Pronouns: It’s not you

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Johnson: Pronouns

It’s not you

IT’S time for a breakup. The person you have been seeing is lovely, but a relationship is not what you want right now. How do you break the news gently?

If you say “It’s not you, it’s me,” you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say “It’s not you—it’s I,” you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of the New Yorker would have you speak.

This little conundrum illustrates a great deal of confusion about English grammar. Mr Heller was reviewing Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” (which The Economist reviewed here). Mr Pinker writes that it is normal informal English style to use the accusative pronouns—me, him, her, us or them—in a predicate after forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were and so on). In other words, it is natural and correct to say It is me as opposed to It is I. A granny facing a police line-up, jangled by her recent mugging, will point to the perpetrator and naturally shout, “That’s him, officer!” And as Geoffrey Pullum, a syntactician at the University of Edinburgh, points out, there are many cases where the nominative pronoun—I, he, she, we, they—in predicate position is so weird as to be unacceptable. He gives the example of looking at an old photograph, pointing to oneself and saying This one here is I at the age of 12.


But of course many traditional grammars do prescribe it is he and so on. It is the preferred form for formal usage, and Google’s Ngram-viewer tool (which allows searches of books)finds “it was him who…” to be almost non-existent in books.

What’s correct? Writers like Mr Heller offer two principles: that language should be consistent, and that it should be logical. Mr Heller here is explicit, in a passage worth quoting at length:

It’s for grammatical consistency, not beauty or gentilesse, for example, that correct English has us say “It was he” instead of “It was him.” Pinker calls this offense “a schoolteacher rule” that is “a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar, and syntax with semantics.” He’s done crucial research on language acquisition, and he offers an admirable account of syntax in his book, but it is unclear what he’s talking about here. As he knows, the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!” No idea is more basic to English syntax and grammar. In the phrase “It was he,” “it” and “he” are the same thing: they’re both the subject, and thus nominative. This is not “Latin.” (Our modern cases had their roots in tribal Germanic.)

Logic and consistency are, of course, good things. But both words mean different things to different people, and sometimes the goals conflict. For Mr Heller, it is “logical” that “was” should be like a grammatical equals sign. So if the subject of the sentence It was he is nominative, so should the pronoun in the predicate be: it = he. But case systems don’t care about invisible equals signs. In French, this construction is forbidden: the French say c’est moi, not c’est je, using a special set of pronouns (usually called “emphatic”) rather than the nominative ones. Nobody accuses the language of Pascal and Descartes of being any less logical than English. In Danish, it is det er mig (“it is me”), using the accusative pronoun, notdet er jeg (”it is I”). And yet no one says the language of Kirkegaard is a confusing mess. And it just so happens that the ancestors of the Danes and the French conquered England, contributing to the language’s mixed nature. It is me didn’t show up in writing until the 15th century, and so may not come directly from those languages. But contact between speakers of different languages did give English a habit of accepting different ways of saying things, such as both the king’s son (typically Germanic) and the son of the king(typically French).

In any case, variety is not the same thing as the “complexity, ambiguity and doubt” Mr Heller fears. The situation is fairly simple. Mr Pinker argues that the accusative me in it’s me is in fact the default case, and can be used anywhere except as the subject of a tensed verb. In other words, in the absence of any reason to use the nominative, the accusative is natural:

Who ate the last piece of cake? Him.

What, me worry?

Me, I prefer skiing to surfing

“Me” in predicate position even appears in traditional places like the King James Bible’s “woe is me”. Where did the confusion come from, then? When grammarians first sat down to write the rules of English, they made certain mistakes that have had long-lasting consequences. Before the first grammars of English, the word “grammar” could only have meant the formal systems of Greek and Latin that they had learned. And so while few scholars announced their intention to press English into a classical mould, they were inevitably influenced by what seemed like the elegant rules of the classical languages. (It was tempting to assume Latin and Greek were superior languages. The first English grammarians never had to hear an inarticulate Roman teenager butcher his cases; they had only the works of great writers to judge by.)

As it happens, the rule “use the nominative case in the predicate nominative position” (It is I) is not just Greco-Latin. It is akin to the German (Das bin ich, which is the equivalent of what English speakers used to say: It am I, with both pronouns in the nominative case). English is descended from an old form of German, namely Anglo-Saxon. So It is I is not quite a foreign import. It is an alternative. The key is that there is nothing wrong with alternatives, which allow a writer or speaker to pick a level of formality. This is obviously the case for vocabulary (acquire is more formal than get, and therefore is smarter than so). But—though many people want there always to be only one right answer—it also applies to grammar. It is I is more formal than It is me in much the same way that it is is more formal than it’s.

Style variation is not only possible; it is desirable, allowing a speaker or writer to communicate not only content but meta-content—how the speaker or writer feels about the content and how it should be taken. We can be both logical and consistent without straitjacketing the language so tightly as to make its native speakers writhe in discomfort. If you think yourself articulate and care about English, yet can’t force yourself to speak as Mr Heller of the prestigious New Yorker would have you do, don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s him.

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT
By Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Ju-min Park

Filed July 25, 2016, 2:35 p.m. GMT
Part Four: The Global Assessment Certificate program is designed to give foreign students the skills to succeed at U.S. universities. Reuters found it sometimes offers those students much more – including a sneak peek at the ACT itself.

SHANGHAI, SEOUL and IOWA CITY – For many Chinese high school students hoping to get into a U.S. university, the pitch is hard to resist.

Take English-language courses in China in a program recognized by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States – including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Prepare for the ACT, America’s most popular college entrance exam. And take it in mainland China, instead of traveling elsewhere as other Chinese students must.

The program, known as the Global Assessment Certificate, also offers some students an advantage that isn’t advertised: At three different GAC centers, school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in student cheating on the ACT, according to seven students interviewed by Reuters.

The GAC program, which can cost students $10,000 a year or more, has emerged as one of many avenues in Asia used to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. college admissions process.

But the most remarkable aspect of this program is that the ACT itself owns and oversees it.

