I didn’t use(d) to worry about these things

Did you use(d) to have a phone like this?

In a sentence like the one in the title, which is correct,”use” or “used”?

The answer is that both are correct, but not everybody agrees about this. Going into more detail, let me start by quoting some authorities. I have selected a few prestigious voices, not individual opinions.

Cambridge dictionaries accept both forms but recommend just one (“in exams”).

The negative of used to is most commonly didn’t use(d) to. Sometimes we write it with a final -d, sometimes not. Both forms are common, but many people consider the form with the final -d to be incorrect, and you should not use it in exams: It didn’t use to be so crowded in the shops as it is nowadays.

Used to – English Grammar Today – Cambridge Dictionary

Macmillan dictionaries consider that questions and negatives should be formed with “did(n’t) use to”. Continue reading

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When language can be murder

Train ticket

As a young man, Sydney Silverman spent three years in jail doing hard labour as a result of his conscientious objection to fighting in the First World War. The 8th October is the anniversary of the birth of this radical British politician, who at the end of his life, in 1965, managed to bring capital punishment to an end in Great Britain, after campaigning on the issue for some 20 years. Capital punishment had by that time become controversial and unpopular because of some notorious miscarriages of justice in the 1950s.

One of these was the tragic case of Derek Bentley, found guilty of murder and executed in 1953, at the age of 19.* In fact, it was Bentley’s younger accomplice, Christopher Craig, who committed the crime, injuring one officer and shooting another policeman dead, but Bentley was convicted as party to the murder, though at the time he was unarmed and had already been detained. At the trial, it was alleged that Bentley shouted “Let him have it!” to Craig just before the first shot. The prosecution argued that the intended meaning was the instruction “Kill him!”. The defence argued, unsuccessfully, that the words should be interpreted as meaning “Surrender your weapon!” Continue reading

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Is there a translator in the house?

Before the summer holidays the result of the Translator Wanted 2018 competition was announced. As in previous years there was a lot of food-based hilarity. You can browse through all the 2018 entries on this Wakelet board. Congratulations to all the eager-eyed participants!

I find that I have become so accustomed to merely approximate translations in everyday life that it’s easy not to notice them at all. Today I was reminded of this fact by my friend Javier Leiva, who picked up the flyer in the photo with “Back to school” special offers.

In this case, it seems that the automatic translator has turned Spanish “vuelta al cole” into Catalan “volta al cole”, in other words, not going back to school, but going round the school. Printing the flyer in Catalan is a nice touch but messing up the translation rather undermines the endeavour!

Well spotted, Javi!

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International grievances


A whole host of things can go wrong in a translation project. Translators accept that occasional mistakes are hard to avoid and hope they go undetected. After all, if nobody notices, who is to say that a mistake has been made? Was it even a mistake? Perhaps just a ripple, rather than a wave.

But there are occasions when an unintended translation mistake can have alarming consequences. David Bellos, in his breath-taking survey of translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011), relates the diplomatic confusion resulting from a translation error that ratcheted up the tension between France and Germany prior to the outbreak of war in 1870. Apparently, Bismarck sent an open message from the King to the French Ambassador by the hand of the “Adjutant of the day” (Adjutant vom Dienst), a high-ranking regal court official. In Paris, the message was translated and distributed to the newspapers by the services of the Havas news agency, but “Adjutant” was not translated, since it is also a word in French. But in French it refers to a low military rank, the lowest kind of officer. The French were outraged by this snub, the act of sending such a lowly messenger. How bad were the consequences? We will never know, but only six days later, war broke out.

I was reminded of this incident recently, when I read about a mistake in translation in the documents that Carles Puigdemont’s lawyers submitted to a Belgian court in proceedings against the Spanish Supreme Court investigating judge Pablo Llarena.* Continue reading

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De ministras y ministros

Crátilo: Insisto. Los nombres de las cosas tienen una relación íntima con las cosas en sí.

Hermógenes: ¿Aún insistes con este tema, mi viejo amigo Crati?

Crátilo: Mira, Hermi, las verdades importantes resisten el paso del tiempo. Te voy a dar un nuevo ejemplo. En España ahora dicen “ministras y ministros” en vez de solo “ministros”. ¿Sabes por qué?

Hermógenes: Tengo la sensación de que me lo vas a decir…

Crátilo: Efectivamente, Hermi. El problema es que por primera vez hay en el gobierno más ministras que ministros. Y ellas no se sienten identificadas con el supuestamente genérico “ministros”.

Hermógenes: Y con razón, digo yo. Si realmente fuera genérico, se podría decir “ministros” aunque todas fueran mujeres. Pero ni la Real Academia Española defiende tal posición. Por lo tanto, hay que considerar que el uso de “ministros” con intención genérica es realmente una práctica machista. El mismo uso de “ministras” si no hay hombres en el grupo confirma esta noción.

Crátilo: Es una aportación interesante, Hermi. No lo había pensado, pero tienes razón.

Hermógenes: Estamos de acuerdo por una vez, parece.

Continue reading

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