Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Visual interference

The first time you listen to this video, just listen. Don't look. This is to convince yourself that it really is not English (it is purported to be German, but I can't confirm that), because once you do look, you'll only hear English.

Monday, February 23, 2009


One of the funniest comics around has to be xkcd. Today's comic is titled "Simple" and references the simple English Wikipedia (be sure to mouse over to read the hidden text). I haven't done much editing on simple wikipeia, but I do a lot on simple wiktionary. Drop by and help out sometime.

Functions in the CGEL

One of the most useful and yet ignored principles in thinking about grammar is the consistent separation of categories and functions. When you can keep them distinct, analysis become much clearer. One grammar that is scrupulous in making the distinction is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It clearly sets out the various categories on pp. 22 & 23, which I've visualized in the first image below.
Unfortunately, there's no clear overview of all the functions. I've tried to bring them together in the following graphic. As usual, if you see anything wrong or missing, please let me know.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


From 1997 until 2003 I worked at Sakuragaoka Girls' Jr & Sr High School in Kita-ku, Tokyo. During the whole time I was there I put my lesson notes and plans online under the title "An EFL Teacher's Notebook". A number of sites still link to it though the server was taken offline years ago. Anyhow, if you're interested in seeing it, the Internet Archive has a copy of it. Probably best to check out the 2003 version.
Another in our irregular series of word lists. Today, all the irregular verbs that occur more than two times in the Corpus of Current American English. I believe that this list is complete, but if I've overlooked something, please let me know. The words are grouped by endings.
  1. be
  2. do
  3. have
  4. read
  5. spread
  6. lead
  7. misread
  8. tread
  9. reread
  10. re-read
  11. plead
  12. bleed
  13. breed
  14. feed
  15. speed
  16. shed
  17. wed
  18. forbid
  19. bid
  20. outbid
  21. underbid
  22. rid
  23. build
  24. rebuild
  25. hold
  26. uphold
  27. withhold
  28. behold
  29. understand
  30. stand
  31. misunderstand
  32. withstand
  33. spend
  34. send
  35. bend
  36. lend
  37. unbend
  38. find
  39. bind
  40. wind
  41. grind
  42. unwind
  43. unbind
  44. lade
  45. hide
  46. ride
  47. slide
  48. override
  49. stride
  50. flee
  51. see
  52. oversee
  53. foresee
  54. clothe
  55. lie
  56. underlie
  57. make
  58. take
  59. undertake
  60. shake
  61. mistake
  62. wake
  63. overtake
  64. forsake
  65. remake
  66. awake
  67. partake
  68. retake
  69. re-make
  70. betake
  71. strike
  72. come
  73. become
  74. overcome
  75. shine
  76. shoe
  77. rise
  78. arise
  79. lose
  80. choose
  81. write
  82. bite
  83. rewrite
  84. smite
  85. underwrite
  86. co-write
  87. overwrite
  88. re-write
  89. leave
  90. weave
  91. interweave
  92. heave
  93. shave
  94. give
  95. drive
  96. forgive
  97. dive
  98. strive
  99. shrive
  100. thrive
  101. prove
  102. freeze
  103. dig
  104. hang
  105. overhang
  106. bring
  107. sing
  108. string
  109. swing
  110. spring
  111. cling
  112. fling
  113. sting
  114. ring
  115. sling
  116. wring
  117. teach
  118. beseech
  119. catch
  120. break
  121. speak
  122. sneak
  123. stick
  124. seek
  125. think
  126. sink
  127. drink
  128. shrink
  129. stink
  130. slink
  131. work
  132. deal
  133. steal
  134. feel
  135. kneel
  136. spoil
  137. fall
  138. befall
  139. tell
  140. sell
  141. swell
  142. dwell
  143. foretell
  144. resell
  145. spell
  146. misspell
  147. spill
  148. dream
  149. swim
  150. mean
  151. lean
  152. begin
  153. spin
  154. win
  155. learn
  156. born
  157. burn
  158. run
  159. overrun
  160. outrun
  161. re-run
  162. over-run
  163. undo
  164. overdo
  165. outdo
  166. go
  167. forego
  168. forgo
  169. undergo
  170. leap
  171. keep
  172. sweep
  173. sleep
  174. creep
  175. weep
  176. hear
  177. wear
  178. tear
  179. bear
  180. swear
  181. overhear
  182. shear
  183. forbear
  184. beat
  185. eat
  186. bet
  187. meet
  188. get
  189. forget
  190. let
  191. set
  192. upset
  193. offset
  194. beset
  195. reset
  196. inset
  197. preset
  198. off-set
  199. wet
  200. fight
  201. light
  202. fit
  203. hit
  204. split
  205. slit
  206. knit
  207. spit
  208. sit
  209. quit
  210. shoot
  211. overshoot
  212. hurt
  213. cast
  214. broadcast
  215. forecast
  216. recast
  217. typecast
  218. telecast
  219. newscast
  220. miscast
  221. rebroadcast
  222. comcast
  223. podcast
  224. webcast
  225. cablecast
  226. re-cast
  227. hoist
  228. cost
  229. burst
  230. thrust
  231. bust
  232. cut
  233. undercut
  234. shut
  235. put
  236. input
  237. output
  238. draw
  239. withdraw
  240. redraw
  241. re-draw
  242. saw
  243. shew
  244. strew
  245. sew
  246. show
  247. blow
  248. mow
  249. know
  250. grow
  251. throw
  252. overthrow
  253. overgrow
  254. outgrow
  255. regrow
  256. over-grow
  257. sow
  258. lay
  259. slay
  260. overlay
  261. waylay
  262. underlay
  263. mislay
  264. pay
  265. repay
  266. underpay
  267. overpay
  268. say
  269. unsay
  270. gainsay
  271. fly
  272. buy

Friday, February 06, 2009

Thesaurusi (or how descriptivist can you go?)

