Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘language

A few recommendations around “X began Y-ing”

leave a comment »

Preamble: The weird formulation family X began Y-ing has remained in the back of my head. I had gathered some resulting recommendations in a draft (almost draft-of-a-draft), which I have polished up a little below, to get the topic out of my backlog. Note that there is some overlap with and repetition of the original text.

Prefer a non-“start”* formulation, whenever it is not contrary to intentions. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is usually** inferior to “he swam ashore”. The non-“start” formulation is both shorter and more likely to match the actual intention. (It seems to me that e.g. some Wikipedia editors throw on an entirely unnecessary “start” formulation in a blanket manner. Consider, hypothetically, “modern humans first appeared” vs. “modern humans first began to appear” or, jikes, “modern humans first began appearing”.)

*With “start”, I include equivalent words, e.g. “begin”.

**An exception is when he did not reach the shore. Another when something follows in the text that takes place before arrival, e.g. an incident with a shark or a mermaid.

Prefer a “to” formulation. For instance, “he started to swim ashore” is superior to “he started swimming ashore”. The former is grammatically sounder, less prone to ambiguity, more likely to bring the intent over, and stylistically better. Note that the most reasonable interpretation of “swimming” (in this context) is as a participle describing what he was doing when he “started”. (Be it in the sense of a sudden movement or of “began” with a missing verb indicating what began, as with “he started to drown swimming”, which, while awkward, is a possible formulation.)

Prefer a regular noun over a gerund. For instance, “he started constructION” is better than “he started constructING” (with very minor reservations for the exact contexts and intentions, seeing that there is a slight difference in meaning). As a special case, be careful not to replace a regular noun with a gerund that is the noun + “ing”, as with “he heard a moan” vs. “he heard a moaning”. (Again, with reservations for exact intention: If one moan is meant, it is “moan” and not “moaning”. However, if an on-going series of moans is intended, then “moaning” might be acceptable.)

Pay attention to prepositions: a gerund will often require one. For instance, “he began teaching of math” is logically acceptable as a gerund (even if very ugly), while “he began teaching math” implies* that “teaching” is a verb form, making “he began to teach math” the preferable version.

*Unless it is a participle, with something missing from the sentence: “he began to write on the blackboard teaching math”. (Incidentally, a good example why participles should be used with caution in English.)

Pay attention to the difference between gerunds (quasi-nouns), participles (quasi-modifiers), and verb forms. A great deal of confusion and a fundamentally flawed understanding of grammar arises when the simplistic idea of “ing” words (and, similarly, “ed” words) is used as a blanket replacement. These might all end with “ing”, but this is arbitrary and we might well have had them end with, respectively, “ing”, “ang”, and “ong”—or any other suffix, or have them be distinctive in some other manner yet. They happen to be the same in English, but that does not mean anything. The two lefts in “I left to the left” are not the same either and treating them as the same would be idiotic. “Swimming, he was swimming during the swimming” uses all three: The first is a participle, the second a (part of a) verb form, the third a gerund (if a little artificial in context). We can e.g. see that “was swimming” can be replaced with “swam” but that the others cannot; and that “was” fits with the second but not the others. The third can be replaced by e.g. “swim session”, while the others cannot. It also goes well with “the”, which the others do not. The first allows extensions like “pleasantly swimming” that are incompatible at least with the gerund use.* Indeed, the corresponding** sentences in Swedish and German display three visually (and phonetically) different words: “Simmande, simmade han under simmandet” resp. “Schwimmend, schwamm er während des Schwimmens”.***

*A gerund, as a quasi-noun, takes an adjective like “pleasant”. Participles and verb forms take adverbs like “pleasantly”.

**The commata are a little dubious in Swedish and German, but I have kept them to make the identification with the English sentence easier.

