June 22, 2011

Weird English, Canadians and paragraphs

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:17 pm by changisme

In light of the recent riot in Vancouver, J. J. called for a self reflection as Canadians. I am referring to his article not because it’s a particularly insightful analysis (though the language is nice), but rather it poses a subtle irony in my opinion. Despite the ethnic and cultural diversity in Canada, it remains one of the most patriotic and non-warring state in the world.

In the most recent census, visible minorities cracked 5 million, an all time high, making up 16% of the Canadian population. More impressively, South Asian immigrants surpassed Chinese, the traditional leading minority population. Immigration takes up 80% of the population growth. All this is not even counting non-visible minorities such as Russian and other Eastern European immigrants. Mind you the last census was awhile ago when I was still working with Stats Canada, so the newer one will reveal more interesting statistics.

Canadian societies claim that they differ from from American cultural policy in that they put transculturalism on the pedestal, as opposed to being a melting pot. In theory, transculturalism respects the existence of pockets of differing cultures, while a melting pot reconciles different cultures into one. In practice, however, social interactions are much more complex. I will not talk about the power struggles between races if history didn’t give way, but I am interested in the notion of patriotism, which is certainly part of hockey and part of Canadians’ tireless search for identity.

China is often labeled as a country filled with propaganda, but in the post-Maoist era, aside from a few short instances, patriotism is more on the slogans and less on the individual psyche. Patriotism is simply too empty to entertain anyone.

The US, other than political speeches, also isn’t very patriotic. It’s non-patriotic almost in an opposite way China is though. Americans often aren’t aware that they could compare US with another country. For example, there are definitely people who aren’t aware that there are films and music outside of the US, and hence, never entertain the idea that American movies and music are better than everyone else’s. Religion is another example, some Christians are not aware of drastically different practices within the same denomination but in different countries. Another factor is war, which could split a country into two opposite factions, but it is one avenue for people to become suddenly aware the existence of other nations.

Canada on the other hand has a lot of patriotism, throughout elementary education and commercial cultural practices. A Canadian school teacher is more likely to proudly talk about how Canada is more beautiful and peaceful and great to live in than an American teacher. A Canadian manufacturer is more likely to pride itself as being Canadian than an American manufacturer to pride itself American. In my travels, I most commonly meet Germans, Dutch and Canadians, and the occasional American. Only Canadians like to talk about how great Canada is. Maybe the Germans only say it in German so I can’t tell :(.

I think part of the reason for this is the awareness Canada has about other nations and cultures, most notably, the American mass <everything>. Self criticism in the American media not only inform its own citizens about the deficiencies and absurdities of political and cultural phenomena, it also informs the Canadian audiance, which is also glued to American TV stations. Further, Canadians are either immigrants or live with numerous immigrants, so they are more aware of the differences between societies. Many a times when long term immigrants get reverse cultural shock, the first thing they do is to seek out their Canadian identity.

All this being said, sports fans are always pretty fanatic. It’s not unlike wars. Americans are just fanatic cross state boarders rather than national borders. If there is ever a day when a Canadian team is about to beat an American team in the NBA…


Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. Thus a brief description, a brief summary of a literary work, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea, any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, it should be examined to see whether subdivision will not improve it.

Ordinarily, however, a subject requires subdivision into topics, each of which should be made the subject of a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to him that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

The extent of subdivision will vary with the length of the composition. For example, a short notice of a book or poem might consist of a single paragraph. One slightly longer might consist of two paragraphs:

A. Account of the work.

B. Critical discussion.

A report on a poem, written for a class in literature, might consist of seven paragraphs:

A. Facts of composition and publication.

B. Kind of poem; metrical form.

C. Subject.

D. Treatment of subject.

E. For what chiefly remarkable.

F. Wherein characteristic of the writer.

G. Relationship to other works.

The contents of paragraphs C and D would vary with the poem. Usually, paragraph C would indicate the actual or imagined circumstances of the poem (the situation), if these call for explanation, and would then state the subject and outline its development. If the poem is a narrative in the third person throughout, paragraph C need contain no more than a concise summary of the action. Paragraph D would indicate the leading ideas and show how they are made prominent, or would indicate what points in the narrative are chiefly emphasized.