The GAC program is operated by a foreign subsidiary of ACT Inc, the Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the crucial college entrance exam. The subsidiary, ACT Education Solutions Ltd, is headquartered in Hong Kong.
Map: A look at GAC centers that give the ACT in East Asia

Part One: College Board gave SATs it knew were “compromised”

Part Two: Despite tighter security, new SAT gets hacked

Part Three: Chinese cheating rings penetrate U.S. colleges
The curriculum at GAC centers is designed to teach non-native English speakers reading, writing and other skills for college. The program has about 5,000 students in 11 countries at 197 centers. Three-quarters of the centers are in mainland China. The vast majority of GAC students take the ACT, which American colleges use to assess applicants.

Some GAC centers advertise their students’ high ACT scores and success getting into U.S. colleges. The website for one center – Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Zhengzhou, China – features pictures of accomplished graduates alongside their near-perfect test scores and the U.S. schools that accepted them.

The website for the GAC program promises universities “highly skilled international students,” and some schools award college credit for classes taken at GAC centers.

But interviews with some students who attended GAC centers call the program’s integrity into question. One now attending the University of California, Los Angeles, said a GAC administrator in China let him practice answering almost half the questions that would appear on the actual ACT about a week before the exam was given. Another student, now at a major university in the Midwest, said his Chinese center provided students with two articles that appeared on an ACT he later took there.

What’s more, eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centers described cheating in program courses. Some said it was widespread. They said students turned in assignments that were plagiarized. At two different centers, former teachers said, officials encouraged them to give students exam questions and sometimes even answers in advance to ensure that they passed.

Jason Thieman resigned in January after nearly five months as a teacher at the GAC center at Jimei University in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He said he left after students complained that he was cracking down on cheating and plagiarism.

“If every university admissions office that accepted GAC students knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore,” Thieman said. “It’s outrageous.”

A spokesman for the GAC center said the program would never condone cheating and that students simply didn’t like Thieman’s teaching style.

Thieman is now in the United States, pursuing a doctorate in physics. “The situation’s not fair to anybody,” he said of the GAC program. “It’s not fair to the universities that admit” the students, and “it’s not fair to American students who actually have the proper standards in place when they take” the ACT.

Christopher Bogen, director of studies at a GAC center in Zhuhai from 2011 to 2014, said some of his students repeatedly engaged in “intentional, flagrant cheating.” Some submitted essays that were supposed to be written in English; instead, the essays had been translated using the Google Translate web tool, he said. The GAC curriculum made cheating easier because the same tests were given “over and over again,” Bogen said. Some of those tests and other GAC assignments were available for sale online in China, Reuters found.

No one from the GAC center where Bogen taught could be reached for comment.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said its Hong Kong subsidiary is responsible for handling cases of alleged cheating in GAC courses. He declined to make managers there available to speak for this article.

Colby said the subsidiary thoroughly vets GAC operators and monitors their work. ACT’s head of test security, Rachel Schoenig, said the organization had cancelled suspicious ACT scores of GAC students.
INSTRUCTING STUDENTS: Jason Thieman at the GAC center in China where he once taught. He left the center after several months, concerned about what he considered widespread cheating there. REUTERS/Handout
“If every university admissions office … knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore.”

Jason Thieman, former GAC teacher in China
“From a test security perspective … we have taken many, many steps to address the ACT testing activities of the GAC centers,” Schoenig said.

To guard against test leaks more broadly, she said, the organization has begun shipping the ACT in lock boxes to some overseas test centers. This month, ACT Inc announced that, to combat cheating, it planned to introduce a computerized version of the ACT for overseas test-takers in the fall of 2017.

Like other standardized testing companies, ACT Inc is battling an “emerging trend of organized fraud rings … who, for a lot of money, a lot of their own personal gain, are seeking to undermine the system for honest test-takers,” Schoenig said.

The problems with the GAC program are not the work of outsiders, however. They are occurring within a system controlled and policed by the ACT organization itself.

Reuters identified six GAC centers that violate the ACT’s own conflict-of-interest policy. The six centers administered the ACT while also offering commercial test-prep classes aimed at helping students score well on the college entrance exam. ACT policy prohibits test-prep businesses from administering the exam because doing so would give them an unparalleled ability to help their clients by leaking them the test.

At those locations – five in mainland China and one in South Korea – GAC operators had access to exam booklets days or weeks before the ACT was given.

Several U.S. colleges said they were alarmed by what Reuters discovered. They are among the 60-plus “pathway” schools that consider completion of the GAC program in their admissions decisions and sometimes award college credit for courses taken at GAC centers.

The reports of cheating are “very disconcerting,” said Timothy Tesar, assistant director of international admissions at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The university has enrolled 132 GAC students since 2009.

The cheating allegations are “shocking to me,” said Jonnathan De La Fuente, international admissions counselor at University of Michigan-Flint. De La Fuente estimated that the university has enrolled 15 to 20 GAC students to date, almost all from South Korea. Michigan-Flint gives college credit for GAC coursework.

“If those reports are true, we have to, as a university, look into it,” he said. “I’m wondering if those grades are even legitimate.”
ACT CEO: Marten Roorda leads the Iowa City-based ACT Inc. REUTERS/Handout
ACT chief executive Marten Roorda was unavailable to answer questions for this article, spokesman Colby said.

Evidence of academic fraud among foreign students is mounting as American colleges enroll record numbers of applicants from abroad. Foreign students typically pay full tuition, a boon for U.S. schools. These applicants also are emerging as sources of profit for the testing companies whose exams help determine who gets into American universities.

A series of Reuters reports this year has revealed how foreign students are increasingly exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. college entrance exams and other parts of the admissions process.

In March, Reuters reported that test-prep operations in East Asia were taking advantage of security flaws in the SAT, which – like its rival ACT – reuses exams. Those cram school operations harvest items from past exams, enabling students to practice on questions they may see on test day.

Reuters also found companies in China that fabricate entire college applications for students seeking to study in America. Some companies even offer to do coursework for students attending U.S. colleges.


In 2005, ACT Inc acquired a company that had developed the GAC curriculum and had an agreement to offer the ACT as part of the program. After the takeover, ACT Inc formed ACT Education Solutions to run it.

The GAC program operates like a franchise: Local operators pay the ACT subsidiary for the right to offer the curriculum at local schools or educational centers. The GAC centers are not run by ACT staff but rather by employees hired by the local operators. The program has been particularly popular in China, where 149 of the 197 centers are located.

