Category Archives: Syntax/Grammar

But Why Are Irregulars “Irregular?”

The English language is a glorious bastard child. Like the English themselves, its words and grammar are the result of the promiscuous and incestuous interbreeding that has been going on since the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes decided that they’d like an island vacation rather than sprawl out topless on the beaches of 5th century Europe – just as their current descendants do. Add to the mix the vocabulary of the Picts and Scots, along with a smattering of the ancient Welsh and Irish, and you’ve got yourself a language that turns out to be more wanton and debauched than a Roman orgy hosted by Caligula in a particularly creative mood.

As a result of this linguistic licentiousness, speech pathologists and English Language teachers find themselves having to teach a host of irregular, eccentric, and downright capricious words and grammatical structures. And there’s no finer example of this than something we call “the irregular verbs.” In fact, the very name “irregular verbs” tells us all we need to know; that here is a bunch of words so odd that we’ve just given up on them and tossed them into a huge bucket labeled “irregular.”

Irregular verbs cartoonOccasionally, you might hear the uncomfortable question…

“But Miss, Miss, Miss, why is it went and not goed? Why is it saw not seed? And why can’t I say taked instead of took?”

As pragmatists, 99% of us will just say, “Because it is” and then focus on the job at hand – teaching the exception to the rule. But 1% of us – and I count me as “one of us” – really does wonder “But why IS it went and saw and took rather than goed and seed and taked?” After all, when we invent a new verb such as to google or to tweet, it only takes a few weeks until folks have googled and tweeted or maybe even Facebooked. We know the rules; we apply the rules; we’re done!

Well, much as we all like to think we are hip, modern, trendy, and capable of being innovative game-changers who think outside of the box and shake up current thinking, as far as language goes, we’re tied to our undeniable linguistic history – the ghosts of the philological past are still haunting our etymological present. And like prehistoric flies trapped in amber, some of the words we use are really just fossils from an earlier age.

Back in the mid 1990s, Eva Grabowski and Dieter Mindt published a paper [1] that listed the most frequently used irregular verbs. They didn’t just sit in an office and google “most frequently used irregular verbs” but went back to basics and used the data from two pretty big (at the time) corpora: The BROWN corpus of American English [2], and the LOB corpus of British English [3]. Using real data rather than the “best guesses” of lexicographers was a huge step forward. For those of you who like FREE STUFF, you can click below to get a PDF copy of the top 100 irregular verbs by frequency. And why would you want it? Well, if you’re going to teach irregulars, starting with those used most makes a lot of sense.

Link to 100 most frequent irregular versb100 most frequently used irregular verbs

So let’s take the top of the list item, the verb to say, and crack open the amber to extract its etymological DNA.

Old English, and its Germanic predecessors, had more verb forms than modern English. Today, if you invent a new verb, such as to twerk, you only need to add three different endings to make it sound right: +s, +ing, or +ed.

“Miley can twerk, She twerks too much. Yesterday she twerked, I think she’s twerking too much.”

But Old English was a much tougher, with most verbs having around 14 different forms. And some verbs were strong while others were weak. It wasn’t that the strong ones would bully the weaker ones but the strong verbs would change their forms in a much more dramatic fashion than the punier weak ones. A strong verb would change its base form by muscling in new vowels. A commonly cited example of a strong verb is to sing, where you get sing, sang, and sung, with each form differing by the vowel [4]. Similarly ring, rang, and rung, or swim, swam, and swum. In contrast, the reason weak verbs are so-called is because they merely add an ending to their base form rather than man-up and ram those new vowels between the consonants.

I’m over-simplifying a little. There’s something of a sliding scale from “very strong” to “milquetoast weak,” and Old English scholars talk about 7 classes of strong verbs and 3 classes of weak ones. You have to think that with such a complex system, being a grammar teacher back in the 5th century CE must have paid more than it does today.

Having just explained the distinction between strong and weak verbs [5], take a look again at the verb to say. Is it strong or weak? Well, it’s so weak I’m surprised it hasn’t locked itself in a bathroom for fear of being hassled by to begin and to go! All that happens is that a /d/ sound gets added to the base form of /seɪ/, and the vowel changes ever-so-slightly by getting a tad shorter to leave /sɛd/. It’s technically from an Old English Class 3 weak verb that began life as secgan, meaning “to say,” and now has the pitiful pair of say/said left.

Number two on the list of irregulars, to make, is really pretty similar to to say, and so we should skip hastily on to the much more interesting to go, which has the disarmingly bizarre went as one of its forms. Why not, indeed, *goed?

Well, Old English did, in fact, have a *goedeode. But there was also another verb around in the 5th century that meant “to wander around or go slowly,” and that was wendan. You still hear people talk about “wending their way around” but other than that, the word wend is pretty rare. So between Old English and Middle English (that’s between the 5th and 15th centuries) the word oede got pushed out by wend, the past tense of wendan, and the devoicing of that final /d/ sound to a /t/ gave us the now-familiar went. For those who are geekily curious, this is called suppletion in the world of historical linguistics, and it’s where one word is used as the inflected form of another, but where both words come from different origins. Ever wonder why things go from bad to worse – or worst? Suppletion. Or why things go from good to better and best? Suppletion. Hey, it’s not just a verb thing!

Before I wind up this work and wend my weary way to bed, there’s one other question that might still be nagging at you; why is it these particular irregulars that are irregular and not others? Why say, and make, and go, and come, and take, and see…? It’s because of their frequency! When we started shifting from using those many different types of strong/weak verbs in Old English to the more relaxed syntax of “+s,” “+ing,” and “+ed,” the words that were used most  often had a built-in inertia – a resistance to change. We very easily – and perhaps it’s better to say unconsciously – take new verbs like tweet and twerk and add those three endings to them, but if we wanted to change went to goed [6] or see to seed, we’d have a harder time because it just sounds so wrong! So although we know that many new words are coined and used every day, there’s a core of  thousands of other words that are protected from change by a lexical inertia that anchors them firmly into our language and presents a formidable resistance to change.

So next time you’re focusing on teaching the irregulars, just remember that you’re also providing a small but fascinating lesson on the history of the English language!

[1] Grabowski, Eva & Mindt, Dieter (1995. “A corpus-based learning list of irregular verbs in English.” ICAME Journal 19, 5-22.

[2] Francis, W. Nelson, Kucera, Henry, & Mackie, Andrew W. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage : lexicon and grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Hofland, Knut, & Johannson, Stig (1982). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computing Center for the Humanities, Bergen, Norway: Longman.

[4] Using vowel variation as a form of morphology is called ablaut. It’s from the German prefix ab- meaning “out of” or “away from” and laut meaning “sound.” So it refers to that notion of taking a sound away and replacing it with another.

[5] In today’s era of political correctness with the insistence on not hurting anyone’s feelings – ever, I can see the day coming when there will be pressure to re-define strong and weak verbs as robust versus relaxed. In that way, verbs like to chant and to hum no longer have to feel threatened by to sing.

