Neal Durando, in An Abécédaire Fugitif, begins “My grammar has crossed the Atlantic four times since I began giving English lessons in western France three years ago,” and goes on to list French words with associations they call up for him, often how he learned them:

FOIS /fwa/
“Cómo se dice ‘vez’
?” I asked my Spanish friend Oscár as we crossed the tramway tracks to eat lunch at café Les Facultés in between classes at the University of Nantes. There were no English speakers within earshot, so Spanish was how I learned about French. We were anxious about crossing the tracks as the tramway announces itself with only a slight sighing sound. “Fois” he answered without looking at me, as he had an eye out for the tram that could have put an end to us. Vez, fois, once upon a time pedestrians had to watch for streetcars everywhere in the United States, even in Chicago, the city where I was to shortly find myself.

An enjoyable collection of motments. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Shoot, Spanish was how I learned French. With a degree in Spanish and a need to acquire French, I mapped French words on a Spanish syntax and it worked. Yeah, it wasn’t a perfect method but the gap was smaller between Spanish and French than my native English and French.

  2. J’ai oublie tout mon Francais (or something like that — I forget). Oddly, learning a second language (French) at an early age, while arguably helping me with Spanish — far more necessary in the Greater Lawrence (MA) area — has cause a weird phenomenon I call “Ingles Perdido.” I first noticed it while trying to talk to a travel agent in Vladivostok several years ago.
    From my diary jotted down later that night: “A curious mental deterioration gripped me. When failing to communicate in Russian, the ladies brought in a man who spoke German, which I don’t speak. I started to wonder what the odds were that anybody spoke French here when suddenly I could only think of words in Spanish. Try as I might no other words would come to me. I sat there knowing no one would understand a word of it yet unable to think in any other language including English. With the language center of the brain switched to Spanish I sat and listened to Marge trying her German on the German-speaker who was about as uncomprehending as the ladies. Words floated around me making no sense at all. What was I doing here? Why did my brain think I could speak Spanish anyway?”

  3. I’m surprised I didn’t respond to Janet’s comment back in 2005, but all these years later, I tip my hat: that’s a truly remarkable story.

    And the posted essay (whose URL I just substituted with an archived version) is remarkable too. Here’s another excerpt:

    PASS /pæs/
    “Passer” means to take an exam in French, as in “I won’t study English anymore after I pass my baccalaureate exam.” (They mean to say take). The natural rejoinder, “So, I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other next year,” is only cruel and confusing. So I don’t correct this error very often, as my students are so stressed to be talking about this exam that will play a major part in determining the rest of their professional lives. It is a simple mistake, a stupid one, and they are always disappointed in themselves when they realize they’ve made it. An obvious look of unworthiness crosses the faces of the better students—you can actually see them losing points on their score due to nervousness as they begin again. They are too young and in no position in any case to take pleasure in their mistakes.

  4. I don’t get it. “Pass the exam” in English means “take the exam and succeed”. What is there to correct? It might be that Native Speakers more often say “take” (assuming that the goal is to pass) and non-native speakers are more forthright about their goals, but it doesn’t seem to be a mistake. Ngrams tells me that “pass the exam” and “take the exam” are not much different in frequency.

  5. He’s talking about native French speakers who think “pass” means simply “take.”

  6. How does he know? My contention is that it is native English speakers who often say “take” when they mean “pass”.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    In New York Fagin might have said “pass the take”.

  8. How does he know?

    He was their teacher! Don’t you think he’s in a better position to know than you? Errors made by native English speakers are irrelevant here.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Calling all Brits ! When a person “has sat an exam”, is there an implication that the results were satisfactory (“passing grade”) ?

  10. I don’t think so. OED (updated just last December!):

    c. transitive. To take (an examination).
    1859 N. Wales Chron. 5 Mar. Suppl. There are dozens of certified National Schoolmasters in Wales, who..even are not allowed now to sit an examination for Welsh alone.
    1898 Library 10 239 Out of 44 students, 13 sat the Examination.
    1966 Rep. Comm. Inq. (Univ. of Oxf.) II. 152 Collections are college examinations, usually sat at the beginning of a term.
    2014 M. Henderson Geek Manifesto vi. 146 Only the most able pupils generally sit more than three A-levels.

  11. He was their teacher! Don’t you think he’s in a better position to know than you?

    I am sure he was, but he was (maybe!) blinded by his native speaker intuition and teaching attitude. What his students (probably!) meant is that after they take and pass the exam they will be free from his English class. For a native speaker, it is more natural to reach for “take” in this situation, but “pass” is not wrong even if it’s colored by a French word.

    Errors made by native English speakers are irrelevant here.

    It’s not an error, it’s a way of speaking. Obviously, the ultimate goal of any language learner is to get as close as possible to native fluency, but IMHO it is not bad to retain some quirks of speaking, if they are not misleading or ungrammatical. Not everyone studies language to become a spy.

