A green tradition

August 4, 2009


(This was originally posted in March during St. Patrick’s Day.)

Did you know that the water fountain in front of the White House was green this St. Patrick’s Day?  Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, requested to dye the water fountains green to reminisce about Chicago, her hometown, which dyes the nearby river green every year!  Perhaps, this will become a tradition.

Here’s a clip from a radio station which talks about the tradition of dyeing the Chicago River green every year for St. Paddy’s Day.  Although it is from last year, the information is not outdated.  I like clips like these as they are short but informative. Besides giving a description of the tradition, the host also interviewed some people on the streets.  The program is put out by a local radio station (WGN Radio) in Chicago, in the state of Illinois, which broadcasts some local happenings through their program CityCam.  (They have other clips on their website which may be of interest to you if you want to learn more about happenings in the city of Chicago. The downside is that they do not provide a transcript of their videos or a written summary.) 

The English used in this particular clip is not very difficult.  Try to listen to it once, without reading the transcript below, and see how much you could understand it.  You may be surprised about how much you could already pick up! 

 Here’s the video.

Okay, let’s take a look at some of the English used in the clip.  (Transcript and vocabulary list are at the end.)

Why they’ve been doing this every year? (0:13)

Normally, this would be “Why have they been doing this every year?”, which reverses the subject and auxiliary verb (sometimes called the operator), typical of ‘Wh’ questions.  Here, the speaker did not reverse these two words, which often happens in informal conversational settings. 


…of all things… (0:29)

This is short for the expression “out of all the possible things (or selections)”.  The “out” is a particle followed by the preposition “of”.  “Of all” is used as an adjective to modify the noun “things”.  It is considered a comment by the speaker, which is optional.  The sentence would make sense even without this phrase.


…to try to track and trace illegal discharges of, of all things, sewage.  (0:25-0:30)

This phrase may seem strange as two of’s are put together.  There are actually two phrases, one embedded in the other.  The prepositional phrase “of sewage” modifies the noun ‘discharges’.  The speaker could have said “…discharges of sewage, of all things” instead.  However, he chooses to put ‘sewage’ at the end as a kind of suspension.  Notice that the speaker stresses the word ‘sewage’. 


Why is the river green?  Why are they dyeing the river (green today)? Why do you suppose they are dyeing the river green today?

Notice that the host asked the same question in different ways.  In English questions, the general rule of thumb is that the longer the question, the more polite it is.  Do you see this here?  Yes, the sentence which starts “Why do you suppose…” sounds more polite.  


Mike: …The only other place we’ve done it is Dublin, Ireland. 

Host: No kidding. (~2:15)

The “no kidding” used here is similar in meaning to “of course”, which the host could have used instead.  Since Ireland is where St. Patrick’s Day is originated, the fact that the tradition of dyeing a river green happens there too is no surprise or ‘no kidding’. 


 It’s just one of those great old traditions that makes Chicago, Chicago (2:35-2:39)

English speakers say something like this a lot, where the ending noun is repeated, and with a pause in the middle and the second noun is said with a stress or exaggeration (e.g. It’s what makes Los Angeles, Los Angeles.  It is what makes me, me!).  For instance, “it is make makes me, me” could me replaced by “that is what makes me who I am”. 



“A top o’ the morning to ya!” (2:43-2:45)

A slang of “A top of the morning to you!”, which is an Irish saying meaning “Best of the morning to you” or “Have a good morning.” 



Ah, a typical day in Chicago, the sky is gray, the sun up there somewhere is yellow, and the river is green, I mean, really green, look!

Why they’ve been doing this every year? Because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, of course, that actually began in the early 1960s when some city workers were using the same vegetable dye that’s beautiful iridescent green to try to track and trace illegal discharges of, of all things, sewage. 

Host: Why are they dyeing the river?  Why is the river green? 

Boy: I don’t know.

Host: You don’t know?


Host: Why is the river green?  You guys are from Holland, do you know? 

Guys from Holland: It’s Queen’s Day.

Host: Queen’s Day?  Queen’s Day? 

Guys: Yeah.

Host: No, it’s St. Patrick’s Day coming up.

Guys: Oh, serious, when? Monday?

Host: Yeah, Monday, as if you guys didn’t know.

