Monday, December 17, 2012


(Photo from stock.xchng)


What a word to spell! The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (online) defines it as ‘the creation and use of words which include sounds that are similar to the noises that the words refer to’. We have a colleague in Singapore, Mr Jyh Wee Sew, who has contributed a guest post on this interesting area:

The legacy of Saussure’s posthumous work which led to the notion of arbitrariness as the typical system of signification in language remains prevalent in linguistics. Most textbooks of (English) language studies explain that language signs denote meaning with little relationship between the sign and its meaning. However, there are plenty of works which go against the notion of arbitrariness in language.

A major study on non-arbitrariness or iconicity is sound symbolism. The first work on sound symbolism that comes to mind is Jespersen’s symbolic [i] that connotes smallness or insignificance (Jespersen 1922 in Jakobson &  Waugh 1987, p. 187). This notion of [i] symbolising weak and small references was tested by Edward Sapir with consistent accuracy. Examples are teeny, wee and itsy-bitsy (Ohala 1994) and clink, jingle, click, plink and bing (Rhodes 1994).

In Australian English we have terms like mozzies for mosquitoes or a seventeen year-old kid (cf. Urban Dictionary). Come to think of it, many words describing or implying fast or high speed in motion have the letter ‘i’ in the words: quickly, hurriedly, lightning [speed], simultaneous, witty, swift, slippery, thrive, jive, tinkling, etc.

I recall reading JR Firth’s work on sound symbolism decades ago. Firth was the first person to coin the term ‘phonestheme’ for submorphemic elements symbolizing a certain meaning that recurs in vocabulary. It is not difficult to trace a loud noise or sound in words ending with –ash. Thus, we have crash, trash, splash, smash, mashed, bash, lash, dash, hash etc.

In fact, we relate a straightforward sound symbolic reference whenever we use hoo-ha, chit-chat, tumultuous, dum-dum or dummy, cockatoo, burst, bomb, pang, boom etc. in spoken or written forms.

Interestingly enough, the noise made by a cockatoo is sound symbolically transferred into Malay, hence the bird is called kakak tua, which is often confused by learners as old sister because kakak denotes elder sister, and tua denotes old in Malay. Winsted (1959 reprinted in 1960, p. 137) lists the Malay word kakak as carrying three meanings, 1. to quack, 2. elder sister (kin or platonic), 3. kakatua (cockatoo).

Playing by ear may be fun(ny) when we learn and compare onomatopoeic terms, i.e. names that have their origins in the sound of the reference.

References to follow up:

Jakobson, R & Waugh, L 1987, The sound shape of language, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin.

Ohala, JJ 1994, ‘The frequency code underlies the sound symbolic use of voice pitch’, in L Hinton, J Nichols, & JJ Ohala (eds), Sound symbolism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 325-347.

Rhodes, R 1994, ‘Aural images’, in L Hinton, J Nichols, & JJ Ohala (eds), Sound symbolism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 276-292.

Winsted, RO 1959, An unabridged Malay-English dictionary, p. 137.

Jyh Wee Sew

Jyh teaches Malay at the Centre for Language Studies, National University of Singapore

Thanks for the fascinating post, Jyh.

Another area we discussed is the words we use to describe the sound that animals make in different languages. In English, bees go 'buzz', cows go 'moo' and ducks say 'quack'. Jyh tells me that in Malay, bees go 'dengung' and ducks say 'kuak', while in Mandarin bees go 'wung wung', ducks say 'ya ya' and cows go 'mu mu'. 

We'd love to know how you describe animal sounds in your language!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Learning Articles Parrot Fashion

Do you have trouble using the words ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’ in English? You’re not alone. These words are called ‘articles’, and although they’re easy for native speakers to use, I find that articles present huge problems for anyone who speaks English as an additional language. This is understandable when we consider that many languages don’t use articles at all.
The new Ms Parrot video will give you lots of advice on choosing articles in English.  

To use articles correctly, learners of English have to decide whether a noun is used in a definite sense, with the word ‘the’, or an indefinite sense, with the words ‘a’, ‘an’ or nothing at all. Deciding whether a noun is definite or indefinite is very hard. The question of definiteness is an almost philosophical one, as what is definite for one person may not be definite for another. For example, if I refer to ‘the Dalai Lama’ or ‘the Pope’, we all know who I am talking about, as there is only one Dalai Lama and one Pope at a time. However, if I say ‘the Prime Minister’ I could be referring to many people and you would need to look at the context in order to decide who I am talking about. In Australia, the Prime Minister is currently Julia Gillard. If you live in another country, though, ‘the Prime Minister’ might refer to Dr Manmohan Singh, or Yoshihiko Noda, or Stephen Harper.
Even nouns used indefinitely are not without problems.

