Saturday, August 4, 2018

"below" is not an adjective

In a technical discussion forum about databases, someone posted an off-topic message: "to all Oracle staff, this phrase is not English: 'follow the below steps' How does this slip into Oracle Support tech note documents". Indeed, the English word "below" should not be used as if it was an adjective (see e.g. Wiktionary). But I've seen this incorrect usage for 20+ years especially in the IT industry. In the beginning, it mostly occurred in messages written by people with Indian-like names. Nowadays, Chinese or other ethnicities as well.

In any case, instead of saying "the below steps", we should say "the following steps", or "the steps below" (implying "located" before "below"). I'm guessing the adjectival usage of "below" is probably due to influence from the antonym "above", which *can* be used as an adjective as in "the above steps".

In light of the descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate in which the latter has slowly lost ground in the past century, some people may argue that as more and more people start to use "below" as an adjective, this usage may eventually become accepted; after all, language evolves with the way it's spoken by the people. In fact, Merriam-Webster has already acknowledged this usage, after adverb, preposition, and noun. But for now, the majority of the native speakers and no other English dictionary consider this usage acceptable. It's wise to be standard-compliant and stop saying "the below steps".

(A good discussion is found on Daily Writing Tips.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Basic Chinese Characters

I finally finished my little book Basic Chinese Characters. It contains 2500 commonly used Chinese characters selected by the Ministry of Education of China, with pinyin and definitions manually added by me. The book sorts the characters by frequency usage according to Google's estimate of occurrences of each character on the Internet (a method only I used and probably I invented). Some more descriptions of the book, plus sample pages, are at The book is available on Amazon as an e-book.

The book is in the format of character - pinyin (tones marked with numbers) - definition. For example,

二 er4 two
三 san1 three
四 si4 four
六 liu6 six
七 qi1 seven
零 ling2 zero
本 ben3 notebook; (measure word for books etc.); 本来(lai2) originally
日 ri4 sun
所 suo3 (function word, roughly “that which”); 所以 therefore; bureau
下 xia4 down, below; to go down
止 zhi3 to stop
脆 cui4 brittle, crispy
诞 dan4 birth
碍 ai4 blocking, hindrance
散 san4 to scatter, to disperse; scattered, loose (w.p. san3)
兽 shou4 beast
逝 shi4 to drift away; 逝世(shi4) to pass away, to die
猪 zhu1 pig
暂 zan4 temporary
腊 la4 preserved meat

Free offer If you as a reader of this blog are interested in this book, for a limited time, I can selectively offer this book for free on one condition and one wish. You must not share my book with anyone else. If your friend would like a copy, please have him or her contact me directly. But since there is no technical way to enforce this requirement, I can only trust you as on a verbal agreement. In addition to this requirement, I sincerely hope you can write an honest review and post it to the website, or if not feasible, on Goodreads. You can request a free copy by sending me an email at It would be nice if you could tell me one or a few book reviews you previously wrote on

Irrespective of any interest in the book, if you have any comments, suggestions, or corrections, please let me know. They are highly appreciated.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ludwig Feuerbach and the End/Outcome of Classical German Philosophy

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx (May 5, 1818 - March 14, 1883) is coming soon. This great thinker is one of the very few that have had profound influence over human history. His numerous works, along with those of his close friend and also great thinker, Friedrich Engels, have been translated into dozens of languages and meticulously studied around the world. This short posting is about one single word in the title of Engels' book, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.

