Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Some quick notes on citation practice for undergraduates

Posted: Feb 04, 2015 18:02;
Last Modified: Feb 04, 2015 18:02

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Students seem always to get very nervous about citation… and, interestingly, perhaps through that nervousness, end up doing it in ways that professional scholars don’t.


Here are some tips that pros use for citation that undergraduates tend not to know:

Plagiarism is not a property crime.

Many students treat citations as, in essence, payment for ideas. Or perhaps better said, they seem to understand the absence of citations as a property crime: you “stole” somebody’s ideas or words.

But citation is not (primarily) an economic activity, but rather an evidentiary one. The point of citation is not to pay somebody for their ideas or words, but to show where your words and ideas came from. If you don’t cite things, then people don’t know what the basis for your evidence and claims is and they can’t refine or develop your arguments. Nobody is so original that nothing they say is based on what others said. You cite things so people can understand the context of your ideas.

You don’t need to quote things in order to cite them

Many students seem to think you need to quote something from somebody in order to cite them. You don’t and, unless they say something memorable the formulation of which is important to your argument, you probably shouldn’t.

There are three reasons why you might cite a work you are not quoting at some point in your paper:

  1. You are paraphrasing them: i.e. your point or evidence is very similar to theirs, but, since there was nothing important or memorable about how they said it, you are simply repeating what they said in your own words;
  2. You are synthesising or summarising information from them: i.e. you got your information from a source which you are now summarising in some way or extracting and reusing in a form that isn’t more or less exactly the way your source did it;
  3. You were influenced by the source (and perhaps others): i.e. you aren’t directly using their conclusions of evidence, but their conclusions or evidence had an influence on yours and agrees with yours or supports it.

In each of these cases, you would provide a citation to the work(s) in question; but you probably wouldn’t quote them.

Quotations should be in some way memorable

The only time you really need to quote somebody is if they say something you want to use in a memorable, non-obvious way and their particular formulation is important to you. You don’t have to quote formulations that are trivial or non-memorable. There must be 10,000 books about Jane Austen, for example, which contain the words “Austen writes…” somewhere in them. You don’t need to put “Austen writes” in quotation marks, however, because one of your source has this.

Citations can be retrofitted

An interesting exercise (and actually good for you as well), is to try and retrofit citations: i.e. add citations to your text after it is written.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to write your paper the normal way, citing things as you use them, and then, when you are finished, go back through your paper and see how many additional sentences could reasonably contain a citation to the works you have already used. The second is to write a paper and then go through it trying to find evidence and sources for the things you’ve already said, or examples of other people who have said the same thing.

The point is to try and be extra generous with your citations, including them whenever they are related to your work, rather than just when they are the source of your work. Students often seem intent on including the minimum number of citations possible in their work; professional researchers, on the other hand, generally try to err on the side of the maximum possible number of references.


Web browsers

Posted: Nov 30, 2014 16:11;
Last Modified: Nov 30, 2014 16:11

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Web browsers are (quite literally) the defining feature of the World Wide Web, which was invented when Tim Berners-Lee released the first version of his HTML browser (World Wide Web) on Christmas day 1989. In other words, they are what makes the web the web.

For a variety of historical reasons, users tend to treat web browsers as utility-grade software—a part of the operating system they expect our devices to have already installed rather than a piece of software you choose to install and run. But more than one kind of browser exists and there are differences between them. Sometimes one browser is better than another for certain tasks or sites. You should know what browser you are using and you should make sure you have some alternates installed.


What browser am I using?

It is entirely possible that you don’t know what browser you are using to access the web (including this page). If you don’t, you can find out here: This page will tell you which browser you are using, whether it is up-to-date and what other options (if any) exist for your operating system.

What browsers are available?

Browsers can be programs you have to start up on your own or built into other programs or applications. The number of choices available to you depends on the operating system you are using (i.e. Mac OS, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, and so on). The most common full-service browsers are:

What does a web browser do?

A web browser is a program that allows you to retrieve, display, and traverse (i.e. navigate) information resources on the World Wide Web (see the Wikipedia article on this).

We think of this as a completely transparent activity, but if you think about it for a second, it is actually a pretty complex idea: a typical web page will have text, images, tables, and perhaps animations, videos, sounds clips, and so on. If you were composing these things, you’d expect to use different software for each: a word processor like Libre Office Text or Word for your text files, a graphics program like GIMP or Photoshop for graphics, a video or sound editor like Audacity for your sound and video files; you wouldn’t expect to have a single “maker program” that allowed you to do everything all at the same time. And yet when you view a web page (really a complex set of text and links to different files and locations on the web) you expect them all to appear on the right place on the screen simultaneously in the way the web designer expected. (Although the very first web browser—Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web—could display text and images together, the earliest widely available browsers—such as Lynx or Gopher—could not. One of the reasons Netscape Navigator proved so popular in the early days of the web was the fact that it could display images and text).

Browsers do what they do through a number of rendering engines and interpreters. When you “visit” a web page (a metaphor we use for the act of downloading files via our browser), the browser reads through the main page at the location and follows links to other resources it is supposed to include: text, images, fragments of text from other sites (i.e. the ads), and meta information about the text and resources it is to display. It then processes these through interpreters and rendering engines and displays them on your screen. It can also place small fragments of code (known as cookies) on your computer to help it remember things about you.

If browsers are free, how do they make money?

Given how complicated browsers are, it is kind of odd that we don’t have to pay for them. After all, we expect to pay for other kinds of software, including our operating systems and programs like Word or Photoshop. And even if we don’t expect to pay for them (as we don’t with Open Source Operating Systems and programs like Linux, Open Office, or GIMP), we expect that to be seen as an alternate business model.

The original business model for browsers assumed that people would pay for them. The original model for Netscape Navigator assumed that the browser would be sold to businesses. At the time, browsers for other computer languages (such as SGML) had to be purchased.

This business model failed to take off, however, as the major browser designers competed for market share (the idea, presumably being to kill off the competition before coming back to charge for use). This led to the browser wars period in which browsers competed against each other in terms of the features they offered (this was worse than it seems: they competed in part by trying to come up with “proprietary features”—i.e. features that only worked with their software. Had this continued to its natural conclusion, the web would have been divided into sites that worked exclusively with one browser or another).

Nowadays, most browsers are funded by donations (e.g. Mozilla, the non-profit organisation behind Firefox) or by selling default access to search engine companies (i.e. the service that your browser chooses to use when you type text into the URL bard). Because the different search engines sell ads, and because most people don’t really think about what happens when they type text into their browsers, it is in the search companies’ interests to ensure that the default setting in your browser is set to point you at them.

Why should I care what browser I am using? Why should I consider having more than one on my system?

Because they are so ubiquitous and so crucial to what we do with our computers, most people don’t give their choice of browser much thought. They use the one that is easiest to access on their computer—usually the one built by the OS manufacturer. This means Internet Explorer on Windows, Safari on Apple, and Chrome on Android and Chromebooks.

There is nothing wrong with this. But it is a good idea to have more than one on your system.

This is because different browsers have different rendering and interpretation engines and understand web pages in slightly different ways. Some browsers are more efficient that others (meaning web pages will load more quickly), some are more standards compliant (meaning they will work better with a variety of different sites), some are better at rendering certain kinds of content than others. Some have more or better plugins. Having more than one browser on your system will give you some options if a website seems sluggish, slow, or looks funny. In some cases (thankfully generally quite rare nowadays) a site will be designed to work with the features of only one browser.

Which is the best?

Each browser has its own strengths and weaknesses. Internet Explorer is famously buggy and non-standards compliant; but many commercial applications are written specifically for it (my university’s financial software, for example, used to work exclusively on Internet Explorer). Firefox is often said to have the most add-ons and plug-ins (Zotero, for example, which is a citation manager I shall be recommending in a future post, runs best in Firefox). Chrome and Opera are both fast, good looking, and easy-to-use browsers that use the same rendering engine. Safari the default browser in Apple is said to be weaker than others in terms of its speed, accuracy, and the number of plugins and addons it supports.

Personally, I prefer using Firefox, Chrome, or Opera. My default browser is usually Firefox, but occasionally I get tired of that and use Chrome. I do generally recommend that students stay away from Internet Explorer and Safari. In my experience they tend to be noticeably poorer than browsers that are not able to depend for market share on the fact that they are made by the same people who wrote the Operating System your computer uses. If you do any web-programming at all, you should definitely avoid using Internet Explorer as your default, as it is often extremely buggy—but you should also check how your site appears on Explorer for the same reason.

Tips for getting the most out of my browser?

There are various small techniques for getting the most out of your browser, which ever one you use. Search for “[your browser name] tips” to find out quick ways of closing all tabs but the one you are looking at, recovering recent history, organising book marks and so on. Some of these can be worth learning.

Some useful background material is available at For example,

Other useful sites include the Sunspider (a benchmarking site you can use to compare web browsers on your computer in terms of speed and memory use) and “What browser”:, which will tell you what you are using, whether it is up-to-date, and what other options are available.


Essential computer tools and skills for humanities students

Posted: Nov 30, 2014 15:11;
Last Modified: Dec 27, 2014 22:12

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The Digital Humanities is a hot new field within the Arts. Its practitioners are often at the forefront of developing new topics within ICT itself.

But what about if you are not interested in the Digital Humanities? Or are interested in them, but don’t consider yourself particularly computer literate? What are the computer skills you need to thrive in the traditional humanities or get started in DH?

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of tutorials on basic computer skills and tools for students of the Humanities. It should be of use to those just beginning their undergraduate careers, for graduate students hoping to professionalise their research and study, and for researchers and teachers who have other things to do that follow the latest trends and software.


What kind of thing can I learn from this series?

The focus of this series is going to be on basic tools. It is going to assume you know nothing other than how to turn on a computer and get on the internet. It will make some recommendations about basic software, starting with such simple things as browsers. It will also cover some basic techniques: how to use styles in word processors, how to use a citation manager or spreadsheet.

How often will they appear?

I’m going to mark this as a special cluster in my blog (using a special tag, basic computer skills). But I’ll publish them irregularly, as the mood strikes and I have the time. I’m also hoping to get some guest authors involved. Mostly students who have done presentations on these things in my classes.

What if I have an idea for a tutorial? What if I disagree with you?

If you have an idea for an article in this series, I’d love to hear from you. If you have already written something on a topic I’m covering and would like me to know about it or link to you, please let me know as well!

Articles in this series

The following are links to the other articles in this series. You can also find them using the tag basic computer skills


Managing class webpages and mailing lists at the University of Lethbridge

Posted: Aug 26, 2014 11:08;
Last Modified: Sep 16, 2015 12:09

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For years, every class at the University of Lethbridge has been given webspace and a mailing list. The now also get a Moodle space. While the mailing list and Moodle space is well-known to instructors (it is the list “” that you use to make announcements to the class as a whole), the webspace is far less well known. This document (mostly a reminder to myself) shows you how you can use online tools to manage these resources.


If you do nothing

First thing is to realise what happens if you do nothing. A student you has found your course online through the registrar’s office and wants to know more about your section goes through the following depressing sequence:

Default Sequence of Class Websites

The thing to realise is that this is bad for everybody. It tells the student nothing, meaning they might decide not to take your course (and even if they do, poor websites leave a bad impression). But if they persist, it is going to mean more work for you: the only thing they can do to find out what they were looking for is back up one page, then following the links for the instructor until they find your email address and send you an email asking about something you could have easily posted online.

So it is a good idea to get in the habit of fixing this space… even (and perhaps especially if) you have a class webspace elsewhere on the internet. This is a first port of call for many students. You can easily make it a helpful one.