Some words are indefinite in English but definite in other languages. For example, I can say in English ‘I like chocolate’, but in French ‘chocolate’ would take a definite article: ‘J’aime le chocolat’. To make matters harder, ‘a’ is used before a consonant sound (not just a consonant), so that words like ‘uniform’, ‘university’ and ‘year’ take ‘a’, while ‘an’ is used with a vowel sound, before words like ‘egg’, ‘owl’ and ‘hour’. Uncountable (non-count) nouns (like ‘fun’) and plural nouns (like ‘games’) take no article at all when they are used indefinitely.

The main thing when choosing articles is to decide whether a noun is countable or uncountable, and then work out whether it is definite or indefinite. A singular countable noun must take an article. If you’re not sure whether a noun is countable, check in a learner’s dictionary.

If you’d like more help with articles, and some practice exercises, visit this new website: The website features the new Ms Parrot video, highlighted in the previous post. There is also a link to a video evaluation with the chance to enter a draw to win an iPod Shuffle.

Have fun learning about articles, and Thanks a Million for helping me to create the character of Ms Parrot!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Thanks a Million!

Thank you to all those who took part in the poll last year to choose a personality for a grammar movie. The most popular choice was a lady detective in the style of an Agatha Christie character, and thus Ms Parrot the grammar detective was born.

Last week, Ms Parrot was sitting in her study reading her memoirs (which coincidentally contained examples of most uses of the definite (the) and indefinite (a/an) article in English) when she received a suspicious letter saying that English grammar was being held ransom and would only be saved if she donated $1,000,000 to the Grammar Survival Fund. At the same time, all the articles flew away from the page she was reading. Luckily, she had also just received an invitation to take part in a quiz show called 'Thanks a Million', with the chance to win - you've guessed it - $1,000,000. She rushed off to join the show and, helped by the wonderful 'Thanks a Million' quiz show audience and the flamboyant game show host Oscar Cicada, won a million dollars and saved English grammar!

The final version of this grammar movie, together with practice exercises and answers, will be available online in October or November. Rest assured that English grammar is now safe!

Monday, August 6, 2012

What is a sentence?
If you were asked, how would you define a sentence? Ask your friends. Ask you family. Ask your students. You may be surprised and amused by their responses.

Not long ago I was asked to take a class on basic grammar at a regional campus about 450 km from Adelaide, the state's capital city and the university's home base. All the students were in the first semester of a pathway program leading into an undergraduate degree. The class profile was typical for this regional campus: most hadn't studied for many years, were female and were native English language speakers. I knew that these students would find the idea of a class on grammar scary at best.

To put them at ease I began the class with the story of a guy I'd worked with some years ago who had a very definite and somewhat surprising answer to my sentence question:

'It's a group of 40 words about something.'

Why 40 words? He'd worked out from the novels he'd read that most sentences were about forty words long. This snippet of information explained why I had joined the ranks of staff who couldn't make much sense of his essays. Every sentence was forty words long.

It also crystallised for me why so many students, educated in a system which has de-emphasised the teaching of grammar, have no way of reviewing or correcting their texts at sentence level.

How did my regional students define a sentence?
 'A group of words about one idea.'
'It's a group of words that starts with a  capital letter and ends with a full stop. You put the full stop where you need to take a long breath.'

'In sentences you always start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. If you need to take a short breath you put in a comma. You put the   full stop where you need to take a long breath.'

'A sentence has to say something, make sense.'

'A sentence has a beginning, someone doing something and an end. It's about one idea.'

'All you want to say about one thing.'

'It has to have a, what do you call it, a subject, but I forget the rest...'
Everyone agreed that long ago a primary school teacher had linked sentence writing to breathing. Is it any wonder that holding up a mirror to some student essays reveals some very heavy breathers and others panting their way to that final full stop?

Any suggestions for those who write breathily?

The Grammar Gang welcomes Helen Johnston - Language and Learning Coordinator at the University of South Australia.  Helen has worked at UniSA for 'a long time' and her interests are teaching academic literacies - especially to those returning to study after a long absence.  Welcome Helen!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dash it! What's the point of a hyphen? Help Nest feature # 6

Hyphens, em dashes and en dashes.  They all look the same so where, dear reader, should we use them?  In fact, why should we use them?

Before I present you with this Help Nest feature (thank you Judit), I should declare a deep and long-hidden secret.

For a very long time, I really didn't know there WAS such a thing as an 'em' or an 'en' dash.   I spent the better part of my forty years in complete ignorance. This was until one of my grammarian friends said, 'no, Andrea, you don't use a hyphen there, you use the elegant em dash'.

As for hyphens, I tend to use them in a cavalier and careless stream-of-consciousness* way in my writing.   

