Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's the Alternative?

The two English words 'alternate' and 'alternative' seem to be a bit confusing to many people. The noun 'alternative' simply means 'something that can be done/used instead of something else' and nobody replaces it with 'alternate'. When it comes to the adjective in the same sense, though, some people - especially those who use American English - consider both as equivalents.

Do we have any alternatives? (Are there any other things that we can do/use instead?)

We have to find an alternative/alternate[esp. AmE] solution.

However, it's to be noted that not everybody considers this use of 'alternate' acceptable. So it may be safer to stick to 'alternative' in such contexts.

The word 'alternate', on the other hand, is used as an adjective to mean that two things follow each other again and again. When talking about many things of the same sort occurring in a row (for example days,nights...), it means 'every other (one but not the next)'. 

The fabric had alternate stripes of black and white. (black, white, black, white...)

Meetings are held on alternate week days. (One week day, not the next, but again the third, not the fourth, and so on.)

The word is also used as a verb when two things follow each other repeatedly.

White stripes alternate with black ones on that fabric.

You have to alternate layers of bread and/with cheese when making a cheese sandwich.

The lighting on the stage alternated between dimness and brightness.

(Image Credit: .: Philipp Klinger :.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If I Were You...

Although the second and the third conditionals in English are both used to talk about things that we think are unreal, they deal with two very different scenarios. The former appears in situations where we think the condition (which is expressed by the part of the sentence containing the conjunction 'if' or 'unless') is rather unlikely to happen. The latter, on its part, is about the past and it denotes a condition that we think had the possibility of happening sometime in the past though it didn't really happen. 
If he worked hard, he would pass the exam. (Though we admit that he has the chance to pass the exam with hard work, we don't really think he'll work hard.) 

If he had worked hard, he would have passed the exam. (Though we admit that it he had the chance to pass the exam with hard work, he didn't work hard and therefore didn't pass the exam.)

However, when the condition is a thing of the past but the result concerns the present or the future, the statement may take a mixed form:

If he had worked hard, he would be rich today.  (Though we're talking about hard work that wasn't done in the past, the possible result of it - i.e. his chance of being rich by now - concerns the present.)

They would come to the party tomorrow if we had invited them at the office yesterday. (Though the result - their attending the party - is about the future, i.e. tomorrow, the time to invite them is already past, i.e. at the office yesterday, and therefore it's no longer possible to invite them.) 
If I had studied harder, I wouldn't have to repeat the exam next year. (I didn't study hard enough in the past, so I'll have to repeat the exam in the future.) 

Sometimes it could be the other way round too: the condition may be something that’s valid even at present though the result occurred in the past.

I wouldn't have done it if I were you. (The condition 'if were you' is used in the form of the second conditional because of its timeless quality though the part 'I wouldn't have done it' is about the past.)

You would have understood it if you knew German. (You didn't understand it because you don't know German. The fact that you didn't understand belongs to the past, but even now you don’t know German – i.e. assuming you haven’t learnt the language in the meantime.)

I would have gone on the trip with them if I didn’t have to attend this wedding tomorrow. (I didn’t go on the trip, which has already started, because I have a wedding to attend tomorrow – a planned action that’s yet to come. So I no longer can go on the trip, but my obligation to attend the wedding still stands.)

(Image credit: whatmegsaid)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Moon and Her Gentle Light

In many languages in the world, inanimate things are sometimes assigned feminine gender in a figurative way to highlight their gentle or generous qualities.

The moon cast her gentle light on the fields.

We sometimes marvel at nature and her abundance.

However, there are some languages that always view such things as either masculine or feminine. For example, the French language inherently considers the moon - 'la lune' - feminine while in German it's masculine: 'der Mond'. Is it that the moon always impresses French speakers with its mildness above everything else? What is it then that the Germans see as masculine in the moon? It's rather unlikely that the German forefathers could understand the moon's barren harshness in those pre-scientific days when these linguistic pattens took shape.

