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Warsaw Will

Joined: December 3, 2010
Comments posted: 1371
Votes received: 1050

I'm a TEFL teacher working in Poland. I have a blog - Random Idea English - where I do some grammar stuff for advanced students and have the occasional rant against pedantry.

Questions Submitted

fewer / less

May 3, 2014

Natural as an adverb

April 13, 2014

tonne vs ton

January 25, 2014

Tell About

October 18, 2013

“reach out”

May 25, 2013

Recent Comments

This might be of interest: an article linking to research on the conversational benefits of 'so':

Warsaw Will April 6, 2015, 11:06pm

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I'll ignore all the historical / social stuff, which I suspect is a lot of 'golden age' bunkum; rear-view mirrorism, I think it's called; you know the sort of thing: 'back in the good old days', 'nowadays everything's being dumbed down', and so on. Whereas I imagine that if you used any objective criteria like overall exam results etc, this fear would be found to be groundless.

However, I do think JohnH makes one good point. There is an unfortunate propensity on this forum to ascribe motives such as pretentiousness, or even worse 'middle management' pretentiousness, to people who use language the commenter doesn't approve of, and I think that smacks of a certain intellectual snobbery. Which I think is rather sad.

I am fascinated though as to what JohnH means by 'linguistic excellence'. One dictionary defines linguistic as 'connected with language or the scientific study of language', and surely the main function of language isto communicate with other people. Now I think a lot of London street traders communicate excellently with their customers, although not in a language that is considered Standard English; most mothers communicate excellently with thier babies, but perhaps not in a very elegant way - is this what JohnH means by linguistic excellence? I suspect not.

I tried googling "linguistic excellence", and apart from a lot of references to the "linguistic excellence of the Koran" and other religious texts, all I could find was stuff about people who are able to learn a lot of languages, and the role of language in Ancient Greece and Rome. But I did find a couple of references in academic books:

"Consequently, from the point of view of general linguistic excellence, nothing matters except the ability of the sentences in that language to convey transparently and without ambiguity their meaning", Stephen Everson, Language, Cambridge

By this definition, my London street trader and mum would qualify as having linguistic excellence, I imagine. But many people would no doubt come up with a definition more like this one:

"The view of language was a monodialectical one in which the role of language education was to eliminate (through the use of sanctions) variant forms, thus maintaining the language's imagined purity, and to impose norms of perceived linguistic excellence, thus safeguarding its future. Linguistic change of any kind was widely perceived to be deterioration", ed. Rebecca S Wheeler, The Workings of Language, Greenwood (talking about 18th and 19th century prescriptivism).

Which brings us back to the old question of who decides what is 'correct', and what is 'excellence' (and in what contexts). If 'linguistic excellence' here is closer to the first definition, then perhaps it's worth striving for. If it's more like the second, it's just the old prescriptivism in a different guise.

Warsaw Will April 2, 2015, 4:08am

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Although 'Is it you who are' is the gramatically 'correct' answer, I'm increasingly convinced I'd normally say 'Is it you who's ...' or use a workaround.

A similar problem with a relative clause came up in class the other day in an exercise on tenses from a book called Grammarway Advanced. There was a question where the students had to fill the gap with a suitable verb in the appropriate tense, includinng the word 'ever':

"This is one of the best books that ................ on the subject"

The students were obviously meant to pick the present perfect passive of 'write'. And my first reaction was:

"This is one of the best books that has ever been written on the subject". But then I started thinking: the relative clause refers to 'books', not one, just as the relative clause above refers to 'you', not 'it'. So maybe it should be 'have', not 'has'. It turns out this one has been bothering people for centuries. Although Fowler thought 'has' here a blunder, it's been used by many good writers. It seems that 'one' is just too strong a draw for most of us; it's that oldidea of notional agreement taking over from formal agreement.

I think it's the same with 'Is it you who are'. Formal agreement favours 'are', notional agreement favours 'is'. And in spoken English, at least, notional is often more natural and idiomatic than formal or 'correct'.

