Let’s talk about techs baby

This week I was working on some copy that told the reader to ‘dial’ a number. Which got me thinking – even though I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually used a phone with a dial (probably about 1985, when we also had a three-digit phone number – tru dat kids) – everyone knows what you mean when you talk about dialling a number. So what other tech terms live on, even though the technology that coined them is long dead?

CC

CC stands for carbon copy, which harks back to when people used to make copies of things (like receipts) by putting a piece of carbon paper under the sheet before writing on it. Then the ink transferred onto the other piece of paper (or something – it’s kinda hard to explain). We also used it for card payments in the dark days before electronic readers (and identity theft. Coincidence? Yes, probably).

We now of course use CC when we’re emailing people and BCC when we’re being sneaky. And we still use ‘carbon copy’ when we’re talking about someone or something being a dead ringer for another person or thing, which I used to think was something to do with Han Solo, but almost definitely isn’t. And I wonder how many people under the ago of 20 (or 30 even?) know where it comes from?

Rewind

Alongside ‘tape’ for ‘record’, this is left over from the days of VHS. These days there’s no actual tape being wound backwards – only different bits of a drive being accessed.

(Remember when you could only record one thing at a time, you needed a science degree to set the video and most of the time it didn’t record what you wanted anyway? Ah, memories.)

Tune in

Still applicable to some radios, this one’s from when you used to have to turn a dial to get a station. It also applied to TVs to pick up a channel. Luckily there were only three, so it didn’t take too long.  

Hang up

Another phone-related one here. Back in the days of yore we used to have to actually put the phone back on a cradle to finish a call. Whereas nowadays we never actually hang up anything – just press a button or swipe the screen (which makes angrily ending a phone call much less satisfying).

Wind down the window

Or up, for that matter. You’d be hard pushed to find many non-classic cars on the road these days where you actually have to rotate a handle and wind down the window. They’re all buttons these days. And thank god, because otherwise this awesome movie moment would never have happened...

All this makes me wonder what terms we’ll be using in, say, 20 years? With the speed technology’s moving words are becoming obsolete almost as soon as we learn them. Take ‘click’ for example – something I use a lot when I’m writing copy for emails or web pages. It’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as more and more people are using touchscreens which don’t involve any kind of clicking.

Or maybe we’ll still be talking about ccing people in 100 years’ time when we’re communicating entirely telepathically from inside our flying cars.

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?

Why so Sirius?

Monday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Apart from making me feel well old (I know, I know, you’d think I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye 20 years ago (!), but in fact I’d just started university when it came out), it reminded me of how much I admire JK Rowling – she’s created a world that people of all ages, myself included, have come to love. (When the last book came out I once hid in the loo at work in the middle of the day so I could finish a chapter.) So this week, I thought I’d take a look at the etymology of the names of some of my favourite characters in the series. Rowling studied French and classics at university so the origins of her character’s names are often very pertinent – she put a huge amount of thought into even minor characters’ names. 

FYI: I find it hard to believe there are many people who haven’t read an HP book or seen a film, but just in case you are that one person, be warned that this way spoilers lie...

‘You’re a wizard Harry’

  • Sirius Black: Oh Sirius. I was convinced right up until the last page of the last book that you’d somehow come back from the dead. Sigh. Anyway, Sirius is the name of the brightest star we can see from the earth. Because he’s lovely, you see. And of course it’s also called the Dog Star, which refers to Sirius’ status as an animagus.
  • Remus Lupin: My second favourite after Sirius (which apparently is the kiss of death for HP characters), this one’s a bit of a double whammy. ‘Remus’ must be a reference to ‘Romulus and Remus’ who, as I’m sure all my highly educated readers already know, were the legendary twin brothers who were abandoned then brought up by a wolf (obvs), and then went on to found the city of Rome. So that’s our first clue to Remus’ wolfy secret. Secondly, presumably Lupin is a reference to ‘lupine’ (rather than the flower), which of course means ‘of, like, or relating to a wolf’. Boom.
  • Albus Dumbledore: ‘Albus’ is Latin for ‘light’, which makes sense as he’s number 1 good guy. And ‘Dumbledore’ is apparently an English dialect word for bumblebee. Nope, me neither. Maybe JK just liked the sound of it? (Some further googling reveals that apparently she imagined him bumbling round his office like a bee. Why not, I guess?)
  • Severus Snape: Fantastically portrayed on film by the much-missed Alan Rickman, Severus was a complicated character who ultimately turned out to be working for the good guys (he just had a really long endgame). So, ‘Severus’ means ‘stern’ in Latin (which is where we get ‘severe’ from), which makes sense as he was a fairly scary teach. And according to the lady herself, JK Rowling took the name ‘Snape’ from a village in Suffolk (where I’m writing this right now – Suffolk, not Snape), but it also means ‘to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to’ which is a nice coincidence (although probably entirely intentional).
Me and Sirius.jpg

