Archives for category: Language

I like prepositions. I like how they can completely change the meaning of a verb. I know, I should get out more, but that’s another story. Take the verb to give, for example. Or, I give you the word to take – sorry, I digress, more verbal plasticine.

Look at the ways that ‘give’ can be changed, depending on the language, and the country using the language:

Give in – as in to concede, or, in fact, to give up.

Give over – as in the English for stop, or to pour scorn on something. ‘Ah, give over Nancy, that’s nonsense.’

Give out – as in to distribute. Interestingly, in Irish – and not in any other English-speaking country in my experience – this can also mean to complain. ‘Stop giving out Meredith, look on the plus side for a minute.’

Give off – as in to project or issue. Also, equally interestingly to my nerdy mind – used by younger Irish people as a variant of the complaining flavour attributed to give off. ‘Dad, stop giving off, I’ve done my homework.’

Now that I think about it some more, these are not true prepositions, since they don’t indicate location or position, as in ‘on the house, in the house, to the house, from the house.’ Need to ponder this one some more.

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When I was a kid, you sneezed into your handkerchief or a tissue. No-one seems to have a handkerchief any more. We tell our kids to ‘sneeze into your elbow’, the thinking being, I suppose, that if you sneeze into your hands it makes it easier for the germs to spread.

Who can actually sneeze into their elbow anyway? Your elbow, which I’m randomly realising as I write this is an anagram of below, is on the outside of your arm. You can’t actually sneeze into it.

So for now I’m all about ‘sneeze into your crook’. Not a crook, or any other hoodlum, mind you. The crook of your arm, the inside bit that’s created when you bend the arm at the elbow. It’s an odd word I know, but it makes more sense and is much more natural.

You heard it here first: sneeze into your crook.

If you’re reading this post pretty much as soon as it’s been published, then I send you a heartfelt and well timed Happy New Year. If you’ve come to it later, by a different route, don’t click away just yet.

I have an observation to make. In England we tend to wish people Happy Christmas slightly before Christmas, and on Christmas Day, and not usually after. We also say Happy New Year on the stroke of midnight going into the first of January, and for a week or two afterwards. Never before.

In Ireland, you can be wished a Happy New Year before the new year starts.

In some quarters this would be thought of as slightly odd, unlucky even. ‘I haven’t got there yet, but thanks, I think.’

The Irish for December is Nollaig, which also means Christmas, so you’ll receive Christmas greetings from the first of the month, which is nice. Furthermore, in the Emerald Isle it’s not considered out of the ordinary to wish folk Happy Christmas slightly after the big day, or Happy New Year slightly before the other big day.

I consider it all part of the Irish way of friendliness, chattiness and welcomingness.

When to use farther and when to use further? Tricky one. Farther seems a bit more antiquated to me, with most people deferring to more common, if less logical further.

It turns out that both are fine, though for me you can justify farther when you use it with distance. Saturn is farther from the earth than Jupiter, for example.

I made a quick check of my 600-blog posts, for kicks and giggles, and I use the word farther twice in all of them. A pretty rare occurrence, then, among about 150,000 words. In the one instance I say ‘rippling out your original request in ever farther…’ In the other I’m saying ‘When you’ve got the word ‘have’ in there, it throws it ‘back’ farther to the ‘u’ word.’ Pretty opaque sentences when taken out of context, I know.

Yet both of these are distance-related you could say, rather than the figurative-related, as in ‘I could go further, but I won’t.’

“I think we’ve lost them. He’s gone and got cold feet on it. The sale is gone.”

When someone gets cold feet, they have second thoughts about making an important decision, and this fear, uncertainty or dread invariably leads to a no decision, or another form of decision that’s not in our favour.

I was thinking recently about what a strange phrase, or figure of speech, this is. When we have cold feet in real life, it’s because we’ve been too static, for too long in cold weather, and the only thing we can do is move, either jumping or stamping on the spot or moving to a warmer place.

In the figurative sense of cold feet, moving is exactly what they’re not doing. They’re simply going to get colder on a decision in your favour, until frostbite sets in.

Perhaps ‘slow feet’ is a better way to describe a loss of momentum to a decision-maker’s buying or thought processes. Not as catchy, but more helpful I think.

There is a skill to editing. A different skill to writing I think. Where writing is more creative and subject to emotional highs and lows, editing seems to be on an even keel, more clinical.

Sometimes I prefer writing. The chance to take a blank canvas and turn it into something unique that moves, influences or informs people – possibly – is one that I take up three times a week on this blog.

Other times I like to edit. You can get through more material when you’re editing, especially if the writing is good and it sits within a sound structure and flow. It can be a slog to create something, heavy going, but then I suppose it can be the same when you’re having to do a major edit or, worse still, a re-draft.

Editing your own work is quite a challenge, particularly if it comes right after you’ve finished writing. You’re so close to the content that sometimes you forget you’re copy editing and you get taken along by the narrative. What you should be doing is checking every single word for appropriateness, spelling, typos and punctuation accuracy, as well as the sense and flow of what you’re reading. It’s hard to maintain that dispassionate distance from something you created. It’s easier to do that when it’s someone else’s work.

