Monday 29 July 2019

Grammar Rules: Good and Bad Writing Tips

There’s more to good writing than avoiding common mistakes. Many people think that grammar consists of negative rules. It doesn’t, but it’s as well to conform to the rules most people know – mainly because if you break them, “people will write in”.

There’s a lot of writing advice on the internet – much of it can be ignored.

Avoid Alliteration Always. Not always – it can be effective: “I dodge your dawdling and aspire to avoid your toes” writes a wheelchair user. It’s unconscious rhyming that makes me flinch: “She was told to hold the item of old rolled gold.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. If you must use them, get them right. Don’t confuse “silver bullet” with “smoking gun”.

Ignore the people who tell you to “Take a cliché and give it a twist!”.

Use the vernacular. That means everyday speech. Avoid current slang your readers may not understand, but there’s no need to stick to the style of a university essay or company report. Write as you speak.

Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary. Parentheses are often necessary (and useful), just don’t shove in a long parenthesis between parts of the verb, or between subject and object.

It is wrong to ever split an infinitive. Sometimes there’s just nowhere else for the adverb to easily go. Are you going awkwardly to avoid the problem? Sometimes avoiding the split makes for an uglier – or even ambiguous – result. For many, though, avoiding split infinitives is the Number One grammar “thou shalt not”, so it’s better to abide by it. Why not remove the adverb altogether?

Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. Maybe not “never”, but try to avoid doing so. Eschew this kind of thing: Many more people are doing research on not only their condition or disorder, but also the people whom they seek treatment for it from. ( ...the people from whom they seek the necessary treatment.)

Foreign words and phrases are not de rigueur. If you must use them, get them right. But not everyone speaks a European language – try to find an English equivalent for louche, macho or Zeitgeist.

One should never generalise. It’s a good idea to be specific, rather than general. “Darcy leaned on the carved wooden Tudor mantelpiece while Elizabeth reclined on a brocade-covered Chippendale chaise longue”, rather than “the room was luxuriously furnished in sumptuous materials”.

Never use an Oxford comma. I think Jacob Rees-Mogg is trying to warn us against Oxford commas – a comma before an and. Sometimes you need a comma before an and, and sometimes you don’t. And nobody fussed about "Oxford commas" before Lynne Truss discussed them Eats, Shoots and Leaves (published 2003).

Much more pedantry in my book A Short Guide to Writing Well.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Received Ideas about Etymology in Quotes 14

Beard the lion in his den: This phrase developed partly from the idea of being daring enough to take a lion by the beard and partly from the use of beard as a verb to mean ‘face’, i.e. to face a lion in his den. (Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary. Or is it from the Bible: Samuel 17:34-36 And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.)

Odds and ends: It's derived from the dialectal 'ords and ends', with 'ord' meaning 'point' or 'beginning', and just means 'miscellaneous things'.

An Ice Cream served in a cone with a Flake 99 is the UK's favourite ice cream. In the days of the monarchy in Italy the King had an elite guard consisting of 99 soldiers. Subsequently anything really special or first class was known as "99". (Web)

Since everyone was expected to know how to make Boston baked beans, today we also have the idiom to not know beans about. (

Originally, the wooden spoon was the "prize" awarded to the candidate who obtained the fewest marks in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge University, yet still passed with honours. Only later, when the term got wider use, did it come to mean failure or the lowest score of all; in its original usage, it was quite possible to get an (ordinary) degree with a lower mark than the student with the wooden spoon. (RM)

It's a bit like how the phrase 'the weakest go to the wall' is now interpreted as meaning they get disregarded whereas the original meaning was that, in church, weaker people were allowed to go to the wall to lean on it during the service (this is before pews, of course). (SP I see the strong marching along the middle of the pavement while the weak are pushed to the wall.)

As I understand it, 'bagsy' is just a lazy way of saying 'bags I' as in claiming which part of the morning's shooting goes in which bag, and 'botch' or 'bodge' is just a Hyacinth Bucket way of saying 'boj' which is a job done backwards. (MT)

Pop your clogs: "Pop" has evolved from "cock," and when someone "cocked" their clogs, the toes of their clogs pointed up in the air as they lay down dead. (Evening Standard Surely “pawned their clogs because they don’t need them any more”?)

