Category Archives: Grammar

Just in case more than one ends up coming up, we’ll have this category for posts dealing with grammar.

The Aesthetics of Greek and Latin

Chancellor Gorkon

Chancellor Gorkon famously said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is a trope that is expressed about basically all literature — you cannot appreciate something in a translation. Something is always lost in translation, even if a translator is capable of conveying the same, precise meaning as the original text.

One of the elements lost is the original aesthetic of the text. The sheer pleasure of reading well-wrought verbal artistry is entirely untranslatable. Anaphora, anacolouthon, assonance, alliteration, not to mention other devices that don’t begin with A are rarely, if ever, capable of reproduction in a translation. Puns are well-nigh impossible. Poetic meter and prose rhythm are almost inevitably sacrificed.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching Theocritus. It has been a few years since I last read Theocritus in the original Greek, and I find myself enjoying him much more in Greek than I had in my more recent reading of him in English translation. The aesthetic pleasures of Theocritus are in some ways, of course, those of any poet. Reading dactylic hexameters aloud, for example, has an aural significance that nothing else provides (even things equally pleasant are simply different). And then you meet his use of literary devices — playing with words, repeating various sounds across several lines of poetry as a means of tying together the concepts in a poem in a way that English, with a different vocabulary, cannot do with the same meanings.

There is also the pleasure of reading Doric Greek. Ancient Greek, if you were not aware, exists in multiple dialects. The dialect of Theocritus is primarily Doric. This means that he has certain versions of common words that different from other dialects — poti for pros, for instance. He also frequently uses long alpha where the Greek you learn in class uses eta. Some of his pronouns are different, etc. This use of a different dialect provides both an aesthetic and philological pleasure. His Greek ‘sounds’ different from Homer’s, although he does use some Homeric vocabulary and forms; it sounds different from Plato’s, as well.

Finally, part of the pleasure of reading verse written in inflected languages is the fact that word order matters a lot less than in English. As one of my students calls it, every once in a while Theocritus gives us a ‘Happy Grammar Fun Time’ — he will delay a crucial word in a sentence through enjambment so that it is both the final word of the sentence and the first word of a line of poetry. Not only this, in one of the occasions he does this, that final word of the sentence is separated from the rest of the sentence by a refrain. Without the word, as you would read the sentence naturally, it has one meaning. Suddenly, a new meaning appears after the refrain.

You cannot do this in English.

It is hard to explain the sheer pleasure that comes from reading literature in its original language, but it is a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience to read Theocritus in Greek, or Virgil in Latin, or any author in the language he or she originally used.

Best book I read this year?

A friend posted an article on Facebook from the New York Times where the 15 Bookend columnists shared the best books, new or old, they’d read this year. ‘But who are these people?’ he wondered. ‘What about friends whose opinions I actually care about?’

I was thus tagged.

Pulled out the list of fun books. Scanned it. Dracula? Frankenstein? Some souvenir guidebook to a place I’d been? The Day of the Triffids? Well, it had to be —

Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Why? Because it’s basically pure awesome. Once you get into it, that book swallows you whole and sends you on a journey through heaven, hell, and Eden bouncing along in English blank verse never wanting to do anything else. Here’s my ‘epic review’.

But then, the work list. Shorter. Less fun, although often great and profound and whatnot. A quick glance leaves me without a question —

City of God, by St Augustine of Hippo. It, too, is basically pure awesome. So much depth of thought and intricacy and bewildering everything in that book. Here’s my initial thoughts review.

But what about all those other books?

I had to mention The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. Here’s a book that runs on a concept I’d never heard of before — the idea of generating energy by transferring particles between parallel universes. And, as always, the story was interesting and the characters captivating.

After Asimov, Masterharper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Maybe not actually the best Pern book I read this year, since this year I reread Dragonflight. But it is a very good book with a compellling tale and the most captivating of all Pernese characters as its protagonist — Masterharper Robinton.

Finally, Discourse Particles in Latin by Caroline Kroon. This is not a book one recommends to friends, I admit. But it was thorough, well-researched, clearly set out, and it has had an impact on the way I read Latin. An important book, to say the least. My review of it here.

In the end, since I read so much, this was an impossible task.

What was the ‘best’ book you read this year?

The long-awaited review of Discourse Particles in Latin

Discourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and atDiscourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at by Caroline Kroon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brief discourse on this particularly useful book:

Kroon begins her discussion of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at with a discussion of discourse pragmatics and linguistiics, taking as her starting point for analysis not the clause but the acts and moves within linguistic discourse. Chapters 1-3 set out the discussion of discourse pragmatics and particles, evaluating different theories of approach; these I found to be very dense, and took a brief glance through a linguistics textbook to prep my brain to work through it. Nevertheless, it got easier to read the more I progressed.

