You’ve Heard This A Lot, But…

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It’s pouring here! And I drew back the curtains as much as I could to see the rain, fixed myself a hot cuppa tea and pulled the blanket over my knees to sit and enjoy the evening. The plan was to do something else, but a number of posts on Facebook caught my attention with one same mistake – the use of “alot”. The sheer number of times I saw this today makes me wonder if this has become one of those things – a mistake that people make without realising it.

So some of the statuses I saw today were:

Enjoying alot with my cousins
May Lord Krishna bless you alot
I bought alot of new makeup products, but…
The pork I had alot of fat

Now, why is this a mistake? Simple – alot is not a word. Check any dictionary – alot doesn’t exist. Yet more people that I could count seem to use it.

Let’s see now what “lot” means. The word lot is defined as, “large number or amount, great deal.” When you say “a lot” you are simply adding an article before the noun to mean “a great deal or a large number”. For example,

Gingelly oil is used in a lot of cuisines
It rained a lot in some parts of the city
We received a lot of money in donation from someone anonymous

(Of course, there are other meanings of ‘lot’ too – such as space, in the case of a parking lot, but here, we are only talking about ‘lot’ in the case of large amount or number).

So basically a lot is a combination of an article and a noun. Like you’d say “a dog” or “the book”. But you wouldn’t combine the two, would you? You’d never write “adog” or “thebook”, right? You wouldn’t because it is incorrect. Likewise, “alot” is incorrect, and it should always, always be “a lot” because you wouldn’t say “alittle”, would you?

Why do people make this mistake though? I don’t really know, but I believe that we are all so used to saying “a lot” that some people assume it is what the word is, “alot” without really thinking about how illogical it is.

You may have written a lot of sentences with the incorrect “alot” but I’m hoping you won’t after today, yes?

 

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Just One of Those Things

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So, long time, no see, people! I’ve been busy with this and that and I have begun to gloss over people’s mistakes so I haven’t really written anything here. But there was this one thing I couldn’t get over – it’s all over my FB feed, it’s at work, and it’s in a lot of places I go to read stuff.

And it begins thus – “One of my friend…”

I’ll give you an example. Or two.

One of my friend thinks she is a direct descendant of Nefertiti.
One of my colleague is getting fired this week.

Now, both uses of the “one of” phrases are wrong. Do you see it? No? Okay, I’ll explain.

You have loads of friends. Okay, even if you are a loner, you have at least two friends. Likewise, whichever place you work in, surely there are more than at least two people?

So essentially, what you have is friendS and colleagueS. Plural.

Assuming that is true, you are now talking about one person. Of the many friends and colleagues you have, you are talking about a single person. So you are talking about one of your many friends. Or one of your many colleagues. Except, you don’t always say the word ‘many’ – it is automatically understood.

So when you are talking about them, what you essentially mean is,

One of my (many) friends thinks she is a direct descendant of Nefertiti.
One of my (many) colleagues is getting fired this week.

So you see, even if we omit the word ‘many’, the noun after is always in plural because, like I just said, you are talking about one of many of the type. This could be a person, a cat or even an inanimate object, like so:

One of my dogs is called Kitty.
I left one of my books in the subway.
One of the princes is hot.
A Macbook is one of the best computers you can buy today.

Get it? And of course, since you are talking about just one of the many, the verb following this will always be in the singular – so is, was, has etc.

So when you say ‘one of my friend’, it means that you have only one friend. And if you did have just one friend, you’d say ‘my friend’ and not ‘one of’ anything. Like,

My Louis Vuitton bag needs to be dusted.

Because I have only one Louis Vuitton bag, I will name it, and not say “one of my Louis Vuitton bag”.

So there, easy? It’s just one of the things people mess up sometimes. But you won’t after today, will you?

Stop Awhile, Stay A While

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You know how annoying it is when your computer thinks it knows better than you. Don’t you absolutely hate those red squiggles? I know I do.

I was writing a report the other day and the squiggles kept coming up under “a while” asking me to change it to “awhile”. The problem that my stupid Mac doesn’t understand is, these are two different things and not really interchangeable.