Both these languages portray nature as feminine: 'la nature' in French and 'die Natur' in German. When it comes to other concepts, though, there seem to be differences so fundamental that even the choice of words may not be the same.

To take one distinct case, 'motherland' is a concept that should essentially be feminine in English due to its association with 'mother'. The corresponding term in French, 'la patrie', is feminine too, so we can assume that the French aren't very far from this conception themselves. The Germans, on their part, call their homeland 'das Vaterland' - the fatherland. Although those familiar with German would know that the word itself is linguistically neuter because of its base word 'das Land', there's no denying that the core concept has more to do with the masculine nature of a father.

So it could well be that not everybody around us notices the same version of the world as we do, with this type of influence coming from their mother tongues. (Now that's another thing on which the French and the Germans seem to see eye to eye: 'mother tongue' is feminine in both their views - 'la langue maternelle' in French and 'die Muttersprache' in German. There's some harmony among neighbours after all!)

(Image credit: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel)

Friday, November 5, 2010

I Think I Must Mention This

The word 'must' is a very common one in the English language. One of its uses is to say that it's necessary for someone to do something.

I must leave now, otherwise I'll be late for work. 

You must work harder.

The expressions 'have to' and 'have got to' are also taken to convey a similar meaning. 

We have to be there by 8 o'clock.

They've got to reduce their spending.

Some speakers of British English make a difference here by using 'must' when someone feels the need for doing something, and going for 'have to' or 'have got to' when the particular action is required due to regulations or other people's wishes.

I must go home now to watch the match on TV. 
(I want to go home now.)

I have to go home now because my parents have asked me to be back before 10 pm. 
(They want me to go home now.)

Out of all three, only 'have to' is possible in the past or future tense.

They had to get permission from their parents.

You'll have to discuss the matter with the director.  

All these forms are also employed in talking about things that you firmly believe are true. (The use of 'have to' and 'have got to' in this sense used to be American English, but it's now increasingly found in British usage too.)  

She must be the principal / She has to be the principal / She's got to be the principal. 
(Everything I know makes me think that she's the principal.) 

When referring to something from the past in this sense, the phrase 'must have' is applied. 

He must have met her before. 
(Everything I know makes me think that he has met her before.)

When it comes to the negative, however, their meanings become completely different from each other.

You must not go there any more. 
(You're not allowed to go there any more.)

You don't have to go there any more. 
(It's not necessary for you to go there any more.)

To talk about something that you firmly believe isn't true, you need to turn to a completely different construction:

She can't be the principal. 
(Everything I know makes me think that she isn't the principal.) 

He can't have met her before.
(Everything I know makes me think that he hasn't met her before.) 

Oh dear, what a language! 

(Image credit: kevindooley)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I Can Hear You Singing

English verbs of perception like 'see', 'hear', 'feel', 'watch' and 'listen to' can be followed by an object with a verb attached to it. This happens when you talk about some perceived action of that object.

I saw my brother enter the room.

The child heard her sister singing. 

The verb following the object is sometimes in the form of its 'bare infinitive' (i.e. enter, sing, eat...) and at other times its 'gerund' (i.e. entering, singing, eating...). Though in some cases this makes no big difference to the meaning, these two forms can't always be used interchangeably.

The use of the gerund generally tends to indicate that the action was noticed at some point while it was progressing. The bare infinitive, on the other hand, says that more or less the whole action was observed. This distinction will be clearly seen in the following examples:

As I passed the traffic lights, I saw your sister crossing the road. (She was seen while she was crossing the road.)

As I waited at the traffic lights, I saw your sister cross the road and enter the post office. (The whole process of her crossing the road and entering the post office was seen.)

We heard him singing as we entered the hall. (His singing, which was going on, was heard when we entered.)

We heard him sing this song at the concert. (The singing of the whole song was heard, from beginning to end.)

(Image credit: jurvetson
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