A novel might be discussed under the heads:

A. Setting.

B. Plot.

C. Characters.

D. Purpose.

A historical event might be discussed under the heads:

A. What led up to the event.

B. Account of the event.

C. What the event led up to.

In treating either of these last two subjects, the writer would probably find it necessary to subdivide one or more of the topics here given.

As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs. An exception may be made of sentences of transition, indicating the relation between the parts of an exposition or argument.

In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker. The application of this rule, when dialogue and narrative are combined, is best learned from examples in well-printed works of fiction.

Paragraphs are interesting things. Aristotle used paragraphs by putting a horizontal line near a blank spot, denoting the onset of a new paragraph. However, he didn’t really have any other punctuation, so I don’t actually know why people classify that as a paragraph rather than just a sentence. Or maybe the Greeks are just so verbose that their sentences go on forever. The Bible certainly had paragraphs pretty early, in the Council of Nicaea.

Ancient Chinese didn’t really have punctuation as we know it today. They had grammatical components which indicated both the tone (eg. question, exclamation) as well as the ending of a sentence. I don’t actually know how paragraphs evolved in prose.

The kind of rigid paragraph I learned was the Schaffer paragraph, where 3 or 4 sentences are sandwiched between an introductory and a summary sentence. Whenever I use it, I never get any good feedback.

June 21, 2011

Weird English, not so weird.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:54 pm by changisme

When I posed the question whether there should really be a right way to speak, Kevin said that there should be one right set of grammar to speak a language, because otherwise people would not be able to understand each other. It made me think of Feyerabend’s Against Method, which advocates scientific anarchy. Feyerabend claims that all thoughts and ideas expand human knowledge, and therefore, the conservative nature of the scientific enterprise only hinders the progress of our exploration. Similarly, language is also a living organism. Whether or not it’s evolving may be questionable, but at the very least, it’s adaptable. If I agree with Feyerabend, then rules and grammar would only inhibit the expression of language. The problem is, I don’t entirely agree with Feyerabend.

Science, as a paradigm, is structured by one theory relying on another. It is certainly a conservative structure, as research assume the validity of old theories until proven otherwise. Also, the current scientific institutions work by picking the low hanging fruit first, and disproving older theories are assumed to be that sour apple on the very top of the tree. This structure, however, is a natural result of the complexity of science relative to the limitation of human life span and available tools. Prior to the information explosion, calculations took a long time and spread of information was slow. Someone could certainly try to start science from the ground up if they were Vampires. Nowadays, our tools are more sophisticated, but the more I read, the less I know. Information explosion made it even more impossible to ignore all theories.

Moreover, more people are doing science now because social progress in education and technical progression in accessibility. Therefore, people are more likely to converge into camps within the community in order to be heard. When there are camps, there are naturally boundaries, theories and definitions that define the camps. Within camps, there is more collaboration and information/data sharing. Between camps, arguing takes place. Therefore, a paradigmic scientific structure is not only inevitable, but may also be more efficient.

What about within a language? For languages such as French and Chinese, there is a centralized institution mandating the grammar, pronunciations and other rules. These institutions would be like the Vatican of science (note that I don’t like to look at science and religion separately, but that’s a different issue altogether). On the other hand, English does not have such a legal institution. The OED comes closest to it. When there is a monopoly on theory/rule, there is little disagreeing to be speak of, other than within the institution. What if there is an oligopoly? Here is what I think languages differ from science. It appears to me there is less collaboration and data sharing in the world of grammar. I’m not sure how much efficiency is gained from having rules and structure which define “camps”. Interpretability as Kevin mentioned may be an issue but not really solved by grammar, especially not in English. Chinese in its modern form has more flexible grammar, but isn’t less interpretable than English.

All this, is a long winded way to say, I’m still not sure whether grammar is important to a language, other than being cultural by product.


Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation.

If there is room at the end of a line for one or more syllables of a word, but not for the whole word, divide the word, unless this involves cutting off only a single letter, or cutting off only two letters of a long word. No hard and fast rule for all words can be laid down. The principles most frequently applicable are:

a. Divide the word according to its formation:

know-ledge (not knowl-edge); Shake-speare (not Shakes-peare); de-scribe (not des-cribe); atmo-sphere (not atmos-phere);

b. Divide “on the vowel:”

edi-ble (not ed-ible); propo-sition; ordi-nary; espe-cial; reli-gious; oppo-nents; regu-lar; classi-fi-ca-tion (three divisions possible); deco-rative; presi-dent;

c. Divide between double letters, unless they come at the end of the simple form of the word:

Apen-nines; Cincin-nati; refer-ring; but tell-ing.