This is not entirely treason, as it seems that rules and uses of the hyphen (or its cousins the em or en dash) are really quite loose and used in any number of creative ways to aid expression.

As the image above suggests, the hyphen is going the way of much punctuation. There tends to be an inclination toward minimalism and they are used less and less.  However, what I have attempted to provide are a few examples of how they might be used, to what effect and some of the rules of their use.

One of the most common uses (given in the example below) is to join compound words.

noun + adjective
noun + participle
adjective + participle

Oxford dictionaries online (accessed 2 July, 2012) 

Our friends at Purdue, in their excellent resource on hyphen use, describe how hyphens can be used for prefixes such as 'ex'  ('ex-officio') and 'self' ('self-assured').  They also explain how hyphens come in handy for separating words at the end of a line.  However, they stress this should be after a syll-

The University of Sussex, explains the cardinal rules of hyphen use.  These are to use them to achieve clarity in writing; to avoid unnecessary use and to consult a well-regarded dictionary for consistency.

On the last point, they give the example of  'land-owners, land owners or landowners?' to highlight how confusing the hyphen can be. In my Oxford Concise, it is 'landowner'.  I have seen it written as 'land owner' in The Daily Telegraph (UK) .  Although I did not see any hyphenated versions of the word, I did find an online definition of 'land-holder in the Collins Dictionary.  See why it's so confusing?

Roy Peter Clark, in his whimsical work The glamour of grammar (2010) describes a novel use for the b----- hyphen, which is to leave letters out of a word to partially disguise its profanity.   The bl--dy hyphen, he explains, is sometimes used to simply replace the vowels when cheeky editors are feeling a bit bold.  He pays homage to the hyphen by saying that (in addition to the ellipsis) it can be your best friend when leaving something out of a text for the sake of brevity, taste or dramatic effect.

The em dash—and I had to cut and copy this dash from another source because I forgot which keys to use—is longer and used to separate or shift thoughts midstream through a sentence.  I find it easy to see why some people swear by it but tend to forget to use it because it is cumbersome to insert.  (One important rule is never to put a space before or after it.)

The en dash is half the width (-) of the em dash and is used to show a range in numerical or other values. For example, 46-102 or November-January. As you can see, I couldn't figure out how to put in an en dash so I used a hyphen.  (I am sure purists would not approve and would adroitly know the six key combination to use to insert the correct punctuation.)

In summary, I would not expect you to use my blog post as a definitive guide (given my opening admission).  However, I would ask you to consider that hyphens and other dashes are handy; the purpose of each is different and there is an abundance of (sometimes conflicting) advice to find on the internet or in style guides.

I do welcome (as always) your comments and suggestions for other readers.  Finally, thank you to Judit for her query on the Owl/Possum Help Nest on June 5 which inspired me to research hyphens and their dashed friends further.

* Stream-of-consciousness was something I learned this morning when reading a couple of chapters of Henry James's The portrait of a lady.  Yes, reader, James coined this handy term to describe the free-falling, wide-ranging thought patterns of his lovely protagonist, Isabel.   Just thought I'd share something I found interesting.   :)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

These are a few of our favourite things

Dear Gramm-o-philes (or Grammarphiles, or Grammarians if you prefer)

'Sound of Music', 1965  National Publishers Inc

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things (Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959)

Those readers who participated in our our little poll about how they used the Grammar Gang, gave the most number of votes (34) to the question which said 'to help me with my academic writing'. 

We did our own whip around and - in no particular order - made a selection of our favourite 'writing at university' resources.

From our colleague Lisa at Massey University in New Zealand:

APA interactive

From Julia at Adelaide University:

Adelaide University Learning Guides

Julia particularly likes the ones on articles and literature reviews.   She also recommends Oshima and Hogue's 'Writing academic English' and Murphy's 'English grammar in use'.

And I really like these simple resources from the University of South Australia:

Linking words and phrases

Objective and subjective writing

Reading log

I hope you like these as much as we do.  Please add your own comments and contributions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Double, double, toil and trouble

As Shakespeare's witches said in 'Macbeth': 'Double, double, toil and trouble.'
But wait a moment. Should that be 'Duble, dable, toil and trible'? Of course, a spell checker helps, but even spell checkers aren't perfect.

Do you have difficulty spelling words ending in -ible, -able and -uble? You're not alone. There are so many homophones (words which sound the same but may be spelt differently) in English that choosing the right one is not always easy. Other commonly confused words are 'effect' and 'affect', or 'they're' and 'their'.  How can you be sure which is the correct spelling? As always, I'd recommend a good online learner's dictionary. The seven listed here are available free of charge:

If you spell a word incorrectly in the dictionary search box, you'll be given suggestions which prompt you to find the right word - perfect for difficult spellings!
Another way to remember confusing spellings is to use a mnemonic, or memory aid, such as 'i before except after c, except in certain cases'. This rule helps with words like 'friend' and 'receive'. Another suggestion made to me was the mock warning given by a primary school teacher: 'Spell "friend" properly, or I'll "fry" your "end"!' Sounds painful, but I've never forgotten it!