It’s also lucrative for ACT Inc. GAC centers each pay the ACT subsidiary a licensing fee totaling thousands of dollars plus additional fees for each student enrolled. According to ACT Inc’s most recent U.S. federal tax return, the foreign entities that run the program generated $4.8 million in net revenue in the year ended August 31, 2015.

GAC operators undergo rigorous vetting, said ACT spokesman Colby. In China, people interested in operating a GAC center must complete a four-page application and demonstrate they can run the center effectively. ACT Education Solutions then inspects the site. If there are no concerns, the ACT organization enters into licensing agreements with the center. ACT Education Solutions audits the GAC centers, but Colby declined to say how often.
As for the ACT test, the organization won’t disclose figures, but people familiar with the matter estimate the exam drew about 60,000 foreign test-takers last year. That’s up sharply from a few thousand per year about a decade ago, according to a former ACT employee. The SAT retains a big edge overseas, with about three times as many test takers.

Much of the ACT’s growth abroad has come in the past two years, though not by design. Convinced that the SAT had an insurmountable lead, ACT executives decided to invest little in marketing their exam overseas, former employees said.

They attribute the recent gains mostly to security problems with the rival SAT, owned by the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit. Since May 2013, concerns about cheating have led the College Board to delay or cancel scores or to scrap tests for students taking the SAT in Asia. More test-takers turned to the ACT.

Cheating in Asia caused concerns inside ACT’s own test security unit, too. ACT has an internal staff of 14 people handling security for thousands of test centers in 177 countries. In 2015, the security unit repeatedly recommended shoring up security for the ACT overseas by increasing personnel and improving the vetting of international test centers, said a person familiar with the matter. Executives at ACT headquarters rejected the recommendations, this person said.

ACT spokesman Colby declined to comment.

ACT faced a major security breach of its own on the morning of June 10. Just hours before about 5,500 students in South Korea and Hong Kong were to take the ACT, officials in Iowa learned the test had leaked. They canceled the exam at the last minute. Officials won’t say how security was breached, or if they know.

The June incident wasn’t the first time the ACT has leaked in Asia, say people in the test-prep industry.

Businesses in China and South Korea regularly advertise ACT exam questions and answers just before test day. One Chinese company, Huafu Education, offered to provide test items to a Reuters reporter three days prior to an exam for $762.

“What we’re offering is exactly what you’ll see on test day,” a Huafu representative said in an online chat.


Former GAC students say some of the centers themselves have enabled cheating on the exam.
ACT AFFILIATE: The website for the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in China makes its affiliation with the ACT clear, even for those who don’t read Chinese.
The GAC graduate now attending UCLA said that a week or two before he was to take the ACT in December 2014, an administrator from his GAC center in China invited him to her office. There, he said, the administrator gave him a photocopy of an ACT booklet.

“She said these questions may be on the exam,” the student said. He estimated that about 40 percent of the questions on the ACT he later took were on the photocopied test.

“It helped,” he said. “It saved me time.” He scored 33 out of 36, he said, putting him among the top 1 percent of all test-takers.

The GAC graduate now attending the Midwestern university studied at the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Henan Province. In May 2014, he said, Zhengzhou Cornerstone provided students with a practice exam booklet. It contained scans and photographs of sections of the ACT, the student said. He said two articles in the booklet appeared on an exam he took at the center that fall. Another time he took the ACT at the center, he said, he witnessed three or four students discussing answers during a break.

In a statement to Reuters, an administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone called the accusations “ridiculous.”

Wenyue Li graduated from Zhengzhou Cornerstone in 2015 and just completed her freshman year at McGill University in Montreal. The night before she took the ACT at the GAC center in December 2014, she said, several classmates asked if she would be willing to help them answer math questions during a test break. In exchange, she said, they offered to share some answers to the reading section. She said she refused, but another student agreed.

She also said cheating in GAC classes at her school was “even more common” than cheating on the ACT.

The administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone disputed Li’s account. “We firmly resist any shortcuts or cheating,” the administrator said in the statement to Reuters. “We take every opportunity and use every means to emphasize to parents and students the importance of test security.”

A Chinese student now attending a university in Washington state provided a similar account about a different GAC center. She said she witnessed cheating on the ACT when she took it in September 2014 at a GAC center at Yantai Number One High School in Yantai, Shandong Province.
UNIQUE POSITION: This test-prep center in Seoul, STEPEDU, used to offer the ACT onsite. After Reuters reporters visited the cram school, the ACT ended that arrangement. REUTERS/Steve Stecklow
“I heard people asking, ‘What does this word mean, and what kind of preposition should I use?’” she said. The students spoke in English, which she said the teacher overseeing the exam didn’t understand.

“The teacher just pretended that she didn’t see that we are doing these bad things,” she said.

The Yantai GAC center didn’t reply to requests for comment.


The GAC program is also popular in South Korea, where six centers operate.

One is run at a Seoul test-prep center – known in Korean as a hagwon – called STEPEDU. Like many cram schools, STEPEDU offers classes to prepare for the ACT. Until last month, it also offered a bonus: the opportunity to take the ACT on site.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector,” STEPEDU’s president, Sam Han, said at a May 28 conference for students interested in applying to U.S. colleges. “Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

According to Bryan Maach, an ACT vice president who oversees international markets, a hagwon shouldn’t have been permitted to give the exam. He told Reuters that places “engaged in commercial test prep are not allowed to be testing sites for us. And that’s been very consistent for many years.”

Maach said he couldn’t explain how STEPEDU was able to administer the ACT.

Han said he previously operated a GAC center at a university in Seoul. In 2012, South Korea’s Education Ministry ordered universities to shut down study-abroad programs, declaring them an illegal threat to the country’s higher-education system.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector. Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

Sam Han, who served as president of South Korean cram school STEPEDU
The decree forced Han to move his GAC center and left him with 130 students who hadn’t completed the program. So, he said, he shifted his GAC operation to STEPEDU, the cram school where he served as president.

At the time, according to a person familiar with the matter, ACT’s test security unit recommended that the center not be allowed to administer the college entrance exam.

The advice went unheeded. STEPEDU began giving the ACT in April 2013, Han said. In English-language job postings, STEPEDU described itself as a partner of ACT Inc and “the official ACT Test provider in South Korea.”

ACT later received another warning about STEPEDU. Emails reviewed by Reuters show that Cody Shultz, a senior investigator with ACT in Iowa, was contacted by an informant last year. In one of the emails, from June 2015, the tipster states that the GAC center “is a testing center and a hagwon.”