***The German version also illustrates a complication not obvious in the weakly inflected English language: Different word classes can underlie different modifications. Here the basal “[das] Schwimmen” is turned into “[des] Schwimmens” in the genitive case, which (at least in German) would affect neither the participle use nor the verb use. (The preposition “während” causes the genitive.)

Addendum on infinitives: In the original text, I spoke of how “Y-ing” in this type of formulation “logically fills the role of an infinitive”. With hindsight this was a partial misjudgment on my behalf: an infinitive is often used in such roles, but it is hardly a universal linguistic law. There might, for instance, be cases where English uses an infinitive and Latin a subjunctive, e.g. “he does it to win” vs. (with great reservations for correctness) “facit ut vincat”, not “facit ut vincere”. (This could possibly be the result of long-term confusion between “logical case” and appearance of the words involved, where one case disappears from consciousness or language because all its forms coincides with those of another case.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 14, 2019 at 1:09 am

For want of a dictionary / Paradoxical language issues

leave a comment »

The likely heaviest items that I brought to Germany in 1997 were a two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary. I made heavy use of both the first few years. Indeed, early on, the German–Swedish part hardly left the bed of my small student room, as I had to constantly look words up when reading. Repeatedly, I used them to carefully construct and memorize one or two sentence for some official business, e.g. opening a bank account, so that the related meeting would not immediately descend into confusion.

Time passed, my vocabulary grew until I rarely needed Swedish as a starting point, and the exact choice and spelling of words were ultimately better handled by new websites like Wiktionary and Leo.

When I moved from Düsseldorf to Wuppertal a few years ago, I threw them away—I had not used them in years and they seemed like a lot of dead weight. There was even a slight feeling of pride, of the knowledge that these books, once so important, were now so unimportant. Big boys do not need training wheels.

Today, I find myself humbled and regretful: I am trying to write a letter to a Swedish bank, where my mother started a few accounts in my name—and finding reasonable Swedish (!) words is proving hard. Not only is my Swedish fairly rusty, especially when it comes to spelling, nuance, and false friends, but I also find that there are “adult” words* that I am accustomed to in German only, because I left Sweden before truly embarking on my adult life. A two-volume Swedish–German German–Swedish dictionary would have been a blessing …

*Business vocabulary and the like—not applied biology.

(The Internet still helps, but my knowledge of sites to help with Swedish is more limited than with English and German.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2019 at 2:16 pm

The loss of the grammatical number in the third person / Follow-up: Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

leave a comment »

Since publishing an older text on abuse of “they” ([1]), I have come to fear that the problem is far worse: the grammatical number and the feel for number is increasingly lost in the third person (possibly, elsewhere too). I suspect that the PC abuse is compounded by weak thinkers/writers simply ignoring questions of numbers and pronouns. Examples include an almost consistent use of “they” for multi-person and non-biological entities,* incongruencies that give the impression that the writer made decisions based on a coin-flip,** the extension of “they” to entities with a known grammatical gender and biological sex,*** a near consistent use of “they” with e.g. “everyone”, and the replacement of “one’s” with “their” as a companion to “one”.

*E.g. corporations or music groups. In the past, these have very often been referred to by “it”, which is also more logical in many cases. (Apparently, there used to be British vs. American divide here.) Notably, “they” might be defensible when it comes to e.g. a music group or a sports team in reference to a somewhat collective action or a situation where it is clear that we have a grouping of individuals, e.g. “Team X won. They mounted an irresistible offense.”; however, not when we have a more abstract entity or an action that is not the work of a similar grouping, e.g. “IBM increased its market share. It has had a great year.” or “Team [club] X is recruiting player Y to strengthen its defense.”.

**E.g. in that “they” is combined with singular or plural forms in a manner without an underlying logic, be it with regard to grammatical or physical number. The same author might then write “they were” (plural/plural) and “they was” (plural/singular) in two different sentences referencing the same entity or entities.

***E.g. “I met my cousin. They were happy.”. Note that this often happens when there is no sign of “non-binary identification” or similar. Certainly, the sheer number of instances is too large to be explained by such factors; certainly, it cannot explain the common use for animals.