Guys: Yeah, we didn’t know.

Host: You didn’t know, alright.


Host: You’re from Latin America.  Why do you suppose they’re dyeing the river green today?

Couple from Latin America: Well, actually, it’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  We don’t do it in Latin America.  It’s actually very interesting.

Host: Kind of makes it seem rather exotic, doesn’t it?

Couple: It is. It is very different.


Host: You’re from Russia?

Woman from Russia: Yes.

Host: Why do you suppose they’re dyeing the river green today? 

Woman: ‘Cause it’s St. Patrick’s Day?

Host: Very good. What’s St. Patrick’s Day?

Woman: Ah…I’m not sure.


Host: Hey, I don’t get it. Why are they dyeing the river green today?

Irish guys: It’s St. Patrick’s Day, of course.

Host: (Italian)


Host: Hey, here’s Mike Butler. He’s been doing this for 33 years of the 46 years they’ve been doing this. Let’s talk to him.  Hey Mike, how unique is this whole thing?  

Mike: Oh, it’s completely unique.  We’re the only city in the country that does it and we get invitations from all over the world.  We got them from as far as away as Australia.  We got them from England, Paris, the Netherlands, you name it, and they want their rivers dyed.  The only other place we’ve done it is Dublin, Ireland. 

Host: No kidding. Hey, there’s your son, Mark, down there in the boat.  Is that the powder?

Mike: Yes, that’s the powder.

Host: What do you mean? It’s green…it’s not green, it’s orange.  Isn’t it supposed to be green?

Mike: Well, it’s magic leprechaun dust.  When it touches the water, it becomes green. 


Host: It’s just one of those great old traditions that makes Chicago, Chicago.  For WGN Radio, I’m Bill Moller and ‘A top o’ the morning to ya!’



Word list

Dublin (n)- capital and largest city of Ireland

dust (n)- dirt in a powder form that collects on surfaces 

dye (n, v)- a liquid that changes the color of something (n); the action of changing the color of something (v)  (Comment: progressive form is ‘dyeing’, different from ‘dying’ which means likely to die soon, although both are pronounced the same)

exotic (adj)- unusual and often exciting; usually describes something from a foreign place

invitation (n)- request

iridescent (adj)- varying in color when seen under different lights or from different angles

Latin America (n)- area consisting of all the countries south of the United States 

reminisce (v)- to remember about pleasurable past events 

sewage (n)- a mixture of solid and liquid waste

The Netherlands (n)- a country located in northwestern Europe bordered by Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and North Sea to the north and west

trace (v)- to find the origin of something

track (v)- to follow

typical (adj)- example, representative

unique (adj)- special; unusual


Related articles-

Why is the order “beautiful iridescent green”?  See my entry on Order of Descriptive Adjectives. 

Want to know about leprechauns or the story behind St. Patrick’s Day? Read my previous entry St. Patrick’s Day.

Obama’s inaugural speech

July 24, 2009



Obama’s inaugural speech is one of the greatest speeches given in our generation, which he delivered without needing to refer to a piece of paper!  From the standpoint of learning English, it is definitely worth learning from it.  For a full transcript of his speech, please visit the New York Times.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

As with any piece of writing, speeches also contain an introduction.  Here, Obama states the main ideas of what is to follow. In fact, these three themes are to echo throughout his speech.  Notice that one can add an “am” before the three adjectives (humbled, grateful, and mindful), so that it looks like the sentence “I am happy”.  It would be, “I stand here today [and am] humbled…” or rearranged so that the subject ‘I’ stays together with the verb and adjective, “Standing here today, I am humbled…” 

Then, notice that Obama chooses to use the passive voice in the prepositional phrase following the adjective.  The agents (the task, you, and our ancestors) are not concrete or specific.  This ambiguity draws in the listener as Obama is trying to reach a large audience. Also, notice that Obama could have used ‘by’ in the second phrase, “…grateful for the trust bestowed by you…”  Here, the ‘you’ is rearranged to highlight the importance of his audience and to draw them closer. 

Other examples: I am happy about the grade given by my teacher. 

She is blessed with financial stability her job has provided. OR She is blessed with financial stability provided by her job. 

