannibalism: the practice of eating flesh of one’s own species (first use 1796)

From the 16th century Spanish Canibales, originally one of the names for the Carib tribe of the West Indies, who are recorded as being ‘anthropohagi’ (Latin plural of anthropophagus, from the Greek ανθρωποφαγος, ‘man-eating’)

The -ism suffix can be used to denote a range of meanings:

1. ‘the practice of …’

Noun of action (often linked to –ise/-ize verbs)



baptism – the act or ceremony of being baptised (first use 1377; from ME bapteme from Old French baptesme, Latin baptismus and Greek βαπτισμος)

plagiarism – the act or practice of taking someone else’s work without acknowledgement and using it as one’s own (first use 1621; from Latin plagiarus = ‘person who abducts the child or slave of another’, also ‘literary thief’)

bicyclism – the activity of riding a bicycle (first use 1870, but now rare; from French noun bicycle)

Noun describing the action of a group of people

heroismaction and qualities of a hero (first use 1667; from French héroïsme)

hooliganismaction and behaviour of a hooligan (first use 1898; eytmology uncertain – the name ‘Hooligan’ HappyHooliganappeared in an 1890s music-hall song about a rowdy Irish family, and as an Irish character in a series of stories)

patriotism – quality of being a patriot (first use 1716; from Middle French patriote, Latin patriota and Greek πατριωτης)

2. ‘the condition of …’


albinism – condition of being an albino (first use 1827; probably from French albinisme 1806)

autism – condition marked by difficulties engaging with other people and abstract concepts, often accompanied by impaired speech development or unusual speech patterns (first use 1912; from Latin autismus and Greek αúτòς ‘self’)


colloquialism – informal, conversational language (first use 1834; from Latin colloquium, ‘speaking together, conversation’)

Latinism – language using a distinctively Latin idiom or expression (first use 1570; from Latinus, area of Italy containing Rome, adopted into Old English as læden, reflecting Celtic pronunciation of ‘Latin’)

neologism – words that are newly created (first use 1772; from French néologisme, 1734)

malapropismwords that are used mistakenly in place of another similar word e.g. ‘punctuation’ for ‘punctuality’, or ‘distressing’ for ‘de-stressing’ (first use 1830; from the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character in The Rivals, a play by Sheridan in 1775)

Proper nouns

Pollyannaism behaviour characteristic of Pollyanna, i.e. persistent and often irrational optimism 377px-Pollyanna_Grows_Up_illustration(first use 1924; from the name of Pollyanna Whittier, a character in Pollyanna, a children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter written in 1913)

Whiteboyism – the principles and practices of the Irish Whiteboys (first use 1777, now historical; from the name  for members of a secret agrarian association in Ireland, who wore white shirts over their clothes so they could see each other at night)

Blairism political policies and principles advocated by Tony Blair, Prime Minister 1997-2007 (first use 1994; from the name)

3. ‘the belief in …’

A system or theory

Conservatism believing in the political principles of the Conservative Party (first use 1832; from French conservateur 1795 i.e. focus on maintaining traditional institutions and promoting individual enterprise)

Humanism – believing in human rationality and capacity for free thought, secular rather than religious/spiritual (first use 1853; from Anglo-Norman humeigne and Latin humanus)

Chartism – believing in the democratic principles of the Chartists (first use 1839; from Latin charta)

A particular doctrine or principle

The_American_War-Dog_by_Oscar_Cesare_1916feminismpromotion of equal rights for women in political, social and economic terms (first use 1895; from Latin femina, ‘woman’, and the French adjective féministe, 1872)

jingoismbragging about a country’s readiness to fight or to behave aggressively towards foreign powers, an extreme form of patriotism (first use 1878; from the expression ‘by Jingo’ in a music-hall song which became the theme of the supporters of Lord Beaconsfield who wished to send the British fleet to fight Russia in 1878)

opportunism – exploiting circumstances and opportunities for personal/political advantage (first use 1870; from Italian oppportunismo and French opportunisme 1869)

The superiority of one group over another

racism – prejudice against people of other races (first use 1926; from French race and Italian razza)

sexism – prejudice typically against women based on stereotyping (first use 1934; from Middle French sexe, ‘the genitals’, and Latin sexus, ‘the state of being male or female’)

4. ‘discrimination against …’

ageismdiscrimination on the grounds of age (first use 1969; from Anglo-Norman aege and Old French and Latin aetat-, ‘the length of time a person has lived’)

lookism – discrimination against people because of their appearance (first use 1978; from Old English lócian)

A historical perspective

Following the Latin and Greek models, this helpful little suffix has been used to form the names of religious and philosophical systems, and to describe distinctive ways of looking at the world. We can trace its use over centuries: 

paganism (1425)Luddite
Christianism (1576, now obsolete)
martialism (1608)
Stoicism (1626)
latitudinarianism (1676)
Islamism (1696)
Predestinarianism (1722)
Buddhism (1801)
Luddism (1812)
imperialism (1858)
reincarnationism (1907)
Rachmanism (1963)
Orwellianism (1976)
bioterrorism (1987)
cyberterrorism (1994)
prepperism (i.e. the belief that we need to make advance preparations in order to be able to cope with any disaster, or the end of the society as we know it – not yet in dictionaries, but being used on the internet 2012)

-ism words chart changes in our scientific and technological capabilities, in our attitudes, and in our broadening experiences of other cultures and belief systems.

Evidence that the -ism suffix continues to be linguistically central to our ever-growing word stock can be seen in words like obeseism and gingerism. These are recorded in Wiktionary, are used in the media and can be found in all kinds of contexts online, but have not yet made it into an up-dated entry in the OED.  The suffix even became a noun in its own right as early as 1680: ism, any distinctive doctrine, theory or practice (often used disparagingly). 


Our -ist nouns correspond to the French -iste, Latin –ista, Greek ιστης.  Initially, these were endings attached to ize/ -ise verb stems to form an agent noun (e.g. antagonize → antagonist; ), but in English the suffix is now used more widely. It can be used with -ism nouns (e.g. pacifism → pacifist), with adjectives (e.g. fatal → fatalist), and by analogy (psychiatry → psychiatrist). These -ist nouns can name the followers of a particular group or principle, or the practitioners of a particular process, art or skill. As a noun in its own right, ist was first used in 1811. 

chemistry-professor-mdbaptist: a person who baptizes (first use 1200); member of the religious body that practises baptism by total immersion for believers (first use 1654)
From the Old French baptiste, the Latin baptista (‘lover’) and the Greek βαπτιστης 

chemist: a person who practices or studies chemistry (first use 1559)
From Middle French chimiste and Latin chimista  + -ist

Marxist: a person who believes in the theories and principles of Karl Marx (first use 1873)
From the name of the revolutionary thinker and philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883)

The -ist suffix can be used to denote the following meanings:

1. ‘one who believes in …’

Methodist (first use 1593; from Latin methodus, ‘mode of proceeding’, and Greek μεθοδος, ‘pursuit of knowledge’)

royalist (first use 1605; from Anglo-Norman roial and Middle French royaliste) by Julia Margaret Cameron

Darwinist (first use 1864; from the name of Charles Darwin)

 victimologist (first use 1971; from French victimologie, 1956)

2. ‘one who engages in …’

Often a word of Greek origin

ophthalmologist – someone who diagnoses and treats diseases associated with the eyes and defects of vision (first use 1826; from Greek οφθαλμος, ‘eye’)

archaeologist – someone who studies archaeology (first use 1824; from the Greek αρχαιος, ‘ancient’, and λογια, ‘discourse’)

Later words are from Latin sourcesTolman_&_Einstein

theorist – someone who is skilled in the theory of a subject (first use 1594; from Latin theoria and Greek θεωρια)

journalist – someone who earns a living from editing or writing for a journal, magazine or newspaper (first use 1693; from Old French jurnal and Latin diurnal, ‘of or belonging to a day’)

Now widely used to denote people in professions, businesses and other activities


environmentalist (first use 1903)

escapologist (first use 1926)

consumerist (first use 1944)

hypnotherapist (first use 1958)

ergonomist (first use 1959)

bioethicist (first use 1973)

3. ‘one who displays prejudiced views’

racist (first use 1926)

sexist (first use 1949)

Watch out for additions to the language – like Ecopreneurist (a blog about sustainable business) and WebUrbanist (a website focusing on global art and design)

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Filed under History of language, Uncategorized, Words

A historical perspective 1: Latin (Vulgate Bible)

Linguists can trace changes in the English language by studying texts and noting distinctive features of the words and the grammar at specific points in time. Focusing on language in this way as a sequence of snapshots in time is called a synchronic study of English.


The Bible offers us the perfect opportunity to look at how language changes because it has existed in so many versions and continues to be up-dated. Each time the language, grammar and style is changed, it tells us something about the English language and its users.

Using a sequence of extracts from Genesis 8 (the story of Noah and the flood), it is possible to see what kind of changes take place in language. The extracts come from versions written over a period of fifteen centuries, but this first post will begin with the Latin Bible to demonstrate the links between Latin and the English language.

St Jerome’s  Vulgate Bible (382-405 AD)

St Jerome was mainly responsible for this translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew into Latin. This was the definitive edition NoahsSacrificeused in Britain throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. Its name comes from the Latin vulgatus meaning ‘common’ or ‘popular’ – it was a translation written using the everyday style of fourth century Latin.

Although you may not be able to understand Latin, look at the extract below and see if you can find out anything about the language that is being used to tell the story of Noah.

This extract describes how Noah sends out first a raven and then a dove from his ark so that he can find out whether the land has begun to emerge from the flood waters. After the dove has returned, God speaks to Noah and tells him to leave the ark. Noah, his family and all the animals return to the land and Noah builds an altar to thank God.

(6)  cumque transissent quadraginta dies aperiens Noe fenestram arcae quam fecerat dimisit corvum
(7)  qui egrediebatur et revertebatur donec siccarentur aquae super terram
(8)  emisit quoque columbam post eum ut videret si iam cessassent aquae super faciem terrae
(9)  quae cum non invenisset ubi requiesceret pes eius reversa est ad eum in arcam aquae enim erant super universam terram extenditque manum et adprehensam intulit in arcam
(10) expectatis autem ultra septem diebus aliis rursum dimisit columbam ex arca
(11) at illa venit ad eum ad vesperam portans ramum olivae virentibus foliis in ore suo intellexit ergo Noe quod cessassent aquae super terram
                (omitted text)
(15) locutus est autem Deus ad Noe dicens
(16) egredere de arca tu et uxor tua filii tui et uxores filiorum tuorum tecum
                (omitted text)
(20) aedificavit autem Noe altare Domino et tollens de cunctis pecoribus et volucribus mundis obtulit holocausta super altare

Genesis 8 verses 6-11, 15-16, 20

The language here will look very strange unless you have studied Latin, but there are distinctive features to comment on even if we can’t read the language itself.


  1. the preposition in is the same as in contemporary English (although our usage has come from Old English)
  2. some words look familiar
    • quadraginta (L. forty) – contemporary English quadbike (N), quadruple (Adj, V) [meaning linked to ‘four’]
    •  aquae (L. waters) –  contemporary English aqua (N), a light greenish-blue; aquatic (Adj), of the water; aquashow (N) [meaning linked to ‘water’]
    • super (L. over/above) – contemporary English prefix: supermarket (N), supersonic (Adj), superimpose (V) [meaning linked to ‘above’, ‘beyond’, ‘in excess’]
    • universam (L. whole, entire, all) – contemporary English universal credit, universal film rating
    • terram (L. earth, land) – contemporary English terracotta (N, Adj), terrestrial (Adj) [meaning linked to’ earth’]
    • ultra (L. beyond, more than) – contemporary English prefix: ultrasound (N), ultraviolet (Adj) [meaning linked to‘beyond’]
    • olivae (L. olive, olive tree) – contemporary English olive (N)
    • altare (L. altar) – contemporary English altar (N)
  3. there are some words which are still used in English in subject specific contexts
    • corvum (L. raven) – contemporary English Corvus (a scientific classification of birds in the crow genus)
    • columbam (L. dove) – contemporary English Columba (a scientific classification of birds in the pigeon genus); columbary (dovecot)
    • vesperam (L. evening, even-tide) – contemporary English vespers (in the Christian Church – evensong, evening service)
    • ergo (L. therefore, well, then) – contemporary English therefore (used in formal contexts to mark the logical conclusion of an argument)
  4. the word holocausta (L. burnt offering, sacrifice wholly consumed by fire) now has more negative connotations
    • from the late seventeenth century: complete destruction, especially of a large number of people; a great slaughter or massacre
    • from 1942, capitalised: the mass murder of Jews in the Second World War
    • from 1954, in the expression nuclear holocaust (to describe the potential scale of the destruction which a nuclear war would cause)
  5. if you have any knowledge of French (one of the Romance languages derived from vulgar Latin), you may have seen other words that are familiarArarat_Ms._11639_521a
    • fenestram (L. opening for light) – French fenêtre (window)
    • est (L. 3rd person singular present tense verb ‘to be’) – French est (is) from être 
    • non (L. no, not, by no means) – French non (no)
    • et (L. and, and even, also) – French et (and)
    • venit (L. 3rd person singular past tense verb ‘to come’) – French venir (to come)
    • qui (L. who) – French qui (who)
    • si (L. if, whether) – French si (if)
    • septem (L. seven) – French sept (seven)
    • tu (L. you, thee) – French tu (you, singular familiar form)
    • filii (L. son) – French fils (son)

The effect of Latin words on contemporary English

The word stock of the English language is a rich melting pot which is a result of all kinds of different linguistic influences (e.g. invasion, trade, cultural exchange, exploration) – and Latin is a significant part of this process. In this early period before the Germanic invasions, Latin was a spoken language which co-existed alongside the Celtic languages. 

There was no direct contact between the first form of the English language (Old English) and Latin. The first Latin loan words in English therefore come either from borrowing Latin words adopted in the Celtic languages, or from borrowing Latin words in the Germanic languages.

Latin words in Germanic languages

The first Latin words entering the English lexicon are Anglo-Saxon words which had been adopted from Latin as a result of interaction with the Roman Empire. These borrowed words tend to be in lexical fields of trade, agriculture, administration and the military. Around 170 words were adopted before the 5th century invasions of the British Isles. For example, we can see words linked to food

  • butter (Latin buturum; Old English butere)
  • cheese (Latin caseus; Old English ciese)


to household goods

  • dish (Latin discus; Old English disc)
  • fork (Latin furca; Old English forca)
  • table (Latin tabula; Old English tabul)

and building materials

  • tile (Latin tegula; Old English tigule)
  • pitch (Latin pix; Old English pic)

Other borrowed Latin words include:                 

  • inch (Latin uncia; Old English ynce)
  • pound i.e. weight (Latin pondo; Old English pund)
  • mule (Latin mulus; Old English mul)
  • cat (Latin cattus; Old English catte)
  • toll (Latin teolonium; Old English toll)

Latin words in Celtic languages

The Celts lived under Roman occupation for more than three centuries, but Latin did not replace their native languages as had happened in Gaul under the Roman occupation.  Before the Romans left in 410AD, a number of borrowed Latin words had been adopted by the Celts. After the invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, as the Germanic tribes began to settle in England, some of these words of Latin origin were adopted by the Anglo-Saxons. This linguistic exchange was limited, however, because the Celtic peoples were driven to the edges of the country, with their languages effectively isolated from Old English.  Those who were Romanized and used Latin tended to be of a higher social class, or to live in cities. English, we find evidence of this early linguistic borrowing from Latin in place names like Chester and Winchester which had originally been Roman encapments (Latin castra, camp; Old English ceaster) and in traded goods like wine (Latin vinum; Welsh gwin; Irish fín; Old English win).

Latin words linked to the introduction of Christianity

The final early period of Latin borrowing is linked directly to the adoption of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth 340px-Simone_Martini_003century. The impact of this cultural change was felt for several centuries afterwards with Latin loan words appearing in Old English into the 11th century. It becomes easier for us to identify borrowings in this period because of the survival of written texts.  Many of the words borrowed are related to religion and religious practices. 

  • candle (Latin candela; Old English candel)
  • disciple (Latin discipulus; Old English discipul)
  • martyr (Latin martyr; Old English martyr)
  • organ (Latin organum; Old English organe)

The monasteries were important centres of scholarship and many words linked to learning were also adopted at this time.

  • school (Latin schola; Old English scol)
  • verse (Latin versus; Old English fers)
  • epistle – now archaic, replaced by ‘letter’ (Latin epistula; Old English epistole)

Other words reflect changes in domestic life.

  • pear (Latin pera; Old English peru)
  • ginger (Latin gingiber; Old English gingiber)
  • mussel (Latin muscula; Old English mucxle)
  • plant (Old Latin planta; Old English planta)

The examples above are all nouns, but verbs were also borrowed

  • to turn (Latin tornare; Old English tyrnan)
  • to temper (Latin temperare; Old English temprian)
  • to spend (Latin expendere; Old English spendan)

The Latin words adopted from this early period reflect changes in the lives of the Britons as their experiences were broadened by new customs and practices. The borrowed words were blended completely with the native vocabulary and it is only the polysyllabic structure that suggests their Latinate origin to a speaker of contemporary English.                        



Latin grammar is very different to contemporary English because Latin is an inflected language and English is a word order language. This means that Latin depends on word endings (inflections) to tell us what job each word is doing in a sentence, while in contemporary English we can look at the position of a word in a sentence. Old English, on the other hand, like Latin, is an inflected language and when we look at the next example of the Noah story, you will see similarities in the way that grammatical relationships are sign-posted.


Latin uses a wide range of prefixes to change the meaning of verbs. In the Noah extract, we can see dimisit (from dimittere, to send away) and emisit (from emittere, to send out). Other variations include amisit (from amittere, to lose/send away), demisit (from demittere, to send down/lower), remisit (from remittere, to send back) and omisit (from omittere, to lay aside/omit). All these verbs are formed from the addition of prefixes to the verb mittere (to send).

We also form verbs like this in contemporary English using some of the same Latin prefixes:

debrief (reversal of process)
dislike (not)
replant (again)
transplant (across)


You may have noticed that some words appear several times with different endings (e.g. terram, terrae). The seven grammatical cases in Latin dictate what endings nouns, pronouns, determiners and adjectives should have.

  • nominative – subject of a sentence
  • accusative – direct object of a sentence
  • genitive – marks possession (in English ‘of’ or possessive apostrophe)
  • dative – indirect object in a sentence (in English ‘to’ or ‘for’)
  • ablative – follows some prepositions and verbs (in English ‘from’, ‘by’ or ‘with’)
  • locative – marks location  (in English ‘at’)

Nouns  are classified as feminine, masculine or neuter and each case has distinctive endings to show this.

The nominative case (subject) of ark is ‘arca  (feminine noun). In the Noah extract, we see it in the following forms:


  • fenestram arcae – genitive inflection [i.e. the window of the ark]
  • in arcam – accusative inflection: the preposition in is always followed by the accusative case where the meaning is ‘into’ [i.e. into the ark]
  • ex arca – ablative inflection: the preposition ex is always followed by the ablative case [i.e. out of the ark]
  • de arca – ablative inflection: the preposition de is always followed by the ablative case [i.e. down from the ark]

The accusative case (object) inflections can be seen to change according to the classification of the nouns:

  • corvum – accusative masculine inflection (nominative form corvus)
  • columbam – accusative feminine ending (nominative form columba)

Because words that are linked in meaning do not always appear next to each other, inflections help us to recognise linguistic units – for example, adjective + noun, possessive determiner + noun.

  • super universam terram – the preposition super takes the accusative case so the adjective universus and the feminine noun terra need a feminine singular accusative inflection [i.e. over the whole earth]300px-Dove_with_olive_branch.svg
  • virentibus foliis – the translation is ‘with’ so the neuter noun folium (leaf) and the present participle of the verb vivere (to be green) functioning as an adjective need  ablative neuter plural inflections  [i.e. with green leaves]
  • cunctis pecoribus et volucribus mundis – the co-0ordinated nouns (the cattle and the birds), the pre-determiner (cunctis, all) and the adjective (mundis, clean) must all have ablative plural inflections

Determiners and pronouns

If you look at the nouns in the Noah extract, you will see that there are no definite articles preceding them. In Latin, they are understood as part of the noun – in translating into English we would add a definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an) according to the context. This is an example of English as a periphrastic language – it needs to use several words where Latin can use one.

  • altare = the altar, an altar [in the Noah extract, an indefinite article is more appropriate]

Similarly, verbs can be used without a pronoun.

  • aedificavit = he built


Possessive determiners are used to make relationships clear.

  • filii tui –  your sons

You can see evidence in this example of the difference between English as a word order language and Latin as an inflected language. The noun (sons) precedes the possessive determiner (your), but their linguistic relationship is clear because both have a nominative plural masculine inflection.

Possessive nouns

Because Latin uses genitive case inflections on nouns and any related words to mark the possessive, the use of prepositional of phrases or the possessive apostrophe has not yet emerged. The periphrastic genitive (e.g. ‘of the ark’) is another example of English needing to use a group of words where Latin can use one.

  • faciem terrae – the accusative singular of the feminine noun facies (face, surface) is followed by the genitive singular feminine form of terra (earth) [i.e. the surface of the earth; the earth’s surface]
  • ramum olivae – the accusative singular of the neuter noun ramus (branch) is followed by the genitive singular neuter form of oliva (olive, olive tree) [i.e. the branch of an olive, an olive’s branch]
  • uxores filiorum tuorum – the nominative plural of the feminine noun uxor (wife) is followed by the genitive plural masculine form of filius (son) and tuus (your) [i.e. the wives of your sons, your sons’ wives]


Endings are also important on Latin verbs. In contemporary English, we still use a limited number of verb inflections e.g. (simple present tense third person singular -s inflection; simple past tense -ed inflection; -ing participle inflection), but we also use groups of verbs (periphrastic verbal forms) to indicate different time scales (aspect), shades of meaning (modal verbs) and voice (active/passive). Where Latin can use a single verb with a distinctive inflection, you will find that the English translation requires several words (e.g. pronouns and primary/modal auxiliary verbs may precede a lexical verb, which may be followed by prepositions and adverbs). We therefore describe Latin as an inflected language and English as periphrastic.

By looking at some of the verbs in the Noah extract, we can see how the endings are used as signposts.

1. Active verbs

Active verbs are the most common verb forms – the grammatical subject is responsible for the action or process of the verb and is marked in Latin by a nominative inflection.


Perfect stem + 3rd person singular -it inflection (translates in English as -edhave -ed)

  • dimisit = strong perfect stem dimis- (from dimittere, to send away) 
  • emisit = strong perfect stem emis- (from emittere, to send out)
  • extendit = regular stem extend- (from extendere, to stretch out)


aperiens Noe fenestram arcae quam fecerat dimisit corvum
opening the window of the ark that he had made, Noah sent away a raven
(dimisit = verb + adverb)


Infinitive or reduced infinitive + 3rd person singular -ebatur inflection (translates literally as ‘was/were -ing‘, though in Latin-English translations it is often better translated as the simple past)

  • egrediebatur = 3rd person singular (from egredi, to go/come out)
  • revertebatur = 3rd person singular (from revertere, to turn back/go back)
  • erant  = 3rd person plural, irregular (from esse, to be)

corvum qui egrediebatur
a raven which went out
(egrediebatur = lexical verb + adverb)

2. Subjunctive verbs

The subjunctive is very common in Latin: it follows certain conjunctions (cumut, donec) and is used in specific constructions such as purpose and result clauses. In contemporary English, the subjunctive has almost disappeared, although we still use it in some set phrases (God Save the Queen), very formal commands (I insist that he be punished now), and in hypothetical conditional clauses (If I were to …). It can be recognised by the non-agreement of the subject and verb (God saves; he is punished; If I was …)


Infinitive + 3rd person singular -t inflection (translates as ‘might + infinitive’ or ‘to + infinitive’)

  • (ut) videret3rd person singular (from videre, to see)
  • (cum) requiesceret3rd person singular (from requiescere, to rest)

quae cum non invenisset ubi requiesceret pes eius reversa est ad eum

when she had not found where she might rest her foot, she returned to him
(requiesceretpronoun + modal auxiliary + lexical verb)


Perfect stem + 3rd person plural -(i)ssent inflection (translates as ‘had + -ed or ‘would + infinitive’)

  • (cum) transissent3rd person plural (from transire, to pass by)
  • (si) cessassent3rd person plural (from cessare, to cease from/be free of)
  • (cum) invenisset = 3rd person singular plural (from invenire, to find)

emisit quoque columbam post eum ut videret si iam cessassent aquae super faciem terrae
he also sent a dove after him (the raven) to see whether the waters above the surface of the earth had ceased
(cessassent = primary auxiliary + lexical verb)

3. Passive verbs

Passive verbs in Latin are indicated by a distinctive set of endings which signpost that the object of a sentence appears in the nominative case – the grammatical subject of the sentence may be omitted or will appear in the ablative case after a/ab (by + agent).

Imperfect subjunctive

Infinitive + 3rd person plural -entur inflection (translates as ‘were + -ed‘)

  • (donec) siccarentur = 3rd person plural (from siccare, to dry up)

et revertebatur donec siccarentur aquae super terram
and did (not) return until the waters over the earth were dried up
     (siccarentur = primary auxiliary + lexical verb + adverb)

4. Participles


Remove -re from the infinitive and add –ens/-ans inflection to the stem (translates as -ing)

  • aperiens = from aperire, to uncover/openNoah_catacombe
  • portans = from portare, to carry
  • tollens = from tolle, to lift/raise

at illa venit ad eum ad vesperam portans ramum olivae virentibus foliis in ore suo
but she came to him towards evening carrying the branch of an olive with green leaves in her mouth

Perfect passive

Remove -re from the infinitive and add -tus inflection – this ending is then inflected like an adjective according to case and number (translated as a clause e.g. ‘having -ed‘ or ‘When he had -ed …’) 

  • adprehensam = from adprehendre, to seize/grasp
  • expectatis = from expectare, to await, wait for

expectatis autem ultra septem diebus aliis rursum dimisit columbam ex arca
but having waited for more than seven other days, he sent away the dove from the ark again
(expectatis = primary auxiliary + lexical verb + preposition)