Warsaw Will March 26, 2015, 3:04am

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@AnWulf - No, the teacher is Polish. I think the 'mates' bit was the words my student used.

@HairyScot - One of my English teachers used to give this example of the oddities of English:

' "Now, then", he said, giving me a pretty ugly look.'

'Pretty' was prety popular with British writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially with Daniel Defoe. Johnson gives eight examples, presumably approvingly. Even Lowth, and other grammarians used it in their books.

As to meaning, I like Johnson's definition best - 'it is less than very'. I can see why you might want to avoid it in academic texts (although both Darwin and Ruskin used it), but I would have thought that the same goes for 'very', so I don't really understand those who say use 'very' instead. For me, at least, they are not the same: 'petty' is more nuanced.

Warsaw Will March 24, 2015, 2:50am

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Judging by its use in books, the plural is the norm; this is from Thackeray, ' "It is you who are cruel," cried Pen'.

I think in informal English, however, we might well say 'It's you who's wrong'; 'are' sounds a bit stilted somehow.

My explanation would be is that this is a cleft sentence where 'It' is an introductory device, the subject of 'is', and 'who is wrong' is a specific type of restrictive relative clause modifying 'you'. The verb should therefore agree with the subject of the realtive clause, 'you', not 'it'.

Compare with a couple of more obvious plurals:
"It's the Johnsons who have just been to Cypress, not the Smiths." (Not 'has')
"It's oysters that make me feel ill, not mussels." (Not 'makes')

Warsaw Will March 19, 2015, 4:40am

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@Dean. I think you're cheating a bit with almond and dinghy, and perhaps even with honour. There are still sounds there; they wouldn't sound the same if you take away the letter altogether, as with 'listen, hour' etc. The 'gh' in dinghy is a specific sound, /ŋ/, not just g and h together, otherwise it would be 'dinhy'.


and even with honour, /ˈɑːnər, the sound of British 'ou', or American 'o' is not 'u', but the schwa.

Warsaw Will March 13, 2015, 5:11am

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As I've said before, I know nothing about football, and so nothing about 'iPro Stadium' without going to Wikipedia myself, so I think perhaps you should start doing a little research of your own. As for foreign stadiums, just Google them and see what results you get. But if in doubt add 'the'.

Warsaw Will March 13, 2015, 5:01am

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These are both 'reduced relative clauses', and both are passive (present simple passive and present continuous passive):

1. The instruments (which are) used are very reliable.
2. The instruments (which are) being used are very reliable.

The meanings are very similar, the difference being the normal one between using present simple (1) and present continous (2) forms

The first one suggests you are talking about a standard process, situated in general time, which is fairly static. The second sugegsts that you are talking about a situation occurring now. For example:

'We have been operating this procedure for some time now, and the instruments used are very reliable'

'This is a new procedure, which has its risks, but a least we know that the instruments being used are very reliable.'

Warsaw Will March 13, 2015, 4:50am

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Wake up, HS, it's morning again :). And the subjunctive, and especially the use of 'were/was', being one of the most controversial areas of grammar, I doubt it will ever go away.

My discussion with jayles has been purely historical, and I've learnt a little about Old English along the way.

But when someone like EnglishElle calls herself a 'firm believer in descriptivism', and goes on to contradict that in everything she says, I will react, especially when she puts it down to lack of education. She might try reading a modern grammar book for a start before throwing about that sort of accusation.

Warsaw Will March 9, 2015, 2:51am

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But, HS, one or two people saying something doesn't make it common usage. Common usage is what is generally used and/or accepted by educated speakers and writers of a given language community, not 'anything goes'. This expression is used in the plural mainly in the States, and if you check the New York Times, for example, the entries are nearly all for "attorneys general" - that *is* the common usage.

Here there is a certain logic to it, but there are other language contexts where it is only common usage that makes something 'correct' , especially in vocabulary. It is because of common usage, not any written grammar rule, that most of us don't say 'thou art' any more, or that English moved away from inflected endings to the use of auxiliaries, and all the other changes that happened in English before any grammarian put pen to paper.

