Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
August 16, 2008 at 5:10 am

Hi Richard,

You wrote:

“5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.”

Isn’t there something called “mixed conditionals” which enables them to say so?


Comment from Rachel
August 16, 2008 at 8:31 pm

Hi, Richard:

About “where I’m at.” This particular regionalism makes me smile, as I have positive associations of it along with New Orleans, where it comes from. The question form– “Where y’at?” — has led, in fact, to New Orleans dwellers being called “Yats.” Here’s the Wikipedia reference:


On another topic, but one that could fit into this column: what about air conditioning? When we want to make it cooler, do we turn it down or do we turn it up? In other words, do we turn the thermostat down, to a lower temperature, or do we turn it up — make the machine stronger and louder– as we would the volume of the TV or a radio?


Comment from Grammar Guy
August 16, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Hi, Izzy!

Yes, there are mixed conditionals in which we can jump from the present into the past and vice versa. We can do that if we’re dealing with unreal or hypothetical situations, so our imaginations allow us to jump across time barriers. For example, I can say Michael Phelps wouldn’t be the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time if he hadn’t practiced his sport fanatically for many years.

In the sentence I cited on my blog, that isn’t the case. Both of those clauses need to be in the past, so we’re not dealing with a mixed conditional sentence here.

Thanks for asking a great question, Izzy!

Comment from Grammar Guy
August 16, 2008 at 9:24 pm

Hi, Rachel!

That’s fascinating about the use of the final at originating in New Orleans! Live and learn. It’s just amazing, though, how common it’s become among some groups of speakers, especially the police, at least on Cops!

As to your other point, I love that example! Yes, the use of up and down in those two phrasal verbs certainly goes against how we’d normally interpret them. I know lots of people who have to stop and think when they ask somebody to turn down the a/c, meaning to make it colder.

Thanks for sharing such interesting tidbits with us, Rachel!

Comment from Rachel
August 17, 2008 at 8:15 am

Dear Richard:

Thank you for your comments.

Here’s another use of language that may be new; I hadn’t heard this term before.

At the Olympics, the commentators said that the athletes, the swimmers in particular, were going to do a warm down. I had always thought that before a match, an athlete did a warm up,, and then after the match did a cool down.

What is a warm down? Is it the former cool down or is it something different?

Thanks in advance for any insights you or your readers may have.


Comment from Grammar Guy
August 17, 2008 at 10:26 am

We both had the same thoughts about that, Rachel. In fact, I called a cousin of mine who, at one time, almost qualified for the Olympic swimming team back in the 1960s.

He told me that when the swimmers get out of the pool after a race, the water actually cools down their bodies in spite of the energy they exert during the race. They therefore get into a pool of warm water to relax their muscles and warm their bodies. This is very important if they’re scheduled for another race a short time later.

So warm down is a term now used for this procedure. It’s just the opposite of a warm up, when an athlete gets ready before an event. I suppose that’s why the language generated this new term with the opposite particle, down. I just love how language can always manage to keep up with whatever’s the most current goings-on!

Thanks for adding a great observation and interesting question, Rachel! 🙂

Comment from Maria Spelleri
August 20, 2008 at 4:17 pm

My son came home with a note from the PE teacher saying that students had to “dress out” for PE. Huh? Apparently this means to put on a PE uniform! Now, I’ve heard of “dress up” and “dress down”- to go fancy or more casual, but never “dress out”!

Comment from Grammar Guy
August 20, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Hello, Prof. Maria!

Well, that’s a new one on me, too! The only common use I’ve ever heard of the phrasal verb dress out is when it means to prepare meat for the market!

This is obviously either a local term used at your son’s school or some new slang term used in PE. It’s really very interesting.

Thanks very much for sharing that with us. There’s always something new to learn about the way native speakers generate new meanings from old words or phrases in their language. I love this stuff! 🙂

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