A while is a noun. It stands for a time. Could be anything. It could a year, a month, a fortnight, a week – anything. So when I say,

It’s been a while since I saw him

I could mean,

It’s been a month since I saw him

It’s been a week since I saw him

It’s been a year since I saw him

It’s been two years since I saw him

So when I say “a while” what I mean is a unit of time that is not specific. It doesn’t have to be exactly a week since I saw him, but it’s around that.

Used this way, you are putting an article (a) before a noun (while) and it can be replaced with the same combination of other article-nouns. In my above examples, it was thus:

article         noun

  a              while

  a              week

 a              year

   a              month

But then this isn’t a binding rule because, in the last sentence, I used “two years”, which is an adjective and a noun – two + years. Again, this denotes a unit of time, but not necessarily an exact unit of time – it doesn’t have to be exactly two years since I saw him.

So rounding up, “a while” is an article+noun that is used to denote a vague unit of time, but time nonetheless. When I say

It’s been a while since Apple made any significant changes in its design,

I mean that I know it’s been some time, but I don’t know exactly when the last design change was made. Note that you could replace “while” here with any unit of time – year, decade, whatever.

On the other hand, “awhile” is an adverb. We know that an adverb is a modifier. In this case, “awhile” is an adverb because it modifies a verb that is to follow or precede.

Awhile is always used with a verb. Consider the following sentences:

Go read awhile.

Wait awhile.

I think I will sleep awhile.

So you see how the verbs read, wait and sleep are getting modified? No? Okay, let’s break down one of the sentences a little more.

Go read awhile.

In this, awhile stands for “for a time”. It’s also vague, because I am not specifying how long you should go read for. But “awhile” literally means “for a while”. But when we use “awhile”, we don’t use a preposition. So the essential difference would be:

Go read awhile (no preposition, adverb)

Go read for a while (preposition, article+noun)

Let’s change the sentences a little now.

Go read quietly (no preposition, adverb)

Go read for quietly (grammatically incorrect, so not an adverb)

So this is my tip. When you are confused, simply change the adverb to another adverb. If it works, use “awhile”. If it doesn’t, use “a while”:

Go read awhile/Go read quietly (replacing awhile with quietly still works, so here, you use the adverb “awhile”)

Go read for awhile/Go read for quietly (doesn’t work to replace so you don’t use “awhile” because you are now saying “go read for for a while” (awhile = for a while), and this makes no sense. But if you are using the preposition for, you use Go read for a while)

Stop awhile here, and spend a while again on the article. Hope it becomes clearer to you!

An Especially Annoying Little Thing, Specially for You!

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I have fewer interactions with people in English these days, and the ones I do interact with are either very good or beyond hope. That explains why I haven’t written in a while. But today, I come to you with an especially confusing problem – and chose to write this article specially for your help in understanding the problem.

See what I did there? Huh? Huh? Yeah, in one sentence, I told you the difference between “especially” and “specially”. But, let’s explore that in slightly better detail, yes?

I have been seeing a lot of people make this mistake, but here’s what you need to remember. “Especially” is used to mean “particularly”. So if you are talking about something in particular, something that stands out from others, you use “especially”. Examples:

The implementation of the new law was especially difficult on old people.
I want to see a gin palace in London, especially the Sipsmith.
She makes no exceptions, especially when it comes to family.

So in all the above cases, what we mean is a particular item. I want to see gin palaces in London, so I could be going to any of them, but I particularly want to go to Sipsmith. So I would “especially” want to see Sipsmith.

“Especially” can also mean “extremely”, like so:

It is especially cold today, don’t you agree?
Of all the cocktails on the menu, their Long Island Iced Tea is especially popular.

So they have a lot of cocktails on the menu, but the Bloody Mary doesn’t hold a candle to the Long Island Iced Tea because the latter is “extremely” popular. So Long Island Iced Tea is “especially” favoured by the patrons.

On the contrary, “specially” means “for a special purpose”. Simple. See these:

Mummy made the spicy chicken specially for your homecoming.
I bought a red pair of shoes, specially for your wedding.
David created this puzzle specially to challenge young grad students.

So you see, the chicken, the shoes, the puzzle all had a special purpose. Mummy made the chicken because someone was coming home. I bought the red pair of shoes because I was going to a wedding. There would ordinarily be no reason for me to buy those shoes that day, or for Mummy to make the chicken, but both of these were done because there was a special occasion. Hence, they were done “specially”.