[6] As every parent knows, kids will, in fact, quite happily “regularize” irregular forms when they are learning to talk. It is not unusual for kids to actually use irregular forms like went before they use regular, but erroneous, forms like goed. This overregularization is, in a sense, a good thing because it shows that a kiddo is learning to apply the more common rules of morphology – even if the words are technically wrong.

Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Mark Durham, we made a couple of corrections to the original text on 5/14/15; n two instances. we originally published tweak and here instead of twerk and hear. Both of these illustrate that relying solely on the built-in WordPress spell checker has some risks. It is, of course, better than not using it at all, but because both tweak and here are “good” words, the spell checker happily leaves them alone. So the teachable moment is “treat your spell checker as a friend who offers suggestions but not necessarily all the answers.”

28 Words to Boost Your Client’s Vocabulary – Maximum Bang for Buck

When developing a vocabulary set for an augmented and alternative communication (AAC) system – or indeed when deciding on what vocabulary to teach anyone – one of the most fundamental of measures you can use is frequency count; how often is a word used in a language? No-one can predict with 100% accuracy which words will be “best” for an individual, but if you’re going to take bets, you’re pretty safe to assume that words such as that, want, stop, and what are going to be used by everyone from ages 2 to 200. By the same token, you’d not be missing much if you didn’t spend too much time on words like ambidextrous, decalogue, and postilion [1].

In the field of AAC, this type of high frequency vocabulary that is used (a) across populations and (b) across situations is referred to as core vocabulary and it’s often contrasted with the phrase fringe vocabulary, which refers to words that are typically (a) low in frequency and (b) specific to isolated activities or situations. For a refresher on core and fringe – and an introduction to keyword vocabulary – check out my article entitled Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary from two years ago.

The core/fringe distinction is now so embedded in the world of augmentative communication that it is rare to see any new app appear on the market that doesn’t use the phrase “core vocabulary” somewhere in its marketing blurb – even if it isn’t actually making good use of the core! And as core vocabulary is, by definition, common across ages, activities, situations, and pathologies, it’s not surprising that many AAC software offerings look the same, particularly with regard to the words being encoded [2].

But it’s worth taking a look at another level of frequency measurement, and that’s at the phrase level. Specifically, one area of research that seems to me to offer some value to Speech and Language pathologists and Educators working in vocabulary development is in the study of how phrasal verbs (PVs) are distributed.

PV 3

So what’s a phrasal verb? Well, simply put, it’s a phrase of two to three words that are yoked together, which include a verb and a preposition and/or adverb. Examples include, “I ran into Gretchen at the ATIA conference,” “I backed up my hard drive,” and “I came across an interesting article on phrasal verbs.” The English language is stuffed to the gills with these type of verbs, and a feature of them is that they tend to have multiple meanings.

To find out how polysemous a phrase can be, you can use the excellent WordNet online tool, a huge database of words and phrases that let you check out noun, verb, adjective, and adverb meanings. For example, would you believe that the simple phrase “give up” has 12 different meanings? Or that “put down” has 8 variations? It’s not surprising that learners of English find phrasal verbs quite challenging.

The other fascinating feature of phrasal verbs is summarized in a 2007 paper by Gardner and Davies, who point out that of you look at the 100 million word British National Corpus you find that;

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Read that again and see if you get the same tingle I did seeing those numbers. Over half the entire phrasal verbs found in the corpus can be accounted for by combining 20 verbs with 8 particles. In short, if you learn just 28 words, you’ve learned 50% of all the phrasal verbs you’ll need to use.

Let’s take a look at those Top 2o verbs first:

20 most frequent verbs in phrasal verbs

Table 1: Top 20 Verbs in PVs

And now the Top 8 particles:

Eight most frequently used particles in phrasal verbs

Table 2: Top 8 particles in PVs

All the verbs and prepositions as individual items are already high frequency, with the exception of perhaps the verbs point and set, which wouldn’t be on my list of “first words to teach.” However, the real bonus here is that not only do you get the benefit of teaching your client 28 high frequency words in isolation but if you then use them as phrasal verbs, your “bang for buck” is significant!

Here’s a link to a PDF of those 28 words:

This frequency analysis of phrasal verbs by Gardner and Davies has recently been supported by and extended upon by Dilin Liu (2011) and by Mélodie Garnier and Norbert Schmitt [3] (2014). In their paper, The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, they point out that a limitation in Gardner and Davies’ analysis is that they failed to take into account the polysemy inherent in the phrases – like the 12 meanings of “give up.” In fairness to Gardner and Davies, they did, in fact, talk about the polysemous nature of PVs but didn’t offer any measure of the different frequencies with which the various meanings are used. They wrote that:

For instance, the list-high 19 senses of the PV break up … could be arranged from highest to lowest semantic frequency, thus prioritizing them for language learning. We acknowledge, however, that corpora of this nature are much easier talked about than constructed. (p.353).

Garnier and Schmitt are interested not just in identifying the frequency with which a phrasal verb occurs but also the most common senses of those PVs. They say that;

…our main purpose for creating the PHaVE List, which is to reduce the total number of meaning senses to be acquired to a manageable number based on frequency criteria.

On a pragmatic level, they want a learner not to have to learn every meaning of each PV but just focus on the most frequent, and therefore most useful meanings. Using the original list from Gardner and Davies, along with additions by Liu (2011), and including data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008), the duo created the PHaVE List; a list of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs, and 280 of the most frequently used meanings. So on the 12 potential meanings for “give up,” they use the following:

Stop doing or having something; abandon (activity, belief, possession) (80.5%)
Example: She had to give up smoking when she got pregnant.

The general entry starts with a rank (in this case, 16th out of 150); the basic phrasal verb; a definition; a percentage frequency; and a specific example use. The complete list is made available as a download from the Sage journals website [4]. If you can get access to it, it is well worth the read and the download. And all the articles referenced in this article are good examples of how we can use corpus linguistics to help guide our practice of developing the vocabulary of our clients with language challenges.

Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available from Brigham Young University The Corpus of Contemporary America English, from Brigham Young University

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339-359.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 1-22.Published online before print

Liu, D. (2011). The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688.

[1] A postilion is the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, who sits posterior to the horses. The sentence “The postilion has been struck by lightning” is the basis of a wonderful little paper by the linguist David Crystal, published in 1995 in the journal Child Language Teaching & Therapy. Simply titled “Postilion Sentences,” Crystal defines a postilion sentence as “one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote.” In the design of AAC systems, using pre-stored sentences may have some limited value but many “pragmatic utterances” turn out to be nothing more than postilions; unlikely to be used. This is why teaching sentences is neither language nor therapy.

Download Postilion sentences article

Enter a caption

[2] The now-common practice of using core vocabulary also makes it much harder to prove plagiarism – or as we Lancastrians would say, “nicking someone else’s ideas.” People, of course, don’t “steal” ideas – they are “inspired” by the work of others. But such inspiration inevitably leads to systems appearing almost clone-like in their structure. It’s only when you get to the fine details of how words are organized and encoded that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.