The treatment of consonants in combination is best shown from examples:

for-tune; pic-ture; presump-tuous; illus-tration; sub-stan-tial (either division); indus-try; instruc-tion; sug-ges-tion; incen-diary.

The student will do well to examine the syllable-division in a number of pages of any carefully printed book.

I assume dividing words between lines is to save paper. It reminds me of an interesting discussion I once had about whether Chinese saves paper compared to English. This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because it is hard to compare font sizes. If the height of a Chinese font and an English font are the same, the Chinese font would appear much smaller. If you have bad eye sight, English books are much easier to read, because in a unit area, strokes in Chinese are more packed than those in English.

In Mainland China, 10 years ago, fonts used to be smaller than Taiwan and Hongkong. There are two possible reasons. One was that books were cheaper then and people were poorer. Another was that simplified characters has fewer strokes than traditional fonts which are used in TW and HK. So when I was growing up, imported books were much thicker than locaal translations (my sample size was very small though). Once, someone did an ad hoc comparison for Taiwanese books, and found that the few Taiwanese books were thicker than their English counterparts. However, this comparison was only did on books translated from English to Chinese, so the Chinese version would have much more footnotes by my guess. footnotes do take up a lot of space, but maybe not as much as 100+ pages worth as in the case of Harry Potter. Another interesting question to ask is, whether vertically printed books take more space than horizontal ones (TW/HK vs. Mainland). If I were to guess, horizontal prints would save more space if the books are longer than they are wide.


June 20, 2011

Weird English + other stuff

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:23 pm by changisme

I need to keep reading about grammar but my day has been so much more “exciting” than the world most widely spoken language.

Fuck honesty. I know many people would think little of me to say it, but sometimes I really don’t want to know people’s honest opinions. If they really feel so eager to express their opinion about me, they can offer me ear muffs first. First thing in the morning, I got called stupid. Just as I tried to justify it as an unintentional slip of the tongue, I got called an awkward blind chick.

What does respect really mean? Some may say it’s to value others from the bottom of my heart, but I think that’s almost impossible. Everyone has their prejudices. It’s unrealistic to tell them to stop all at once. What I say? Just don’t tell me about it, say it to whoever you like. I would gladly live happily as the most ignorant bitch in the world. You can tell me that I’m just lying to myself and being insecure. So be it. I would be more of a liar if I said I would gladly open my mind to what people would say.

Some people say that self inhibition like this is what makes the northwest so passive aggressive. I disagree in some aspects. When person A want person B to do something for A, A should certainly be straight forward. Just be nice and maybe offer something in exchange. On the other hand, when I offer objective opinions without constructive advice, I need to choose my audience, unless of course, I am a professional asshole. By professional, I really do mean professional in the technical sense.

Of course, the situation would be different for work, in which case I am being paid to perform tasks that others are not responsible for. Even criticisms that only raises awareness are warranted. Hence the grammar lessons for myself.

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence:

He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.

On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. When he arrived (or, On his arrival) in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.
A soldier of proved valor, they entrusted him with the defence of the city. A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defence of the city.
Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me. Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.
Without a friend to counsel him, the temptation proved irresistible. Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible.

Sentences violating this rule are often ludicrous.

Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.

I actually love to read about mistakes such as those offered at the end of this section. It’s rather amusing. The interesting thing is, this type of mistake is more common among native English speakers than Chinese English learners. I’m unsure of the reason behind this contrast.

One reason could be that this structure is not present in the Chinese language, or rather, the descriptive clause at the beginning of the sentence is commonly incorporated into the middle of the sentence instead. Therefore, those who are habituated in a Chinese style of sentence composition are less likely to use this sentence structure mentioned in the quoted section. For example, one can easily say “Due to the dilapidated condition the house was in, I was able to buy it for very cheap. (Is “for very cheap” grammatically correct? Shouldn’t it be “very cheaply”?)

All this has been pretty straight forward, but there is one case I often see but does not comply with this rule. I could say “Putting it in a different way, we define risk as …. “. Sometimes, it’s “Seeing it from a different angle, …”. It could be that the right way to express this is actually “To put it in a different way, … ” or “To see it from a different angle, …”.