Easy, peasy, innit?

One of the Things to Remember?

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wrinkled_is_not_one_of_the_things_i_wanted_to_be_w_card-r5b01ea3cd2d3469098cc76ae0fcb1218_xvuak_8byvr_324Although this is not a very common mistake, I have been reading so much of this on Facebook that I just had to make this post today. Which one of the following is the correct sentence?

One of the boy in my neighbourhood has a monkey

One of the boys in my neighbourhood has a monkey.

The second one. Why? It’s simple, really, because when you add the word “of” in this sentence, what you mean is, there are many boys in your neighbourhood and one of them has a monkey. So the word following the “of” must always, always be in plural. For example,

One of the cars he has is red. (He has many cars, of which one is red)

One of the hikers was found dead (Of the many hikers, one was found dead)

One of the guests complained he was thirsty (Of the many guests, only one was thirsty).

So when you talk about one thing or person of many, the many is always a plural. Always! And because you are talking about that one thing, the verb that you insert in the sentence is always singular:

One of the cars he has is red (You are talking about that one car, not all of them)

One of the hikers was found dead (Just one was found dead, not all)

One of the guests complained that he was thirsty (Just one guest complained, not everyone did).

So there! I am really hoping this is one of the things you will remember the next time you write or say something about one of many.

An Older Problem About Elders

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Yesterday we were talking about something related to a business partner who, in terms of age, is our senior, and a question came up about whether we should say TG is like an older brother, or an elder brother.

Good question, actually, considering how in AmE the word “elder” is getting slowly phased out while in BrE the word still has a 50:50 usage. In IndE of course, we use these interchangeably, but are we correct when we do that?

As I do usually, let’s talk about the technicalities first. The word “elder” comes from the Old English “eldra” (oh, how I sucked in Old English back in college! Shame!) and this means a parent or other person who was born before you. Hence, there is a quantifier involved here: age. You know the age of your parents or the sibling born before you, and therefore, they are your elders. If TG was your own brother, you’d say he’s your elder brother.

The term is also used in religious context (The church elders) and sometimes in a social context (the village elders) but it is largely used within the immediate family.

Now, the word older is a comparative term for the word “old”, which comes from the Germanic “auld”. It is used to denote someone (or something, unlike the word “elder”) that has come before you, but you do not by how many days or years. I do not know what TG’s age is, but I do know that he was born before me. Hence, he is like an older brother.

In case of inanimate objects, you never use the word “elder” even if you can quantify the difference in age. For example, Christianity predates Scientology by a certain number of centuries. Yet, it will always be the “older” religion, and never the “elder” religion.

Let’s look at a usage example, shall we?

My eldest daughter is also the oldest child in school.

According to what I just told you, it will be my “eldest” daughter because I, being the parent, obviously know the relative age difference within the family and therefore, the age of my daughter. But I may not know the relative age difference in school. The demographic we are talking about may comprise children who are aged 6 as well as those who are aged 16. If my daughter is aged 17, then my daughter is the oldest child in the school because I do not know the age of any random person I am comparing her with in school.

However, in recent years, and largely due to the influence of AmE (read, Hollywood and US TV shows), the word “elder” is getting phased out. Therefore, it is equally common to hear “My oldest brother is a quarterback” or “my oldest daughter works in LAPD”. People use the term “older” to replace “elder” even in the family context: “My older sister is the sweetest person ever” or “my older brother is the worst poker player in the family”.

I am old-fashioned, and therefore, I still stick with the “elder brother” and “like an older brother” concept. Would you?

I Can Repeat Myself, But May I?

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On a previous post, I had written about the very basics of when to use “may” and when to use “might”. Today, let’s talk about when it is correct to say “May” and “Can”.

In school, one of the most common mistakes made was when people raised their hands to say “Miss, can I go to the toilet?” Our teachers would simply nod or shake their heads and never tell the girls about the mistake.

But then one day, a teacher did. She said, “You can, but you may not.” Do you get what the mistake was then?

