Wordwatch Towers

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

None more use than a grammar book

with 10 comments

Peter Newell's illustration of Alice surrounde...

I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.

David St.Hubbins, band member, This is Spinal Tap (Spoof rockumentary,1984).

Grammar books sometimes bother me; you somehow feel as if you should believe everything you read in them. But while that might make you more of a selective human, it won’t in all cases arm you with the facts.

Even the scariest grammarians don’t always get it right, and here are a few examples from newspaper editor Simon Heffer’s solemnly entitled Strictly English:

Heffer confidently asserts:

‘Onto’ does not exist. The phrase is ‘on to’.

Now, come on Simon, lighten up, that’s not quite true, is it? Step forward Oxford Dictionarieswhich explains that ‘onto’ has been in use since the 18th century and is more or less standard in US English.

Next up: ‘partially’. Heff says that to do something ‘partially’ means to do it ‘with partiality’, in other words, while favouring one party over another. So I can’t say the meal was ‘partially eaten’ if I mean it was ‘partly eaten’. Except, actually, I can.

And, finally, ‘pristine’, says scary Simon, does not mean ‘bright, shiny and new’. It means ‘original’. Blimey, so I can’t say, for example, ‘a pristine white shirt’, meaning it’s clean, fresh and spotless? Hmmm, seems Oxford Dictionaries  likes its shirts pristine too (but not necessarily original). So, once again, relax, at ease, and as you were.

I’m not saying don’t read grammar books; they’ve taught me a lot, including Heffy’s. I’m just saying, don’t believe everything that’s in them. Read with narrowed, glinty eyes and within easy reach of big books that have ‘Oxford’ in their title.

There’s something about this that’s so black, it’s like how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.

Nigel Tufnel, band member, This Is Spinal Tap.

And as Alice in Wonderland  was probably not the first to ask: What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?

Sometimes, none. None more use.

Commonly confused and just plain wrong


10 Responses

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  1. As Heffer was undoubtedly writing about British English, I’m inclined to let him have “on to”. Let’s not be led astray by colonials 😉

    Partially – my Collins agrees with Heffer, as it does with pristine.

    The ODE deals with popular usage (which, as we know, is not the same as correct usage), and I doubt that the OED would agree with it.


    05/03/2011 at 7:20 pm

    • Firstly, Ron, thank you, because you made me realise I’d been referring to the ODE, when I meant the online Oxford Dictionaries site. (I’ve just amended the post).

      Yes, some dictionaries will agree with Heffer, but I think the general point stands: some grammar books can be misleading. It’s bad enough having to plough through some of them, without being misled as well. I’d go with Oxford over, e.g., Collins or Chambers, for a reason that is very good but currently escapes me.


      05/03/2011 at 7:35 pm

    • Well, then, on the subject of dictionaries that don’t have Oxford on the cover Webster’s offers, as one example for partial a “partial monopoly”. So, that would be not a monopoly in any sense at all then. . .


      05/03/2011 at 9:11 pm

      • Good spot, Ron! Thanks.


        06/03/2011 at 6:22 am

  2. Heffer’s opinions about grammar are even more pompous, ignorant and ridiculous than his political writings.

    Try searching for him on Language Log. The results are pretty amusing.



    05/03/2011 at 8:11 pm

    • Hi, and welcome to Wordwatch Towers. Thanks for the link! I just checked it out. A tag relating to a post about Heffer made me laugh: ‘prescriptivist poppycock’.


      05/03/2011 at 8:43 pm

      • I was looking for this earlier, but couldn’t find it:

        Perhaps the best joke is Heffer’s stipulation that Daily Telegraph readers “communicate with each other on ‘writing paper’, not notepaper”, implying (since we have earlier been told that “the phrase ‘each other’ can only apply to two people or things”) that the circulation of his august newspaper has suffered a precipitous decline.



        05/03/2011 at 9:52 pm

        • Thanks very much for taking the time to share that here. It’s very funny. Yes, had the Telegraph more than two readers, the phrase, according to Heffer’s rules, should be ‘one another’.


          06/03/2011 at 6:18 am

  3. (hmmm) Pristine does sound like a brand name for a laundering product…

    I’ve heard news readers say “part and partial”. Perhaps they took its meaning for granite.

    Invisible Mikey

    05/03/2011 at 10:17 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — it does sound like a laundry product! I confess, your ‘granite’ remark has me racking my brains (too early here, not enough tea yet). I’ll get there (she said hopefully)…

      Much, much, much (stars have been born and died) later…. OK, got it.


      06/03/2011 at 6:42 am

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