  12. It’s not an error, it’s a way of speaking.

    Oops, I let my inner prescriptivist out!

  13. ktschwarz says

    OED (updated just last December!)

    Department of obsessive nitpickery: that was December 2020, not 2021.

  14. Damn, I’m still not used to its being 2022. (I’m not really entirely used to its being the 21st century.) Thanks for the picked nit!

  15. I see nit (updated December 2003) has an interesting etymology:

    Cognate with Middle Dutch neet, nete, nette, net (Dutch neet), Middle Low German (plural) nēte, (in glossaries) nēt, nit, nēte, Old High German niz (Middle High German niz, nizze, German Niß, Nisse), representing a form without g- prefix < the same Germanic base as Old Icelandic gnit (Icelandic nit), Norwegian gnett, (Nynorsk) nit, neit, gnit, (archaic) knit, Old Swedish (plural) gnether (Swedish gnet, gnidd, gnitär), Danish gnid < an Indo-European base also represented by ancient Greek κονιδ-, κονίς, Early Irish sned (Irish sniodh), Welsh nedd, in collective sense ‘nits’ (c1370), Old Russian, Russian gnida (1534), Old Polish gnyda (1472; Polish gnida), Latvian gnīda, Albanian thëri, Albanian regional (Gheg) thëni, thni.

    Albanian is, as usual, weird. (Martin E. Huld says: “The Albanian feminine was perhaps an original collective or neuter plural. Çabej’s rejection of this etymology is unwarranted; the phonology is quite regular and unimpeachable.”)

  16. How would they say it in their native French, “quand je passe mon bac”?

  17. An error I have noticed from native speakers of several European languages is using “write the exam” to indicate “take the exam,” when it actually means “create the exam.”

  18. Russian has imprefective-perfective pair for this (similar to speaking and saying).

    sdavat’ examen to take an exam. lit. “to be ….-ing”, continuous.
    sdat’ examen to pass an exam. lit. “to ….”, resultative.
    but “he was required to sdat’ an exam” (resultative).

    6. (transitive) to take, to sit (an exam or test) J’ai réussi l’examen que j’avais passé en avril. ― I passed the exam that I took in April.
    7. (intransitive) to pass (an exam or test) Il est passé à l’examen. ― He passed the exam.
    8. (dated) (transitive) to pass (an exam or test) Il a passé l’examen. ― He passed the exam.

    The meaning “to pass” is said to be dated. But it is difficult to say what was in their heads. It is not too much dated: “Vieilli ou littér. Passer un examen avec succès. −C’est un cauchemar cette chimie; sûr et certain que je vais me faire coller. −Tu as toujours passé tes examens… −Pas ce coup-ci; d’ailleurs collée ou reçue, c’est du pareil au même. Jamais je ne ferai une carrière dans la chimie (Beauvoir, op.cit., p.201).”
    op cit. is Mandarins, 1954.

  19. @Brett, on the other hand, it is professors who read [a course of] Arabic philology in Russian universities.

  20. @drasvi: That one’s not so jarring to me. Nobody “reads” courses in American English.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    You may not read a course, but you still hold(?) lectures innit.

    A Danish university course is in the form of forelæsninger. By a lektor, of course. lego, doceo, profiteor.

    But where did the -t- in fateor come from?

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Students read courses at UK universities. I /rɛd/ medicine.

    Since 1892, you can read various subjects at Reading.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    That’s a different read. You read at home and sleep at lectures.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. A pardonable confusion, but this is a false dichotomy. Reading and sleeping are perfectly compatible.

  25. I have been wondering how native speakers distinguish present and past simple of read in ambigous contexts.
    Now I know.
    @Brett, I know. I do not even know how I learned about it, from an actual text or a discussion of variation in English, but I think this isogloss is rather famous… My hope was that two competing European usages are always better than one.

  26. lego – Yes. I do not know what it looked like in Roman times, but in the middle ages it was likely as in pictures here:
    There is some logic here. Today it is students who have books. Maybe in the future people will play Arabic philology instead (without much distinction between the two teams).

  27. take/pass an examination

    I’m reminded of the following entry in Akira Miura’s Japanese Words & Their Uses, Charles E. Tuttle Co. (2001):


    Don’t translate “take an examination” directly into Japanese and say *shiken o toru (lit., “to take an examination”). The correct expression is shiken o ukeru (lit., “to receive an examination”).
    (1) Miyata-kun wa Toodai no nyuugaku-shiken o ukeru soo da.
    I hear Miyata will be taking the entrance examination for Tokyo University.
    Unlike English “examination,”shiken does not normally refer to examination papers. A sheet of paper with examination questions is called shiken-mondai before the answers are written in, and tooan (lit., “answer draft”) afterward.
    (2) Teacher: Ima shiken-mondai (not *shiken) tsukutte-iru n desu.
    I’m preparing an exam.
    (3) Teacher (after exams):Tooan (not *shiken) o takusan shirabenakucha naranai n desu.
    I’ve got to read lots of exams.

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