Even though Obama’s speech is spoken and is meant to be heard, in normal conversations, the active voice is usually used.  Using the passive voice profusely in conversation is not appropriate.  Speeches such as these are actually more like a form of writing than conversation.  

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

The choice of words throughout the speech is very clever, especially in this segment.  To give his audience a visual, Obama adds “rising tides of” in front of ‘prosperity’ and “still waters of” in front of ‘peace’.  To show the contrast of prosperity and peace, he uses two contrasting pictures of water.  Also, rather than saying “…the oath is taken amidst the current economic recession”, this is replaced with “the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms”, very appropriate figurative language and sticking to the same theme of water.  This segment concludes with “ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents”, which replaces the more commonly seen terms “forefathers” with “forebears” and “the Constitution” or “the Bill of Rights” with “founding documents”.  While using a variety of words is encouraged, be careful.  We need to make sure we fully understand the meaning and usage of the words.  One good source to consult is a Cobuild Dictionary. 

The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

English learners sometimes avoid using short sentences, being afraid that teachers/graders/markers frown upon them.  Yet, actually, it depends on how it is used.  If used correctly, it could be quite effective, as demonstrated here by Obama.  Here, Obama talks about the war scene back when America fought for independence.  With these three short sentences, Obama paints a picture of the war.  Notice also that these three sentences are in the passive voice which makes the tone uniform, heightening the effect.  Such short sentences could be incorporated into writing stories and essays.  For example, in stories, it could be a scene opener.  As for essays, it could be used to put emphasis on a point. 

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do. All this we will do.

In this segment, notice Obama repeats the same sentence structure (We + will + verb + direct object) over and over again.  Here, Obama is trying to identify with his audience and such a uniform structure makes a bigger emphasis. The only exception is the sentence “All this we can do”.  This change in sentence structure is used as an attention catcher and by using “can” (meaning potential), Obama tries to instill confidence in his audience.  Yet, after this, he reverts back to the same structure “All this we will do”.  Such is effective in persuasive writing.

A New Birth of Freedom

July 22, 2009




(This was originally posted during Obama’s inauguration.)

The theme of the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama is “A New Birth of Freedom”, which marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  Born in 1809, Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States and the chief force behind the emancipation of slavery in the nation.  Less well known is that Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party, which since its founding, opposed slavery, a highly debated issue at the time.  Eventually, the divided opinions over the issue of slavery culminated in the Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865.  Lincoln’s victory preserved the unity of the nation and freed slavery.  Despite being from the Democratic Party, instead, Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president on the same Bible used by Lincoln during his first inauguration in 1861 as the significance of his being the first president of African descent cannot be undermined.

I’m very excited to witness this historic inauguration, are you?


July 21, 2009




(Note that the pronunciation below is not based on the International Phonetic Alphabet IPA. Only stress marks and syllable separation are provided.)

(This post was originally created during Obama’s inauguration)

Listen to this episode

the Capitol (n) (‘ca·pi·tol) – the location where Congress convenes.  Note the difference between the name of this building and ‘the capital’ which is the city of the center of government

commencement (n) (co·’mence ·ment) beginning. One may often see “commencement ceremony” to describe a graduation ceremony as it marks the beginning of advancement to higher education or into the professional world.

inauguration (n) (i ·,nau·gu·’ra·tion)

historic (adj) (hi·’stor·ic) – something of value or has significance in history (i.e. an historic election).  Note the meaning difference between this word and ‘historical’ (adj). ‘Historical’ means from the past (i.e. an historical cultural relic, an historical costume).

oath (n)

president-elect (n) (’pre·si·dent·e·lect)

swearing-in (n) (,swea·ring·’in)

Republican (n, adj) (re·’pub·li·can)

Democrat (n) (’dem·o·crat); democratic (adj) (,dem·o·’crat·ic)

The swearing-in ceremony of the president of the United States marks the commencement of his term in office.  The highlight of the ceremony involves the taking of an oath.  The inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama will be an historic event as he will become the first African American president. Both Republicans and Democrats are expected to gather at the Capitol to witness this momentous event.

Note that ‘an historic’ and ‘a historic’ are both used in spoken English (American English speakers, especially, not sure about British English speakers).  However, in writing, ‘a historic’ is preferred.