[3] If I haven’t mentioned it before, Norbert is the author of an excellent book on vocabulary research methods. Here’s the full reference: Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary : a vocabulary research manual. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. It’s full of useful information and lots of web links worth exploring, and worth the $30 you’ll spend on Amazon US – or the £20.99 in the UK.

[4] Just a reminder to all members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that you membership benefits includes access to a number of Sage journals online, and Language Teaching Research is one of those. In fact, you have access to over 700 (yes, count ’em!) titles, including my personal favorites Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, English Today, and the riveting Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. OK, so I lied about the last one being a “favorite” 🙂

All I Needed to Know About Adjectives I Learned at Starbucks

Language is an example of a moving target par excellence. Only today, I received a tweet that outlined a number of reasons why you should instantly wife your girlfriend. Wife her, I thought? Since when did wife switch teams and become a verb? Well, truth be told, it turns out that it became a verb in 1387, as evidenced by a quote from that popular 14th century pot-boiler Prolicionycion wrtten by Ranulf Higden:

Þey..kepeþ besiliche here children, and suffreth hem nouȝt to wyfe wiþ ynne foure and twenty ȝere.

But for reasons unknown – as is often the case in etymology – the use of wife as a verb disappeared sometime during the early 18th century, leaving only the noun usage in common use [1]. After a brief dalliance with verbiness, the word settled back into its original home.

Let’s now go back to just last week during the 2014 Closing the Gap conference in Minneapolis. After standing in line for almost 15 minutes to get a Starbucks latte from the hotel’s coffee bar, I asked for a “tall skinny” and was then quizzed with, “Is that the short tall?”

A “short tall?” Dear Lord, how much more torture do we want to subject the English language to? Prescriptivists everywhere would be wailing in anguish and putting red pens to paper – or maybe tweeting their disgust in 140 characters or less!

However, it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Just like wife in the 14th century, the word tall is getting bored with being a simple adjective and deciding that being a rambunctious noun is much better; “Noun Envy” as the psychoanalinguists might say [2].

Starbucks, for purposes of marketing and not linguistics, decided to ignore the more semantically accurate method of labeling coffee sizes by “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “freakin’ huge,” in favor of “tall,” “grande,” “venti” and “trenta.” But they created an element of cognitive dissonance in consumers’ minds by linking a word like tall, which is semantically typically opposed to short, with the word small, which is more likely to be balanced against large. So using a word like tall to describe something that is cognitively small just doesn’t jibe.

What our consciously unaware but unconsciously linguistic barista has done here is to overcome that dissonance by treating the word tall as a noun and using short as an attributive adjective. Pretty damn cool, eh? [3] I can easily imagine that at some point, various baristas [4] have uttered not only “Is that the small tall?” but also “Do you mean a medium grande?” or “Is that a large venti?”

So while I’m hanging out here with you all in our virtual Starbucks, something else you might be curious about is the whole “How do I order my coffee?” issue. Does one ask for “a skinny grande cappuccino” or “a grande skinny cappuccino?” And when you start adding caramel or extra shots, where on earth do  you hang them?

Well, having castigated my good friends at Starbucks in relation to their idiosyncratic naming of drink sizes, I’ll offer them points for actually providing a “syntax” for budding baristas in order to make ordering easier. In a 2003 manual distributed to employees, the following generic ordering structure was recommended:

1. CUP: That’s hot, cold, iced, or “for here.”
2. SHOT and SIZE: No stipulation for which should be first.
3. SYRUP: For your caramel, raspberry, cinnamon etc.
4. MILK: Skimmed, 2%, soy, or whatever.
5. DRINK: Coffee, tea, mocha, or any other name.

My personal common order is for a “grande, non-fat latte,” which fits the rules of 2>4>5. During summer, I might order an “iced, grande, non-fat latte,” which again conforms with 1>2>4>5. My wife has a “grande non-fat, caramel macchiato” that follows the rules, and sometimes goes for the “iced, grande non-fat caramel macchiato,” which illustrates the full-blown 1>2>3>4>5 ordering.

Budding researchers [5] might want to spend an afternoon at their local Starbies armed with a pen and a notebook, jotting down as many orders as they can overhear – what researchers like to call “taking a sample.” After an hour of sampling both orders and coffee, they should be able to do some analysis to see how many people actually conform to the ordering paradigm. Remember, this is what research is all about; setting up a hypothesis about how we think folks will order coffee, and then testing it against observations of how they really order it!

Outside the world of Starbucks, adjective ordering in English also has some rules. One of the most common ordering paradigms is as follows:

Order of adjectives

If we compare this with the Starbucks recommendations, we can see that the sequence CUP-SHOT/SIZE-SYRUP-MILK-DRINK corresponds to the generic OPINION-SIZE-MATERIAL-QUALIFIER-NOUN. So they’re pretty much on the syntactic ball here!

Doubtless our hundreds of “proxy Dudes” collecting real data at coffee bars across the world will find exceptions to the ordering rules, but language performance has always been variable. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to hear “macchiato iced grande caramel” or “caramel latte venti soy.”

Or are we?

[1] I suppose as a proponent of using evidence and data to support propositions, I did take a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American and found no instances of wife as a verb in the 450 million word sample. Same for the British National Corpus (100 million word sample) and the Canadian Strathy Corpus (50 million words). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think I’m pretty confident in asserting that using wife as a verb is extremely rare and unlikely.

[2] Don’t rush out to your dictionary – even if YOUR dictionary is the Urban Dictionary – to find the word psychoanalinguist. It doesn’t exist. It’s only a “real word” in the sense that (a) I have just used it and (b) it can be understood within the context of this article.

[3] I suppose I need to appreciate that not everyone gets as excited about language change as I do. But this type of living example of how new meanings come about helps us all understand how important it is to be aware of the simple fact that languages are not, and never have been, static. I’m not suggesting that we allow some form of lexical anarchy where you can simply stick any old word anywhere but knowing that words can, and do, change meaning and category can, I believe, make us more aware clinicians.

[4] The word barista is, as you might know, Italian, so you might be tempted to point out to me that I should really be using the word baristi to mark the plural. However, the word baristas is perfectly acceptable because it’s an example of a word that’s been Anglicized i.e. taken into the English language, and the normal rule for making a plural word is simply to add an “s.” Hence baristas. I think I’ve talked about this before in relation to octopuses as being a wonderful plural, with octopi being fake Latin (octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, and if you wanted a Greek plural, it would really be octopodes!)

[5] It strikes me that a generous supervisor might be totally OK with letting a grad student work on a study such as, “Syntactic adjectival variability in coffee ordering.” And should that student be the recipient of a grant from Starbucks itself, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, don’t yah think?

