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jayles the unwoven

Joined: June 3, 2014
Comments posted: 201
Votes received: 87

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Questions Submitted

Salutations in letters

November 20, 2016

Are proverbs dying?

June 30, 2014


June 24, 2014

Recent Comments

@WW Thanks - I found this topic difficult to google. It does seem that we can sometimes drop "for" with time-duration expressions where the meaning is clear from the word-order.

Re "however": this no longer appears in the latest Strunk and Cowan online. Indeed it includes:
"However, the distinction is often fine and sometimes invisible."

For IELTS purposes, instead of "however", I usually tell my students to think about using "although" or "whereas" , and joining up with the foregoing sentence. (The marking criteria include: "uses a variety of complex structures".)

To me, there are two special things about "however" vis-a-vis other adverbs such as "admittedly" or "nevertheless":
1) "however" tends to mark the foregoing word as the item of contrast.
2) "however" is more readily mobile in terms of position.
a) However, he was very young.
b) He was, however, very young.
c) He, however, was very young.
d) He was very young, however.

I teach people to use commas here off because the examiner may have been raised on Strunk, and I sometimes question the use of "however" at the beginning of a paragraph, as it so often betokens lack of topic cohesion withing each paragraph.

jayles the unwoven July 14, 2015, 6:08pm

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More grist:
1) "He searched five years for his estranged daughter."
2) "He sought five years his estranged daughter."
3) "I was two years buiding a trimaran."
4) "Seven years I studied Latin."
5) "i was two hours waiting for the ambulance"

jayles the unwoven July 13, 2015, 6:37pm

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The important thing to grasp is that punctuation converts to form part of an audio file in your head: listen to the voice in your head as you read this. So the question becomes:
how does one pronounce a comma?
Usually as a small pause with a rising or wavy intonation.

Most text layout affects how the text sounds in your head: consider
poetry and
the effect
of an end-of-line
on intonation
and rhythm.

It is worth noting that graphics such as bar graphs, and pie charts do not produce an audio file in your head; but columns of figures on a spreadsheet or accounting report are usually "read" as audio input.

jayles the unwoven July 2, 2015, 4:26pm

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My understanding is that in the Middle Ages, European people generally read everything aloud; punctuation was introduced to help them do that and we have kept it because we read "aloud" in our head. Not every language is like this - Thai leaves no spaces between the words; older Arabic has no punctuation.

When writing in modern English, the whole layout, including whitespace between words, whitespace between paragraphs, whitespace indentations, and also punctuation in general - this all is used to help the reader. Recent research has shown that a European reader focuses on just a few letters at a time - something like the last letter of the previous word and then the next eight or so letters - apparently this is all the retina can take in at one time. The eye then jumps to the next group of letters. It is this scanning process that limits reading speed, not the conversion from letter symbols to meaning.

Conventionally, a colon marks a longish pause with a flat, wavy, or slightly rising intonation; but definitely without the falling intonation associated with the end of a sentence. If that is how you would say it, then a colon may be the right way to go - there is no particular rule as to how often.

For example: "Roses are red: violets are bluish, and come in three colors: dark blue, violet and indigo."
Note that here we have used a colon in two different situations: between two independent clauses; and to introduce a list.

jayles the unwoven July 2, 2015, 4:00pm

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"-age" is a "suffix typically forming mass or abstract nouns from various parts of speech, occurring originally in loanwords from French (voyage; courage) and productive in English with the meanings “aggregate” (coinage; peerage; trackage), “process” (coverage; breakage), “the outcome of” as either “the fact of” or “the physical effect or remains of” (seepage; wreckage; spoilage), “place of living or business” (parsonage; brokerage), “social standing or relationship” (bondage; marriage; patronage), and “quantity, measure, or charge” (footage; shortage; tonnage; towage). "

Thus words like leverage using the suffix "-age" are prima facie expected to be nouns, and one would normally use the root as the verb as in "to broker", "to break". That said, "leverage" seems to have developed as special meaning of its own, distinct from "lever", so it becomes meaningful to use "leverage" as a verb.