Can is used when there is the question of ability involved. Can I go to the toilet? Of course I can go to the toilet. I have two legs and I know the direction where the toilet is, so I can go to the toilet. The camel can go without water for days because it has that hump where it can store water and all that, so it has the ability to skip drinking water unlike you and I. We cannot go without water because we do not function like that.

On the other hand, May is used when there is the question of permission involved. I have to ask the teacher if I may excuse myself to go to the toilet. I have to ask my father if I may take the newspaper from him. My child has to ask me if he may skip his homework today. In all these examples, my child and I are able to do all of these things, so we can do all that, but we seek permission to do these, so it is a question of whether or not we may do these things.

May also involves chance. There may be a chance of rain today. A crocodile may live up to be a hundred. See, there is a chance that the crocodile may die when it is fifty, but there is also a chance that it lives to be a hundred. There is a chance that it may rain, but there is also a chance that it may not rain. In this case, the question of ability does not arise. It is not in the hands of the crocodile to decide that it will live a hundred years, but there is chance that it will. Hence it may live a hundred years.

So may I assume that you can differentiate between the two now and say the correct thing the next time? If you still have questions, put them in the comment section and I’ll try to answer them as best as I can.

Wedding Vows and Marriage Rules

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gay-marriage-cartoon-265x203Have you noticed how many of us make posts on Facebook about our special days? We wish our dads on Fathers’ Day, our mothers on Mothers’ Day and our husbands on our anniversaries on Facebook instead of wishing them directly. I do that too, and I am not judging anyone here, but I do wince everytime I see people wishing each other:

Happy Marriage Anniversary darling!

Why? Because yor marriage does not have anniversaries. See, an anniversary by definition is,

the day on which an important event happened in a previous year

and by definition, a marriage is,

the relationship shared between husband and wife.

This means that you do not celebrate you marriage on the day you got married because a marriage is what you share – a relationship with your spouse and (call me old-fashioned) that is forever. You celebrate that every day. I hope these examples explain what I am trying to say:

After 10 years of marriage, David and Stella decided to separate
They decided to consummate the marriage on their honeymoon.

But what you celebrate on one special day every year is a wedding anniversary – the day you got married, signed a register, said your vows, walked around the fire, wore fancy clothes and smiled for a million photographs. For example,

You looked beautiful on the day of your wedding!
Do you remember the wedding date of Ram and Neha?

It is the ceremony that brought you together with your spouse and formed a marriage. You celebrate that union on that day and celebrate your Wedding Anniversary. So please, the next time you wish him or her, please wish your spouse a:

“Happy Wedding Anniversary”

and have a happy marriage.

So in a sentence, the words will be placed thus:

Every year on my wedding anniversary, I thank god for my wonderful husband and my happy marriage

Because like they say, a Wedding lasts a day, but a Marriage lasts forever.

PS: You can also use the word “nuptials” to mean a wedding:

I was not able to attend the nuptials because I was unwell.
The Mae de Deus Church was where my nuptials had taken place.

PS Again: Sorry for the tongue-in-cheek cartoon. I couldn’t help but make a statement about India’s Supreme Court ruling that gay relationships, and therefore marriages, are “unnatural” and illegal because they threaten the fabric of the society. Thanks to http://www.lesbilicious.co.uk/author/suecurley/ for the picture.

Of Fused Participles and A Teacher

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I largely learned most of my English from a handful of people in and outside school. One of them is Mrs. E. Rao, who had a very animated way of teaching us, and I think most of my knowledge of grammar rules comes directly from her. In fact, I can still recite two poems from memory because I still remember the day she taught us those: Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead and The Charge of The Light Brigade. And it was this wonderful woman who corrected in me something that almost everyone else messes up in speech or writing. Of course, I haven’t made the mistake since, and hopefully, after you are done reading this post, neither will you. And I have my fingers crossed here, because I am telling you what I was told a good 19 years ago.

There is a significant difference in the following two sentences:

I heard your screaming.
I heard you screaming.

The difference in the two sentences lies in the leading word or direct object. If “screaming” is the direct object of the sentence, the first sentence is correct. A logical follow up can be, “I heard your screaming, and came running.” But, if the leading word is “you”, then the first sentence will not work, or give a false outcome. In the second sentence, “you” is the direct object and a logical follow up to prove this can be: “I heard you screaming over all the din.”