Coffee Rant: Or Why Adjectives Matter

Some years ago, I found myself reading some article about the evils of Corporate America and amongst a crowd of folks who were railing against one of the members of the Economic Axis of Evil – Starbucks. Being the misanthropic curmudgeon I am, I’m usually on the side of anyone who takes an opportunity to “stick it to the Man,” regardless of which flavor of “the Man” that may be, but in this instance, I was perversely on the side of Howard Schultz and his mighty mochaccino monolith. I was also in the minority, which also appealed to my sense of curmudgeonliness [1] and there’s a good chance that I was hyped up on caffeine too. So here’s the response, unedited and expurgated.

So some folks think that Starbucks is “too corporate” and “bland?” So they prefer the small “mom-and-pop” local coffee houses that are supposedly unique and special.

Well I say “poppycock” to their smug, preachy elitism. Why should anyone listen to a bunch of aging, sandal-toed, tofu-eating, ex-hippies who are just mad because their “organic real coffee” stores barely makes enough to keep them in muesli? These are the air-headed boomers who wanted to change the world in the 60’s, failed miserably, then joined the very same corporate world they now despise, which in turn helped them earn the money to start up the pathetic, ersatz “authentic” java joints they now run.

Excuse me for pointing out the stunningly obvious to these self-styled entrepreneurs but they seem to forget that their success comes on the back of the “coffee culture” explosion that Starbucks was instrumental in fueling. Some 20 years ago, springing fifty cents for a cup of hot brown slop from the Micky D’s drive-through was about as much as folks were willing to pay and as sophisticated as their taste reached. Now the three-dollar offering made from quality freshly ground beans is not an unusual occurrence, and the kaftan-wearing, self-important arbiters of taste have no problem selling their own free-trade farmer-friendly Guatemalan dark roast sludge for prices just under the standard Starbucks price. Oh yeah, and sometimes, no matter how much these self-appointed guardians of coffee purity bleat, their stuff is crap. Just because you know Juan Gonzales from Colombia personally and have visited his small pueblo to spend time with his wife and children doesn’t mean his stuff is good. For every coffee place that sells good, drinkable java there are ten others that, like Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor, are wearing no clothes. They talk the talk, walk the walk, but churn our bland or burned buckets of semi-drinkable swill that makes four-hour-old gas station coffee seem like nectar.

So stop your whining, you bunch of goatee-coiffed, hemp-wearing, pot-headed, jelly-brains and come back and pontificate when YOU have a multi-million dollar international organization that’s having to make decision on this sort of scale. Otherwise, go stock up on some of those home-made $2.99 granola bars that take away the taste of your insipid brew.

I chose to share this because (a) I’m too idle at the moment to write a brand new post – or to at least finish ONE of the three “draft” posts languishing in WordPress – and (b) I thought it demonstrated how there are times when the excessive use of adjectives can be used to good effect. Although most writing guides recommend the spartan use of adjectives, sometimes it’s fun to let them loose and watch them cavort and gamble happily with an otherwise sleepy collection of nouns.

[1] I doubt that curmudgeonliness is likely to catch on, and a quick check with the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows only two uses of the word; once in 1997 and another in 2008. However, what is does illustrate is how to use the process of affixation can turn a concrete noun into an abstract. Here’s the route:

(a) curmudgeon (n) -> curmudgeonly (adj)
(b) curmudgeonly (adj) -> curmudgeonliness (n)

It’s possible to change a concrete noun to an abstract directly without the intermediate adjectification by using different suffixes e.g. boy (n) -> boyhood (n); friend (n) -> friendship (n); star (n) -> stardom (n).

And one last fun fact to slip into your next party conversation; sticking an extra “bit” (or morpheme) to a word that changes it from one part-of-speech to another is called derivational morphology, whereas if it stays as the same part-of-speech it’s called inflectional morphology. Curmudgeon to curmudgeonly is derivational;  sing to singing or sings is inflectional. Go ahead, nerd out with that!

Tmesis: A Whole Nother Word to Use!

I’m guessing that Speech Pathologists and Linguists develop, over the years, an ear for the odd. By that, I mean we learn to hear quirky things that pass most people by. One of these is the phrase, “But that’s a whole nother thing.” Really? Nother? Is that even a word?

It’s clear that the intent here is to use the words another and whole in a similar way as phrases like “That’s a whole different ballgame” or “That’s another thing altogether,” but somehow the words get mixed up and whole gets wedged into the word another and out pops “a whole nother.”

Because this is an educational site and we hope that folks always leave us feeling that they’ve learned something, there is a name for this phenomenon of slapping a word smack bang into the middle of another; tmesis. You may also like to know that is comes from the Greek τμῆσις meaning “a cutting,” which described how one word is cut into two pieces and a second slotted in.

tmesisTmesis is more typically seen in the realm of profanity. Only last night on the new EsquireTV channel, one of the chefs competing in an edition of the show, “Knife Fight,” said that she was feeling “fan-fucking-tastic” that she’d won. Well, the fucking was bleeped out but you didn’t have to be a skilled lip reader to know what she said. In the UK, something can be “un-bloody-likely” or “abso-bloody-lutely un-fucking-believable.” This insertion of an expletive even has a name; expletive infixation. [1]

So let’s dig a little deeper here. An infix is a type of affix that appears in the middle of a word, and an affix is a morpheme that can be attached to a word to form a new word. In English, we have prefixes that go before and word, and suffixes that go after. Here are a few examples;

Prefixes: un-, dis-, pre
unlikely, unbelievable, unhappy, unsure
disable, disappear, disarmed, dishonest
prepaid, prenuptial, prelinguistic, prefix

Suffixes: –ing, –ly, –er
meeting, running, drinking, sleeping
happily, sadly, unhappily, controversially
happier, sadder, reader, editor

Sometimes the prefixes and suffixes may change a little depending on what other letters are around. For example, in– and im– are the same prefix but you chose in– in front of words made with the tongue just behind the teeth (dental) and im– if the word that follows is made with the lips (bilabial). [2] The same thing happens with the em– and en– prefixes: you empower someone (the letter “p” in power is made with the lips, and you encircle something (the letter “c” in circle is made with the tongue just behind the teeth).

This little foray into tmesis and prefixes leads us back to the “whole nother” issue, and a short trip in an etymological time machine will show us something very interesting about what’s happening here.

Many years ago, in the times of Chaucer, the word another was, in fact, two words; either an + other or – surprise! – a + nother. During the 14th century, the word nother was used as a variant of other and appeared with the article a. In his 1374 work, Anelida and Arcite, Chaucer wrote;

And sawe a noþere ladye proude and nuwe

Notice the split form here – a and nother sitting happily side by side. However, by Shakespeare’s time, the words had fused into another. In Macbeth, Act III, scene I, we see:

And I another
So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune,
That I would set my life on any chance,
To mend it, or be rid on ‘t.

