Category Archives: english

Phenomenon or phenomena? A guide for Coast to Coast guests

I listen to quite a lot of the UFO/paranormal internet media, including Coast to Coast, The Paracast and Dreamland and have noticed that there is a real confusion sometimes among guests and presenters about when to say phenomenon, rather than phenomena.

Now I suppose it’s risking appearing snarky by pointing out the difference here as I only have third form Greek (I gave up after my teacher shouted at me for not learning the Greek capital letters) but my motivation is pure: some of the speakers on these shows are well-educated and are trying to make a case for the scientific investigation of UFO’s, bringing the subject out of the world of tabloid ridicule, because frankly, there is a genuine phenomenon of potentially paradigm-shaking importance that deserves serious investigation. And I’m right behind them.

If the serious researchers behind this movement want to be taken seriously, they’ll need a command of English up there with the best of those they are trying to convince. If they don’t know the difference between phenomenon and phenomena (both words they are going to be using a lot), they risk losing credibility in their first sentence.

It’s very simple: phenomena is the plural of phenomenon. Thus:

One phenomenon.

Twenty-seven phenomena.

It’s the same rule with criterion, by the way.

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England or Britain? A guide for Americans and too many English people

“We call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?”

George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

This BBC News article, combined with a recent visit to the USA reminded me of the misunderstanding that exists in the minds of not just Americans and others but – embarrassingly – English people about when to use the word words England and English. I should stress that I don’t believe it’s malicious; more a bad habit whose avoidance can prevent giving offence to those born in the constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland outside England. I also stress that I’m no constitutional expert: my own qualifications are merely having been born in England and living in Wales.

Credit: Wikipedia

In short England is used wrongly to refer to the sovereign state whose formal name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This misuse went on in political circles until relatively recently, with Winston Churchill speaking during World War Two of ‘England’ when he was referring to the aformentioned sovereign state. Or was he? There’s an essay for a first year PPE student.

Recent devolution of some government powers away from the United Kingdom government and parliament in Westminster to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have served to make this issue more important to handle sensitively.

My guide for the uncertain:

  • Only use England when referring to the constituent country called England. Don’t use England if you mean the United Kingdom. If you are talking about someone or something from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and the constituent country is relevant, don’t say ‘English’. Say Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish. If you’re not sure, see below.
  • Use ‘Britain’ or ‘The United Kingdom’, or ‘The UK’  when referring to the United Kingdom or if you’re not sure – or it’s not relevant – to which constituent country you are referring. The same goes for the adjective British.

Ten words soon to be extinct in British English

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been noticing changes in the words that speakers of British English use. Some of those changes are due to the adoption of American English words, others are simply through misunderstanding. Here is an utterly subjective and unscientific survey of some of the changes that I have noticed. Before I am accused of being a curmudgeon, I accept that language is always evolving, so to complain about all of them is pointless. One or two of the changes, however, do seem to me excessively PC or depressingly indicative of lowered educational standards.

Will all these words still be in common British English usage ten years from now?

  1. problem

    “Problem” has a problem. It is just too negative for our upbeat, spin-obsessed age. It suggests that something is actually, er, wrong. Oh dear. Instead we have the blander issue. Consider a parent tutting about one of her children’s more badly-behaved friends: would she say “Kevin’s got problems” or would she be more tempted to say “Kevin’s got issues“? In the workplace, problems have been almost entirely banished. Great news! Now we are left with only issues and challenges which are not so bad at all, are they?

  2. invitation

    How often do you receive an invitation to a party these days? You’re more likely to receive an invite. This change of use of the word “invite” from a verb to a noun is, I believe, a result of the adoption of “invite” from American English. American software applications allow you to send your colleagues invites to meetings. In my workplace in the UK, I have not heard the word invitation used in conversation – in any context – for three years.

  3. take-away

    Take-out or takeout seems to replacing “take-away” as both noun and verb when referring to food that is bought to be consumed off the premises. In my local fish and chip shop, that most British of institutions, customers* can eat at tables instead of taking their battered cod and chips away. They are therefore asked “Is that to take out?” *Formerly known as patrons.

  4. insect

    This is now becoming only a scientific term, now replaced in everyday English by bug. I have to give bug its due: it is a short and child-friendly word.

  5. exploit

    The verb exploit is probably too resonant of those non-PC times when exploitation was the norm, by men of women, by adults of children, by the first world of the third, by the haves of the have-nots. So it appears to have been substituted by the noun leverage. Thus, where previously one would have exploited a resource, it is now leveraged. It’s probably largely used in business but it crops up elsewhere.

  6. sex

    Yes, sex will have disappeared in a few years time. But only in the sense of gender, which is now replacing it. Those with a schoolboy sense of humour will no longer have the innocent pleasure of writing “Yes, seven times a week” next to the parts of forms enquiring whether you are male or female.

  7. the

    No, we aren’t dropping the definite article entirely. Only in one particular context: in dates. These days “Friday thirteenth” is becoming more prevalent than the more old-fashioned “Friday the thirteenth”. Similarly “on”, as in “She went shopping on Wednesday” is beginning to be dropped too.

