Tag Archives: English language

Brevity is the soul of…

3 Jan

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the soul of clarity and understanding. Tautology – saying the same thing in different words – simply occupies time or, in a newspaper, valuable space, repetition is simply boring, and using unnecessary words is simply – unnecessary.

Politicians are well known for skirting around questions, particularly when faced by Today’s or Newsnight’s presenters. One of the classic ruses is to repeat the question, as in – Q: “Mr so-and-so do you believe that the majority of immigrants…?”; A: “Do I believe that the majority of immigrants…?”. What the listener wants to hear is a simple “yes” or a “no” followed by a justification for the answer. Do the people who are guilty of this think that listeners are too stupid to remember a question for more than a nano-second or are they simply taking up as much time as possible in a short interview to avoid having to answer it? No prizes for the correct answer.

I continue to despair at the style of language that is increasingly used in official documents. A recent letter to local councils said: “Tendering has negatively impacted on the provision of…[it poses several] key threats”.

“Impact” is a noun, not a verb (yes, I know I’ve said that before and will, no doubt, say it again), “provision” is unnecessary, and “key” is something to open a lock. Clear and simple: “Tendering has had a negative effect on [whatever it was]…and has created several important problems”.

A letter from Dame Barbara Hakin, COO of NHS England, read, “The concept of calling for advice first is essential for patient core outcomes and we are committed to ensuring 111 plays its full part”. Why is calling for advice a “concept”? Oh yes, someone’s discovered that “concept” is a synonym for “idea”, even if it’s not an appropriate synonym in this context. “Outcome” – rather than “result” – is rapidly becoming one of the words that makes me jump up and down with rage (and what does “core” add?), and if 111 is playing its part it is, by definition, playing its full part. Clear and simple: “For patients to achieve the best result it is a good idea if they call for advice first, and we are committed to ensuring that 111 plays its part in that.”

Could it please be everyone’s new year’s resolution to think before they speak or write, and to keep it simple (and there’s no question mark at the end of that request because it’s a rhetorical question).

Today’s picture

It seems to have been raining for 40 days and 40 nights, even though St Swithin’s day was months ago. I took this picture on South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, where the weather changes from hour to hour.





20 Nov


Who writes this rubbish: 2?

2 May

Who writes this rubbish: 2?.

Splitting infinitives (not splitting hairs)

12 Mar

I have written before, that “I’m one of those dinosaurs who hates split infinitives” and, despite assertions that “our language needs to change and grow”, my opinion will not change. In my view, far from allowing English to grow, the habit of splitting infinitives cuts it off from its roots.

Sentences that contain split infinitives are invariably ugly. They stem, I believe, from a basic misunderstanding of where an adverb could, or should, sit in a sentence: it should follow the verb it modifies – not necessarily immediately – but it should certainly not be between the two elements of the infinitive.

There are many languages in which it’s simply not possible to split the infinitive because the infinitive is a single word: for example, “to go” is “aller” in French, “ir” in Spanish and Portuguese (and “ire” in Latin), “andare” in Italian, and “naar” in Dutch. English, however, in common with many other northern European languages uses two words: “to go” is “zu gehen” in German, “at gå” in Danish, “att gå” in Swedish, and “å gå” in Norwegian. I doubt, though, that it is common to split the two words in these other languages.

In the past couple of days of newspaper reading, I have groaned over many split infinitives, including: “to not eat sweets”, “to publicly name names”, “appears to also be drawing away”, “to better protect victims”, and “failed to even ask them”. Each of these would have been more elegant if structured properly: “not to eat sweets”, “to name names publicly”, “also appears to be drawing away”, “to protect victims properly”, “failed even to ask them”.

Then there was the sentence that committed two horrors: “to actively look for cases”; since it would be impossible to look for cases inactively, this should simply have been “to look for cases”.

As The Economist Style Guide points out, “To never split an infinitive is quite easy”! Think about what you are saying, look at what you have written and, if necessary, simply turn the sentence around.

Today’s picture

I have been taking photographs of signs and lettering for many years and have recently collected them into a book, Signs of the Times, which I have self-published on Blurb (www.blurb.co.uk/b/4054360-signs-of-the-times) – and yes, there’s a typo on the cover flap! This is one of the pictures from the book, taken in Florence in 2002.



8 Feb

One of the most difficult things about learning English must be pronunciation: even well-educated English people pronounce some words differently – and then there’s the problem of words that are spelled the same, but mean something different when the stress is moved from one part of the word to another.

