Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2010 October 3

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October 3[edit]

Different past tenses of "hang"[edit]

Why is the past tense of "hang" different depending on its usage? ("hanged" for an execution, "hung" for any other meaning) -- (talk) 14:44, 3 October 2010 (UTC)

I believe it came about because there were two Old English verbs: the intransitive hōn (preterite heng) and the transitive hangian (preterite hangode). As I understand it, hōn meant that something was hanging (i.e., the object was stationary), while hangian meant that something was being hanged (i.e., the object was moving). These two collapsed into one at some point (14th-15th century?), with hangode becoming "hanged" and "heng" becoming "hung". According to Wiktionary, "hanged" was prevalent until the 16th century, at which point "hung" started to become dominant, although it does not explain why. Today there still exists a similar distinction in German. hängen when used in an intransitive sense is a strong verb -- it has the preterite hing and the past participle gehangen -- while in a transitive usage it has the weak preterite hängte and past participle gehängt. Perhaps the English "hanged" and "hung" is a vestige of a similar distinction between transitive and intransitive. Xenon54 (talk) 15:21, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
This is mostly correct, but mostly irrelevant to the question. According to the OED, hón was transitive and hangian intransitive, and there was also a third form involved, hęngjan (Old Norse, causitive). But it does not appear that these differences are what is behind the modern distinction, because at least in the South the three verbs had merged into one by the sixteenth century. The OED says "the weak inflection hanged continued in use ... but was gradually superseded by hung in the general sense, trans. and intr., leaving hanged only in the trans. special sense (3) 'put to death by hanging', owing prob. to the retention of this archaic form by judges in pronouncing capital sentences. ... Neverthless Southern speakers and writers still often say 'The man was hung' instead of 'hanged'". --ColinFine (talk) 22:09, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
As in Blazing Saddles:
"They said you was hung!"
"And they was right!"
LANTZYTALK 07:13, 4 October 2010 (UTC)

Comma usage[edit]

  • John Smith is an Oscar-winning Irish actor.
  • He is an exciting, brilliant actor.

Why is a comma required in the second sentence but not the first?

I sometimes see things like "John Smith is an Oscar-winning, Irish actor". I correct it because I know it's wrong, but I couldn't readily say why it's wrong. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 18:29, 3 October 2010 (UTC)

I did a Google search for comma series adjectives, and I found, section 6.
Wavelength (talk) 18:40, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
It has to do with types of adjectives. Explanation here - since the first sentence has two different types of adjectives (Oscar-winning being purpose and Irish being origin), no comma is needed; since the second sentence has two of the same type of adjective (exciting and brilliant both being opinion), a comma is needed.
To make another example: if I use these three different types adjectives: weird(opinion), little(shape) and plastic(material) to describe a children's toy — The weird little plastic thing — no comma is needed, but if I use three of the same type: weird(opinion), useless(opinion) and overrated(opinion) then commas are needed — The weird, useless, overrated thing. (Fascinating, these little 'rules' that we subconsciously follow, but never think about...) Lexicografía (talk) 18:50, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
My impression is that in this case you don't put a comma before an adjective that is "defining", rather than just descriptive. If you look at the examples you gave, the second you can reword as "He is a brilliant actor, and exciting" or "He is both exciting and brilliant", but you can't do that in the first without changing the implication a little—"He is an Oscar-winning actor, and Irish" and "He is both Oscar-winning and Irish" changes the nationality from a rather neutral defining term to a more focused description with a positive spin on it (i.e., being Irish is a good thing in that example, whereas it's a neutral thing in the original wording). This may also have something to do with adjective ordering (basically building off Lexico's observation here): in the first example, the two adjectives are on different levels of the scale, but in the second example they aren't (and are thus interchangeable: "he is a brilliant, exciting actor" is ok but "he is an Irish, Oscar-winning actor" is not). rʨanaɢ (talk) 18:56, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
  • Oscar-winning is being applied to the NP "Irish actor"
  • both exciting and brilliant are being applied, seperately, to the NP "actor" – if exciting were being used to make a distinction from a non-exciting "brilliant actor", for example, then the comma would not be used. WikiDao(talk) 20:58, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
The rule of thumb I use is that if the word "and" would sound okay there, it should have a comma. "John Smith is an Oscar-winning and Irish actor" doesn't sound right, but "He is an exciting and brilliant actor" is fine. —Bkell (talk) 21:12, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
That would work for cases like: "John Smith is an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning, Grammy-nominated actor". The rules quoted above would seem to have us write: "John Smith is an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning Grammy-nominated actor", which looks quite wrong to me. (Jack) -- (talk) 21:56, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
No, here again "...-winning" and "Grammy-nominated" are both being applied separately with (nearly?) equal weight to the NP "actor" - so a comma between them. If you wanted to apply "...-winning" to the NP "Grammy-nominated actor" then there would be no comma, but you're right, that would sound awkward. WikiDao(talk) 22:17, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
Or, per Bkell: "John Smith is an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning and Grammy-nominated actor" → "John Smith is an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning, Grammy-nominated actor" WikiDao(talk) 22:24, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
And this still follows the 'rules' that I alluded to; since the two modifiers that you are using are both of the same class (...-winning and -nominated), a comma or conjunction is needed. Lexicografía (talk) 22:28, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
Yes, quite right. Thanks, Lex, and everybody else. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 11:44, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
Phrases such as award-winning, Grammy-nominated, etc. are discouraged in the opening sentence of a Wikipedia article. You may consider removing the clause entirely if you encounter it in the future ;) decltype (talk) 05:16, 5 October 2010 (UTC)

