Saturday, January 20, 2024

Correcting a petition

以前写过一篇Incorrect English in a petition to the White House(或见微博),其中我对一篇请愿书做了改病句、改错词。最近读到内容相似的一篇请愿书,英语相对好很多。文章如下,我的评论在括弧中。

Sun is the sole suspect in a notorious (比上一篇请愿书用famous好多了) and high-profile poisoning case in China. In 1994/1995, Tsinghua University (上一篇该词的首字母误写为小写u) student Ling Zhu was repeatedly poisoned with thallium (上一篇该词的首字母误写为大写T) while she was studying at the university. Sun (此处缺逗号) who was (省略who was更好,因为后面主句动词又用了was) Zhu’s roommate in the dormitory, was the only individual with both access to the toxin and a motive. This act resulted in catastrophic consequences for Ling Zhu, leaving her paralysed with brain damage. Zhu has (简单过去式应略去has) died on 22 Dec 2023 (此处缺逗号) which now makes Sun a murder suspect.

Due to Tsinghua University's inaction and Sun's politically powerful family, key evidence vanished, and (此处缺定冠词the) investigation tamed. (暂未搜到tame的这种用法,也许是澳洲英语?我会用stalled) This unsolved case has evoked considerable public outrage and sympathy for Zhu's family over the past 30 years.

Sun later escaped to the U.S and in 2013, following the U.S. Chinese community's discovery of her presence and (and应改为逗号) a petition was launched with over 151,000 people. (people改为signatures或people's signatures更好)

Sun is now residing in Australia with companies and multiple estates jointly owned by her and her husband Feiyu Xie whom she supposedly divorced.

I appeal for a thorough investigation into whether Sun had provided false information when obtaining Australian visa and if (此处缺she) had arranged a fake marriage with Mr. Kosloski to obtain Australian residency. If warranted, Sun should face deportation. Australia is a nation known for its beauty and integrity, it is no long (应为longer) a dumping ground for convicts! We must not allow individual (应为复数individuals) with such a past in our precious country.

As demonstrated by the public’s voice. We (除非是固定惯例,否则句号应为逗号,We应为we) call for Sun to return to China and face justice.

... If you have additional information and would like to report Sun, you can email or via Minster (应为Minister) for Immigration

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Oxford comma (牛津逗号)

牛津逗号(Oxford comma),又称连续逗号(Serial comma),是指如果并列三个或更多的名词,在倒数第二个名词之后添加逗号。例如
France, Italy, and Spain
France, Italy and Spain

(1)We invited the rhinoceri, Washington, and Lincoln.(“我们邀请了犀牛、华盛顿和林肯。”)
(2)We invited the rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln.(“我们邀请了犀牛,即华盛顿和林肯”,或“我们邀请了犀牛、华盛顿和林肯。”)
语句(2)有两种解读,如果读者习惯了牛津逗号的书写并且以为作者在他的写作中也遵守这个规则,读者就会理解为“我们邀请了犀牛,即华盛顿和林肯”,就是说将Washington and Lincoln(“华盛顿和林肯”)看作是复数的rhinoceri(“犀牛”)的同位词组而对它具体列举说明(好比I have two sons, John and Jack中的John and Jack)。这种理解并非完全无理,因为有可能犀牛饲养员或动物园的确有两只犀牛,还给它们分别取名为“华盛顿”和“林肯”。

They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Shall or will?

