Always the bridesmaid

If you’ve ever used the word ‘disconsolate’, you might have wondered whether you can also be ‘consolate’. Or maybe you haven’t, because you have a life. Lucky for you, I don’t. So, in this post I’m looking at unpaired (awwww) words.

Single and ready to mingle

In grammar, an unpaired word is one that looks like it should have an opposite, but doesn’t. This is usually because it has a prefix like ‘dis’ or ‘un’. Sometimes these types of words come about because the opposite word (called an antonym, fact fans) has fallen out of fashion. Or it might be that it never existed in the first place, for example if we nicked the unpaired word from another language (although that would make for a very short blog post, so I won’t be including those here).

So, without further ado, let’s have a look at five now single words, and their lesser-known other halves.

Incorrigible and corrigible

‘Incorrigible’ refers to a person who can’t change or be reformed. So ‘corrigible’ means exactly what you’d expect – something which can be fixed. It’s usually used for things rather than people, unlike its partner. Iago uses ‘corrigible’ in ‘Othello’: ‘…why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.’ ‘Corrigible’ actually came about after ‘incorrigible’, appearing around about the 15th century, a good 100 years after its opposite number. No one seems to know why it never caught on.

Unkempt and kempt

I’m pretty unkempt at the moment (I’m writing this on a Sunday, okay?). It means to be untidy or dishevelled. ‘Unkempt’ has been around since the 14th century, and ‘kempt’ seems to be a backformation of it, which is just a fancy way of saying that someone knocked off the prefix – in this case ‘un’ – to make the opposite. Having said that, another source I found says it did exist but fell out of use some time in the 1500s, only to make a comeback 400 years afterwards. I don’t know who’s right I’m afraid. What they do all agree on is that both words are derived from the Old High German word ‘chempen’ which means ‘to comb’.

Disgruntled and gruntled

I know this seems like a comedy backformation, but it actually isn’t. ‘Gruntle’ did exist as a word, and it’s actually not the opposite of ‘disgruntle’ – it means to grumble or complain, and also to ‘utter small grunts’ (this makes me happy). This is a rare example of the prefix ‘dis-’ as an intensifier, rather than its more usual use which is to undo the meaning of the word it’s attached to. Ooh, interesting, right? Right?  

Unruly and ruly

‘Ruly’ means law-abiding. It comes from the word ‘rule’ which I enjoy – someone who follows the rules is being ruly. Someone who doesn’t is unruly. These days ‘unruly’ has softened a bit, and is more often applied to children. And hair.

Impervious and pervious

‘Pervious’ seems to have been overtaken by the more recognisable ‘permeable’ these days. It comes from the Latin word ‘pervius’ which doesn’t have anything to do with men in dirty macs – it means ‘having a passage through’. While we can use ‘impervious’ both literally (as in something being impervious to water) and figuratively (someone can be impervious to criticism), pervious, however, only seems to relate to physical things (like rocks), that water can run through.

There you have it – five words and their almost forgotten partners. Other words which didn’t make the cut include intrepid and trepid (meaning fearful), feckless and feckful (a Scottish word that means efficient), and innocuous and nocuous (which has now been almost completely replaced by ‘noxious’). So next time you use one of these, spare a thought for their neglected other halves, languishing quietly on the linguistic shelf.

Oh, and ‘consolate’ is a word btdubz (not to be confused with the place where diplomats go – that’s a consulate). It means ‘to console’ or ‘give comfort’. So that’s nice.

A collection of collectives

Collective nouns aren’t just for animals – there are also collective nouns for people and things. Excited yet? No? Okay, how about this – did you know that ‘a flight of stairs’ is a collective noun? And a ‘baptism of fire’? (Mind. BLOWN.) So, with the help of the lovely little book ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ by Chloe Rhodes, here’s a list of some of my favourite collective nouns. Because I know how to paaaartaaaay.