To manage your classes, you first need to login to the admin page:

There you will see the following login page:

Class Administration Portal

A successful login will take you to a splash page which, apparently, shows you the current (or most recent) and upcoming semesters:

Class Administration Splash

It is from this page that you will manage your mailing lists and class webpages.

Managing your class webpage

First thing to do is manage your class webpage.

You have three options here:

  1. delegate it to somebody else on campus (a student, the department administrator, etc.)
  2. redirect it to some other URL (e.g. an off campus blog, your on-campus personal space ($USERNAME)
  3. default to the current page (in which case you will add something to the current space)

Class Administration Web Page Management

Upload pages to your default webspace

The most difficult if the third option. This will require you to upload individual HTML pages to the space for this one class—and do it again year after year. If you want to post a PDF there, then you have to upload at least two pages (and maintain them by hand): an HTML page explaining something about the site and containing a link to the PDF page, and the PDF. This is very 1995 and so not something you want to get started on.

You so don’t want to do this, that I’m not even going to say how. If you really want to, call 2490 and ask IT for help. But seriously, you don’t want to do this.

Delegate to somebody else

This is really easy: you simply enter the username of the person you want to maintain the site (i.e. the bit before the @ in a email address). When you click save, this person now can manage your site for you.

This is just punting the problem, of course: the big difference is that now you delegate has to decide whether to upload a single page (which they probably still shouldn’t do, even if that is no longer your problem) or redirect somewhere else.

Redirect to another webspace

This is probably the best option: point the class space to somewhere else where it is easier to manage things. This could be an external blog that you use to manage your teaching (e.g. at or some other blog site), your personal uleth webspace (i.e. at$USERNAME), or even your class Moodle or Turnitin site.

Mailing list management

You can also manage your mailing list from here. You can change the posting permissions and the membership.

Class Administration Mailing List Page

Posting permissions

Your options here are

  1. Anybody on the entire internet can post to your class mailing list
  2. Anybody who subscribes to your class mailing list (normally the instructor(s), T.A.s, and all registered students) can post to the list
  3. Only Instructors can post to the list

The first option is an invitation to spammers and should only be used under very special circumstances—so special in fact that I can’t think of any.

The second option is the default option and it works well for most.

The third option makes sense if you have trouble with students misbehaving on the list (e.g. sending spam or unauthorised messages) or if you want to deemphasise the list in favour of some other communication platform (e.g. the blog and forum capabilities in Moodle). If you select this, then the list becomes a one-way channel, useful for announcements for which you don’t want any feedback.

Subscription options

This is the important set of options. You can use this to add people to the default subscription list for your class (i.e. the teacher(s), T.A.(s), and registered students.

You have two options here:

  1. add additional teachers
  2. add additional students

The first option adds subscribers to the list who will have “teacher” privileges. This is only meaningful if you have set the posting privileges above to “teachers only.” Under those circumstances, any email addresses you add here still will be able to post. You might want to use this to add additional T.A.s (perhaps unofficial ones) or guest speakers to the list.

The second option is the one you are likely to use more often. This is where you can add additional, unregistered students (e.g. friends, members of the community, etc.).

If you keep the default permissions (i.e. that anybody subscribed to the list can post), then it actually doesn’t matter to which category you add people. The important thing is that you can add people to this important tool.

Adding TAs to Moodle

Another task you may need to do early on in the semester is adding TAs to Moodle. The instructions for doing that are here.

In short, however, the method is as follows:

  1. Go to the Moodle space for the class you want to add a TA to (i.e. log in to Moodle and select the class you want for your TA).
  2. Once you are inside the class, click on “Users” in the “Settings” block. On the University of Lethbridge’s default installation, this block is on the left hand side, bottom (in the default view) or second from the bottom (if editing is on).
  3. Clicking on “Users” expands the menu item. Under “Users” you will see “Enrolled Users.” Choose that.
  4. On the “Enrolled Users” dialogue screen, you will see a small button, “Enroll User” at the top of the form on the right hand side. Click that.
  5. In the dialogue that appears, select the type of user you are trying to enrol (in this case, that means Basic TA or Advanced TA) then using the search form, look for your TA’s name (they must be in the U of L’s system).
  6. After you click “search,” all users matching your search term will show up in the window. Find your TA and click on the “Enroll” button to the right of their name.
  7. Repeat the previous two steps for each TA you want to add.

When should you do this?

The best time to do this is just before the registration period opens for next semester. This is when students are going through the registrar site, looking for classes and the time when an appropriate redirect will have the maximum benefit.


Two tips that will improve the lives of all students and researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Posted: Aug 16, 2014 13:08;
Last Modified: Aug 16, 2014 13:08

Tags: , , , , , ,



A recent question on Linked-in asked how important the formatting guides for journals are in preparing submissions.

Although this question was about submitting to journals, its context is relevant to all students and researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities (although the problem also exists in the sciences, the solutions there are in some cases different). Humanities and Social Science study in University is largely about the collection of bibliography and the presentation of findings in written form. And that invariably involves questions of formatting: different disciplines and even different journals (or for students, instructors) within a discipline can require work to be submitted in quite different styles.


The bad old days

Twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate, keeping track of and implementing these styles was a major problem: most students still typed their essays (some still even wrote them out by hand); and what wordprocessors there were were quite primitive (the first popular version of Windows, for example, and with it, the first really successful version of Word, came out the year after I went to Graduate School). Public library catalogues were still largely on paper or microfiche, and, most crucially, there was no World Wide Web.

In those days, ensuring your essay or article submission followed the correct format was a very time consuming task. And things got a lot worse if you needed to reformat something for submission elsewhere—e.g. sending a rejected article to a different journal or reformatting an essay for use as a dissertation chapter or to journal submission. Moreover, authors needed to know a number of different citation formats: APA, MLA, Harvard, and so on. There were few if any tools to help you automate this task (or if there were, I didn’t know about them). The only way of doing it accurately was to consult the relevant style guide and look for examples of the type of work you wanted to format (e.g. single-author mongraphs, chapters in edited collections, etc.).

Modern tools and practices

Things are a lot different today. Wordprocessors are much better and (free) tools exist to take care of your bibliographic management. If you still find yourself stressed by formatting tasks, it means you doing things wrong.

The next two posts will explain two basic practices and tools that anybody who works or studies the Social Sciences and Humanities should know about—and use if they would prefer to spend their time researching and writing rather than formatting their work.

The first post, on using wordprocessor styles, addresses the issue of formatting text for submission to instructors or journals for publication. It shows you how you can use the “style” function found in all popular contemporary wordprocessors to ensure consistency across the entire document: make sure all your headings are formatted the same way (or, if you have different levels of headings, that the headings at each level are formatted the same way); make sure that all block quotations have the same margins; that all paragraphs have the same first line indentations. And then change all of these across the entire document automatically and in seconds, if you discover that a particular instructor or journal wants things formatted differently.

The second post, on using citation managers, addresses the more specialised issue of collecting bibliography and formatting citations correctly. It shows you how a citation manager can take over this task almost entirely. Modern citation managers allow you to collect bibliography directly and automatically from library catalogues, many journal articles, and sites like (some even allow you to add books by photographing the barcodes on their dust jackets). They then integrate with your wordprocess to allow you to add citations as you write—they allow you to go through the material you have collected looking for the items you want and then, once you have found what you want, insert the citation into the text and bibliography of your essay at the click of a button. As with wordprocessor styles, moreover, citation managers also automatically handle the tediously detailed work of making sure your bibliographic entries conform to the format demanded by your instructor or journal: with a click of a button, you can change from APA to MLA to Chicago, or even, in some cases, design your own format.

Why you should care

Too many students and even professional researchers in the humanities and social sciences waste time doing unnecessary formatting tasks. By using wordprocessing styles and citation managers, it is possible to reduce the amount of effort these basic tasks require to almost nothing. If you are an advanced student or researcher, adopting these approaches will improve your efficiency several fold as soon as you can get used to the new way of working. This is especially true if you are working on a book or thesis that will involve maintaining consistency of format and citation style across a number of different chapters (in fact, if you are in that situation, I’d recommend stopping what you are doing and taking a couple of days to implement these right now—they improve things that much).

If you are just beginning your time as a university student, I recommend adopting them even more strongly: now is the time to get used to good habits that will save you time further down the road and you might be surprised how often you end up reusing citations and bibliography you acquire this year for the first time.


On translating sense and syntax in Old English

Posted: Jan 25, 2014 13:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01

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A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. At which point I would then transfer this over to the Old English. Is this wrong? Is the point to learn to do that without first translating it into Modern English? If so, I feel like I should break a bad habit before it starts.

The question touches on the two main issues we face in translating from Old English to Modern English: Lexis (i.e. the meaning of the words) and Syntax (i.e. the grammar that ties the words together in a sentence).

The short answer is that translating (or learning to read) Old English requires both: you need to know what the words mean and you need to know what the syntax is telling you about their relationships to each other. This means that there are really three discrete things we need to do in translating:

Although, because OE is often very close to Modern English in Syntax, it might look like you can translate the meaning of a sentence accurately by just looking up the meaning of the words and writing them out (i.e. doing a lexical translation alone or first), there are enough differences that this will lead to trouble when you get more complex Old English (especially poetry).

You can see this in Modern English if you consider the following group of words: Because had Friday money no on on Saturday Store Suzy the to Tom went.

Although we understand what all of these words mean lexically, the “sentence” they form doesn’t make any sense to us because the syntax doesn’t conform to any rules of Modern English (I just arranged the words alphabetically). In order to get a real sentence out of this, we need to know more about the intended syntax as well, which in Modern English means the intended word order. If I put the words in a word order that reflects Modern English syntatic rules, the sentence suddenly makes sense: Because Tom went to the store on Friday, Suzy had no money on Saturday.

Note that in the above example, the only difference between the nonsensical and sensible versions was word order. The first version did not make sense because we didn’t understand the syntax, not because we didn’t understand the meanings of the individual words.

The primary equivalent of this in Old English is its inflections: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, etc (Old English relies on word order as well, but word order is less important than inflection: there is some evidence to show that scribes fail to understand sentences that have appropriate word order but errors in inflection; in Modern English, we almost always assume that word order is correct and the inflections are wrong if there is a contradiction between the two).

In order to understand fully a sentence in Old English, therefore, we need to know what endings are associated with each word in the sentence and what those endings indicate about the relationship of the word to the rest of the sentence. Because Modern English doesn’t rely on inflections as much as Old English, our “translation” of our analysis of this syntax will be reflected in the word order we choose.

Now, because Modern English is descended from Old English, word order in the two languages is often identical and you can “get away” with just translating the words: e.g. Sēo sunne is miċel, “The sun is big.”

The problem is that you can’t rely on this: Old English and Modern English word order can diverge even in simple sentences; they do diverge in more complex sentences and especially in more literary contexts like poetry or artistic prose. If you haven’t got into the habit of analysing the Old English grammar as well as translating the meanings of the words, you can run into real problems when you hit a sentence where the word order is different from what we can allow in Modern English.

Here’s a simple example to show what I mean:

Þone stān slōh þæt wīf

The lexical translation of this sentence (i.e. just a translation of the words), would be as follows:

The stone struck the woman

This sentence makes sense in Modern English, so if you only translate the words, you will be tempted to stop here.