When I learned English thirty plus years ago in China, we were taught to say "I shall", "we shall", and "you will", "he/she/it will". That is, "shall" for the first-person verb and "will" for the second- and third-person. But coming to the US, I realize "shall" is rarely said. It is said if the speaker intends to emphasize his (her) point and in that case it's not limited to the first person. I just came across the renowned English language linguist David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language where (on p.224) he says "[m]odern usage does not observe this distinction. Indeed, it may never have existed in the language, but only in the minds of grammarians anxious to impose order on a 'messy' area of usage". Wasn't that enlightening, especially the latter statement! I don't know if the English textbooks in China still recommend that usage. It misled a generation of English learners back then. One coworker of mine who came to the US from southern China in the 1970s still says "I / we shall" today, though this is a fellow that couldn't care less about English, judging by his frequent spelling errors and strong accent in spite of his 40+ years living in the US. Fortunately, no other rules made up by the prescriptive grammarians came into the textbooks we were using, such as the no split infinitive rule (i.e. avoid saying "to fully understand"). Apparently the English educators in China did keep an eye on the actual usage of the language in English-speaking countries.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Phonetic symbols /i/ and /u/ in some dictionaries mislead English learners

Many English dictionaries published in China use /i/ and /u/ symbols to represent the sounds /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ respectively. As a result, some learners mistakenly think the vowel in, for example, bit is just a short version of that in beat.







[1]注意,所谓宽、窄这种分法并不对应音素、语音转录(phonemic / phonetic transcription)注音的区分,后者有严格的定义。
[3]在英、美英语中,没有唯一通过音长以区别两个词的例子。但在澳洲英语中存在,如full和fool、pull和pool完全靠元音长短区分,见维基Australian English phonology条。

Friday, April 28, 2023

Study time: vocabulary vs. grammar

Steve Kaufmann is an undisputed celebrity in the language study community. According to Wikipedia, "[a]s of 2023, he has an understanding of 20 languages, to varying degrees". In his blog, he says "Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. The grammar you acquire gradually as you become familiar with the language, with the words, but first of all you need words." This caused much debate in the Facebook "Polyglots (The Community)" group. Most comments disagree with him. To find out whether this disagreement is genuine, I started a poll in the same group.

"For all the languages you're studying, given 10 hours dedicated to vocabulary and grammar, what is the average ratio of time of your study in these two areas? It's true that oftentimes there is overlap. What is polled here is a subjective one. So just give a rough estimate."

After a few days, there are 42 votes. The following is the result, shown as ratio of vocabulary:grammar study time, and percent of the responses

8:2  30%
9:1  20%
10:0 15%
7:3  11%
5:5   9%
4:6   8%
1:9, 3:7, 6:4 2%
2:8   1%
We can see that for instance nearly 1/3 of the language learners spend 8 out of 10 hours studying vocabulary and 2 hours studying grammar, while 1% of the people do exactly the opposite. This result shows that the polyglots taking this poll definitely spend more time studying vocabulary than grammar. If this time distribution implies relative importance, it is clearly consistent with Mr. Kaufmann's opinion that vocabulary is more important than grammar.

This poll is followed by 26 comments. Some interesting findings from them are:

(1) If the learner is a beginner in learning a specific language, he or she spends a significant amount of time studying grammar. The vocabulary:grammar study time ratio could be 5:5 or even lower. But as study progresses, the ratio gradually increases.

(2) This poll is about the learner's current state, averaged over all the languages being studied if multiple. One interesting example is a Portuguese learner who says 10:0 when studying Spanish (no need to study grammar as the two languages are so much alike on that), 8:2 when studying English, and 7:3 when studying Swedish. So I did an average for him, which is (10+8+7):(0+2+3)=25:5=8.33:1.67 or about 8:2. He agreed.

(3) Different languages require different ratios. For example, Chinese is generally considered to demand an extraordinary amount of time on vocabulary but very little time on grammar, unlike say Latin, Ancient Greek, or Sanskrit. Since many languages are studied and polled about, there won't be bias introduced by any specific language. And if a learner is studying multiple languages, he's supposed to enter his average.

(4) Some people say they don't study either because their study is completely immersion. That is unusual for an adult learner. But lack of urgency, prioritizing fun well above everything else, and having a childlike curious mind make this option possible.