Shultz assured the informant that ACT was examining the matter. “We did make some movement on the investigation,” Shultz wrote to the tipster. “We are looking at other strategies to address the larger issue of cheating in Korea.”

Even so, the organization let STEPEDU continue to operate as an ACT test center. ACT Inc finally ended the arrangement just before a reporter interviewed ACT officials about the matter on June 9. Han said he had told ACT that Reuters had recently visited STEPEDU.

“The GAC Korea Center was closed as an ACT test center shortly before your visit to ACT” in Iowa, ACT spokesman Colby said in an email. “I can provide no other details on this, as the matter is still under investigation.” He declined to make Shultz available for an interview.

Some GAC centers play the same conflicted role in China as well. Reuters identified five centers in China that administer the ACT and, contrary to ACT Inc’s policy, are run by organizations that also offer ACT test-prep classes.

One of them is a GAC center at Zhejiang University in eastern China. The center declined to comment. But its website recently advertised a summer test-prep class with “real ACT questions.”

The potential reward for students? “Perfect scores” on sections of the ACT.

Reporting by Steve Stecklow in Iowa City and Seoul, Alexandra Harney in Shanghai and Ju-min Park in Seoul. Additional reporting by the Shanghai newsroom.

REVEALED: Thousands of EU doctors rejected work in Britain ‘for FAILING [IELTS] tests’ : Express.

REVEALED: Thousands of EU doctors rejected work in Britain ‘for FAILING [IELTS] tests’ : Express.

MORE than a quarter of doctors from the EU applying to work in Britain have been rejected for failing their English tests, it has been revealed.

Since the tests were imposed two years ago, 1,000 doctors reportedly failed to reach the minimum standard.It comes amid fears hundreds of medics slipped into the UK before the tests were imposed.

Before the exams, the General Medical Council (GMC) would hand out licences to doctors.But the GMC was banned from testing EU doctors as the European Commission claimed it would impede freedom of movement laws.

Of the 3,732 doctors that have applied since 2014, just 2,732 people reportedly passed.

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, told the Mail: “Effective communication is vital and can sometimes make the difference between life and death.”A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We expect all healthcare professionals to have a good command of the English language to deliver the best care for patients.”

It comes after Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, revealed Britain’s decision to leave the EU would make Britain safer.Ms Marx said top health officials should “seize the moment” by making English language tests harder.

12 Passive-Aggressive Phrases That Destroy Your Business

12 Passive-Aggressive Phrases That Destroy Your Business

by Entrepreneur , John Rampton @Entrepreneur JUNE 21, 2016
This piece originally appeared on Entrepreneur.

I’ve been told that I’m a little bit passive-aggressive. I didn’t really get it till I started evaluating some of the simple-yet-destructive words I was saying. If you’ve encountered an act of passive aggression then you already know that it’s never the best way to resolve a conflict. And, if you’re like me and been dishing it out, you also know that it’s never the best way to resolve conflicts.

Passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating for both parties involved. It’s unproductive and it makes you and others become less trusted in the workplace. After allowing my behavior to destroy a few relationships (that I didn’t even realize was happening) I decided to figure out what I was doing and fix it immediately.

Here’s [are!] 12 common passive-aggressive text phrases and the true meaning behind them so that next time you encounter them, you’ll know how to proceed a little better and in a more productive manner.

1. “Fine.”
My best friend recently brought this phrase to my attention. As my friend pointed out, whenever someone tells you that everything is “fine,” that always means the opposite. It turns out this is pretty spot-on. Signe Whitson L.S.W. states in Psychology Today that the “passive aggressive person uses phrases like ‘Fine’ in order to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.”

2. “No worries.”
Actually, you do have worries. Christine Schoenwald elaborates in Thought Catalog that “This translates to ‘I’m saying no worries but what I actually mean is screw you. I won’t say what I’m really feeling but will hold it against you until I explode.’”

3. “If you really want to.”
This may appear to be accommodating at first, but don’t be fooled. Whenever you tell someone, or someone tell you this phrase, you’re actually being noncommittal. It may sound like you’re going along with the plan, but inside, you’re not all that thrilled – but you just don’t know how to communicate those feelings, or you may thing that the other person will be mad.

4. “Thanks in advance.”
I’m horrible at this one and something I’m working on each day. Another phrase that may appear innocent at first. But, it pretty much means that you’re expecting them to do whatever it is you’re asking and they pretty much have to do it. This damages your relationship with this person.

5. “I was surprised/confused/curious about…”
When you hear or see this text you can be certain that it’s used to disguise criticism, as opposed to be being upfront. Jennifer Winter recalls on The Muse the time she had a colleague who used phrases like this as “an attempt to soften the blow.” Winter, however, “took it as a stab in the back because my boss was in attendance—and that feeling led me to promptly ignore her feedback.”

6. “I’m not mad.”
This one destroyed my relationship with my ex-wife. I never expressed how I truly felt. I’ve now learned to voice my opinions openly and be honest with my spouse. It’s the same in the workplace. Yes. This person is livid. They’re just not being honest with you. I find that whenever I use this phrase I don’t feel like I can be honest with the person. Learn to express how you feel.

7. “Whatever.”
I once had a disagreement with a friend that took place over text messaging. When they dropped the ‘whatever’ response I almost went through the roof. It was infuriating because I knew that they did care, they just didn’t want to keep that discussion going. Yes this person is mad, and now you are too. It’s not helping.

8. “So…”
How can a two-letter word pack such a punch? Because most of the time it’s followed by text that is either awkward or it shows their agitation For example, “So… are we going to the movies tonight?” or “So… did you get my email?” The person on the other side is clearly agitated that you haven’t responded yet. And that’s a problem when you honestly haven’t had a chance to get back to them.

Or, it could be the beginning of an uncomfortable conversation, they just don’t know how to come out and say it. When someone says, “So…” to me, and then that weird pause, I have the almost irresistible desire to say, “so….what?” And make an exit. This can even be expressed in the content marketing you put up on your website.