"Grandma's back forty"[edit]

I went to a cemetery walk the other day, and one of the reenactors was talking about how his character had made railroad ties. At one point, he explained a railroading term, "Grandma's back forty". This would be a response upon being asked where the wood that one was making ties of came from. These folks "had neither a Grandma nor did she have a back forty", as he said, so it was a euphemism for stolen lumber. Can anyone help me verify whether this is an actual railroad term, or if this was a figment of either his or his scripters' imagination? Lexicografía (talk) 21:33, 3 October 2010 (UTC)

What's a "back forty" when it's at home? DuncanHill (talk) 21:39, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
Sorry. The "back forty" is literally the "back forty acres", of someone's (farm) property. Lexicografía (talk) 21:42, 3 October 2010 (UTC)
There seems to be some Google support for it, referring to "nature" I guess, land owned by no one. (Also as "grandpa's back forty", and probably other alternatives.) Adam Bishop (talk) 00:01, 4 October 2010 (UTC)

"Back 40" is a term used colloquially in America to describe a parcel of land, specifically, forty acres (16.2 ha) or one sixteenth of a section, constituting the smallest unit of agricultural land commonly surveyed ("back 40", "front 40"); "back 40" also refers to an undeveloped plot of land (as on a farm, ranch, etc.) of unspecified size. Further reading: Public Land Survey System

– from RKO Forty Acres. WikiDao(talk) 00:49, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
Perhaps it is also related to forty acres and a mule, which is what slaves were supposedly guaranteed after emancipation. Adam Bishop (talk) 02:37, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
Three acres and a cow were enough in Britain. DuncanHill (talk) 12:41, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
You know, I've wondered why the "40" (not 50, not 25...) in that phrase. The article explains: "40 acres (16 hectares) is a standard size for rural land, being a sixteenth of a section (square mile), or a quarter quarter-section, under the Public Land Survey System used on land settled after 1785." WikiDao(talk) 03:18, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
OR warning: My parents used to use phrases such as "west forty" and "east forty" all the time. One referred to the garden plot behind our house and the other to a plot at a community garden. Neither was anywhere near one acre, much less 40! The "east forty" was several blocks away but directly east of our house, thus the "east". Dismas|(talk) 03:05, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
Indeed - my mother says that her family also referred to their backyard as the "back forty". Lexicografía (talk) 12:01, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
This is another example of when easily halved and quartered units are better than base-10 SI units. Thomas Jefferson tried to impose a base-10 land measurement system on the US in the early days, but surveyors in the field found it much more practical to work with units easily divided into whole numbers. That's why it's 40 and not 50 or 25. 640 is much more...subdivisible than 500. Pfly (talk) 12:00, 5 October 2010 (UTC)
Should have went the whole hog and used binary ;) Fribbler (talk) 12:05, 5 October 2010 (UTC)

Help remembering a word[edit]


I'm looking for the word which means "to put ones thoughts into writing". I know the word if I see it but I can't remember it at the moment. I think it begins with a "v" but that might be wrong. (talk) 23:08, 3 October 2010 (UTC)

Verbalize: "to speak or to use words to express"? WikiDao(talk) 00:00, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
No, but thanks for trying. I remembered the word now, it was "articulate" (talk) 02:26, 4 October 2010 (UTC)

I can relate to not being able to think of the word 'articulate' (adj.). A couple of years ago, I had occasion to complement someone for their articulateness. This guy had the vocabulary of a college professor and the diction of an orator. But he was an auto mechanic, which I don’t normally associate with those qualities. When it came to the point of me extolling him for how articulate he was, do you think I could think of the word 'articulate'? No way. I must have seemed really dumb, with my “You know, you are one of the most … er, um … it’ll come to me any minute now …… er, um ……”. He didn’t ask me what it was I was trying and failing to say, and we just sort of moved on without further ado - but how embarrassingly inarticulate of me. -- (talk) 05:48, 4 October 2010 (UTC)

If he was a motor mechanic perhaps he specialised in Articulated vehicles. -- Q Chris (talk) 11:33, 4 October 2010 (UTC)
Actually articulate doesn't only mean to put one's thoughts into writing. This could be done in writing, but this could also be done in speech. Bus stop (talk) 05:51, 5 October 2010 (UTC)