A note on the origins of collective nouns

Most of the nouns on this list have been around for yonks. They first appeared in 15th-century manuscripts called ‘Books of Courtesy’. Basically the ‘What not to wear’ of the 1400s, these were manuals on how to be a noble, designed to stop young aristocrats embarrassing themselves by saying or doing the wrong thing at court. One of the earliest of these is the Egerton Manuscript which dates from around 1450, and lists 106 collective nouns. I’m not entirely sure what collective nouns had to do with being a noble, but maybe if you used the wrong one you’d be executed? If so, that’s my kind of grammar police. Anyway, here we go…

A murder of crows

I love how menacing this sounds. And it has pretty menacing origins as well. According to Rhodes, medieval peasants saw crows (along with ravens and rooks) as messengers of the devil with prophetic powers. Seeing a crow on the roof of your house meant that you’d probably die soon (ouch) as well. So far, so sinister. But then it gets really weird. One of the other reasons they might have chosen the word ‘murder’ is after witnessing a crow parliament. This is essentially a crow court, where loads of crows gather together to apparently try one of their own. It quite often ends with the offender being ripped to pieces by its peers. I’m not even joking. Long thought to just be folklore, it’s been witnessed in modern times, as in this article. ‘Murder’ seems like the right choice after reading this.

Crows are also super clever, which possibly makes them even more murdery. They’re one of the few members of the animal kingdom that can recognise human faces, and there’s evidence that they might have their own language. I’m literally terrified of crows now.

A parliament of owls


This is a relatively new one, as it doesn’t turn up in any of the medieval manuscripts that coined most of the collective nouns on this list. In fact, it’s technically wrong – ‘parliament’ was traditionally ascribed to rooks, not owls. We can blame CS Lewis for this – he called a chapter in ‘The Silver Chair’ (my favourite of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, followed closely by ‘The Magician’s Nephew’) ‘A Parliament of Owls’, as it involves a group of owls getting together to discuss Narnian affairs. He nicked it from a poem by Chaucer, which is called ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (or ‘The Parlement of Foules’ to give it its proper name – I did try to read it, but then I remembered that I hate Chaucer), where all the birds in the world get together to find mates (hmmm, I could do with organising one of those). ‘Parliament’ has now completely superseded the original (although for the life of me I can’t find out what that was, which shows how ingrained ‘parliament’ is now).

A misbelief of painters

The first human collective noun on my list, a ‘misbelief’ is exactly what it says on the tin – ‘a wrong or false belief or opinion’. It seems that this one came about because painters of the Middle Ages generally tweaked their paintings to flatter the sitter – so they’d flatten a stomach, take out the wrinkles and so on. Apparently as long as they got the heraldry and clothes right, everything else was up for grabs. So it was basically the medieval equivalent of airbrushing.

A superfluity of nuns

This one seems a bit mean, but is probably just factually accurate – when it was coined, there were apparently a shedload of nuns about. Between 1270 and 1536, there were around 140 nunneries in England, several of which were really overcrowded. That’s because going off to the convent was seen as the natural step for nobles’ daughters who’d passed marriageable age, and dads pressured prioresses to take in their girls even if there wasn’t any room at the convent (I’d so be in a convent if I’d been alive then). It might also have been a reference to the fact that the seeds of the Protestant Reformation had been planted – when this first appeared in print it was only 50 years before Henry VIII would do his dissolution thang.

An abominable sight of monks

Unlike the nun-noun, this one is mean. Basically everyone hated monks in the 15th century. They were seen as having ruined all the pagan fun the peasants were having before Christianity took over, and latterly as being too well-off and well-fed (think that guy that Kevin Costner boots out the window in ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’, although I don’t think he was a monk, but you get the idea) while everyone else wasn’t well-anything. ‘Abominable’ actually means ‘causing moral revulsion’ which makes sense in this context – I confess I didn’t know this and just thought it was something horrible. Or a big old snowman.

A shrewdness of apes

So this one sounds quite nice, right? Wrong. When it was coined, ‘shrewdness’ actually meant wickedness, and was given to apes due to a ‘playful mischievousness’ which 15th century scientists saw in them. As Rhodes points out though, it’s rather nice that now we know how clever they are (apes, not 15th-century scientists), this one still makes perfect sense today, even though ‘shrewd’ now means something else entirely.