Copy editing is draining. You need to maintain a very high level of concentration, frequently circling back through what you’re editing to make sure you’re consistent in how you approach every instance of a heading, indentation, number, quotation or other conventions. In contrast, when you’re writing and it’s going well, it can feel like you’re not concentrating at all. The writing is flowing as fast as you can type, and you’re in some kind of zen-inspired zone, a passenger to the words flowing from your head through to your fingertips.

Editing your own work is not ideal. The role should really belong to someone else, unless you can take a big break after the creative phase and approach it as more of a stranger. This is less important when you’re blogging, as you can always go back and make a change after publication. When you’re publishing something final, however, like a brochure or a book, it’s a different story – literally.

Some folks use short-hand to convey that something was too long for them to read it. They simply write TL;DR, as in too long, didn’t read. It’s often levelled at overly long blog posts and the like, something you could never say about this blog.

I was recommended to subscribe to Tim Ferriss’ emails by a friend some months ago. He’s very well-known as the creative force behind the 4-Hour Work Week, Tools of Titans and so on. His emails on interesting stuff he’s coming across and recommendations for life improvement are really good. I’d been saving a few of his emails to read in one go, because they featured podcasts of TV interviews he’d done with people I admired.

The other day I got the chance to listen to the podcasts. Except that I didn’t. They were so long! Each podcast was at least an hour, comprising very long pre-ambles and sponsor messages before you get into a conversation that seemed to last forever. I tried clicking into later parts of the podcasts, but it didn’t work and I ended up deleting them all.

I’m sure the content was excellent, but I didn’t have the time to wade through them. Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience, since I’ve not got my working week down to the stage where I’m only doing 4 hours and have oodles of time to spare. I suppose I could have had the interviews playing in the background while I was working, but then I wouldn’t really have been paying attention.

For me it was a case of TL;DL – too long, didn’t listen. A missed opportunity, for me and the originator.

These days when you ask an English person how they are, you still hear something along the lines of ‘Not too bad, can’t complain.’ I don’t think you hear it from the younger generations.

When I use the phrase I often add the comment, ‘much as I’d like to’, with what I imagine is a dry, worldly smile. I probably look like I’m in pain, which I guess would give me something to complain about.

For a lot of us English folk though, being ready to complain seems to be our default position. I guess that’s why we attract the ‘whingeing poms’ sobriquet. The phrase- can’t complain, not wingeing poms – is a pretty old one, so perhaps it originated from a time when, for most people, actually there was quite a lot to complain about. It also reminds me of the joke about the elderly Jewish gentleman in hospital. ‘Are you comfortable?’ the nurse asks. ‘I make a living’, he replies. He might as well have said ‘can’t complain’.

It is, I suppose, an example of using a negative phrase to reinforce a positive sentiment. I used to date a lady from the US who when she saw a handsome man would whisper to me ‘not too shabby…’

To give another example, my wife hates it when I describe a meal as ‘not bad’, ‘not too bad’ or even ‘not bad at all’. She doesn’t accept my protestations that they are all complimentary, as dictated by the tone I use to say them. To us English folk, not bad is good, not too bad is very good and not bad at all is very good indeed.

 

“That was easy. Like taking candy from a baby.”

It’s an interesting simile, obviously originating in the US, since in European English we would say ‘sweets’.

It’s interesting when you think about how it originated. ‘Like stealing or taking candy from a baby’. A really easy thing to do for sure, but who would do that? Who is so weak that they feel they can take something from someone over whom they have such an overpowering advantage? And why take what is not rightfully ours?

We need a new simile to describe something really easy, something that requires the minimum of effort. How about:

  • Getting burnt in the sun
  • Opening a letter
  • Smiling
  • Paying someone a compliment
  • Scoring in an open goal from a metre out

OK, so they’re not world-class, but they all convey the positive, rather than the negative.

One of the quainter English phrases is to ‘to and fro’, where fro is an old contraction of from. You can use the term ‘physically’, as in to go to and fro London, although I admit there’s the insertion of the verb ‘to go’ there. You can also use it figuratively, as in ‘I need to to and fro on this subject before I can make a decision I’m happy with’.

That’s fine, but how do you use the term in the past tense? Imperfect tense is OK – as in I was to-ing and fro-ing – although to hyphenate or not is slightly problematic. But what about the simple past tense, as in I did something? Here are some options, to my mind:

  • I to-ed and fro-ed
  • I to’d and fro’d
  • I went to and fro
  • I to and fro-ed

I’m not sure what feels right. Maybe the answer is context: if you mean it physically, then maybe use the verb to go with it. If your intent is mental, maybe it’s to-ed and fro-ed. Who knows, but this is the type of thing I think about and it’s one of very many small pockets of the language that I don’t have an answer for.