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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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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affect and effect

Which one should I choose?


The first thing to know is that:

affect = verb

(to influence or alter, to move the feelings, to infect or harm)

effect = noun

(a result or outcome, an impression produced, the creation of a technical illusion)

So, think about the context … look at the position and form of affect or effect to decide whether you need to use a noun or a verb, and then check the meaning …

The sentences below are examples of non-standard usage. Can you explain why?


  The girl had a really good affect on her

  The film effected the girls more than the boys.

If you would like more information about affect/effect and practice exercises with answers, follow the link: WOWs 6

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The key to verbs

The section on verbs under the WORD tab is now complete. If you are studying language or want to know more about how language works – this is for you …

key 2 Unlock verbs:

          • 5 key facts you need to know about verbs
          • key terms that will help you to recognise and describe verbs
          • lots of exercises for practice with answers just one click away
          • and finally a look at verbs in context – a sports commentary, an extract from an autobiography and a News in Brief report 

It’s really important to be able to recognise and describe verbs, so have a look now!


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How many ‘likes’ have you used today?

The like test – do you know you’re saying it?

The colloquial use of like in informal situations is pervasive – try counting how many the people around you use and you’ll find its frequency is high. The question is whether speakers are aware that they are using like – if you don’t know you’re saying it, then you won’t be able to choose alternatives in a formal situation!

And now for the grammatical explanations …

The word like is very versatile: it can be found in different positions in a sentence and it does different jobs.

Word classes

It can be:

a noun

Earthquakes cause devastation, destruction, pain, suffering and the like.

i.e. resembling something that has already been mentioned

Do you have any particular likes and dislikes?

i.e. things that are preferred (usually in plural)


  I’ve got lots of likes on my post.

  i.e. the act of showing support for or approval of something posted on the internet by clicking ‘like’


You shouldn’t hang around with the likes of them.

  i.e. such a person or thing (colloquial, now usually derogatory)

an adjective

What is the new girl like?

i.e. what sort of person (expects description in response rather than a comparison)

a verb

1197103980603314298addon_bucket_and_spade.svg.medIn the summer, the children all like ice-creams and going to the beach.

i.e. to find something enjoyable (transitive – followed by an object usually in the form of a noun or a present participle)

We always like to run early on Saturday morning.

i.e. to do something as a regular habit (transitive – followed by an object usually in the form of an infinitive)

I should like to know whether the essays need to be uploaded with the application form.

i.e. conditional, implying that the question has no obvious answer

Have you liked the photo of the baby on Stacey’s facebook page?

i.e. the act of registering one’s support for or approval of a post on the internet

a preposition

 A mathematician like you will never be misled by statistics in the news.

  i.e. ‘such as’

The girl’s eyes shone like sapphires caught in moonlight. 

i.e. in the same manner as (simile)


So far, so good. The usage of like in each of the examples above is standard. We can add to this list a number of idiomatic expressions:

She looks like a runner. (i.e. to have the appearance of being)girl-running-md

Like father like son. (proverbial)

That’s more like it! (colloquial)

He feels like a take-away tonight. (i.e. to have an inclination for something, colloquial)

I want you to sort out all your computer junk, your old files and the like. (formula to avoid further listing of similar items)

Oh come on. Don’t be like that. (i.e. stop behaving in a negative way)

I like that! (i.e. don’t like = ironic, colloquial)

The essay requires polish, good editing if you like, before it will be ready for submission. (i.e. suggesting something with which others may disagree, formal)

You can borrow my coat if you like(i.e. making a casual suggestion or an offer)

He’d do it like a shot if he was asked. (i.e. quickly, colloquial)

dig-mdI was digging like crazy all day. (i.e. in the manner of someone who is crazy)

Informal spoken usage

From here on, we’re venturing into increasingly informal territory – examples of like that linguistic traditionalists may well describe as ‘vulgar’, but which have a high frequency in casual spoken interactions, particularly among young people. You can often trace the origins to American English in the second half of the twentieth century. If you are in a formal context, these colloquialisms are best avoided!

as a conjunction

Although this use of like is widespread, many people see it as an inappropriate choice where we need a conjunction to join clauses.