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month: The playground ritual originates from the medieval times, when a "pinch" of salt was believed to make witches weak, and the "punch" resembled banishing the witches entirely. As a result, "pinch, punch, first of the month" was a way of warding off witches and bad luck for the near future. (Evening Standard)

The phrase “in the buff” comes because of the beigish tone of the average naked Caucasian human. (Via FB)

"Happy as a sand-boy" comes from when hawkers drove donkeys laden with sandbags thru streets hoping to sell sand to locals, and if their hard work paid off, they spent their profits on making merry. (@flamencobug)

Incontrovertible evidence, like a trout in the milk: The meaning is that although you did not see the dairy farmer do it, he most probably dipped the milk pail in the stream to water down the product. It’s not direct evidence but a very strong circumstantial case. It is attributed as follows: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Treacle was an old English word for medicine, and was also used to describe dark-coloured undrinkable water, which from its foul palate was associated with the commonly held taste of medicine. Consequently a well where the water became undrinkable would be termed a “treacle well”. ( Surely from the supposed medicinal properties of the water?)

More here, and links to the rest.
Why not get the book?

Received Ideas in Quotes 13

She said we couldn't be too careful what habits we formed and what ideals we acquired in our teens, because by the time we were twenty our characters would be developed and the foundation laid for our whole future life. (Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery)

In the past so many children died before they were five that their parents didn’t really care: I loved her with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and she is taken from me. Yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure, I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it. (William Wordsworth, after the death of his daughter)

The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as "busy" in place of "bisy"). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters: "frend," for example, became "friend." In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition. (

An acre is the amount of land one man could plough with one ox in one day. A stone is roughly the weight of the largest rock a man could comfortably hold in one hand. A mile is about 1,000 paces.
Boxing Day gets its name from the small earthenware boxes that the poor would use in medieval times to save for Christmas treats. They would smash these open and spend the contents on something special in the festive season.
(Steve Stack, 21st Century Dodos)

The King of Spain, who in great part was roasted, because there was not time for the Prime Minister to command the Lord Chamberlain to desire the Grand Gold Stick to order the first page in waiting to bid the chief of the flunkeys to request the House-maid of Honour to bring up a pail of water to put his Majesty out.
(W.M. Thackeray, Book of Snobs Did this kind of story give rise to the urban legend that it takes a chain of flunkeys three hours to fetch the Queen a cup of coffee, and when it arrives it’s cold?)

My Mum warned me against picking up things in the street or on the common because "the Germans might drop things that looked like toys as booby traps".
I was particularly warned about fountain pens of all things! At age 2!! (Children were also warned about pencils and chocolate.)

Esther McVey claims that foreign aid has been wasted on building a runway facing the wrong way. When asked where this happened she replies "Er, it's in one of the... er, er, continents... er, abroad." (She’s thinking of the island of St Helena – where the runway is the right way round and works fine.)

What to say about getting an Oscar: “The last time I saw mine it was in the garage.” (Per Julian Fellowes)

What to say about Glastonbury: There’s nowhere to buy socks. (LW)

Early glass marbles are not likely to have been made commercially, but were made by glass workers at the end of their working day for their own children. (London Mudlark Glass workers seem to have spent quite a lot of time "at the end of the day" making dump weights and spiral glass canes.)

