Some puzzlers about collocations and Latinate phrases



Here’s a perplexing grammar question posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by a new member who goes by the username Mrbraveheart:

“Hi, Jose! I’ve become your disciple after reading your book English Plain and Simple. As your disciple, I still reckon that I have a great many things to learn, and one of them is the difference between ‘stock knowledge’ and ‘stack knowledge.’ I have searched the Internet but none of the results can give a valid, justifiable, and truthful answer. Hope you can help.”

My reply to Mrbraveheart:
I would define “stock knowledge” as the set of structured, systemic, and contextual information that one has already learned and internalized; it is preexisting knowledge, as opposed to knowledge that one doesn’t have or has yet to learn and understand.

As to “stack knowledge,” I must tell you that whatever it means isn’t part of my stock knowledge yet. This is my very first encounter with that noun phrase, so I can’t tell you offhand how it might differ from “stock knowledge.” In fact, a cursory search on the web has convinced me that “stack knowledge” doesn’t exist in the English lexicon at all.

You see, there are strings of words in English that are known as collocations—familiar groupings of words that commonly go together and convey meaning by association. To this category of words belong such verb phrases as “feel free,” “make progress,” and “save time”; such noun phrases as “powerful computer” and “strong coffee” (as opposed to “strong computer” and “powerful coffee,” respectively, which are very poor collocations); and such idiomatic expressions as “gone with the wind,” “straight as the crow flies,” and “tempest in a teapot.”

The noun phrase “stock knowledge” is clearly a strong collocation that consists of the noun “knowledge” modified by the adjective “stock” in the sense of “commonly used or often brought forward.” On the other hand, when looked upon as a noun phrase, “stack knowledge” doesn’t qualify as a collocation because it fails to convey a clear and identifiable meaning by association. Differentiating “stock knowledge” from “stack knowledge” is therefore like differentiating apples from desktop computers, which is clearly not a very meaningful exercise.

Indeed, “stack knowledge” won’t sound nonsensical only when we look at “stack” as a verb in the sense of “to arrange in an orderly pile or heap,” with “knowledge” as its direct object. We can then use “stack knowledge” in a sentence like, say, “The function of a computer’s hard disk is to stack knowledge in a memory bank for long-term storage.” This is a very unnatural-sounding sentence, of course, but we can make it semantically more precise by replacing the word “knowledge” with “information.” This time, the verb phrase “stack information” works very well because it’s a fairly strong collocation by itself.

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Here’s another interesting language question, this time from Forum member Justine Aragones:

“Is there any difference in meaning between the Latin expression magnum opus and magnus opus?”

My reply to Justine:
From what I’m able to gather, magnum is the Latin neuter singular nominative adjective form that means “great” in English, magnus is the Latin masculine singular nominative form for that adjective, and magna is the Latin feminine singular nominative form for that adjective. The Latin noun opus, on the other hand, means “work” in English.

Since opus is neuter in Latin, the correct phrase for a “great work” or “masterwork” in the form of, say, a musical, artistic, or literary creation is therefore magnum opus; it should neither be the masculine magnus opus nor the feminine magna opus. In actual usage, however, magnum opus and magnus opus are sometimes used interchangeably—an indication that English writers not knowledgeable with the declensions of Latin tend to make the masculine magnus their default usage for the adjective in that phrase.

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