15 November 2014

Who is the Subject?

This morning, a colleague sent me this message:

As a data freak, I thought you might be interested in this alert sent to me by Nature.

So, who is the data freak? The initial clause ('as a data freak') is a non-finite subjectless clause, and according to the normative rules of English, the subject of the main clause must be its assumed subject – so my colleague is the data freak! Though he clearly intended it to refer to me. It's a bit like the sentence:

While walking to school, the birds were singing.

In this sentence, 'while walking to school' is similarly a subjectless non-finite clause, so its subject must be the subject of the main clause, 'the birds' – i.e. the birds were walking to school!

But these sentences are rather common, and nobody seems to misunderstand them. In fact, only pedants notice there is anything wrong with them. Or we could alternatively say there is actually nothing wrong with them, and the normative grammar has got it wrong. If the grammar taught by teachers tries to prevent us from using language as we all use it, then that grammar must be wrong.

14 November 2014


When I find something in Malay I don't understand, sometimes I try translating it into English to see if that helps. Today I saw sehenti in the newspaper, and I couldn't find it in my dictionary. Then I realised it must be a calque from the English 'one-stop'.

Actually, it occurred twice in the same newspaper, and it was only the second time I saw it that I realised what it meant:

  • pusat beli-belah sehenti ini ('this one-stop shopping centre') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 13
  • menawarkan perkhidmatan sehenti ('offers one-stop service') – Media Permata, 15 November 2014, p. 14

I don't know if sehenti is now an established word in Malay, or if it is a newly-created calque from English.

11 November 2014

Stealing/Borrowing Ideas

A few days ago, one of my colleagues told me that he was stealing some of my ideas to use in his class.

I replied that if he stole something from me, such as my money, then I would no longer have the money. But I still have my ideas. So he can't be stealing them.

OK, he said. He was borrowing my ideas.

But if he was borrowing them, surely he should give them back to me one day?

I feel that the idea of stealing or borrowing ideas is misplaced; and I suggest that he was using my ideas, but not stealing or borrowing.

Finally, there is no need to apologise for it, or even tell me. If someone finds something I do useful, then use it. And you don't need to tell me about it.

I realise that people get very sensitive about other people using their ideas; but I honestly don't see what the problem is. I am delighted if something I do or some idea I have can be of help to others.