4 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.

38 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make

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English vocabulary is full of pitfalls that you might not be aware of. Don't let them trip you up.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

6. EFFECT/AFFECT

When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.

7. EXCEPT/ACCEPT

People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The x in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right. Are you xing something out with the word? No? Then consider changing it.

8. DISCREET/DISCRETE

Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening t.

9. I.E./E.G.

When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say ...” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”

10. CITE/SITE

People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. You can cite a website, but not the other way around. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.

11. DISINTERESTED/UNINTERESTED

People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested. 

12. FLOUT/FLAUNT

Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.

13. PHASE/FAZE

Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby. 

14. LOATH/LOATHE

Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. You are loath to do the things you loathe, which makes it confusing, but you can keep them clear by noting whether the word has a "to be" verb on one side and a to on the other (he is loath to, I would be loath to), in which case loath is correct, or it can be substituted by hate (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the e on the end.

15. WAVE/WAIVE

The word wave is far more frequent than waive and has a more concrete meaning of undulating motion. It’s often used for waive, "to give something up," perhaps because it fits well with the image of someone waving something away. But when you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them. You can think of the extra i in waive as a little surrender flag in the middle of the word.

16. INTENSIVE PURPOSES

Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase.  To say “practically speaking” or “in all important ways” the phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”

17. GAUNTLET/GAMUT

Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.

18. PEEK/PEAK

This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from "a quick look" to "a high point." If you imagine the two Es as a pair of eyes, it can help you remember to use peek for the looking sense.

19. FORTUITOUS

Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightning strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.

20. REFUTE

To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false. If you refute, the disagreement should be over because you’ve won. If someone accuses you of not having paid for something, you refute the accusation by producing the receipt.

21. INSURE/ENSURE

These words are easy to confuse not only because they sound alike, but because they both have to do with guarantees. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen. To insure is to use a more specific type of guarantee: an insurance policy.

22. DISPERSE/DISBURSE

Disperse is more common and has a wider range of meaning than disburse. To disperse is to scatter, separate, or sprinkle around. To disburse is only to give out money.

23. FLAK/FLACK

Not many words in English end with ak, but flak does because it’s a shortening of a German word: fliegerabwehrkanone (anti-aircraft gun). Flak is artillery fire, and by metaphorical extension, criticism. The less common flack is for a publicist or someone who tries to drum up attention for a person or product.

24. ALL RIGHT/ALRIGHT

Though alright spelled as one word is beginning to be accepted by a few style guides, it is still considered an error by most. Write it as two words.

25. BATED/BAITED

The bated in the expression bated breath is related to abated. The breath is reduced, or almost held, in anticipation. It is not baited like a fish hook.

26. ILLUSION/ALLUSION

Illusion is the more common word and usually the one you want. An illusion is a false impression, something that seems real, but isn’t. Allusion is mostly used in literary contexts. It is a hint at something else, or a pointer to other work, such as a character name that refers back to a Shakespeare play.

27. FLOUNDER/FOUNDER

To flounder is to flop around clumsily, like a fish on land. It can be used metaphorically for inconsistent or unproductive behavior. That’s why it’s easy to confuse with founder, which means to sink or fail. If a business is floundering, there’s still a chance to turn things around, but if it’s foundering, it’s best to cut your losses.

28. HEAR, HEAR/HERE, HERE

When you want to give enthusiastic approval, the correct expression is “Hear, hear!” It came from the sense of hear him out! or hear this! and not from a sense having to do with here, the present location. Here, here! is an answer to “Where should I put this cupcake?”

29. AMUSED/BEMUSED

It’s better to be amused than bemused. Amused means entertained, while bemused means puzzled or confused. It’s the difference between a smile and a head scratch.

30. HEARTY/HARDY

Hearty is for things that are warm and nourishing, like a robust welcome or an abundant feast. They have heart. Hardy is for things that are tough and durable, that can stand up to the elements and survive. They are hard.

31. DEEP-SEATED/DEEP-SEEDED

Whether you're talking about fears, habits, or emotions, the correct term is deep-seated. Talk of depth and rootedness brings the idea of planting to mind, but seeds don’t enter into this expression.

32. COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT

A compliment is a kind or flattering comment. Complement means to go together well. Your shoes may complement your dress, but if I remark on how sharp you look I am giving you a compliment.

33. HOARD/HORDE

To hoard is to collect and keep things in a secure or hidden place, and hoard itself keeps its stash of vowels all tucked away inside the word. A horde is a big crowd. Its vowels are scattered over the word, like a horde of tourists on a sidewalk.

34. WHO’S/WHOSE

If you can substitute in “who is” or “who has,” then the one you want is who’s, otherwise it’s whose.

35. PERPETRATE/PERPETUATE

They only differ by one letter, but perpetuate gets a whole extra syllable. That works well, because perpetuate means to keep something going (to make it perpetual) while perpetrate is to commit a single act, usually a crime.

36. PORE OVER/POUR OVER

When you study a document carefully, you pore over it (almost as if you are inspecting its tiny pores). If you were to pour something over it, like juice or coffee, that would make it much harder to read.

37. CONSCIENCE/CONSCIOUS

Conscience is a noun, and conscious is an adjective. A conscience can be cleared, or keep you awake at night, or tell you what decision to make. Conscious is a description of a state. If you’re conscious you're awake and aware.

38. ANGST/ENNUI/WELTSCHMERZ

Here you go.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don't Need to Worry About

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There are many grammar rules that the student of English must learn about in order to understand how the language works. There are some rules, however, that don’t reflect how the language works at all and are simply passed down from generation to generation just because. It’s good to be familiar with them for the same reason it’s good to know arbitrary dress code customs, which is to say, because someone might judge you for not following them, but they have little to do with logic, clarity, the facts of English, or even being a good writer. Here are four grammar rules that aren’t really rules at all.

1. DON’T SPLIT INFINITIVES.

The rule against splitting infinitives says that nothing must come between a to and its verb. It is incorrect to boldly go. One must instead arrange to go boldly, or boldly to go. But this rule has no real justification. In fact, this rule was never mentioned in any treatises on English until an 1834 anonymous article proposed it, claiming that keeping the to and the verb next to each other is what good authors did. But plenty of good authors had in fact been splitting infinitives for hundreds of years, from John Wycliffe in the 14th century to Samuel Johnson in the 18th.

Though many writers thought this imaginary rule was unnecessary and even sometimes harmful to clarity (George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it”), it somehow made its way into a number of usage guides and stayed there. Read Tom Freeman's history of the rule here

2. DON’T END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION.

We are told not to end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule? Wait, would anyone really use the second construction to ask this question? Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and not at all wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. But English differs from Latin in countless ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does not encourage good style or clarity of expression. Don’t believe me? Ask Oxford Dictionaries.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they're used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

3. DON’T USE "THEY" AS A SINGULAR PRONOUN.

The rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

Sticklers have been wringing their hands about how to reconcile this rule with guidelines for nonsexist language for decades now, but the solution has been right there all along. Just use singular they. The pronouns they/them/their have been used with singular antecedents for centuries. It’s perfectly good English. It sounds completely natural. Great writers like Shakespeare and Austen used it. Does anyone really think Everyone clapped his hands sounds better than Everyone clapped their hands?

Editors like John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun have been letting the singular they through for a while now and most of the time no one notices. What we have in singular they, according to linguist Geoff Pullum, is “a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.” 

4. DON’T START A SENTENCE WITH "HOPEFULLY."

The ban on hopefully as a sentence adverb meant that you were only to use it to mean “in a hopeful manner.” So I waited hopefully was good, but Hopefully, the bus will get here soon was bad. Buses don’t do things in a hopeful manner! What you were supposed to say in that situation was It is hoped that the bus will get here soon.

Hopefully was being picked on rather unfairly. No one had a problem with fortunately/clearly/unbelievably/sadly/mercifully the bus will get here soon. There are plenty of other adverbs that can modify a whole sentence without causing a stir. Hopefully was singled out because it was new in the 60s, people noticed it, complained about it, and made up a reason to justify their complaints. It is still one of those gotcha words that attract the red pen, but even the AP Stylebook has given up trying to enforce the ban

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