And by the way, we saw a wonderful play on Friday night. It was the world premier of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri, about a Cairo immigrant in the US falling in love with an American blond despite the fact that he is engaged to marry an American raised Muslim girl. The confused, immature, albeit sincere, douchebag, Musa, is wonderfully portrayed. Even though Sheri is slightly flatter as a character, her dialogues are hilarious. What I like the most about this play is how it showed both the incredible difference between cultures, but also the incredible similarities brought by being mere humans.

June 16, 2011

Weird English 4

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:01 pm by changisme

I feel hang over from a mournful evening. It was mournful for many reasons. First of all, the Canucks lost. It was the only lost either team had lost on home turf during the entire season, but it also happened to be the last game of the Stanley Cup. To make the matters worse, there was terrible riots on the streets. I guess that’s the difference between a riot and a protest, the latter actually has an agenda. I mourn for anyone who happened to have twisted their ankle or lost their car during the earthshaking mishap. It’s quite amazing how you can love, with such passion and irrationality, a group of other individuals who inevitably never even know you. It’s probably the same way I love Miles Vorkosigan or Robo.

Speaking of fictitious personalities, I watched the second movie of Harold and Kumar with a friend of mine. She strongly identifies with the Chinese culture and resents Seattle with all her might. Watching it with her made me realize how much western culture I have absorbed by osmosis. The humour in the movie is by no means subtle. It was mostly funny because of its absurdity. However, the movie is about Asian American, and can only be appreciated by those who knows the state of racism. What does it mean when I found it extremely funny while my friend didn’t? Along the same line, I am different from Harold also, who’s definitely much more of a Twinkie than I am. I, for one, would rather eat japchae than mini-burgers if I get the munchies.

4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause.

The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting. As they make complete sense when the comma is reached, the second clause has the appearance of an after-thought. Further, and, is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation. In the example above, the relation is that of cause and result. The two sentences might be rewritten:

As the early records of the city have disappeared, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape.

Or the subordinate clauses might be replaced by phrases:

Owing to the disappearance of the early records of the city, the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.In this perilous situation, there is still one chance of escape.

But a writer may err by making his sentences too uniformly compact and periodic, and an occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences of the type first quoted are common in easy, unstudied writing. But a writer should be careful not to construct too many of his sentences after this pattern (see Rule 14).

Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by as (in the sense of because), for, or, nor, and while (in the sense of and at the same time) likewise require a comma before the conjunction.

If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.

The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.For two-part sentences connected by an adverb, see the next section.

The first part, independent clauses “isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting” is so weird. The comma itself isn’t, but the passage is. Basically, it says if you rewrite this sentence, you might feel this sentence need to be rewritten. Wow… so zen.

I make fun of it, but I think what the authors are actually saying is that, you can tighten up sentences with independent clauses, and turn them into sentences with dependent clauses.

In a bigger picture, I don’t understand why English is so fixated on having conjunctions or semi-colons between two parts of a sentence if they both have a subject and a verb. The way I like it, I keep words in one sentence, just because I want to keep talking without interruption. It’s a completely legitimate desire for any argumentative human being. My mother certainly does.


June 15, 2011

Weird English 3

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:44 pm by changisme

I learned two a word today. One is mellifluous. I have heard it before but never really understood what it meant. I was just told that it meant sweet and pleasant to the ear. I wonder if this is how I can explain the meaning of my Chinese name. Up until now, I could only give examples of what liu chang means.

Speaking of words, Many English words are quite counter intuitive, but in a fascinating way. For example, gruntled means satisfied, but it sounds so… unsatisfactory. It sounds like grunt which, to me, is a sound you make out of disgust or physical stress. It also sound like runt, which carries a negative connotation and means a small and weak animal or person.

Then again, our feeling about words are often weird and unreasonable. For example, people tell me “moist” is a famously hated word. Is it simply the sexual image people think of upon hearing the word? There are so many other words with equal or more sexual connections. Even its alleged synonym, wet, can be used in the sexual context. The way I see it, moist is dryer than wet, and it can at least has the pleasant describee of a piece of cake. Mmm, a moist piece of german chocolate cake… What about wet? The most common food related phrase it’s in is a wet noodle. Is it the sound of “moist” then? I actually rather like the word because of it, it sounds pretty moist. Just imagine a word meaning moist called “clacky”.



