Category Archives: Words and meanings

Tags and #Tags

Most people who use social media, know what tags are on Twitter etc. and use them to attract more followers. I will, no doubt, add a few tags to this post to advertise it and maybe encourage a few more readers to follow my blog.

Tags, when you are writing away from social media, are a bit different. These are short, questioning phrases, at the end of an affirmative or negative statement. Such as the cheery – “It’s cold today, isn’t it?”  as you hurry pass a neighbour in the street. Or the more hectoring – “You won’t do anything silly whilst I’m away, will you?” from a busy mother to a recalcitrant teenager.

Tags are regularly used in dialogue. Their aim is for the speaker to confirm that the person they are speaking to is listening to them and has understood what’s been said. They do not appear much in formal / literary prose. But they can be found in more informal prose, such as a newspaper article, where the writer wants to grab the reader’s attention, maybe with their opening sentence.

Even if they are mainly used informally, tags have their own grammatical ‘rules.’ They almost invariably use an auxiliary verb – to be, which is usually followed by a personal pronoun – it, you, I, we etc. Sometimes they us irregular verbs – “I’m a clever boy, aren’t I ?” (not amn’t I). I suppose you could say ‘am I not?’ but that sounds a bit pompous. And the perfectly correct, but archaic, contraction – ‘ain’t I?’ seems, to have gone out of fashion, doesn’t it?

As you can see from the above, the most used tags are in the negative, aren’t they? But they don’t have to be – and you don’t have to be a born again optimist to use a positive one occasionally, do you?

tag

Children playing tag – not a very relevant caption for this blog, is it?

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 I am taking a short break now – back the end of April.

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More About Meaning.

So many words mean more than one thing. This can come as a surprise – we get used to using a word in a particular way, and feel different usage is wrong. Often the more of an ‘expert’ you are with words (an unkind person might call you a pedant) the more likely you are to feel that other people have used a word wrongly – or, as George W Bush might say – miss-spoke – only to find if you look it up in a dictionary, that the alleged miss-use has a long and honorable tradition.

Thomas MoreTake the word refute. For some, the word only means ‘to disprove by argument or tangible evidence.’ This was my belief too until recently, though I haven’t taken to twitter to denounce the tweeters who use it to mean deny or rebut. After all, in the context the word was used, it was perfectly clear what was meant. However, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the use of refute to mean repudiate or deny has been around since atwilliam-tyndale2-300 least the 1880s, and possibly goes back to the sixteenth century when Sir Thomas More in a dispute with William Tyndale wrote: ‘If Tyndale wold now refute myne objection ….’

I have problems with other words too, believing that ‘educated’ people like me should only use infer, for example, to mean something you deduce from what has been said, or you can see, and should not to be used instead of imply. Only people who don’t know any better muddle the two up. But, having just checked in my Collins dictionary, I find infer can also legitimately mean to hint at (or imply) from the Latin inferreto bring into.

All this means I need to be a lot more careful now-a-days in ‘correcting’ people’s spelling and grammar. They might challenge me to look in a dictionary and – horror – find it was me (I?) in the wrong.

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Musing About Meaning.

Meaning, my Collins dictionary tells me, is ‘the sense or significance of a word, sentence, symbol etc.’ It can mean a few other things as well – as in well-meaning, but today I am concentrating on the above definition.

Ever keen on a spot of self-improvement I am currently reading a book by Timothy Gowers that describes itself as ‘a very short introduction to mathematics.’ Re-assured by his preface in which he states that he would not assume by the end of the book that his readers would have understood and remembered everything that he’d written earlier, I was tempted to skip right to the last chapter, and just pretend I’d read it. But I’m not sure that is quite what he meant, so I have dutifully started with chapter one and am now on chapter 2.

Two pages into the first chapter on numbers and abstraction, the author starts talking Wittgenstienabout the philosophy of language and meaning – with not a number in sight. He quotes Wittgenstein – the meaning of a word is its use in the language – and the school of logical positivists – the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Neither quotation deepened my understanding of mathematics (that started to kick in half way through chapter two – honestly). But they put me in mind of advice given to me when I was training to be a social worker – meaning is what your client thinks you told them, not what you know you said to them.

Does this help when writing? Certainly guidance manuals and legal documents are better if their meaning is crystal clear to the reader. But what about fiction? No fiction writer wants to get into the kind of detail that avoids all ambiguity, but bores a reader rigid. But you do want to be clear enough in your prose for your readers to react to situations the way you intended: if there is an emotional death-bed scene, you want them to cry with sorrow, not with laughter (Charles Dickens, who could be very sentimental, sometimes got this wrong!)

PopeShowing, not telling, creates particular demands on a writer to convey meaning without spelling it out, whilst moving the plot forward. There is always the need to bring your work to life – not always with original thinking (boy meets girl etc. are well used and popular themes) but certainly with original expression. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it – what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Meaning does not have to be immediately obvious – readers often like a challenge and, in regard to poetry especially, sometimes a piece has to be read more than once for its meaning to become clear. In complex work, different readers can take away different meanings from the same piece. Or you can find a different meaning on re-reading something. And that is fine – and hopefully just what the writer had intended.

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Who says ‘whom’ these days?

I was brought up to use the word whom when writing ‘correct’ English prose. Whom isHemingway the accusative form of who, as in the title of Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), or in the phrase – I didn’t realise to whom I was talking.

The first phrase is a truly memorable title for a book (and is taken from an equally evocative sermon by the poet John Donne, when he was the Dean of St Paul’s, London – never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee But the latter comes across as clumsy and old fashioned. Wouldn’t it sound better to write: I didn’t realise who I john-donne-1-638was talking to (complete with stranded preposition – but that’s for another blog)?

