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


Wordwatch for KindleWelcome 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.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967): 'I can't write five words but that I change seven.'

‘I can’t write five words but that I change seven.’ Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Here here, snow, and a wasted opportunity

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unxftitledThe other day, while *cough* accidentally reading an article in the Guardian about the X Factor (a TV competition for wannabee singers that I never watch except for sometimes every week), I noticed that the comments thread had segued into a discussion about spelling and punctuation.

It began because someone had written ‘here here’ in response to a previous comment. Someone else said this should be either ‘here hear’ or hear here’, while a third said it should be ‘hear, hear’, contracted from ‘hear him, hear him’.KyoZG

Well, how interesting. (Although not to another commenter who pointed out that people who spend their time correcting others’ spelling are a bit sad.)

I (sadly) turned to the trusty Oxford Dictionaries site which informed me that the correct spelling and punctuation is: ‘hear! hear!’. It doesn’t bother with the derivation, though Wikipedia confirms that it’s a shortened form of ‘hear him’ (its punctuation is a bit dodgy).

Note that there isn’t universal agreement about this. Cambridge Dictionaries online says it should be punctuated ‘hear, hear!’. Which does, I admit, look a little less intrusive on the page.

Feefle and flindrikin

snowuntitledWhich brings me rather neatly (ahem) onto snow. Just a quick note of interest: did you know that our Scottish friends in the north of the UK have 421 words for snow?

One of my favourites is ‘skelf’ meaning a large snowflake. Every language should have a word for a large snowflake. :)

Wasted opportunity

133924Finally, while in a newsagent’s the other day, I caught sight of the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The cover picture was of blues musician Robert Johnson who is supposed to have made a pact with the devil. The words next to the pic read:

Paying the devil his blues

‘Paying the devil his blues’ is based on the common proverb ‘give the devil his due’ (scroll down).  So, of course, the play on words in this MUSICAL example should have been:

Playing the devil his blues

Subeditors, eh? *sigh* Fings ain’t what they used to be.

That’s quite enough from me for now. I probably need to lie down.

Butler: ‘Hear, hear!’ (He prefers the single exclamation mark.)

Kerching, ker-ching, ka-ching and, er… ur

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We love him

We love him

The loyal reader of this blog (Hi, Gladys – how’s the arthritis?) will know that Guy Keleny, The Independent‘s grammar maven, refuses to marry me. Yet somehow fate brings us together: I got interested in the expression that people sometimes use when they want to suggest that something is a money-spinner. It’s kerching, or ker-ching, or ka-ching. But which is correct?

Googling found Guy. *sigh*. He’d picked up on this very issue in one of his columns (scroll down to the end). A journo on the paper had used the spelling ‘kerching’ which, as Guy points out, sounds like a verb. The spelling, he says, should be ker-ching.

But Oxford Dictionaries apparently disagrees. Its spelling is ‘ka-ching’ (follow the link to hear how it’s pronounced.). The entry explains that the word is a noun. It’s also onomatopoeic in derivation – mimicking the sound of a cash register.

Ker-ching it is then. Not that I’m biased.

Er… ur??

untendertitledNo, not the ancient Mesopotamian (from the Greek meaning ‘between two rivers’, by the way) city of Ur, or textspeak for ‘you are’, but this, from the introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Wordsworth Classics edition:

‘Scholars describe various ur-versions of Tender is the Night…’

I kind of guessed what it meant, but had to consult Oxford Dictionaries for the exact meaning (translation: I didn’t know what it meant). It’s from German and means ‘primitive’, ‘original’ or ‘earliest’.

Interestingly, Oxford Dictionaries uses it without the hyphen, its example being ‘urtext’. Horrible, isn’t it? Looks horrible, sounds horrible – with or without the hyphen. And as unnecessary as something very unnecessary indeed. Here’s my rewrite, Wordsworth Classics:

‘Scholars describe various earlier versions of Tender is the Night…’

You’re welcome.

Couldn’t resist…


I had some more stuff to share, but this post is already too long. Watch this space! The butler’s fine, thanks. He’s writing a novel. Don’t ask.

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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