Monthly Archives: June 2011

Simple English. Maybe not.

Quite a few times when I passed those ever-so-boring-never-changing notes on our kitchen walls (student flat), I wondered about the following:

“…and switch the cooker off”. Why not: “…and switch off the cooker”? At least in this case, the latter one sounds better to me (and this even though the German (my mother tongue) equivalent is a verb that needs to be split (“… und schalte den Herd aus“)).

Switch off, hand sth over, grow up, run away, put sth into… are examples of so called “phrasal verbs” (PV) – combinations of verbs and prepositions/adverbs/prepositions and adverbs. Transitive PV can be either separable (also “splittable”) or not, while intransitive PV are inseparable.

Transitive PV containing adverbs are called “particle verbs” (PaV). If the object is a simple noun it can go on either side of the adverb, so both, “to switch the cooker off” and “to switch off the cooker” are acceptable. Long NP on the other hand tend to come after the adverb, so if the NP in our example was “the dirty, smelly cooker” you’d rather not split the verb and say “to switch off the dirty cooker in the kitchen” (instead of “to switch the dirty cooker in the kitchen off”).
According to the entry in “Simple English” (I didn’t know such a “language” existed until now. haha.) on wikipedia, if you do not know if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable ALWAYS use a noun or noun phrase and do not try to separate the verb. (Maybe this could lead to the language change of simply not separating any verbs? We’ll (not) see in many years.)
I started a (fb) poll asking people what they would rather say… so far 3-2 for “to switch off the cooker” (I will keep you updated). (Even though there’s no right or wrong here, it’s still interesting to see whether there might be some tendency (not to split the verb? Maybe Edinburgh University’s Student Accommodation should revisit their signs… 😉 )).

Apart from those a little more “flexible” transitive PaV, there are also inseparable ones (e.g. “to break up”, “to come apart”…) and such that require a split (“to take sth apart”, “to let sth through”…).
A rule governing all transitive PaV is that if the object is a pronoun, the verb has to be separated so that pronoun precedes the adverb.

If you want to know more about phrasal verb patterns (there are, for example, also prepositional verbs (verbs containing a preposition that is always followed by the object, e.g. “look after sth”)) I suggest having a look at Wikipedia (maybe not the “Simple English” entry. After all, grammar is simple anyway. Isn’t it!) 😉 (oh and I can’t believe that they have this entry in only 9 languages (which don’t even include German, French, Spanish… (but “simple English”… right.))! Multilinguistis, that has to be changed! 🙂 )

Link: Simple English Wikipedia

Foreign Language vs £££££

Students applying to universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for entry in September 2012 will be facing tuition fees of £6,000 to £9,000. How could they possibly avoid this? By studying abroad! The next best option would probably be Scotland – it’s not too far away and most courses are taught in English. However, if Scottish universities accept the proposal to charge students from the rest of the UK between £4,500 and £6,500 a year from 2012 in response to the rise of tuition fees, it won’t make much of a difference.

So an alternative would be to study abroad abroad, i.e. in a non-English speaking country. Some universities (e.g. France and Germany) only charge a few hundred Euro per semester or year, many European countries (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden…) don’t charge tuition fees at all, others (e.g. the Czech Republic) only if the course is taught in a language other than the country’s official one. The latter is still rare and usually only applies to business-related courses. So knowing the country’s official language would be rather necessary…

Just a shame that foreign language teaching (FLT) is rather poor in the UK. For a research paper that I had to write a year or so ago I looked into FLT in England; a foreign language (usually French) is only mandatory in Key Stage 3 (3 years) (FLT is being introduced in primary schools – but it’s costly and some people doubt its effectiveness) and a high proportion of students stop right afterwards.

However, where there’s a will there’s a way. The web offers millions of language-learning resources and spending the summer holidays in the country the student would like to study in should equip him with some essential language skills…


Some interesting papers:

An animal hospital or a people one?

A linguist friend recently asked me if I thought it grammatical to say ‘Is it a medical hospital or a dental one?’. He wanted to know whether ‘medical’ and ‘dental’ are adjectives in these cases, or parts of compounds, in which case *‘dental one’ would be ungrammatical in the same way that you cannot say ‘Is it a watch maker or a clock one?’

(‘Medical’ and ‘dental’ are interesting because they do not behave like normal adjectives; for example, you cannot use them predicatively: *‘this hospital is medical’.)

I said I found nothing wrong with ‘dental one’. I then asserted that even with nouns, it seemed acceptable, at least in some circumstances: ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one?’ He was adamant that this is impossible, but it felt OK, if informal, to me.

On the other hand, ‘watch maker or clock one’ definitely seemed totally beyond the pale to both of us, even though the structure is theoretically the same as in ‘animal hospital or people one’.

Somehow ‘watch maker’ feels differently. It is not a type of ‘maker’, it is not just a compound. It feels like more like an inflexional than a derivational process, a fully grammaticalized paraphrase of a verb phrases ‘makes clocks’. ‘Watch’ still feels like a direct object in ‘watch maker’, as if ‘maker’ is closer to being an inflexion of the verb ‘to make’ than to being an independent noun. While ‘hospital’ is indisputably an open-class noun, ‘maker’, which can be compounded with any noun that the verb ‘make’ can take as direct object, feels more like a function word.

In addition, even if ‘people one’ is ungrammatical, it would be understood, and I think  speakers often use ungrammatical utterances quite deliberately but for no obvious reason and with no predictable pattern. We could call these ‘as it were’ utterances. E.g. ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one, as it were?’. Someone I know sometimes describes wooded areas as being ‘very treey’, even though ‘treey’ is not a possible word of English’ due to its phonological bizarreness. The speaker, I am sure, is fully aware that ‘treey’ is not grammatical, you can even tell from the ironic tone of voice such items are uttered in, and these things are not the same as nonce words, which may well obey the grammar of the language and which are generally made out of necessity when no suitable word is available: one could easily say ‘The valley has lots of trees’ or ‘Is this an animal hospital or one for people?’

Of course, people love to play with words and often do all sorts of ‘abnormal’ things in their language, for various purposes, such as talking in a different accent, speaking telegraphically, using Pig Latin etc. However, the ‘as it were’ items do not seem to appear simply when conversation participants are openly using abnormal fun language, or when the things that are referred to by the ‘funny’ phrasings (trees, hospitals), are a subject of fun in the conversation: they appear fairly random. I wonder if they are a strategy of self-deprecation to get put one’s interlocutor at ease by making deliberate ‘mistakes’ and inject a little lightness and humour into an exchange which might not have any in its actual topic. The fact that you can abuse language in this way also shows that you are a creative and lively user of language, so increases your worth in the eyes of interlocutors, whilst the fact that it is random and only on a grammatical level, rather than making clever jokes at the level of meaning, means that it is unthreatening to the other person: using ‘as it were’ utterances makes you sound self-deprecatory and witty at the same time, but not too witty.

Perhaps some of the things I have been rambling about in this post have been investigated properly; if any of you can elucidate any of this stuff more clearly, I would be gratified to hear from you.