Grammar groans

Liar, liar, pants on fire

‘i before e, except after c.’ You probably learnt this rule at primary school. But I’m sorry to tell you, it’s complete and utter rubbish. In fact, according to this tweet (thanks to my friend Sophie for sending this to me), there are 44 words in English that follow this rule, and 923 that don’t. Yep, 923. In percentage terms, that means it only applies 4.5501 per cent of the time (I think – if you’re the kind of person who insists on proper maths, have a look at this article by a statistician who actually did the sums. There’s graphs!).

You can find the ‘i before e, except after c’ mnemonic (I love the word ‘mnemonic’) in text books as far back as the 1860s, and similar ones even earlier. 

Truth or lie?

First up, let’s look at when it is true. The word that immediately springs to mind is ‘receive’. Second one: ‘ceiling’. Racking my brains a bit more (and definitely not cheating and looking on the web)... ‘deceit’. So far, so true. But what about ‘science’? And ‘species’? Or ‘sufficient’? 

So why has the English language been lying to us for so long? IS NOTHING SACRED?

‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in't’

Thankfully, it turns out there is some logic to the exceptions to the rule. When you look at a list of them closely you realise that (a) you need to get out more, and (b), what the rhyme doesn’t say is that it only applies to words with a ‘c’ and an ee sound. So that’s why it doesn’t work for ‘science’ or the other ones mentioned above. In fact, it doesn’t apply to any word without the ee sound, even when ‘c’ isn’t involved. Think ‘foreign’, ‘weight’, ‘vein’, and so on.

But, did you know, THERE’S A SECOND PART TO THE RHYME?! (If you did, you’re better informed than I am.) I feel like this needs a fanfare or at least a drum roll. Take a deep breath and brace yourself. Ready? Here it is...

‘i before e,
Except after c,
Or when sounded as “a”,
As in neighbour and weigh.’

Whoah, right? Okay, so it still doesn’t include the whole long ee thing, but apparently you can find this in some early British (of course) iterations. Sadly, I haven’t been able to locate the actual wording anywhere (if anyone reading this is a poet, feel free to come up with something).

The final verdict

So, where does this leave us? I can’t help thinking that whoever came up with our mnemonic (mmmm) was so wedded to making it rhyme, that they forgot to make it clear. But in the grand scheme of lies, it’s more along the lines of ‘Of course there’s a Father Christmas, darling,’ than ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Although it might not be technically true, it’s still a generally useful rule of thumb. Just don’t completely rely on it. And if you’re not sure, maybe chuck in a quick spell check as well.


It’s not unusual (to hate double negatives)

  • ‘I don’t know nothing.’
  • ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’
  • ‘I can’t see no one.’

Yep, this time around I’m looking at the double negative. Beloved of songwriters and people in EastEnders, it’s one of the few grammatical mistakes that annoys almost everyone. 

Double trouble

So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s look at the rules around double negatives. You’ll notice that the three examples at the start of this post all have one thing in common – they’re horrible. They also have two negative words in them. And if we correct them, they only have one. I’ve highlighted the negative words below:

  • Wrong: ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Right: ‘I don’t know anything.’
  • Wrong: ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’ Right: ‘You ain’t [are not] going anywhere.’
  • Wrong: ‘I can’t see no one.’ Right: ‘I can’t see any one.’

The simplest way to look at it is that, like in maths, two negatives make a positive (or cancel each other out). So you only need one to make a negative sentence. So far, so logical. But, as we so often find, the English language is a bit stupid sometimes. There are actually two types of double negatives – the ones I mention above which aren’t okay, and a second type, which are grammatically acceptable. (Honestly, I don’t know how anyone ever learns to speak this ridiculous language of ours.)