But if we analyse the endings, we’ll see that a purely lexical translation gets things exactly wrong. Here is an anlysis of the endings in the sentence. ASM = accusative singular masculine, NSN = nominative singular neuter, 3SPast = 3rd person, singular, past tense:


(note: although stān and wīf don’t have any endings, we know their grammatical information because of the demonstrative pronouns that precede them: þone and þæt respectively)

Anglo-Saxons use the accusative to indicate direct objects (amongst other things), and the nominative to indicate subjects. In Modern English, we normally use the first position in the sentence for our subjects, and the first or second slot after a verb for our direct objects. So in order to translate the sentence correctly, we also have to “translate” this syntax by moving the words around in our final translation:

The woman struck the stone

This is a simple example that could easily be real Old English (it implies that the Anglo-Saxon author wanted to emphasise that it was a stone the woman hit). But translating only the words produced exactly the wrong translation. When sentences get more complicated, the chances for things going wrong increase greatly!

So a Modern English translation actually has two translations built into it: a translation of the Old English words into Modern English words, and a translation of Old English inflections into Modern English word order. It is only when you have done both that you can be sure you understand what the sentence means.


How to build a randomised essay/translation question in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 20, 2011 16:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

Tags: , , , , , , ,


In my courses I often use a question of the following format:

  1. Common introduction
  2. Two or more sample passages or questions requiring an essay response
  3. A common form field for the answer to the student’s choice from #2.

Here is an example:

Write a modern English translation of one of the following passages in Old English in the space provided below.

1. Hæfst þū ǣnige ġefēran?
2. Hwæt māre dēst þū? Hæfst þū ġīet māre tō dōnne?

[Essay answer box for translation].

The point of this format is to provide the student with a choice of topics. If students all write their essays or translations at the same time, you can build your choice of topics by hand and write them into a single question. The challenge comes if you want to be able to allow your students to write the test asynchronously, as is common with Learning Management Software. In such cases you want to be able to draw your essay topics or translation passages randomly from a test bank.

All the basic elements you would need to do this are available in Moodle, both 1.x and 2.0+. You can use the “description” question type to put in the general instructions at the beginning; you can use the essay format question to provide the answer box. And you can use Moodle’s ability to assign random questions to draw your topics or translation passage from your test bank.

But there are also some problems:

  1. Description questions are unnumbered, meaning your introduction will not start with the question number
  2. Although there was some discussion before the release of Moodle 2.0 about allowing description questions to be randomised, this appears not to have been implemented. All questions that can be randomised must have an action associated with them. This means that every topic or translation passage must ask the student to do something. And also that each topic or translation will have a number.

What I do is the following:

  1. I write the introduction as a description question (and just accept that it has no number assigned).
  2. I write my translation passage or topics as “true / false” questions. Each consists of the topic or passage, followed by the question “I am writing on this topic/passage…” as the prompt for a true/false answer.
  3. I use the essay topic question to provide the common answer box. Since you need to have some text in an essay question, I use an anodyne instruction like “Write your essay/translation in the following space” to fill out the question.
  4. I assign a grade value of 0 to the two random topic/passages and assign the full grade value of the question to the essay answer box. The result is not elegant, but it works.

Manual Grading of All Questions in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 20, 2011 11:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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  1. From the main course page, select the quiz.
  2. From the quiz page, scroll down until you see the number of attempts made this should be a hyperlink.
  3. Select the hyperlink; you will now see a table of results. In the navigation block in the left hand frame select My home > My courses > [course name] > [Week or topic in which quiz is found] > Results > Manual Grading
  4. When you select this you are presented with the questions for manual grading. New in Moodle 2.0 is the option of hiding names and pictures; unfortunately this doesn’t affect the actual presentation of names under the “mark all instances” page.

How to setup a signup sheet in Moodle

Posted: Mar 15, 2011 14:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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You can create a signup sheet for Moodle using the “Choice” activity.

A video showing how to do this can be found here:

In brief, however, here’s how to do it:

  1. Go to the section of your course in which you want the signup sheet to appear.
  2. With editing on, select the “Choice” activity.
  3. Fill in the title and description information.
  4. If you are restricting attendance, set the “Limit the number of responses allowed” option under “Limit” to “enabled.” Setting this allowed you to set how many people are allowed to choice any one option. If it is disabled, any number of participants may sign up for any particular session.
  5. Each “Option” represents an entry on the signup sheet. Write in the date and time (or anything else you require) in the “Option” field and, if you have enabled limits, the maximum number of participants for the entry in the “limit” field. If you need more than the standard five options, select “Add three more options” after you’ve filled in the first five.

Bibles for students of literature

Posted: Oct 14, 2010 13:10;
Last Modified: Sep 20, 2012 11:09

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Many contemporary students do not know the bible particularly well. This can be because they come from non-religious families, or families whose religious background is not Judeo-Christian. But even many students from quite religious, Christian or Jewish backgrounds find their knowledge of the bible to be less good than they might wish for literary study.

A student once gave me a great tip for those who feel you don’t know the bible well enough to recognise allusions to the major stories from the Old and New Testaments: buy a children’s bible.

Children’s bibles tend to focus on the most important and widely known stories, and some even come with notes explaining how (for example) Old Testament stories are understood by Christians as presaging events in the New Testament.

If you are an English major and don’t know your bible reasonably well, you should consider—in addition to reading a children’s bible—reading a good translation of the bible yourself as well. It is less long than you might think (especially the new Testament).

If you don’t know what to read, here are some options:

The above bibles are all Protestant. The Protest and Catholic Bibles vary to a certain extent—particularly with regard to the order and composition of the Old Testament (see Here are some Catholic options:

All of these bibles are new translations from the original languages.This means they don’t reflect the version people read in the Middle Ages (which was Latin). But for general purposes they are good enough.

Medieval readers knew the bible primarily from the Vulgate, a Latin version translated by Jerome by the beginning of the fifth century; there were also translations into Old and Middle English from this. And there was some knowledge, especially in the case of the Psalms, of older, pre-Vulgate Latin translations.

If you want to get closer to this experience, the Douay-Rheims is a 16th Century Catholic translation of the Vulgate. Copies are available on line, including here (a Latin/English verse-by-verse translation) and here.


Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes) Exercise Answers

Posted: Dec 20, 2008 09:12;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

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Here are possible answers to the exercises in Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of speech. In some cases more than one right answer might be possible.

1. Place each word in the following sentence in its Word Class using the above tests. Which Word Class(es) is or are missing?:

Over the mountain lived a former mechanic. Suzy forgets his name.

Form Word Class Sample Test(s)
Over Preposition Followed by Noun Phrase the mountain
the Determiner First word in a Noun Phrase, the mountain; would precede any adjectives: the [big] mountain, not *[big] the mountain
mountain Noun You can make the word plural (mountains) or possessive (mountain’s); it is already preceded by a determiner in the sentence (the mountains)
lived Verb You can change its tense (lived :lives) and number (a former mechanic lived : I lived).
a Determiner First word in a Noun Phrase, a mechanic; would precede any adjectives: a [funny] mechanic, not *[funny] a mechanic
mechanic Noun You can make the work plural (mechanics) or possessive (mechanic’s); it is already preceded by a determiner (a mechanic)
Suzy Noun (Proper) Can be made possessive (Suzy’s) (proper nouns normally are not preceded by Determiners and are not usually plural)
forgets Verb You can change its tense (Suzy forgets : Suzy forgot); you can change its person (Suzy forgets : I forget)
his Pronoun It is not a noun (can’t take an article or be replaced by a pronoun), and it is in the possessive); different forms of his can serve as a subject or prepositional object: he is here ; give it to him
name Noun Can be made plural (names); can be made possessive (name’s); can be preceded by a determiner (the name)

2. When Hamlet says that bad acting “out-herods Herod” (Hamlet, III.ii), meaning to rage and rant, he is using a proper name for a verb. What tests can we use to show that out-herods is a verb?

We can show that it is possible to change the

These are all tests for verbs.

3. Although it is impossible for individuals to create new Closed or Structure Class words, the English language has acquired new pronouns over the course of its history: the entire plural pronoun system they, them, their comes from Old Norse (the original English version was hie, hira and him); she is of unknown origin (the original was heo).

Can you suggest some reasons why it is possible for languages to add or change such words but not for individuals?

One possible explanation is that structure words primarily express relationships (look up the definitions of and or but in a dictionary for example), unlike Open Class words, which are signifiers for some external idea, event, concept, or the like. So a new pronoun for “feminine singular subject” can be introduced into the language only when a group of people understand that the new form expresses this relationship.


The Old English Alphabet

Posted: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: Jun 07, 2016 12:06

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Old English texts were copied in manuscripts by scribes. These scribes used an alphabet based on the Latin alphabet, but with some native additions and occasionally runes.

The most important of these additions were

Otherwise the Old English alphabet contained more or less the same letters as the Modern English alphabet, though as we’ll see, several looked somewhat different. The main exceptions are our letters k, v, z, w, the Norman-derived spellings wh, th, sh, and also dg (as in edge), and some differences in the sounds associated with the letters c, g, f, s, and y (For a more detailed discussion of these sounds with example sound files, see my tutorial on the Pronunciation of Old English).

Although Old and Modern English have a large number of letters in common, the forms of these letter were not always the same. Some of the differences can be seen if you compare the image below, a detail from the late tenth/early eleventh century manuscript Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r showing the text of Cædmon’s Hymn, with its transcription in a modern computer font:

Nuƿe sculon heria
heri heofon rices ƿ
metoddes mihte ⁊h
mod ge þanc ƿeorc ƿ

(Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r. Manuscript reproduced with the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester/Winchester Cathedral Library. Please to not reproduce without permission). The background to this image has been simplified slightly for pedagogical purposes. The unmodified version is available here.

In addition to these letters, Anglo-Saxon scribes also very occasionally use runes, as letters in their own right and occasionally to stand for a complete word. Thus the rune ᛟ (eþel) sometimes appears instead of the word eþel ‘estate’, ‘homestead’ in Old English texts. Most often, however, the use of runes in Old English manuscripts is ornamental or self-consciously literary.

Computers and the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

All Anglo-Saxon letters, including þ, ð, and ƿ are represented in Unicode, the modern standard for encoding characters on a computer.

Old English Character Unicode Code Point
Minuscule Majuscule Lowercase Uppercase
þ Þ U+00FE U+00DE
ð Ð U+00F0 U+00D0
ƿ Ƿ U+01BF U+01F7

A runic alphabet can be found in Unicode between U+16A0 and U+16F0.

On most modern computer systems, these characters can be accessed via a character map utility or, within a word processor, via the Insert Special Characters menu option. It is also possible to modify your keyboard to allow direct typing. See, for Linux, my article on creating custom keyboards. Commercial software allowing you to achieve similar effects is available for both Mac and Windows.


Basic Old English Grammar

Posted: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

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Old English as an Inflectional Language

Old English and Modern English can be deceptively similar from a syntactic point of view. In particular, word order frequently is the same in the two languages (though Old English is actually probably closer in some aspects of its word order to other Low German languages such as Dutch). This means that it is often possible to translate simple declarative sentences from Old English by simply looking up the meaning of each word in a dictionary.

This similarity is deceptive, however, because speakers of Modern English and speakers of Old English thought of their languages’ grammar in different ways. To speakers of Modern English, word order is by far the most important syntactic clue to a sentence’s grammar: we always try to make the subject of a sentence out of the first word or phrase and the verb out of the second, even if other features are telling us otherwise.

To speakers of Old English, on the other hand, word order was only one clue to a sentence’s grammatical sense—and even then not necessarily the most important: a speaker of Old English would pay as much or more attention to a word’s inflections (special endings—like “apostrophe s” in Modern English—that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence) in deciphering a sentence as to a word’s position in the sentence.