9. “Just wondering…”
You see this text when someone is asking you for an unreasonable request, like “Just wondering if you were in the city tomorrow and could pick-up my brother for the train station?” Even if you were in the city, the train station could be nowhere close to where you’re at. In other words, this person knows that they shouldn’t be asking you for this favor, but they’re going to ask anyway. Do keep in mind that some shy people may use this question when asking if you want to go somewhere, or do something with them. Like, “I was just wondering if you would like to go to the movies with me?”

10. “I was only joking.”
Sarcasm is on the most common manifestations of passive aggressiveness. If this person makes a comment that upsets you and this is what follows, then you know it wasn’t a joke at all. They meant what they said, but are backing away to cover-up their true feelings. This is an especially damaging phrase when used in a relationship or (often) in front of other people, as a put-down.

11. “Hope it’s worth it.”
This phrase should be rather obvious. The person you’re communicating with clearly doesn’t want you to do something, but is well-aware that you’re going to do so anyway. Instead of expressing their concern, they’ll leave with this passive aggressive text and stew until it become a major issue. This person will also beg you to tell them about it later so they can use the phrase again on you. It’s a shaming phrase.

12. “Your thoughts?”
In most cases I find this a pretty harmless phrase. Asking someone their thoughts on dinner, etc. However, this phrase can even be used a way to tell someone that they screwed up. “Your behavior has been subpar at work, your thoughts?” or “I wasn’t that happy with how this assignment turned out, your thoughts?” Both of these are passive aggressive and damage your relationship with the person.

Your thoughts… on this article? What other phrases do you find yourself or others using that are passive aggressive? I’m not mad, just tell me.

The biggest secret to learning a new language, according to a CEO who speaks 7

The biggest secret to learning a new language, according to a CEO who speaks 7

languageAn instructor writes Chinese characters on a whiteboard at a night class for Mandarin Chinese. Reuters

Do you ever feel like you just can’t move on to the next level with the language you’re learning?

You put in tons of effort, but it just feels impossible to move off the plateau?

You have a large vocabulary, and you understand a lot but when it comes to speaking, you keep wondering why you can’t sound like a native speaker?

Well, I had the same feeling with English when I started to learn it many years ago. It’s a language radically different from my mother tongue, Hungarian, and after reaching an upper-intermediate level, I was wondering if I would ever speak like a native.

I spent long, endless hours memorizing flashcards and going through grammar books. I diligently immersed myself by reading tons of articles. But somehow I felt very far from true mastery of the language. I could manage everyday situations in English but I was hopelessly far from being mistaken for a native speaker even for a fleeting moment.

How linguistics completely transformed my English journey

When I discovered cognitive linguistics and cultural semantics (more on that later – it’s not as scary as it sounds), I went from one “aha!” moment to another. Soon, I realized why I was wrong about languages.

I used to look at learning a language as most of us are led to believe:

  1. Memorize many words and phrases
  2. Apply grammar to them to make sentences
  3. Practice with others to make your reactions automatic

Needless to say, it’s easy to get tired of this process and lose motivation. It took me quite a while to break free from this mindset.

Thankfully, after getting my hands on some of the best linguistic research I could find, a whole new world opened up before me. I could now see a tremendous wealth of culture and imagination where I had only seen a randomly connected sequence of sounds before.

I came to understand that the secret recipe for mastering a language is the following:

Master every bit of the culture and you can achieve native-like mastery of the language itself.

When I realized this, my English studies immediately gained a new momentum. Fast-forward to now. I can already write articles in English for native speakers, talk at a conference without grasping for the right word, and easily discuss all sorts of ideas (Okay, maybe not particle physics or rocket science but that’s another matter).

Mastering English has been an incredible gift in my life. I received a new mindset, a new set of emotions, and a new way of thinking. My personality has been subtly but powerfully impacted. I would say I even took on a secondary identity. Cultural semantics has played a very important role in this process. But what is cultural semantics?

What the heck is cultural semantics?

To put it simply, cultural semantics is the study of the meaning of words and phrases and their connection to culture. Many words in a language are unique; they cannot be exactly translated into other languages. Every word has a whole range of connotations, images, and associations that you cannot map to another language.

The English words “patronize” and “fun,” and the phrase “common sense” all reflect English (and American) mentality and culture. They cannot be simply translated into my native language of Hungarian, because Hungarian people have a different mentality, a different mindset, and this is reflected in their language.

That’s one of the main reasons why memorizing words is not an option if you want to achieve mastery. Instead of rote learning, one needs to go beyond the surface and uncover the hidden culture behind words and phrases. It’s like cracking an exciting secret code or connecting the dots in a detective story.

Let me now crack for you the secret cultural code behind a few common English expressions.

The secret cultural code behind everyday English words and phrases

Balázs CsigiBalázs Csigi. Balázs Csigi/LinkedIn

There are countless English words that have no exact counterparts in Hungarian, nor, as far as I know, in other European languages. The reason is that they capture an aspect of English or American mentality that is not present in other European cultures.

“Reasonable”: One can easily count tons of expressions with this one word alone: reasonable doubt, reasonable guy, reasonable time, reasonable request and many others. There’s a similar word to “reasonable” in Hungarian but I could never think of saying anything like reasonable request or reasonable doubt.

These phrases are deeply rooted in a society that admires science, reason, logic, and common sense. The word reasonable is linked to the idea that there is a certain common sense and everybody is supposed to follow it. However, it’s a highly culture-specific concept together withcommon sense and its range of use can be very hard to understand and master for a non-native speaker.

“Make a difference”: As far as I could see, Americans tend to have an innate desire to impact the world in a positive way with their work and actions. The phrase to make a differenceis practically non-existent in most languages I know. There is some form of saying “to change the world” but it’s not a popular dream shared by millions of people.

“Fun”: I have never before come across a word in any language that describes such a wide spectrum of enjoyable activities from shopping to listening to a lecture. If translated literally from English into Hungarian, the words fun and enjoy can have a hedonistic overtone because we lack exact counterparts to these words.

The word enjoy can have a stronger meaning in most European languages than it has in English. In most of them it couldn’t be said, for example, enjoy your meal or enjoy your time. Maybe that’s why English has given me a sense of casual cheer and a more easy-going mentality.

The cultural mindset that’s embedded into English

The following approaches and mindsets are unique to English, and come across in the language.

Softeners.A little bit, quite, rather, really, probably, presumably, I think, evidently, obviously, as far as I know and many other so-called softeners lend a special character to the English language. If you don’t use them, you can easily come across as abrupt, rude, or even uneducated.