There’s considerable controversy, for example, over how to pronounce “controversy”: is it controversy or controversy; also is it combatant or combatant; exquisite or exquisite? (I would choose the first of each of these, but it’s common to hear the alternative.)

Part of the problem is, as I have written before, that there are few hard-and-fast rules in English – and there are no accents to help with pronunciation. As a result, we have to guess whether, for example, “e” is pronounced ee (as in equal) or eh (as in echo), and whether “a” is ah (as in party), ay (as in age), or a (as in cat).

Matters are further confused by words being pronounced differently in US and UK English ­– for example, in the UK the “g” in hegemony is as in get, but in the US is as in gem – and, since most people learn how to say words from hearing them, the predominance of US television programmes and speech patterns is beginning to affect the way English people speak. The most common, and most annoying, of these is harass, which is now invariably said as harass. That is not only ugly, it is also wrong!

I think, however, that the biggest confusion arises over words that are spelled exactly the same, but are pronounced differently, and sometimes even mean different things. For example:
present (noun, e as in echo) means “current”, “now”, but also means a gift; present (verb) means to give something, such as an award or a speech;
combine (noun), is an association, or an object, such as a combine harvester, that does more than one thing at a time; combine (verb) is to unite;
defect (noun, e as in equal) is a flaw or a fault; defect (verb) is to desert or leave;
desert (noun, e as in echo) is a wasteland; desert (verb) is to defect or leave – and dessert (noun) is what you eat after dinner;
leave (noun) is a holiday; leave (verb) is to go, defect, or desert – but “leaves”, which can be “the train leaves tomorrow at eight”, is also the plural of the noun “leaf” (but the train might not leave tomorrow at eight because there are leaves on the line!)

Finally, for now at least, we get to the letter “h”, which is a particular trap. Alone, it is pronounced “aitch”, although there is an increasing – and deeply irritating – tendency to pronounce it “haitch”. Sometimes “h” is silent, as in “heir”, “honest”, “hour”, “honour” (and the noun is, therefore, “an honour”,); other times it is pronounced, as in hill, hospital, hope, hilarity, etc. (The jury’s out on “hotel”: it now sounds old fashioned to say “otel”, but “an hotel” still sounds better than “a hotel”.)

Oxford English (my copy was, admittedly, published in 1986) has a useful section on pronunciation, but the compiler writes: “It is impossible to formulate rules accounting for the position of the stress in every English word, whether by reference to the spelling or on the basis of grammatical function.” All one can do is listen and learn.

To do that, BBC’s Radio 4 or World Service are no longer infallible, but they are better than most.

Today’s picture

Taken on the beach at Elviria, Andalucia, Spain, December 2012



28 Nov

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “euphemism” as, “A figure [of speech] by which a less distasteful word or expression is substituted for one more exactly descriptive of what is intended”. What a surprise, they join the long list of things that raise my blood pressure.

The Economist Style Guide, with which I invariably agree, says that they should be avoided where possible. While it agrees that good writers should avoid giving offence, it also says, “a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to good manners”.

Euphemisms, which are invariably longer than the original meaning, take up valuable space; they are not only less precise, they are also less concise.

There are three  that I find particularly annoying, probably because they are used far too often:
“passed on” (or, even worse, “gone to a better place”) instead of “died” – unless you are truly religious you can’t believe anyone has passed on to anywhere;
“in harm’s way” instead of “in danger” – pointless;
“loved ones” instead of “family” or “people you love” – OK, that’s longer, but it’s less mawkish.

Please, people, let’s say what we mean!

Today’s picture

A shop front in Tunisia, taken about five years ago, but probably no longer selling Kodak film, which is now practically unobtainable.Image

Who writes this rubbish?

11 Nov

I’m not naïve enough to think that politicians write their own speeches, but it would be a good idea if George Osborne used his supposedly superior education to read, and edit, the words that are going to come out of his mouth.

Yesterday’s Guardian reported that on Friday Osborne announced that the European Space Agency’s headquarters for telecoms satellite monitoring will be based in Britain, as part of an extra £300m investment in space science research over the next five years. In his speech he said:

“We are now at a watershed where space is transitioning from a celebration of science endeavour into a capability that impacts on our everyday lives…Prosperity and the power it brings are shifting to new corners of the globe, to countries like China, India and Brazil. So as the prime minister has said, countries like ours are in a global race…”

OK, what is wrong with that, other than it’s gobbledygook and that a globe doesn’t have corners, let alone new corners? I think what he meant to say (though it’s hard to tell) is:

“We are now at a point where space exploration is moving from being a celebration of science to something that has an impact on our everyday lives…Since the power that prosperity brings is no longer exclusive to Western countries, the UK is now in competition with expanding economies, such as those of China, India and Brazil.”

Finally, I was pleased to see that the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, thanked the Chancellor for his speech, but urged him “not to forget to put your money where your mouth is”!

Today’s picture

It’s Remembrance Day today and this year also is the 60th anniversary of the Second World War’s North Africa campaign. I took this picture at a British war cemetery in Tunisia.




That, which and who

14 Sep

Many people think “that” and “which” are interchangeable (and we’ll get to “who” later), but they really are not.

As The Economist Style Guide explains, “that defines, which informs”. For example, in the sentence, “This is the house that I bought several years ago”, I am simply stating (defining) a fact, but if I were to say, “I bought this house, which was built in 1825, several years ago”, I am giving you additional information about my house. “Which” is introducing that additional information (a subsidiary clause) and subsidiary clauses usually have commas around them. If you’re unsure, check to see if the sentence you have written works with a comma before “which” (“This is the house, which I bought several years ago”, clearly does not.)

And now on to “who”. David Cameron was recently reported as saying, “It is this government who have cut the deficit”. Leaving aside whether one agrees with that statement or not, he should have said, “It is this government that has cut the deficit”: government is a singular entity, Mr Cameron, and it is a thing, not a person.

Today’s picture

I took this in Barcelona a few years ago, primarily for the lettering above the shop.Image

Common errors

3 Sep

There are certain grammatical errors that are made so often that they become common usage. This is partly because English is a “jackdaw” of a language, partly because it is not taught well. Here are four of the most common; others will – no doubt – follow.

Criterion/criteria, from the Greek kriterion, are often used the wrong way round: criterion is singular, criteria plural. While agenda and data, both from Latin, have become accepted as singulars (rather than agendum and datum), criteria has not.

Farther/further. Farther should be used for distance (think “thus far and no farther”), further for time. “It is farther from London to Glasgow than it is from London to Leeds”; “The discovery of a cure for this disease is further away than is sometimes predicted”.

Myriad, from the Greek murias, means innumerable. There are myriad reasons why one should never say, or write, “there are a myriad of reasons”.

None is singular (no one), so it should be “none of these solutions is correct”, not “none of these solutions are correct” (“none” is the subject of the sentence and the verb should agree with the subject). According to thefreedictionary.com, “…the plural usage appears in the King James Bible as well as the works of John Dryden and Edmund Burke and is widespread in the works of respectable writers today”, but in my opinion, it’s still wrong!

Today’s picture

The sky is blue today. Is this the beginning of an Indian summer?

“Indian summer”, incidentally, refers to the US, not the Indian sub-continent. Fine, sunny autumn weather was said to be more common in the areas formerly occupied by native (Indian) Americans than in those occupied by the white population. This picture, however, is from India: it is the Lake Palace Hotel at Udaipur.


Adjectives and adverbs

15 Jun

Adjectives qualify nouns and precede the noun they are qualifying – cold weather, bright sunshine, torrential rain (and you see how my examples are affected by the dreadful weather we’re having).

No-one would say “weather cold”, “sunshine bright”, but there’s an increasing tendency for people to write/say “minority ethnic” instead of “ethnic [adjective] minority [noun]”. Minority ethnic not only sounds weird, it’s wrong and I can only imagine that, as usual, it’s an attempt at being politically correct. It doesn’t work: the words are the same; they’re stating a fact; putting them in a different order does nothing but mangle the language.

Adverbs modify verbs. They follow verbs – to go quickly, to sleep soundly (although Americans tend to put them before the verb, which explains why they split infinitives so often), but they don’t always have to follow the verb immediately. “She went up the stairs quickly”, for example, sounds better than “She went quickly up the stairs”; and “Follow the verb immediately” is obviously better than “Follow immediately the verb”.

I was sad to see that the Queen’s English Society, which “has railed against the misuse and deterioration of the language” has given up the ghost (and my Dictionary of Idioms doesn’t tell me the origin of that). “Former Tory MP, Gyles Brandreth, the society’s patron”, The Guardian reported, “was nevertheless optimistic: ‘The Queen’s English isn’t under threat. Her Majesty can sleep easy.’ ” I realise “sleep easy” is a colloquialism, but as patron of the society, Brandreth should take care to modify a verb with an adverb, “easily”, not an adjective, “easy”.

Today’s picture

So far, June has been wet and cold. Here’s some sunshine: this is the sea seller’s shelter on the beach at Trinidad del Mar, Cuba.