Tag Archives: English usage

Indirect or reported questions

A student the other day made a series of mistakes in his writing, things like:

  • My father asked me what sport will I like…
  • I wanted to know will you go out with me…

What is happening here is that the grammar of direct questions, the actual words someone would have said, is being mixed in with a report structure.

The father in the first example would have said “What sport will/do you like?” The second example would have been “Will you go out with me?”

But when you report a question, things change. First, word order changes. Second, question words often disappear. Third, word order changes. Fourth, tense changes to suit the time frame of the report.

So our examples would become:

  • My father asked me what sport I would like…
  • I wanted to know if you would go out with me…

Reported questions are more common in rather formal registers, but they do quite frequently occur in narrative, partly for variety, and partly for focussing the narrative viewpoint in a certain way. 

Many of the rules are just the same as in Indirect or Reported Speech.


Indirect questions (British Council)

Questions in reported speech

Reported questions

Quiz on Indirect Questions


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Is “majority” singular or plural?

Once again the problem occurred as I was writing on my personal blog. The entry is about comment spam, and does mention this blog, so you may care to look: The joy of spam. The sentence: The majority lately, as in the other blogs, has been people with Greek names and sites with China endings… I have decided to make that have been.

I found this answer:

“Majority” is one of those words that can be either singular or plural. Common sense works pretty well in deciding which. If you mean the word to describe a collection of individuals, then the word should be treated as plural: “The majority of e-mail users are upset about the increase in spam.” If the word is used to describe a collective group, then consider it singular: “A 90% majority is opposed to scheduling the next meeting at 6:00 A.M.” If you are uncertain which you mean, then choose whatever form sounds best to you; it’s not likely to bother many people.

That’s from Paul Brian’s Common Errors in English, a really useful site.



The inclusive plural

I just wrote this sentence on my personal blog: Is it the task of the historian to tell us what we want to hear, to devote themselves to making us feel good? You see the problem, don’t you? I could have rewritten: 1. Is it the task of historians to tell us what we want to hear, to devote themselves to making us feel good? Or I could have written: 2. Is it the task of the historian to tell us what we want to hear, to devote him/herself to making us feel good? The second one I find a touch abominable.

It is amazing how people still fuss over this, even though

Singular “their” etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is “good English” and “bad English”, based on a kind of pseudo-“logic” deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English.”

See Jane Austen and other famous authors violate what everyone learned in their English class and Singular “they”. So I let my sentence stand, though some would argue pluralising the sentence (1 above) would have been a better choice.

I am a deliberate practitioner of inclusive language, but not an extreme practitioner. I have seen cases which I regard as extreme. It is a remarkably contentious issue for some; I notice the Wikipedia entry Gender-neutral language in English is marked “The neutrality of this article is disputed”!

“Anyone who had a heart and knew their English would accept a bound singular ‘they’.” — Geoff Pullum, co-author with Rodney Huddleston of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

“All this evidence from different quarters of the English-speaking world shows that singular use of they/them/their after indefinites is now well established in writing. . . . Language historians would note that the trend towards using they for both plural and singular is exactly what happened with you some centuries ago. . . . The trend is probably ‘irreversible’.” ( Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage [Cambridge: University Press, 2004], p. 538). — My choice as best current usage reference.

“It is likely that people will continue to choose from the existing variants rather than adopt a new pronoun and that they will increasingly become acceptable as the generic singular even in formal style” (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar [Oxford: University Press, 1996], 20).

Last two quotations from “Singular” they in Modern English Stylebooks on a site devoted to Bible translation.


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Good question: are fractions and decimals singular or plural?

Over on Old Teachers Never Die… a couple of weeks ago Antony Shen asked:

Speaking of “subject-verb agreement”. I hope you don’t mind answering me a simple question (not directly related). With countable nouns, in scientific styled sentences, do you say “0.1 apple” or “0.1 apples“? (as in zero point two rather than one fifth of an …) Also, in the case of negative numbers, do you say “-1 apple” or “-1 apples“? Or shall I ask, what is the definition of “plural”? “greater than one” OR “anything other than one”?