Chapters 4 and 5 build on the first three chapters to produce Kroon’s methodology for analysing Latin particles — hers is a bottom-up approach that seeks to locate each particle within a simple meaning and minimal number of uses based upon both semantics and pragmatics.

Finally, chapters 6-12 discuss the various particles under discussion with extensive reference to discourse pragmatics and copious examples from Latin prose literature (and comedy — is that prose or poetry?) from Plautus to Tacitus. Her approach helpfully reduces the number of meanings for some of these particles while at the same time demonstrating how alleged synonyms often differ greatly in their actual function in the text. She progresses through the particles from least challengeable discuss to most — that is, her discussion of enim presents a greater challenge to traditional grammars than that of nam, and the final three progress from autem to vero to at.

This book is extraordinarily useful. While working through it, each of the particles under discussion began popping out at me in my own reading of Late Latin epistolography, and I was able to see the discourse function of these particles in the way Kroon describes them. My thinking about language has become more precise at large, and in my approach to Latin especially.

View all my reviews

Latin is all around us

Alternate Title: Latin Actually

When I assert that Latin is all around us, I can’t really take my desk as an example, what with it having Leo in Latin in various forms as well as Lewis & Short’s A Latin Dictionary, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, and Conte’s Latin Literature: A History on the main level, let alone the assortment of Loebs, Oxford Classical Texts, Roman history books, Latin grammars, and translations of the ancients you’ll find in the vicinity of this space.

Nevertheless, I contend that this statement is true not only for me but for you as well.  I first coined this phrase, unconsciously snatched from a popular film, whilst talking with a Hare Krishna, of all times and of all places. He asked me where I was going, and I said that I was off to mark some Latin assignments. He was a bit stunned.

‘Where do people study Latin?’ he queried.

‘At the University of Edinburgh.’

‘Oh, cool. I didn’t think anybody studied that anymore. Why?’

I explained to the Hare Krishna that if he knew Sanskrit, he could come that much closer to the texts he was giving away on the street for donations. So also with Latin — a knowledge of Latin brings the reader closer to the great works of poetry and philosophy composed in this language from Virgil and Ovid even to early modern philosophers.

‘Not only this,’ I said, ‘Latin is very useful, because it’s all around us. I like living in places like Britain and Canada, because I can show you very easily.’

Then, using a trick shown by Richard Burgess in Introduction to Roman Civilization in my first year of undergrad, I pulled out a coin. On any piece of British or Canadian money, you will find on the reverse around the image of HM Elizabeth ‘D G REGINA,’ and on larger British coins, ‘D G F D REGINA.’ This is coin-speak for ‘Dei gratia Regina,’ and, ‘Dei gratia fidei defensor Regina‘ — ‘Queen by the grace of God,’ and ‘Queen and Defender of the Faith by the grace of God.’

Coins are not the only Latin lurking around the corner, however. At the University of Ottawa, we were also directed to the podium with the university arms on it. The motto, ‘Deus Scientiarum Dominus Est’ — God is the Lord of Knowledge(s). Here in Edinburgh, many mottoes abound on the stone buildings. Admittedly, many of them — such as the Central Lending Library’s ‘Let There Be Light’ — are English (or perhaps ‘Inglis'[?] as the old St Cuthbert’s Co-operative building on Fountainbridge: Hae God hae all.). But many others are Latin.

Latin mottoes and inscriptions are scattered, for example, throughout Edinburgh Castle. As well, there is a motto in the old building that now houses Hank’s Sandwich Shop on Fountainbridge St. On Dalry Rd, a building built in the year 2000 has a coat of arms with the motto: Discimus. The Usher Hall’s ceiling has the City of Edinburgh arms, complete with the motto: Nisi Dominus Frustra; a paraphrase from ‘Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it,’ (Psalm 127:1).

Latin is to be found in many abbreviations: i.e. = id est; e.g. = exempli gratia; am = ante-meridiem; pm = post-meridiem; AD = Anno Domini; RIP = requiescat in pace.

Whole, intact Latin words have made their way into English speech as well. Some words are almost wholly naturalised, such as mores. Others, such as status quo or et cetera are more clearly Latin. While they cannot be cited ad infinitum, I won’t go on ad nauseum to make my case almost ad absurdum.

Then we have the many words that infiltrated English from Latin early on or via French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and have been completely transformed. These are often scientific or judicial terms (like scientific and judicial). Homicide is from Latin. Cardiovascular is likewise Latin-based. However, many normal words are also Latin-based, such as … well … normal. And move, dictionary, empire, month, annual, chapter, universe, pork, and so on and on and on.

