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Some Shakespeare-Coined Expressions

Shakespeare’s impact on everyday speech is extraordinary. He introduced around 1,700 words and a multitude of phrases to the English language. You probably find yourself quoting him more often than you realize.

“A dish fit for the god” (Julius Caesar) Spoken by Caesar’s murderer Brutus, who described how his father should be elegantly and respectfully killed instead of being butchered.

“All of a sudden” (The Taming of the Shrew) Taken from the context in which how a servant marvels at how his master has fallen in love.

“As luck would have it” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) Taken from the context in which the aspiring seducer is detailing his escape from the adultress’ house in a laundry basket at the arrival of her husband.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet) Cutting to the chase.

“Discretion is the better part of valor” (Henry IV, Part I) Used to explain how the tactic of playing dead on the battlefield has saved one’s life.

“The dogs of war” (Julius Caesar) A vivid image taken from Mark Anthony’s speech in the play predicting the bloody conflict that will follow his friend’s assassination.

“Fair play” (The Tempest) Originates where Mrianda accuses her lover Ferdinand of cheating at chess but admits she doesn’t mind.

“Good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida) The word “riddance” was used more widely in Shakespeare’s time and you could wish someone different kinds of riddance.

“Love is blind” This expression crops up in many plays.

“Wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) Mercutio uses the phrase to refer to the fact that he and Romeo have been trading witticisms and one-upping each other in turn, a pastime clever, smart-arsed young men still enjoy today.

[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson


“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Grammar Primer


Handbook of Effective Writing by Robert Hamilton Moore covers grammar, syntax, and writing. It has been my English-language primer since high school. The 1965 edition begins with a chapter that addresses some of the most common errors in grammer: fragments, run-on sentences, subject + verb agreement, and comma splices.

What the book really nails is the problem of awkwardness. It’s a complex problem which may take many forms and may be related at one and the same time to weakness in grammar, to shifts in construction, to the uncertainly in diction and idiom which plagues those who have never done much reading.

Shortly after I came to America, when I was in 7th grade, my writing had a lot of room for improvement. Awkwardness was the biggest problem. It was very hard even for my teacher to finger a finger on, because awkwardness results in writing which is not exactly ungrammatical but is certainly not fluent. This book, along with practice in writing, reading (a lot of reading, as you can tell), and reading aloud what I have written really helps me in English skills.

Hong Kong English

I cannot to wait for the special order of Hong Kong English (Dialects of English) by Jane Setter, and went to pick up a copy at Cal bookstore. Unlike most humor titles that make fun of erroneous and improper use of English as a characteristic of the speakers, this book describes Hong Kong English as a linguistic phenomenon from the perspective of language structure and historical, sociocultural, and sociopolitical development. The term is often used by the locals as a disparagement rather than to describe a linguistic identity. When the former British colony returns to motherland, English, though widely spoken, is no longer the primary medium of legislature. History of the city, which has known to be where the East meets the West, has it that Hong Kong has always been a place that is a hodge podge of Western ideas, from language down to the everyday eating habits.

It’s not uncommon to hear local speakers incorporate English phrases into their speech. The issue of voicing consonants set aside, Hong Kong English distinguishes itself from British and American English in grammar. As the book has duly pointed out, confusion with verb tenses and agreement of singular or plural nouns, as they have no direct equivalents in Chinese grammar, is rife in daily speech. Similarly, as there are no plural forms in Chinese (which depends on measure words to express quantity), so plural and singular forms tend to be confused, if not altogether ignored. Recently I am aware of incorporation of Chinese colloquial suffixes in English-language sentences. In informal conversation like instant messengers, sentence-final particles or interjections of Cantonese origin such as ar, la, lu, ma and wor—particles that emphasizes an emotional tone—are used at the ends of English sentences. Long overdue, this book is an academic treatise of the linguistic phenomenon that is often mistaken as pidgin.

Back to the Basics: Sentence Diagrams

After reading the first batch of in-class essays from Freshman Composition, I have decided that I have to return to the basics: sentence diagram. A bit of the history. Most methods of diagramming are based on the work of Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in their book Graded Lessons in English and the later Higher Lessons in English.

A sentence (to be a sentence) at the very least must have a Subject (noun or pronoun) and a Predicate (verb). The remaining words in a sentence serve to describe, clarify or give us more information about the subject or the verb. A diagram arranges the parts of a sentence like a picture in order to show the relationship of words and groups of words within the sentence. Here are some examples:

Few people today are very familiar with the formal concept of diagramming, which is sometimes taught in English classes. This method is very instructive – but also very cumbersome. Take, for instance, the sentence:

Each day he sends his closest friends some e-mail.

This would have been diagrammed in the following way:

In this diagram, each modifying word (or phrase) is lined-up beneath the word it modifies – and this takes-up much space. You also have to know whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, preposition, infinitive, etc., for each type of word has a specific way of being placed on the “tree.” This goes beyond what most people today know how to do.

Here, we are suggesting a modified form of diagramming. This method is easier to use, for it doesn’t require as much understanding of the language terminology. Also, it is a lot less cumbersome.

In this modified method of diagramming, the same sentence used above might look like this:
He sends – some e-mail
– each day
– (to) his closest friends.

Here, we see the main things we need to know: (1) what he sends, (2) when he sends it, (3) and to whom he sends it. (The word “to” is understood, though not actually part of the sentence. Also, we have taken the liberty to rearrange the sentence – which is perfectly acceptable with this technique, as long as we don’t change its meaning.)

Have you done the sentence diagrams in grade school? Was it helpful to you as a writer? I believe high school should reinstate sentence diagram to help students become better reader and writer.