This can be best illustrated by an example. Consider the following sentence:

me broke the bridge

Most speakers of Modern English, would understand the above sentence as meaning “I broke the bridge.” Although the “subject” me is actually what most standard varieties of English would consider to be an object form, its position at the beginning of the sentence trumps this consideration: the word comes first, so it must be the subject; the bridge, likewise, must be the object, because it follows the verb—even though its form would also suit a subject. In other words, no speaker of Modern English would allow the information provided by the sentence’s morphology (the form of the words and their endings) to overrule conflicting information from the sentence’s word order. Except in the most extreme cases—such as in the following sentence, which an informal survey suggests most speakers of Modern English have trouble understanding—speakers of Modern English always resolve conflicts between word order and morphology in word order’s favour:

The girl’s breaks the bridge

Speakers of Old English, on the other hand, seem to have privileged morphology over word order. When information from a word’s position in the sentence and its morphology conflict, morphology generally triumphs.

Here are two translations of the first example sentence into Old English:

me bræc þære bricg
me bræc seo bricg

Semantically (in terms of meaning), the words in each sentence are identical to the first Modern English example: me means me, bræc means broke, seo and þære are both forms of a word meaning the, and bricg means bridge.

Syntactically, however, only the second sentence makes any kind of sense in Old English—and it means “the bridge broke me.” If we keep me, the object form of the first person pronoun, as the first word of the sentence, the sentence can never mean “I broke the bridge” in Old English1; to an Anglo-Saxon, a subject is only a subject if it has the correct morphological form. In the first Old English sentence, all the words except the verb broke are in the object form (þære is an object form of “the” in Old English): to a speaker of Old English, it is as hard to decipher as “The girl’s breaks the bridge” is to us. In the second Old English example, seo bricg is in the subject form (seo is a subject form of “the”). To an Anglo-Saxon, that means it must be the subject, despite its odd place in the sentence (Anglo-Saxons prefer Subject-Verb-Object word order, just like we do, even if they can understand sentences that violate it).

What this means is that in learning to read Old English, we must train ourselves to privilege morphology over word order. If the endings don’t make sense, we have to train ourselves to find the sentence as being as non-sensical as “The girl’s breaks the bridge,” regardless of whether we think we could come up with a sensible sentence by just following the word order.

It also means that we will have to learn some inflectional morphology (i.e. the pattern of endings, like “apostrophe s” in Modern English, that indicate a word’s grammatical function in a sentence). Modern English has relatively little inflectional morphology: nouns can have ‘s or s’ for the possessive and indicate singular and plural; verbs can use the presence or absence of s to indicate person in the present (i.e. whether the subject is “I”, “you” or “he/she/it.” Only in the case of the personal pronouns (I/we, you/you, he, she, it/they) do we have a more complete set of endings that allow us to do things like distinguish among subjects and objects (a more thorough discussion of basic Modern English morphology can be found in my tutorial Grammar Essentials I: Inflections/Inflectional Morphology):

First person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject I
Object/Indirect Object me
Possessive my
Plural Subject we
Object/Indirect Object us
Possessive our
Second person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Plural Subject you
Object/Indirect Object you
Possessive your
Third person pronoun
Number Function Form
Singular Subject he she it
Object/Indirect Object him her it
Possessive his her its
Plural Subject they
Object/Indirect Object them
Possessive their

In Old English, similar patterns of inflections are found on other types of words as well: articles (more properly in this case known as demonstrative pronouns), like this, that, and the; nouns; and adjectives. In the same way we can distinguish between subject and object forms of a pronoun by form (even if we sometimes ignore this information), so too Anglo-Saxons can distinguish between subject, object, possessive, and even indirect object forms of their pronouns, nouns, and adjectives (you can brush-up on your knowledge of Modern English word classes with my tutorial Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech/Word Classes).

Learning these forms is a major goal of any Old English course. As you progress with our translations you will become increasingly familiar with the different forms for the various parts of speech. To begin with, however, we can start by learning the endings on the demonstrative and personal pronouns. These both (in the case of the personal pronouns) are the most similar to what we already know as speakers of Modern English, and, fortunately, show endings that we will see over and over again with other forms.

A note about terminology

In the above discussion, I have used the terms “subject,” “object,” “indirect object” when speaking of both word order and morphology. In actual fact this is not really accurate: subject, object, indirect object, and possessive are really syntactic functions (words that describe what a word does in the sentence) rather than morphological categories (some of which can perform more than one function). From now on, we will be using the more tradition inflectional terminology to describe cases:

Syntactic Function Morphological Form
Subject Nominative
Object Accusative
Possession Genitive
Indirect/Prepositional Object Dative

Each morphological form can perform more than one function—in Old English you use the subject form to call people as well as indicate the subject of a sentence, for example. But as a rule of thumb, the above table shows the main equivalences.



1 “Never” is a large claim. In actual fact, of course, writers of Old English, like writers of any other language occasionally commit solecisms and in the very late period the endings became more confused.


The Pronunciation of Old English

Posted: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

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The sounds of Old English should not prove difficult, with a few exceptions, for speakers of Modern English. It can be hard at first to get used to some of the spelling conventions, such as the fact that all letters—including final e—are pronounced; but on the whole Old English does not have many sounds that are not the same as in Modern English, and, in most cases, indicated by the same letters (you can read a brief tutorial on Old English script here).

This is particularly true of the short vowels and the consonants, most of which are thought to have been largely the same as their Modern English equivalents. The lax e /ɛ/ in Modern English edge, for example, is probably not all that different from the short e [ɛ] the word’s Old English ancestor, ecg [1]. Likewise the d [d] in Old English dysiġ (‘foolish’), was pronounced much the same as the same letter in dizzy, the Modern English descendant of dysiġ.

There are two major exceptions to this. The first involves the Old English long vowels, which underwent great changes in the transition from late Middle to early Modern English (roughly the period between Chaucer and Shakespeare). The second is the existence of a few vowel and consonant sounds that are rare or no longer exist in Modern English or that fail to reflect distinctions we now consider important. These include the sounds associated with the letter *, some of the sounds associated with *c, *, and *h, and the fact that the sounds we now associate with s and z and with f and v do not seem to have been seen as distinct meaningful sounds (phonemes) in Anglo-Saxon England.

The following sections discuss each of the major groups of sounds in turn. In each case you are given some examples of the sound in Old and Modern English and a sound clip illustrating the sound in and Old English context. At the end of each section there is an exercise, suitable for downloading to an Digital Audio Player (such as an iPod or similar), that allows you to practice the sounds out loud while comparing yourself to a reference sample.


With a very few exceptions, the Old English consonant system is essentially identical that of Old English. Hence the sound spelled by the Old English letter b was pronounced more or less as is that spelled by our modern b: Old English bār, Modern English boar (i.e. wild pig).

Even when Anglo-Saxons used different characters or spellings, the actual sounds were mostly the same:

Old English also distinguished between long and short consonants. This distinction, which is found in Modern Italian, has no equivalent in Modern English. When pronouncing a long consonant, which were usually written as double consonants, try to hold the consonant longer than you would for a regular (i.e. short) consonant.

Consonant IPA Value1 Old English Example Comments
b b bār, ‘boar’  
c k cyning, ‘king’ Often spelled with a k in Middle and Modern English
ʧ ċīese The dot above the letter for this sound is a modern convention not found in the manuscripts.
cg ʤ ecg, ‘edge’  
d d dysiġ, ‘foolish’  
f f wīf, ‘woman’  
v wīfum, ‘to/by/for/with the women’  
g g gār, ‘spear’  
ɣ būgan, ‘to bow’ These sounds are commonly spelled with a w in modern English.
j ġeard, ‘enclosure, yard’ The dot above the letter for this sound is a modern convention not found in the manuscripts.
h h hlūde, ‘loud’ Initially
x cniht Medially and finally; often spelled gh in Middle and Modern English
l l lār, ‘teaching, lore’ &#:x00A0;
m m miċel, ‘great, big; Yorkshire: mickle’  
n n nȳd, ‘necessity’  
ŋ sang When in combination with g, say the sound as in modern English -ing words, but then also add the g.
p p pleoh, ‘danger, risk’  
r r rōf, ‘strong’ Rolled.
s s seġl, ‘sail’  
z cēosan, ‘to choose’  
sc ʃ æsc, ‘ash’  
sk ascian, ‘to ask’ Many (but not all) words with sk in Modern English are of Norse original while those with sh are from Old English; cf. shirt (from Old English) and skirt (same word, but from Norse)
t t til, ‘good’  
þ or ð θ þær (or ðær), ‘there’  
ð cweðan (or cweþan), ‘to say’  


Old English made a quantitative and probably qualitative distinction between long and short vowels. This means that vowels were distinguished by how long they were held as much or more than by differences in how they sound. The vowel in Old English god (Modern English God) was certainly shorter and probably had a different sound (though not as dramatically different a sound as its Modern English descendent has) than gōd (Modern English good); the Old English words āc (Modern English oak) and ac (‘but, and’) differed primarily in length.

In Modern English, we no longer recognise length as a meaningful distinction between vowels. Instead we recognise differences in tenseness and quality. What are often called “short” vowels in Old English are really lax; so-called “long vowels” are actually tense. Fortunately, however, Modern English short vowels correspond quite closely to Old English short vowels; and while Modern English tense vowels sound quite different from Old English long vowels, our set of tense vowels matches the Old English set of long vowels.

Old English did have one set of vowels, at least in the earlier periods, which we no longer have: front rounded vowels, long and short, written as y. This is similar to an umlauted u in German, or the u in French tu. To form it, begin by saying (and holding) a long or short i. While you are saying the i, round your lips as if you were saying a u. When your lips are rounded, you’ll have the sound. Listen to the reference examples to practice—but even if you can’t do it in the end, take heart; by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, the sounds were more or less indistinguishable from the corresponding form of i.

Long vowels

Because length is not a quality we hear naturally any more as native speakers of English, it is the quality of the long vowels that probably is most striking to our ears. In addition to being longer than their Modern English descendants, Old English long vowels also tend to have the values associated with them in continental languages like French, Dutch, German, or Italian, rather than their Modern English sounds:

Old English Vowel IPA Symbol1 Mnemonic Old English Example
ȳ French ruse cȳþþ ‘kith, friends’
ī beat wīte, ‘punishment’
ē bait ēþel, ‘homeland, territory’
ā ɑː  aunt (non-Canadian pronunciation) [2] stān, ‘stone’
ǣ æː bat bæde, ‘bade, i.e. asked, commanded’
ō boat gōd, ‘good’
ū boot brūcan, ‘to enjoy’

Listen to the Long vowels and example words

Short Vowels

As noted above the short vowels correspond very closely, with the exception of y, to our Modern English lax vowels:

Old English Vowel IPA Symbol1 Mnemonic Old English Example
y y French tu cynn ‘kin, family’
i ɪ bit scip, ‘ship’
e ɛ bet ecg, ‘ecg, sword’
a ɑ father pað, ‘path’
æ æ bad cræft, ‘skill or trade’
o ɔ bought god, ‘God’
u ʊ book sunu, ‘son’

Listen to the short vowels and example words


Old English had three main sets of long and short diphthongs: ea/ēa, eo/ēo, and ie/īe:

Old English Diphthong IPA Symbol1 Equivalent to Old English Example
ea æa æ+a  
ēa æːa ǣ+a  
eo ɛɔ e+o  
ēo eːɔ ē+o  
ie ɪɛ i+e  
īe iːɛ ī+e  

The Old English diphthongs were strongly falling. That is to say they gave a much stronger prominence to the first part of the glide than the second. By the late Old English period, all were probably equivalent to long and short æ, e, and i, respectively.


The following podcast contains an exercise that will let you practice your Old English consonants, long and short vowels, and diphthongs.

You complete the exercise as follows:

  1. Listen to the Old English sound, example word, and Modern English translation
  2. In the pause that follows this, trying saying the Old English sound and example word yourself
  3. Listen again as the sound, Old English word, and Modern English translation is repeated
  4. Then try the Old English sound and word again, correcting any problems.
  5. If you are still having difficulty, repeat the exercise for the sound and word, before moving on to the next.

Listen to an exercise involving long vowels

Listen to an exercise involving short vowels


1 Symbols in square or slanted brackets (e.g. /ɛ/ or [ɛ]) are notations for the relevant sound in IPA. Not all students will understand this system, so I have also provided spelling pronunciations based on North American English. If you would like to hear the sounds associated with the IPA symbols, a good site to visit is the following: (thanks to Lee Ann Schneider for the link).

2 In Canadian English aunt (i.e. the sister of your father or mother) sounds the same as (is a homophone of) ant (i.e. the creepy crawly thing). Old English ā sounds like the first sound in aunt when spoken by people who can hear the difference between aunts and ants.


Using the M-Audio Audiophile USB Digital Audio Interface with Linux

Posted: Sep 07, 2008 10:09;
Last Modified: Nov 01, 2014 15:11

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This describes how to get the M-Audio Audiophile USB Digital Audio Interface working with Linux/ALSA. It has been updated (2014-11-01) to reflect recent discoveries and now seems to work well.



Many of my courses deal with sounds of speech, and I am increasingly looking to supplement my course materials with additional digital video and audio material.

The University of Lethbridge, like most universities, I imagine, is well equipped with computer labs and IT personnel who are able to assist faculty and students with production of this kind of material. But I am looking for something that will allow me both to experiment without committing to the time involved for arranging studio and personnel time, and something that will allow me to respond quickly to opportunities that arise in the course of the year or moments of pedagogical inspiration. The University also has lots of computer labs, after all, but most faculty have a computer on their desk anyway.

Since I was an avid home recording hobbyist in my teens and twenties, I had most of the most useful hardware in a closet: a decent microphone (necessary), and a mixer and patchbay (optional, though not if you want to do quality-sounding work); and the various cables (RCA, ¼ inch, MIDI, etc.) that make things cheaper and easier to set up. My mixer and patchbay were refugees from an old 1980s Yamaha MM30/MT44 Multitrack home studio (see image). Any old mixer will probably do, and I imagine you might be able to get some cheap ones on the internet. Having a mixer makes life easier in the sense that you have more control over the volume, stereo position, and quality of the audio signal before it gets to the computer. Certainly to begin, however, you can work without one, plugging your microphone directly into the card that acts as an interface between you and your computers.

M-Audio Audiophile USB Digital Audio Interface

The one thing I needed, of course was a way of connecting my microphone and mixer to the computer. I was in a music store on the weekend looking for some supplies, and I found a cheap used M-Audio Audiophile USB Digital Audio Interface (DAI) for sale. While you can buy microphones, record and cassette players, and MIDI cables that all convert a single input directly to USB for recording, a more general DAI like the Audiophile USB allows you to do more. With this, I’ll be able to convert cassettes of accents I have for my class on World Englishes to audio form as well, for example. The M-Audio was an extremely popular DAI, so there are likely thousands of used ones floating around.

A quick search on my cell phone found a page that described how to get the interface working and suggested that it is reasonably well supported in Linux. So I took a flutter. When I got home, I installed the audio software from Ubuntu Studio (a full-featured home studio suite, that is, of course, free). And used some hobby time getting things set up. All in all, it took me about 5 hours, including writing up this description of what I did.

The M-Audio Audiophile USB works with Linux due to some heroic efforts by a couple of people, most particularly Thibault Le Meur, who wrote the kernel documentation. These people have ferreted out and developed patches for the various inconsistencies in the device’s use of the USB protocols. The instructions for getting it working, however, are not always that easy to follow, so I thought I’d collect what I found and write down what worked for me.


Getting the M-Audio Audiophile USB to work with Linux involves two discrete steps:

A third step, which isn’t applicable to my current project, involves getting the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) input to work with digital instruments like synthesizers and drum machines. Since I’m at the moment only interested in recording relatively high quality spoken work and analogue feeds from cassettes and records, I haven’t tried it to see if the discussion below gets the MIDI working as well.

Getting the M-Audio Audiophile USB recognised by ALSA

As the kernel documentation indicates, the M-Audio Audiophile USB works partially with current versions of ALSA right out of the box. If have the right modules installed (and you almost certainly do, as USB sound is something I suspect all distributions support), ALSA will recognise your device as soon as you plug it in and turn it on.

So if you have headphones plugged in and have set the card to be the choice for playback (either using whatever utility your desktop uses for letting you set Sound preferences [in Ubuntu: System > Preferences > Sound Preferences], or by giving the hardware address explicitly to a program via the command line or configuration utility), you will be able to hear audio files sent to it.

The problem, however, is that you won’t be able to record anything—or at least anything meaningful. Due to a technical problem, the details of which thankfully don’t have to concern us, audio inputs to the device are recorded as white noise by ALSA if you use the default setting (If you are interested in the problem or planning to do development using the M-Audio Audiophile USB, you can read about the details of the issue in the kernel documentation).

The solution, developed by Thibault Le Meur and others, and recorded in the kernel documentation, is to reload the ALSA USB module with some device specific instructions:

  1. Turn off your M-Audio Audiophile USB sound card
  2. At the command line, remove the usb module: sudo modprobe -r snd-usb-audio
  3. Reinsert the module with explicit information about Audiophile’s location and setup, e.g. sudo modprobe snd-usb-audio device_setup=0x01
    1. Note: I used to specify both the index value index=0 and a different device_setup =0x09, but I found that the index wasn’t necessary with only one USB and that 0×01 worked way better than 0×09—in fact it answers the questions about noisiness in the comments below.
    2. Note the different possibilities are:
      1. device_setup=0×01 (this is the one I use now)
        1. 16bits 48kHz mode with Di disabled
        2. Ai,Ao,Do can be used at the same time
        3. hw:1,0 is not available in capture mode
        4. hw:1,2 is not available
      2. device_setup=0×11
        1. 16bits 48kHz mode with Di enabled
        2. Ai,Ao,Di,Do can be used at the same time
        3. hw:1,0 is available in capture mode
        4. hw:1,2 is not available
      3. device_setup=0×09 (This is the one I originally recommended, but it creates a lot of background noise).
        1. 24bits 48kHz mode with Di disabled
        2. Ai,Ao,Do can be used at the same time
        3. hw:1,0 is not available in capture mode
        4. hw:1,2 is not available
      4. device_setup=0×19
        1. 24bits 48kHz mode with Di enabled
        2. 3 ports from {Ai,Ao,Di,Do} can be used at the same time
        3. hw:1,0 is available in capture mode and an active digital source must be connected to Di
        4. hw:1,2 is not available
      5. device_setup=0×0D or 0×10
        1. 24bits 96kHz mode
        2. Di is enabled by default for this mode but does not need to be connected to an active source
        3. Only 1 port from {Ai,Ao,Di,Do} can be used at the same time
        4. hw:1,0 is available in captured mode
        5. hw:1,2 is not available
  4. Turn your M-Audio Audiophile USB sound card back on.

You are now able to record and playback audio files. You can test it out by plugging a microphone into the one of the two ¼” (unbalanced) input plugs on the right hand side of the back and making a recording from the command line using arecord; if you have a mixer, plug your microphone(s) into the mixer and connect the mixer’s audio out/line out plug to the Audiophile’s RCA Input jacks (second from the right when you are looking at the back):

arecord -D hw:1,1 -c2 -d 10 -t raw -r48000 -fS24_3BE test.raw

(this command uses the following options: -D hw1:1,1, the likely hardware address of your Audiophile USB card; -c2, two-channel recording [required for this card]; -d 10 duration of recording in seconds [default is infinite and is stopped by sending a break signal to the program]; -t raw, a .raw file type; -r48000, sampling rate; -fS24_3BE, number and order of bits).

You can then use aplay to play the recording back

aplay -t raw -r48000 -fS24_3BE test.raw

(the above command will output to your default sound card [i.e. probably the one that drives your speakers]; if you want to hear it in the headphones through your Audiophile, add -D hw:1,0 to the command).

Getting the M-Audio Audiophile USB recognised by JACK

update: I’m not sure the following is necessary any more. I was able to record well within Audacity without going to this step.

Command line recording is not a particularly user-friendly way of working, though knowing how to do it has its uses. For daily work, we are going to want to get the sound card working with the many excellent studio programs available for Linux, all of which (or at least all the most serious of which) work with the connection utility JACK. The fact that your Audiophile is recognised by ALSA, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to mean that it is recognised by JACK (actually your card does seem to be recognised by JACK without modification if you use the default module settings for snd-usb-audio; but it seems no longer to be recognised automatically by JACK or by the GNOME sound preferences manager after you add the device-specific options.

To get it recognised by JACK, you need to modify the JACK settings. You do this using jackctl (also known as qjackctl). While you can work from the command line with jackctl, Ubuntu Studio comes with a graphic version (Applications > Sound & Video > JACK Control).

  1. Once JACK Control is open, choose the “Setup” button;
  2. In Setup click on > beside “Input Device”;
  3. Choose the device that matches the hw: address you used above with arecord: probably hw:1,1 USB Audio #1
  4. Close the setup and start (or restart if you had already started) JACK.

Open up another JACK device (e.g. Ardour, the sound recording program, or even Meterbridge, the sound meter), and see if you are getting an audio signal from your microphone through your Audiophile USB sound card. If things are working, the audio will be available from system/capture 1 or capture 2 (if you used a microphone directly) or system/capture 1 and capture 2 (if you used a mixer); if these inputs are connected to something in the “Connection” button on the Jack Control, you should be able to record audio. If they or JACK are not working, you may need to play with some settings. I found, for example, that I basically was unable to record anything at under 1024 frames/period, and I got the best results by setting the frames/period to its maximum value of 4096. Unfortunately, this brings with it the cost of a very high latency (the time between a signal being triggered and its reception at the computer end): 171 msec. Many people, in contrast, seem to be working with latencies of <10 or even <5 msecs.

Since others appear to be able to get reliable functioning with much lower frames/period (and lower latency), I assume I still need to play with the various JACK settings and perhaps even some of the hardware connections. For the specific type of projects I have in mind at the moment, however—making single voice, spoken word recordings of sounds and words for my classes and converting tapes and records I have used in classes in the past to digital format—I suspect this is a relatively minor issue. I would appreciate any tips, however!


My first examples, recorded with a good mike, the mixer mentioned above, but otherwise unprocessed and recorded with my computer fan roaring in the background are available here:


In addition to the latency issues mentioned above, I’m aware of/suspect there may be some additional issues.

  1. I’m not sure how the Audiophile USB card, or the special device specific instructions required to set the module up for it will affect other USB sound cards I use, particularly the USB headset I use for audio conferencing.
  2. Setting the JACK input to the Audiophile USB card looks like it may disable your ability to use other inputs in Jack without changing things back: I did a quick test with Hydrogen (a drum machine), for example, and it looks like I need to change the input back to get it to record in Ardour (though I’m not 100% certain this is true, since none of my spoken word requirements—at the moment!—require a drum track or other instrumentation).

Using Oxygen and Subversion client

Posted: Aug 20, 2008 15:08;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Here are instructions for using Oxygen for accessing the Littlechief Project Subversion server.

1) Open Oxygen. It should looks something like this (if you’ve used it before there may be files loaded already in the main window):

2) Select Tools then SVN Client in order to open the SVN Client. You should then be presented with a screen that looks something like this:

3) The two panels we need to use are in the top and bottom left (Repositories and Working Copy). In Repositories we will place the address of our SVN client; in Working Copies we will put the directory on our local machine (i.e. the computer we are using) where we want the files to be stored.

a) Check if the SVN repository address for the Littlechief project is listed as it is here:

If it isn’t, install the repository by selecting Repository > New Repository Location. You will be presented with a small dialogue like this:

Enter the repository address you have received separately in the blank and click O.K.

b) Check that the working directory you wish to use is loaded in the bottom left panel.

If it isn’t, add a new working directory by selecting Repository and then Check Out. A working directory dialogue like this will open:

Browse to an appropriate directory or create a new folder for the repository. Click on O.K. and Oxygen will start downloading the files to your local machine.

4) To edit a document in Oxygen, select the file you want in the “working directory” panel in SVN Client (bottom left—all our working xml files are in the folder 3_workingXML). Right click on the file and select “Open in Oxygen”:

Normally Oxygen will then pop up on your screen with the file loaded. If it doesn’t, select Oxygen from the file chooser bar (along the bottom of the desktop in Windows).


Transcription Guidelines

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 12:11;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


The following is a list of typographical conventions to use when transcribing medieval manuscripts in my classes.


Strikethrough indicates the physical deletion of text in a witness. Deletion may be by any method (underlining, punctum delens, erasure, overwriting, etc). You should indicate the precise method of deletion by a note at the end of your transcription. The deleted text is recorded whenever possible. If deleted text cannot be recovered, it is replaced by colons.

You indicate strikethrough in HTML as follows <strike>Text struck through</strike>


Upward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added above the manuscript line. If a caret was used, this is indicated with a preceding comma or caret symbol (⁁): ⁁\addition above the line/.


Vertical brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been inserted between existing characters within the manuscript line. Insertion is distinguished from overwriting (i.e. the conversion of one character to another or the addition of a new character in the space left by a previously deleted form).


Brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added over some pre-existing form. This addition may involve the conversion of one letter to another (for example, the conversion of to by the addition of an ascender), or the addition of new text in the place of a previous erasure. The overwritten text is treated as a deletion.


Downward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added below the manuscript line.

addition| or |addition

A single vertical bar indicates that the text has been added at the beginning or end of a manuscript line. Text preceded by a single vertical bar has been added at the end of a manuscript line. Text followed by a single vertical bar has been added at the beginning of a manuscript line. Text between two vertical bars has been added “within the line” (i.e. between pre-existing letters or words).


Underlining indicates that text has been damaged. When damaged text is unclear or illegible, additional symbols are used.

In HTML, you indicate text is underlined as follows: <u>Underlined text</u>.


Angle brackets indicate that the enclosed text is unclear for some physical reason (e.g. rubbing, flaking, staining, poorly executed script).

In HTML, there is a distinction between angled brackets ( and ) and the greater than and less than signs (> and <). If you use the greater and less than signs, your text will not appear as the browser will think your text is an HTML code.

[supplied] or [emended]

Square brackets indicate that the enclosed text is being supplied or emended. “Supplied text” refers to the hypothetical restoration of original readings from a specific witness that have become lost or illegible due to some physical reason. “Emended text” refers to the replacement of legible text from extant witnesses by a modern editor or transcriber.

Colons represent text that is completely effaced or illegible. The number of colons used corresponds roughly to the number of letters the transcriber believes are missing. Note that colons are used for text that was in the manuscript but is not physically missing due to erasure or other damage. They are not used to indicate text that has not been copied into the manuscript but appears in other versions.


How to Study Old English (or Latin or any other dead language) for a Test or an Exam

Posted: Oct 08, 2007 19:10;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Students who study Old English need to call on skills and learning techniques that they probably have not had much opportunity to use in other university-level literature classes, especially if this literature was in their native language. They need to know and keep in the front of their minds the grammar of both Old English and Modern English; they need to do intensive work with dictionaries and glossaries; and they are working with texts that can seem quite alien to modern sensibilities.

So how should you study in Old English class? Here are some tips I’ve compiled from personal experience and asking other scholars of my generation who have studied ancient or medieval languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, Old English, Old Frisian, etc.).

There is one principle running through them all: the point of an Old English class is to learn Old English. In everything you do you should keep the Old English at the centre of your work.

1. Do not write in your text book

The first tip is to avoid writing in your text book. When you come to study for a final exam, you will find a clean text book is much more useful for self-testing than one that has all your glosses marked on the page.

2. Write out the original text (in Old English) in your note book (1 side of the page, triple or quadruple spaced)

Writing out the target language is a useful habit to get into in the early days of your language study. It gets you used to the spelling conventions and trains your eye as to standard linguistic and lexical patterns. You may even find by the end of the semester that you are beginning to recognise unusual forms (particularly morphology) as you copy them out.

Triple or quadruple space your text in order to give you plenty of space for glossing, arrows, and corrections from your seminar.

You should write out your text on one side of the page only so that you can use the back of the previous page for additional notes: writing down words you find yourself looking up constantly (I used to write out every word I looked up), explanatory notes or idiomatic translations.

3. Gloss both sense and syntax.

As we’ve mentioned in class, translating from Old to Modern English involves two distinct types of translation: lexical/semantic and syntactic. It is not enough to know what a word means, you also need to understand what its inflections and position tell you it is doing in the sentence. Get in the habit early of writing both the meaning and information about grammatical form of words in the specific context you are translating—e.g. case, gender, number, person, tense, part of speech, etc. as applicable.

When you are glossing words, be sure to reflect the Old English syntax in your gloss. If you discover that a form like scipes is genitive singular, for example, gloss it as “of a ship” or “a ship’s” not as “ship”—this will help you put the sentence together in your head by preventing you from placing the form in the wrong place in your sentence.

This approach is particularly important with personal pronouns: the dative singular third person plural personal pronoun should be glossed initially as “by/with/to/for them” and not as “they” (which would be nominative, after all).

4. Leave the words in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to indicate the correct order for your translation.

While it is tempting, especially in the early weeks of a class, to bring a finished running translation to class, this is less useful in the end than a glossed text. If you make a mistake in a finished translation, it can be difficult to correct—you need to rewrite your translation and this can be very difficult to do quickly in class. The problem is worse if you bring only a modern English translation to class: you’ll end up having no idea what went wrong because you won’t have a glossed Old English to consult.

If you leave the text in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to help you figure out the order you should be using in your Modern English, you’ll find in-class correction much easier. Made a mistake in word order? Just scratch out the wrong arrows and add new ones showing the correct order.

5. Study by rereading everything—Two or three times!

The best way of studying for a translation exam is by rereading everything several times.

This may seem like an impossible task—how could you possibly reread in reading week or the week before an exam texts that took the entire class an entire semester to translate the first time?

In actual fact, you’ll find the translation goes much fast the second and third and fourth times:

  1. You know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the semester
  2. Your notebook has all the dictionary work and syntactic information and arrows you need, so you don’t need to look everything up again
  3. You know what the texts are about now, and, if you’ve been attending class, should recognise the difficult passages as soon as they show up in your reading.

I recommend the following approach to rereading your material

  1. On your first pass, read the Old English from your text book (fortunately you’ve not marked it up!). Keep your notebook open beside you. Consult your notebook as often as you need, but focus on your text book: you are trying to retranslate everything, not study your previous translations.
  2. On your second pass, try to read the Old English from your text book. This time, try not to consult your notebook except when you are really stuck. If you find yourself looking up words that you know you should know, write down these words and their translations on a list that you can use to study/memorise later.
  3. On your third and fourth passes try to read the Old English from your textbook with your notebook closed. If you really need to look something up, go ahead (either in your notebook or using the gloss at the back of the book), but push yourself not to. If you are stuck, try guessing before you look things up. Guessing is also a good skill to practice before you go into the exam!

By the time you’ve completed your third or fourth pass you are as prepared as you are ever going to be: get a good night’s sleep and come to the exam with a clear head!


Insular Script

Posted: Mar 08, 2007 12:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Here is a basic listing of letters in an insular script. The letters are from a manuscript of the early eleventh century.

Insular character
Modern equivalent a b c d e f g h i l m
Insular character
Modern equivalent n o p r s t ð þ u ƿ y

Grimm's Law and Verner's Law Notes

Posted: Mar 05, 2007 14:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Grimm’s Law

Grimm’s law concerns an unconditioned sound change that affects all
Indo-European stops. In this change (examples mostly from Brinton and Arnovick),

Voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiceless fricatives
*p *f PIE *peisk- vs. OE fisc ‘fish’
*t PIE *tenu ‘to stretch’ vs. PDE thin
*k *x or *h (word-initial) PIE *krewə ‘raw meat/blood’ vs. OE hrēaw ‘raw’
*kw *xw or *hw (word-initial) PIE *kwod ‘what’ vs. OE hwæt ‘what’

Voiced stops became voiceless stops

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced stops Voiceless stops
*b *p PIE *kan(n)abi- ‘cannabis’ vs. PDE hemp
*d *t PIE *dekm vs. PDE ten
*g *k PIE *grənom vs. PDE corn
*gw *kw PIE *gwei- vs. OE cwicu ‘alive’

Voiced aspirated stops became voiced fricatives and then voiced stops.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced aspirated stops Voiced fricatives Voiceless Fricatives
*bh *b PIE *bhrāter vs. OE broþer
*dh *d PIE * əndhero- vs. OE under
*gh *g or *h (word-initial) PIE *wegh vs. OE weg ‘road, way’
*gwh w *g or *w PIE *gwher ‘to heat’ vs. OE warm

Verner’s law

The first group mentioned above (voiceless stops) underwent an additional change in certain contexts due to the change from variable accent in Indo-European to fixed initial accent in Germanic. When these sounds appeared in a voiced environment (i.e. not initially or finally or next to other voiceless consonants) and were not immediately proceeded by the Indo-European stress, they went on to become a voiced stop. Under the same conditions, Indo-European */s/ became Germanic */r/.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiced fricatives Voiced stops
*p *b PIE *septm vs. Gothic síbun ‘seven’
*t *d PIE *pətēr vs. OE fæder ‘father’ (medial sound: d rather than t)
*k *g PIE *dukā vs. OE togian ‘tow’
*s *z *r PIE *ghaiso ‘stick’ vs. OE gār ‘spear’

A mnemonic

A useful way of remembering these sound changes (taught to me by Philip Rusche of UNLV) is to diagram each row of the above tables as a triangle:

To find the result of Grimm’s law, go one step clockwise around the triangle. Thus using the first triangle, we can see that PIE *bh became Gmc *b, PIE *b became Gmc *p, and PIE *p became Gmc *f. Verner’s law only affects the consonants at the top of the triangle. To see what they became after the effect of Verner’s law, go two steps clockwise around the triangle: so PIE *p became Gmc *b when it was subject to Verner’s law.


Grammar Essentials 2: Parts of Speech (Word Classes)

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 12:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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Words are different from each other in meaning—car and unwelcome mean different things, after all.

But they can also differ from each other in more than meaning: they can also differ in the way they are used in sentences.

Thus sentences can be about a word like car more easily than they can be about a word like unwelcome:

With a word like car, we also can talk about one or more examples: a car is here, cars are here. We can describe its qualities using other words like red, fast, or good: “red cars are here”, “fast cars are here”, “good cars are here”. And a word like car can be said to possess things: the car’s tires, cars’ steering wheels

None of this is true of a word like unwelcome. But unwelcome can be used in ways a word like car cannot: it can be used to describe qualities of other words (The unwelcome news, This news was unwelcome, vs. *The car news or [*This news was car); it can be made more intense using words like very or really (it was very unwelcome, vs. *It was very car).

The real test, of course, is that the two words can’t be switched in a sentence. We couldn’t replace car with unwelcome in the example above, and it is impossible2 to replace unwelcome with car in this following sentence:

It is possible, on the other hand, to replace car and unwelcome with other words, even if the meaning of the new words is nothing like that of the words they replace:

So why can car be replaced by bartender and not unwelcome or good? And why can unwelcome be replaced by good but not bartender or car?

The answer is that car and bartender, on the one hand, and unwelcome and good, on the other, are different types of words. As we will learn, car and bartender show in normal use most of the properties we associate with nouns while unwelcome and good show in normal use most of the properties we associate with adjectives. The fact that you can replace car with bartender and unwelcome with good shows that you can replace nouns with nouns and adjectives with adjectives more easily than you can replace words of one type with words of a different type.

This tutorial explores this property in greater depth. Traditionally, word classes have been distinguished on semantic grounds (e.g. “Nouns are the names of person places or things”; “verbs are action words”). As this tutorial will demosntrate, these traditional definitions, while not usually wrong, are often quite ambiguous. This is because the class a word belongs to is largely a question of syntax rather than meaning, especially given the ease with which English can move words from one class to another without any change in morphological form.

By the end of this tutorial you should be able to distinguish among word classes confidently.

Previous: Inflections (inflectional morphology) | Next: Grammatical relations

Words and Phrases

If we continue testing like this, we will also soon discover not only that some words are more easily exchanged with one other than with others, but also that individual words can be used to replace entire groups of closely connected words (and vice versa). For example, the word bartenders can replace more than cars in the following sentences; it also can replace entire groups of closely connected words involving cars—groups like the cars, the blue cars, and even the blue cars that sold so well last year:

On the other hand, we still can’t use unwelcome to replace cars:

If we experiment, we will see that we can’t replace just any group of words using bartender: the words need to be somehow more closely related to each other than any other part of the sentence and involve a word like car. In the following sentence, for example, we can use bartenders to replace the blue cars, but not blue cars are on:

Clearly there is something about the words the blue cars that makes us think of them as being more closely connected to each other than to anything else in the sentence. And just as the fact that we can replace car with bartender but not unwelcome in the sentences above suggests that there must be something similar about car and bartender, so to the fact that we can use bartenders to replace cars and groups of closely related words like the cars or the blue cars suggests that there must be something similar about the single word cars and these particular combinations of words.

As we shall discover, combinations of closely connected words that behave in much the same way as individual words are known as Phrases. As we define the different types of words below, we will see that each type of word has an associated type of phrase to which many of the same rules apply. This principle will become very important when we come to talk about how sentences are made.

Open and Closed Word Classes

Another difference that separates words is the question of how easy or difficult it is to make up new examples. If I want to replace car or cars in the above sentences with a new word that I will make up myself—say slipshlup—I can do so very easily:

Likewise, it is not hard to make up a word like unwelcome. How about griopy?

But if it easy to make up new words parallel to cars and unwelcome, it is much harder—impossible, in fact—to make up replacements for words like the, and, but or he, she, and it. For example, try repeating the following sentence with the following made-up words: hin for the, roop for and, and fries for she.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

The Parts of Speech/Word Classes

If we compare English words in the way discussed above3, we will discover that it is possible to divide words and closely associated groups of words like them into eight main types, known as the parts of speech or word classes (a minor ninth category contains interjections. like “oh dear!” and “damn!” and is not discussed further in this tutorial). We will also discover that these Word Classes themselves fall into two larger groups based on whether or not we can easily add new examples: the Open Class contains word classes that we easily can add to—nouns, adjectives, most types of verbs, and adverbs; the Closed or Structure Class contains words, like prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, most determiners, and some adverbs, to which we can not add easily:

Class Word Class Examples
Open Class Nouns car, bartender, experience
Adjectives unwelcome, good, big, blue
Verbs run, glide, listen, jog
Adverbs quickly, well, sometimes, badly
Closed Class Determiners the, this, mine, Susan’s
Prepositions up, underneath, on, with
Pronouns I, they, mine, each, these
Conjunctions and, but, if, because

Open Classes

Nouns and Noun Phrases

Nouns are naming words. Traditionally they are defined as the names of persons, places, and things, but their actual range is much broader: they can name ideas, moods, and feelings (e.g. neoconservatism, anger, and affection); actions (the hiking), or pretty much anything else known or unknown (e.g. Slipshlup, above).

Fortunately, given how hard it can be to define them by what they describe, nouns and noun phrases can be defined relatively easily by their form and the contexts in which they appear. In particular they show one or more of the following unique features:

  1. Nouns are the only words that use “apostrophe s” (i.e. ‘s or s’) to show possession. In the following sentence, we know that Dave, Neoconservatism, and anger are all nouns because they indicate possession by adding -‘s: Dave’s book, Neoconservatism’s origins, anger’s solution.
  2. Nouns are the only words that can be modified by adjectives: blue cars, unwelcome news, clever Sally.
  3. Nouns are the only words that can be made plural by adding -s: DVD : DVDs, cup : cups, theology : theologies.
  4. Nouns are the only words that can be pointed to by determiners. Determiners, as we will see below, are words such as the and a, that and this, and possessives such as his or Brigette’s that point out specific instances of a noun, e.g. the boat, a slipshlup, that hiking, Brigette’s DVD, his anger.
  5. Nouns and Noun Phrases are the only words that can be replaced by a pronoun: The deer grazed quietly at the side of the road : It grazed quietly at the side of the road

Other tests are not entirely exclusive, for example:

  1. Nouns and pronouns are the only words that can function as the subject of a sentence: The car ran through the red light : It ran through the red light.

It is important to realise in applying these tests that not all words will fit all categories. Some nouns do not form their plural with -s, for example: e.g. child : children; sheep : sheep. What is important is that one or more of these tests be true.


Verbs are traditionally defined as “action words.” Even more than with nouns, however, this definition fails to cover more than a narrow range of possible examples or rule out obvious counter-examples. While some verbs do express action (e.g. she hit the wall with a hammer), others do not (e.g. I am the king, he knows his baseball). Moreover, actions can also be named by nouns: This hiking is very hard; I don’t like all this hitting).

Like nouns, verbs can be defined more accurately on grammatical criteria. Particularly useful ones include:

  1. Verbs are the only words that show tense (i.e. past or present): he loves cheesecake : he loved cheesecake; I drive fast : I drove fast.
  2. Verbs are the only words that indicate third person singular, present by adding -s at the end: I drive, he drives
  3. Verbs are the only words that can be made into participles (i.e. adjective forms) using the endings -ed, -en, or -ing: I love : loving : loved; They drive : driving : driven

Verb Phrases include the verb plus all objects and modifiers. These can get quite large. One test for some verb phrases is replacement by do in questions designed to be answered with “yes” or “no”.

  1. Bobbi loves getting presents in the morning, does she?

In asking the question “does she”, the speaker is summing up the whole idea “loves getting presents in the morning” by a single form of do. This shows that “loves getting presents in the morning” is a Verb Phrase.


Adjectives describe qualities to nouns. One easy test, though it is also true of adverbs, is placing very or really in front:

  1. Adjectives and adverbs are the only words that can be made more intense by adding very or really in front: the really fast car was very red

Here are some tests that are only true of adjectives:

  1. Adjectives are the only words that can have endings to indicate that something is more or most in relation to some quality: the fast car was red : the faster car was green : the fastest car was blue. Of course some adjectives don’t use -er and/or -est: more unwelcome not *unwelcomer; best nor goodest.
  2. Adjectives and adjective phrases are the only words that can appear between determiners (like the, a, or possessives) and nouns: the fast car, Dave’s really nice cake, a very sad clown.


Adverbs are traditionally described as words that modify verbs. In fact there are three different kinds of adverbs, each of which can be distinguished by context.

Intensifying adverbs

Intensifying adverbs are words like very that are used to qualify adjectives and other adverbs. They do not qualify verbs directly: his very angry cousin vs. *he very jumps. Some intensifying adverbs can be used with slightly different meaning to modify verbs: he skates really fast, he really skates.

Sentence adverbs

Sentence adverbs qualify sentences and clauses: Unfortunately, the boat sank; I don’t want to, however; then he knew for sure.

Verbal adverbs

Verbal adverbs qualify verbs: He jumped quickly, he wrote well. Like adjectives, they can be intensified by words like very: she drove very quickly, Beatrice cooks really well.

Closed class words


Determiners are words that are used to point out specific instances of a noun. They include the articles (a, the), demonstratives (this/these, that/those), and all possessive nouns and pronouns (this means that a form like Dave’s in Dave’s book is both a noun and a determiner).

The test for determiners is very straightforward:


Prepositions serve to connect nouns or noun phrases (e.g. cars or the car) to a clause or sentence. Examples include up a mountain, down the street, with friends, beside him, without a wooden paddle.

In English, there are a relatively small number of simple prepositions, such as up, down, with. There are also a number of phrasal or compound prepositions, especially in spoken English: outside of the English, apart from Dave’s cat, round and round the mountain.

Many of the prepositions can be memorised. Otherwise, prepositions can be recognised by their syntactic context:


Pronouns are words that can substitute for nouns or noun phrases. Examples include personal pronouns like she/her, I/me/my, they/them/their; demonstratives like this/these, that/those; and other forms, such as each, none, and one:

  1. My sister is here. She wants to talk to you.
  2. The green carrots are probably rotten. I wouldn’t eat them.
  3. My books are here. These over here are yours.
  4. The members of the committee were awstruck. None had expected this.

Because pronouns replace nouns, they can be identified using some of the same tests. In particular,


Conjunctions are used to join grammatical units. Unlike prepositions, which join nouns or noun phrases to sentences, conjunctions always join elements of a similar kind: nouns and noun phrases to other nouns and noun phrases, verbs to verbs, adjectives to adjectives: it is raining cats and dogs (noun to noun); I neither pushed nor pulled (verb to verb); I went out because he didn’t come in (clause to clause).


(Click here for Answers)

The following exercises test you on your ability to apply the above material. The real test of your knowledge of grammar is not whether you are able to memorise terms and definitions, but whether you can supply examples and describe real-life sentences.

1. Place each word in the following sentence in its Word Class using the above tests. Which Word Class(es) is or are missing?:

Over the mountain lived a former mechanic. Suzy forgets his name.

2. When Hamlet says that bad acting “out-herods Herod” (Hamlet, III.ii), meaning to rage and rant, he is using a proper name for a verb. What tests can we use to show that out-herods is a verb?

3. Although it is impossible for individuals to create new Closed or Structure Class words, the English language has acquired new pronouns over the course of its history: the entire plural pronoun system they, them, their comes from Old Norse (the original English version was hie, hira and him); she is of unknown origin (the original was heo).

Can you suggest some reasons why it is possible for languages to add or change such words but not for individuals?


1 An asterisk (i.e. *) in front of a word or group of words means “This word or group of words is not something people would say”. An explanation mark (i.e. !) in front of a word or a group of words means “It is doubtful that this is something people would say” or “People might say this, but only in special circumstances”

2 “Impossible” may seem too definite at first. In fact it is almost always possible to think of a situation in which a grammatical rule might be shown to be wrong: for example, let’s say we were talking about a band called “The Unwelcome“—then they probably could replace car in our example sentences.

As a rule, however, you should always be suspicious of counter-examples that require you to create a “back-story” to explain the conditions under which an exception might work. The fact that you need a story to explain the context is evidence that the counter-example is very unusual in normal speech.

3 You could say “The bartenders’ road” or “The bartender’s road”, but that would not really count, since cars in the original sentence did not have an “apostrophe s.” In the starting sentence, cars was plural, not possessive or plural possessive.

4 Traditionally, students learned to categorise the parts of speech on the basis of meaning. For example, nouns were said to be “the name of a person, place, or thing,” while verbs were described as “action words.” While there is some truth to these definitions in many cases, the distinctions break down very easily in others. The fighting is a noun, even though it describes an action; is, on the other hand, is a verb, even though it describes a state.

Since words are a feature of grammar, the method used here attempts to identify them on the basis of their grammatical properties: the roles they can play in the sentence, the inflections they can take, how they can be converted from one part of speech to another.

5 “Always”, except in poetry, where they can sometimes follow the words they connect to the sentence.

6 This rule—pronouns never end in apostrophe -s—might be useful in helping you avoid the common stylistic/prescriptive grammar error of using it’s (actually the abbreviation for it is) in your writing instead of the possessive form, its. In speaking, of course, you can’t hear any difference.

Previous: Inflections (inflectional morphology)


Grammar Essentials 1: Inflections (Inflectional Morphology)

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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For the most part, English uses word order to indicate the relationship among words in sentences. When I say “The boy bit the dog”, people listening to me know that it was the boy who did the biting because The boy comes first in the sentence. Likewise, they know that it was the dog that was bitten because the dog comes after bit.

If I reverse the positions of boy and dog the sentence changes meaning as well: now the dog is doing the biting:

But not all relationships among words in sentences are indicated by word order. Sometimes we use special forms of a word or add sounds or syllables (known as inflections) as to the end to indicate particular relationships among words1.

For example, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick”, we know that the hockey stick was owned by the girl because the word girl comes before the hockey stick and has an -’s on it2.

Likewise, we know that she—whoever she might be—broke the girl’s stick both because the word comes first in the sentence and, more importantly, because the word is she and not some other form like her; in fact, if I replace she with her, but make no other changes, the sentence will not make sense to most speakers of English3:

Endings such as -s and changes in form such as between she and her are known broadly as inflections. English now uses very few and relies mostly on word order to express such relationships (other languages and earlier stages of the English language rely much more heavily on inflections than does Modern English).

This tutorial looks at English inflectional morphology. That is to say the grammatical endings used in English.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)

The most common inflection by far in Modern English is -s. This is used with or without an apostrophe to indicate any one of a number of relationships, depending on the type of words involved and the context in which they are found.

On nouns (words like boy and music “the boy” and “good music”), for example, -s is commonly used to indicate

On verbs (words like run in “he runs quickly”), s is used to indicate that the sentence is taking place in the present and is third person singular (i.e. about something that be described using he, she, or it, rather than I or you).

Another inflection used with verbs includes -ed, which is used with some verbs to indicate that the sentence is happening in the past (e.g., “I loved him” compared to “I love him”). Some verbs use changes in form to indicate the same thing (e.g. “They sang well” compared to “They sing well”). Inflections or changes in form can also be used to indicate whether a statement reflects a real or non-real situation (e.g. “She is a police officer; she is nice”, where the situation described is assumed to be real, compared to “Were she a police officer, she would be nice”, where the situation described is not real—i.e. she isn’t a police officer and isn’t nice).

Many adjectives (words like tall in “the tall girl”) use the inflections -er and -est to indicate comparison: “the taller girl” is more tall than “the tall girl” and “the tallest girl” is the most tall of all.

The words that show the most complete set of inflections, however, are the pronouns (words like he, them, _her, she, and its). Here, different forms of the word are used to indicate a number of different types of relationships whether something is the subject or object of a verb (I in “I hit Dave” against me in “Dave hit me”), singular or plural (he against they), or possessive singular against possessive plural (her against their).


As the above suggests, inflections found on different types of word can mean different things. The -s on runs in “he runs quickly”, for example, means something different than the -s on girls in “The girls went to the game”. Likewise, similar types of words can sometimes use different inflections or changes to indicate the same type of relationship. While car and church both use -(e)s to indicate plural, for example, child uses -ren (children) and sheep uses nothing at all (“one sheep, ten sheep”). Sometimes, different versions of English can use different forms for the same word. North American and British people, for example, differ in whether you should say “I dove into the water” or “I dived into the water.” Often these differences reflect forms from earlier stages of the language or are the result of changes in the history of the language.

The following tables are known as paradigms. These lay out information about inflections for each type of word.

Because this is an introductory tutorial, I have only presented the most common examples of each type of word. An exercise at the end asks you to come up with some more unusual examples.

Pronoun Inflections

Pronouns are words like I and them that can stand for nouns in sentences (for example: “This is my sister. She is the tallest woman I know,” where she in the second sentence stands for sister in the first sentence). Pronouns have the most detailed inflectional system in English: depending on the specific example, they can show distinctions to indicate whether a word is singular or plural, the subject or object of a sentence, or singular or plural possessive.

The most complete set of pronouns is found in the first person (i.e. I and we) and the third person singular masculine (i.e. he) and plural (i.e. they). The other pronouns all have more overlap or unchanging forms.

Number Function in sentence Form
(i.e. one)
Subject I you he she it
Object me you him her it
Possession my your his her its
(i.e. more than one)
Subject we you they
Object us you them
Possession our your their

Noun Inflections

Nouns (words like girl, woman, child, and sheep: a more complete definition is given in the next tutorial) have next most complete system. For most nouns (there are some exceptions), we can distinguish singular against plural and between possession and all other functions. Note how in the noun paradigm, the same form of each noun appears for the subject and the object:

Number Function in sentence Form
Singular Subject or Object girl woman child sheep
Possession girl’s woman‘s child’s sheep’s
Plural Subject or Object girls women children sheep
Possession girls’ women’s children’s sheep’s

Adjective Inflections

Adjectives (words like blue, quick, or symbolic that can be used to describe nouns) used to have many of the same inflections found on the nouns and pronouns. In Modern English, however, the only inflections that remain are used to indicate degree of comparison and not all adjectives can show even this: while most short adjective can use -er and -est, longer adjectives use more and most before the word in question:

Degree Form
Positive blue quick symbolic
Comparative bluer or
more blue
quicker more symbolic
Superlative bluest quickest most symbolic

Verb Conjugations

Verbs are words like [he] loves, [I] think. Inflections on verbs indicate tense (past vs. present: he loves vs. he loved), number (singular vs. plural: he loves vs. they love), and person (first vs. second vs. third: I think vs. you think vs. she thinks or the boy thinks).

Inflections can also be used to distinguish forms of the verb that are used in different kinds of contexts: for example, adding -ing to a verb makes a form that can be used as a noun or an adjective (compare “I fight” against “the fighting ended today” or “the fighting schoolteachers were pulled apart by the principal”). This form can also be used with forms of the verb to be to indicate that the verb is describing something on-going (compare “I walk” with “I am walking” and “I walked” with “I was walking”). This difference is known as aspect.

A similar form can be built using either -ed or -en with a change in the form of the verb (e.g. “loved” and “driven”)4. Forms like “loved” or “driven” can be used as adjectives (e.g. “the loved child” and “the driven snow”) or, when combined with forms of to be, to indicate that the subject was the acted upon rather than acting (compare “I drove the team to the game” against “I was driven by the team to the game“—in the first the subject I was in control of the car; in the second, it was in a car controlled by the team). This contrast is known as voice: “I drove the team” is active voice, “I was driven by the team” is passive voice).

driven and loved, driving and loving are known as participles. driven and loved are past participles (because they refer to the past) and living and driving are present participles because they refer to the present,

The participles, both past and present, are known as non-finite forms of the verb. They are called this because they do not have subjects when they are used in sentences5. Non-finite forms can be contrasted, therefore, to finite forms of the verb, such as (I) drive, (we) drove, (Bob and Henry) thought, (Martha) wins. These are finite because they do agree with subjects.

There is one more non-finite form of the verb, the infinitive. This is the “dictionary form” of the verb (i.e. the form you would look under if you wanted to find out what drive means). In English, it appears in two forms, with and without to: “I want to drive” and “I can drive very well, thank you!”.

As the difference between I love : I loved and I drive : I drove shows, most verbs in English can be placed in one of two main categories: verbs that change into the past by adding -ed (like love) and those that change into the past by changing the form of their stem (like drive). These two types of verbs are known as regular verbs (like love) and irregular verbs (like drive)—though it is not really true to say that drive is irregular, as other verbs follow similar patterns:

Finite vs. Non-finite Tense Number Person Form
Finite Present Singular First and Second
(I / you)
love drive
(he / she / it / the woman)
loves drives
Plural All
(we / you / they / women)
love drive
Past Singular and
(I / you /he / she / it / the woman /
we / you / they / women)
loved drove


Finite vs. Non-finite Grammatical Form Tense Form
Non-finite Participle
(i.e. can be used as adjective or noun)
Present loving driving
Past loved driven
(to) love (to) drive


The following exercises test you on your ability to apply the above material. The real test of your knowledge of grammar is not whether you are able to memorise terms and definitions, but whether you can supply examples and describe real-life sentences.

1. Give examples of four different inflections in sentences. Make sure you can give show on a verb, one on a noun, one on an adjective, and one on a pronoun.

2. How many different ways can -s (with or without an apostrophe) be used as an inflection in English? Give one example in a sentence for each.

3. Give an example in a sentence of a noun that does not use -s to indicate plural

4. Indicate the third person singular present word or words in the following sentence:

Snow White sees the seven dwarves, but they don’t know that she knows who they are.

5. Give an example of an “irregular” verb like drive.

6. What is the plural of these?


1 I say sounds and syllables because I am thinking of how we speak. In writing, of course, we add letters and other symbols (like apostrophes) to do this. In speaking it is sounds.

2 Actually, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick” there isn’t really an apostrophe—there is just an -s on the end.

3 Some speakers of particular types of English might be able to say a sentence like her broke the hockey stick in informal use, but you would not expect to see it in writing in an international or educated context.

4 Although it doesn’t look like there has been a change in the form of the verb between drive and driven, there has been: the sound between dr and v is different. In drive it sounds like the i in bite; in driven like the i in bit. Other verbs make the change more obvious: e.g. speak vs. spoken.

5 You might think that driven does have a subject in the sentence Martha was driven on a train; Martha is the person who was driven after all! Martha is the subject, but not of driven: she is the subject of was. You can test this by trying it in the present: “I am driven” vs. “she is driven“—driven doesn’t change to reflect the change in subject, but look at am vs. is.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)


Grammar: A Guide to the Essentials

Posted: Jan 03, 2007 21:01;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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This tutorial is intended for high school, college, and University students who need a quick guide the essentials of English grammar. Its goal is to help you understand the core grammatical terminology used in textbooks and lectures in courses on foreign languages, the History of English, Old English, or other medieval and classical languages.

The grammar taught here is descriptive rather than prescriptive—that is to say that its focus is on teaching you the terminology used to describe how language is actually used rather than current attitudes towards what is often called “correct grammar.” In this tutorial, “he done real good” or “she didn’t do nothing wrong” are considered legitimate English sentences, even though neither would be acceptable in most high school, college, or university essays1.

This tutorial is also not a complete course in descriptive grammar. In focussing on the essentials, I will ignore or give a very rapid overview of many important aspects of the subject. This guide will help you understand the most basic terminology. You’ll need to do additional research or take a course on descriptive grammar to find out more. You will also find if you know some linguistics or grammar at any level of detail that I sometimes gloss over controversy. Nothing I say here should be wrong (if you find something, please let me know). But there is almost always much more to be said!

The guide is broken into two parts right now:

In the future I hope to add additional sections.


1 The study of so-called correct grammar is better described as style. There are numerous style guides available. See for example, the Library of Congress subject heading: “English language—Style—Handbooks, manuals, etc.” at


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