‘I solemnly swear I’m up to no good’

  • Voldemort: The big bad himself, ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight [or ‘theft’ depending on which bits of the internet you read] of death’ which makes sense considering the whole horcrux-hiding-bits-of-your-soul thang. 
  • The Malfoys: This one’s not too hard to decipher – ‘mal’ comes from old French for ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In the same language ‘foi’ means ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ which could well have something to do with the Malfoys putting their trust in the wrong dude. Draco is presumably a reference to ‘draconian’ or possibly dragon or snake (i.e. devious). (And hello to Jason Isaacs!)
  • Fenrir Greyback: One of the more minor characters, I put Fenrir in because I like the way it sounds. Fenrir was a big ole nasty wolf in Norse mythology, and a big ole nasty wolfman in Harry Potter land. It’s him who infected Lupin’s family with lycanthropy originally, and he also takes a chunk out of Bill Weasley. Bastard.
  • Argus Filch: Argus Panoptes is a Greek giant with a shedload of eyes. A perfect moniker for someone who’s always watching round corners. And obviously ‘filch’ is an informal term for stealing, which again fits for a man who likes to confiscate shiz. 

So, there you have it. There are loads more links in HP to Latin, French and Greek, as well as astrology, biology – the list goes on. Feel free to leave a comment about your favourite.

Bonus material

Check out this Harry Potter-based sock puppet video – guaranteed to be stuck in your head for DAYS. 

What’s in a name?

Nominative determinism. Go on, say it. Nominative determinism. Sounds nice right? And clever. 

Say what?

Now I know that my many (she says hopefully) readers are super intelligent, but just in case any of you haven’t come across this lovely term before, it’s basically the idea that people quite often end up doing jobs that match their names. Also called aptronyms, think William Wordsworth (poet, obvs), Usain Bolt (I confess I hadn’t actually made the connection until I started writing this), or Mr Greenacre, who was the man that looked after the hockey pitches at my school. Possibly less famous than the first two, but you get the point.

lt-les-mcburney-best-firefighter-name-ever1.jpg

The term nominative determinism was coined in an article in the New Scientist. They gave examples including:

  • a man who wrote a book about polar exploration with the surname Snowman
  • an article on treating disorders of the urinary system by two researchers called Splatt and Weedon (BEST. THING. EVER).

The theory goes that this isn’t just coincidence – it’s possibly down to genetics, or a thing called implicit egotism. As this is a blog about words, I’m not going to delve into the science, just the funny names. So here’s a list of my favourite examples of this theory in action.

Sara Blizzard

She’s a blimmin weather forecaster for the BBC. And across the pond there’s an Amy Freeze and a Larry Sprinkle.

Igor Judge

Judge Judge innit.

Christopher Coke

He’s a big ole drug dealer

Lord Brain

Guess what he wrote books about? Neurology.

Sir Manley Power

He was a total military ledge

Dr Alter

He’s a plastic surgeon. Well of course he is.

Frances Crook

She runs an organisation that works to reform prisons. In a double whammy, ‘Frances’ means ‘free the criminals’ apparently.

Vania Stambolova

I’m not sure if this one really counts because she’s from Bulgaria and it only works in English, but I don’t care because it’s awesome. I bet you can’t guess it. She’s a... wait for it... 400m hurdler. Amazing.

Marion Moon

She was Buzz Aldrin’s mum. I can’t believe I only just found this out.  

Ann Webb

She founded the British Tarantula Society. REALLY.

Robin Mahfood

He’s the president of a charity called Food for the Poor. Even though his name says otherwise.

Dr Richard Chopp

HE DOES VASECTOMIES. Honest.

So, dear reader, if you can beat Dick Chopp, please let me know in the comments. I’ll buy you dinner (chops, of course).

A myriad of wrongness

I got pulled up by a client today for writing that something came ‘in a myriad of colours’. She told me that ‘myriad’ doesn’t need an ‘a’ before it or an ‘of’ after it. Because I’m super-competitive and really don’t like being told I’m wrong, especially when it comes to anything word-related, I immediately consulted Google to check this. And turns out, I’m wrong (and I’ve been using it wrongly for as long as I’ve known what it means).

According to some very in-depth research (I looked at at least one website), myriad comes from the Greek for ‘murioi’ which means 10,000. Modern usage isn’t so specific – it’s now come to mean ‘a great many’. But either way, adding that ‘a’ and ‘of’ is officially bonkers, because you wouldn’t write that it came in a a great many of colours. It’s a bit like saying PIN number which is actually personal identification number number.

So this got me thinking – what other words have I been using completely wrongly for pretty much my whole life? Turns out there are loads. I mean, LOADS.

I think this may well be the start of a series of Emma-is-stupid themed blog posts.

Poisonous

WTF? I hear you say (or at least that’s what I said when I read this). Apparently you should only say poisonous when you’re talking about something that will kill you when you eat it. Not if it eats (or bites) you. So if you say a snake is poisonous, you’re actually saying that it will kill you if you eat it (which it might, but that’s not the point – I’m not flipping David Attenborough for god’s sake). Snakes are venomous, not poisonous.

Factoid

I thought this meant a small fact. It doesn’t. It’s a false fact. Gasp! It was first used by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe a fact that people believe to be true because it appears in print (‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’). Hmmm, topical…

At least I know I’m in good company – DJ Steve Wright has published a couple of books about (true) small facts titled ‘Factoids’. So that makes me feel better (not really). And also brings me on to…

Entitled

Don’t panic – when you say someone’s entitled to something, you’re not wrong. But it is wrong to say that a book (or anything else) is entitled [title]. As in The sequels entitled Fast and Furious 17. It’s just titled that. Which doesn’t really seem that hard to remember.

Ultimate

When you say that, for example, ‘Paris is the ultimate city break’ what you’re actually saying is that it’s last on the list. Yep, ‘ultimate’ means ‘last in a progression or series’ (think ‘penultimate’). So you’re actually being really mean about Paris. I know we’re leaving Europe and all, but there’s no need for nastiness.

Inflammable

It means flammable. Not not flammable. Even though the prefix in- almost always means ‘not’ in English, in this case ‘inflammable’ comes from the word ‘enflame’. So it doesn’t.

Sometimes English is stupid.

Electrocute

If you grew up in the English countryside in the 70s or 80s, chances are at one point you put your hand on an electric fence round a field just to see what it was like (this was before the internet kids). And you may well have then told your friends at school that you got electrocuted. Well, you didn’t, because then you would be dead – to be electrocuted means to die from an electric shock. So unless your best friend was Haley Joel Osment (dated reference) what you actually got was an electric shock.

The last word

Language evolves. It’s one of the things that makes it great. If enough people continue to use a word one way, even the wrong way, then eventually its original meaning doesn’t matter anymore. And that is a factoid.

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...

Manly.jpg

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.

(Es)stating the bleeding obvious

As a freelancer, there are (obviously very rare) occasions when I end up watching daytime telly. And on those rare occasions, one of the things that sometimes finds its way onto my telly box is Homes Under the Hammer. The title’s pretty self explanatory, but just in case you’ve never seen it, the idea is that people buy houses at auction, then do them up and (fingers crossed) sell them on for a profit. Part of this process involves a couple of estate agents giving the hopeful owners a value for the rent and sale prices they might get. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t matter which agency they’re from, or where in the country – they all use the same jargon. And it’s pretty much universally awful.  Here are just three that set my teeth on edge.

‘Property’

No one ever says ‘Damn, I left my wallet at my property’. Or ‘Have a good day darling, I’ll see you at our property later’. So why do estate agents do it? It seems that flat, house or, god forbid, home are dirty words.

‘Per calendar month’

This drives me nuts. Why do they need to say ‘calendar’ month? Every. Single. Time. I do understand that there’s a technical reason behind it to do with the fact that some months are longer than others. But for TV purposes, can’t we just take that as a given? If they just said ‘month’ then we’d all still understand what they mean. And the programme would probably be done in half the time.

‘Benefits from’

AAGGRRRH! ‘Has’. You can just say ‘has’. If I went around saying that ‘My flat benefits from a garden’ or ‘My face benefits from a mouth’ people would think the lights were on but no one was home. Sorry, at the property.

So what do you think? Any particular professional (estate agent or otherwise) pointless jargon that drives you nuts?

PS If you’ve never watched Homes Under the Hammer, it’s worth it just for the fact that the person who chooses the incidental music is a comedy master. For example, there was one episode featuring a place in Blackburn. When they revisited it later in the programme, they played AC/DC's Back in Black. Because they were back in Blackburn, geddit? GENIUS.

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.’

semicolon.jpg

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.

In out, in out, shake it all about

I’m rewriting some call centre scripts at the moment which need details about various forms people can download. I’ve been saying to fill these in (as in ‘fill in your details’) but someone else working on the same project has gone with ‘fill out your details’. This has left me in a bit of a quandary. A trip to Google tells me that ‘fill out’ is favoured (or favored) in America, while ‘fill in’ is the more acceptable version on this side of the pond. And the OED doesn’t seem to have a preference (although apparently everyone ‘fills in the blanks’). So what do you think? Are you in or out?

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?