The rain came down heavily like it was the end of the world. (i.e. as if + verb)12236147771872367369johnny_automatic_waiting_out_the_storm.svg.thumb

He’s good at English like his brother was. (i.e. as + verb)

The sun was weak like in winter. (as + ‘it was’, ellipsis of subject + verb)

as an intensifier

It was like wild last night.

i.e. draws attention to the adjective (often followed by a micropause and rising intonation on the adjective)

It was like so bad I didn’t want to go back. 

as a marker for recounted speech (quoting clause)

1194984513646717809chat_icon_01.svg.thumb  And he was like no way and I was like yeah. 

i.e. said (used when telling an anecdote, often to express emotion, attitude or reaction)

as a hedge

He like totally died! 

i.e. indicates that the  following words are not to be taken literally (figurative use of language or hyperbole) 

It’ll take like a year for Game of Thrones Season 3 to be out on DVD.

 i.e. about (approximation)

Man, like if you could just like, you know, let us stay like for tonight.

 i.e. expresses uncertainty  

as a filler

Like how much do you want for the car?

i.e. has no semantic function in the context of the sentence

sitdown-mdHe came over and like sat down with us.

i.e. a discourse marker (functioning much like um or er)

Can you spot the difference?

The examples below are the like-count of a 20-minute car journey with a teenager … can you describe the use of like in each case?

Thorntons have like really nice chocolate.

I’ve liked Stewart Lee.

A police commissioner liaises with the police, so a crime commissioner would have to like liaise with criminals!burglar-md

How far is that above like minimum wage?

It’s like literally the same thing.

I’ve worn that shirt for like two days.

Like, that’s not fair!

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A Woman who …

550px-Margaret_Thatcher_(Retouched)The death of a public figure  is always marked by a respectful reflection which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a career lived in the public eye. The announcement of the death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday 8th April was no exception. On Tuesday 9th April, the newspapers were full of comment and interpretation of a political life that changed British society – and that is something that all commentators can agree on, whatever their political position

Thatcher 2

 This word cloud is made from the language being used by journalists and commentators, friends, colleagues and members of the public in remembering Margaret Thatcher. Inevitably, she has been remembered for her ‘firsts’: first woman leader of a party; first woman Prime Minister; longest serving twentieth century prime minister; and the only British Prime Minister to have a new word created based on her name. This is an example of derivation by affixation: the proper noun Thatcher + the Greek suffix –ism (‘one who believes in’) i.e. Thatcherism – ‘the policies and style of government associated with Margaret Thatcher’.

For linguists, the language of remembrance is a rich field. Collecting the media sound-bites used to pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher reveals a distinctive grammatical structure: noun phrases focus attention on her qualities as a leader, as a prime minister, as a ‘historical’ figure and as a woman; the pre- and post-modification allows contributors to express their attitude.

So where to start?

Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister800px-Margaret_Thatcher_near_helicopter

a remarkable Prime Minister   

John Major, former Prime Minister (Conservative)

a truly formidable Prime Minister

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (Scottish National Party)

… Prime Minister for a long time. Honour that. 

Clare Short, former International Development Secretary (Labour)

the most rottenest Prime Minister ever

Member of the public

These noun phrases tell us as much about the contributors as they do about Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative John Major uses the positive evaluative adjective remarkable (denotation: deserving of notice or comment – and thus striking or singular),  while the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond chooses formidable (denotation: causing fear or alarm; inspiring dread or apprehension). At first glance, this adjective appears to be positive, and yet has layers of meaning which undercut our initial impression – intensified by the adverb of degree truly, the implicitly negative effect is amplified.

The member of the public is more explicit – he does not need to dress his attitude in respectful tones. The double superlative (most rottenest) and the emphatic adverb ever clearly indicate that this voter is not a Conservative supporter. The Labour MP Clare Short opts to comment on Thatcher’s length of service in the post-modifying  prepositional phrase for a long time. This allows her to side-step the need to reflect positively on a controversial right wing Prime Minister. Her imperative (Honour that.), however, implicitly suggests that there is nothing else worth praising.

