Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Only Saw Her Yesterday

The word 'only' in English can have many meanings. Taken out of context, it can even lead to misunderstandings. 

I saw her only yesterday.

This sentence could mean that the speaker had never seen 'her' until yesterday; on the other hand, what the speaker means could be that he/she even saw the other person ('her') as recently as yesterday.

As many other adverbs, 'only' also often tends to be placed between the subject and the verb (or, as the case may be, between the auxiliary verb and the main verb) of a sentence - particularly in informal usage. The above sentence, in both its senses, could be phrased as follows:

I only saw her yesterday.

In speech, it's usually possible through intonation to see which part of the sentence 'only' refers to. But in writing it may be ambiguous unless the meaning is clear from the context. For example, 'I only saw her yesterday' could mean either of the two things mentioned earlier; or perhaps that the speaker saw her, but didn't do anything else like talking to her; or it could be that the speaker saw no one except her yesterday.

Of course the sentence could have been rephrased as follows to avoid ambiguity in the last scenario above:

I saw only her yesterday.

And then there are other cases.

Trying to explain things to her will only make her angrier. (It'll have an undesirable effect, rather than a good one.)

You only can guess what she'll do next. (It's all you can do, though it's not going to help much.)

We only just caught the bus. 

In this sentence, they've just managed to catch the bus, but could well have missed it too.

If only I could speak to him once more. / If I only could speak to him once more.

Here the word 'only' doesn't really have a restrictive sense, but is being used in a structure that expresses a wish. It's similar to saying 'I wish I could speak to him once more.'

It is for members only.

Especially in official settings, 'only' - in the restrictive sense - is placed after the noun it qualifies, as in the above example.

She was the only one who helped me. 

When used as an attributive adjective this way, 'only' expresses the uniqueness of the noun it comes before; it's one of a kind. There's no room for ambiguity here. The above sentence, for example, asserts that only 'she' helped the speaker.

I'd like to help you, only I'm too busy right now.

This gives the reason why the speaker can't help the other person although he/she wants to do so. This type of structure is often used to present an excuse for not doing something, without hurting the others' feelings. (Here - and in the next example - 'only' functions as a conjunction.)

He looks just like his father, only taller. (If there's any difference, it's just that the son is taller.)

(Image credit: Sarah_Ackerman)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

To Hit the Headlines

The title and other headings of a document are generally expected to stand out. So, among other things, people like to use some capital letters in them. But which letters do you put in upper case, and which not? There seem to be several styles in this regard.

Sometimes you find that all the letters of a title are capitalised.


In other cases, only the initial letter of a title is in capital form (unless of course it contains any other word - like a name - that must begin with a capital letter).

The rise and fall of socialism

The rainfall statistics of India

However, this pattern is sometimes preferred for sub-headings as the emphasis given in this manner is considered insufficient for main headings and titles. So some sources - in particular American ones -  favour a style where all the words of a main headline begin with a capital letter.

The Rise And Fall Of Socialism

Simple and effective as these methods are, they're not to everyone's liking. Some seem to think it's more appropriate to capitalise the initial letters of important words. The trouble begins when deciding which of the words should be considered important. Once again several different styles are in use. Let's see the common norms of this selective method first.

(1) Capitalise all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that...).

(2) Capitalise the first and the last words no matter what type they are. 

Now we'll turn to what's not to be capitalised. One rule says that articles, prepositions and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so - denoted by 'FANBOYS') are always lower case (unless of course they’re the first or the last word of the title). Although articles and coordinating conjunctions are treated like this by almost everyone using a selective capitalisation style, there are differences when it comes to prepositions. While some such writers put them all in lower case, others tend to capitalise those with four letters or more; still others do so only when they have at least five letters.

Gone with the Wind
Gone With the Wind

Much Ado about Nothing 
Much Ado About Nothing

However, even a short preposition has to begin with a capital letters if it occurs as the last word.

Things We Are Proud Of

Care should also be taken not to put words like 'be' (verb), 'is' (verb) and 'it' (pronoun) in lower case just because they're short.

How to Be Punctual  

What It Is Supposed to Be in Ten Years 

Also consider the following:  

A Cruise up the Nile (Here 'up' functions as a preposition.) 

How to Put a Picture Up on a Wall (Here 'up' is an adverb for the verb 'put'.) 

How to Set Up a Computer (Here 'up' is part of the phrasal verb 'set up' - and used adverbially.)

So if you're not quite sure about the function of these short words in a particular context, it might be better to avoid the selective styles and settle for one of the methods mentioned earlier. And it's important to select your style and stick to it within a document.

(Image credit: Unlisted Sightings)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

If You Heard His Remark...

When it comes to conditional sentences dealing with the past, we're used to seeing the so-called Third Conditional pattern very often.

If you had heard his remark, you would have felt embarrassed. 

It's about a remark that you didn't hear and, therefore, it's clear that you didn't feel embarrassed either. The condition (which is in the if-clause) didn't happen, so the possible result of it could not happen. One is trying to visualise a scenario that was possible, but didn't really occur. That's where we use this pattern called the third conditional in English.

Sometimes we have to talk about a past condition we aren't quite sure about; that is, we don't know for sure whether it really happened as claimed by someone. This is a somewhat different scenario, and a different pattern has to be employed to convey this type of idea.

If you heard his remark, you must have felt embarrassed.

If you heard his remark, why didn't you respond?

In the above two cases, the other person may have claimed that they heard the remark, and the sentences are about possible results that depend on the veracity of that claim.

As conventional grammar books tend to focus only on three main types of conditional sentences, some students of English find this second pattern (which isn't one of those three) a bit confusing. This is further complicated by the nature of the second conditional pattern, which mostly uses past-tense verbs in the if-clause to refer to an improbable future (or present) occurrence.

If you heard a remark like that, you would feel embarrassed. 

The above example has nothing to do with the past. It's all about the present and the future. Maybe the speaker thinks the chances are rather slim that the other person will hear such a remark; or it could be an attempt at expressing one's opinion in a more polite way. Anyway the speaker is of the opinion that hearing this kind of remark is likely to cause embarrassment to the other person.

The term 'if', referring to the past, could also have the meaning 'whenever' (and the pattern would be similar to the second conditional):

If she saw me, she would smile.
(Whenever she saw me, she smiled.)

Or it may even mean something like 'though...(admittedly)' :

If that boy was silent, he certainly wasn't dumb.
(Though that boy was (admittedly) silent, he certainly wasn't dumb.) 

(Image credit: antonpinchuk)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ever Thought of This?

Thinking is one the skills that human beings can be proud of. While it's debatable whether the lesser creatures can really think, humans have the capacity to think in many different ways. So the way the verb 'think' is used differs a little depending on the kind of thinking involved.

Although 'think' can be followed by either 'about' or 'of', these two prepositions aren't always interchangeable; while they both appear in some cases, often there's a difference in the contexts they're used in.

For example, when 'considering' is what you have in mind, both prepositions are possible.

They should think more about/of their future. 

She's thinking about/of retiring.

'Thinking about' (or 'over') is usually the norm where trying to find a solution is the motive.

I've been thinking about/over this problem for a long time. 

We'll have to think about it. / We'll have to think it over.

And 'of' is common in senses like 'imagine', 'come up with', 'notice', 'remember', 'focus on' etc.

We couldn't think of (imagine, come up with) a way to solve the problem. 

He was the first to think of (notice) these potential problems.

I just couldn't think of (remember) her name.

I wasn't thinking of (focusing on) anyone in particular when I said that.

One's opinion of something may often be expressed with 'think of', but sometimes 'think about' also occurs in this regard.

What do you think of/about that book?

They'll never think of us the same way again.

She thinks highly of his work.

I don't think much of politics.

(Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Please Don't Quote This 'Stuff'

We may have a lot of ideas of our own to write about. These could be interesting to other people too. But it's a rare man (or woman) who doesn't ever need to quote something someone else has said; and sometimes it has to be quoted in their own words too. Enter quotation marks.

My brother said, “I want something to eat.”

She asked, “Where's the bus stop?”

Some people prefer to use double quotation marks first ("---"), and take single quotation marks ('---') for quotations within quotations. Others, especially those following the British convention, do it the other way round.

My colleague said, "The GM wants to have 'fantastic' sales this year."

My colleague said, 'The GM wants to have "fantastic" sales this year.'

Very often other punctuation marks - full stops (periods), question marks, exclamation marks etc - also have to be included in such sentences. With most of these other marks, whether they come inside or outside the quotes depends on pure logic; that is, whether the punctuation mark applies just to the quotation or to the whole sentence.

She asked, “What's the time?”

Did he say, “Go away”?

However, full stops (or periods, as Americans call them) and commas don't follow this logic in American usage; Americans always put them inside the quotation marks. In British English, they also act just like the others and are put where they belong.

My friend says that his new car is ‘really fast’. (BrE)

My friend says that his new car is "really fast." (AmE)

They don't want anybody to ‘act funny’, you see. (BrE)

They don't want anybody to "act funny," you see. (AmE)

The reason why the American tradition places periods and commas this way happens to be the fault of old printing machines. They tended to push periods and commas out of position if placed outside quotes, so the pragmatic Americans just decided to keep these two locked inside.

Despite this trend, even Americans seem to kick them outside if the quotation is just a letter or a number.

The only grade most of them want is an "A".

On a scale of 1 to 10, his presentation has been given a "10".

(Image credit:
Gene Hunt)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Between You, Me and the Gatepost...

Conventional wisdom has it that the preposition 'between' is used when talking about a relationship involving two things or people; and 'among' when more than two are involved. Although some people try to follow this advice all the time, general usage doesn't always obey this rule. The idiomatic expression 'Between you, me and the gatepost' (meaning that something is meant to be strictly secret)  may be the best example to the contrary.

There's no question that 'between' is the term to go for when only two objects (or persons) are being mentioned. The trouble starts if more than two come into play. Usage clearly shows that 'between' is sometimes taken in this latter case too. But are they interchangeable then?

Not really. Even when three or more are involved, 'between' seems to be the preferred option if those involved are being considered separate entities having individual relationships with one another; on the other hand, if they're seen as part of one group, 'among' is usually taken.

The children ran among the trees in the park. (They ran in the space surrounded by trees, but the running didn't have any direct or individual relationship with the trees.)

The children ran between the trees in the park. (They ran from tree to tree, as in some games where one child is supposed to catch others while they're running from one tree to another.) 

We divided the food among the six of us. (All are seen as part of a group and there's no need to consider an individual exchange between any two of them.) 

The differences between English, Chinese and Swahili are enormous. (The three languages, belonging to three separate language families, are being compared to one another; the differences between each two play a role.)

Some other instances where 'between' occurs with more than two items are:

The area between the post office, the railway station and the supermarket is always crowded.

Luxembourg is located between France, Belgium, and Germany.

The matches between Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan start tomorrow. 

Talks between the US, China and India have concluded.

(Image credit: thienzieyung)

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