The effect of Latin grammar on contemporary English

Latin is an inflected language and English is a word order language. This means that the grammar systems of each language are now very different – a change which has come about over a long period of time. Old English (from around 450-1150) is often known as the period of full inflections because at this point nouns, determiners, pronouns, adjectives and verbs were inflected. During the Middle English period (1150-1500), the number of inflections were significantly reduced and it is often known as the period of levelled inflections. By the Modern English period (1500-1900), almost all inflections were redundant – it is therefore called the period of lost inflections. In contemporary English, we use very few inflections:

-s/-es/-ies → plural (noun)

‘s/s’ → possession (noun)

ly → to form an adverb from an adjective

-s → 3rd person singular present tense (verb)

-ed → simple past tense and past participle (regular verb)

-ing → present participle (verb)

We can also see the remains of a case system in the form of some of our pronouns:

Subject (nominative)              I                he                  they            who

Object (accusative)                me            him                them           whom

Beyond this, the principles of Latin grammar can be seen in some of the traditional prescriptive rules which are still sometimes cited as principles of ‘correct’ English usage.

Split infinitives

In Latin, it is not possible to split an infinitive since the preposition to is bound up in the meaning of the verb itself. Traditionalists have, therefore, always considered separating the preposition from its verb to be ‘wrong’ in English – despite the fact that there are examples of its usage in writers from the Middle Ages onwards. 

While it is still often frowned upon in formal writing, there are clearly cases where splitting the infinitive has no effect (informal conversation!) and where it can be used for dramatic effect …

To magically exist beyond the parameters of our known world, to self-consciously seek beyond the limitations of the human brain, that is my quest.

for emphatic effect …

To really understand you have to do the experiments yourself. 

or for humorous effect…

To boldly stagger, walk, jog, run or sprint’ is a great motto for all parkrun’s Saturday morning get-fitters!    

Stranded prepositions

Since the seventeenth century and the poet John Dryden’s attack on dangling prepositions, traditionalists have disliked sentences that end with a preposition. The word itself comes from Latin: prae- (before) + posito (having been placed) and Latin usage dictates that 800px-J-Drydenthe preposition should always precede the noun/pronoun to which it relates (or … which it relates to!). In English, however there is no such rule.

In contemporary English usage, it is perhaps safer in formal writing to reorder the words to avoid dangling prepositions, but it is equally important to avoid awkward or clumsy constructions – sometimes a sentence-final preposition is easier to hear and understand (particularly with multi-word verbs ). Since language is all about communicating meaning, ultimately clarity is most important.

To whom should I address my application?
(appropriate in a formal written context)

Who can I sit next to?
(appropriate in informal conversation)

Everything was sent back because the clothes hadn’t been paid for.
Everything was sent back  because paid for the clothes hadn’t been.
(moving the preposition results in an awkward sentence which is far more difficult to understand)

And finally …

For those of you who have made it this far and want to have a go at reading the Latin extract in full, here are notes on the words which haven’t been addressed elsewhere in this post:

  • cumque: and with (enclitic que i.e. joined at the end of the preceding word to form a single unit)
  • dies: days (nominative plural of diesmasculine noun)
  • enim: for
  • que: and
  • manum: hand (accusative singular of manusfeminine noun)
  • intulit: brought in (irregular 3rd person singular perfect of inferre)
  • intellexit: understood (3rd person singular perfect of intellegere)
  • quod: that
  • locutus est: spoke (3rd person singular perfect of loqui)
  • autem: but
  • Deus: God (nominative singular, masculine noun)
  • ad: to, towards (+ accusative)
  • dicens: saying (present participle of dicere
  • egredere: Go out (imperative of egredi)
  • uxor: wife (nominative singular, feminine noun)
  • tua: your (nominative singular, feminine possessive determiner)
  • tecum: with you (ablative singular, second person pronoun te with enclitic cum)
  • Domino: to the Lord (dative singular of dominus, masculine noun)
  • de: from (+ ablative)
  • obtulit: offered (irregular 3rd person singular perfect of offerre)

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