In some ways this is similar to "influence" which one would expect to be a noun like other words ending in "-ence" or "-ance"; however we did not bring in the root verb "influe" into English so we use "influence" as a verb too.

jayles the unwoven July 2, 2015, 3:32pm

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I dont see why we need apostrophes at all: after all we manage to understand speech without them - and somehow get by without making making an explicit distinction between genitive singular and plural. "Besides" is historically a genitive form, but we dont mark it with an apostrophe in modern usage. Why do we need apostrophes at all?

jayles the unwoven June 10, 2015, 3:11pm

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Punctuation is very much a convention of signals which guide the reader as to how the sentence is to be read and construed. One might consider a comma as a one-beat pause, a semi-colon as two, a colon as three, and a full-stop four; but they also hint at the intonation in the same way as a question mark does.

Whilst punctuation is just a convention, there is nothing per se to stop one from using both a colon and a semi-colon in the same sentence, if that is what is truly necessary in order to guide the reader along.

In your example sentence, however, I would question the use of a semi-colon to join the two main clauses together. To my mind, one should be able to substitute "and" , but this does not work for me. For example: "Roses are red; violets are blue." Here, one can substitute "and"; the sentences have parallel structures, which helps.

Did you mean something like:

Colleges provide help for students who are struggling. They offer guidance with study skills to keep on top of coursework and homework, advice from counselors on dealing with the workload, and the option of dropping a class early.

jayles the unwoven June 2, 2015, 9:56pm

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Just to make it clear: when reading slowly many people are actually "reading aloud in their head"; (if not, then one is technically "skimming"); either way if one cannot read a text out loud correctly first time, then it is not clear; and commas may be needed to make it so. Thus:

"In general media, people today often seem to omit commas wherever possible." is not the same as:
"In general, media people today often seem to omit commas wherever possible."

In short, put commas where needed to make the meaning clear first time so the reader does not have to backtrack and reconstrue the sentence. Elsewhere, commas are functionally redundant.

jayles the unwoven June 2, 2015, 5:32pm

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Where is "here"?

jayles the unwoven June 2, 2015, 4:13pm

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The purpose of punctuation is to make it clear how to read the text aloud; sometimes this affects the meaning.

So the comma in your sentence after "Every morning" indicates a pause (with a downward intonation); leaving it out would suggest "I wake up" was a relative clause.

Thus the real issue is whether a reader needs the comma after "6.00 am" in order to read it aloud and easily get the intonation/pause/sense correct.

My answer here would then be that in this simple example omitting the comma does not make it difficult to read aloud correctly straight off; however, with longer sentences of the sort common in academic writing, a comma would be very helpful and necessary.

In general media, people today often seem to omit commas wherever possible; however I would not do this in academic writing where readers may be more pedantic

jayles the unwoven June 2, 2015, 4:10pm

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@WW Quite right my dear fellow!
I just have a couple of quick questions for you:

1) Do you advise your students NOT to start a sentence with "but" when writing in an English exam?

2) Do you advise your students to comma off "comment" such as "Personally" at the start of a sentence?

The point here is that without a style guide or some element of prescriptivism, no one knows what is right or wrong: for instance if I write "the provided information" the meaning is clear and unambiguous, although the phrase is not in the normal word order: correct or exellent?

Beyond my scope to comment on the societal ills of American culture.

jayles the unwoven April 3, 2015, 10:03pm

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Maybe because the meaning can be unclear - "very" or "somewhat" ?

Deeming "pretty" as informal seems to predate the wave of political correctness so I wonder wherher it was just some post-Victorian academic snobbery, in the same way as in the decade following WWII was taught at school not to use "get", which apparently was an ugly lower-class word. I would guess it was at school that I acquired (or got) the idea that "pretty" was unacceptable in formal writing. Blame the teacher(s)! Not sure where they got the idea from though.

With other words we have seen, just over one generation, "unseemly" become "inappropriate"; and words like "old", "elderly", "fat" become scarcely polite under the influence of political correctness, but the idea that "pretty" is informal seems to predate that.

jayles the unwoven March 21, 2015, 6:34pm

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@WW My thesis would be that modal verbs in English are used in much the same way as they are in German, Dutch and languages like Frisian. Thus in German the past subjunctive "must", "could", "might", "dared" is distinguishable from the past indicative: musste vs muesste and so on.