A particular idiocy is the mixture of forms, as when a sentence or paragraph uses both “they” and phrases like “he or she”, e.g. “The white player moves first. He or she could move a pawn or they could move one of the knights.”.* (Also cf. “one” above.)

*While this example is fictional, I have seen at least a dozen similar examples since writing [1], most on Wikipedia. It also exemplifies the many, many instances where “they” is simply unnecessary and could have been avoided with a trivial change, without deviating from “gender-neutral” language, by using “[…] or one of the knights.” or similar.

If current trends continue (let us hope that they do not!), the third person will be reduced to “they” in just a few decades. Note: “the third person”—not “the third-person generic singular”. We will then have a system of “I”/“we”, “you”, and “they” for the first, second, respectively third persons. (Where the current calls for “he”/“she”/“it”/“they” in the third person.)

Where are the emergency brakes for language change?

Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Comparative, superlative, and correct thinking

leave a comment »

During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered some old grammar material, including the old bull-shit that a comparative compares two entities and a superlative three or more.

This is a good example of how undue dumbing-down* can hurt the students’ ability to think correctly and to gain a correct understanding of the matter:

*Or is the teacher or book author that lacking in own understanding?

The respective character of the comparative and superlative is quite different, and the above descriptions are outright contrary to accepted use:*

*I make some reservations for different situations in different languages, but this applies to at least Swedish, German, and English.

The comparative compares with no regard for numbers. For instance, all of the following are grammatically correct: “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.”, “I and Tom are taller than Dick and Harry.”, “I, Tom, and Dick are taller than Harry.” Equally correct is: “No-one among the four whose name begins with a ‘Q’ is taller than I am.”—even though there is no object to compare “I”/“me” with. Even dropping to comparing nothing to nothing is possible: “No woman taller than fifty feet is shorter than any man taller than sixty feet.”*

*There are neither women nor men of that size. Note that the paradoxical statement is actually truthful, not just grammatically correct, as long as at least one of the sets is empty.

In contrast, the superlative makes a statement about who in a certain set has a certain characteristic to the highest degree. For instance, “I am the tallest of us four.” says that “I” have the characteristic of being tall to a higher degree than any other element of this set of four. Again, this applies with no regard for numbers: “Out of Tom and Dick, Tom is the tallest.” implies a comparison between two entities—the alleged realm of the comparative. Indeed, even “Out of those among the four whose name begins with a ‘T’, Tom is the tallest.” is correct, despite an implied comparison involving just a single entity. In the same one-person set, Tom is obviously also the shortest, oldest, youngest, thinnest, fattest, best and worst educated, … (It could be argued, however, that the superlative fails on empty sets, due to the resulting weakness of formulation. If so, I would see it more as a matter of syntax than of logic, in that the concept extends to empty sets but is harder to formulate using e.g. English.)

From another perspective, it might* be sensible to view the comparative as comparing two** different sets and the superlative as discussing one single set. (In which case the “two vs. three” thinking is turned into “two vs. one”.) For instance, “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.” could be seen as “Everyone in set A is taller than everyone in set B, where set A consists of me and set B consists of Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. (And so on, for the other above examples.) The superlative formulation “I am the tallest of us four.”, in contrast, amounts to “In the set A, I am the tallest element, where set A consists of me, Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. Here we also see the futility of thinking in terms of the number of individual elements, as any of these sets could contain 0***, 1, 2, 3, or e.g. 534 elements.

*Reservations: (a) This might be a too abstract approach for people without prior exposure to set theory. (b) This is a spur-of-the-moment idea, which might have weaknesses that I am not yet aware of. (c) The implied use of “taller” on two levels of recursion in this paragraph should be understandable, but would be unsuitable for a formal definition.