In the 1980's, I read about disagreement with the Chinese rendering of the word, “终结” (literally "end", "termination"), in a Chinese article. If my memory serves me right, the author of the note was 朱光潛, a renowned scholar and philosopher in China. He argues that, as the original German title "Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie" uses the word "Ausgang", literally "exit" or "outcome", there's no reason to change it to "end" in English or “终结” in Chinese, which is obviously different in meaning. Since both Wikipedia and use the word "end" in English and only a small number of websites on the Internet use the word "outcome", I had some email exchanges with a knowledgeable volunteer on, Ben, partly duplicated as follows:

it always struck me as strange that this has always been translated as "end" - maybe it was a result of a certain "Stalino-Hegelian" teleology, which infected the movement in the 20th century? 'Ausgang' would probably be better translated as 'denouement' (as in a novel or play) or, as you suggest, "outcome".
Communist greetings

If it was the result of "Stalino-Hegelian" teleology, why would scholars in the English world be affected, as would the Russian and Chinese translators, which is understandable? British or American translators don't need to go through Russian and Chinese sources to do the German-to-English translation.

I think it is worth bearing in mind that the project of translating Marx and Engels into English was also overseen by mainly Soviet funds and Soviet-type scholars. I am not suggesting that they have not done an outstanding job (of course they have!) but am merely pointing out that ideology and outlook cannot *but* find reflection in translation work and rendering somebody's thoughts into another language.
Communist greetings

I wanted to confirm that Russian translators were responsible for the popular English translation "end" but couldn't find definitive evidence. According to the translation by Foreign Language Press in Beijing, this 1976 English translation in China is based on the 1951 edition by Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow. Then I found an earlier one, published in 1946, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, by Progress Publishers, which according to Wikipedia "was a Moscow-based Soviet publisher founded in 1931. It was noted for its English-language editions of books on Marxism-Leninism".

As we can see, in the English translation as early as 1946, the Moscow edition already used "end" for "Ausgang", as if Engels was announcing the death of classical German philosophy. A good description is in fact given by the last link, i.e. "Engels considered this something of a summation or closure of the post-Hegelian criticism Marx and he had initiated in The German Ideology 43 years before." Note that the words "summation", "closure", although not literally matching "Ausgang", are a good paraphrase of it.

The Wikipedia page also gives the title translation in other languages. French uses "fin", Portuguese "fim", Japanese "終結", and Russian "конец", all meaning "end". It's a small surprise that all these semi-official translations in various languages somewhat deviate from the German original.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A few word-play jokes

First, a translation of a poem (ci-poem to be exact) by Ms. Li Qingzhao (李清照, 1084 – ca 1155/1156), a poet at the turn of the Northern-to-Southern Song dynasty.

落日熔金,Sunset of molten gold
暮云合壁,Evening clouds of enclosing jade
人在何处。 Where am I standing?
染柳烟浓, Mist coloring the willows thickens
吹梅笛怨, Flute plays “The plum of melancholy”
春意知几许。 How's the springtime coming?
元宵佳节, The joyous Festival of Lantern
融和天气, in this clement weather
次第岂无风雨。 “Will it not be windy and rainy soon?”
来相召、香车宝马,谢他酒朋诗侣。 “Sorry”, said I to my wine-and-poetry friends, who came to invite me for an outing, in their fragrant BMW

Second, a list of words offered to "improve" English vocabulary, with a caution to the readers when I posted it to Weibo. And the "facts" stated therein are not to be trusted.

English vocabulary (non-)study
Learners of limited vocabulary should wear gas masks to avoid poisoning.

* infantry:
In the mid-20th century, the first public child care facility in the US was established in the suburb of Chicago, Jenkins Infantry, named after the owner Mary Jenkins.

* indefatigable
At the end of the 3-month clinical trial, 35% of the volunteers presented no change in either the body-mass index or the normalized adipose quantity. These indefatigable participants were advised to join a more aggressive weight watch program.

* bruxiathesaurus
A group of international paleontologists recently discovered never-seen-before dinosaur fossils, tentatively named bruxiathesaurus, on the evidence that these creatures apparently would grind their teeth while sleeping. Bruxia or bruxism, grinding or clenching teeth at night, is common among homo sapiens. This is the first time dinosaurs are found to have this behavior.