Double negatives that aren't not okay (i.e. okay)

Right, stay with me. It’s okay to use two negatives in the same sentence if you’re expressing a positive idea. Got it? No? Okay, here’s an example: ‘I can’t just do nothing.’ So you’ve got two negative words there – the ‘n’t’ of ‘can’t’ and ‘nothing’. But the sentence means I must do something, and actually expresses a stronger sentiment than just saying ‘I must do something’. This is called litotes – a figure of speech which uses negative words to make positive statements. It’s one of those annoying things that’s all about nuance (and is also terribly British) so is quite hard to explain. Here are some more examples of litotes in action:

  • he’s not hard to look at (i.e. he’s Brad Pitt’s better-looking brother)
  • it’s not too shabby (it’s blimmin’ awesome)
  • this wasn’t my best idea (this was the worst idea I’ve ever had, ever).

Finally, here’s one from a proper writer – master of subtlety Jane Austen in the excellently named Emma: ‘She owned that, considering every thing, she was not absolutely without inclination for the party.’ We’ve all been there.

So technically speaking, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd go straight to the bottom of the class for crimes against grammar (I Can’t Get No Satisfaction/We Don’t Need No Education), while Sir Tom of Jones gets a gold star for his use of litotes in It’s Not Unusual

Language never stays unchanged

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, language evolves. If I was writing this in the 17th century (on parchment, by candlelight) I’d be saying exactly the opposite – it wasn’t until then that people tried to impose more logical rules on English. Check out this impressive triple negative from a little-known writer called William Shakespeare: ‘I never was nor never will be.’

And let’s not forget – language isn’t maths. So why do we feel the need to impose logical rules on it? Maybe it’s just so we can break them?

Gender bending

I volunteer at my local theatre as a steward (because I’m a really good person, and definitely not because I get to see all the shows for free). Last night I saw a production put on by the local womens refuge made up of songs, poems and readings written by women from the shelter. I was so moved by this show of female solidarity that I decided I needed to express it in blog form. So as this blog is officially about words and grammar, this time around I’ve decided to talk about (TENUOUS LINK ALERT!*) gender neutrality in writing.

Say what?

All English third person singular pronouns (he, she, his, hers and so on) tell you the gender of the person or people you’re talking about. So for a long time the default setting has been to use ‘he’, basically alienating half the population. As in:

‘If a member of your family needs advice, he can call this number.’

I see sentences like this a lot in the legal texts I work on (especially in the ACTUAL LAW), and they make me grind my teeth/raise my eyebrows/sigh about the patriarchy every time. But the good news is that this lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English has now given rise to the singular ‘they’ (‘If a member of your family needs advice, they can call this number’). And the bad news is that technically it’s grammatically wrong – it’s disagreement peeps. 

Smashing the grammatical glass ceiling

Obviously, this is one of those few** grammar rules that’s downright ridiculous. And thankfully proper writers have been breaking it forever: 

  • ‘She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.’ (CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • ‘“A person can’t help their birth,” Rosalind replied with great liberality.’ (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair)
  • ‘I know when I like a person directly I see them!’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

Just in case you’re still not convinced by these literary luminaries, the American Dialect Society† chose the gender-neutral singular they as their word of the year in 2016. And who are we to argue with them?

So, dear readers, please go forth and use the singular they with gay abandon. Just make sure you’re following the other, more sensible, grammar rules while you’re doing it.

Hypocrite, moi?

* Yep, this is an extremely tenuous link. But the women’s refuge is amazing so I don’t care. And if you’ve got a spare fiver burning a hole in your pocket, why not bung it their way?

** Some people might disagree with my use of the word ‘few’ here. 

† Nope, I don’t know who they are either. But they sound very important.

PS This is what I’d look like if I was a man apparently. I think I’d rather earn the 18% less...


There’s loads of sunshine when she’s gone

I was singing along to Kelly Clarkson* in my car today, specifically Save You. Now I love a car-based singalong as much as the next guy, but there’s one line that it galls me to belt out every time – because of the terrible grammar. KC tells the person she wants to save that she’s ‘not going nowhere’. Which, as I’m sure you’re aware is a double negative and means she is, in fact, going somewhere, and not saving anyone. Okay, I’ll admit that ‘I’m not going anywhere’ probably wouldn’t have worked with the tune (although if you sing it really fast in the car you can MAKE IT FIT). All of which got me thinking – who else is playing fast and loose with grammar for the sake of a good tune?

Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine 

Yes, it’s an amazing song. But the double negative in the title means that technically he’s saying it is sunny when she’s gone. Which is sad. Probably also accurate, as there’s sun pretty much everywhere at least some of the time, but sad nonetheless.

Lady Gaga – Bad Romance and You and I

Gaga’s a repeat offender. In Bad Romance she sings ‘You and me could write a bad romance’, which should obviously be ‘You and I could write a bad romance’. Then, presumably just to add grammar insult to grammar injury, she wrote a song called ‘You and I’ which should be called ‘You and me’. SIGH.

She’s not alone either – Bryan Adams has also fallen victim to the I/me confusion. In Run to You (choon!) he sings ‘But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I’ when it should be ‘you and me’. As mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s a simple rule – just take out the ‘you and’. Does it still make sense? No Bryan, it doesn’t. 

Justin Timberlake – What Goes Around

‘When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl.’ What?

Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind

‘Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.’ I say again; what? 

Timbaland – The Way I Are

It’s right there in the title. And all the way through the blimmin’ song, including the unforgivable line: ‘Can you handle me the way I are?’ No, I genuinely can’t.

Eminem and Rihanna – Love The Way You Lie

I already wrote a blog post about these lyrics in my previous incarnation working for a writing agency. But the ridiculousness of them means they deserve repeating. Brace yourselves...

‘Now you get to watch her leave,
Out the window, guess that’s why they call it window pane.’

Okay, not technically a grammar issue, but definitely rubbish.

*I realise it’s probably not very cool to admit my love of Kelly Clarkson but I’m old now and I don’t really care what people think of my music taste. In fact, I’ll quite happily admit that I own every album she’s ever made. Although I also own every album Marilyn Manson’s ever made, so they may well cancel each other out. 

Don’t get your homophones in a twist

Inspired by this card, which I’ve both bought and had bought for me, in this blog post I thought I’d look at homophones. Nothing to do with prehistoric man, these are words that sound the same but mean different things*. Like bare and bear, cereal and serial, etc.

I’ll endeavour not to insult anyone’s intelligence with the basics like your/you’re here. But I will mention a few I’ve come across in my proofreading career that seem to trip up even the most diligent of writers.

Practice and practise

‘Practise’ with an ‘s’ is a verb, and with a ‘c’ is a noun. So a doctor practises medicine, but they do it at their practice. The same goes for ‘license’ and ‘licence’ (two for the price of one – don’t say I never give you anything). So James Bond has a licence to kill, but he’s licensed to do it. It might help to think of it like ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ which are the same (three for one! I‘m really spoiling you now), unless you get confused by them too, in which case don’t think of it like that and ask Google.

Oh, and if you’re in America you can ignore everything I just said about practice and licence – our transatlantic cousins only use the ‘s’ for these, regardless of whether they’re verbing or nouning. Those crazy cats.

Complimentary and complementary

Compliment with an ‘i’ has two meanings:

  • someone’s saying nice things about you (lucky you), or
  • something’s free (also lucky you).

The other type, complement, is when you’re saying that something goes well with something else. Like this sauce complements this food (as you’d never say). Think of it like one thing ‘completing’ something else if that helps. (Or ask Google again.)

(You also use the second spelling if you’re talking about the number of people in a group e.g. a ship's complement. Although I can’t see that coming up very often unless you’re Captain Phillips.)

Stationary and stationery

SIGH. This one drives me a bit nuts. Like this annoyingly inconsistent tweet (names have been redacted to protect the guilty):

In fact, I used to work for a writer’s agency and even they couldn’t get it right (they had a cupboard marked ‘stationary’ which, quite frankly, pretty much all cupboards are – with the arguable exception of the wardrobe that sometimes leads to Narnia). Thankfully this one’s super simple to remember – ‘e’ is for envelope. Easy.

