Wordwatch Towers

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


with 35 comments

Ochre sea star from Olympic National Park, USA...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s something fishy going on in this extract from the latest issue of the BBC (yes: BBC) science magazine, Focus:

Some animals, like sponges, don’t have heads. Others, such as starfish and various parasitic  invertebrates, have lost their’s during evolution.

And some words, like “theirs”, don’t have an apostrophe when used as a possessive.

Not even if the BBC says otherwise.

User-friendly guides to punctuation



35 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Editorial budget cuts at the BBC.

    Michael Farrell

    15/02/2010 at 4:04 pm

  2. This from the BBC’s Focus magazine, yes? Yikes!

    Sally Rose

    17/02/2010 at 6:26 am

    • Hello, Sally Rose — welcome!

      Yes, surprising isn’t it? To be fair it is unusual to see quite such a glaring error in that magazine. But really — the BBC!


      17/02/2010 at 6:47 am

  3. OED: 1855 Tennyson, Charge of the Light Brigade ii,
    “Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die.”
    But I won’t get very rich if you give me £100 for every other example I can find from an eminent writer.


    18/02/2010 at 2:32 pm

    • Hello, Dai — you’re welcome here!

      …and that’s £300 so far.


      18/02/2010 at 2:36 pm

      • Mine don’t count/ At the moment I stand exactly level.


        18/02/2010 at 3:49 pm

        • Yes, I saw you were being very hard on yourself and discounting your first three. I wasn’t going to send you a cheque anyway.


          18/02/2010 at 3:52 pm

    • My dad used to read that to us as little kids. It’s a contraction, not a possessive, right?

      Michael Farrell

      18/02/2010 at 4:41 pm

      • Yes, I’d say a contraction, short for:

        “Theirs is not to make reply, Theirs is not to reason why, Theirs is but to do and die.”


        18/02/2010 at 11:47 pm

        • I must mildly disagree with my far more esteemed colleague. I think the implied subject is something like “lot” or “duty” (i.e., “Their lot is not to…”). I know I read an analysis of this once; I shall try to find it at home.

          Michael Farrell

          19/02/2010 at 1:37 am

  4. Re the BBC’s error, American Bryan Garner writes: “This error, surprisingly, is even more common in BrE than in AmE.” tee hee

    Michael Farrell

    18/02/2010 at 4:45 pm

    • Er — isn’t that a case of ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he’?


      18/02/2010 at 4:47 pm

      • It is but he can prove it: in all such examples, he counts their occurrence using Lexis/Nexis. And he did say “surprisingly,” a backhanded compliment.

        Michael Farrell

        18/02/2010 at 4:58 pm

        • What sort of cheap trick is that — bringing facts into the conversation?


          18/02/2010 at 5:01 pm

  5. Michael – The Charge of the Light Brigade was almost the ultimate contraction.


    18/02/2010 at 5:03 pm

  6. All of life is interconnected, isn’t it? From a Globe obit of the last surviving Canadian vet from WW I:

    “Mr. Babcock was born on July 23, 1900, the eighth of 10 children of a farm family in Ontario’s Frontenac County just north of Kingston.

    He remembered being with an older brother when approached by a lieutenant and sergeant recruiting for the army in 1916.

    “They were hard up for men,” he said in an interview in December, 2005. “They asked me if I would like to enlist and I said, ‘Sure.’ So they signed me up.”

    He recalled in another interview that one of the recruiters recited to him Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

    Michael Farrell

    19/02/2010 at 5:35 am

    • Will you allow me some extreme Friday pedantry? The poet’s name should be “Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

      Michael Farrell

      19/02/2010 at 3:22 pm

  7. Hello Michael, Mr Farrell.

    We litery types usually defer to great writers by their surnames only: Borges, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoiewski, Schiller, Hemingway, Hergé, Hašek, Tolstoi, Brecht, Cervantes, Byron, Keats, Yeats, Yates, Aristophanes, Ibsen, Eliot, Eliot, Mozart, Kafka, Maupassant, Conrad, Chomsky, Blyton, and so on.
    But as a gesture of good-will, I’m willing to allow you your extreme Friday pedestrianism as you requested, so you may keep “Alfred, Lord Tennyson” for the duration. You may also have “Alfred, Lord Douglas” and “Alfred, Lord Hayes” to make up your set. To start you off on your next collection I’m letting you have, free, “Peter, Lord Whimsey” and “Peter, Lord Mandelbrot”
    with generous feelings
    yours &c.


