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Training Bulletin Issue 69

You're smarter than you realise

The detective grabbed his gun. “Better not dally dilly,” he thought as the clock in the hall went tock tick, “or that raff riff will be after me.” As a song sing voice called, “I'm coming to get you, copper!” he zag zigged across the passage so as not to make an easy target and patter pittered down the stairs to his waiting car.

OK, so I'm never going to make the Booker shortlist, but aside from that, there was something very wrong about the previous passage. It breaks one of the unwritten rules of English, and one that you all know – but I bet hardly any of you realise you know it. It's one of the rare rules in English which is never broken.

“I say, old chap, nice use of ablaut reduplication,” said no-one ever.

English often uses repeated words for effect, but in different ways, and this is called reduplication. Rhyming reduplication is things like “easy peasy” and “walkie talkie”, exact reduplication is “no-no” and “bye-bye”, and ablaut reduplication is when the middle vowel changes. That's where the unwritten rule comes in: if there are two words, the first vowel is an “i” and the next vowel is either an “a” or an “o”. Dilly dally, tick tock, riff raff, sing song, zig zag and pitter patter. If you have three words in the sequence, then the vowels go “i”, “a” then “o”, as in bish bash bosh.

Dr Who outdid himself, managing both ablaut and rhyming reduplication in one sentence when he described time as “A big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.”

And if you're lucky, knowing all of this will win you points in a quiz one day.

Adjective disorder

When we were house-hunting, we saw a fabulous, big, old, brick house that we both loved but couldn't afford. Now try it this way round: we saw a brick, fabulous, old, big house that we both loved but couldn't afford.

See, that's another rule you automatically follow without realising it: adjective order. Any time a sentence has more than one adjective in it, they are always in the following order:

1. Article 1. The, a\an
2. Opinion 2. Impressive
3. Size 3. Big
4. Age 4. New
5. Shape 5. Round
6. Colour 6. Blue
7. Origin 7. Northern
8. Material 8. Plastic
9. Purpose 9. Data-sharing
10. Noun 10. Product

Anything else just sounds wrong. Try it: green little men? Hairy big deal?

Won't anybody think of the students?

If you are lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, or to have learnt it at a very early age, then you can do this sort of thing instinctively. It's a lot harder for the more mature student of English though. While those examples of reduplication are not likely to come up in business, adjective order definitely does: “We are launching an important new initiative.” “Has anyone seen my green plastic folder?” and so on.

Get away with you

Another big problem for the foreign speaker is the phrasal verb, which is a verb, or doing word, followed by a preposition such as in, on, to, at, up, down. To get something means to receive or to fetch it. But what about get out, get on, get with, get by? A lot of verbs in English take on a different meaning when they are followed by different prepositions.

To set something means to put it or position it, either in a physical location or in time – the story was set in Venice/the story was set in the 18th century. It can also mean to solidify. And you're right, there are lots of other meanings. I tried looking it up in the Oxford dictionary and gave up after the 36th meaning.

Then you can start adding prepositions:

And you thought that was bad?

It's quite enough having to memorise all of these. You then have an extra complication – is your phrasal verb separable or non-separable?

If you are a native speaker, at this point give thanks to your parents! If you are not a native speaker, though, look at our one-day training course, Business English as a Second Language which covers these points and includes useful lists of common phrasal verbs.

Email to find out how to book this course.

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