Friday, December 24, 2010

A schadenfreudian slip?

Christmas is the 'season of good will to all men', and I had really meant to leave the pedants to their roast turkey, but this took the biscuit. By the time I saw it however, it was too late to post a counter-comment, so 'Have Blog Will Speak Out'. I'm talking of a comment to an article by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Christopher Hitchens, his hero for 2010, under the 'Comment is Free' rubric at the Guardian. Both Dawkins and Hitchens are committed atheists and Dawkins had written:

He [Hitchens] laughs off the spiritual vultures eager for a death-bed conversion, and dismisses – but with unfailingly gracious courtesy – the many schadenfreudian prayers for his recovery

Now don't worry, I'm not going to get into an atheism versus religion debate, this is not the place. But my hackles were raised when I saw this comment by a certain GoloMannFan (my emphasis):

Your grotesque offences against both the English and German languages aside, is there any actual evidence that Schadenfreude is the motive for such prayers? You know, evidence. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. You bang on about it often enough.

OK, I get the impression GoloMannFan doesn't have much time for Dawkins. That's fair enough, even some atheists don't like Dawkins's proselytising very much, but why bring his language into it (I assume he doesn't like the word schadenfreudian). As soon as you see the words: 'grotesque offences against ... [the] English ... language ...', you know that they're going to be nothing of the sort.

Lots of sex please, we're British. But perhaps we should just disguise it a little.

Annotated discussion and quiz related to various types of (mostly slightly naughty) humour.

I would like to do a post in the next couple of days about pantomime, commonly called panto, a quintessentially British theatrical tradition which takes place at Christmas time. Panto is often described as including risqué double entendre and innuendo, which are specific types of humour. Before we look at pantomime itself, I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the different types of humour we might expect to meet in traditional pantomime.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, sex became somewhat of a taboo subject among ‘polite’ society. This attitude lasted well into the twentieth century, summed up in the title of the 1971 London musical, ‘No sex please, we’re British’. This prudishness didn’t however, stop ‘impolite society’ having a good laugh at sex, mainly in Music Hall, a type of popular variety theatre which mixed comedy, song and dance, and acts such as magicians and acrobats.

Perhaps for this reason, there has been a long tradition in British comedy of alluding to sex in indirect ways, such as double entendre and innuendo. So now let’s look at some of the terms involved:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas cracker joke matching quiz

What lies in a pram and wobbles?
A jelly-baby ?
Why did the tomato blush?
Because it saw the salad dressing ?
How do you hire a horse?
Stand it on four bricks ?

Christmas cracker jokes are notoriously bad, relying heavily on awful puns (word play). Mouse over the ? above for explanations.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two Christmas cracker quizzes

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Two gapfill quizzes on the subject of Christmas crackers

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I wonder if people will still say shall in the future.

An annotated grammatical investigation into the uses of shall
Quiz 1 - Future forms
Quiz 2 - Future expressions
Quiz 3 - Advanced question tags

One thing about this blogging lark, especially when you blog about language, is that you start noticing the words and structures you've used. I was preparing some notes on conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs the other day, when I noticed I had written:

Profits have been down this year. Consequently, we shall have to cut back on costs.

And I wondered why I had written 'shall' and not 'will'?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prescribers and describers - the strange case of the pedantic pronoun

Annotated article and 'singular they' quiz

Many famous newspapers and magazines have their own style guides, to make sure that there is some consistency in grammar and punctuation, and in how they refer to various aspects of the news. Some of them, such as the Economist, are freely available on the web.

However, many newspapers in the United States don't have their own guides, but use that of the Associated Press (AP). This makes the AP guide very influential, especially amongst journalists. There's a website, Newsroom 101, where you can do quizzes based on the AP rules, and I've been having fun doing some of them. The majority of AP rules are eminently sensible and in fact quite useful, but there are a few which I find quite weird, and which can result in language I find rather unnatural. Nonetheless, I'm sort of getting the hang of how they think.

I've also recently discovered a grammar and usage website called EnglishPlus, which seems to be mainly aimed at American college students and university entrants. If a bit spartan, the entries are refreshingly clear and most of them are completely uncontroversial. But in a few areas where there might be some room for debate, such as the use of object pronouns with the verb to be and the use of singular 'they' (see below), EnglishPlus doesn't even admit different ways of doing things might exist. They simply prescribe what is correct or incorrect, even if that leaves most of us speaking 'incorrect' English.

Playing around with pronouns, and a quiz

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Compare with or compare to

In a recent post, I said I was surprised '... that somebody would want to compare language to maths.' Looking back at that sentence later, I thought, 'Hang on. Don't we usually compare something with something, not to something?' But then I remembered Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?' and the Sinead O'Connor hit 'Nothing compares 2 U' (to you); so I reckoned I was in good company. But what exactly are the rules as to when to use 'with' and when to use 'to'?

Basic rules and a quiz

Full verb - compare with

We use compare with when we examine two things to see what their similarities or differences are:
  • The police compared the signature on the stolen credit card with that of the original owner.
  • So, let's compare Sinead O'Connor's version with Prince's. How do they stack up?
We also use compare with when we might use a comparative structure:
  • Her last album doesn't compare with her previous one. (It's not as good as)
  • When we compare our new house with our old one, this one has much more space. (It's bigger)

Full verb - compare to

We use compare to when we find a similarity between two things, even though they might really be quite different from each other. This is often metaphorical:
  • The critics compared his work to that of Martin Amis.
  • Scientists sometimes compare the human brain to a computer.
    (American Heritage Dictionary)
We could often use the word like in these circumstances. To paraphrase Shakespeare and O'Connor:
  • Shall I say you are like a Summer's day?
  • There is nothing (else) like you.

In gerund and present participle clauses

The same distinction would seem to apply as with full verbs, as these two examples from The Guardian show:
  • Why do critics insist on comparing one artist with another?
    = making a comparison between one artist and another
  • Wild claims comparing YouTube to TV misunderstand what TV is and the reasons why people watch it
    = saying YouTube is like TV

In past participle clauses - usually interchangeable

Compared with and compared to are often interchangeable, for example when we are making a general comparison, especially in participle clauses:
  • This road is quite busy compared with/to yours
    (Cambridge Online Dictionary)
  • Standards in health care have improved enormously compared with/to 40 years ago
    (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)
  • Compared with/to our old house, this one has more space.


As a general rule then, it's probably safer to use compare with, except where you are pointing out the similarity of something to something else, where you could use a construction with like instead of compare. Then use compare to.

Quiz - In each group of three sentences, one definitely takes 'to', one definitely takes 'with', and the third can take either (in my judgement). Use the selectors to choose which takes what.

1a.Your garden is so beautiful compared mine.
1b.There are far more flowers in it, and it's much better designed, when you compare it mine.
1c.I hear the local newspaper has compared it the famous garden at Sissinghurst.
2a.Some people have compared the 2008 crisis the Great Depression of the thirties.
2b.But if we compare now then, unemployment and inflation have been much lower.
2c.And the world economic system is very different, compared then.
3a.The snow has come early this year, compared last year.
3b.The newspapers are already comparing it that really cold winter of 2005.
3c.But we don't have enough statistics to compare it 2005 yet. It's only November.
4a.Jenny is very successful, compared her brother.
4b.Yes. Compared him, she has a lot more money and a much better job.
4c.Mum compares her her aunt Susan, you know, the one who started her own business and became a millionaire.