Over the past month or so there has been an influx of new editors at the Simple English Wiktionary (and you're more than welcome to join us). One of them saw fit to add an entry for thesaurusi, after all, there was one on the English Wiktionary. I headed over there and sure enough, there it was.

You see how it got there don't you? If you look up thesaurus in a dictionary, it tells you that there are two possible plurals +es or +i. Now if you've never noticed that some English nouns that end in -us form their plurals by dropping the -us and replacing it with -i, it would make sense just to stick an -i on the end and voila!

I referred the obvious mistake for deletion, but lo and behold, thesaurusi is actually out there, and not just in the nescient scribblings of some teenage facebook adict.
  • 1965, Pierre A. Rinfret, “Changing Population and Changing Demand”, Financial Analysts Journal, Vol. 17 No. 5, page 75:
    In the closing weeks of 1959 and the early weeks of 1960, book dealers must have had a bonanza in selling thesaurusi.
  • 1999, Lynn Tooma et al., Exploring the Bible, ISBN 0884894649, page 49:
    Gather a variety of dictionaries and thesaurusi written for middle-school students as well as adults.
  • 2004, Vincent Mary, “MeSH and Specialized Terminologies”, in MedInfo 2004, ISBN 1586034448, page 530:
    UMLS is an integration of several thesaurusi.
A discussion ensued and it was decided to keep it with the following entry:
"(rare, considered nonstandard) Misconstruction of thesauruses, plural form of thesaurus."
At the SEWikt, we've put a redirect to thesauri and left it at that. But don't be surprised if one dark night, just when you least expect it, you stumble across alumnusi, stimulusi, fungusi, nucleusi, cactusi or one of their ilk and you find yourself running screaming down the street, your descriptivist sensibilities flapping behind you in tatters.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Countability and unmarked plurals

Recently, I've run into a few situations that have called for some clarification of what it means for a noun to be countable. You may be curious about just where I run into these things. Do people buttonhole me at parties? Grill me at conferences? Stop me on the street? Sadly, no. Most often these issues come up during some sort of net-mediated interactions.

Anyhow, one particularly observant and self-aware correspondent writes:
"One of the thrills of creating material for students is discovering new areas of my own lack of knowledge. When designing a worksheet on countable and uncountable terms, my examples didn't really work out right.

I had neatly laid out three zones on the sheet: countable, uncountable and those that can be either (like paper and hair), and assigned examples of each from the students' vocabulary lists.

The nouns 'sheep' and 'fish' are not given 's' or 'es' when applied to plural use (in North American English), so I've simply referred to them as 'uncountable' in the past, and placed them into the uncountable zone. But almost instantly, I realized they didn't fit the patterns I was trying to illustrate.

There might be 'many sheep' in the field, but there darn sure aren't 'very much sheep', to my ear anyhow. There are 'a few fish' in the tank, but not 'a little fish'. These seem to act stubbornly as countable categories.

Which tells me that some noun categories are countable, but their labels (like fish and sheep) just don't get a plural form adjustment.

What are the correct terms and categories for these items? What else am I missing?"
Of course, he's quite right that countability of nouns is best looked at by considering the determiners they will allow rather than their morphology. Nouns like sheep simply have a plural form that is identical in shape to their singular form. These are often referred to as unmarked plurals. An analogy with verbs would be something like put, for which the plain form, plain present tense, past tense, and past participle all share a shape. Most verbs have past tense forms and past participle forms that share a shape (shape here encompasses both spelling and pronunciation).

Another issue is that most nouns have both countable and uncountable senses, though typically one sense dominates. Almost all "uncountable" nouns have a plural sense indicating types (e.g., Belgium produces many fine beers.)

There are few nouns that are singular only. I once believed that equipment was one, but I was mistaken. The following are a few that I can think of, but feel free to prove me wrong:
  • crockery, footwear, perseverance, nonsense
  • italics, linguistics, mumps, news
There are also a few plural only nouns. I think I got these examples from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, though I don't honestly recall.
  • belongings, clothes, genitals, pants, remains
  • cattle, police, vermin
In some language like Chinese, it is my understanding that no basic nouns are countable. All must be identified with a counter (e.g., two cups of water, one rod of pencil, three sheets of cookie).

Finally, it's interesting to note that even among languages that make a countable/uncountable distinction, there is little agreement on what is counted (again, examples may be from the CGEL or perhaps from Pinker's The Stuff of Thought).
  • spaghetti: countable in Italian but not in English
  • hair: countable in French but not in English
  • peas: now countable in English, but previously uncountable pease
Indeed, we can look at almost anything both ways:
  • opinions, advice
  • stories, fiction
  • facts, knowledge
  • holes, space
  • songs, music
  • naps, sleep
  • lies, bullshit