An unkindness of ravens

Similarly to crows and their murdering, this one’s down to people being a bit scared of ravens. As carrion birds, their habits aren’t the nicest, and they were also seen as harbingers of death and destruction in medieval Britain. The name might have come from the fact that ancient writers thought they kicked their young out of the nest leaving them to fend for themselves, and also that they left their older birds to die of starvation rather than help them out (which was probably payback for the whole nest-kicking thing). I can’t find any modern evidence for this, so fingers crossed those medieval Bill Oddies were wrong. I did find that an alternative collective noun for ravens is ‘a conspiracy’ though, which is a bit nicer, though still fairly sinister.

So, there you have it. If you’re intrigued by the world of collective nouns and venery (that’s the collective noun for collective nouns relating to animals – kinda) then I thoroughly recommend Rhodes’ book. And even if you’re not, it looks very nice on the coffee table.


(I definitely didn’t have to clear mountains of crap off the coffee table before I took this photo.)

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 ain’t necessarily so

I’m a big EastEnders fan (I even have a weird crush on Danny Dyer). One of the soap’s most famous lines after ‘Hello Princess’ came about when Zoe Slater bellowed at her ‘sister’ Kat, ‘You ain’t my muvver!’ (spoiler: she is). After reeling for a moment at this revelation my mind then obviously turned to grammar* – why is ‘ain’t’ considered persona non grata in the world of contractions? We’ve embraced ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘aren’t’ and the like. So what’s made ‘ain’t’ so universally reviled?

Contractions – not just for babies

When we’re speaking, we naturally run words together. So we’ve been using contractions for pretty much as long as we’ve been using English. I encourage my clients to use them all the time, even in formal writing – without them, words can sound stilted and robotic. And even though I get the occasional die-hard who just won’t accept that, most people are happy to embrace the likes of ‘we’re’, ‘shan’t’ and ‘don’t’ (one notable exception was a client from a large accountancy firm who, when I suggested we say ‘we can’t do that’ instead of ‘we cannot do that’, told me he didn’t want any of ‘that hip-hop rap-speak, thank you very much’).

Having said all that, I’d never use ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘am not’ or ‘has/have not’ in business writing. But why the hell not?

Fear of the unknown

One not-particularly-feasible theory for our suspicion is that it’s not immediately obvious which words ‘ain’t’ is formed from. We can easily see where (for example) ‘don’t’ and ‘we’ll’ come from. And if we’re using ‘ain’t’ in place of ‘am not’, we should probably follow the style of its more acceptable cousins – which would make it ‘amn’t’ (which is quite hard to say) or ‘an’t’ (which isn’t). So where did the ‘i’ come from? Maybe it snuck in from ‘isn’t’ via ‘in’t’ – another reviled contraction. (I can’t even hazard a guess about how ‘has/have not’ –  as in ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – turned into ‘ain’t’, so I’m just not going to go there.)

Unfortunately this whole theory falls flat when you look at ‘won’t’, which is short for ‘will not’. According to the five seconds of internet research I just did, this comes from ‘woll not’ which is ye olde English (y’know, from yore). And we’re all alright with ‘won’t’, right?

What the dickens?

So, the next place we need to look is Dickens (it’s almost always either Dickens, Shakespeare or Carroll when it comes to word origins). Some of the earliest appearances of ‘ain’t’ in writing appear in his novels. And it’s generally a Cockenee, and – quite often – criminal type, what says it:

  • ‘Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got!’: Magwitch in Great Expectations
  • ‘She ain’t one to blab. Are you Nancy?’: Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist (I’m still traumatised by that bit in the musical when Oliver Reed bludgeons Nancy to death. IT’S A KIDS’ FILM FOR CHRISSAKES).

It seems that this is an association that stuck – authors generally use ‘ain’t’ to indicate a character comes from a, ahem, less salubrious background. So it looks like our fear of ‘ain’t’ is simply down to a lingering Victorian snobbery which we’re yet to get over. So despite the fact that ‘ain’t’ does appear in the OED, it doesn’t look like it’ll be making the leap from EastEnders scripts into polite conversation/writing any time soon…

* And then 17 years later I wrote a blog post about it.

Punctuation drunk – part 2

After leaving you on a grammatical cliffhanger last time (kinda), at long last, here’s the second part of my foray into the world of obscure punctuation marks. Man, my life is exciting. Hold onto your hats people...

