“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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The Passive Voice

Let’s imagine you’re writing an essay about your favourite writer. You might decide to begin by mentioning your favourite of his books, like so:

George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949.

Now, let’s imagine you’re writing an essay about your favourite novel. A logical start would be to mention who wrote it, like so:

Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by George Orwell in 1949.

What’s the difference between these two sentences? I’m sure you’ll agree that both contain the same information. But the focus is different, isn’t it? In the first we’re focussing on the writer, and in the second, on the novel. And we change focus by changing focus – between the active voice and the passive voice.

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To Whom it Concerns…

When do I use who, and when can I use whom?

It’s a common question, especially for people who find themselves in a situation where they have to use formal written English, such as a job application, letter of complaint or academic essay. When people find themselves in such situations, especially if they’re unaccustomed to them, replacing who and while with whom and whilst respectively are often seen as convenient shortcuts to formality. And while it is possible to always replace while with whilst, the same is not true of who and whom, and there are specific situations in which we can use whom.

Before figuring it out, I want to look at two incorrect uses of whom, as that’s usually more instructive: Continue reading

Stop the Monkey Planet, I Want to Get Off

Have you seen the new Monkey Planet film?

The what?

Monkey Planet! You know the ones with the talking monkeys. That guy’s in this one, what’s his name, James Franco. It’s pretty good.

Monkey Planet!?

Yeah, you know the first one, it’s from the 60s, with the astronauts and they crash land on a planet with talking monkeys!

Are you ok?

Monkey Planet, it’s a classic, how do you not know it!

You’re talking nonsense, I’m leaving!

Monkey Planet!! Ah, putain, attend, en anglais c’est Planet of the Apes!

Monkey Planet. Beneath the Monkey Planet. Escape from the Monkey Planet. Conquest of the Monkey Planet. Battle for the Monkey Planet. Tim Burton’s ill-advised Monkey Planet remake. Rise of the Monkey Planet. Dawn of the Monkey Planet. Untitled Monkey Planet Sequel.

How many of these films would you like to see (Battle for the Monkey Planet sounds like it could be good fun to be honest)?

They might all sound like fun, but aren’t they lacking the grativas of the title Planet of the Apes? It’s a good thing that the film’s producers went with that title then. But that wasn’t always the case… Continue reading