He does at times use a split version, but as “an other” and not “a nother.” And by the 18th and 19th centuries, both “an other” and “a nother” appear to have disappeared altogether, with another being the form of choice for writers. Thus, we started with “an other” and “a nother” but changed over a period of a few hundred years to the single word, another.

What we may be seeing now is a re-splitting of the single word brought about the tmetic infixing [3] of the word whole. And what’s also interesting is that although the word other is used very, very frequently in many situations, the tmesis is between a and nother – a word that doesn’t exist in modern English – and not an and other, which would make some grammatical sense.

But that’s because this splitting doesn’t have to make grammatical sense but phonetic sense; in other words, the choice of where to make the split is not dictated by grammatical accuracy but by phonetic ease. Simply put, it’s easier to say “a whole nother” than “an whole other.”

The word whole starts with a “h” sound, even though it’s written with a “w,” and there’s a rule in English that helps you make the unconscious choice of whether a word is preceded by the article “an” or “a.” If the following word is a consonant, you use “a”; if a vowel, use “an.” So you have “a dog,” “a cat,” “a broom,” and “a spoon,” but in contrast, you have “an egg,” “an ovary,” “an operation,” and “an elephant.” The “h” sound behaves like a consonant so you get “a house,” “a Hobbit,” “a handkerchief,” and “a whole.” [4] Again, don’t let the “w” fool you – the word is pronounced “hole” (/həʊl/).

So when it comes to wedging whole into another, that unconscious rule pushes you to create “a whole nother” and not “an whole other” because “an whole” breaks the rule. The fact that you might not “know” this rule overtly doesn’t mean that is isn’t there covertly. And the current use of “a whole nother” is further evidence of its existence.

Our discomfort at hearing this phrase is partly brought about because with our grammar hats on, we expect to hear “a whole other”and we balk at the non-word, nother. However,  the phenomenon is, as I argued, driven by phonological rules and not syntactic or lexical, and from this perspective, “a whole nother” is oddly correct! This doesn’t mean the Dudes recommend using it – but we do recognize it as a pretty neat linguistic phenomenon.

Join us next time for another fan-bloody-tastic adventure into the world of speech and language!

[1] For a classic article on this, you should check out McCarthy, J. (1982) Prosodic Structure and Expletive Infixation, Language, 58(3), 574-590, available online via JSTOR at

[2] Those of you who are ahead of the curve might say, “But what about words such as ingrowing and ingress which have a “g” after the prefix – why is it in– and not something else?” Well phonetically, it is something else because in both these cases, the actual sound of the “n” turns out to be “ng” – as in “sing” or “bang.” The “n” changes to match the position of the tongue in the sound “g,” which linguists and speechies call “velar.” So for those of you who can read the International Phonetic Alphabet, here are the rules for the in-/im- prefix:

a. “in-” [ɪn] -> [ɪn] /_[+dental]
b. “in-” [ɪn] -> [ɪŋ] /_[+velar]
c. “in-” [ɪn] -> [m] /_[+bilabial]

Give yourself 10 extra smart points if that made sense! And you thought all speechies did was teach people how to say “How now, brown cow!”

[3] Go ahead. Try slipping “tmetic infixing” into a conversation and see what happens! I guarantee that your Perceived Pretentiousness Score (PPS) will hit an all-time high, and your success at impressing potential romantic partners will hit an all-time low. The Dudes don’t need to worry about this because they already have a high PPS and are married so have no need to impress anyone. My wife just rolls her eyes and suggests I get another drink.

[4] There are situations where a word is written using the letter “h” but doesn’t actually have the sound of the “h” but a vowel sound. In these cases, the article an is used. So the words hour and honest are written with an “h” but pronounced as “our” and “onest” (/aʊə/ and /ɒnɪst/). Typically, these are words that came from Old French, and French, as we know, is one of those languages where the “h” sound doesn’t appear at the beginning of words.

Why Scarves are important to Speech Pathologists

In a recent poll of Speech and Language Pathologists  (The #SLPeeps Top 10 SLP Gifts) held by the folks at LessonPix, the number one object of infinite desire was… the scarf! Talk about stereotypes fulfilled. Tragically, this Dude was one of those who voted for the scarf, and readily admits to having a small collection of the things (you have to match with your coats and jackets – duh!) so perhaps it’s not necessarily surprising.

University of Lancaster UK Fylde College scarf

My new scarf

Of course, the other factor that may be biasing the results is that the poll is taking place just as the weather is becoming peppered with snow and the temperatures are falling faster than Mitt Romney’s post-election popularity [1]. So the stores are currently filled with more scarves than Santa has elves.

And so speaking of scarves and elves

One of the standard areas of concern for SLPs is teaching plurals. To be more accurate, teaching the phonological realizations of a morphological process that creates plural forms from a singular morpheme base. I toss that in because some folks seem to think that the Dudes are trivial, unprofessional, and simply out for a good time. That may have some veracity about it, but we are very aware that not everyone who reads this blog is, in fact, an SLP. So our role is to entertain and educate a broad church, and to promote the idea that SLPs are more than middle-class gentile ladies who wear scarves with twin-sets and pearls. Well, OK, so we do wear scarves…

Therapeutically speaking, we can use the scarf as a way of teaching a rather limited set of weird plural forms, namely those nouns that end in an /f/ sound when singular but turn into a /vz/ when plural. Here’s the list;

calf – calves
life – lives
thief – thieves
elf – elves
loaf – loaves
wife – wives
half – halves
self – selves
wolf – wolves
leaf – leaves
shelf – shelves

There are ongoing discussions about dwarfdwarfs/dwarves, with linguists typically coming down on the side of dwarves but Disney still insisting on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – and you don’t mess with the Mouse unless you want a law suit in the mail [2].

Historically, these “irregular” plurals come from a “regular” source – Old English. You see, one of the common plurals in OE was the ending “-as,” and so you would talk about one wulf or wif (wolf and wife [3]) but two or more wulfas or wifas. But there was also a rule in existence that said that all fricatives (such as /f/ or /s/) would become voiced (change to /v/ or /z/) when they were stuffed between two other voiced sounds, which includes vowels. So seeing as the /f/ in wulfas and wifas sat between vowels, they were pronounced as /’wulvæz/ and /’waɪvæz/. Finally, over time, the final unstressed vowel was dropped leaving /’wulvz/ and /’waɪvz/.


But the fun doesn’t stop here, oh no! Just to keep the excitement going, the word scarf doesn’t come from the Old English and wasn’t around with the wolves, wives, elves, leaves, or sheaves, and didn’t make an appearance in the English lexicon until the middle of the 16th century. It’s not absolutely certain, but odds are that scarf comes from Old Northern French escarpe meaning “a sash” or “a sling for a wounded arm.” At that time, folks did talk about wearing scarfs but in the 18th century, it became mor fashionable to wear scarves, the plural swap being influenced by those old Old English “irregulars.”

Using my old friend, the Corpus of Historical American, I was able to produce the following graphs that show how scarfs declined as scarves ascended.