In English we do not mark the disctinction, but it is still there: German does not mark the subjuctive for "would" and "should" either, but one can use "should" in German instead of "if" in just the same way as in English.

The usage of the past subjunctive to express politeness with a present meaning is very similar too. Thus "She should come" = "Sie sollte kommen" - unmarked past subjunctive, talking about now

The point of all this is it explains how our present usage developed and provides a framework for teaching rather than just saying sometimes it's like this and sometimes it's like that.

Essentially all I'm suggesting is that modals have a real and an unreal past just like any other verb; but they also have a third meaning - the past (subj) used as a polite present. When one adds that the real past is mostly not used as a main clause, we have pretty much explained all modal verb usage in one fell swoop.

jayles the unwoven March 5, 2015, 11:57am

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My understanding is that the widespread use of "issue" to supplant "problem" stems from a desire to be more positive, particularly when broaching a topic with your boss. "Issue" has become just another management speak weasel word.

One should move on to the next level, becoming a TOP person (totally-oriented-positive) leapfrogging hurdles and challenges in one smooth single bound....

jayles the unwoven March 4, 2015, 1:06am

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Actually the subjunctive is around quite a bit even though it is unmarked. Modal verbs have a 'real' past tense in reported speech:
"She said she would do it"
Modal verbs also use the past subjunctive with present meaning for politeness:
"Could I come in?"
They also use past subjunctive to indicate unreal/hypothetical ideas:
"I would be surprised if ...."
In a main clause only, to distinguish an unreal past idea from real, we usually add a perfect infinitive to the past subjuctive of the modal:
"I would have been surprised if ..."
The point here is that when the use of past subjunctive for politeness developed in the early Middle Ages, we lost the ability to clearly use it to refer to the past. The usage of "had" in the main clause of a past conditional sentence is a throwback (which BTW mirrors modern German):
"Haette ich das gewusst, haette ich es Ihnen erzaehlt"
"Had I known, had I told you"

jayles the unwoven March 3, 2015, 2:05pm

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@WW but why not "a ten-days' tour", "a four-hours' trip" ?
Anything beyond "because that's not what people say" ?

jayles the unwoven March 3, 2015, 1:46pm

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One would need to distinguish between "non-semantic" vs "idioms & collocations" vs "meaningful but seldom used" ; thus:
"a glass of wine" is partitive; "a wine's glass" hard to construe;
"the car's door" might be okay, esp in "the car's passenger door jammed"
"at the door of death" - unusual but grammatically okay
"cow milk" is not wrong but usually "cows' milk" cf "goats' milk"
and so forth.

Another issue:
"ten days' travel", "four hours' walk" but "a ten-day tour", "a four-hour trip"


jayles the unwoven March 2, 2015, 9:21pm

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@WW I would lump your examples Groups...Descriptions together as partitive/compositional.

As you may have guessed by now, this all arises when some non-native speaker innocently asks the question: so when can the genitive be used when it's not a person?

As you rightly point up, it is quite quirky:
A) "The British occupation of India"
B) "England's long occupation of India"
C) "The long English occupation of India" - almost sounds as if "long" modifies "English"

D) "The windscreen's wiper" - does the windscreen only have one wiper?
E) "A windscreen's wiper is made up of six components"

F) "The bar chart's most striking feature is ...."
G) "The most striking feature of the bar chart is...."

My comment on (F) would be if one persistently used genitives like this (instead of "of" ), the text as a whole could become too convoluted or dense; academic and professional English writing fairly seldom contains genitives not referring to people or proper names:
"the patient's blood pressure" - ok ;
"the blood pressure's sudden spike" -> the sudden spike in blood pressure.

jayles the unwoven February 28, 2015, 5:15pm

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She would have died there and then, were it not for the sudden arrival of the medics

jayles the unwoven February 27, 2015, 12:25pm

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