I replied:

To deal with your second question first: countable nouns form plurals; mass/uncountable nouns don’t. This gets a little more complicated because some nouns may be either countable or mass/uncountable, depending on how they are being used. “Wheat” for example may be both: ten kilos of wheat is uncountable; several types of wheat is also uncountable; there are several wheats used in this mix is countable.

OK, with countable nouns: I would say 0.1 apples for grammatical reasons, though I agree it is not logical! I guess you could say 0.1 of an apple just as you say one-tenth of an apple, but it seems we don’t. Interesting question.


What about “-1 apple(s)”? “-1” (minus one) is less than “0” (zero). Since we say “zero apples” or “no apples”, and in the case of one less apple than nothing, should it be “-1 apples” or just “-1 apple”?


If the number one is used, whether it is +/-1, the following noun will be singular. So it would be -1 apple. We’re talking grammar, not logic; and yes we say zero apples, probably because zero is thought of as a number that is not one, even though zero is neither singular nor plural logically.


Thank you very much for the answer. In Mathematics (Number Theory), unity means 1 (one), and only the positive one, and there is only one unity. In grammar, it seems like there are two cases for singular nouns. If plural is defined as “any amount other than one”, then, zero is plural, as well as -1.


Unfortunately mathematical theory may have little correlation with grammar or usage. The concept of grammatical number is not a mathematical concept strictly, so the word one is always singular, whatever mathematical theory may hold. English probably treats zero as a plural because the grammar gives only two choices, and the word zero is not the word one: we also say, incidentally, there are no apples on the table (countable) but we say there is no rice on the table (uncountable). At least we don’t have to worry, as the French or the Italians do, whether apple, rice and table are masculine or feminine! And Chinese survives quite well without marking nouns as singular or plural, as I am sure you know.

Anyone want to contribute more ideas? I found it quite intriguing — but then perhaps I am strange…


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Am I “indigenous” to Australia?

A reader has asked me about the word “indigenous”. As far as I am aware “indigenous” (the word) comes from the Latin and means “in” “beget” .. or if you like, “the place where one was born (or conceived)”. In that case I, as were both my parents, and my mother’s parents – are indigenous to Australia, indigenous Australians .. though have to admit that am indigenous to southern South Australia, not indigenous to New South Wales. How many generations does it take to be referred to as “indigenous”?

The first part of that is certainly true. Indigenous is from Latin, where the literal meaning is “born in”; it has been in English since the 17th century. As is often the case, earlier meanings don’t always help us: nice, for example, comes from nescius which means “ignorant”. So how is the word used now?

Would you, for example, argue that Australian rabbits or feral cats are indigenous Australian animals? I suspect not. Clearly, the word now refers to those — plants, animals or people — “originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment” (American Heritage Dictionary) but has a strong connotation of having the earliest historical connection to an area or environment.

So “indigenous” is not a true synonym of “native”. I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that I am a native Australian, but my being an indigenous Australian is — in my case — only partly and possibly true.

See, and a very extensive discussion on Wikipedia.

As says, aboriginal has been in English a few hundred years longer than indigenous. It is a close synonym. With a capital letter it refers specifically to some Indigenous Australians — and note too how Indigenous should also be capitalised when referring to the same people(s). But then it gets complicated: as Wikipedia says: The term includes both the Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal People, by which you may see that Torres Strait Islanders, while Indigenous Australians, are not Aboriginal Australians. The inclusive term, therefore, is Indigenous.

And there is more to it than that…! See the Wikipedia article linked in the previous paragraph, check the Style manual for authors, editors and printers, the official word in Australia, and Pam Peters, Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

It used to be that Aboriginal was properly the adjective (as in “Aboriginal art”) and Aborigine(s) the noun, though usage on this has always been disputed. The 2002 Style Manual recommends Aboriginal for both adjective and noun.

Then there are other terms such as Koori and Murri, which have strict geographical limits…

See also my Indigenous Australians Page.

In some formal circumstances we get even more specific. Here in Surry Hills, for example, if we have a “Welcome to Country” or “Acknowledgement of Country” statement we refer to the original owners as the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation.

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Posted by on July 9, 2007 in Australian, English language, questions asked


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Train station or railway station?

This post appeared yesterday on my personal blog. I thought it would interest people here too.


I am reading a very recent English crime fiction novel at the moment and did a double take when I saw the words train station. I am sure Sherlock Holmes would have been most displeased. Point is, when did we stop saying railway station?

Naturally I am not the first to ask. Christopher Howse deals with it in his London Telegraph blog.

“I’m sitting in the railway station,” sang Paul Simon, inspired, some say by Widnes. Others say he was waiting at the now disused Ditton station, on the Cheshire-Lancashire border…

Railroad station used to be common in Britain, as anyone who has read Trollope knows. It is never used now in British English, but train station is definitely becoming the preferred form over railway station.

One of his commenters gets huffy about it all:

The trend of hearing ‘train station’ more than ‘railway station’ in recent years is another example of the lazy use of language being perpetuated to an even worse degree now by texting ‘shorthand’. ‘Railway station’ is more traditionally correct (i.e a station on the railway system); ‘train station’ is a lazy modern alternative, probably deriving, as the blogger suggests, from ‘bus station (i.e. where you catch buses/trains). The use of ‘invite’ as a noun (it is a verb!) instead of ‘invitation’ is another example of lazy modern language appalling to us who love our language…

That of course is utter nonsense; I can’t see laziness having anything to do with it. I am always amazed at how many people run to moral judgement over such things. I must say, however, that the trend of hearing landed in my ear with a thud. Why is that, I wonder?

Back to the issue at hand. I can only recall train station in the past decade here in Australia. Of course most often we just say station, which probably indicates how dreadfully lazy we Aussies must be! Certainly we never said depot, but then neither do Americans these days, apparently. See World Wide Words.

Until recently, as I said, the almost total separation of terms between British and American English would have applied also to train station. But it appears that the term is relatively new even in the USA, where railroad station was once the norm. But train station is old enough there for us to be sure of the direction in which it has travelled, and vigorous enough to oust the older term. Perhaps its introduction followed the logic of one of my younger staff. When I pointed out some years ago that she used train station, she replied that of course that was the right term: she caught a bus at a bus station, and so she would expect to board a train at a train station. Obvious really. Why didn’t we all think of that before?

I’m sticking to railway station. Sutherland never had a train station, not while I was living there anyway.


I seem to have struck a chord with the train station versus railway station entry. Thanks for the comments, Thomas and David, and anyone else who joins in. Perhaps I should have a language fetish section…

I also found a new (to me) reference site while pursuing this bit of trivia: The Visual Dictionary. It appears to have been written in French and the English on the front page reflects that very clearly. Once inside, however, you will find a really great site. Or you can opt to read it in French!

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Posted by on May 17, 2007 in English language, student help, writing


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Overusing the passive voice?

I am a senior student. My English teacher says I am overusing the passive voice. Can you give me some ideas on this?

Here is a clear explanation of active and passive voice from Purdue University’s excellent OWL pages.

Here is a simple quiz on the subject.

This explanation from UNC-CH Writing Center is also very good. See also LEO: Literacy Education Online: Active and Passive Verbs.

Some of the problems caused by using the passive voice are described by The Guide to Grammar and Writing.

From Yale University comes this more advanced explanation of ineffective use of passive voice. Here is a brief extract:

Sentences in the passive voice do not inherently lead to deceitfulness, but it is much more difficult to evade hard truths when you write in the active voice. Avoid passive constructions whenever possible, since they are often vague. For example:

Public television can be perceived by some as boring. When its programs are viewed, they seem tedious and cannot be easily understood. The interest of a wide audience is not attracted. This narrowness of appeal is imputed to excessive intellectualism. How can this be supported by a so-called “public” network?