Apparently, when the Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Bank HQ was being designed back in the late 1970's, the future of Hong Kong as the date of the handover approached was not too certain, so the HSBC building was designed to be taken apart and put back together in another location, should "the need arise". (

Catholics were regarded as disloyal, as lazy and incompetent bog Irishmen and women unfit for public office and of little use in business. (Nick Ross, Guardian 2019-03-13)

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of tripe when it comes to the causes for autism: smoking, bad parenting, Coca Cola, mercury, vaccines, The Devil, milk, bees, air pollution and the Finnish metal rock band Lordi... (

There’s a superstition in magazine publishing that readers won’t buy mags with green covers. It probably comes from the days before adjustment layers in Photoshop; converting greens from RGB to CMYK can make them lose a lot of vibrancy if you’re not careful. (@artmonogatari)

Humpty Dumpty was a brandy/ale mix, plied to potential "King's shilling" recruits – all the King's horses and all the King's men. (@maknazpy It’s in the OED, so it must be true! The rhyme occurs in several languages, and it’s clear that it’s a riddle to which the answer is “an egg”.)

The myth that Napoleon Bonaparte was short stems primarily from the fact that he is listed as 5 feet 2 inches tall at the time of his death. However, this is 5 feet 2 inches in French units. (
I’m not sure why you think giving cash to someone who’s asking strangers for it “doesn’t help them,” when it very immediately helps them have cash they didn’t have a minute before. (Daniel Mallory Ortberg)

On Tyneside in the 1950s someone returned a library book with a kipper inside it. So I hear. (Ian Watson)

The individual himself is still the most recent creation. (Nietzsche)

Velvet-collared coats are a “fashion started by English aristos to show solidarity with their French cousins who were losing their heads in the French Revolution”. (@dah_61)

Most annoying things people say to blind people: You're so brave. You're so inspirational. I feel so sorry for you. How did you lose your sight? Feel my face. How many fingers am I holding up? Do you really have a job? Have you seen
Daredevil? Can I pray for you? (@Kevinsatizabal)

A Times interviewer asks Peggy Seeger if she felt guilty about having an affair with the married Ewan McColl. “Not really... I was selfish. If a husband or a wife is unfaithful, there is something wrong with the marriage anyway.”

Deep problem here is how "news" has come to be defined. Man under investigation is going to say "I didn't do anything wrong." This is not news, because we know this is what he would say whether it was true or not. Yet, Twitter today full of journos saying "it's obviously news."
(@Metatone2 Imagine scrutinising each news story to see if it contains anything any reader might expect to have happened, and then deleting that sentence.)

“Dad, can you help me with my homework?”
“What’s an example of a fairy tale?”
“All it takes to get ahead in this country is hard work.”


More herbs from the
Macbeth witches' cauldron; 'scale of dragon' is the leaf of Bistort, 'tooth of wolf' is the deadly Aconitum, and 'gall of goat' possibly refers to the root of Tragopodon known as 'goat's-beard'. (@VenetiaJane)

Legend says anyone who stays a night at Tinkinswood Burial Chamber on evenings preceding May Day, St John's Day or Midwinter Day would die, go mad or become a poet. (@pilgrimmaguk Also avoid sleeping in direct moonlight or spending the night in the Chamber of Horrors.)

Is there any significance to Italian last names beginning with de, del, or della ("of," "of the")? Do they indicate nobility? Someone told me that della is the highest rank. (Thomas Della Fave, Irving, Texas,

As Edward MacLysaght writes in A Guide to Irish Surnames, “Reference should again be made to one popular misconception, often held outside Ireland, viz. that all Mac names are Scottish — with such well known Irish names as MacCarthy, Macnamara, MacMahon and MacGuinness prominent all over the world this should not be necessary, yet the illusion seems to persist.” (

Bach was not crusty, arid or esoteric, serene, detached, otherworldly – he liked to drink and smoke. (Radio 4 He had 20 children, too.)

Belief in neuromyths, like "learning styles" and the "left-brain/right-brain" myth, is rife among teachers around the world. (BPS Digest)

Got used to the assumptions of nepotism, of people assuming that I had some sort of responsibility to explain all [my father’s] (or the entire government’s) decisions, assuming I automatically thought the same as him all the time... or, my favourite, the blanket assumption that I would ‘follow in my father’s footsteps’ (despite it being clear to anyone after five mins that I have zero political ambitions of my own). So much so that two senior Labour people came up and asked if I was running for his seat... at his wake. Don’t even know where to start with that one. (Dom Goggins, son of politician Paul Goggins)

Americans in particular believe that they are superior to everyone else and exempt from other's flaws. (@Petahpie)

Powder is most injurious to the skin. (Girls Own Paper, 1880s)

People seem to mix up paid-for specific research vs paid-for specific results. (@BigInTheCountry)

Handing out all the dope about bad dress rehearsals being lucky. (Dodie Smith, It Ends with Revelations)

It was once believed that speaking the Welsh Language caused stupidity, sexual promiscuity and unruly behaviour.

“This sort of opinion can be seen particularly strikingly in societies where a minority language is spoken alongside a major language.” “Maori is simply not capable of being used as an official language or as the language of education beyond the very basic level.” ... There was a “comment in a New Zealand newspaper some years ago, which tried to make the point that Maori was no good as a language because it had to borrow words from English in order to express new ideas. English on the other hand could be seen to be a very flexible and vital language because it had throughout its history been able to draw resources from all over the place to express new ideas!”

Myth 10: Some Languages Have No Grammar
Myth 4: French is a Logical Language.

As the writer Thomas Lounsbury commented in 1908: "There seems to have been in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition approaching collapse, and that arduous efforts must be put forth... in order to save it from destruction."
Somewhere in America, they’re still speaking “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” English: The more one reads, the less concrete meaning ‘Elizabethan’ and ‘Shakespearean’ have. In the popular mind they appear to mean nothing more than ‘old-fashioned’.
Language Myths, Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill)

Museum Place, Cardiff. The extension on the left of this house is built of rubble masonry, which consists of exotic igneous rocks — ballast brought from all over the world and dumped at the port.
(@pavementgeology And the builders carefully picked out the usable igneous rocks...)

If a captain could not find a cargo he would be paid for, he would use the cheapest bulky material available to fill the hold, usually sand or stone. Buying a relatively expensive product only to dump it in the sea when you reached the next port would be very bad for profits. (Page about Seaham explaining that marbles found on beaches were not “used as ballast”.)

THE VICTORIANSSome think of the Victorians as a bunch of moralising do-gooders... (PBS Victorians programme flag. It was the prevailing attitude of the age, the writer explained, with the subtext that we shouldn’t judge the Victorians by our standards. Victorian philanthropists were fighting extreme poverty and minimal, punitive welfare provision – plus what our history teacher called “laissez-faire capitalism”. )

Peter Ackroyd points out in his latest book (Dominion) that the Victorians thought of themselves as “at the cutting edge of progress”, says the Times. “For us, ‘Victorian’ means... a rigid, unchanging, hypocritical society, beset with stifling notions of respectability and rules of convention.”

Young people come back [from the Grand Tour] ever more debauched, conceited, useless and unprincipled. Nothing... can give a good name to such an absurd practice as travelling.
(Adam Smith)

Children shouldn’t be taught facts but “values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others,” says Jack Ma. (Would that take up the whole school day – week – term? What would the children do for the rest of the time? And how would they get into university after not passing any exams?)

It would be good if people could ditch the weird assumption that knowledge = fixity of account and a conservative impulse to limit the agenda for change. (@Counsell_C)
Social media makes children think the world is perfect and they need to aspire to that. Schools need to bust that myth. (Times Nov 2018 Don’t they mean “think everybody else’s life is perfect”? It happened before social media.)

The Flanders poppy has lost its original meaning. It's become a beating stick and a political tool. Time to let the dead rest in peace and ditch it.

Students at Cambridge rejected a motion to celebrate Remembrance Day because it’s “imperialist propaganda” and it’s “valorising war”.

So this morning has seen not only the usual round of crap online about 'minorities' refusing to allow poppies to be sold in their 'areas', which was debunked years ago, but a new twist: retailers in Glastonbury refusing to support the British Legion. (LW)

If it's not fake news about poppies, it's councils using other words for Christmas or Cadbury not selling Easter eggs. (Malcolm White)

More here, and links to the rest.
And why not get the whole lot in one handy volume?