It was a revelation for me when I first started to see how these phrases work. Interestingly, I also started to use them more and more in my mother tongue. My family and friends have even begun to tease me for becoming too English.

An indirect approach. There are few European cultures that can express meanings in such a subtle and indirect way as English. Before saying something, you’re supposed to think carefully if it’s going to hurt someone else’s feelings, or if your comments will be considered prying.

Many of the Anglo-style indirect and polite requests could easily cause confusion in other European cultures where it’s not the norm to be indirect. It’s enough to think of those funny phrase collections where you can see how the British say something, what they mean and how other Europeans understand it.

For example, “quite good” is often understood as praise by most Europeans, while the British might mean “it’s quite disappointing”. As another example, “you must come for dinner” can often be said out of politeness by the British, without implying an actual invitation. However, it can be confusing because this phrase would be taken as an invitation in most parts of Europe.

I learned to be much more tactful, polite, and sometimes indirect after mastering English. I would say it’s one of the most obvious ways English has left its mark upon me.

Positive thinking. One can argue about the pros and cons of positive thinking but one thing seems to be certain: Thinking positively is an essential part of Anglo-Saxon culture and it’s imprinted on the fabric of the English language.

This is apparent from the way many English speakers replace negative words (e.g. problem) with positive and neutral words (e.g. challenge or issue). Positive thinking is an all-pervasive idea. Some authors, like Barbara Ehrenreich, even attribute large-scale social changes to this mindset.

As you can see, the connection between language and culture goes far deeper than a few generalizations about the Italians being romantic and the Germans precise. Most words of a foreign language reveal a specific mentality. It’s most easily felt when you translate from one language to another. Maybe you know the feeling when a translation just doesn’t “feel” the same as the original version. Through understanding everyday words and phrases from a native speaker’s standpoint, you can unravel their culture in a very detailed and practical way, just like you can crack a secret code.

Culture hacking: The real secret to language mastery

Language learning, at least once you’re past the beginner level, is not about memorizing sequences of random sounds until you can utter them automatically.

Language learning is not about sweating over grammar rules and trying to get them right every time you speak.

Language learning is all about discovering the beauty of another culture. It’s like traveling to a far-away, exotic country. It’s about being energized by the seductive charm of a new culture.

As you walk through new lands, you soak up the atmosphere of a different people. You immerse yourself in their history, music and food. At every corner you come across something that makes you stop, smile and wonder.

Mastering a language is exactly the same. No matter what language you’re learning, let the pulse of a new culture run through your veins.

Read the original article on Fluent in 3 Months. Check out Fluent in 3 Months on Facebook. Find out more about Benny’s free 5-day crash course to speaking your target language and discover some of the <ahref=”http:”&#8221; book-us=”” “=””>books he’s written. Copyright 2016. Follow Fluent in 3 Months onTwitter.

35 things Canadians say that Americans don’t understand

35 things Canadians say that Americans don’t understand

Portia Crowe

Jul. 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, is Canada Day.

The holiday is essentially the Canadian version of America’s Independence Day.

It’s a celebration of our confederation as a country within the British Empire in 1867.

So if you see a Canadian on Wednesday give them a high-five.

Now, it’s not always easy to spot a Canadian in the US. For the most part, we sound pretty similar. We share a lot of values with Americans and can identify with the same cultural references.

But we do have our own vernacular, and there’s a lot more to it than “ehs” and funny “abouts.”

Here’s a list of Canadian slang words and expressions that many Americans would not recognize:
Keener: A person who is extremely eager or keen. Used interchangeably with terms like “brownnoser” and “overachiever” among Canadian schoolchildren.

Mickey: A 375 ml bottle of alcohol. Usually shaped like a flask but slightly larger, they fit perfectly in a lady’s purse.

Runners: Running shoes. Or, really, any kind of athletic shoe, like a tennis shoe.

Stag and stagette parties: bachelor and bachelorette parties.

Hang a larry: Turn left.

Hang a roger: Turn right.

Two-four: a case of 24 beers.

Freezies: A favorite summertime treat that consists mostly of sugar and water frozen in a clear plastic tube.

Toque: Pronounced “toohk,” a toque is a winter hat or knit cap. Like a beanie. It often refers to the type of beanie that rolls up at the bottom.

Give’r: To exert as much effort as possible. Often used in the context of extreme sports.

Homo milk: Homogenized milk, also known as whole milk. In Canada, it is very normal for a parent or spouse to ask you to pick up some homo milk on your way home.

“Out for a rip”: Going out for a drive. Or a snowmobile ride. Or any other kind of excursion, really.

Double-double: a type of coffee from Tim Hortons, Canada’s most popular coffee and donut shop. Double-doubles are made with two creams and two sugars.

Timbit: a donut hole from Tim Hortons or from any other restaurant in Canada.

Parkade: A multistory parking lot, aka a parking garage.

Toonie (or twoonie): You already know what the loonie is, so we’ll skip right over that one. A toonie is a $2 coin. It’s two-colored and made out of aluminum bronze and nickel.

Tourtière: A French-Canadian meat pie, often served around Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

Serviette: a napkin.

Holiday: Canadians use the term “holiday” interchangeably with “vacation.” E.g., “When are you taking your holiday this year?” “I think I might go on holiday in July.”

Washroom: a polite word for bathroom. The Canadian version of “restroom.”

Chesterfield: a couch or sofa.

Garburator: an electric device underneath of a kitchen sink that breaks up food so it can be washed away. You call it a trash disposal.

Housecoat: a bathrobe.

Texas mickey: a 3-liter (101 oz) bottle of alcohol.

Gotch/gitch/gonch: tight men’s underpants (known elsewhere as “tighty–whities.”)

Pencil crayons: colored pencils.

College: This refers specifically to community colleges in Canada. Any institution that awards degrees is referred to as a “university.”

Pop: soda.

A Haligonian: anyone from the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Cheque: This is how Canadians spell “check” — as in the thing you write to transfer money to another person.


These ones are for the real pros …

A “pull” versus a “boot”: Both terms used to describe someone who is of drinking age who buys alcohol for those who are under-aged. In British Columbia and Alberta, the term “boot” is used. In Saskatchewan, the term is “pull.” Neither is prominent in Eastern Canada.