What memory aids for spelling do you know? Please add your suggestions in the comments box below and help make a discernible difference to our reputable blog!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Call for papers - Journal of Learning Design

Call for papers – Journal of Learning Design

September 2012

‘The Classroom without walls:  Social software, cross institutional collaboration and working across cultures.’


The Grammar Gang cordially invites contributions for a special issue of the Journal of Learning Design.
The Grammar Gang is a cross-institutional community of educators and bloggers spanning four institutions, three countries and two hemispheres.   We have been invited to compile a special issue of the Journal of Learning Design, around the theme of ‘The Classroom without walls’.  Our intent is to compile an issue which examines innovation in higher education, as boundaries between institutions blur and policy makers are constantly challenged to keep up with the amorphous technological landscape.
This special issue of JLD invites contributions which look at: 
  • Cross institutional collaboration and its pedagogical benefits
  • The use of social software to facilitate collaboration
  • Implications for the academy
  • Administrative challenges
  • New ways of working cross culturally 
The Grammar Gang began as a cross-institutional collaboration between Purdue University and the University of South Australia in 2008.  There are now more than 200,000 visitors to the blog each year. 

The team comprises:
  • Associate Professor Linda Bergmann (The Writing Lab, Purdue University US
  • Ms Susanna Carter
  • Ms Andrea Duff (Division if Information Technology, Engineering and the Environment, University of South Australia)
  • Associate Professor Lisa Emerson (School of English and Media Studies, Massey University)
  • Dr Julia Miller (School of Education,  University of Adelaide)
Guidelines for papers can be found here:

Deadlines for Abstracts are May 31, 2012 (Full papers June 30, 2012)

Contact: for further information

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Feeling tense?

English is easier than some languages, but harder than others, in respect to tenses. In English, we don't make too many changes to our words to show that we're changing tense. e.g. I walk, I walked, I will walk, I was walking. We have some irregular verbs (I write/I wrote), but some languages make many more changes. Perhaps you speak one of those languages? Conversely, other languages don't change their verbs at all, and all the work is done elsewhere in the sentence, by another word that indicates whether you're talking about the present, past or future.

One thing I'm often asked by students writing essays in English, then, is what tense they should use. The answer depends very much on the discipline for which you're writing, but in general you can use the present tense when you're talking about ideas (e.g. Smith claims that . . .) or general truths (e.g. Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade) and the past tense if you're talking about past actions (e.g. The researchers surveyed 300 people). The funny thing about academic writing in many disciplines is that you can use the present tense even when something was written a long time ago (e.g. Shakespeare says . . .; Brown (1962) notes . . . ). If you're talking about an experiment you propose to do, though, you should use the simple future tense: 'This experiment will investigate . . . It will use . . . ' When in doubt, check with your department for any particular conventions you should follow.

One tense that seems to be vanishing in Australia is the past perfect, used in what is often called the 'third conditional'. e.g. 'If I had known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' I often hear people now saying, 'If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.' (Actually, no, they don't bake cakes for me, but they could do!) I know what they mean, but I like the past perfect here. What do you normally use? I've put a poll up so you can give me your votes on this.

Whatever your views, there's no doubt that language changes, is always changing and will continue to change!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The sad truth about English teachers

I knew my grammar and punctuation fetish was getting out of hand when, on a recent trip to the beach, I had casually written all the famly's names in a line on the sand, and my two daughters, aged 8 and 10, proceeded to add in commas. They have t0 live with me. And it's clearly rubbing off.

Last week I was asked to speak at the staff meeting of a local high school about the kinds of writing expected at university. "How much did grammar and punctuation matter at university?" was the first question I was asked. And I really didn't know. I know - I think - what I expect or hope for, but I really don't know about what is expected elsewhere.

But it struck me as significant that this was the first question that was asked. In the 90 minutes of the workshop I'd presented, I hadn't mentioned grammar or punctuation at all. But here it was: first off the block. But what I really wanted to say in response was this "If I had to choose between students who will grapple with ideas, take risks with new concepts, explore their question but fall over with expression OR students who write perfect prose but trot out established ideas without internalising or struggling to extend themselves, I'd go for poor expression every time." Of course such a dichotomy is, to a certain extent, ridiculous. But as a teacher I have often found that when my students are really struggling with ideas, their writing skills deteriorate, and I don't mind, because they're learning.

Image by BookRiot