**An extension to more than two might seem plausible in as far as e.g. “All elements of the set A are taller than all the elements of set B and C.” is an acceptable formulation. However, this is still better seen, I suspect, as a comparison between just two sets, one of them being the union of B and C.

***With the above reservation for the superlative and empty sets.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 16, 2019 at 11:36 am

A few notes on my language errors III

with one comment

A few more notes:

  1. I have already written about my problems with spelling “shelf”. Recently*, I have been bothered by the fear that I have made a much more serious mistake: Using “shelf” to imply something other than a shelf…

    *Specifically, caused by a text on bookstores ([1]), where my doubts arose and I took the safe path by using “bookcase” (but kept some plausible uses, e.g. “shelf meter”).

    My true intention was what the Germans call “Regal”—a set of shelves (strict sense) above each other, typically held together by two sides and/or a back. A bookcase is a special case of this, but English does not appear to have a good generic term, short of using “shelf” in a wider (and, likely, dubious) sense. German Wikipedia on “Regal”* does not point to a counter-part in English (but e.g. Swedish, Russian, and Polish are included). Vice versa, English Wikipedia on “shelf”, does not point to a German counter-part (but e.g. Spanish, French, Russian are included)—and the text deals mostly or solely with “shelf” in the stricter sense.

    *This is a “disambiguated” page. There are other pages that might have an English counter-part, but these deal with other meanings. In particular, the disambiguation page exists in English too, but does not list anything with the right meaning. Here and elsewhere, note that I refer to the state of the page at the time of writing and that the state at the time of reading might be different.

    Some hope is given by translation-website Leo, which does cite “shelf” as one* of the possible translations of “Regal”. Similarly, Wiktionary on “shelf” and Wiktionary on “Regal” gives the respective other as a translation. However, such sites are often highly approximate, in the same manner as entries in a thesaurus usually are only approximately the same in meaning.

    *Together with e.g. “rack” and “frame” in a somewhat similar meaning, and e.g. “royal prerogative” in an entirely different one.

  2. Re-reading [1], I note a rare variation of the words-that-sound-alike* theme—use of “fair [poorly]” for “fare”. Here the cause is different than the main case discussed earlier: the similarity of the words, and/or too few exposures to the written version, led me to actually consider “fair” correct. Re-reading, the optics struck me as somehow odd, and I eventually concluded that it really must be “fare” (cf. “farewell” and the more reasonable core meaning of “fare”).

    *Discussed in e.g. the first installment of the language-error discussions.

    (I also used “reminder” for “remainder”, which is a more typical case. Other errors might be present.)

  3. Issues like hyphenation and treatment of compound words have been on my mind lately. In German and Swedish, these are usually written together in a near blanket manner, sometimes with, much more often without, a hyphen.* In English, they are typically still written as separate words long after e.g. German has made one out of them. Worse, the “full” (“XY”) and “spaced” (“X Y”) compounds can have different meanings (as might the “hyphenated”?). Consider “side wall” and “sidewall” according to Wiktionary:** The former points to walls that are at the side of something, possibly*** restricted to a specific context of certain sports, while the latter has the “side of a tire” as the primary meaning (but also allows a side wall as a second meaning.)

    *Hyphens are typically used when a word becomes very cumbersome, is a bit ad hoc, or is ambiguous. (The latter similar to the, too rare, introduction of hyphens between separate words in English, e.g. to differ between “Female-Body Inspector” and “Female Body-Inspector”.)

    **Better examples exist, but this one arose from the writing of the current text: I originally used “by two side-walls” where the above reads “by two sides”. Being uncertain how to join “side” and “wall”, I actually checked Wiktionary, and found it best to go with “sides” instead…

    ***The linked-to Wiktionary page is poorly written and likely is just too vague on the wider meaning. I also suspect that the pages are poorly coordinated, which is a common problem with Wiktionary.