Margaret  Thatcher as a leader

Margaret_Thatcher_1983   a strong leader

David Cameron, Prime Minister (Conservative)

  a fearless leader

Bill Clinton, former President of the US (Democrat)

an inspirational leader who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world

George W. Bush, former President of the US (Republican)

a great leader

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (right wing Likud party)

We may expect comments about leadership to be less party-political, but the positive pre-modifying adjectives strong and great are chosen by people who will, at least to some extent, share Thatcher’s right wing principles. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, describes her using the broad evaluative adjective fearless. Because  its connotations depend on context, this adjective is ambiguous. It could seen as ‘feint praise’  – while apparently praising her decisiveness, he may also be criticising what is sometimes seen as her political ruthlessness.

The tone of the long pre- and post-modified noun phrase is very positive. The connotations of the adjective inspirational and the abstract nouns principle, confidence and clarity explicitly suggest  that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities are exceptional. As a Republican, George W. Bush can identify with Thatcher’s right wing politics. 

Margaret Thatcher as a figureheadThatcher_reviews_troops_(cropped)

a towering political figure

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister (Labour)

a unique figure

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition (Labour)

a landmark political figure

Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

The contributors here do not share Thatcher’s political views and while their comments are respectful, they lack the effusive tone of George W. Bush. The pre-modifiers are less personal: the adjective unique, the verb modifier towering and the noun landmark suggest the scale of Thatcher’s achievements while keeping a suitable political distance. The choice of words is diplomatic.

As a woman who …

… saved the country she loved and fought for so tirelessly

Daily Mail

… tore Britain apart

Morning Star

… transformed life in this country, profoundly, permanently and through sheer force of personality

The Times

… divided a nation

Daily Mirror

… changed Britain

The Independent

Many of the newspapers used a post modified noun phrase A woman who …  to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, either as the front page headline or in the report itself.

All we need to do here is to read the verbs. In the post-modifying relative clauses, they tell a complete story. The right wing press choose past tense verbs with positive connotations – saved, transformed (reinforced in this case by the  strong connotations of the adverbs profoundly/permanently and the prepositional phrase through sheer force of personality). The left wing press choose verbs with negative connotations – tore apartdivided. The Independent, living up to its name, chooses the neutral verb changed.

As a person

478px-Margaret_Thatcher_headshot  a terrific person to spend time socially with

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury

  a very, very kindly lady

Local Conservative Party member 

a far more caring and modest person in retirement than you get from those sort of clips

Baroness Anne Jenkin of Kennington, House of Lords (Conservative)

The people who have commented on Thatcher in a more personal way are those who have a different kind of relationship – these are people who interacted with her in social contexts. The language is almost homely, describing an individual quite removed from the public ‘figurehead’. The adjectives terrific and kindly have a slightly dated feel, and there is a warm enthusiasm in Lord Carey’s choice of adjective and in the repetition of the degree adverb very. 

Baroness Jenkin bridges the gap between the two representations of Margaret Thatcher. The pre-modifiers, the comparative compound adjectives more caring and modest, mirror the warmth and familiarity of Lord Carey and the local Conservative Party lady, while the degree adverb far intensifies the positive connotationsThe post-modifying comparative clause, on the other hand, sets personal experience against media representation – it suggests that the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Lady Jenkin knew was not the same as the one the media dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the ‘Milk-Snatcher’.

Amongst the praise and celebration, the diplomacy and the delicately worded epithets, there were some explicitly negative responses. These were, however, not noun phrases that commented directly on Margaret Thatcher as a politician or as a private individual. Recognising that her family will be grieving, the criticisms focus instead on Thatcher’s record, on the political legacy she left behind. For Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, her time in 10 Downing Street was an unmitigated disaster; for a resident in her old Finchley constituency, she destroyed the infrastructure of our society and created a consumer-based generation; for the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, she did great hurt to Irish people.        

When a public figure dies, particularly in the case of a politician like Margaret Thatcher who evokes such strong emotions, a private and personal loss becomes public property. What we can see in the examples quoted here are people paying tribute to the life of someone they admire, people treading a delicate line between political judgement and diplomatic reflection, and people rejoicing in a friendship.