* infarction
Some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) try to “hold in” flatulence. There is no controlled study on either any benefit or harm done by this practice of infarction.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Multilingual Idioms List

Linguaholic created a crowdsourcing project, The Multilingual Idioms List. I think two things are new in this project.

  • As far as I know, there was never a dictionary that pairs idioms and only idioms from different languages. It's true that numerous dictionaries of idioms for a specific language have been published. The explanations or definitions of the idioms may be in the same language as the idioms, or in a different language. When they are in a different language (called target language for the sake of argument), more often than not a matching idiom in the target language cannot be found, and a wordy explanation is provided. The Multilingual Idioms List project handles this situation differently: leaving the entry blank on the target language side. This is actually a good thing. It either positively acknowledges such lack, or catches readers' attention and waits for other native speakers to find a good idiom in later times.
  • The List is multilingual, not limited to two languages. Unlike any published dictionary of idioms where the source and target languages differ, the contributors, or in a sense lexicographers, of the crowdsourcing List are not language professionals. This is not a big problem since the List is not a highly technical dictionary. The big advantage, on the other hand, is that the contributors are almost all native speakers. This is significant because good or even correct usage of idioms is very much dependent on real life experience in the language environment. Being native may be more relevant to this project than being professional if being both is not possible.

Today, I made a small contribution to the List, by adding the column Chinese (since no one before me had done that), and providing a dozen or so idioms, as follows:

a bitter pill不得不吞的苦果
a piece of cake小菜一碟
Achilles' heel软肋
add insults to injury雪上加霜;往伤口上撒盐
an arm and a leg倾家荡产
beat around the bush拐弯抹角
best of both worlds两全其美
bite the bullet硬着头皮上
burn the midnight oil开夜车
cast in stone板上定钉
cat nap打个盹儿
from A to Z从头到尾
from scratch从零开始
have eyes in the back of one's head眼观四路,耳听八方
hit the road上路
let the cat out of the bag抖包袱
kick the bucket见阎王
off the hook如释重负

In Chinese, there are different types of idioms. 成语 (literally probably "solidified or invariable phrases") are more formal and literary, mostly of four characters, such as "自相矛盾" ("self-contradictory"), "纸上谈兵" ("talk of military strategy (only) on paper"). 歇后语 (literally "sentences said after taking a rest") are colloquial proverbs, such as "和尚打伞,无法无天" ("A monk holds up an umbrella. No hair|law. No sky.", or "The dharma is obscured and heaven blocked."). Obviously some idioms are in neither category, and yet are expressions that cannot be literally interpreted, such as "硬着头皮上", literally "go ahead with hardened scalp", which I consider matching "bite the bullet" in English.

I can think of one improvement that may be made on the current List. It would be nice to provide a place to enter the literal translation of an idiom and optionally a brief explanation. For instance, I would love to add that the Chinese idiom "软肋" for "Achilles' heel" literally means "soft rib" because the rib bone is relatively weak and fragile, and that "雪上加霜" for "add insults to injury" literally means "add frost on top of snow", a phrase that may not need an explanation. With these additions, the List would be more fun to read. So for instance, we'll know that instead of "beat around the bush", the Chinese "make turns and scratch corners" ("拐弯抹角"), and the French "turn around the pot" ("tourner autour du pot") instead. While English-speaking people consider Greek a difficult language ("It's all Greek to me!"), the Chinese language is regarded by by far the most other peoples; "Chinese" occurs 24 times out of about 100, compared to 12 for "Greek", on the Wikipedia page for Greek to me. Through this List, we know a little more about different cultures. But technical limitation for the List is understandable; it is in the format of a spreadsheet, where adding two more columns (literal meaning and explanation) for each language would make the list too hard to read. Other options include adding comments to the spreadsheet cell, where the comments are not shown unless the mouse is over the cell.

Overall, this is a great project. I hope they'll set up a Wikipedia page, with versions in many different languages contributed by the same volunteers that build the List.