Say What? Edition 4: Thoughts From Italy

A collection of random linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Italy four weeks ago.


Language can provide anonymity in a crowd. One of my biggest linguistic pleasures when in Europe is hearing half a dozen languages spoken around me at any one time. I enjoy it partly because you feel a buzz, an energy around you, without having comprehension interfere with your own thoughts. But also, there’s a certain anonymity in being in a multilingual place. I could be anyone. Of any nationality. In any life situation. No one knows a thing about me until I speak. This makes me feel exciting and mysterious. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 3: Thoughts From Switzerland

A collection of random, linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Switzerland five weeks ago.


Going abroad makes you realize that your language skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be. How did I used to be fluent in German but a few weeks ago I couldn’t even understand what the Swiss shopkeepers said when I walked in the door? Swiss German is quite distinct from Hochdeutsch, but still, I feel I should have been a little more competent. Continue reading →

But Is That Butts or Butts?

English has no shortage of homonyms that can easily cause confusion for someone trying to learn this language. But they can almost as easily cause confusion among native speakers as well.

On our way into mountains last Sunday to hike Grays and Torreys peaks, my two girlfriends and I saw a sign on I-70 just like this one.


All three of us had the same thought – we need to bring the car from 75 mph to a complete stop in the middle of the highway and get out of the car right now to see what we are missing! Surely if CDOT felt the need to tell us (in such a cheeky way) that we should remain in the vehicle, something important and exciting must be happening along the roadside. And then 20 seconds later, we non-smokers realized we had all misunderstood which “butt” the sign meant. Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 2: The Foreign Language Edition

I used to speak four foreign languages at a high intermediate level. Now I can still hold my own in Spanish, but that’s about it. I went to a French conversation group a few weeks ago to attempt speaking French for the first time in about three years and was mortified that I could barely even get Je m’appelle Jennifer to come out of my mouth. But the problem wasn’t that I could only speak in English. Words were tumbling out in all sorts of languages in an unstoppable Babelfish short circuit. The word between would only come to mind in Russian. The word very was relegated to German. I haven’t spoken either of those languages in over six years. It was like I was having some kind of stroke.


So, I signed up for my first ever language lesson via Skype. Make that my first real video chat ever. I used Google Hangouts in my last job and I taught online for a few years, but never with video turned on. Mon Dieu! C’est bizarre! This lovely French gal was right there, 18 inches in front of my face, practically in my home even though she lives in Manchester. It was quite uncomfortable at first. Never mind that I was trying to communicate in a foreign language; the whole experience was strangely intimate. I’ve made some small strides in the last few weeks but still, it’s a bit depressing to have spent all that time and money on lessons and yet be reduced to speaking like a four-year-old (who would undoubtedly start speaking fluently sooner than I will). Continue reading →

Say What? Edition 1: Obscure language rules, difficult pronunciation, and a collision of language and graphic design

I’m way ahead of the curve in my understanding of some language rules. I took a trip down memory lane last month when this incredibly complex language rule no one knows! became a national obsession for a few days. But I knew it! I was teaching it to my English language learners in Russia 14 years ago thanks to the boring and overly formal Headway textbook series. If only I had thought to write about it on my blog, I could have had my 15 minutes of internet fame.


But some language rules I’ve gone my whole life without knowing about. And I feel a little embarrassed that I’ve only just figured this one out after 15 plus years of calling myself an English language professional. I’ve never known when to keep the silent e when converting words like knowledge to knowledgeable and when to drop it, as in judge to judgment. It turns out the rule is surprisingly simple. Keep the e when dropping it could cause confusion in pronunciation. If we wrote knowledgable, for someone who didn’t know English well, the a right after the g would make the pronunciation now-leg-a-bul entirely plausible. For the most part, this issue exists in words that end in -ce and -ge. Since judgment lacks a vowel after the g, the idea that we might say jud-guh-ment seems ridiculous.


G really is a pesky letter. It caused more confusion for me last month when a company I’m collaborating with on a freelance project changed its name to Sagence. In my head, the pronunciation was suh-GENCE but it turns out the name is actually SAY-jence, which makes a lot more sense given that the company is in the education business and would have the name sound more like sage than the nonsensical version I came up with. But I often see business names whose pronunciation is not intuitive and wonder if the companies bothered to test them out with focus groups. It can’t be good for branding to have a large portion of the population saying your name incorrectly.


But maybe my brain is just muddled. I know that INsurance and inSURance are equally acceptable pronunciations. As are AFfluent and afFLUent, even though the latter makes me cringe. And I know that for some odd reason, we say maRINE but MAriner. But it never occurred to me that conTEMplative has the stress on the second syllable instead of on the first. Aren’t well-read native English speakers just supposed to know these things? Not really, it seems. I don’t feel so bad about this one.


How a word is drawn in comparison to others around it also influences emphasis. I stayed in an AirBnB rental last month that had this artwork on the dresser in the bedroom. The sentiment is lovely, but given that the comparison is between having and making the best of everything, it irked me to no end that have wasn’t given a graphical treatment equal to that of make. Or at least have been made to stand out in some way.



And finally, it’s your turn to weigh in. At my Write the Docs meetup last month, we had a lively debate going about whether to use sentence case or title case in blog titles, chapter titles, headings, etc. I am firmly in the title case camp because I think it increases readability. If you aren’t sure what the difference is, check out this nifty capitalization tool. What’s your opinion? Feel free to share in the comments or take the poll on the Knowledge Owl website.

Sympathy for English Language Learners

A while back I was reviewing some comments my editor had made on an e-learning script I wrote at my full time job. The phrase in question was building block skills and whether to hyphenate. Without a hyphen, the phrase could be interpreted as someone was building block skills, whatever those might be, but in reality, context would make clear to anyone taking the course that we were talking about building block skills. However, my editor and I share a common background dealing with documentation intended for translation, which means that we aim for total clarity in language no matter what might be obvious to 99.99 percent of our audience. When what you are writing is going to be translated into 20+ languages, or possibly not translated at all but read in English by people with very low English proficiency, there is no room for ambiguity. Although the content we work on now is overwhelmingly limited to a native English-speaking audience, old habits die hard.

This building-block skills discussion reminded about just how confusing English can be to non-native speakers. A roommate I had in Russia once said that there are two kinds of languages: those that are easy to start using right away but almost impossible to perfect and those that take forever just to be able to say the simplest things correctly but allow you to become fluent quickly after you master the extensive fundamentals. While Russian is the latter, English is absolutely the former. Continue reading →

Apples to Oranges: The Syntax of Comparative Sentences

I taught standardized test preparation classes for many years and while a lot of what I taught had no applicability in real life (did you really calculate the probability of pulling one red sock and one blue sock from your sock drawer this morning?), the grammar absolutely did and I tried to impress that on my students. Since they were spending the time and money on the class, why shouldn’t they have tried to get something out of it that would last beyond their appointment at the Prometric center?

No matter your field, writing well matters. It’s easy to convince students of the value of some grammar rules, such as subject-verb agreement and correct pronoun usage. For others, such as ambiguous pronouns, misplaced modifiers, and using the past perfect tense correctly, value is still easy to demonstrate, but it’s a bit harder to get students to recognize errors and implement the rules on their own. And then there are the rules that are just going to be a lifelong struggle between me and everyone else I know. Continue reading →