Dual and duel

I once sat through a presentation by an energy company where they’d used ‘duel’ instead of ‘dual’ in ‘dual fuel’. Every. Single. Time. Now even though pistols at dawn would make paying energy bills much more exciting, it’s wrong. Dual with an ‘a’ is an adjective that means something’s made up of two parts, while duel with an ‘e’ is a verb or noun for the fighty thing. And also Stephen Spielberg’s first full-length film, fact-fans. 

I'm afraid I don't have an easy-to-remember solution for this one, so it’s back to Google if you’re not sure I’m afraid.

Personally, I sometimes struggle with reign and rein. I know that Queen Elizabeth reigns but sometimes I get confused about which ones a horse wears. But maybe that’s just me.

* The word ‘homophone’ is usually used to describe words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they’re spelled. But technically speaking if they’re spelled the same then they’re also homographs (and homonyms). And if they’re spelled differently then they’re heterographs. BUT THIS WAY MADNESS LIES.

Splice up your life (actually, don’t)

The photo above is of the side of my dad’s cereal box (and a bit of the side of my dad). It’s made by a company called Rude Health. All in all they have a pretty nice way of writing (although they’re a bit inconsistent) – they say things like this on their packaging: ‘You’re in rude health when you have muscles in places where most people don’t even have places.’ Nice, right? But the text in the picture above is let down, at least in my super-fussy opinion*, by the presence of a comma splice in the fourth sentence:

‘The proof is in the taste, try it for yourself.’

Splice the mainbrace**

A comma splice is when you use a comma to join two independent clauses. Which you shouldn’t. Why not? Because a comma’s too much of a wimp for the job. Here’s another example of a splice in action:

‘Dean loves chips, he eats them once a week.’

Both parts of that sentence are main clauses in their own right. So that means you need something more hardworking than a comma to join them. In fact, you have a few grammatical choices, you lucky thing. You could:

  • split it into two sentences
  • use a dash
  • swap the comma for a semicolon (ooh, fancy)
  • put in a conjunction (a word we use to connect clauses or sentences like and, but or if).

All of which would change our example to:

  • ‘Dean loves chips. He eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips – he eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips; he eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips and he eats them once a week.’

Just not a comma. Never a comma. It’s a pretty easy one to remember – if the two parts of your sentence can stand on their own (or are two separate thoughts, if that’s easier to spot), then you’ll need to bring out the punctuation big guns. Because in cases like these the comma just isn’t up to the job.

* They also have three dashes in three consecutive sentences which is annoying. But as someone who uses way too many dashes I’m letting that one slide – although a good proofreader should have picked up on it. I would have got rid of at least one of them.

** I thought I should Google this to check exactly what it means in the world of nautical expressions. Something to do with sails and ropes, I thought. Well, I was half right. Back in days of yore it was an order used on naval vessels to carry out a really difficult repair. But these days it’s an order to get the crew an alcoholic drink. That’s because once a crewman had survived doing the difficult repair, they were rewarded with celebratory booze. And when sails were later replaced by steam, they cut out the middleman and just used the order when the crew deserved an extra tot of rum.

Wow, this blog is super informative.

Me, myself and I

Lots of people (even, although I’m sure you won’t believe it, yours truly) sometimes struggle with when to say ‘I’ and when to say ‘me’ when there’s more than one pronoun in a sentence. As in ‘Dean and me went for a beer’ or ‘Dean and I went for a beer’*. But more and more I hear people abandoning ‘I’ and ‘me’ in favour of ‘myself’ (same goes for ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’). So we get sentences like ‘Send the payment to Sam or myself’ or ‘We’ll give the new details to yourself’. Shudder.

Ive been to paradise but Ive never been to me

For reasons I can’t really fathom, people seem to be afraid of the word ‘me’, even when it’s grammatically correct. Maybe it’s a misguided attempt to sound posh or more professional – the logic that longer words make you sound clever (they don’t).