These Latin words, however, do not make English a Romance tongue. You who know the roots of words can agree that the last sentence shows it. Our basic syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are Germanic, even if the words syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are not.*

In sum, Latin is all around us. This, as well as access to some of the world’s greatest literature, philosophy, and theology should alone make you want to learn it. 😉

*A French Canadian (engineer!) tried maintaining once that English is a Romance language. Also, an Iraqi and Egyptian I met in Paris think that Coptic is related to Greek because of the alphabet and loan words. Coptic is Afro-Asiatic like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic!

Pedantry or Accuracy?

Now, I don’t quite remember the book The Screwtape Letters, but the other evening I saw the play put on by Saltmine at Edinburgh Fringe. And in the play, Screwtape talks about how people misuse words all the time, and many of them with the result of destroying virtue — and those who object are called “pedants”, rather than considered rationally.

Perhaps I am a pedant; perhaps I am merely accurate.

However, how hard is it to learn a few simple rules to produce more accurate use of the English language?

Fewer vs. Less

If you can quantify (that is, count) something, use fewer, if not, use less.

“Less flour” but “fewer apples”

The rule is that easy to learn. And if you Google “fewer”, you get all sorts of results that teach the difference between fewer and less.

Thus, at the blog cute overload, the post ought to be “More Veggies, Fewer Wedgies,” not “More Veggies, Less Wedgies“. It even sounds wrong as it stands. But the hamster is cute — one may argue that the hamster is the whole point, but I don’t see why one can’t speak about cuteness with accurate use of English.

Apparently, fewer women are working in television and film according to Yet the headline reads, “Where My Girls At?! Reports Show Less Women Are Working In Hollywood?” I understand that dropping forms of the the verb to be is acceptable practice in various inflected languages; no doubt Perez Hilton was thinking of Latin usage when coming up with this headline, although the needless at concluding the opening query is a bit puzzling; “Where are my girls at?” really makes no sense. So, perhaps, after an opening like that, one ought not really to expect much, right?

Furthermore, why is there a question mark at the end of this title?

The Clutch Blog also discusses “58 Classic Novels In 33 Words Or Less“. It also capitalises the letter I on a preposition of fewer than four letters in a title, something I am given to understand is bad practice in English-language titles.

News sites are no better than blogs, unfortunately. And advertising boggles the imagination.

Everyday vs. Every day

Yesterday at Tesco Express I saw a sign advertising that the bakery items were baked fresh “everyday”. This is nonsensical.

Everyday is an adjective that describes something as being perhaps ordinary or humdrum or typical. Maybe even bland. As an adjective, it must needs modify a noun. You cannot bake everyday. It just is not possible.

You can, however, bake every day. Every day is a temporal adverbial construction that requires the use of the space bar. It can modify verbs in ways than an adjective such as everyday cannot.

“An everyday bakery” vs. “I bake every day”


I had students this past term who did not understand apostrophes at all. One student in a rebellious essay of punctuational (I don’t actually know the word for this) warfare eschewed them altogether. Another would put them after the letter S every time, without fail. Another student put them before the S every once in a while when, given that we were discussing Achilles or Trojans, it really belonged after the S.

The apostrophe catastrophes mentioned above all surround the use of apostrophes in possessives. The apostrophe comes before the S if you are adding an S to the word being modified. If the word being modified already ends in S such as Achilles or most English plurals (Trojans, Danaans), you add the apostrophe after the S.

“Achilles’ shield” or “the Trojans’ champion” vs. “Hector’s helmet” or “Agamemnon’s pride”

If misuse of apostrophes bothers you, there are two blogs to help fuel your ire/laughter: Apostrophe Abuse and Apostrophe Catastrophes. On a related note, there is also the excellent “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

Its vs. It’s

In the world of apostrophes, people frequently make this error. I’m not even going to Google it because it would be too confusing. The rule is breathtakingly simple: There are two versions of this letter combination. One is a contraction, one is not. Contractions always have apostrophes in English. Therefore, the possessive is its and the contraction is it’s. Every time, without fail.

“It’s raining outside, so the Martian is putting on its leathers.”

Now, these are but a few examples. Nonetheless, learning a mere few grammar, punctuation, and word usage rules would make one’s speech and writing (elocution, if you will) more clear, more accurate, and more pleasant for all involved.

