Category: Grammar notes

Let’s be clear about this …

Now, I want to make myself perfectly clear  …

There must be no misunderstanding …

Make no mistake about this …

Blah, blah, blah.  Such well-worn phrases. So overused. Every day, someone, somewhere is prefacing their remarks with such statements of clarity and precision.

And they are usually people of great (self-)importance whose pronouncements are keenly awaited; that are meant to be heard because of the influence they can have on events and the thinking and actions of other similarly (self-)important people.

Sadly, that rarely happens. Words that are promised as leaving no room for error or misunderstanding, merely confuse and bewilder those for who they are intended.

So very few of all the millions of words that tumble forth from the world’s opinion makers possess the clarity that is promised. And considering that much of this verbal torrent is painstakingly crafted by skilled wordsmiths, it has to be assumed that this is no accident.

This does not occur because of unlimited vocabulary or lack of grammatical skill. It is cold-blooded manipulation of the language to distort meaning and cloud understanding.

To describe the practitioners of this black art merely as spin doctors is mealy-mouthed and far too gentle; like calling the Great Plague a bit of a virus.

Take the following as but two examples plucked from the morass of meaningless mutterings that assails us:

“As I have said, and others have said, consistently, it would be irresponsible for the British Government not to look across at the changes that would be necessary regardless of the eventuality, and indeed some of the changes that would be necessary in the event of a no deal would be the same as changes that would be made in relation to us achieving a deal.”

Phew! Understood? All clear? No room for doubt or questions?  Hmm, thought so. Maybe this will help:

“Given the way that things operate, it is highly unlikely that anything will be brought forward during that period that has not already started discussions through the European Union to which we are being party of until we leave and on which we would have been able to say whether or not there would be a rule that we would sign up to or a rule that we would not wish to sign up to.”

So there you have it; no wavering or room for doubt. As clear as the Great Bog of Allen on a dark night.

Both quotes come from Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, a world leader famed for wanting “to make this clear” and then doing exactly the opposite.

But she is far from alone, merely one of the mob building the Great Wall of Obfuscation to shut out any who seek meaning, common sense and clarity from those who shape our pitiful little world.

The Great Wall of China is crumbling, likewise Hadrian’s lesser edifice; people power ripped apart the Berlin Wall and the Trump’s misguided Mexican Wall will hopefully remain in limbo.

This latest barrier needs to befall the same fate before its foundations are too firmly cemented in. And there is but one weapon to use: words, words, words.  But used sparingly and wisely, not sprayed mindlessly like confetti.

Let battle commence.

“The ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding”Francis Bacon





Curse of the apostrophe

Once more I ponder the age-old question: what is it about apostrophes that so many people fail to understand?

I am wading my way through a book edit in which two-thirds of the corrections require the deletion, placement or shifting of an apostrophe.

In case you are among the perplexed masses, apostrophes do not denote a plural, as in: lots of comments’.

However, we could do with one in: the mans comments. But not placed thus: the mans’ comments.

Oh dear. I will soldier on …

Words … but what do they mean?

The following extract is from a manuscript I was recently asked to assess for publication:

‘All right, I’ll see to changing that, might take a while.’ Eleanor continued with her agenda. ‘Now, what about Security? Personnel? Industrial Relations? Safety?’
‘Hey, we need those.’ Arthur made a note. ‘Security and Safety have been the contractor’s problem up till now, I’ve been handling I-R recently, and we’ve done our own recruiting, but I remember, what was suggested was that we should use Site Services for Personnel and I-R, . . . oh, yes, we have had to refer to them a while ago for minor problems, but I’d rather continue independently if possible . . . can you fix that, too?’
‘If you want it that way. Gerry won’t like it, but hell, you’re supposed to be separate. Stay that way, but leave it open so you can use his people if you need to.’
‘Thanks for that. I guess we can use them for Safety, that’s just a matter of processing forms. Well, we hope. But Security . . . ‘ he paused.
‘Do it yourself,’ Eleanor advised. ‘Hire one man per shift, from an external service company, on the gate. The company can report to the Office Manager, that’s you, isn’t it, Joy? Now, what about the one item you seem to have forgotten.’ She waited a moment for dramatic effect. ‘Where does Quality Control fit? Under Production?’

So many words, so many commas and trailing points. But what does it all mean? And would you want to read 270 pages of such writing? It is sad to see so much effort being expended to such little effect. So few would-be authors understand that writing consists of much more than an outpouring of words. It is a craft that has to be studied and learned.

Varuna’s bloomer

“As the world moved from depression into war, they built a glorious yellow house that faced north so that it’s rooms were flooded with light.”
Such mis-use of the blighted apostrophe is sadly becoming the norm. The shocking thing about this instance is that it comes from, of all places, Varuna, the Blue Mountains bastion of all that is excellent in writing.

Apostrophe apoplexy

Surely the biggest crime against correct grammar is that committed by the apostrophe bandits – those people who seem unable to grasp the simple difference between a plural and a possessive.
We seem to have become inured to a world of signs proclaming CD’s, DVD’s and Todays’ Special.
Today’s Daily Telegraph, however, piled horror upon horror by publishing a letter that included “…my mother, as doctors’s wives so often did …”
Can it get any worse? Sadly I fear it can.

Double entendre

It all depends on how to read it, but the headline in today’s UK Daily Telegraph was not the best example of the sub editor’s craft: Husband flies to South Africa to help murder police
Let’s hope they arrested him before he did any damage.

Another hanging offence

From The Age today: “Despite handing over cash, the man stunned the IT consultant about five times ….”
No, the man who did the stunning did not hand over cash – but that’s how it reads.
Another hanging modifier uncorrected by the writer or the subs. Or maybe they just don’t understand.

Hanging horror

The dreaded hanging modifier is spreading. A frequent blot on TV news reports, it today appeared in the Age sport section.
According to writer Jesse Hogan (and the sub-editors who let it through) “After posting a paltry 8-133, Sri Lanka coasted past the target with seven wickets and 21 balls to spare thanks to masterful captain Kumar Sangakara ….”
What should have appeared is “After Australia posted a paltry 8-133, Sri Lanka coasted etc …”
Much better than the nonsense that was published.

Rankin’s rules

It is what I have always said and aimed to achieve, but it is encouraging to hear it from the lips of one of the world’s best crime writers. Scottish writer Ian Rankin, reported in the Daily Telegraph, has told The Word magazine he sees himself as an entertainer rather than as a wordsmith.
“We’re not winning Nobel prizes for books that are difficult to read or written in an ornate language,” Rankin said. “Writers like me are part of the entertainment industry.”
Rankin said he had dumbed down the language of his books after his first novel, The Flood, which he reckoned read like the work of a PhD student – which is what he was at the time.
The author said there were words in The Flood which he doesn’t understand. “In thrillers there is very little room for purple prose.”
Rankin’s advice is that “the style has got to be invisible. If something jars, or if a phrase is too flowery, suddenly the reader is aware that someone is writing a book.”
Amen to all of that.

Spelt rite

There was a time when research meant doing some really thorough investigation and examining all facets of the topic at hand. Now anything entailing a snap poll of a dozen or more people is labelled as research. Thus we get some odd findings from small samplings.
One such finding comes from, which has “revealed” that the most commonly misspelt word in the English language is separate. In second place is definitely, followed by manoeuvre and embarrass.
So what happened to my personal favourite, accommodation, and that confusing pair, occasion and occurrence?
No doubt everyone has their own spelling stumbling block and this is a far from conclusive finding: it is based on talking to a mere 3500 people. Go figure.