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4 More Unofficial Rules Native English Speakers Don't Realize They Know

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The BBC’s Matthew Anderson tweeted about a rule that “English speakers know, but don’t know we know.” It was a screen grab of a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence explaining that the reason “great green dragons” sounds better than “green great dragons” is that we unconsciously follow a rule that stipulates that the order of adjectives in English goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. Size comes before color, so no “green great dragons.”

People reacted to the tweet with amazement, astonishment, and thousands of retweets. It can be shocking to realize that we are able to follow rules that no one ever taught us explicitly. But that’s what most of language is: Not the little things that textbooks tell us we’re getting wrong, but the solid ones we always get right. Non-native speakers, however, might get them wrong, and that gives us a good opportunity to get a peek at the rules we don’t otherwise notice.

1. WHY “MY BROTHER’S CAR” AND NOT “THE CAR OF MY BROTHER”

There are two main ways to express possession in English, one with possession marked on the possessor (my brother’s car) and one with an “of” phrase (the car of my brother). Teachers and usage guides don’t usually give rules telling you why “the car of my brother” sounds bad but “the door of my house” sounds fine, because no one thinks to say “the car of my brother” in the first place. But why not? After all, languages like Spanish and French use this kind of construction (el coche de mi hermano, la voiture de mon frère). Why does “my brother’s car” sound so much better than “the car of my brother,” but “my house’s door” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”?

We don’t know it, but we make these phrases with reference to something called the animacy hierarchy. The hierarchy in this case is basically a scale in decreasing order of humanness going from human to animal to inanimate objects. The higher in animacy the possessor is, the worse the “of” phrase type of construction sounds. So,

"my brother's car" sounds better than "the car of my brother"

"my parakeet's cage" sounds a bit better than "the cage of my parakeet"

"my house's door" sounds the same or worse than "the door of my house"

Of course, there are considerations like conversational context and rhetorical effect that result in exceptions to this rule, but it does account for a lot of the difference in the relative acceptability of these two syntactic choices. For example, “city hall” can be conceived of as an inanimate building ("the steps of city hall") or a collection of people ("city hall’s announcement").

2. WHY ABSO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY AND NOT ABSOLUTE-FREAKIN’-LY

There’s a way to emphasize a word in English that involves inserting an expletive into the middle of the word—but not just anywhere in the middle. While abso-freakin’-lutely sounds right, ab-freakin’-solutely and absolute-freakin’-ly sound terrible. There is a rule at work here, having to do with the syllable structure of the word. Essentially, you find the syllable with the most emphasis inside the word and put the swear word before it. Kalama-freakin’-ZOO. Im-bloody-PORtant, la-freakin’-SAgna.

Things get tricky when the only stress is on the first syllable (YESter-freakin’-day? Ele-bloody-phant?) or when there are other, more separable boundaries in the word like un- or re- (un-freakin’-beLIEVable and re-freakin’-poSSESSED, are better than unbe-freakin’-LIEVable and repo-freakin’-SSESSED), but these exceptions can be categorized and explained. The important thing is that there’s a rule, and we already know how to apply it, even if we can’t state it.

3. WHY “WHAT DID YOU SAY THAT HE ATE?” AND NOT “WHAT DID YOU MUMBLE THAT HE ATE?”

In English, when we ask a who/what/where/when/why question, there is usually a slot in the sentence where the answer would fit if it were not a question. For “What did you eat?” the corresponding sentence is “I ate __ [potatoes/an apple/my breakfast…].” For “Where did they go?” the corresponding sentence is “They went __ [to the beach/to lunch/downstairs…].”

Linguists talk about these types of questions in terms of movement; it’s as if the 'wh' word has moved from the non-question sentence slot to the beginning of the sentence. Wh-movement can also happen out of phrases a long way from the beginning of the sentence. “What did you say that the beginning of the movie reminded you of?” corresponds to “You said that the beginning of the movie reminded you of __ [moving day/the weather report/ancient Greece…].”

But there are many cases where you can’t do this kind of movement. For example, for these complex, long distance cases, the main verb of the sentence must belong to a specific class of verbs linguists call bridge verbs. Say is a bridge verb (“What did you say that he ate _____?”) but verbs that include the manner in which something was said (mumble, shout, whisper, sob) are not. So “What did you mumble that he ate ___?” sounds terrible. We don’t make those kinds of sentences because we know the rule, even if we don’t know there is a rule.

4. WHY “I CHEERED UP MY FRIEND” AND NOT “I CHEERED UP HER”

English has a group of verbs known as phrasal verbs that give language learners a major headache. These are verbs made of multiple words that together give a different meaning than you would expect by simple combination. For example blow up is a phrasal verb because it means “explode” not “blow in an upward direction.” You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like call off (cancel), go over (review), and put down (insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs do not all work according to the same rules. Some do not allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: You can say “Don't pick on your sister” but not “Don't pick your sister on.” But other phrasal verbs can be separated: You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off.” Native speakers know which ones are separable and which are not without ever looking at a rule book. Non-native speakers have to learn the difference through painstaking experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a restriction on them that native speakers never explicitly learn about. Cheer up is separable. You can say “I cheered my friend up” or “I cheered up my friend.”  But if you want to substitute my friend with a pronoun, it must be placed between the parts of the verb. You cannot say “I cheered up her” only “I cheered her up.” For the inseparable verbs, pronouns are no problem: "Don't pick on her."

In the rest of English grammar you can substitute a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn't know you knew that.

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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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