Use of the word scarf over time

“Scarfs” over time

Use of the word scarves over time

“Scarves” over time

As a confirmatory check, I also did a Google N-gram search:

The words scarfs and scarves over time

“Scarfs” and “scarves” over time

We could stop here and say “so that’s why you should teach scarves and not scarfs” and be done with it, but there’s just one more wonderful little quirk of English I’d like to point out.

“My dog is a hungry wee beastie. Whenever I give him some food, he scarfs it down as if he’d never eaten before.” So why doesn’t he *scarve it down?

Well, when the word scarf appears as a verb, it comes from a completely different place. It is, in fact, a variation of the word scoff, which is in turn a slang word for “to eat voraciously” or “to devour hungrily.” This word made its appearance at the beginning of the 19th century and so it’s subject to the rules of Modern English grammar, not Old English. When you add the third-person verb ending of “s” to scoff, it becomes plain old scoffs, and in Modern English, the final sound takes on the voicing of the preceding sound, hence /’skɒfs/.

So there you have it! SLPs love scarves because they remind us about phonological processes that change words over time, processes that changed the pronunciation of plural and verb morphology, and even about the history of the English language.

Or maybe we just like the colors…

[1] I’m not given to engaging in political discussions but yesterday I drove past a gas station here in Ohio where the price of a gallon was $2.98, and less than a month ago I was listening to Republican pundits prophesying how gas prices would rocket if Obama were elected. They were so sure, certain, positive, and adamant about the truth of the assertion that there are only two conclusions to draw from their pontificating; either there were wrong (in which case they are no smarter than anyone who can scrawl an “X” on a ballot so not worth listening to) or they were lying (in which case they are lying bastards and will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.) If there’s a third alternative, let me know.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguistics scholar, argued for the use of dwarves, and all his works use that. But the venerable Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the words dwarfs as a plural, thus queering the pitch even further. Way back in 1862, Ernest Adams wrote The Elements of the English Language and noted that the forms dwarf/dwarves seemed to be in free variation, but that “in modern English the form in f is preferred” (p.39).

[3] Before someone smacks me over the head with very heavy copies of Beowulf or Caedmon’s Hymn, I am aware that since Old English was first spoken, there has been a Great Vowel Shift that changed the pronunciation of many words. So in my example of /’waɪf/ should really have had the long “eee” vowel, /i/ and been /’wif/ if we’re going to be more accurate. However, whether the vowel is /aɪ/ or /i/, the rule that changed /f/ and /s/ to /v/ and /z/ would still have applied.

Talk Like a Pirate and Be More Efficient

Ahoy, mateys! In case ye not be knowing, the 19th day of September be Talk Like A Pirate day, and ye be encouraged to bedazzle yer sentences with “avast ye” and “yo ho ho.”

From the linguistic point of view – and I am, of course, a Speech Pathologist so these things matter – talking like a pirate is a really good example of how we could make English easier by one simple change; remove all the morphological variants from the verb, to be, in a single stoke – or a single slash of the cutlass – we can consign these linguistic fossils to the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the conjugation table below for English versus Pirate English (PE):

Table of "to be" phrases

By replacing am/are/is with the single word be, we’ve both made the lexicon smaller and helped everyone learning the English language by removing all the complexities surrounding which form of to to use with which pronoun. [1]

For the negative forms, you have two choices – and both of them are equally simple!

1. NOT-insertion: PRON + “be” -> PRON + “not” + “be”

Example: He is drinking -> He not be drinking
You are not helping -> You not be helping

 2. AIN’T insertion: PRON + “be” -> PRON + “aint” + (“be”)

Example: He is leaving -> He ain’t be leaving

The question forms of the AIN’T insertion are also spectacularly easy:

Example: Ain’t we be needing to leave?
I ain’t be hungry now.

You’ll notice that I have marked the word be as optional in the AIN’T insertion rule because I think there are times that a pirate can get away with omitting it altogether – I may have to watch the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies a few more times and take more notes for some “field data.” So if Captain Jack Sparrow were to say, “You ain’t stealing my ship, ye scury knave,” that’d be perfectly OK.

Pirate ship aflame

“No more Disney cruises for me!”

Another construction popular with pirates is the future. English, as we know, doesn’t actually have a future tense as such but marks future events by using the verb will, the phrase “be going to,” or conditional verbs (shall, could, would, might etc.) But in Pirate English, it’s standard to use the contacted form of will, as in “You’ll be wanting to come aboard, will ye?” or “Ah, he’ll be swabbing the deck now.”

Note that the general form is as follows:

PRON + ‘ll + “be” + VERB+ing

The negative simply requires the insertion of not before the be; “You’ll not be coming aboard” or “We’ll not be dropping anchor here, me hearties.”

These basic syntactic forms – and there be others [2] – can be augmented by learning a simple phonological rules:

Final /ŋ/ -> /n/: Velar fronting

OK, so this can happen in other forms of English but it appears to be particularly marked in PE. The sentence “He’ll be drowning” would be pronounced;

/ˌhil bɪ ˈdɹɑʊnɪn/

Or “They’ll be swimming with the sharks” would be /ˌðeɪl bɪ ˈswɪmɪn wɪ ðə ˈʃaɹks/, which is typically written in pirate literature as “They’ll be swimmin’ wi’ the sharks.” Notice how “with” also undergoes a final consonant deletion to /wɪ/.

But enough of the theory; how about some mindless practice 😉 For all of us with a Facebook account, here’s how to change your Facebook page to use Pirate English:

1. Click on the drop-down arrow at the top right of your page next to Home and find “Account Settings.”
Facebook Account Settings

2. Click on the Edit button for the Language settings.
Facebook Language Settings

3. From the drop-down button select English (Pirate).
Facebook language English (Pirate)

4. Choose the Save Changes  button.
Facebook Save Changes

Ye now be sailin’ as a pirate!

There are some “useful” resources to help you become more linguistically proficient on Talk Like a Pirate Day, and here’s a selection.

(a) Post Like a Pirate
Lets you type in text and have it coverted to Pirate English. Not 100% accurate but a good start!

(b) Website PE Converter
Turn any website into its Pirate English equivalent. Funny stuff indeed!

(c) The Five A’s of Piratese
Th’ Pirate Guys offer a video on Piratese.

(d) A Pirate Dictionary
What it says… a list of piratey words.

(e) Teaching With Pirates
UK resources for pirate-based teaching activities.

[1] This phenomenon is the basis for “The Case for Ain’t” or “Why Using ‘Ain’t’ Ain’t So Bad.” When someone use ain’t instead of “am not,” “are not,” or “is not,” they are not being lazy but efficient! Just as using be instead of am/are/is simplifies the system, so does using ain’t. This view ain’t going to score me any points with the grammatical prescriptivists but that doesn’t stop my point from being accurate.

