A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.


American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

American writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”


Welcome to Wordwatch Towers where you’ll find lots of stuff about how to write well. Please scroll down for the latest posts or explore the Wordwatch Towers vaults for more information about punctuation, grammar and how to use the English language.

You can also try the lucky dip on the right — you never know what you might learn! Plus, one lucky winner will hit the jackpot and walk away with £1 million.*

Please ask a question about any aspect of the English language here. Alternatively, I can be contacted using the form on the About page (but not about the jackpot).

*Important legal disclaimer: Not really.

A woman without her man…

Good grammar and punctuation aren’t optional extras:

A woman without her man is nothing.

With the correct punctuation all becomes clear:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Pet peeves, a slight mistake, a palindrome and plus fours

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Well, the Wordwatch Towers butler is threatening to resign and claims he’s been offered a new post on what he refers to as a ‘successful grammar blog’. Says he’s bored here. Nothing to do except polish the turrets and hoover the drawbridge.

Wordsworth the butlerYes, I know, he has a point. It has been several ice ages since I posted. So, here’s a little selection from the various notes that have been scattered about on my desk for the past few months.

Pet peeves

A World Service radio presenter introduces a group of eminent writers:

I have with me today four leading women novelists.

Would this presenter (female – she should have known better) ever say:untitwsled

I have with me today four leading man novelists.

Or even ‘male novelists’? I don’t think so. Read more on this. And here’s a post on ‘women bishops’.

Words I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know until very recently

Such a lovely word too: oneiric. It’s derived from Greek and means ‘related to dreams or dreaming’. On the Oxford Dictionaries site you can hear how it’s pronounced.

Words I can’t spell and didn’t notice were palindromes

Rotavator. At first, I  spelt it ‘rotivator’ – and lots of other people (online journalists, I’m looking at you) do too.

imappgesAnyways, it’s an interesting word, meaning a bladed machine that breaks up or tills the soil. I dug about a bit (see what I did there) and found that the word was coined in the 1930s and is a combination of ‘rotary’ and ‘cultivator’. Which  makes it a portmanteau word as well as a palindrome. And in case you’re not sure what a palindrome is, it’s a word or phrase that’s spelt the same backwards as forwards.

Slight mistake

Look at this from the BBC news website:

They were sensational: speed, power and slight of hand in equal measures made them almost impossible to stop.

Can you spot the mistake? It should, of course, be ‘sleight of hand’. You’ll see this mistake absolutely everywhere. As explained in Oxford Dictionaries,  ‘sleight’ means ‘the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive’.untitleddd

Plus fours – minus the hyphen

Just a little nugget I recently came across: Plus fours are so-called because of the extra four inches of material needed to drape over the knee. Note, there’s no hyphen (as in ‘plus-fours’) – although many writers insist on adding one.

And finally…

Find out from the wonderful Guy Keleny (who still refuses to marry me) whether or not the following use of ‘thrall’ is correct:

Why do the Emmys matter to Brits? Because US TV has us in its thrall.

So  – the butler has now agreed to hang around for a bit longer, the kettle is on, and all is well again at Wordwatch Towers. For now.


Written by Wordwatch

16/09/2014 at 2:10 pm

Marquess, marquis and marquee…

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Originally posted on The Squirrelbasket:

marquee Cardiff Castle, created by the Marquess of Bute, and a marquee (right)

It’s time to look at some more words. This particular ramble through the English dictionary starts with the fact that when I am sub-editing our Cardiff newspaper, reporters are always wrongly spelling the Marquess of Bute as the Marquis of Bute.

The 3rd Marquess of Bute was responsible, with architect William Burges, for

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Written by Wordwatch

28/07/2014 at 4:59 pm

Posted in Wordwatching

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Out now: Ghost Writings

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GhostWritings06I know, I know, I haven’t posted for ages and to add insult to injury this is blatant advertising. But in mitigation… oh, who I am kidding, there is no mitigation.

Anyways, here it is: the latest Bennison Books publication: Ghost Writings. I’m kind of proud of it. It took ages to do and it’s got lots of good stuff in it:

  • detailed introductory notes by a bona fide expert, Neil Wilson;
  • lots of author biographies, including the acknowledged ghost story masters as well as literary giants who wrote in the genre;
  • a section on female writers’ enormous contribution to the genre;
  • a recommended reading list (not for the faint-hearted; make sure your doors are locked);
  • M. R. James’ essay about ghost story fiction;
  • an entry on the mysterious ‘B'; and
  • a brief overview of research into supernatural phenomena and some of the more famous first-hand accounts of ghostly encounters.

Available for Kindle at  Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

This is just to say…

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

… that ‘ensorcelled’ means ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’. See Oxford Dictionaries. You can see from the word that its derivation is linked to the word ‘sorcerer’ (which I just had to check how to spell). I kind of like all of that, but is it a good choice in this article in the Guardian? The first paragraph includes the following sentence:

I was immediately ensorcelled by the singularity of the Shrigley worldview: here were pictures that had a bewilderingly complex naivete about them – it was as if a preternaturally intelligent child were rendering the attempts of a smart-aleck adult to draw like a kid.

Ensorcelled? Really? Why send your readers away (probably never to return) to consult a dictionary when ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’ would work just as well (probably better) there? Yes, I learnt a new word, no, I didn’t go back to read the rest of the article (I wrote this post instead). And is the writer just showing off? Oh, I don’t know. Sunday morning tea and toast calls.


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