“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

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Where would the English language be without this simple two-letter word? Without it we wouldn’t be able to refer to an object that isn’t clearly male or female for a second time, without repeating the whole word. Like any pronoun it makes speech and writing simpler and more fluid.

But it also has its little quirks. Like when we say:

It’s raining.

What’s raining?

Just, it, you know? It’s raining!

See also it’s cold, it’s quiet, it’s five o’clock etc.

The meaning of these sentences wouldn’t cause much difficulty for any students, beyond absolute beginners. Yet some people still get confused by them because they expect it to refer to something concrete. This is another classic case of confusion caused by thinking about what grammatical rules would seem to demand, as opposed to looking at the practical use of language. It might not seem to make sense to use it when it doesn’t refer to a clear object, yet, every English sentence needs a subject, and impersonal verb phrases don’t have an agent doing the action, so let’s just stick It at the beginning of the sentence and not think too much about it. Continue reading

Good Day Sunshine

It doesn’t look like that this morning, sadly. That picture was taken on my way to work a few weeks ago, at the start of a period of good weather that’s just come to an end. This morning is a more typically damp Galway morning, but I won’t complain after such a long period of good weather. I’ve had a slightly earlier start than usual this morning, as I’m currently on the bust to Dublin for work. It’s made me think about journeys, and mornings.

Naturally enough, we tend to associate the morning with beginnings. But it seems we think of them in more specific terms than that. If someone says the word morning, you’re probably more likely to picture something like the image above, rather than the overcast sky, green fields and farm buildings I’m looking at right now. Is that just because we’re more likely to think of something positive than something negative? Continue reading