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Apostrophes & Passive Errors

It’s not often that I would dare accuse Oxford Dictionaries of getting it wrong but I’m going to stick my neck out in a pedantic dispute over apostrophes.

The OED – and its online edition – is normally one of my Bibles. It’s where I go when in doubt about a spelling or the correct usage of a word.

But I think they’ve got it wrong this time.

I work part-time as a sub-editor for a newspaper and the other day – in a moment of boredom – I had a go at an ‘Apostrophe Challenge‘ on their website. Hoping, of course, to get 10 out of 10!

But I was flummoxed by one question where all of the possible answers included an apostrophe and, according to the answer given, we should refer to “a 1940s’ building”.

Huh?! If we were talking about a building belonging to the 1940s then I would follow the logic but surely in this sense we’re using 1940s as an adjective. Therefore, no apostrophe should be used.

If you wrote out the numbers would you use an apostrophe? E.g. “a nineteen forties’ building”. Or if talking about “sixties’ heartthrob Adam Faith”. I think not.

The logic of using an apostrophe also falls down if you think about other historical eras. If we were describing a building as “Victorian” or “colonial” we wouldn’t use an apostrophe. The words here would be adjectives so why take a different approach to the 1940s?

I’d be interested to know what others think. I asked around in my office and the unanimous reaction was there should be no apostrophe. My news editor said it’s the kind of mistake we’re always trying to get junior reporters to stop making in their copy!

I must hold my hand up to one of my own errors though. The first reviewer on Amazon.com for my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits told me off for the ‘affectation’ of using the passive form “is/was sat” when I should use the active “sits/is sitting”.

Guilty as charged! I’m not sure it’s an affectation, though, more of an unconscious error. I think I use this form quite often unintentionally. I don’t actually mean to infer that a third person has “sat” the person involved on a chair – which grammatically is what I’m implying, it’s just the way I speak/write.

I get thrown sometimes by American using the form “gotten”, which no longer exists in British English. Anyone else got any grammatical quirks to share?

 

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Scrabbling Around For The Apposite Word

Anyone who’s played Scrabble will know the feeling. You’ve got seven letters to play with and you’re convinced they should make a word in some language.

Just not English.

Which – unless you’re playing some alternative version of the game – can be so frustrating. (Particularly if you pride yourself on having a good vocabulary and still can’t make sense of what’s in front of you.)

So it’s always good to have a store of obscure letter combinations to trot out when under stress. (And to impress your opponents.) I find short ones like ka and id often come in handy.

And I’ve just found some new oddities, courtesy of a list of weird and wonderful words from the Oxford Dictionaries website.

Got too many vowels? Try aa – a kind of frothy lava! Or an etui – apparently an ornamental case for needles, cosmetics etc. Or there’s a gaita – a kind of bagpipe played in northern Spain and Portugal.

Want something a bit longer? What about gallux – which is the anatomical term for the big toe. Or while we’re in that area, try flews – the pendulous lip of a bloodhound.

Some words are way to long to ever appear on a Scrabble board. To absquatulate means to leave abruptly. Want to go and see an ecdysiast? That’s the posh term for a stripper! But don’t worry if you’ve got a humdudgeon – it’s just an imaginary illness.

I’ve always loved words. Hope you enjoy these ones – there are many, many more on the list.

The Mystery of NASA

Here’s a New Year puzzler. Nothing to do with space exploration but on the vagaries of the English language.

I’ve been teaching a Polish student recently and was doing some work on the use of articles – a, an and the – when talking about ‘things’.

Some rules are easy to explain – we put a or an in front of singular nouns when talking about something that we’re introducing for the first time, when the thing is one of many etc. The goes in front of plural nouns or when the individual thing is unique or we know specifically what we’re talking about.

We also don’t use an article (often confusing referred to as the zero article) when referring to certain things, including countries, people, concepts, types of things and some geographical features.

For example:

Agreen-skinned man from _ Mars was discussing _ politics as he had _ lunch with thePope on _ Thursday, while sailing a boat across _ Lake Chad in preparation for his crossing of theAtlantic Ocean.

It seems obvious when it’s your own language but believe me it’s not that simple for people learning English for the first time. A lot of my students would probably put the in front of Mars, politics, lunch and Thursday.

(I got confused when trying to learn Portuguese as they put the in front of proper names!)

But what’s got me really puzzled is NASA (and FIFA). Normally, with acronyms for organisations we follow the same pattern as if we spelt the name out in full, e.g. the BBC and the FBI but _ IBM.

So far so good. But can anyone explain why we talk about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) but not the NASA? I thought for a while it was to do with collective nouns but how does that work with the CIA and the RAF.

Answers on a postcard please…