[2] One obvious example is that the first person singular possessive determiner, my, and the first person singular object pronoun, me, become one morphological form, /mɪ/. That’s apparent in sentences such as, “Avast ye, me hearties” or “Pass me me grog.” In the case of “you” becoming “ye” (/ji/) that’s just a phonetic change of the /u/ sound to an /i/.

“Baby Happy, Baby Sad.” Words, phrases and clauses

I was fully intending to follow up the previous article on Guitarists called Steve with Captain Jack Sparrow and the Anchoring Bias but some recent Amazon shopping has resulted in my putting the pirates on hold. When I got back from the CSUN 2012 conference in San Diego last weekend,  my new set of board books written by Leslie Patricelli had arrived. For those unfamiliar with her work, she has a great web site at and I heartily recommend taking a peek. The site includes some cute little games, one of which, called Feed the Baby, allows you to try to test out “yummy” versus “yucky” things. Unsurprisingly, trying to feed a toilet roll to the baby is not “yummy,” but rest assured my grandson thought this was funny and worth getting wrong! iPad folks will have to be disappointed because the games are flash-based but if you are using an Android device, or a Windows-based tablet [1], you’re good to go.

The set I bought includes Baby Happy Baby Sad, Yummy Yucky, Quiet Loud, Big Little, and No No Yes Yes. Apart from the latter, they’re clearly focused on contrastive adjectives. Physically, they’re big enough and chunky enough for toddlers to pick up and open, with clear, simply, and whimsical images of a baby doings “things.”

Leslie Patricelli books

Leslie Patricelli books

So let’s take a look at one of these excellent offerings; Baby Happy, Baby Sad. Each facing page has a picture of the baby in a state of happiness or sadness with the text “Baby happy” or “Baby sad” with the image.

Pictures of sad and happy baby

Baby SAD baby HAPPY

What’s interesting about the vocabulary of the book is that it consists of three words; baby, happy, and sad. All are relatively high frequency items for young kids [2] and so good for teaching to youngsters with AAC needs. And with just these three words you can work at both phrase level and clause level language.

As Patricelli presents the words in written form, the two-word utterence is a likely representative for the sentence “The baby is happy” with a Subject + Complement clause and an assumed Verb missing.

Tree diagram for the baby is happy

The baby is happy

On the other hand, if you use the words “happy baby,” you’re now talking about a single Noun Phrase that’s a single clause element.

Tree diagram for the happy baby

The happy baby

It may seem like a small difference but you are able to use three words in two sequences to teach two different syntactic structures.

Another nice design feature of the books is that there is plenty of space to add picture prompts for clients using AAC devices. Here’s an example below where I added Pixon™ symbols [3] to the pages so that a kiddo could read along.

Using pixons with the Baby Happy Baby Sad book

Pixon-supported reading

You could, of course, use any symbol set you wanted, but it’s always best to focus on prompting for high frequency core words. As a bonus, the last two pages of the book add an extra words to the set: more. This is a very high frequency word – almost as core as it gets. It’s one of the 25 first words used by toddlers as found in the 2003 paper by Banajee, DiCarlo, and Strickland [4] and appears in all word lists [5].

If you’re working with folks who have some motor issues, there’s a cheap and easy way to adapt a board book for easier page turning; binder clips.

Binder clips

Binder clips

Depending on the size of the board book and your client’s hand, you can choose the clip size that best suits. Here’s an example of different-sized clips on my Baby Happy Baby Sad book:

Binder clips as page turners

Binder clip page turners

The wire handles on the clip can be removed if you only want to use one of them as the actual turning lever. The page below shows a clip with one of the handles removed.

Binder clip with handle removed

Clip wire removed

The clips, even without the wire handles, can keep the pages apart, leaving enough space for little fingers to be able to flip the page. You can also attach the clips at the top, side, or bottom of pages, so there’s some flexibility in how you adapt the book.

So, by printing out a few symbols and sticking them in the book, along with using binder clips if a client needs an adaptation, this one book can be used to teach core vocabulary, Adj+Noun phrases, and Subject-Complement clause structure. And that’s without adding the obvious word turn to the mix, incredibly useful if you want your client to direct others to do the physical page turning.

[1] I can’t resist mentioning that I’m currently playing with a special edition Samsung 12″ tablet running Windows 8 that delegates to the Windows 8 Developers Conference in August 2010 were given by those nice people at Microsoft. The accessibility features of Windows 8 were also highlighted at last week’s CSUN 2012 conference in San Diego, and you can check these out at this link:

[2] They all appear in Raban, B. (1987). The spoken vocabulary of five-year old children.Reading,England: The Reading and Language Information Centre, and in Moe, A., Hopkins, C., & Rush, T. (1982). The vocabulary of first-grade children. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. Happy and sad are also a good pair of opposites that can be taught together. Sadly the Raban book is out of print but if you contact Bridie Raban directly at the University of Melbourne, she may be able to send you electronic information. If enough people ask, maybe she’ll publish it again as an eBook… 😉

[3] The Pixon™ Project Kit is available from the AAC Institute at

[4] Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C. and Stricklin, C. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 2, 67-73.

[5] I’m taking a risk by making such a sweeping statement but all the lists I have to hand have more in them, so if anyone can cite a list that doesn’t include it as a “common word,” I’d love the reference.

To Boldly Go Where No SLP Has Trekked Before

The build-up to the annual ASHA Convention still maintains a frisson of excitement. Being old and cynical, I typically divide things into one of two groups; “Things-That-Suck” and “Things-That-Don’t-Suck-Quite-As-Bad-As-They-Could.” I appreciate that this may seem a somewhat negative and jaded view of life, but on the upside it means that the soul-crushing feeling of misery that slams down on you when life inevitably throws you yet another curve ball can be dealt with philosophically with a gallic shrug and muttering “C’ést la vie” before you move on to your next disappointment.[1]

So, odd as it may seem, this downbeat opening is intended to whet your appetite [2] for joining in with the ASHA 2011 Scavenger Hunt during the conference on 17th-19th November. It is, as the blurb tells us, about “going places, doing challenges, and earning points.” And for the Tech Droolers, there’s even the chance of winning an iPad2 – be still your beating heart! Actually, I’d much prefer the Nikon camera or American Express $150 Gift card, which I’d use to buy a new Kindle Fire or put toward a new Cross “Year of the Dragon” red-laquered fountain pen.

Treasure map

Trekking for Treasure

You can follow the hunt using either the SCVNGR app available for iPhone or Android, or you can use SMS by texting 728647 to ASHA – although I just tried this and got the following message:

That keyword is either not valid or is tied to a trek that has not yet been activated. Please double-check your keyword and try again later.

So you can’t actually “sign up” yet via SMS and will have to remember to do it on the day. The problem is that I am the sort of guy who forgets and I rather wanted to sign up NOW because of that! Ah well, I’ll set an alarm…

Being cautious (or anal, depending on your choice of perspective) I took a peek at the terms of the contest, just to make sure I wasn’t signing away my first born – something I would have done happily when she was a teenager but that I can’t legally do now without her husband’s permission. These things are, of course, marketing promotions and not just the milk of human kindness, so I’m OK with the following terms;

By entering the Contest, you are opting in to the Contest and agree to accept additional contact from Contest Entities (only)… Entrants may terminate their participation at any time by sending a text message with the word “QUIT”, to short code 728647, which information will be sent to Recipient in the preliminary opt-in notice.

