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Webinar: A linguist’s guide to grammar

What you learned in English class will help you with syntax about as much as what you learned in driving lessons will help you with mechanics—you get by fine until one day you find yourself stopped in the middle of a sentence with smoke coming out from under the hood. In this webinar, we’re going to learn how to take apart sentences the way a mechanic takes apart an engine.

The key learning objectives of this webinar are to

  • diagram sentences the way linguists do—accurately and elegantly,
  • learn about the building blocks of syntax,
  • clear up some common misunderstandings about verbs, nouns, and pronouns, and
  • dismantle and fix some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to apply “proper grammar.”

Date: Thursday, April 27
Time: 2 p.m., EDT / 11 a.m., PDT
Length: 1.5 hours
Language: English
Member price: $56.25
Non-Member price: $75

Register HERE

james_harbeck
James Harbeck is a linguist, editor, and well-known writer and speaker on language. His articles appear regularly on websites such as TheWeek.com and BBC.com as well as on his own blog, Sesquiotica.

Is it art? Well, how does it feel?

Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2016

Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2016

By James Harbeck

There has been much discussion of the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. I have no interest in weighing in on whether his work is Nobel quality—I won’t pretend to understand the judges’ criteria—but I do have some thoughts on the question of whether a songwriter is even eligible to be awarded the prize.

There is no Nobel Prize in music, or in songwriting. So we can’t say that he should be considered for a different category unless you think songwriting is more appropriate to the Peace Prize, or perhaps to Economics. No, if he’s getting a prize, Literature is it. The question is whether songs qualify as literature—whether, to be frank, they’re good enough, or whether they’re “just songs.” There’s something of a privileged-genre attitude, a white-marble image of literature (that is, the truly worthy kind of text) as being cool prose in dry books that silently dissects humanity’s problems, not in the noise of a musical performance.

This has about as much basis as the white-marble image of Greek statuary, which, we now know, was originally painted bright colours. We ought to remember that the novel, as such, has only existed for a few centuries. Narrative texts pretending to any literary merit were expected to be written in verse until early modern times. And why was that? Because the written literature was, originally, the lyrics of songs and chants and declamations to music. The vaunted Greek drama had not one word that was flatly spoken. The psalms of the Bible were for singing. Beowulf was incomplete without a harp to aid the recitation. The fact that we have peeled the spoken from the sung, and ultimately the silently read from the spoken, does not have any bearing on the human insight conveyed in the words. Poetry has been deemed worthy of the Nobel: Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, and Wole Soyinka have all won it, and it is terrible to think that they might have been ineligible if they had, like Leonard Cohen, been driven by economics to set their poetry to music. (more…)

Wordplay: The old “ye olde”

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.Wordplay: The old "ye olde"

If you want to make something look, y’know, old and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And, of course, there are all these plain old olde things.

That’s where we crank up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in “ye olde candy shoppe.” And “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Only not every ye has the same meaning, nor is every occurrence of it an actual word. The ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y. (more…)

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”

The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.

What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison). (more…)

Wordplay: Contronyms: To sanction or to sanction?

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes. (more…)

Wordplay: Because language

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.

Really?

Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because. (more…)

Wordplay: When intransitives go transitive

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

We’ve all learned that there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitives take a direct object—“I fry an egg”—and intransitives don’t—“My stomach aches.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s not actually quite right.

For one thing, there are also impersonal verbs (“It seems to me,” “It rained”), which don’t even have proper subjects, just empty pro forma its.

For another thing, there are different kinds of intransitive verbs. Linguists divide them into unergative, where the subject really is the one doing the thing, and unaccusative, where the subject is treated as being on the receiving end of the action and can be modified by the past participle. We see from the guests are departed and the departed guests that depart is unaccusative; run, on the other hand, is unergative—you can’t say the run horse.

There are also verbs that change from intransitive to transitive or vice versa—several kinds of them. We don’t always think about them. In fact, some details of them are still being argued about by linguists.

I think it’s time for a quick field guide to these changeable verbs, complete with their overstuffed technical names. (more…)

Wordplay: Tittle-ating jottings from the Bible

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

The King James Version of the Bible gives us two English words that usually travel together: jot and tittle. We find them in Matthew 5:18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

These are two titillating words worth jotting down, especially if you’re the type type. Jot is an English rendition of the Greek iota, ἰῶτα, as in “not one iota of sense.” Iota, as I think you know, is the name of the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet: ι. But the law of which Jesus was speaking in the quote was not written in Greek. It was written in Hebrew. The smallest letter in Hebrew is called yod, and looks like the image on the left.

Yod, iota: is the similarity of name a coincidence? Of course not; they’re both descended from the Phoenician letter yodh, which, in turn, was probably descended from a picture of a hand. The Greek iota became the Latin I, which, in turn, over the centuries split into two letters, i and j. (Just incidentally, in German j is called jot, and in Spanish and Portuguese it’s jota, all from iota.) The dot on top appeared in the medieval era to make it stand out among all the other vertical strokes in the calligraphy, so you could more easily read, for instance, minimi (“the smallest”). (more…)