  8. shop No more shops. Only stores. One type of shop, the chemist’s has been replaced by the pharmacy.
  9. criterion

    The decline of the teaching of classics has resulted in a generation who don’t know that borrowed Greek words ending in “-on” take the ending “-a” in the plural. “a criteria” and “a phenomena” crop up everywhere.

  10. fussy

    If I didn’t eat my greens when I was little, mum might have told me not to be fussy. Today, in the same situation, a child is picky.

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The Council excepts no liability…

A sign in one of Monmouth’s main car parks states that Monmouthshire County Council “excepts no liability” for loss or damage to property. So if it excepts no liability does that mean that it accepts all liabilities?amelie 043

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Cultural prejudice and booksellers’ responsibility

I’ve just returned from a trip to a bookshop in Gloucester. Browsing the history section, I noted that the shelves containing books on German history were dominated by books on the Second World War, the Nazis and the Holocaust. One of the very few books that had significant coverage of Germany before 1933 was itself a highly controversial account by A.J.P. Taylor notable for the extremes of opinion it contains. Moving to the section on Freemasonry, I noted the unusually large number (no doubt boosted by the success of The Da Vinci Code) of books there were dominated by books pandering to the Freemasonry-as-world-conspiracy mythology accompanied by dubious (by academic standards) pseudo-historical accounts of Freemasonry’s origins.

I moved on to the reference section in search of a Welsh dictionary to help me better understand the language of the neighbouring country, a language being taught in schools less than thirty miles from Gloucester, a language that is the descendant of the original British languages spoken throughout this island, long before English arrived and a language whose number of speakers is growing. No dictionary to be found, of course. Only a couple of Welsh course books among the huge array of Spanish, French, Italian….

The choices the shop’s management (or distant corporate HQ?) had made obviously reflect what they believe will sell; choices, one presumes, based on the perceived interests and prejudices of the local marketplace. What might that tell us then about the shop’s beliefs about the typical Gloucester book shopper when seeking information on these subjects? – that Germany has little history or culture of interest beyond the Nazi era – that Freemasonry is a sinister secret society bent on world domination or something equally dodgy – the indigenous language of England’s immediately neighbouring country doesn’t matter much.

Dialect prejudice?

In dramatic shorthand, a working class character in a film is often given the dialect and/or accent of English of someone from from the southwest of the country, or perhaps a Midlands or northern accent. For example, consider the dialect and accent of Sam Gamgee, the gardener and manservant to the upper-middle class (Standard English/Received Pronunciation-speaking) Frodo Baggins in the recent “The Lord of the Rings” films. The patronising implication is that the audience will associate the “provincial” accent with a less educated, working class character, lacking in “book” knowledge but making up for it in loyalty and determination. For those of you who know the Tolkien books on which the films were based, be honest: could you imagine Sam Gamgee speaking like Prince Charles?

The Received Pronunciation combined with spoken Standard English that the Prince of Wales speaks have become the dialect of Hollywood films’ baddies, a quick and easy-to-grasp code that tells the (largely American) popcorn munching masses that the one with that James Mason accent is the sinister bad guy. Our infatuation with American culture in the form of its two principle exports, film and television have conditioned much of the English speaking world to be prejudiced against this way of speaking.

Once, such a mode of speech could once have marked a person (rightly or wrongly) as educated and trustworthy, the principle being, I imagine, that it was more likely that the person concerned had been to a good school and university, where certain timeless values (Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton bla bla bla) were instilled. Maybe there was little bit of truth in such an assumption in the era of the British Empire when public schools were the only source of an education good enough to equip a generation with the skills to run that empire. Now of course, a meritocratic democracy rightly prevails: your accent doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter.

Really?

I unashamedly (try to) speak Standard English with an accent that, while not in the same league as that of the Queen’s, nevertheless approaches it. Why? Because I was brought up in several parts of the world. I never lived anywhere long enough to permanently adopt a dialect and accent specific to a particular region. The only traces that have remained are the pronunciation of “because” as “becuzz” from my childhood years in Cornwall and a tendency to use a Barbadian accent when I get excited. I therefore adopted a style of speech that my teachers, grammar books and the BBC advocated. It was, I naïvely thought, neutral in tone and after all, was promoted as being the gold standard of English.

The trouble with Standard English and RP is that they represent the speech of the so called “upper” class whose (in most cases unearned) privilege and wealth are rightly criticised by those outside that particular socio-economic group. Those of us who have adopted RP and Standard English but are not upper class are therefore doomed to experience a sort of prejudice. The prejudice that drives film makers to give Samwise Gamgee a Gloucestershire accent and dialect because it denotes him as servile is, on occasion, matched by a prejudice against those who use RP and Standard English. “If you speak RP and Standard English”, the thinking presumably goes, “you must think you are superior, whatever your social background or your values”. How unfair.

I’m tempted to get a T-shirt printed that declares my membership of the middle class, despite my dialect and accent.