Percontation point: ⸮

Despite sounding like a place where teenagers went to snog in the 50s, the percontation point is actually a back-to-front question mark. And it might be my new favourite thing. You use it to show you’re being ironic or sarcastic. Nowadays the nearest equivalent is probably an exclamation mark in brackets, as in: ‘Yeah, blogs about punctuation marks are really interesting (!).’

Who came up with that? Henry Denham (a 16th-century printer and my new celebrity crush) first suggested the backwards question mark as a way to end a rhetorical question. Sadly this didn’t make it past the 17th century, but it was resurrected by a French poet in the 1890s who used it to show irony or sarcasm. In fact, loads of people have tried to come up with a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm (including the excellently named sarcmark) but nothing’s really stuck yet.

Exclamation comma: not available on keyboards so see picture below

Exclamation comma.jpg

I’m not a fan of the exclamation mark generally – they can make you sound a bit mental and shouty! And with the exclamation comma, you’re no longer limited to only sounding mental and/or shouty at the end of a sentence. It’s a bit hard to give you an example as it’s untypeable, so using an exclamation mark as a stand in, it would look something like this:

‘We’re so excited about this punctuation mark! we can’t end this sentence.’

The exclamation comma’s actually pretty young compared to most of its other obscure cousins, and was created in 1992 by three American inventors (called Leonard Storch, Haagen Ernst Van and Sigmund Silber), who even took out a patent on it. Fortunately for us that’s now expired, so feel free to be surprised in the middle of sentences with gay abandon (but only in handwritten documents).

But what if I want to ask a question in the middle of a sentence? Fret not – our three intrepid inventors also created an unholy union between the question mark and the comma. They called it – wait for it – the ‘question comma’ (it’s no ‘exclamoquest’ is it?). And it’s also not available on keyboards, sorry.

Dagger: †

Possibly not that obscure – you’ve probably seen this one in action as it’s generally used for a footnote if the writer’s run out of asterisks. It’s another oldie and is believed to have been invented by a Homeric scholar called Zenodotus (which is what I’ll be naming my next dog). You can also use it next to someone’s name to show they’re dead, in which case it’s called the ‘death dagger’. Ooh. (There are actually loads more uses for the dagger, and thankfully someone much cleverer than me has collated them on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Or even still reading.)

Why’s it called a dagger (See what I did there?) The dagger has a second and, in my opinion at least, much more exciting name – the obelisk. This comes from the Greek word obeliskos, which doesn’t mean pointy statue, but ‘roasting spit’. Much better, right?

There’s also a double dagger, or ‘diesis’ (‡), and apparently even a triple one for people who don’t know that you can also use numbers for footnotes. 

Guillemets: « »

Not to be confused with the birds, or the indie rock band, guillemets are possibly a bit of a cheat, because they’re foreign. They’re basically a more exotic version of our quotation marks and are used in loads of languages including French, Greek, Italian and Spanish. I only really included them here because I like the word (and I wanted to make that indie rock band joke in the first sentence). 

Sheffer stroke: |

Not the prettiest of punctuation marks, the sheffer stroke is actually on your keyboard. I’ll wait here while you go find it. 

Got it? It’s the one next to the z (and the cleanest key on my keyboard, as I don’t think I’d pressed it before today). It’s named after one Henry M Sheffer, author of the 1913 paper ‘Transactions of the American Mathematical Society’ where he provided an axiomatisation of Boolean algebras using the stroke, and proved its equivalence to a standard formulation thereof by Huntington employing the familiar operators of propositional logic (which are, of course, and, or and not). I absolutely, positively didn’t copy and paste this from Wikipedia.

It’s also, rather boringly, called a vertical bar, and is a variant of the slash, presumably for people who are just too lazy to make it slope. 

The end?

That’s it for the moment for obscure punctuation. If you’re feeling a bit bereft (I know I am), then why not join me on my quest to come up with a new punctuation mark named after me? The Emmamark perhaps? Or the Wilkin Woggle (I don’t know what this is for, but I’m liking the name already)? Or, you know, go outside and talk to people or something.

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. 

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?