When is ‘a ticket’ just the ticket?


I am always impressed by non-native speakers who take real pains to learn the ins and outs of English, and who get the details right in print and in conversation. It’s all the more frustrating, then, to come across repeat errors that seem ingrained in the culture.

Among the most common errors of Slavic speakers is the omitted article. French, German, Italian and Spanish all have a word for ‘the’, but for Czechs, Poles, Russians and others, there is no such word, so it is not uncommon to hear or read sentences such as ‘When you visit castle, you will see great historical artefacts’.

Even among sophisticated English translations, articles are regularly either omitted or incorrectly used. In the Czech Republic, the most common mistake we hear is actually an addition: ‘Visitors to the Prague Castle are kindly asked to show the ticket if requested’.

a) Prague Castle, following the rule of other such place-names (for example Windsor Castle), is already defined by its title ‘Prague’. There is only one such castle in the city, and it therefore needs no definite article. It would be like saying ‘The Queen lives in the Buckingham Palace’. Of course, if there is no title, ‘the castle’ needs to be defined: ‘We are entering the first courtyard of the castle.’

b) ‘the ticket’ is also wrong, but in this case the error can be excused. After all, not any old ticket will do – surely it must be ‘the ticket’ that allows entry to the castle? Logically yes, but in the annoying idiom of English, ‘ticket’ behaves oddly.

Consider the following. Before you buy the ticket, it is undefined – just one of many tickets, so the indefinite article is fine (or in the plural, no article at all):

‘Tickets sold here’ (not ‘the tickets’)
‘A ticket must be shown as proof of purchase’ (not ‘the ticket’)
‘You must buy a ticket to enter the cathedral’ (not ‘the ticket’)

Once purchased, however, it becomes a specific ticket – yours:

‘Do you have the ticket that you bought?’ (not ‘a ticket’)
‘I’m sorry. The parking ticket (i.e. yours) expired at 6pm’ (not ‘a ticket’)

So in the original example, we would expect ‘the’, but it’s better to use a pronoun, ‘their tickets’, or simply the plural ‘tickets’, thus: ‘Visitors to Prague Castle are kindly asked to show their tickets if requested’.

All of which goes to show what a charming, but challenging, language English is.  I take my hat off to all learners!

All stressed out

black and brown long coated dog birthday

One of the most important lessons for English speakers is understanding how a shift of emphasis from one word to another can alter the meaning of a single sentence. In the following short story, words emphasized like this carry additional stress when spoken.

The twins were arguing again.

I never said Freddie ate your cake.’ ‘Well someone said it,’ snapped Anne, and that someone sounded very much like you, Ted.’

Ted was indignant. ‘I never said Freddie ate your cake! Or at least, I never said Freddie ate your cake.’ ‘Aha!’ exclaimed his sister. ‘So you didn’t say so but you might have murmured it under your breath?’

‘No, that’s not what I meant either,’ replied Ted. ‘Look. I never said Freddie ate your cake. OK? It might have been someone else.’

Anne turned over this new possibility in her mind. ‘So you’re basically saying — sorry, mumbling — that someone else ate my cake. But Freddie was involved, right?’

Ted squirmed. Anne had this uncanny knack of squeezing the truth out of people with her superior grammatical skills.

‘OK. Freddie was involved. But I never said Freddie ate your cake.’

‘Oh right,’ replied Anne, sarcastically. ‘So he might have — oh, I dunno — sat on it? But at least we’re sure he didn’t eat it.’

Embarrassed at being wrong-footed again, there was only one thing left to do. Ted squared up to his sister. ‘Alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll come clean. Freddie ate the cake. But it wasn’t yours. I never said Freddie ate your cake. He ate mine.’

Anne paused. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘He never ate your cake. Actually, if Freddie ate anything of yours it was that rather tasty-looking bar of chocolate I left for you next to your bed.’

The door nudged open. The six-month-old puppy, Freddie, padded into the bedroom, his nose smeared in the last remains of Anne’s chocolate.

‘See? I never said Freddie ate your cake,’ smiled Ted, triumphantly.

English evolution

dinosaur statue

English should be a relatively easy language to learn and use. After all, it has no genders (masculine or feminine), most plurals are made by the simple addition of ‘s’, and most verbs have a past tense that ends in ‘-ed’. But of course that’s only half the story.

All languages display forms and features that ‘break the rules’. In many cases, differences come about because the written form of the language developed separately and at a different pace from the spoken form. In English, we see this in the case of

  • unspoken or ‘silent’ letters in words like ‘knight’ (pronounced with an initial ‘k’ sound as late as the 15th century);
  • added written letters like the ‘s’ in ‘island’ (it was spelt ‘iland’ until the 16th century, and is still pronounced that way);
  • curiosities such as the letter-group ‘ough’, which can be pronounced in multiple different ways. Try ‘Although the ploughman thought he had a cough, he found out soon enough it was a hiccough.’
  • semi-archaic words such as ‘aye’, ‘betwixt’, ‘ere’, ‘hither’, ‘thou’, and ‘whereof’.

Such is the fossil record of English, a language whose dynamic and turbulent past has been recorded in changes to spelling, sound and meaning over centuries.

There have been attempts to regulate and standardize the language. In the 18th and 19th centuries, dictionary-makers Samuel Johnson in England and Noah Webster in the USA used their publications to prescribe spellings based on the way they understood the evolution of language. We have Webster to thank that Americans use ‘color’, ‘honor’, ‘favor’ and ‘labor’ (modelled on Latin), instead of British equivalents like ‘colour’ and ‘honour’ (whose spelling is influenced by French).

Other attempts were less successful. Recognizing the complexity of the apostrophe — even for native users — the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw refused to use the punctuation mark in his own plays, insisting that publishers followed his instruction when printing words like ‘dont’, ‘Ive’ and ‘cant’.

And in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell foresaw the rise of an entirely ‘politically correct’ form of English. In ‘Newspeak’, language is reduced to its bare minimum, all possibilities of ambiguity stripped away, and words redesigned to reflect the binary vision of the Party: ‘goodthinkful’ referring to what is politically acceptable; and ‘ungood’ to what is not.

Newspeak may seem absurd, but in the real world many countries still try to preserve a pure or clean version of their language by committee. The Académie française is perhaps the most well-known example. This group decides whether English words can be admitted into French, which spellings should be allowed, and even whether to keep certain written marks. In 2016 they caused a huge storm by decreeing that the circumflex accent in words such as ‘coût’ (meaning ‘cost’) should be banned, and that the word ‘oignon’ (‘onion’) should henceforth be spelt ‘ognon’.

There is no such regulation for English. The Oxford English Dictionary is often cited as an authority, but it is largely descriptive rather than prescriptive, acting more as a record of the language’s continuing evolution.