Bunnyhug: Used exclusively in Saskatchewan to refer to a hooded sweatshirt, or hoodie. But only in Saskatchewan. The rest of the country finds it as funny as you do.

Dep: a term used to refer to a convenience store in Montreal and other parts of Quebec. It’s short for the French word dépanneur.

“Hey” vs. “eh”: In some parts of Western Canada, the term “hey” is used more commonly than “eh.” Importantly, Canadians do not intersperse either word at random throughout sentences. Both are used like the word “right” at the end of a sentence.

Good to know, hey?

17 Grammar Mistakes That Are Technically Wrong But You Should Really Stop Worrying About Them

17 Grammar Mistakes That Are Technically Wrong But You Should Really Stop Worrying About Them

Incorrect grammar is one thing; overly pedantic correcting is worse.

We all want to use words in a way that make us sound professional, so that they’ll perhaps have a positive impact on our long-term success. Yet, caring too much about words can lead some of us to fall into an easy trap: becoming overly critical of the words other people use.

If you’re a teacher, maybe this doesn’t apply to you; it’s your job to correct students’ grammar. But, some of us–even professional writers–need to turn it down a notch.

(Bonus content:The Big Free Book of Success, my free e-book, which you can download here.)

So, if you want to avoid becoming known as a hyper-corrective jerk, start accepting some of these minor errors in other people’s diction. Here 17 of the most obvious.

1. Him/her or his/her vs them or their

We don’t have a gender-neutral singular possessive word in English, so many of us use “they” or “their” when technically “him or her” or “his or her” would be more correct. Instead of pointing this when other people do it, however, congratulate them for trying to solve one of the biggest linguistic challenges in the English language.

2. Who vs. that

“That” refers to things; “who” is used for people. This one is a personal pet peeve of mine, but that’s no reason to make a federal case out of it. So be the kind of person who keeps it to himself or herself.

3. Less vs fewer

This one drives me a little crazy as well–but it’s also not worth arguing about. Technically, you use “fewer” when you’re talking about things that can be quantified or counted easily (“This checkout line is for people with 9 items or fewer.”), and “less” when you refer things that can’t be counted easily (“We need less hatred in the world.”)

4. Skipping the “-ly” in adverb

You might remember the Apple marketing campaign, “Think different.” Grammatically, it’s flat-out wrong to skip the -ly in an adverb–but the truth is, nobody cares.

5. That vs. which

The issue here is the use of that or which at the start of a clause in the middle of a sentence. The easy way to remember the rule is that if cutting the clause would change the meaning of the sentence, use “that;” if it’s not necessary, use “which.” If that confuses you–well, it confuses just about everyone. Don’t bother correcting it.

6. Irregardless

Technically not a word–except that it’s used so much that it’s become one, colloquially anyway. One day soon we’ll see it adopted officially. Until then, as someone put it on Urban Dictionary, “everyone knows what you mean to say and only a pompous, rude asshole will correct you.”

7. Further vs. farther

The rule, according to Quick & Dirty Tips: “[U]se “farther” for physical distance and “further” for metaphorical, or figurative, distance. It’s easy to remember because “farther” has the word “far” in it, and”far” obviously relates to physical distance.”

Just don’t correct other people who use them incorrectly.

8. Me vs. I

Most of us get this right when we’re using the singular pronouns alone. For example, “I went to the store,” or “I hope she’ll go out with me.” When we combine them with other pronouns however, intuition fails us.

Shortcut: remove the other person from the sentence and see whether “I” or “me” still makes sense. Still, correct people for using the wrong word too often, and you’ll probably wind up all by your lonesome.

9. One vs. two space after a period

Using two spaces makes you look old. This is because the only reason you were taught to do that was because old-fashioned typewriters required two spaces in order to compensate for monospaced type. However, if you want to talk about battles that aren’t worth fighting–don’t bother with this one.

10. Em dash overuse

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as em dash overuse. I understand that other punctuation might often be more technically correct, but I think of it as all-purpose punctuation that fits the way people read today.

11. Oxford commas

There are two kinds of people out there: those who include a final comma when they’re listing three items in a sentence, and those who don’t. It’s the difference between “sit, stand, and lie down,” versus “sit, stand and lie down.”

Believe it or not, there are people who get really worked up about this rule. Don’t be one of them.

12. i.e. vs. e.g.

If you want to know how to use these correctly, “i.e.” means basically “in other words,” while “e.g.” means “for example.” There, you’re among the approximately .1% of people who know the difference. Enjoy your knowledge without criticizing others.

13. Split infinitives

You were probably taught to always avoid split infinitives. If you see what I did there, congratulations. But keep it to yourself when you’re critiquing others’ work. I guarantee you have more important battles to fight.

14. Incomplete comparisons

Sure, it can be annoying, but so many people do this that maybe it can’t really be considered wrong anymore: they begin a comparison but don’t finish it. For example, they say something like, “Our company’s products are better, cheaper, and more efficient.” More efficient than what? Most of us understand that they simply mean they’re efficient–maybe in comparison to their previous performance, or to other options.

15. Into vs. “in to”

These are two distinct words and phrases, but they’re used almost interchangeably, even though technically they shouldn’t be. “Into” is a transitive word–Turning lemons into lemonade, or putting money into your pocket. “In” and “to” are simply an adverb followed by a preposition–usually short for, “in order to,” like, “I just came in to get my computer before the meeting.

16. Double negatives

“Nobody knows nothing about anything,” so the saying goes. The trick here is that most of us understand you’re not supposed to use double negatives, which means that most often they’re being used intentionally incorrectly. Correct the speaker, and you’ll come off like the only person who doesn’t get the joke.

17. Confusing habits for rules

This is the coup de grace, because even those of us who write for a living, and who think we know all the rules, most often don’t. For example, perhaps your grammar teacher in high school told you never to start a sentence with a conjunction. But, he or she was wrong.

Revealed: The 10 most scream-inducing business jargon phrases


To “touch base offline” was ranked the worst phrase CREDIT: ALAMY

The corporate world can be an impenetrable place even without the code words that those on the inside abuse with abandon.

A new survey of 2,000 business travellers has revealed the 10 most hated items of “management speak”, the jargon that invades board rooms, marketing meetings and professional emails.

[I can feel a bout of Bullshit Bingo coming on]

To “touch base offline” topped the list, angering those who preferred to say “let’s meet and talk”, according to Jargon Buster, a new book curated by language expert Adam Jacot de Boinod for Amba Hotels.

Blue sky thinking“, meaning creative ideas that are not constrained by preconceptions – similar to “thinking outside the box“, which ranked fifth on the list – and “to punch a puppy” rounded out the top three.

The canine catchphrase, which means to do something unpleasant that is good for the business, was more offensive to women than to men, irritating 29pc and 20pc of respondents respectively.

“It was fascinating to see the emotional response that business travellers have to certain terms or phrases,” said Goldsmiths University behavioural expert Patrick Fagan.

“While some feel repelled by certain words, and attracted to others, the majority of business travellers feel that many of the buzzwords have no concrete or effective meaning.”

The 10 most hated jargon phrases

  1. Touch base offline (let’s meet and talk)
  2. Blue sky thinking (creative ideas free from practical constraints)
  3. Punch a puppy (do something detestable but good for the business)
  4. Thought shower (to come up with several ideas)
  5. Thinking outside the box (thinking creatively and innovatively)
  6. It’s on my radar (I’m aware of it)
  7. Close of play (the end of the day)
  8. Singing from the same hymn sheet (all in agreement)
  9. Peel the onion (to examine a problem in detail)
  10. To wash its own face (to justify or pay for itself)

Other repeat offenders not included in Jargon Buster‘s top 10 include “to circle back“, to “action” something and to “reach out“.

Research by the Institute of Leadership and Management has found that a quarter of British workers find corporate jargon to be a “pointless irritation”.


The majority of business travellers feel that many of the buzzwords have no concrete or effective meaning

Chrissie Mahler, founder of the Plain English Campaign, has called management speak  “downright dangerous” and criticised it of “acting as a barrier to procuring new business”.

Last year, the Financial Conduct Authority warned firms in the City to avoid small print packed with complicated technical language, which can confuse clients and lead to unnecessary complaints.

“Corporate jargon needs refreshing and we are on a mission to shake up the standard business language that so many of us come across in our everyday lives,” said Colin Roy, chief marketing officer at GLH Hotels, the London-based subsidiary of GuocoLeisure Group that owns Amba Hotels.

“Amba Hotels is a forward-thinking, business-focussed hotel brand and we want our Jargon Buster to reflect that.”

How hard is English? How weird?

Johnson: How hard is English? How weird?

JOHNSON gets mail. Tom K., a reader in Ottawa, asks:

I had always understood English to be a reasonably easy language to learn, because it lacks many of the features that make other languages difficult. However, a friend told me that English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, because it contains so many words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.

I’d love to see your opinion about this (and if I’m right, bragging rights with my friend).

Johnson is sorry to disappoint, but the boring answer is “it depends”. Whether English is confusing or easy mostly depends on the learner’s native language. A native speaker of German or Dutch—Germanic languages closely related to English—will find English relatively straightforward. Learners whose first language is Chinese (completely unrelated) or Russian (distantly related) will find English much harder. This is roughly true of languages all around the world. If you learn a language geographically close and from a common ancestor of your first language, there will be fewer nasty surprises, at every level from sound to word to sentence.

Would it be possible, though, to describe a language’s “difficulty” in the abstract? If so, what would it look like? English-speakers often point to a language like Latin or Ancient Greek. Next to them, in one important respect, English is easy. The distinction involves a language’s “inflectional morphology”, or the bits and pieces added to a noun or adjective or verb to make it match up with other pieces in a sentence. An English verb has a maximum of five forms (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, spoken), whereas verbs in Spanish or Latin can take dozens of forms. An English noun usually has only two forms (singular and plural), whereas the Greek or Russian noun takes numerous forms showing grammatical gender, number and case.

This kind of inflection is not a terrible proxy for that slippery idea of “difficulty”. Where are the world’s hardest languages, then? Is English one of them? One study, by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale in 2010, looked closely at inflection. It found that highly inflected languages tend to be spoken by a small number of speakers, and have few neighbours. But languages with big groups of speakers, or many neighbouring languages, systematically tend to have fewer inflections. Why is that? The hypothesis is that as a language spreads over centuries, it is learned by many non-natives (trading partners, conquered subjects and the like). Adults, learning a foreign language imperfectly, avoid using non-necessary endings. And many endings in any language are non-necessary, if other clues (like word order in a sentence) can be recruited to do the same things that word endings do—say, distinguishing the subject of a sentence from its direct object. As languages spread and grow, they are more likely to rely on clues like word order than on word-endings. So “big” languages are “simple”. Under this schema, English fits both criteria: relatively big and relatively simple.

That’s one way of determining relative “hardness”, apart from the starting point of a given speaker’s native language. The problem is that this is far from a perfect measure. Sure, lots of verb-endings are hard for a learner, especially a learner who is not used to them. But where the English verb lacks endings, it makes up for this simplicity in other ways. When to use the various auxiliary verbs is far from obvious: How would you explain to a learner the use of do in the following? “I don’t normally drink, but I do like a crispy lager on a hot summer’s day.” The first use is simply standard with negative statements: we say “I don’t drink” rather than “I drink not.” But the second do, just a few words later, is quite different. It is emphatic, stressing the unusual behaviour on a hot summer’s day. These and other wrinkles can be mind-bending for learners of English.

A recent study by a language-processing company called Idibon tried to establish not which languages are “hard”, but which are “weird”. It used a resource called the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS). WALS indexes hundreds of languages across hundreds of different features (from whether verbs precede objects to whether the language uses click-sounds as consonants). The Idibon study tried to find which languages use the greatest number of unusual features—i.e., those features shared with few other languages. But for tricky methodological reasons, the study had to limit itself 21 features. The languages that have the least “normal” values of these 21 features are the “weirdest”.

Does English rank high? Not especially. Many non-European languages dominate the top of the list. Of those languages in the Indo-European family with English, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, Kurdish and Kashmiri all rank as “weirder”. English is at place number 33 of 239 languages in the “weirdness index”.

That doesn’t settle a bar bet along the lines of “Is English hard to learn?” But any topic worthy of a good long argument—”Who’s the greatest boxer of all time?” “‘Dark Side of the MoonorThe Wall‘?”—should have that element of taste and subjectivity to keep it fun.


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