Some useful links for further language study: 

[I should perhaps point out that the ‘readings’ expressed here are my own and that the people cited have in no way endorsed my interpretation of their words.]

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as and like

Which one should I choose?

stick man The first thing to know is that:

as = conjunction or preposition

likeverb (to express a preference) or preposition

So, think about the context … look at the meaning and the words that come before and after as and like   then decide whether you need to use a verb, a conjunction or a preposition …

The sentences below are examples of non-standard usage. Can you explain why?   My uncle can plaster a wall like he’s a real plasterer.   

   My friends are working hard for their exams, like they did last year.   

If you would like more information about as/like and practice exercises with answers, follow the link: WOW 5

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I say, I say, I say ….

king-cartoon-thWhy did the king go to the dentist?

To get his teeth crowned!

Why do we laugh (or groan) at jokes? It’s all about recognising that games are being played with language – and we understand this even if we can’t explain the linguistic process.

So what is going on in a joke? There are a number of linguistic tricks being played …


Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different spellings. These are the core of many jokes.

Where can you learn to make ice-cream?

In Sundae school.

The joke depends on us recognising the collocation ‘Sunday School’ and the denotation of ‘school’ (a place of education), but the heart of the humour lies in the homophones: the proper noun Sunday (a day of the week) and the concrete noun sundae (a type of ice-cream).

Word formation

Jokes can play games with compound words, by creating linguistic parallels that can’t actually be found in a dictionary …

Why do seagulls fly over the sea rather than over the bay?

1238704362854102575papapishu_albatross_2.svg.medBecause they don’t want to be called bagels.

The compound noun ‘baygull’ is created by mirroring the structure of seagull  (from the concrete nouns ‘sea’ + ‘gull’). Humour then arises from the homophones: ‘baygull’ (a gull that flies over the bay) and bagel (food).

Semantic ambiguity

What has a pelican got in common with the Electric Company?

They both have large bills.

This joke plays on the ambiguity of the meaning of the plural concrete noun bills: it is both ‘the horny beak of a bird’ and ‘an itemised written statement of charges for goods delivered or services rendered’. The sound and spelling of these nouns is the same, but their etymological root is different: bill (duck’s beak) comes from the Old English ‘bile’ (1000); bill (statement of charges) comes from the Latin ‘bulla’ meaning ‘seal’ (1420).    

Grammatical structure

1195445481970400763johnny_automatic_fireplace_with_Christmas_stockings.svg.medWhat did Adam say the day before Christmas?

“It’s Christmas Eve!”

The play on words here is grammatical (linked to the function of words) as well as semantic (linked to the meaning of words). In the collocation ‘Christmas Eve’, the noun ‘eve’ is a shortened form of ‘evening’ – it is commonly used to describe the day before a religious or cultural festival (e.g. Hallowe’en).

Drawing on shared cultural knowledge, the joke creates a pun on the day and on the name of the biblical figure Eve, the traditional partner of Adam. In grammatical terms, this makes Eve a vocative (a word or phrase used to attract someone’s attention) – Adam is directly addressing Eve. A vocative would usually be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. It is omitted here to create ambiguity.

Subject specific shared knowledge

Two hydrogen atoms meet and one says to the other, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?”. The first replies, “Yeah, I’m positive!”

Do you have to be a chemist to understand this joke? No, but it helps.

The joke is based on subject specific knowledge: a hydrogen atom has a single positively charged proton and a single negatively Electron_shell_001_Hydrogen_-_no_label.svgcharged electron in the nucleus. This makes it an electrically neutral atom – the positive and the negative charges are balanced. If it were to lose its electron, a hydrogen atom would no longer be neutral, but positive.

This subject-specific knowledge (positive ‘charge’) is overlaid with the familiar conversational adjective  (positive) used to assert an opinion emphatically. The humour is only apparent to an ‘insider’, someone who shares the same knowledge as the joke-teller.

And here are two for you to try …

Why did the boy take a pencil to bed?

man-drawing-mdTo draw his curtains.

  Why was the mummy so tense?mummy-md

He was all wound up.

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