Thankfully, unlike a lot of other grammar-type stuff, this one’s really straightforward. You should only use ‘myself’ in a sentence that already has another first-person pronoun in it (like ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘my’). So you can say ‘I gave myself a good talking to’ because you already have the personal pronoun ‘I’. But if there’s no ‘I’, then you shouldn’t need to use ‘myself’. For example I just heard someone on the radio say ‘there are other people in the same situation as myself’. Wrong.

So there you go. Remember, it’s all about ‘me’.

* The answer is the second one BTW – ‘Dean and I went for a beer’. That's because the pronoun ‘I’ and the proper noun ‘Dean’ are the subject of the sentence, which means you need to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’. Still with me? No? Okay, an easy way to check if you’ve got it right is to take out the other pronoun and see if the sentence still makes sense. So in this case that would be ‘I went for a beer’ – you wouldn't say ‘Me went for a beer’ (unless you’ve already had a lot of beers). Easy.

Slaughterhouse semicolon

On Only Connect (hardest quiz on TV) last week, Victoria Coren-Mitchell quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s views on semicolons. In his book A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut writes:

‘…do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

Now, I’m not one to contradict a literary luminary like Vonnegut, but I think I have to take issue with this. And this is why.

Here comes the science

Semicolons have two uses: for complicated lists, and to link two separate sentences that are closely related. It’s the second one I’ll be concentrating on today. Here’s an example:

‘Dean was fed up with working; he’d rather be in the pub.’


A comma would be wrong here and would cause a comma splice (don’t get me started on comma splices; I hate them). That’s because grammar rules say you can’t link two independent clauses – i.e. two clauses that are sentences on their own but are closely linked – with a comma. It has to be a semicolon, or a dash. On the other hand, comma splices are fine in some languages, and in fact some well-known quotes in English are comma splices. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ is one.

In real terms, a semicolon offers more of a pause than a comma, but not as much as a full stop. Read the sentence above out loud and you’ll hear it.

You could, of course, use a dash here (‘Dean was fed up with working – he’d rather be in the pub’). Speaking of which…

Dashed good grammar

Another issue with semicolons is that they can be hard to see online. If you’re reading text on a phone screen for example, a semicolon and a comma can look pretty similar (unless you’re a massive pedant like me). So the en dash (not the hyphen – I’ll have a rant about this in a later post) is rapidly stealing the semicolon’s job. Grammar books generally say you should use an en dash to mark off information that isn’t essential to the rest of the sentence, so they’re not technically interchangeable. And the OED says that you should avoid dashes in formal writing, although I definitely disagree with that.

My verdict…

All of this brings me to the conclusion that there definitely needs to be something in between a comma and a full stop. But whether that’s a dash or a semicolon is up to you.

Contraction distractions

I’m reading The Essex Serpent at the moment by Sarah Perry (well worth your time and will look lovely on your bookshelf), a historical gothicky novel set in and around my old neck of the woods of Colchester. It’s a great read, but I’ve found myself distracted a couple of times by her use of contractions. Now anyone who knows me and my writing will know that I’m a great advocate of contractions (‘we’re’, ‘it’s’, etc, etc.) – they’re a really quick and easy way to immediately make writing sound less robotic and more like a human being’s come up with the words. I tell all my clients to use them whenever they can. But Ms Perry has gone one step further and used some slightly unusual ones, which I’m not entirely sure I’m on board with – especially considering that I sometimes avoid ‘it’ll’ as it feels like a step too far. Some examples:

  • “Cora Seaborne sends a wreath judged rightly to’ve cost the earth.”
  • “…she looked relieved; she told me she’d’ve had the operation if I thought it best.”
  • “He could’ve dropped dead right there at his desk and we’d’ve all laughed.”

Double trouble

The examples in bold, I’m reliably informed by the internet, are unimaginatively called “double contractions” because they contain (you’ve guessed it), two apostrophes as well as two contractional clitics (i.e. the ’d and ’ve).

So what do you think? If you read them out loud they sound fine. And Wikipedia has a great long list of acceptable double contractions, some of which actually hurt my eyes. Like she’ll’ve. Too much, or something we should all be trying to embrace?