The Supercomparative (an adventure in grammar)

A few years ago, it was popular to use the German prefix uber to mean something beyond super.  An example of this use of uber would be that if during the Cold War the USA and the USSR were the two superpowers, then today the USA is the uberpower.  That sort of ridiculous thing.

There is also lurking in the world the word bestest.

One night at a party, my friend Jennq and I were discussing the great potentialities of there being a degree beyond the superlative (good = positive, better = comparative, best = superlative).  If there were, this degree of comparison would, by the above usage of uber be the uberlative.

In a moment of uncontainable geek energy, I proclaimed, “Then bestest is the uberlative of good!”

Jennq and I went to high five; I missed and hit her in the head.

I would like now to posit a fifth degree other than the positive, comparative, superlative, and uberlative.  This is an intermediate degree between the superlative and the uberlative.  I call this degree the supercomparative.

My endlessly-scintillating reading of late has brought me into contact with Albert Blaise’s Manuel du Latin Chretien (you don’t need French to figure that one out).  Blaise makes mention of the use of a comparative based on the superlative.  The best example he provides is from St. Jerome: maximior.

Maximus, as you may know, is the superlative of magnus, which means great.  Now, we may imagine that all Jerome really meant by maximior was maior, greater.  But if a guy means maior, won’t he just write maior?  I reckon as he would.  Clearly maximior is some sort of comparative that is to be considered greater than the average comparative, greater even, I would posit, than the superlative — the supercomparative.

Now, I’m not sure of the English morphology of the supercomparative.  The formation of comparatives and superlatives in Latin is fairly straightforward — indeed, one could even turn maximus into an uberlative, maximissimus.  My conjecture can only get us bester based on the formation of the uberlative bestest.  But bester seems woefully inadequate to me.

Maybe, however, that’s just bester, because I kinda like greatester and biggester.

There you have it, friends.  Nonsense grammar for nonsense words.

A Fascinating Place to Work

Rick once made a comment on one of my posts that Chapters seems like a fascinating place to work. As part of my attempts to increase my job satisfaction, I’ve occasionally thought about that. Rather than giving you a whole philosophy surrounding Chapters and part-time jobs for large corporations and books, here are some of the interesting things from today in particular, adapted from a scrap of paper I carried in my pocket to write in . . .

I learned from a pair of customers what carbon credits are (we have no books on them, though). Now, you may notice that some companies out there are behaving themselves (somewhat) and have reduced their greenhouse emissions and whatnot in accordance with Kyoto. But others, alas, have not. What they can do, though, is trade “carbon credits.” When a company has been good and exceeded expectations, they can give carbon credits to a different company that has not–thus, although not every company will be up to standards, this way industry as a whole can be viewed as generally up to standards. I’m not sure it’s entirely logical. And I may be wrong, but this, as I understand it, is the deal with carbon credits.

As I spread intellectual enlightenment through the written word today, I came across this book on a display in my section (which is the kids section)–Mother Goose Unplucked by Helaine Becker. On page 78 of said book, one finds a two-page spread about dragons. I like both dragons and words (especially Greek ones), so the following quotation caught my eye:

The word “dragon” comes from the Greek word drakon, meaning “that which sees” or “that which flashes.” It may have originally referred to a type of snake with shiny scales.

This etymology for drakon (δράκων, for any who care) fascinated me. According my Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, this word simply means “a dragon, or serpent of huge size, a python,” and is found in Homer, et cetera. Most translators, et al., whom I’ve noticed tend to go for the serpent definition. But the Liddell and Scott has failed me. Nonetheless, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect by Richard John Cunliffe does state that δράκων probably comes from δέρκομαι, the aorist (simple past) participle of which is δρακών (note the accent difference). Δέρκομαι means a host of things: to see clearly, see; to be alive, living; to look terrible, with the word for fire it can mean flashing fire from the eyes, it can mean to look on or at, and generally can mean to perceive.

I’ve a feeling that our friends in Mother Goose Unplucked were barking up the right tree with the wrong definition, as the only way the word can mean “flashing” is if there is fire involved–and would involve eyes, not scales.

Moving along. The pocket book edition of the first book of The Great Tree of Avalon series has a double front cover. The inner of the two covers has a picture of one of the characters. This character happens to look pretty much like Orlando Bloom. I’ve known this for almost two weeks and showed it to my co-workers today and proceeded to chortle. Orlando Bloom…

Finally, any Happy Days fans out there will be pleased to learn that Fonzi has found a life beyond getting killed in Scream. That’s right, Henry Winkler writes children’s books. Today I shelved Book Eleven of his series about Hank Zipzer, “The World’s Greatest Underachiever.” This tome is titled, The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down.

That’s all for now. Happy reading!