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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Grammar and Spelling

Being a language teacher, I am obviously interested in grammar. I know that the word grammar chills the blood of many people, as they entertain thoughts of struggling with grammar in school. But honestly, vocabulary alone is not enough to allow us to communicate our thoughts so that others can comprehend them. We cannot just string words together with no order. To quote William B. Bradshaw, "Grammar, regardless of the country or the language, is the foundation for communication — the better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message's intent and meaning. That is what communication is all about."

This is particularly true in writing, where the clarifying impact of vocal intonation is missing. Let me demonstrate....

Lets Eat Grandma

I'm sure that Grandma would prefer clearer communication that would help her avoid being the victim of cannibalism. There would have been no problem when the suggestion of eating was said aloud, but the written form needs to reflect that pause, hence the comma.

This next one on punctuation is a bit more subtle.
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Why, Oh Why!

Why Oh Why

Do you ever look at situations in life and wonder "why?" If so, there is sometimes no good answer to your question, or else the answer is painfully obvious. Today's blog post is a combination of parts of an e-mail I received recently with a list of "why?" questions and a blog post I did back in January 2008. If you know the real answer to any of the less obvious questions, please post them in the comments.

Why do drug stores and supermarkets make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while (currently) healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front?

Why do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries, and a diet coke?

Why do banks leave vault doors open and then chain the pens to the counters?

Why do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in our driveways and put our useless junk in the garage?

Why does the sun lighten our hair, but darkens our skin?

Why can't women put on mascara with their mouth closed?

Why don't you ever see the headline "Psychic Wins Lottery"?

Why is it that doctors and attorneys call what they do a "practice"?

Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?
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Tongue Twisters

Being a language teacher, I enjoy having fun with language. Recently in one of my classes, something came up about tongue twisters. I thought I'd post a few of my favorites today in English, and then for those who are interested in several fun ones in French and German.

(These are the most fun when you try to pronounce them out loud, saying the shorter ones several times.)

Mr. See owned a saw. And Mr. Soar owned a seesaw. Now, See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw before Soar saw See, which made Soar sore. Had Soar seen See's saw before See sawed Soar's seesaw, See's saw would not have sawed Soar's seesaw. So See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw. But it was sad to see Soar so sore just because See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers?
If Peter Piper Picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Which wristwatches are Swiss wristwatches?

Unique New York

Toy Boat


Now let's try a some in French where tongue twisters are called des virelangues = tongue turners. I will translate them into English.
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There’s a Word for That?!


Being a teacher of both French and German has unique challenges, but also distinct advantages. I tell my students that the English language came about in the following way — some Angles and Saxons were living in what is now England and put a form of German into a bag; the Normans invaded, conquered, and added a form of French to the bag; it all got shaken up over time, and out came English. That's overly simplified, of course, and I do go over the society structure that explains why certain categories of words are Germanic and others are more French. It helps my students to see how we can have so many words in our language that resemble either the French or German words they are learning.

The blending of those two languages is what helps to give English the breadth and depth of verbal possibilities. Exactly how large is our English vocabulary? Here's some information from the site of the Oxford Dictionaries:

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.... This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

You would think that, with a vocabulary that large, we would have ways to express just about anything. Through the years the English language has borrowed many words that add a certain je ne sais quoi to our vocabulary. Some borrowings are used well, and others, unfortunately aren't. I cringe every time I hear various faux pas.

An expression that many love to use is coup de grâce, which literally means "a blow of mercy," that kindly ends suffering. In essence it means "a mercy killing." The correct pronunciation is basically /coo-duh-grahs/. (Please note that the p at the end of coup is silent and the c in grâce is pronounced like an s.) When (mis)pronounced /coop-duh-grahs/ it means "a cup of mercy." When (mis)pronounced /coo-duh-grah/ it means "a blow of fat" (gras, with a silent s). And a merciless killing happens each time a person says /coup-duh-grah/, which is "a cup of fat"!

Ok, I know that I'm a French teacher and that most listeners don't catch those subtle nuances, but still! Why use a word, only to misuse it?! I actually have to admit a bit of Schadenfreude (joy at someone else's misfortune) when I hear someone trying to impress others by using coup de grâce, only to unwittingly hit them with a cup of fat.

Recently my dear wife sent me a link to a site with 38 Wonderful Foreign Words We Could Use in English on mentalfloss.com. Some of the meanings and uses of the words were humorous, and others I could have happily lived out the rest of my days without ever seeing. I decided to do some websearching to see what other words I could find. The more I found, the more I knew I wanted that to be the topic for this week.

I'm posting my favorites in alphabetical order. Some of the expressions give fascinating glimpses into the culture of the people who speak that language. It's strange to think that some ideas are important enough they would have a succinct way of expressing them! I hope you enjoy at least some of these as much as I did.

Age-tori (Japanese)
To look worse after getting a haircut

Appel du vide (French)
It is literally "the call of the void." It's the expression used to describe the instinctive urge to jump from high places, for example when close to the edge of a cliff or atop the Eiffel Tower.

Backpfeifengesicht (German)
A face badly in need of a fist

Betsubara (Japanese)
Loosely translates to "extra stomach." It is generally used to describe a woman who always has room for dessert.
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Positively Negative


Are negative people doing their best (worst?) to rain on your parade? I have to admit that there are many things going on in life in today's world that make it easy for those who want to to feed their negativity. I hope you, dear reader, are not one whose blood type is "Be Negative!" Today's iv is humor, all of which contains some aspect of negativity that I hope you'll find positively humorous. I'll start off with one of my favorites about double negatives.

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