Back to Kaufmann. We can reasonably believe that he is at an advanced stage on all or most of the languages he knows. As said above (see (1)), at this stage, the vocabulary:grammar ratio tends to be high, leading him to make that remark. Why do people show their disagreement with him? It's possible that most people have the tendency to misread "X is more important than Y" as "X is important but Y is not". This tendency is especially common when people read an online article about health or medical science. Secondly, people disagree with somebody else by interpreting the latter's words as a universal rule, to make it more criticizable. If one of the languages you're studying takes more time on grammar than vocabulary, even if you're studying multiple languages for which this ratio is averaged to be in favor of vocabulary instead, you still disagree by ignoring the average.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Grammatical particle 把 in Chinese and word order

According to Wikipedia, 42% of world languages follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) order, and 45% follow the SOV order. In a Facebook group, someone said that Chinese is SVO in general, but changes to SOV if the object is a prepositional object. Two examples are given

(1) 我把手机忘了 ("I forgot the cell phone"; very literally "I 把 the cell phone forgot")
(2) 一本书从桌子掉下来 ("a book falls from the table")

I agree that sentence (1) follows the SOV order, as 把 shifts the object 手机 to before the verb 忘. But 把 is not a prepositon. It is a grammatical particle, which has no meaning whatsoever, unlike a preposition. A grammatical particle, e.g. 把 in Chinese and to (as in to do) in English, only serves certain grammatical purposes and if omitted would render the sentence ungrammatical unless other adjustments are made.

On the other hand, sentence (2) is not SOV, because 从桌子 ("from the table") cannot be the object acted upon by the verb 掉 ("fall"). Instead, it is an adverbial clause. In fact, it is wrong to consider any prepositional object (which may be better called prepositional phrase) an object in a sentence. Contrast that with a noun phrase (NP), which bahaves like a noun and can be the subject or object in a sentence, because the last element of a NP is its "head"; "a big boat" still refers to a boat. But in a prepositional object, neither the preposition nor the noun following it can serve as the "head". Omitting either one would make the sentence ungrammatical and meaningless.

Chinese particle 把 moves the object of a sentence to the position before the verb, but no such construct exists in English. This explains why foreigners learning Chinese say 我拿书过来 ("I bring the book over") more than 我把书拿过来.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Translation of a few function words (几个“虚词”的翻译)

* 作时间副词的“最近”:recently(或lately)仅用于过去。一个较常见的错误是将表示“不远将来”的“最近”也译为recently,此时正确的用词是soon、in the near future、甚至now、currently等,或不译,如“我最近在搬家”(Currently I'm moving),“我最近准备买辆车”(I'm thinking of buying a car),“他最近要结婚”(he's going to get married soon / in the near future;但soon更常见)。更多可见

* “虽然/尽管”:although和though没有词义上的区别,有文章绞尽脑汁找区别,没必要。它们只在文体上有点区别:前者更正式。另外,in spite of和despite也是“虽然”,但后面接名词而不是从句;despite更正式但稍微更不常见。有文章说in spite of和despite后不能接动名词(如in spite of being a manager),但这常见于英语母语者的文章,包括一些较正式的,因此不能算错,也许有些考试会认为错,建议避免。另外,从句用了although或though,主句起首不能用but(对应汉语的“虽然……但是……”),很多中国人和有些南亚、西亚人常犯这种错误;老式英语中会出现主句以yet起首,可以用,尤其在从句较长时,但不能用but。

* “直到”:until和till没有词义上的区别,有文章绞尽脑汁找区别,没必要。它们只在文体上有点区别:前者更正式。英语是世界上十几大语言中唯一对这个词赋以特殊含义的语言:在until/till的时间点后,语句所述状况翻转而不是维持不变,如The scientists had not found a solution to the problem until 1970意味着科学家在1970年终于发现了这个问题的解决方法,而汉语或其他很多(不敢说所有)语言直译对应的语句“直到1970年科学家没有发现这个问题的解决方法”意味着在1970年他们仍然没有发现。更多可见

* 做时间副词的“很少”:很多人想到seldom,但据Google ngrams图,这个词两百年来使用频率一直在下降,1950年左右被rarely超过。建议用rarely,或not often,如he rarely goes biking / doesn't go biking that often。注意:如果seldom或rarely用于句首(常见于正式文体),句子要倒装(如rarely / seldom did the parliament elicit sharp reactions from...),但如果后面加个逗号停一下就最好不要倒装了,否则听起来有点哽咽。

* 疑问词“第几”:英语(和其他几种语言)中没有。详见

* “当然”:英语of course或certainly语气一般较强(如"You can swim?", "Of course [I can]")。汉语“当然”也常用于语气较弱、较缓和的语句中,如“明天每个人都必须到办公室,当然你事先请假了可以不来”(Everybody must come to office tomorrow. But of course you don't have to come if you asked for leave earlier),用of course对译不错,但如果语气平和点像汉语那样,可不译或译为obviously,或要正式一点说needlesss to say.

* “很”:汉语中的“很”不一定是英语的very,如“他很好”既可以真是说“他非常好”但也可能是“他好”的一种更通顺的变体。更多可见 英语中用very很多的名人首推特朗普,他还喜欢联用如I will very, very probably do it。但大家知道他的manners of speech are unrefined, uncouth, below standard. Don't learn English from him.

* “曾经”:疑问句、否定句中可用ever,如Have you ever been to New York? I've never been(“你曾去过纽约吗?”“我从未/不曾去过”)。但肯定句中的ever就不是“曾经”了,而是老式英语中的“一直”、“永远”,如it was ever thus(总是如此)。“我曾去过纽约”(I've been to New York / I went to New Work before),英译不能用ever,但可用once,如once I had a car accident.

* last与“上个”:last Thursday字面意思是“上个星期四”,但严格地说它指最近过去的星期四;假如今天星期五,它其实指昨天而不是上个星期的星期四。但如果你问英语母语者,他们有时也觉得含混。建议只在不会有混淆的情况下这样用last,如今天是星期天至四的某一天,否则就分别说Thursday last week、the past Thursday(但今天是星期五的话还不如说yesterday)。详见

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Debate about dropping English as a mandatory course

The debate in China about keeping or dropping English as a mandatory course in middle school and high school has been going on for at least two decades. The support of keeping English is based on the fact that English is the de facto lingua franca in the world, although, contrary to a common misconception in China, English is not a mandatory course in all countries; among the 41 where it is not are France, Finland, and Poland. The opposing side claim that some college majors such as Chinese philology or research of ancient Chinese archives require no or very little English in future studies or work. Both sides got the basic facts correct and have strong arguments, leading the debate to a deadlock, while the government takes no action in changing the current policy that happens to be what the supporters want.

In fact, the solution is a simple one: attach a weight that varies between 0 and 100% depending on the major, to the English test score on the college entrance exam. For example, since high-impact work on Chinese philology is still mostly written in Chinese, the Ministry of Education or individual universities or colleges can assign a value of 0 or slightly higher to this weight. (If the weight is only 5%, who is willing to take time to study English? Well, imagine a high school student who grew up bilingual or speaks English as the first language.) For the major of ancient Chinese history, how about 20%? For modern Chinese history, 80%? Obviously, for any major other than these or a specific foreign language other than English (say, Spanish), the weight should be 100% or close to that. Assignment of the weight should be exclusively the work of the professionals and practitioners in this field, free of any lobbying influence from the general public and interference from politicians.

There are still lots of debates or disputes in the world that are zero-sum or nearly zero-sum. A relatively good solution is one that seeks compromises among contenders and balances their degree of satisfaction, to achieve an approximate equilibrium in this satisfaction. The advantage of my solution is that both sides are somewhat satisfying with it and complain the least, and the satisfaction and complaint are about the same in intensity on both sides.

Note: By no means am I suggesting categorically dropping English as a mandatory course. That would lead to total ruin of our future generation. It's the undeniable fact that some Chinese students are so incapable of a foreign language in spite of an extraordinary amount of time of study and that English is truly nearly useless in certain fields of study as of 2022 that prompts me to propose this practical and realistic solution for this year and some years in the future.

(The Chinese version of this article is scattered in Weibo 2022-11-06 and 2022-10-07 postings.)

Friday, July 8, 2022


安倍晋三遇刺身亡,美国田纳西议员Steve Cohen刺杀行为是a dastardly act,日本首相岸田文雄对刺杀行为的说法被英译为dastardly and barbaric。英语词dastardly不很常用,它兼有“怯懦”和“邪恶”的意思,似乎没有合适的汉语词同时体现这两个意义,有些词典译为“卑怯”,但这并不很恰当,因为其中的“卑”可能是“自卑”(如茅盾《烟云》“我的自杀是逃避,是卑怯”),但dastardly一定是对他人造成伤害的“卑鄙”、或更准确地说“邪恶”、“坏”。

许多不大常用的词或词组常让人想到历史上的名篇,如作“二十”解的score让人想到林肯的《葛底斯堡演说》(Four score and seven years ago[八十七年前]),ask not让人想到肯尼迪的就职演说(Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country[不要问你的国家能为你做什么——问你能为你的国家做什么]),而dastardly让人想到罗斯福在珍珠港袭击后到国会做的宣战演讲,称日本的袭击是unprovoked and dastardly attack[无端和卑怯的攻击]。今天,田纳西议员选用dastardly大概是巧合,但在他是巧合,在他的读者却产生了有历史意义的联想;英译岸田文雄选用这个词也有同样的效果。词汇本身是无辜的,只是它曾经被某个名人用于某个有名的事件而多生了一层与词义完全无关的阴影、或光环,迫使小心的后人在遣词造句时多一点考虑,如果你不想考虑,读者也许会考虑。

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Use International Phonetic Alphabet to help improve pronunciation

In my last posting, I said "成年后学外语,口音几乎不可能完全消除,略带外国口音不是坏事,但如果华人希望更好地与人交流、或从政、或跻身公司高层,减少口音即使不是必须的,也是有益的。它需要仔细听、模仿、学习,和长时间不懈的努力" (It is almost impossible to completely avoid having an accent if you learn a foreign language as an adult. A slight foreign accent is not a bad thing, but if you as a Chinese want to better communicate with people, take on a career in politics, or climb the corporate ladder, reducing the accent is beneficial, if not necessary. It requires careful listening, imitation, learning, and long hours of unremitting effort.) Honestly though, careful listening and imitation may not bring you forward as much as you want. But as an adult, if you're moderatly interested in linguistics, carefully studying International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA may benefit more. IPA has the ambition of recording with distinct symbols all sounds of all human languages in the world. But for us, we only need to focus on the sounds and symbols used in the English language for the purpose of improving English pronunciation. For example, if you have a hard time pronouncing bug as /bʌɡ/ and always, like many Chinese learners do, mispronounce it like /baɡ/ (where /a/ is the same sound as the vowel in Chinese character 爸), you can check vowel chart of IPA, and find where /a/ and /ʌ/ are. You can see that to move from /a/ to /ʌ/, all you need to do is move the location where the sound is produced back (toward the throat) and up a little. But a better description of this method is recently described in three online articles, which I highly recommend

Improve Your Accent with the International Phonetic Alphabet (Part 1)
(Part 2)
(Part 3)

IPA is not widely used in American education. Chinese learners may know some symbols to the extent of pronouncing the words by the symbols correctly most of the time. But the vowel and consonant charts are not part of the curriculum and so subtle differences between similar sounds are not fully grasped. The three articles above will hopefully make up for this deficiency.