Commenting on developments in the English language
Author: Liz Walter
Liz Walter is a freelance lexicographer and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. She worked for many years on Cambridge University Press's range of ELT dictionaries and now works with Kate Woodford on dictionaries and other books about the English language. Her other interests include politics, growing vegetables and family holidays in her camper van.
Over the last couple of months I’ve written about words and phrases for being old or old-fashioned, so now it’s time to look at the opposite. I’ll start with expressions connected with being young.
We often describe very young children as small or little: There were lots of little children at the show. A small child sat alone in the corner. However, to talk about someone’s younger brother or sister, you always need to use little, not ‘small’: That’s Brad’s little sister.
Last month I wrote about how to form comparatives and superlatives. However, there are many occasions when we don’t simply want to say that one person or thing has more or less of a particular quality than another: we want to say how much more or less they have. That is when we need to modify our comparisons.
The most common way to talk about big differences is by using the word much: My pizza’s much bigger than yours. This book is much more interesting. We use far or a lot in the same way: My new computer is far smaller than my old one. It’s a lot less expensive to travel by bus.Very much or a good deal are slightly more formal: He seems very much happier now. Her new job is a good deal more demanding.
We often need to compare one person or thing with another, and in this post I am going to look at how we do this. This is a fairly basic topic, but one where I find that intermediate students still often make mistakes.
We make comparatives by adding -er to the end of an adjective or by putting more in front of the adjective: Your hair is longer than mine. It is more stylish.
We make superlatives by adding -est to the end of an adjective and the in front of it or by putting the most in front of the adjective: Everest is the highest mountain in the world. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
There are some fairly simple rules for which form to use. If the adjective has one syllable, use -er/the -est: a louder noise/the fastest car. And if the adjective has three or more syllables, use more/the most: a more interesting book/the most expensive toy.
Adjectives with two syllables are a little more complicated. If they end in -y, -er, -le or -ow, you can use either form: He’s feeling happier/more happy now. The narrowest/most narrow roads are in the city centre.
All other two-syllable adjectives can only use more/the most: She is more patient than my old teacher. That was the most boring movie I’ve ever seen.
So if you’re not sure, the safest thing is to use more/the most with all two-syllable words.
There are a few other things you need to remember. The most important one is: never use -er/the -est and more/the most together. You may sometimes hear native speakers do this, but it is not correct standard English.
Another important rule is that when one-syllable adjectives end with a single short vowel and a consonant, you need to double the consonant before -er/est: It is hotter today. It’s the biggest lake in the world.
Also, when adjectives end with the suffix -y, you need to change the y to an i before you add the -er/est endings: I was lonelier than before. It’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.
A common mistake for students of English is to write ‘then’ rather than ‘than’ in sentences such as: He is older than me. Make sure that you always write ‘than’ between two things or people you are comparing.
Finally, there are three very common adjectives that have very irregular comparative and superlative forms. They are good > better > best, bad > worse > worst and far > further > furthest: His laptop is better than mine. We climbed the furthest hill.
My last post looked at words and phrases for describing people or things that are old. Today I am looking at a closely-related idea – that of being old-fashioned.
The word old-fashioned itself is used to refer to objects or people who look as if they come from the past, though are not necessarily old in reality: Those old-fashioned glasses are popular again now. It can also refer to ideas and attitudes: They have old-fashioned ideas about the role of women. Interestingly, ‘old-fashioned’ can also be used in a positive way: We had a good, old-fashioned roast dinner.
The words retro, vintage and antique are also positive. They are used to describe objects or styles that are old or look old in a way that we find attractive: He collects antique furniture. She has a retro hair style.
The Bible says that most of us will live for ‘three score years and ten’ – in other words, 70 years. Nowadays however, most people consider 70 the beginning of old age. This is probably why although the word sexagenarian (person from 60-69) exists, we rarely use it – being in your sixties is nothing remarkable. However, the slightly formal terms septuagenarian (70-79), octogenarian (80-89), nonagenarian (90-99) and centenarian (100 or over) are used both as adjectives and nouns: The dinner party included several octogenarian men. She was a nonagenarian when she found fame.
In my last post I talked about why it is important to know whether words in English are countable or uncountable. However, I didn’t mention the fact that many words can be both countable and uncountable. This post discusses some of the reasons for this.
Many dictionaries for learners of English (including the one on this site) show whether nouns are ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’, often using the abbreviations C and U. Countable nouns are things that you can count – one dog, two dogs, twenty dogs, etc. Uncountable nouns are things that you cannot count – water, sadness, plastic, etc.
In my last post, I mentioned that the word ‘time’ is the most common noun in English. This is partly because there are so many phrases which contain the word. This post looks at some common and useful examples.
Talking about time is a very basic skill, but one that can often cause problems, especially if your main language thinks about time in a different way.
Firstly, if you want to know the time, what question do you need to ask? Well, if you are sure that the person you are asking knows the answer, you can simply say: What time is it? or What’s the time? (this is less common in US English). However, if you are not sure if they know, for example if you want to ask a stranger on a train or in the street, you can say: Excuse me, do you have the time, please? or (in UK English) Have you got the time, please?
My last post was all about sadness, so it is good to turn to a more cheerful subject: happiness.
Let’s start with the phrase I’ve used in the title: on cloud nine. Nobody really knows the origins of this phrase – one theory is that it refers to the cumulonimbus cloud that was number nine in the ‘International Cloud Atlas’ and rises higher than all other clouds, while another relates to one of the stages of enlightenment in Buddhist thought. Still, it’s enough to know that if you are on cloud nine, you are extremely happy. In fact, you are in seventh heaven (from the belief in some religions that there are seven levels of heaven, the seventh being the highest).