    Here I am often a bit confused and/or deliberately deviate from the most likely “native” use, especially because the lack of “true” compounds is a considerable weakness of the English language, in my eyes. This in at least three ways (by order of likelihood): (a) using a hyphen (“X-Y”) instead of a space (“X Y”), (b) fully joining (“XY”) something instead of using a hyphen (“X-Y”), (c) inserting a hyphen (“X-Y”) between two fully joined words (“XY”). The former two to some degree overcome the weakness; the third might increase it, but can lead to a more consistent use, might be etymologically sounder, and lessens the secondary weakness of inconsistent treatment of compounds in English.

    In the faraway past, strongly influenced by my native Swedish, I very often went from a “spaced” compound (“X Y”) to a “full” compound (“XY”) without reflection and awareness. I likely still do on occasion, but I try to avoid it and have long overcome the knee-jerk application of Swedish rules for compounds to English.

    (In addition, I also often, very deliberately, add hyphens for other reasons, e.g. disambiguation, grouping, or introduction of a lengthier ad-hoc compound.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2019 at 6:14 pm

Perverted couples

leave a comment »

There are some language errors that occur again and again. Of these, one of the most annoying to me is “a couple [X]” (instead of “a couple of [X]”). This construct is unfortunate in several regards, even formal incorrectness aside:

  1. It can make some sentences harder to parse or outright ambiguous through confusion with the use of “couple” as a (non-quantifying) noun. Consider e.g. “I watched a couple flying kites”: Did I watch a couple who were flying kites or did I watch a couple of kites that were flying?

    This especially in spoken English, where something like “a coupla” is fairly common: Is this a sloppy (or “cute”) pronunciation of “a couple” or “a couple of”? (With the “e” of “couple” or the “of” perverted.) Chances are that even the speaker is not always certain…

  2. The (often mis-)interpretation as a quantifier only becomes relevant through the removal of “of”: Look e.g. at the contrasts “a couple”–“two persons”, “a romantic couple”–“two persons who are romantic[ally involved]”, and “a couple of lovers”–“two lovers”. Considering the strong difference between the items in the first two pairings, it should be obvious that the same applies to the third too (even though it might be easy to overlook without the others): “a couple of lovers kissing” implies that (a) a couple is kissing and (b) the couple consists of lovers. In contrast, “two lovers kissing” implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are two of them. Also note how “couple” can be replaced by e.g. “pair” or “group”* in these examples, while “two” cannot.

    *Although the implications of “group” might be slightly different (even numbers aside). For instance, “a couple of lovers” would typically imply a mutual relationship, while “a group of lovers” might contain lovers of one or more people/things/whatnot outside the group.

    Once we drop the “of”, the interpretation as a quantifier in direct parallel to “two” (or “dozen”, or “few”) is a near given: “a couple lovers kissing” most reasonably implies that (a) lovers are kissing and (b) there are a (quantifying) couple of them. Once this interpretation exists, it is hard to not see “a couple of [X]” as implying quantification.

    In other words, dropping the “of” forces many uses of “couple” into a new grammatical class—and it does so for no good reason.

  3. When viewed as a quantifier, it is often unclear whether “couple” intends “two”/“a pair [of]”, or rather “a few”/“several”. (The former is historically correct; the latter seems considerably more common in modern use.)

    Here I recommend sticking to “two” or “a pair of”, unless there is a strong implication of unity*; resp. “a few” or “several”. This even for formulations that would have included the “of”.

    *Cf. the interpretation of “a couple of lovers kissing” vs. “two lovers kissing” above. Note that the etymology of “couple” has implications of things that are joined to each other, as opposed to things that e.g. merely happen to be in the same place, which opens a niche for continued use.

  4. Formulations like “a couple [X]” are inferior to “a few [X]” in terms of both length and aesthetics, making “a few [X]” a much more natural choice. Why shove in those extra letters to create something both ugly and grammatically incorrect?

    (Assuming modern use. The same principle holds for the historical use and “two [X]”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2019 at 6:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

A few notes on my language errors II

with one comment

Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm