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Using English proper(ly)

English-Language-english-language-3156806-580-4412013 will be the year that I am finally exposed as the bigoted, prejudiced and intolerant person that I really am.   For, whilst I would like to think that I relish inclusivity in most parts of my life – and indeed have been known actively to fight discrimination and injustice – there is one group of people I simply can’t stand:   Those that use English badly.

I can cope, almost, with youth-speak (as long as it’s being used by young people and not by middle-aged men in grey suits pretending to be eighteen years old.)    I can cope with the fact that Americans speak English using a very different vocabulary to that of the rest of the English speaking world.   (Incidentally, “different to” is correct English.   I checked here.)   But sloppy choices of words, punctuation and grammar do make me very, very irritated; often to the point of saying, “tut!” aloud.

Of course, I am as guilty of such sloppiness as many of the people I choose to despise.   So my self-hatred is often unconfined.   In particular, I note that I often start sentences with a conjunction.  I learned that from my Dad, who used to drive my Mum completely mad when writing his apparently scholarly books about Queen Victoria, or Horatio Nelson, by adopting the style of the advertising copywriter – which, of course, he was.   And I do tend to use a hyphen in the middle of a sentence – because I am not entirely confident with the use of the semicolon.

I try my hardest not to overuse words.   But I know that I slip into this all too often, particularly at work.    Apparently, I use the word ‘brilliant’ a little too much for people’s liking.   So I was delighted to see today that, “while the U.S. Congress has been kicking the can down the road and inching closer to the fiscal cliff, the word gurus at Lake Superior State University have doubled-down on their passion for the language and have released their 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.”    That last sentence includes a fair representation of words from this year’s list, but you can find the full record at

For 2013, I am going to try to give up using the following words and phrases:

  • Cool – as an exclamation of enthusiasm.  I am not Bart Simpson.
  • Lens – I am capable at looking at a problem from a number of different perspectives without needing to to so through a particular “lens”
  • Rocket science -Nothing is, unless it is advanced aerospace engineering
  • With the greatest respect – I know I only ever say this when I disagree with someone.  I caught myself doing this twice with the same person in a meeting late last year, much to my chagrin.
  • Perfect storm -I am not a meteorologist or a Cornish fisherman

And, like any newly converted enthusiast, I shall be jumping down the throat of anyone I meet who uses any of these.

But even more irksome than choosing the wrong word is choosing the wrong spelling and punctuation.  This is where my inner die-hard dogmatist springs forward like an untamed Rottweiler.

Apart from that rather irritating use of the hyphen, I’m pretty good at spelling and punctuation.    Years spent teaching nine and ten year olds have clearly affected me.    (Note that I used the word ‘affect’ and not ‘effect’ there.)   So, in 2013 I will also be continuing to get my red pen out to deal with the following atrocities, including those that Sarah Ebner listed in today’s Times:

  1. Surprise is spelt with an s
  2. Practice as a noun is spelt with a c.   Practise as a verb is spelt with an s
  3. “It’s” means it is – or, occasionally, it has. It is NEVER the possessive form of it.
  4. “Your” and “you’re” mean quite different things. The apostrophe (see above) replaces a letter, so “you’re” only means “you are.”
  5. An apostrophe (yep, one of those again. Perhaps we need a whole test on this punctuation mark) does not make a word plural. Please, no more signs offering to sell “tea’s and coffee’s” or “apple’s”.
  6. Too, to and two are quite different words, with different meanings too.
  7. When you write “could of” or “should of”, you mean “could have”, or “should have”. Honestly, it’s not that tricky…
  8. A lot is two words not one (alot?)

So, what words, phrases, misspellings or punctuation mistakes really rile you?    Do let me know.    But don’t get me started on text-speak…






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  1. Well done John! (Was almost going to use “brilliant”). Another that irks me is the incorrect use of “advice” and ” advise”. Many use these incorrectly and it really makes me want to correct them every time they do.

    • John May John May

      Another example of the ‘c’ in a noun and ‘s’ in a verb situation… Yup. I’m on a roll here…

  2. ‘Absolutely unique’ infuriates me… it’s either unique or it isn’t!… Then there’s the chance to ‘meet new people’… you mean babies do you? Or do you mean ‘meet people’?

    • John May John May

      Ooooh yes, And ‘quite unique’ too, Actually, now I come to think of it, that’s one of my all time favourites. (Favourites spelt correctly, of course…)

  3. Paul Lyon Paul Lyon

    Could not agree more, especially this year, as my class of twelve year-old pupils still struggle with basic grammar and punctuation.

  4. Troelsfo Troelsfo

    In Danish a plural is usually constructed by adding the suffix -(e)r — no apostrophes involved. The possessive is constructed by adding the suffix -s, but unlike English the possessive doesn’t take an apostrophe either.

    The most amusing error I ever saw in Danish was the addition of an apostrophe before the plural suffix — clearly an adoption from your error 5 above, but imported into Danish by someone apparently writing poor English and poorer Danish.

    I am happy to say that I was able to merely laugh at it 🙂

  5. John,
    I couldn’t agree more, particularly about the self hatred bit. However, now that only about 5% of the world’s English speakers are native, and most people are taught English by non-native speakers I think we’re going to have to learn to relax and embrace the new language or go quietly crazy….

  6. TomPC TomPC

    I would refine no. 7 in that when one says “could of” or “should of” they actually means “could’ve” or “should’ve”. The contracted form is what people heard as babies and emulated into “of”.

  7. Helen Curran Helen Curran

    I agree with your comments on the overuse of words, and modern clichés, and I have banned the word “fab” from my vocabulary. However, I fear we are railing against the hordes and our voices are overun. I like north American English, and was amused to read their complaints about the creeping use of British English. My real blind spot is the verb prove. a regular verb that has been de-regulated by the Americans. Why make a verb more complicated? Prove- proved- proved, please.

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