Category Archives: Grammar

The Grammarians – a novel

There’s a new novel out, published earlier this month, that will probably appeal to glossophiles (and Glosso-philes) everywhere. Describing itself, as books can do proverbially these days, the novel by best-selling author Cathleen Schine “celebrates the beauty, mischief, and occasional treachery of language.” Continue reading

Forever blowing bubbles

Originally posted in May 2011.

“For ever”: these two words, when used together, are so poetic and so laden with meaning. In their definitiveness they conjure up the most extreme notions and emotions of the human condition: eternities of love, of despair, of hope, of estrangement, of desire, of determination, of life itself and even the hereafter. The words can’t be used lightly, whether they’re whispered or declared in the context of a single mortal lifespan or the unfathomable eternity of the universe; their meaning carries a certain gravitas in terms of time and intention. “I will stay here for ever” has no ambiguity about it. The OED defines the expression “for ever” as “for all future time” – or, more colloquially, “for a long time”. But put those two little words together, and here’s where the Americans and the Brits part company. Continue reading

Oliver’s army is on its way

Originally posted in April 2011.

***

Elvis Costello’s lyrics are sometimes exquisite. I’ve been listening to them for years, since I was a teenager. But it was only this morning, sitting in Riverside Park and listening to my iPod, that I realized for the first time something curious about the chorus of one of his songs: that he uses the same collective noun with two different verb forms, one after the other:

Oliver’s army is here to stay
Oliver’s army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today

Unlike Americans, who tend to use verbs only in the singular form when the subject is a collective noun (“the crowd is screaming loudly”), Brits use collective nouns followed by either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context. It’s a matter of emphasis and importance: whether the group is acting as a whole or whether the group’s individual members are important to the meaning of the sentence determines how it is formed. “The student class are causing unease in the school, given the range of learning differences amongst the scholars,” versus, “the student class is the most successful in the school’s history”. However, as a rule*, in both England and America, national sports teams are always treated as a plural noun: “England are beating all the odds and scoring their way to victory.”

So, given Costello’s use of two simple words, perhaps he’s conveying two disarming messages. “Oliver’s army is here to stay”: the army of his imagination (representing “a vision of mercenary and imperial armies around the world”) has no internal doubts or conflicts about its purpose, and it has no intention of leaving or disbanding. But as the lyrics’ author observed when asked about writing his song, ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing’. “Oliver’s army are on their way”: The army is made up of many young souls, all of whom are marching into battle …

The song’s verses are worth reading, to get a sense of Costello’s brilliance not just as a musician but as a lyricist and poet.

* with some notable exceptions

In the news: March 7

 

Recent stories in the news about words, grammar, and language — with an emphasis this month on grammar, and a couple of politicians getting themselves into hot water with their words  … Continue reading

Best grammar blogs & podcasts on National Grammar Day

A grammar of the English tongue, with notes, Giving the Grounds and Reason of Grammar in General. … For the Use of the Schools Of Great Britain and Ireland. 1712. Wikimedia Commons

“Grammar do’s all the Art and Knowledge teach, According to the Use of every Speech … ” (1712)

It’s National Grammar Day! What better way to celebrate than to take a journey through the blogs, podcasts and tables* of grammar and language-usage land. A lot of the old familiar grammar and usage blogs — like so many of the planet’s blogs — have sadly fallen by the proverbial wayside. However, others pop up, with new, fresh voices, and as long as Earthlings continue to write and talk, there will be people writing and talking about how we do just that. Here’s a guide to some of the most lively and articulate grammar and usage commentators whom you can read, listen to — or even meet on the street … Continue reading

In the news (Nov 26), including a list of best grammar blogs

Ellen Jovin / Facebook

In the news this past week: a grammar guru solves the world’s grammar problems on the streets of New York City; Jonathan Franzen gets Twitter’s knickers in a twist with his rules for aspiring writers; how Calvin Harris has managed to keep his accent; and Glosso is listed among 5 best blogs for language learning …  Continue reading