The fact is, whom is used less and less these days, and almost never in conversation. Publishing houses and newspapers will have their preferred style guide, which it is wise to follow if you want them to publish your work, but otherwise it seems that it is perfectly OK to use who, and perfectly OK to use whom. You choose.

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It’s snowing, in other words.

snow

It has been snowing for the past couple of days. That’s a rare, but not completely unknown, event for the beginning of March in this part of the world (Coventry UK). But the snow that fell seemed different from our usual moist mush – each flake has seemed unusually small and dry. And it has been blown about by high winds leaving large parts of the pavements almost clear of snow and other parts with deep drifts. I tried googling to see if there is a special word for this type of snow and it just might be ‘soft hail’ or graupel – a word that came into English in the nineteenth century from the German graupe, meaning pearl barley.

The Inuit are said to have 100 words for snow, which does seem rather a lot, even for such a snow bound region. However theresnow flake are several words in English that, if not exactly synonyms for snow, can be used for different types of snowy conditions. Some are quite well known – blizzard, sleet, slush …

Here are a few less familiar terms that you can try impressing your friends with, next time you’re out for a winter walk – though you may end up with a snowball in your face.

Onding: a heavy fall of snow, but not enough for a blizzard (from Scots / NE England dialects).

Skift: a light fall of snow (probably nineteenth century)

Sposh: slushy snow (based on the archaic meaning of posh – a slushy mess of mud and broken ice).

Neve: compacted granular snow, such as you find on top of glaciers. (The word is originally from the Latin for snow – nix. Other derivations include niveous – resembling snow, and subnivean – under the snow.)

Grue: thin floating ice or snow. To grue can also mean to shiver with cold or fear – perhaps at something gruesome? (Nineteenth century)

Corn snow:  granular snow formed by a mix of thawing and freezing. (It is an early twentieth century term, used to describe the best snow for the newly popular sport of skiing).

Snow 2

 

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Grammar query – Is it I, or me, that’s wrong?

When to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a piece of writing can cause arguments, confusion, and – if you pen to paperthink you’re in the right – a severe dose of smugness about other people’s ignorance. But the correct usage is not always straightforward. Some years ago, in The State of the Language, Philip Howard wrote: “Already, even educated users of English, such as journalists, suffer from chronic uncertainty about the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and the other cases of pronouns.”

Old school grammarians, like Sir Ernest Gowers in Plain Words, have been quite clear about what they think is right: if the first pronoun is in the object case then the pronoun following ‘and’ must also be in the object case, as in ‘between him and me,’ or ‘he decided to let her go, but not me.’ Moreover in educated society, I was brought up to believe, the subject case should be used with the verb ‘to be.’

I tend to the old school usage, and sometimes have to stop myself jumping in with a correction when I hear people say things like ‘between you and I’ instead of my preferred ‘between you and me.’ But more modern grammarians, such as Oliver Kamm, have said there is no rule for or against using ‘I’ or ‘me’ in such a phrase. It’s just a question of what you are used to – although publishers and newspapers will have their house style rules, and writers will be expected to conform with these, whatever they personally prefer. pen and paper

You can’t blame modern teaching methods, or the vogue for more informal speech, as the quandary over which is correct goes back hundreds of years. After all, the greatest writer of them all, William Shakespeare, has written ‘All debts are cleared between you and I’ (Merchant of Venice) or ‘… Cassio and she together,’ (Othello), so if it is OK by him ….

No doubt I will continue to say and write ‘between you and me’ etc. because that is what I am comfortable with. But I should accept that it is a convention I am comfortable with pen and paper 2not a grammatical rule, and that to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ is not a blunder (even if my computer’s spell checker agrees with me!)

Anyway, I too am inconsistent. I have never answered the question ‘who is that?’ with the phrase ‘It is I.‘  To me ‘I’ sounds pretentious and ‘me’ sounds much more natural – even if it is not strictly grammatical for those who take their subject case pronouns very seriously!

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Is a scapegoat what we think it is?

A few posts ago (on 4th February), I wrote about how the term whipping boy was used wrongly to mean a scapegoat. Which doesn’t mean to say that people should be called to account if they use the term – of course not; that would just be being pedantic. But why should those of us who now know its false derivation, not view the term with a supercilious smirk?

What about the word scapegoat though? Does that still mean, er, scapegoat – a person made to take the blame for one or more others? It seems so. The word was first used in 1530 by William Tyndale in his translation of The Bible from Hebrew. He took the wordGoats Go.. Inspecting. Azazel to mean ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape.’ (OT, Leviticus, Chapter 8). In the Mosaic ritual for the Day of Atonement two goats are selected: one to be sacrificed, the other to be laden with the sins of the community and sent off into the wild – literally, the goat that escapes.

Since Tyndale, other animals have been used in literature for the same purpose, usually with humorous intent. But scapegoose, scapehorse and scapecat, have never really caught on.

That deals with the goat bit of the word. Does scape also mean what we think it does? I believe so. My dictionary describes it as an archaic word for escape – as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Cassius says to Brutus:

“How scaped I killing, when I crossed you so?” (Act IV, scene 3).

By the way, if you find anything wrong with this post, don’t blame me. Blame the spell checker – my usual scapegoat for any spelling, grammatical or other mistakes.

This post is going out on 14th February, Valentine’s Day. Would you like a gentle love story to read? Then try my short story, Sleeping Beauty. You might think the young heroine is a scapegoat at first – until it all ends happily ever after.

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