In German, you pretty much always use the present perfect for normal past tense statements; the simple past appears in writing, but they don’t use it much.
Not so in English! In fact, we use the present perfect too much! (ahem, in my opinion)
First, the rule of thumb: If you can use the simple past, use it. Don’t use the present perfect unless there’s a clear connection with the present.
Look at the third cell in this Crumb comic. The bird says, “I have just punctured…”
Now change it to “I just punctured…” It has more, um, punch, doesn’t it?
Here’s a sentence from a work environment:
I emailed him, but he hasn’t replied yet.
“I emailed”—simple past. Happened once in the past and it’s over. (In Greek that would be the aorist, but I digress). “He has not replied” is in the present perfect, because he could have replied any time up until now, so there’s a clear connection with the present.
Here’s another one:
It rained all day yesterday; it has rained all day today, too
Yesterday is done with—use the simple past. Today is still going on—use present perfect.
Remember, if you can, you should use the simple past, nich war?
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Recently a friend asked me about indefinite articles in English. You know, “a” and “an.” The rule is to use “an” before vowel sounds, “a” before consonant sounds. Why the “n”? We hear illiterates say “a apple” all the time, even though we never hear anyone say “an fish.”
First, a little background.
In Greek, they have a thing called thematic vowels. They don’t mean anything; their sole purpose is to make words easier to pronounce. Greek has a lot of inflections (word endings put there for grammatical reasons) and sometimes (to the Greeks, anyway), the beginning of that inflection didn’t sit right with the end of the root word, so they slipped in a vowel to smooth over the transition. For example, the root lu- (related to our word “loose”) could have an inflection that means a certain type of first person singular (-mai). Well, they didn’t like to say “lumai,” so they said “luomai.” (Yes, Greek scholars, I’m oversimplifying.) If you think the Greeks had it bad, Sanskrit was worse. They had this sort of thing between every pair of words, called “sandhi,” meaning “a putting together.” (This, I am told, is the origin of the word for the ice cream treat “sundae.” —a putting together of sauce and ice cream.)
That’s pretty far afield from English. All you need to get out of all that is that we can put in letters to make things easier to pronounce. Two more digressions:
- The word comes from the German word for “one,” “ein.” So the “an” form came first.
- Some words that started with “n” transferred that initial letter to the article! “Uncle” used to be “nuncle.” This is called juncture loss, by the way.
So there you have it. The only reason for the two forms is to make English sound better. Be thankful that’s the only rule for the indefinite article in English. Here’s a chart for the same thing in German:
Don’t even get me started on “the”!
PS. I just ran into this Rabbits Against Magic comic. I think he meant to write “an” instead of “and.”
I have mentioned apostrophes now and then, so don’t expect much new today. This comic, by Jon Kudelka, who might be an Australian, appeared recently, though, and I can’t resist repeating myself.
Apostrophes are replacements for letters you leave out of a word. The apostrophe as the sign of the possessive in nouns (not pronouns!) came from the German, where the possessive ending is usually -es. We take out the e.
Rule 1: Plurals don’t get an apostrophe, even if you’re writing grocery store vegetable signs.
Rule 2: For possessives, look at the noun (not pronoun!) that you want to make into a possessive. If it ends in an single s, put an apostrophe on the end and you’re done. If it doesn’t end in s, add apostrophe s.
Rule 3: You don’t need an apostrophe to pluralize an acronym.
Want a couple complications?
Complication 1: If the word you want to pluralize ends in a vowel or laryngeal sound before the s, you do the apostrophe followed by nothing, but you pronounce the missing -es ending. For example, “Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” is pronounced “Jesuses Sermon etc.” and my first name, “Rogers,” has the possessive form “Rogers’ ” and you pronounce it “Rogerses.” Both of these, with the -es, are how you spell and pronounce the plural, by the way.
Complication 2: Use apostrophe s for the possessive of acronyms, even if the acronym ends in ss (for example, the Office of Strategic Services is the OSS). This is the only time in English where you can have three of the same letter in a row. “The OSS’s pronouncement” is grammatical. (Okay, onomatopoetic words can have any number of repeated letters. A snake goes “ssssssss,” and a cow goes “moooo.”)
Complication 3: Pronouns have their own possessive forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their. No apostrophe! That’s not really a complication, is it?
In German, if you change the prefix to a word, especially a verb, you get a completely different word. Brauchen means “need,” but gebrauchen means “buy.” English is less rigorous. Lots of times we add a prefix or suffix to a word and get the same meaning. I think we want to say the word more strongly, so we add a random syllable someplace. Today I’ll remind you of a few of them, and make the better choice bold. Perhaps you can add to the list.
Flammable and inflammable. I have a comic for this one:
The comments on this comic are funny, too.
Preventive and preventative. The latter is generally considered low class.
Valuable and invaluable. I suppose the latter literally means “having a value that can’t be calculated,” but we have the perfectly good word “priceless” for that.
Regardless and irregardless. Never use “irregardless”! It’ll peg you as semi-literate in an instant, and you’ll become an object of derision by curmudgeons everwhere.
Caregiver and caretaker. These two are synonyms when they refer to someone who deals with the elderly. I think “caregiver” is a result of marketing efforts in the elder-care industry, and I think the word does have nicer connotations than caretaker, which can also apply to animals and gardens. You’re a caretaker, not a caregiver, at the zoo.
Burn up and burn down. Okay, there’s a distinction here if you care to make it. “Burn up” means completely consumed by fire, and “burn down” refers to a structure such as a house. “Burned up” is more general.
Titled and entitled. Here’s an example of two words that have separate meanings in different contexts. Titled can mean you’re a Duke or something like that, and entitled can mean you have permission to possess something. But when you refer to the name of a book, you should say the book is titled Thus and So.
Okay—your turn what are your favorite meaningless prefixes and suffixes?