Watch your Modifiers

rogersgeorge on January 4th, 2017

Sometimes you can make your writing clearer by adding one or more modifiers. But be sure your added detail is necessary and meaningful. Saying you have a red car distinguishes it meaningfully from different cars (for example, of other colors) but often the word “different” by itself doesn’t carry a lot of content. The world being what it is, if you have another of something, it’s almost always a different one, so you’re not adding a lot of content to say “different.” I mentioned this in the past, so go there.

You have probably heard the tongue-in-cheek comment that someone is “a little bit pregnant.” Pregnancy is one of those things that either is or isn’t; you don’t have much choice of degree.

I just ran into another example of a not-very-meaningful modifier (emphasis mine):

It wasn’t however until Nov 1985 after a workshop that the first media report (in the NY Times) showed the NASA results (publishing another Oct 1983 map for a slightly different day).

They’re not talking about the weather, so I’m not sure that “slightly” means much. I mean, either its the same day or it’s a different day, right? Like being pregnant. Maybe they could be more explicit, saying something like “another day in the same week.”

Anyway, here’s the warning: Pay attention to your writing. And a tip: if you at all can, reread your work the next day. You’ll be able to give it a fresh look.

PS—Since I thought of it, I’ll add that Greek has an interesting way of handling “different.” They have two words, heteros, which means “another of a different kind.” Apples are heteros from horses, if you will. The other is allos, which means “another of the same kind.” My car is allos from your car.

Okay, back to work.

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rogersgeorge on November 23rd, 2016

This is a grammar lesson of sorts. In school, you were not taught something about verbs because English doesn’t formalize it, but it’s important in several other languages, particularly Slavic languages and Hebrew (which is where I first learned about this).

The something is called Aspect.

Aspect is hard for me to define but it has something to do with tense, but not exactly. Tense is where in time you place something. “I run” is the simple present tense; it happens now. “I ran” is the simple past tense, it happened in the past. But what about “I am running” and “I was running”? We call these progressive tenses, but the difference between these and the simple past and present is aspect.

Let’s think about the simple present. It can refer to the future, sort of. “Click the × in the upper right corner. The window closes.” This is using the present tense of close to indicate that something is customary. This customariness is an aspect.

In high school, my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Baird taught us to conjugate verbs, and she had one form that included the helping verb “to be about to.” So we had “I am about to run.” I don’t remember what she called this form, and I have searched all over for it and can’t find it in a conjugation anywhere. Maybe it had something to do with her study of Sanskrit. Anyway, this seems to be another use of aspect.

Why am I writing about this rather abstruse subject? Well, for a while I was studying Greek and Hebrew at the same time, and it occurred to me that Greek verbs showed aspect, even though this was never mentioned in class. Then recently I ran into a scholarly article about aspect in Greek verbs! It’s so scholarly I won’t even link to the article, though if you want to take a look at it, email me and I’ll send you a pdf. To give you an idea what you would be in for, here are two sentences:

For the sake of simplicity this chapter focuses primarily on perfective and imperfective aspects, concerning which there is the most consensus among New Testament scholars, and on the indicative mood. However, it will be suggested that a time-relational approach also offers potential for explaining the aspect of the perfect and pluperfect tenses, and that of the future tense in the nonindicative moods.

So now you can say you know something about English that almost nobody else knows!

Time for Another Comic about Grammar

rogersgeorge on August 27th, 2016

Your grammar reveals social status—which side of the tracks you are from. Demonstrated by this Rubes comic, sort of.


Beware those double negatives! Though only the grammar police would try to interpret this as a positive. I might add that in classical Greek, a double negative was interpreted as a strong negative.

By the way, English has one double positive that means a negative. The expression “yeah, right.”

Indefinite Articles

rogersgeorge on August 7th, 2016

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.”


Counting with letters

rogersgeorge on May 18th, 2012

The numerals we use were popularized in Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci. We have some evidence (in the form of a date on a sign on a coal mine or something mundane like that) that our numerals were known in Europe before 1202, but Fibonacci generally gets the credit for popularizing them. Here’s a cleaned-up chart of the originals:

They used the number of angles in the figures as a mnemonic

Before that, we had Roman Numerals, of course, but what did we use to count with before the Romans? We used letters.

Before I tell you how that works, I must mention numerology. Numerology is the practice of assigning numerical values to letters, counting up the sum, and looking for interesting patterns in the numbers you get. The most common way nowadays it to assign the values 1 through 26 to the letters of the English alphabet. Numerologists manipulate results pretty much at will; consequently you can prove anything you like with numerology if you work at it. It’s a bunch of hokum. I even figured out how to prove that I, your humble curmudgeon, am the antichrist! Ask me how and I’ll tell you. It’s all very clear, and completely bogus.

Since at least the Greeks and the Hebrews actually did use letters (other groups had a pile of other systems), you can assign a numerical value to a word. When the Greeks were actually counting, they put a mark at the corner of the letter to show that it was being used as a numeral. But they didn’t go from 1 to 26 (okay, 24) in assigning the values. First, here’s a Greek alphabet.

Lowercase letters came later

Numbers, like musical terms and place names, tends to be conservative linguistically, and that leads to a monkey wrench. Between epsilon and zeta, when you’re counting, you have to insert an obsolete letter called a digamma. The digamma looks like a capital F, and it stands for six. Keep counting, and you get to iota standing for ten. Kappa is 20, not eleven. Lambda is 30, and so on, until you get to the next monkey wrench between pi and rho. In goes another obsolete letter, qof, which looks like a lollipop, and it stands for 90. Hence, rho is 100. Sigma is 200, and so on. I don’t know of a letter for 900, and they used a word for a thousand, related to our word myriad. So if you want to say you have 23 sheep, you would use kappa gamma with a mark after the two letters.

Obviously, with a system like this you can assign values to actual Greek words pretty easily. Look up the numerical values and add them up. It’s from this practice that we get the expression “the number of a name.”

And having used that expression, I have to bring up the book of Revelation and the number of the beast. What I described above is how you get to the infamous 666. You have a few problems figuring out who he is, though.

  • It’s easy to get from a word to a number, but hard to get from a number to a word. Try it.
  • What language do you use? Classical Greek? Modern Greek? Hebrew? Latin? Aramaic? Italian? King James English? Whatever language the beast speaks?
  • What name do you use? First name? Title? Whole name? Last name? Maybe his secret name. How about nickname? Or the name his opponents call him?

Obviously it’s going to be hard to figure out who the guy is in advance, and plenty of people have figured out plenty of ways to assign 666 to a lot of famous folks enemies. My recommendation: make it into a party game. Use something like the Greek method on the English alphabet, and assign people their numbers accordingly. Make up some rules, such as the higher your number the more intelligent (or some other desirable characteristic) you are. Perhaps the closer your numbers are, the more compatible, and you can add the number of your pet’s name to bring your numbers closer together. Married people who have the same last name would be very compatible.

The sky’s the limit.