And what did the first grammarians use a basis for their rules - the observation of common usage.

And on the subject of compound nouns, is there any rule for deciding whether they spelt as two words, hyphenated, or joined together? None that I know of, except common usage.

As for Nick D's idea - passer-by, and brother-in-law are also nouns in their own right - but passer-bys and brother-in-laws certainly don't sound OK to me. Why? Because it's neither common usage, nor is it logical, as mshades explains (he explains a lot more than the history). Same difference with attorneys general - they are general attorneys, not some kind of general.

And what about expressions such as spoonful, cupful, bucketful and truckful. Logically you might think it should be spoonsful etc, as this commenter on a forum suggested, "The grammatically correct answer is "spoonsful", those who say otherwise are mistaken. However, those who say otherwise also have custom and usage on their side, and "spoonfuls" is perfectly acceptable. "

Some people think 'spoonfuls' is recent, but I'm not so sure. According to Ngram, that has always been the case, although 'spoonsful' got close in the first half of the 19th century. And according to another grammar book, this time from 1830, "The words spoonful, mouthful, and others of a like kind, are indivisible compound nouns, therefore must form their plural regularly", a point echoed in several books of that time. And why are they 'indivisible'? I would suggest through common usage.

So, what many people seem to think is the 'grammatically correct' version has in fact been dismissed in many grammar books. Which simply confirms me in my belief that there is only one unbiased, objective way of deciding whether to use one form or another, and that's common usage. And to be very wary when someone says 'the grammatically correct answer is ***'!

Warsaw Will March 9, 2015, 2:33am

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@jayles - Hi, I confess to knowing next to nothing about the use of subjunctive in early English, but looking around, the subjunctive is usually seen as a form of inflection, some of whose functions were 'taken over by' modals (MWDEU). That's not the same as saying they *are* the subjunctive. Or as one paper (The Subjunctive in Old English and Middle English - Eva Kovacs) puts it (my emphasis):

"*Instead of* the subjunctive mood modal auxiliaries can also be used. The
auxiliary found most frequently in these clauses is shal/sholde, especially in the preterite. Furthermore, may/mighte also occurs mainly in the present tense, just like wil/wolde, which is occasionally found in Late Middle English."

By the time eighteenth century grammarians had discovered the subjunctive it had largely fallen out of use, and as I've already pointed out, more has disappeared since then, such as its use with real time conditionals. What's more, as Goold Brown shows, in A Grammar Of English Grammars, these grammarians disagreed quite significantly as to its composition and use.

However, grammarians today are generally agreed that there are two inflected (or rather, uninflected) forms, present and past (although compounds are also possible - "If he were wanting to ...)", and I firmly believe to start bringing modals into it is an unnecessary complication - especially to the understanding of modals, which are complicated enough already. In these old grammar books, where may, might and should are sometimes referred to as subjunctive, I have never seen these polite forms ("Would you, could you" etc) referred to like this, and if anything they are much more like a conditional mood. But it is generally agreed, that as we don't have separate inflections for these, they don't constitute a mood.

"English does not have an inflective (morphological) conditional mood, except in as much as the modal verbs could, might, should and would may in some contexts be regarded as conditional forms of can, may, shall and will respectively. What is called the English conditional mood (or just the conditional) is formed periphrastically using the modal verb would in combination with the bare infinitive of the main verb." Wikipedia

The modal system in English is highly complex and central to the way we express modality, just as the primary auxiliaries are to the way we express time and aspect. The use of the subjunctive, on the other hand, is marginal in modern English, and in British English, apart from set phrases, is for all intents and purposes limited to this one word - 'were'. And even then its use varies according to context. It might be hanging on in there in hypothetical conditionals, but it's not nearly so strong in constructions with 'I wish' or 'I would rather', and especially not after 'imagine' and 'supposing'.