    19/02/2010 at 4:06 pm

    • Thank you, Dai — that’s very funny.


      19/02/2010 at 4:11 pm

    • I’ve heard of that Shakespeare. Poet, play-writer, no? He’s dead now, is he not? The others are also writers of some type?

      I’m just glad we abolished royalty here shortly after that flare-up with your country. If only for the knotty punctuation issues.

      Michael Farrell

      19/02/2010 at 4:17 pm

      • Spokeshave was an actor, I think.


        19/02/2010 at 4:45 pm

  8. Sh’mae Michael!
    I don’t know where your ‘here’ is to know about the abolition of royalties in your country. I think Shakespeare is out of copyright in Britain by now, but I’m not sure about some of the others.
    In answer to your first question, I only know about a few of them. Chomsky is in Helvetia; Schiller is in Fette Fraktur; Dickens is in Baskerville; Hergé is in Tintin; Blyton is in Comic Sans; and Brecht is in Gill Sans Serif. As far as the other writers are concerned, I’m overasked.
    And up with your country and all, mate
    May the Dyfed-Powys Constabulary be with you



    19/02/2010 at 4:51 pm

    • hahahaha. Too droll. To show what a moran I am, as I shaved this morning, it occurred to me that I meant “nobility,” not royalty. We abolished ’em both, and good riddance. Your Holiness.

      I can see this “over-” thing is going to follow me to my early grave. Yeesh, a little bit of knowledge….


      Michael Farrell

      19/02/2010 at 7:01 pm

  9. Deborah.
    I don’t think so. Spokeshave is a transverse plane – your imagination was flying away with you just then.


    19/02/2010 at 4:54 pm

    • Thanks for clearing that up, Dai. I’ve only ever flown in a 747.


      19/02/2010 at 5:00 pm

  10. MF
    You still anna sed which your country is. It could be Holy Rissole for all I know. If I’m aloud to recap: You live in a country with no bility or royalty. OK. So you’re not Nepalolitan, San Marine or Congolian. You might be Monogask, a Great Dane or Vaticanian. I suspect that you are a mear Usanian. Or am I wright?
    Do you shave every morning? I’m gunna fly a kyte hyere an sujest as you av a lectric raser.


    19/02/2010 at 8:32 pm

    • DH: But you’ve already had a gander at my FB profile, which says Los Angeles — a town within the fifty United States. We used to be much more closely associated with Great Britain, but parted ways some years ago. We still stay in touch, however, like that remote cousin you tolerate because you must, if only for the annual family picnic.

      Michael Farrell

      19/02/2010 at 10:12 pm

      • …and you’re always welcome here, Michael.


        20/02/2010 at 6:01 am

  11. Michael: Just read your posting above. Gorrit – USA. I envy you (USAans) your relationship with UK and wish that Wales could be on a similar footing, even if our family party had perforce to be daily.


    20/02/2010 at 9:14 am

  12. Further to Michael’s “extreme Friday peasantry” (passim) with reference to Alfred, Lord, Tennysball, (of Wimbledon), I have communicated with an organisation purporting to be (George?) Washington’s local Library of Congressmen (see: http://viaf.org/viaf/61540536 ) and can confirm that the internationally established form of name for his Maudship is in fact:

    Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892

    His Laudanumship was followed by an illustrious line including a Governor-General of Australia, and a Captain of the English national cricket team (sadly a game unknown in the United Status of Quo due to its premature departure from the colonies). However, the baronetcy almost died out following the childless demise of the 5th Barren Tennyson in 2006. Fortunately, a distant cousin was located and prevented the end of the pierage.


    22/02/2010 at 8:43 pm

    • I once drank a tad too much and walked off the end of a pierage.

      Michael Farrell

      22/02/2010 at 9:41 pm

    • Neil: I know you were mostly just joshing, but I found this title entry for the poet in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (I swear I was only trying to verify a Mark Twain quote): “Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

      Michael Farrell

      28/02/2010 at 7:44 pm

  13. Audio of Tennyson reading “Charge of the Light Brigade”:


    Michael Farrell

    25/02/2010 at 7:08 am

    • Thanks for that, Michael!


      25/02/2010 at 7:13 am

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: