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Deccan Herald » DH Education » Detailed Story
Did the baby throw up or ‘vomit’?
By Y S Yadurajan
One of the disquieting facts about language is this: It is not enough to be grammatical and clear. Your language must be idiomatic. By this I don’t mean that you should use expressions like rains cats and dogs, burn the midnight candle, play ducks and drakes with one’s fortune. These figurative expressions are now mostly cliches and are best avoided. I mean the use of phrasal verbs like: look up the word in the dictionary (and not check with a dictionary) I can’t put up with him (and not I cannot suffer his company), I can’t stand this (and not I cannot tolerate this) the baby has thrown up (and not the baby has vomited.

Phrasal verbs are more in use than the corresponding meanings. Bush and Blair are more likely to say (in fact have said) We stand by our Allies (instead of We agree with and support our Allies).

Besides these phrasal verbs (there are further classifications in this group; I ignore them here) there are expressions which are metaphorical but not condemned like the metaphorical expressions cited at the beginning: the storm has blown over (a crisis has passed), a nine days’ wonder (Ramar’s ‘Herbal Petroleum’ was a nine days’ wonder), the bubble has burst (It won’t be long before the real estate bubble in Bangalore bursts), dressed to kill, the game is not worth the candle, dressed up to the nines (dressed very elaborately and fashionably) .

It is not easy to distinguish these phrases from the ones given earlier (burn the midnight candle, etc.) For one thing, there are no brief, simpler, equally forceful paraphrases for phrases like the storm has blown over. But there are simpler equivalents for phrases like burn the midnight oil (work hard). For another, the images they conjure up are so apt it is difficult to replace them by any other equally graphic, apt image (storm, bubble). For a fuller discussion see my Structure, Style, and Usage (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Phrases like last night, last week, last month, are fine. But last evening? No. the correct expression is yesterday evening. Similarly yesterday morning, yesterday afternoon, but last night (not yesterday night) !

Can this be expained? Is there any logic to it? If you can say last night why not last evening?

Perhaps there is some explanation. Although the astronomical day is from midnight to midnight, for practical purposes day begins at sunrise and ends with sunset. So while yesterday can be used with morning, afternoon and evening, it cannot go with night. Is this right? Perhaps. But I would rather not go for an ‘explanation’ and treat last night as bing idiomatic while yesterday night is not.

Let’s look at last a little more closely. Last, past both contrast with the present. Last refers to the immediate previous unit of time we are talking about. Last week is the week immediately preceding this week; similarly last month, last year, last century. So last refers to a specified unit of time preceding the present. Not so past. Past centuries can be any number of centuries other than the present. The number involved is left vague, unspecified. The distinction made here explains why you cannot say in last decades while you can say in past decades.

The distinction between last and past just noticed is neutralised when limited units of duration are involved. The weather has been like this for the last few days / The weather has been like this for the past few days.

Although both phrases are correct, they show different perspectives. Last counts time from a point in the past to the present. Past counts time from the present to some point in the past. Hence while you can say Our team rallied and scored a goal in the last few minutes, you cannot say Our team rallied and scored a goal in the past few minutes.

We have distinguished between last and past. Now let us look at previous.

Previous refers to time immediately prior to what is indicated by last. Last week I was in Bombay. In the previous week I had spent a few days in Chennai (i.e., if it is the fourth week of November now, in the third week I was in Bombay. In the second week I spent a few days in Chennai). So even as last has a meaning in connection with the present, previous has a meaning in connection with last.

Now consider. In 2004 I was in Bombay. Earlier I was in Chennai. Earlier can be anytime earlier; not necessarily in 2003. But how far back is something determined by the context. In a casual talk (as in our example) it could be 2002 or even 2000. It can’t be 1950. But in By the time man started cultivating fields he had learned the use of metal; earlier he was using stone implements ‘earlier’ can be thousands of years.

Maxims and

Observations of

Kay S Wye

Lear from the past; live in

the present; look forward

to the future.
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