Category Archives: All things having to do with the English language

African Proverbs


I’ve been browsing through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and came across the following African proverbs. All were unfamiliar to me. What do you think the purpose of a proverb might be?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Haste, haste, has no blessing.

To the person who seizes two things, one always slips from his grasp.

The lie has seven endings.

Goodness sold itself, badness flaunted itself about.

Speak silver, reply gold.

The prayer of the chicken hawk does not get him the chicken.

Wisdom is not bought.

Not even God is wise enough.

Leave a log in the water as long as you like; it will never be a crocodile.


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What You Can Get at Trader Joe’s

For those of you who do not have a Trader Joe’s in your community, that is unfortunate. I have two of them no more than a five-minute drive from home. If I were to move away, they would likely have to close. Or so it seems to me.

Yesterday I stopped by my TJ’s to pick up “a few things”— you know how that goes. In the produce area, three employees were having a very serious discussion about whether to use lie or lay in a sentence. They were confused. After a minute, I somewhat hesitantly said I was an English teacher, and they seemed glad to see me. (Crazy, I know.) I then explained the words’ distinct uses and how each one is conjugated. When I explained  the past participle of lie, which is lain (as in I have lain in the hammock every day this summer), their jaws dropped. About five shoppers had gathered with my mini-class, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I swear, you can find anything at TJ’s, even a wacko English teacher.

In case you’re wondering about the differences between lie and lay, here you go:

I’m guessing that within 10 years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until July 2028, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored)—Lie means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That sentence covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. In the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written or spoken that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you should lay your head on your pillow.

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George Orwell on Language


George Orwell (whose given name was Eric Blair) wrote a prescient essay in 1946, called Politics and the English Language. We live in a polarized political climate, and no matter which side you stand on, these two quotations from Orwell’s essay will likely be ones you can agree with. (And yes, it’s fine to end sentences with prepositions.) I urge you to read the entire essay. I doubt you’ll ever forget it.

• Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

• The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

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Why? Why, Why, Why?

Why is English spelling so erratic? Why doesn’t each letter have just one sound, no matter what word it’s in? Why are finger and ginger pronounced so differently? The only difference is their initial letters. I posted the following list a little over a year ago (again, thanks to Nicki N.) I’m still as frustrated as ever. Imagine learning to spell in English if your native language is anything else.

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.

2) The farm was used to produce produce.

3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

4) We must polish the Polish furniture..

5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.

6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

10) I did not object to the object.

11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

13) They were too close to the door to close it.

14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.

15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

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One Newspaper, One Short Sentence, Two Errors

My Florida friend Cami found this confusing sentence in the Miami Herald. (She notes that Opa-Locka is a section of the Miami area): “A homeless family of six was found by Opa-Locka police officers living in their car.”

No doubt, this is a tragic situation. But from a grammatical standpoint, the sentence raises two questions: were the officers living in the same car with the family of six, or were the officers living in their separate car? It’s hard to tell because of the use of the pronoun their in the phrase living in their car. Their could refer to either the family or the police. Make sure you can clearly draw a mental arrow from your pronouns to their antecedents (the word or words they refer to).

It’s easy to fix this sentence. The rule with modifiers (words that give more information) is to place them right next to the word or words they are modifying. A clear version of this sentence would be, “A homeless family of six living in their car was found by Opa-Locka police officers.”

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I Bet You Speak Yiddish

You say you don’t? Let’s take a quick quiz and see what you know.

KVETCH: 1. To scratch  2. To complain  3. To stir

KLUTZ: 1. An instrument  2. A dessert  3. A clumsy person

SCHMUTS: 1. Dirt  2. A breed of dog  3. A stupid person

FRESS: 1. A dress  2. To walk quickly  3. To eat (usually sloppily, in a hurry)

SCHLEP:  1. To shop  2. To carry  3. To sleep

How did you do?

KVETCH #2   KLUTZ #3    SCHMUTS #1    FRESS #3    SCHLEP #2

All these words have become what some people call Yinglish: they are so commonly used in many parts of America that they often need no translation. Here is the dictionary definition of Yiddish:

|Yiddish ˈyidiSH| noun   a language used by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages and is today spoken mainly in the US, Israel, and Russia.


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How to Improve Your Writing in One Month


You might not believe me, but this method works:

• Set up a folder and label it Writing. Keep the folder on your desktop where you can find it.

• Every day, write one page on any topic you wish. Just one page. No more (but no less). It’s OK to double space.

• Put each page of your writing in the designated folder.

• Do this daily for one month. It may be best to begin on the first of the month, but you can start at any time.

• Do not read pages you’ve previously written. Not yet.

• At the end of the month, after your last entry, go back to the beginning and read your entries in order, from oldest to most recent. You will see improvement. I hope to hear from you about your success!


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