Likewise, in the following two sentences:

I hate you making yourself comfortable in my home.
I hate your making yourself comfortable in my home,

the first sentence does not make sense. Do I hate you? Probably not. Do I hate your action? Most definitely yes. A simple way to remember this is, when your -ing word is taking up the noun role or becoming the direct object, you make your noun possessive. So, in the above example, “making” is our direct object, and therefore, to make a meaningful sentence, we use the possessive “your” instead of the “you”.

Grammatically speaking, this is an example of the fused participle, where the progressive form of a verb (ending in -ing), in addition to its primary function, may serve as either a noun or an adjective, in which case it is called a gerund or a present participle, respectively. One often faces a choice between these two usages. For example, when a gerund is modified by a possessive pronoun or noun and appears as the object of a verb or preposition, the modifier may in some cases be replaced by its objective form. The gerund is thereby transformed into an adjectival participle, and the meaning of the sentence changes accordingly.

However, if the noun or pronoun itself is taking up the role of the noun in the sentence and becoming a direct object, do not use the possessive. So in a sentence like,

I saw the man distributing the fliers,

I am talking about how I saw the man, not his distributing. The ‑ing verb distributing is clearly adjectival (describes the man) and modifies man.

I realised halfway in the post that I was aiming too high. Mrs. Rao’s shoes are too big for me to fill and I probably didn’t do justice to the little lesson she gave me outside the staff room that day. So if you are unclear about my explanation here, please comment and ask questions, and I will try my best to explain this further.

PS: There is no image with this post because Fused Participles seem too dry for the best minds in Grammar Cartoons also.

Speaking Up for Talking!

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1111When I lived in Goa, I used to talk to myself a lot. The only times I had a listener other than myself were when I was on call with my mother or mother-in-law or when the man came back in the evening. So sometimes, in sheer frustration, I used to talk to myself.

Sometimes I also spoke to myself. Those were the times when I used to tell myself to chin up or even suck up to something. It worked, mostly, because I believe that you can do so much more when you can motivate yourself, without necessarily allowing someone else to do the pepping.

I am hoping you’ve noticed that I used both “talk” and “speak” in two different senses. I did that to tell you that today I shall write about the essential difference between talking and speaking. While both imply vibrating your vocal chords, there are subtle differences and even if my blog failed to impress the jury at the Indian Blogger Awards, I know that I still have a fair number of followers on this blog. So here I am, at your service as always 🙂

So, speaking. While one can say that speaking is not very different from talking, there is one fundamental thing you need to know. Speaking is usually a more formal mode of communication. It generally implies that you are clear and, more importantly, intelligible, when you are expressing your thought. When you speak, you have already framed what you are going to say and usually, it is a more formal discussion, conversation or monologue. For example,

I shall speak at the Women’s Club tomorrow about healthy dieting.
The Principal spoke to us about our falling grades today.
I shall speak with him about his littering habits.

Let’s not get into the preposition after speaking just yet. We’ll talk about them on a later post, but do you get my point here? In all three examples, I have illustrated how speaking is a more formal expression and should be used as such.

Now, about talking, you may have heard the phrase “talking without saying anything”. We all do that, no matter how articulate we think we are, and that phrase best explains the word “talking”. Talking is what we do when we are in informal conversation. We may not have a set of framed ideas to convey, or even a planned number of items to discuss but when we talk, we may meander, faff, or even simply have a conversation that has meaning and purpose, but is still informal. For example,

I talked to him for hours last evening.

Danny was talking to Alex when I entered the room.

Befriend and talk to your neighbours because they are good people.

Again, we’ll skip the preposition part for now. but you do get the idea, don’t you? Talking is a more informal exchange where there no fixed agenda. I know that a lot of people now say, “I am giving a talk at the rally tomorrow” or “The chairman talked about the increased production costs” but it is inappropriate usage, I am afraid. Both occasions give a sense of being formal, and as such, you should always use the term “speak” in relation to them when you talk to your friends and family about them.

Another minor point here is, a lot of people consider “speaking” a more polite form of exchange while “talking” is perceived to be a harsher, or even cruder, form.

That makes me wonder, would the old farts sitting in Parliament behave themselves better if we had a “Talker” instead of a “Speaker” at the helm?