I much prefer the concept of 'unreal past' that we teach our EFL students, which explains all these uses much more easily, the past being used here for 'distancing', and 'I/he/she were' simply seen as an exception (see quote from The Cambridge Grammar of English Grammar, above), charming and elegant as it may be for some people, and even for me sometimes. I'm not saying that the history of the subjunctive isn't interesting in its own right, but as far as modern language teaching is concerned, I don't think it's worth much more than a quick mention to explain the 'were' exception.

Warsaw Will March 7, 2015, 8:04am

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There are two Etihad Stadiums, one in Manchester and one in Australia. The latter rarely seems to get a 'the', the former sometimes. Officially the Manchester seems to take 'the', but more often than not (for example in Wikipedia) is mentioned without. Manchester City's own website appear to use both versions (compare the article with the map):

This is not a grammatical rule about sponsors, just that sponsored stadium names appear to usually take 'the'. It's not a matter of 'should be'. And writers are free to do what they like. Here are a couple of site searches, one for the BBC, and one for the football site 'FourFourTwo'; you'll see that both versions get used. That's life!

Warsaw Will March 7, 2015, 7:04am

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@jayles - custom, I guess - the way a lot of grammar is formed. It's the same for a five dollar bill, an eight pound baby, any time we have a number being used with a noun of measurement. It's not so much because 'it's what people say' as that it would sound odd with the s.

The other form takes the s because it's replacing of, and would have the s even in the singular. It's one mile's walk from here.

Warsaw Will March 5, 2015, 2:54am

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In fact that sentence "If I was the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law." does work,as a mixed-time hypothetical condition, but only if you accept that "was"can be used in hypothetical conditionals.

@jayles - I agree that there is a hidden subjunctive in things like "If I had", but I'm not so convinced by your arguments about modals. French and Spanish use similar expressions, but they are part of their conditional mood, not subjunctive. Theres'a website put together by a subjunctive fan, with a very comprehensive collection of examples, and he doesn't, as far as I can see, include expressions like this.

I'm aware Lowth talks of using the subjunctive with words like "may, might, could, would", but I haven't investigated it very far. It might be worth, however, exploring the possible link between "should" and the subjunctive - the fact that it can be inverted, and that Brits often use it instead of present subjunctive, and in expressions like "I should think so". But again, I can't remember seeing anyone fererring to this as the subjunctive.

Warsaw Will March 5, 2015, 2:43am

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@ElleEnglish re: "If I was the Prime Minister, I would have changed the law."

"I would have changed the law" is still hypothetical, but with past reference, so you need "had" in the "if" clause - "If I had been prime minister, I would have changed the law"

The only way I can think of when "If I was"can be used with past reference is using 'real past ', for example when it refers to a repeated event in the past - "If I was in London, I always stayed at the Ritz." Or, in an example similar to the 'cad' one above - "If I was rude (earlier on), I apologise" (as opposed to "If I were rude, I would apologise")

" If the subjunctive disappeared altogether, it would make for extremely confusing communication at times." - So why aren't we confused with every other verb and four persons of 'be'?

I'm not 'uneducated', in fact I know quite a lot about grammar. But I also know I have a choice.

Warsaw Will March 3, 2015, 1:58am

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uninverted, narrowness

Warsaw Will March 3, 2015, 1:23am

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Yes, jayles, you're right, there are a couple of times when we don't have that freedom, and one of them is when we use inversion in conditionals. But in the univerted version of the expression you used 'was' would be OK, at least according to Oxford Dictionaries Online:

" if it wasn’t/weren’t for…
used to say that somebody/something stopped somebody/something from happening If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be alive today."

Inversion seems to lock you into the subjunctive. For example, we can't abbreviate 'not' here either - an asterisk means it's ungrammatical, i.e. not acceptable to the majority of speakers:

If he were/was arriving later, I could go and fetch him.
Were he coming later, I could go and fetch him.
*Was he coming later, I could go and fetch him.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.
Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.
*Hadn't I seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.

