Picking Nits in English

Lately I’ve repeatedly come across two bits of English usage that look really wrong to me. Checking them up, it turns out that in one case I was right, in the other wrong.

Principle/principal. Many native English speakers of extremely high academic accomplishment don’t seem to know that “principle” is a noun and “principal” most commonly an adjective. They will happily write “my principle objection is blah blah bla”. Wroooong.

Jealousy/envy. In Swedish, the words svartsjuka and avund have distinct meanings. Svartsjuka (literally “black illness”) is what you feel when you fear that your partner may be cheating on you. Avund is what you feel when a colleague gets the big grant you both applied for. Now, I used to believe that “jealousy” mapped exactly onto svartsjuka and “envy” onto its cognate avund. I thought people were making an entertaining error when they said they were jealous of the neighbour’s new car. Not so. According to the dictionaries I’ve consulted, “jealousy” in fact encompasses both svartsjuka and avund, while “envy” does map directly onto avund. Envy is thus a subset of jealousy. I find that I’m expected to experience jealousy both if the mailman bangs my wife and if he gets the big grant I applied for.

Don’t even get me started on how bad native English speakers are at faking King James Bible grammar.

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34 thoughts on “Picking Nits in English

  1. …that “principle” is a noun and “principal” an adjective.

    Wroooong. Well, to be kind, incomplete. “Principal” is both an adjective and a noun. It has a wide variety of uses as a noun.


  2. Don’t even get me started on how bad native English speakers are at faking King James Bible grammar.

    Just ask Joseph Smith.


  3. As far as the King James Bible English goes, I know what you mean, but there are good reasons for it. Modern English, as you clearly know, is hardly inflected at all (and Lolcats are steadily eroding a lot of what’s left 🙂 ). So explaining to people about how `dost’ is second person, but `doeth’ is third, and how you only need to inflect the auxiliary verb so thou dost help, not dost helpst, just misses most people completely. Explaining who versus whom, and therefore subject versus object, is even worse.

    The worse reason of course is that English grammar isn’t taught at any basic level, because usage is considered enough of a guide. I learnt how to parse my own language from Latin classes. But my point is, it’s not just that native English speakers are stupid; we really have to look to find this stuff out unless we’re lucky. Rather a shame, to say the least.


  4. But aren’t English speakers learning any foreign languages? (I know many Americans aren’t.) Learn some German and you’ll understand inflections and cases — some of the suffixes are even the same as in KJV English.

    A Swedish high school graduate typically has twelve years of English and three to six years of a third language.


  5. Very few English people learn foreign languages at all these days. They used to be compulsory, badly taught, and without prestige. Now they are well taught, and without prestige. Also, they are hard work. So, since part of the object is to game the system in order to get the max number of exam passes (and schools play along with this too) the hard subjects are less and less studied.

    I had always supposed that jealousy and envy did map the way you described them, neatly onto svartsjuka and avund. Perhaps the meaning has shifted as a form of euphemism. Envy, after all, is never an attractive quality, and presupposes an inferior position in the envier, whereas even God himself is not ashamed to say he’s jealous.

    Certainly, I would say that swedes more readily admit to envy, and have an easier time regarding it as an essential, if unattractive, part of society (jfr jantelagen, which is envy codified) than the English do.


  6. Ok, I’m still totally confused about principle/principal… I was your average good-girl-student in school, but grammar made me seriously contemplate jumping out the window! I read french for 6 years and hardly dare open my mouth to speak it (though I can with the aid of a dictionary struggle my way through a text).

    I was really bad at english for many years, only when I started reading beloved books in their original english did the dams break. All my english fluency owes thanks to fantasy novels, sitcoms and Blackadder (which I know by heart).
    Some learn languages easily if they are presented with the grammatic rules, other close up immediately, and need practice and natural use to understand the principles…err principals….NO principles!

    Assignment: Please explain the different uses of “that” and “which” in texts. I always get confused.


  7. `Which’ and `that’ have me confused. I didn’t know there were clauses where `which’ was deprecated till MS Word started calling me on it, and I’ve always been loath to take Redmond’s idea of grammar as binding on a UK speaker. Oddly, though, there is a very similar confusing cluster in Catalan, and therefore perhaps in the other Spanish languages, where `que’ (which is `that’, more or less) and `qué’ (which is `which’ or `whom’ – unless I have them mixed up) have very specific cases where one is correct and the other isn’t. Given it’s only a stress difference, of course, one can just mumble 🙂 Meanwhile, however, I just use `that’ and `which’ to stop one or other of them turning up in a complicated sentence too often 🙂


    `Principle’ vs. `principal’ is much easier. They’re just two different words, they’re not related at all except that they both come from the Latin `princeps’, which helps explain something.

    `Principle’, -le, is a noun that means: a guiding rule, a precept, a law, an idea that governes something. It can be ethical, legal, grammatical, or pragmatic, whatever, but it’s a rule, so it comes from `princeps’ in the sense that rules come from the prince.

    `Principal’, -al, is both a noun and an adjective, and the noun means: the major constituent, the most important part, the significant item in a group or mixture. (Or, as one commentator pointed out earlier, the basic sum involved in a loan of money, to which everything else is incidental. Or of course the head teacher of a school in the USA – the UK would always say headmaster, headmistress or headteacher.) That derives easily into an adjective meaning the same thing, `most important’, `of core concern’, and so on.

    So you could have a principal objection about a matter of principle. Or a principled objection to the choice of a principal. But not vice versa in either case. Okay, that’s not helping any more is it? But hopefully some of this did.


  8. I agree completely that English teaching is poor and teaching of other languages almost non-existant in America, and in Mississippi in particular. For instance, the difference between plural s and possessive ‘s has been forgotten. The thumpers do often have a hard time understanding thier 16th century bibles. Martin’s English is better than mine, which is pretty embarassing. If you want to learn another language, you are pretty much on your own. What you get in a college, much less high school level, class is just enough to get started. I realized that the 4 semesters of Spanish required for a BA would quicly go the way of my Chinese if I didn’t stay on top of it with daily use. I had avoided the German languages because I’d heard they were extra difficult, but the little exposure I’ve gotten to Swedish and Norwegian thru this site (thanks!) indicate that they aren’t far from English at all, with only moderate inflection. Just rambling, but my point is, I think, that there is no good excuse for young people not picking up several languages for use or fun.


  9. The envy:jealousy thing: one thing that makes English so difficult, and flexible, is that the vocabulary is drawn from many sources. So we have the Germanic cognate envy and the Latinate congnate zeal (also seen in Spanish celoso, jealous or ruttish) and its French derivative jeoulous. I had always considered them synonyms as nouns, but envy to be primarily (principally) a verb.


  10. That/which . . .

    “That” is used to narrow down choices and to specify a particular item: I went to my house that was painted red. (Implies I have another house painted a different color that I did not go to).

    “Which” is almost parenthetical (adding additional but unnecessary information): I went to my house, which was painted red. I have one house, and it just so happens to be painted red.

    Of course, these days even native English speakers often fail to make the distinction.


  11. Having just returned from a longer stay in France, I have suddenly realised how important grammar really is. I took four years of French, and two years of Spanish. I don’t know why, but the Spanish has really stayed on, and the French hasn’t. Allthough I have a good vocabulary in French, I have completely forgotten much grammar, which is kind of deadly to a foreigner that does not want to be ridiculed publicly in France ( e g, getting laughted at and not being served at cafés and restaurants).
    What I’ll do is communicate with simple sentences (probably avoiding some good conversations with French people – but then I would be seriously handicapped). Also, I discovered that the general loss of letters in the language when pronouncing French words means that the different forms of verbs sounds practically the same, which gives the not so sure about them an advantage in talking.
    But the point is, even the French has problems with their grammar.
    Writer Stephen Grey (author of many great books on the ups and downs of living in France) point out that if you give some randomly selected Frenchmen the meaning “I love the shoes you gave me”, they will have a really hard time translating it. Giving their natural feeling for the language, imagine to give that sentence to someone with none. This is probably why many people don’t even bother to learn French.

    I’ve read in a science report, that the larger their language are, the smaller the chance is that they should learn another language. This is off course relative to the area. In a multicultural area like the island of Mauritius (where French and English are big languages, but also Hindi and chinese) people has the biggest knownledge of other languages in the world. Even though a Mauritian are English or French speaking, they bother learning Hindi, Tamil, Chinese or Kreol Mauritien.

    One place that has astonished me linguistically is Tunisia and Morocco. These places are practically homogeniously Arabic-speaking (aside from minority Berber lingo in isolated areas). But many people are really good at French and Spanish, probably most people learn it well. Even English, German and (!) Swedish. I even heard a Tunisian salesmen talking Finnish. This has off course historical reasons. French and Spanish was the languages of the colonisateurs of North Africa, so they where adopted as the main western languages over there (even though the use of Italian is inexistant in Libya which makes the Mahgrib countries unique). But English, German and other much obscure languages is mainly learned by salesmen that work in the tourist industry. Also by north African ex-expat which has lived in different european countries and came back (one pizzeria in Tangiers was named Pizzeria Oslo)
    This makes me wonder if the language scientist are wrong about their above-mentioned theory, but I don’t know.


  12. Yeah, Swedish law and accunting has a lot of funny old words. One of my favourites is självtäkt, which means the unlawful stealing-back of things someone has stolen from you, but sounds like it might mean autorape.


  13. In Aus most kids still learn a foreign language, although generally only for a couple of years – enough to pick up some vocab, and conjugate verbs in the present tense. WHICH language they learn is anyone’s guess. When I was a school in the 70’s and 80’s the most common was French, followed by German. The high school I went to offered French, German, Russian and Indonesian. Now quite a few primary schools (as well as secondary) teach Italian. Greek is taught in two streams – for native and non-native speakers. All up, the state Assessment Board offers 12-15 different languages for the finall year of high school, although each school will generally only offer 1 or 2, and any student who wants to do a different language has to do it by correspondence.

    At school I had a lot of older teachers, who did teach grammar. My sister, four years younger than me, had a lot of young teachers fresh out of college, who were all into creative writing and never mind the grammar. Nonetheless, the grammar I learnt in English classes was fairly basic – noun, verb, adverb, adjective, past, present and future tense. It wasn’t until I was learning French in the last two years of school that I realised that there were more than three tenses! I also learnt German for two years, and gave up in despair. I still have no idea what the different cases are and where they belong. My teacher was very much into “these are the rules, they apply to this bit of grammar” with no explaination of what this bit of grammar actually is or does, or any examples in English.

    Jalousie to me means a sweet french pastry, probably involving almonds (although I think they come in other flavours too).

    “Well, surely you have seen Swedish students attempt “gammalstafning”? That usually ends up a disaster…”

    Ummm, No I haven’t. What is gammalstafning?


  14. Principal/principle are homonyms. English is full of the little buggers and they confuse people all the time. Especially when they’re (their/there) scribbling quick comments on blogs or in comment threads. See also: it’s/its; where/were… These errors always seem blindingly obvious to me, but I can understand how they cause people confusion, so I’ve learned to be tolerant.

    Also, sometimes they’re good entertainment. There was a perfect gem in one of the BBC blogs’ comment threads (always a great source for these things) today: apparently a cricketer who played an exceptional game at the weekend had ‘a feel day’. I’m still giggling about that one. The Guardian’s daily corrections column regularly has some amusing examples.


  15. Ummm, No I haven’t. What is gammalstafning?

    It means “old spelling” and is itself spelled archaically (today it would be “gammalstavning”). Swedish has had a few more-or-less organized reforms over the years. About one hundred years ago was one, which did away with spellings like “stafva” (for “stava”: “spell”), “hvila” (for “vila”: “rest) and similar things. This was, AFAIK, a reform imposed from on high. About fifty or so years ago, Swedish dropped plural endings from verbs. It is now “jag gick” och “de gick” (“I went”/”they went”) instead of “jag gick” och “de gingo”. Apparently the plural forms weren’t spoken since a long time even then.


  16. And now, when less-well-read Swedes want to write in a humorously archaeic way, they toss in haphazard plural forms and misunderstood older spellings. Cf. “I dost smite thou in ye olde nutte-sacke” and similar horrors.


  17. It’s truly embarrassing (sorry – truley embbarasing) how crap native English speakers are with their own language. We learnt Latin at school (it’s rare nowadays), which was a splendid way to acquaint us young students with the joys of grammar. It does also make it easier to find your way around other languages, especially Italian and Spanish, of course.

    The disregard for basic grammatical principles in English is painful. Things like “he did this for you and I” really make me cringe to the pit of my gut.

    But we pedants are important people – you really want a pedant to proof-read your submission to Nature, because, no matter how ground-breaking and paradigm-shifting your science is, if you’ve misplaced an apostrophe, you’re going to (not “gonna” – there is no such flipping word, Americans!) look like a real twit.


  18. Envy: I wish she were sitting on my lap.
    Jealosy: She has no business sitting on his lap.

    Related to Mary’s comment about English words drawn from different languages, motto and slogan are synonymous in modern English. Motto comes from the same Latin root as mutter, while slogan is from a Gaelic word for shout.


  19. Åsa, the way we learned it in school, which and that also have to do with whether it’s animal or human. You do not say which about a human, so:
    The boy who is standing over there is my brother.
    The dog which is sitting nicely cannot possibly be my dog (she does not sit nicely).

    One thing that always seems to confuse Swedish people is the difference between lay and lie in the English language. Then just when you think you’ve got active vs passive actions and all that figured out, along comes “Now I lay me down to sleep” just to really confuse people.
    Then there are fish and fich vs fishes, and “If I were to” as opposed to “if I was to”, and all sorts of other things like that. Really, there are more things that break the rules than there are things that follow the rules of English grammar. It really doesn’t help then, that we learn them all off by heart, only to land in an English speaking country where people on a regular basis would say “Yo, dude where’s my shoes done got put now??”

    I took Latin. I don’t think I really understood languages until then. Before then, I learned by listening to others speak, but with Latin, I learned a language that is dead, by reading. Different brain halves, maybe?


  20. “only to land in an English speaking country where people on a regular basis would say “Yo, dude where’s my shoes done got put now??”

    No, you won’t hear that in an English speaking country, only in an American speaking one. 😉


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