3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase, is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether the interruption be slight or considerable, he must never omit one comma and leave the other. Such punctuation as

Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson paid us a visit yesterday,or

My brother you will be pleased to hear, is now in perfect health,is indefensible.

Non-restrictive relative clauses are, in accordance with this rule, set off by commas.

The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested.Similar clauses introduced by where and when are similarly punctuated.

In 1769, when Napoleon was born, Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is a few miles from Bridgewater.

In these sentences the clauses introduced by which, when, and where are non-restrictive; they do not limit the application of the words on which they depend, but add, parenthetically, statements supplementing those in the principal clauses. Each sentence is a combination of two statements which might have been made independently.

The audience was at first indifferent. Later it became more and more interested.Napoleon was born in 1769. At that time Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.

Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at Nether Stowey. Nether Stowey is only a few miles from Bridgewater.

Restrictive relative clauses are not set off by commas.

The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place.In this sentence the relative clause restricts the application of the word candidate to a single person. Unlike those above, the sentence cannot be split into two independent statements.

The abbreviations etc. and jr. are always preceded by a comma, and except at the end of a sentence, followed by one.

Similar in principle to the enclosing of parenthetic expressions between commas is the setting off by commas of phrases or dependent clauses preceding or following the main clause of a sentence. The sentences quoted in this section and under Rules 4, 5, 6, 7, 16, and 18 should afford sufficient guidance.

If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after it.

He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

Parenthetical clauses, such as those described in this section of Strunk and White, seem to be present in most modern Romance and Germanic languages. I would love to know if it is the case in ancient languages or modern Indo-Iranian languages also. In old literary Chinese, it is fairly uncommon. Long descriptive clauses usually precede the subject. Modern Chinese, occasionally has parenthetical inserts, slightly more common in written form. Parenthetical clauses, when spoken, can easily be unnatural, though not always. They are common markers for second language learners.

According to the author, if the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. At first I thought, maybe single-word phrases interrupt the flow of the sentence only very slightly, but later in the passage, the author wrote “but add, parenthetically, statements supplementing those in the principal clauses”. Ah well, I guessed it wrongly.

I was told that parenthetical markers who and whom are used to substitute the position of human or personalified animals/inanimate objects, while the marker “which” is used in place of honest-to-God inanimate objects. It is rather peculiar why collective of humans, such as audience and staff, would be a “which”. I know people en masse are stupid, and you should mash your staff like potatoes, but still! Isn’t America better than this?

The whole <name>, Jr. business is weird in so many levels. First of all, if it really qualifies to be in the discussion about parenthetical clauses, the author declared quite harshly that never have just one comma associated with the clause. You either have both commas or none. However, you never see people write, “Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement”.

By the way, why is George H.W. Bush called Bush, Sr. anyway? He doesn’t even have the same name as George W. Bush.

Also, there are people who are called <name>, Jr. and there are people called <name>, II. According to some, “Jr” is reserved for sons, and II would be for other descendants. I am still unclear whether James, II can be James, Sr’s nephew. It would be neat to see an entire family named James to analyze their nomenclature. This is not a European-only phenomenon though. When I traveled to Bali, I met at least 5 or 6 Wayans and just as many Mades. It’s quite incredible that they still introduced themselves to me as Wayan and Made. You would have thought if the first names would be so indiscriminating, they would use their last names instead? Just imagine working in a hospital: “What your name, Sir?” “A. Nurse, I work night shifts.” In fact, this is the case in one other universe, Flatland, where geometric shapes, such as triangles, reside. The protagonist’s name is A. Square.

June 14, 2011

Weird English 2

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:03 pm by changisme

Another lunch break, and another blog post on the oddity of  Strunk and White‘s English grammar.

Before I begin, due to my constant desire to go on a tangent, I just want to talk about a debate I heard earlier over freedom of expression. The debate was among three philosophers and touched on many facets, such as privacy, religious advocacy, public figures, etc. Just as classical philosophical deductions go, the focus was always on logic and consistency.

To me, this is quite strange, because freedom of speech is really not based on logic. It’s based on our society’s mutual agreement to protect the vulnerable. We encourage the less powerful to speak up for themselves or to have someone speaking up for them. By the same token, we dissuade hate speech against ethnic and religious minorities. The entire enterprise is based on our beliefs about who are vulnerable and what is protection. This means each culture is going to be different. The history of Germany is different from that of the US, and therefore would and should have different attitudes towards hate speech. China… oh never mind. Singapore, with different religious proportionality from the US, has a different set of laws (The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act). A country like the US has been very stable and is likely to remain as such. Therefore, it does not consider disharmony or instability a relevant argument for suppression of speech. Other countries which have undergone more turmoil in the last century tend to be (overly) paranoid.

It is altogether unreasonable to consider freedom of expression as an all-culture ideal detached from historical contexts and cultural composition… which… is what I have been doing. Talking… is a weird.


2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

red, white, and bluehonest, energetic, but headstrong

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

In the names of business firms the last comma is omitted, as

Brown, Shipley and CompanyThe abbreviation etc., even if only a single term comes before it, is always preceded by a comma.

This rule surprised me because it is not what I have seen from books, but I’m quite excited. In modern Chinese, people do exactly this for serial nouns. For verbs and adjectives however, the conjunction is usually omitted. How could I have claimed English and Chinese were different?

Why is there an exception for company names though? Even businessmen have to breath right?

The case of etc is the most outrageous: “The abbreviation etc., even if only a single term comes before it, is always preceded by a comma.” First of all, would I need a conjunction, like “a sandwich, and etc”? Honest to God, it’s just plain weird to have a comma between a single term and etc. I ate a strawberry, and etc for lunch. Since, I’ve been pretending to be a Canadian for the past 3 years, I should really be more sensitive toward such things, maybe this rule was invented by an asthmatic. I’m all for the rules that protect the vulnerable.

June 13, 2011

The Weird English 1

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:27 pm by changisme

It’s not easy to find a boss who cares about my personal development so much. Today, he recommended Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to me for the third time. I have read 10 pages of it the first time he said I should improve my English, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to read much more it. To pursue my glorious American dream and commemorate Jane Shen’s decision to go to Cornell, I’ll go through the book a section at a time in this blog.

As an overview, The book has six Chapters, each of which is divided into 10 to 20 sections, with the exception of Chapters III and IV. I’m going to rave/rant about one section at a time. This book seems to be widely regarded as well as widely criticized. As a non-native English non-writer, I have little authority to assume either position. Nonetheless, I can give my take on the passage.

English is pretty weird in general, but the reason I call this series the Weird English is that I don’t believe the principles mentioned in this book are axiomatic for English writers. If they were, I would call this “English is Weird” instead.


Chapter I Elementary Rules of Usage

1. Adding possessive singular of of nouns by adding ‘s. 

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

the witch’s malice

This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by

the heel of Achilles

the laws of Moses

the temple of Isis

The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

I remember possessive ‘s was the second grammar rule we learned in English class following adding s’s to plurals. My impression then was, wow, these English speakers sure love their s’s (I will tell you more about my classroom story later).

So… what exactly is the possessive of s, s’s or s’?

The first sentence of the third paragraph doesn’t make sense to me: Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. Is the rule of exception only applicable to ancient names? What about Kisses chocolate? Only applicable for words ending with -es and -is? If Jesus uses the abbreviated possessive, what about Judas? If so, why single out -es and -is from other -s?

Further, the authors are unclear about why “for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake” are using the abbreviated possessive. Is it because the word following the possessive starts with an s? If so, why can’t they just say so?! Also, “for Heaven’s sake” would also have their s’s clashing into each other. Righteousness already has an s at the end to clash with the s in sake, how much harm can another s do? If clashing is not the problem, why are apprentice’s legal?

The next section is also quite strange. Why is it appropriate to say the Law of Moses, while we say “land of ours” as opposed to “land of us”?

Then the last sentence is even weirder. You mean to say “oneself” is a pronominal possessive? How would you use it anyway? It is to be noted that “oneself” seems to have been deleted from later versions of The Elements of Style.

I promised to tell my story, didn’t I? It’s tangential. Learning possessive when I was in school made me feel quite good about myself in contrast with learning plurals previously. You have to know, Chinese doesn’t really have plurals, let alone countable and uncountable nouns.

“Uncountable nouns are exception to the rules,” the teacher said, “except there are exceptions to this exception, because sometimes uncountable nouns can be countable too. For example, you can say ‘one water’.” Or did she mean “one Vodka”? What a drunken language!


June 3, 2011


Posted in Uncategorized at 10:45 am by changisme