 So I’m pretty safe from being cyberstalked in perpetuity by, say, the Geico Gecko who, cute as he may be, would get very annoying if he tweeted me on a daily basis to buy insurance. For the record, Geico folks, I already HAVE insurance from you and I’m quite happy.

Geico gecko

Somebody's watching me!

 What really caught my eye was the use of the word treker and trekers to describe those of us who will be taking part. Why? Because it should be trekker and trekkers with a double “k.” The only reason for using treker or trekers would be if Geico, ASHA, or SCVNGR (the companies running the game) were to use a trademark after the word in order to claim it as a special mark for “people who use the SCVNGR software.”

The word trekker is derived from the Dutch word trek meaning “to travel by ox wagon, and was first used in this sense by Dutch settlers in South Africa back in the early 19th century. Prior to that, trek meant to draw, pull, or march. By the middle of the 19th century, it was common to refer to someone who made a trek as a trekker – not a *treker.

Boer Trek

Boer Trek - no Kirk

In another example of how morphology can provide us with new words, a small group of trekkers could be referred to as a trekkie, with the final /ɪ / sound acting as a diminutive. Of course, nowadays, the word trekkie refers to something totally different – a devotee of the Star Trek series.


Trekkies - double "k"

It’s interesting to note [3] that the derivation of trekkie in this modern sense is, in fact, different from that of the original. The sci-fi trekkie comes from the compound noun Star Trek and the morphological /ɪ / marker is not a diminutive but used in the sense of “one who is a fan of” – much like we describe someone who likes food as a foodie.

I checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English just in case I was hideously wrong (it happens – sometimes) but there are only two examples of treker in evidence, and both are trademarks for a utility vehicle. On the other hand, the word trekker scores a respectable 67 instances (not bad for a low-frequency noun) of which some examples are for another vehicle but also for travelers and Star Trek fans. [3]

Hopefully the next post will include details of the fabulous prize I’ve won after successfully completing the Scavenger Hunt. It’s every dude for himself on this one, so I don’t have to share with the other guys if I win (“OK, I get the iPad but you have visiting rights every other weekend, and I want app support payments.”) I suppose I should end by recommended you go to the Scavenger Hunt site and sign up – but seeing as that would reduce my odds of winning, I suggest you give it a miss!

[1] I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but the existentialist Albert Camus once said, “there is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” I’m paraphrasing a little here but the rationale for this is that if, as an existentialist, you believe that life has no meaning, no purpose, and is prone to being messed up by chaos and random events, then there is no difference between being dead or alive. If nothing matters, it makes sense to throw yourself under a bus, shoot yourself through the head, or choose one of an infinite number of ways to end it all. But – and here’s the good news – if you can come terms with the sheer futility of it all AND create some reason to live, no matter how trivial that might be, then you can actually get on with life in the knowledge that however bad things are, it’s better than being dead!

[2] No, it isn’t “wet your appetite.” The word whet means “sharpen” or “put an edge on,” whereas the word wet means “to make moist with a liquid.” The former comes from Old English hwettan and the latter from Old English wǽten – totally different 🙂 I suppose there’s the temptation to believe that it could be “wet your appetite” based on the notion that drooling makes your mouth wet, but that’s an after-the-fact rationale; an etymythology.

[3] I know, you’re curious… Trekkie scores 32 examples and all of them are for Star Trek fans, which means that the original meaning has to all intents and purposes been tossed into the historical junk pile. Nothing stays the same; not even words. C’ést la vie.

But Is It Right? The Perils of Parsing

I recently received an email from someone wanting to settle an argument with a teacher regarding the “correctness” of a sentence. Here’s the defendant:

The goal of this course is to assist the students master language skills

My correspondent thinks it’s erroneous. Read it a couple of times and see if you think it is “right” or “wrong.” Notice that I am giving free rein to the quotation marks because sometimes, when it comes to language, the edges are a little blurry and lovers of certainty become weak at the knees. And there’s also a big difference between being technically correct and pragmatically correct. I’m guessing that anyone who reads the sentence above can grasp its meaning. But if you’re a bit of a linguageek, is it “correct?”

I’m going to stick my neck out, go out on a limb, mix my metaphors, run this up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, and say that it’s wrong. Not egregiously so, but wrong.

saluting the flag

Anyone saluting?

OK, let’s see if I can explain what I think might be happening. I suggest that in this instance, the word “assist” is being used as a synonym for “help” but that it is NOT a direct synonym. There are some folks who would argue that there are no synonyms in the first place, otherwise why would we want to invent new words for the same old thing? I’m not of that particular persuasion but I do think that there are occasions where we can see where what we might think a synonym is appropriate it turns out to be a little slippery.

Let’s start by replacing assist with help, and you get the almost identical sentence;

The goal of this course is to help the students master language skills.

This would be perfectly fine and sounds OK. In fact, it actually sounds better, to my ears, than the original. Yes, I know – subjectivity is one of the horses pulling the stagecoach to sterile Nihilism on the road to the Complete Rejection of Reality, but bear with me a while longer.

In this situation, the word help is functioning as a CAUSATIVE VERB, which is, unsurprisingly, one that causes something to happen. Assist is also a causative verb, but unlike help, it doesn’t mark causality with a to (with help, you usually help someone to do something) but with with, you assist with not assist to. In other words, we should be comparing help to and assist with not the bare help and assist.

I took a look at the always exciting Corpus of Contemporary American ( to find examples of assist with and assist to and found that there were 438 examples of the former in the 40 million word sample as opposed to 31 of assist to. When you then do a quick eyeball analysis of the assist to examples, you find most are using assist as a noun in phrase such as “he gave the assist to the other player” and NOT as the verb.[1]

So, to summarize, I suspect the underlying error is to try to use assist as a synonym for help but that it is, in actuality, not a direct synonym when it is used as a causative verb.

I wait to hear from my original emailer who is presumably on the way to the English teacher’s door, armed with a print out of my reply and a deep desire to be proven correct. And even if the teacher continues to proclaim the accuracy of the sentence, I can take some comfort in knowing that this sort of thing still matters to some people, and that when it comes to the finer points of arguing about language, there’s still no app for that.

[1] Colleagues outside the US may be unfamiliar with the use of the word assist as a noun in the sporting worlds of baseball, basketball, football (not soccer), and hockey. An assist is where one player touches the ball (or puck) in play that then leads to a team-mate scoring. There are even assist rate statistics for players – a sort-of measure of how helpful you are, or how “team spirited” you can be. Beware the sporting prima donnas with low assist scores; they are only in it for themselves!