Monday 29 October 2007

On whilst

A correspondent writes to take up a point in an earlier blog, where (in relation to a question about authorship and Shakespeare) I say I always write while and never whilst. He claims he does make a distinction, as follows: 'Fred danced while Ginger walked tells us that they were doing separate things at the same time. Fred danced whilst Ginger walked suggests that Ginger's walking was in distinction to Fred's dancing.' And he feels that 'This meaning of whilst is perhaps a synonym for whereas, except to me it conveys a clearer sense that things are happening at the same time.'

The problem is a local one, in British English. Whilst is virtually unknown in US English. But I can easily believe, because of the ambiguity in while/whilst - words which express both a temporal and a contrastive meaning - that some speakers have introduced a semantic difference, and it sounds as though my correspondent is one. I've heard while/whilst being contrasted in some regional dialects (eg Yorkshire), so he certainly isn't alone. But it isn't a feature of standard English - or, at least, not yet! Dictionaries (such as the OED) treat them as straightforward synonyms. Those who want to make a distinction, then, face a problem, in that they would need to ensure that the context was very clear, to avoid a risk of being misunderstood.

I do share my correspondent's intuition that the contrastive meaning is stronger in whilst than it is in while. But with whereas competently handling that sense, I have no motivation to use it in my idiolect.

Sunday 28 October 2007

On liking

An ELT correspondent writes to say he thinks he has a problem with the verb like. He has been interpreting such sentences as I like reading mind-tickling books as an expression of an ongoing habit, but I like to read a good book as an expression of current want, and not as a statement of habits - equivalent to I'd like to read a good book. He thinks that 'the would like form is simply more polite or perhaps putting more stress on the "want" aspect of the verb'.

His suspicions are right. Both constructions after like are habitual, though in slightly different ways, for there is a potential contrast of aspect here. ELT books tend to concentrate on tense rather than aspect, and often say little or nothing about cases like this. It's a major theme of the reference grammars, though, and readers wanting to follow up the point should take a look at, say, section 16.40 in the big Quirk grammar (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language).

Usually the infinitive form gives a sense of potentiality for action whereas the participle gives a sense of actual performance. To adapt one of the Quirk examples:

Sheila tried to bribe the jailor [but he took no notice of her offer].
Sheila tried bribing the jailor [but although he took the money she didn't get the result she wanted].

In the first example the jailor didn't take the bribe; in the second example he did.

The potentiality/performance contrast is clear with emotive verbs such as dread, hate, love, loathe, prefer - and like:

I like to visit Mary [whenever I can, but I don't actually get the chance very often]
I like visiting Mary [and manage to get to see her most weekends]

Transfer the contexts, and the sentences - especially the second - don't work so well:

I like to visit Mary [and manage to get to see her most weekends]
I like visiting Mary [but I don't actually get the chance very often]

It's because the infinitive has this strong implication of potentiality that the would like construction uses it for hypothetical situations: I would like to visit Mary. Here, I would like visiting Mary is much less likely to occur, and for me it's ungrammatical. The contrast is even more marked in interrogatives: Would you like to visit Mary? is OK, but Would you like visiting Mary? isn't.

Notice that the aspectual nuance varies with the kind of verb. With a verb like read (which lacks the iterativity implicit in visit) the notion of continuity implicit in the act of reading reduces the contrast, so that the following two sentences are as close to being synonymous as you'll ever find:

John likes to read a good book
John likes reading a good book

In both cases, you do read good books regularly. To get a hypothetical sense, you have to alter the construction, and that is where the would form comes in. In John would like to read a good book he has not yet done so.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

On big letters in dictionaries

A correspondent from the Czech Republic, having noticed that the amount of space devoted to individual letters in a Czech dictionary is different from what is found in English, writes to ask why some letters of an alphabet contain more words than others.

It's an interesting question, which it's possible to answer in general terms but not always in detail. The basic point is that writing systems reflect phonologies, and the individual vowels and consonants of a sound system occur at different frequencies (there's a list of the frequencies for English in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language). So, when an alphabetic orthography is first developed, the letter frequencies are likely to reflect the sounds. That is why, for example, in English the 'largest' letter in the dictionary is /s/ - this is because English phonology allows more clusters of consonants (C) in which /s/ is the first element than for any other sound - sing with C-, sting with CC-, and string with CCC-, this last sequence being the most complex you can have in initial syllable position in English.

The complication is that, over time, other factors intervene, so that the original phonological system becomes obscured. In English the arrival of the Normans meant that French spellings complicated the originally clear relationship between sounds and letters. Classical spellings caused further complications in the 16th century. And it only takes an influx of loan words to alter the balance of letters in a language or even to introduce a letter which was not there before. There is no native w in many languages, for example (such as Spanish), but loan words (such as World Wide Web) have meant that there is now a W section in a modern Spanish dictionary.