These unfortunate sentences should be rewritten: “Many viewers find public television boring because it is too intellectual, a questionable quality in a ‘public’ network.” Most of us have a natural desire to avoid straightforward assertions like this because they bring on us the burden of controversy. Good writers distinguish themselves by their willingness to accept that burden.

This article also explains legitimate use of the passive.

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Posted by on December 17, 2006 in English grammar, English language, esl for students, questions asked, student help, writing


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What happens to tense in Indirect (Reported) Speech?

I was asked this question by a Latin teacher at Sydney Boys High — yes, they still do Latin! — looking for resources for her class which was over 80% language background other than English, mainly of Chinese background.

I found this rather good summary on a German English-language site.

BBC English was asked a very similar question: Rasanka Saroshini Nissanka from Sri Lanka asks: “Please explain to me all about direct and indirect speech.” Here is the answer!

Here is another neat summary from English Zone

This page brings together some tests and quizzes on Reported Speech.


Of course if it is Latin you are worried about, look at PRAEFATIO de ORATIONE OBLIQUA. Now that is really cool; an Internet Latin Grammar! The author says he wrote it “in order to assist the students of the Latin language at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. When complete, it is my intention that this on-line grammar, although it is not intended to be exhaustive, will allow the student to identify and generate any part of speech in any conjugated or declined form in order to facilitate their translation of Latin text.” Shame about the background swamping the print sometimes though…

This is another summary of the Latin way of doing Indirect Speech: Ohio State University: Department of Greek and Latin.

Visit the Online activities for the Cambridge Latin Course.

[Checked 18 September 2007.]

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Posted by on December 17, 2006 in English grammar, English language, esl for students, questions asked, student help, writing


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What are “idioms” and how can I learn more about them?

What is an idiom?

RECOMMENDED: Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms. Go to their IDIOM OF THE WEEK.

“Idioms are words, phrases, or expressions that are unusual either grammatically, as in ‘Long time, no see!’ or there is a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements, as in ‘It’s raining cats and dogs!’ Every language has idioms, and they are challenging for foreign students to learn. – English-Zone.Com

“A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on.” (There are other meanings too at

“Idioms are phrases and sentences that do not mean exactly what they say. Even if you know the meaning of every word in the idiom you see or hear, you may not understand the idiom because you don’t understand the culture behind it.” – Brigham Young University site. (I had to insert some words in that to make it make sense! But the site is still good.)

What is the difference between idiom and slang?

“Idiom is yesterday’s slang and slang is tomorrow’s idiom. In other words, idiom is slang that has, through use and over time, become acceptable to use in informal language.” – Lindsay Lyons (NZ — site no longer available).

English Idioms – Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms online.

Idiomsite: find out why you say what you say (American).

English Idioms & Proverbs at Brigham Young University (American).

ESL Cafe Idiom Pages is American but easy to use.

English-Zone.Com Idioms Page – good, but not all available unless you register.

An interactive idiom quiz.

A whole page of idiom quizzes!

Australian Slang – What does it all mean?

[Update 18 September 2007.]

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Posted by on December 17, 2006 in English language, esl for students, questions asked, student help, writing


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Can you recommend a good online site on English Usage?

I still recommend advanced students look at books like R W Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd edition Oxford University Press 1996), but the best these days is The Cambridge Guide to English Usage ed. Pam Peters (2004). The text is not online but the site does feature an online quiz.

There are several good books on usage aimed at ESL students. Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (OUP 1995) is something of a classic. There are some sample pages on that site.

For easier explanations see this very useful book: A Student’s A to Z of Grammar, Usage and Style by Steve Moline (Melbourne, Oxford University Press 2002.) This book is very much up-to-date and tells you a lot about types of writing, problems in grammar and word-choice, media study, computing terms… Excellent from Year 7 all the way to Year 12.

Sites? Well, there are a few, and if you look at the links page under English Language you will find some.

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Posted by on December 13, 2006 in English grammar, English language, esl for students, questions asked, student help


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