Interestingly, some writers also used to replace the 'would have' part with 'had'. When this happened together with inversion, Priestley called it the double conjunctive (his word for subjunctive) and thought it had 'a peculiar elegance':

'He had (= would have) formed one of the shining characters of his age, had not the extreme narowness of his genius, in everything but war, diminished the lustre of his merits.' David Hume, History

The other exception would be the fixed phrase 'If I were you'. This would sound very odd with 'was'.

For more on inversion in conditionals, see:

Warsaw Will March 3, 2015, 1:21am

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The last one is easy enough - in 'It's a four-hour walk' the time expression is adjectival, whereas in 'It's four hours' walk' were saying it's a walk of four hours, hence the apostrophe. But many people are dropping the apostrophe in plural quantities, which is understandable.

As for the rest, I don't think you can draw up hard and fast rules. Custom has led to some being used more one way, others another. It's a bit like compound nouns: together, hyphend or separate? There is no rule, that I know of.

Warsaw Will March 3, 2015, 12:52am

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OK. First, there is no 100% rule when it comes to the use or not of 'the' in place names; there are always exceptions. So I was careful to use the word 'usually'. And I should say that all the stadiums I mentioned are in Britain. It may be different in other English-speaking countries.

1. The Brittania Stadium - No, Brittania is not a part of England, but the old Latin name for the island of Britain. But in this case, the stadium owes its name to its sponsor, the Britannia Co-operative Bank.

2. The Hawthorns, the Valley: these both take their names from natural features. Apparently the site of the present West Brom ground used to be covered in hawthorn bushes, hence the name.

3. Old Trafford is an area of Manchester, Anfield is an area of Liverpool. Villa Park seems to have been called after the team that play there; 'park' is sometimes used to mean football pitch, especially, I think in Scotland. Also, parks themselves tend to have names without 'the': Central Park in NYC, in London: Hyde Park, Green Park, Richmond Park, Kensington Gardens. Regent's Park is usually referred to without 'the', but its official title is The Regent's Park, being called after Prinnie, the Prince Regent, later George IV.

You really need to check these out on an individual basis (like I did, at Wikipedia). But I think what I said before stands as a general principle.

Warsaw Will March 3, 2015, 12:44am

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Well, you've caught me out there. I teach foreigners English and write a blog on aspects of English, and one of my posts was about the use (or not) of 'the' in place names (a bit of a problem for learners). But after a quick check, I notice that although I have entries for "theatre, hall, bar, station" etc, "stadium" is noticeable by its absence.

But I'll go for the same rule as with theatres, airports, bridges etc. If it has name of the town or place where it is situated, then 'the' is unusual - Wembley Stadium, Twickenham Stadium (rugby union) - both Wembley and Twickenham are geographical areas of London, Murrayfield Stadium (centre of Scottish rugby; it's in an area of Edinburgh called Murrayfield).

However when a descriptive word or the name of a person comes first, 'the' is more likely. If I can take a theatre analogy, in Cambridge there's a theatre called "Cambridge Arts Theatre", while in London there's "The Cambridge Theatre", presumably called after a long-dead Duke of Cambridge.

Back to stadiums - in the UK we have "The Millenium Stadium, The Emirates Stadium, The Stadium of Light (Sunderland AFC), The Macron Stadium, The Madejski Stadium". Note that two, of these, Emirates and Macron, are called after their sponsors, and one of them, Madejski, after a hotel which is part of the stadium.

One stadium seems to neatly sum up this rule. Headingley stadium, named after the area of Leeds it is situated in, has long been famous in the world of rugby. Now it is "The Headingley Carnegie Stadium" due to their sponsorship by the Carnegie School of Sport Exercise and Physical Education, at Leeds Metropolitan University. No doubt as more and more stadiums start bearing the names of their sponsors, the defiite article will appear correspondingly more often.

Cricket, incidentally, has "The Oval" - after its shape, but "Lords", not called after some aristocrat, when you might expect "the", but after a certain Thomas Lord, so it sort of makes sense.

Once again, as with football, much if this comes from Wikipedia.

Warsaw Will March 2, 2015, 4:49am

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