Should a mafia gangster sleep with the fishes – or should that be sleep with the fish?
And is the past tense of "stride" – strode, strided or stridden?
According to Victoria University linguist Laurie Bauer, there's no right answer.
Professor Bauer will spend the next three years poring over 100 million words to get an update on the state of the English language. He has been granted a $619,000 Marsden research grant and, working with two other leading international linguists, will be putting together a book on English morphology – how words are constructed.
Accessing massive British and American databases of published newspapers, novels and other texts, the research will look at how words are used today.
It is the first time the morphology of the English language has been looked at in this depth since rules were first laid out in the 19th century.
Though it will be a mammoth undertaking, Professor Bauer will not be laying down strict rules on what is proper.
"There are a lot of `rules' in English we assume everyone knows ... but the fact is we don't.
"An example is the plural of fish – when do you say two fish and when two fishes?
"There are various suggestions but there is not one simple answer."
Professor Bauer said specific words – not just local jargon – also pointed out where we are from.
For example, the use of "bet" in the sentence: "The Silver Ferns bet Australia", pointed to the speaker being from New Zealand or Scotland. An Australian or Englishman would use "beat".
"We're trying to describe the way in which modern English makes up its words and what the patterns are. Some of these patterns you can use freely and some you can't."
- The Dominion Post