Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Commonly confused and just plain wrong’ Category

Word order, wrong words, and old chestnuts

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Wordsworth, the butler here at Wordwatch Towers, likes things to be in good order. Including words. So, reader (hope you’re OK, Gladys), we have him to thank for this one.

Why don’t we write: “the blue big boat”? Or: “a square huge table”? Or: the “meal French lovely”?

As Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence points out, these are examples of ‘hyperbaton’ – or putting words into an odd order.

He explains that certain words have to be put in a certain order or the whole thing sounds wrong. For example, in the case of adjectives (descriptive words), the order has to be:

opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose – with the noun coming at the end. So our phrases above should be:

  • the big blue boat

  • the huge square table

  • the lovely French meal

We can hear they sound right, but it’s nice to know there’s some method in the English language madness.

Geniuses can do what they like …

Hyperbaton is not always a complete no-no. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, it can be used as a stylistic tool. For example, to emphasise something as in: “This I must see” instead of “I must see this”.

And as Mark Forsyth points out in his book, the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II) has far more impact than the correctly ordered “The head that wears the crown lies uneasily”. But then Shakespeare was a genius; it’s probably best if the rest of us stick to the right word order, unless we want to a bit like Yoda sound.

 Not music to my ears …

The BBC, eh? They’re usually very good at getting words in the right order, but selecting the correct ones appears to be more of a challenge. This old chestnut slipped into the latest issue of the Beeb’s Music magazine while the editor was taking a nap (and not reading my previous post on this topic):

New York’s Met Opera has a long association with Wagner’s Parsifal as it was, in 1903, the first opera house to stage it outside Europe, flaunting the composer’s wishes …

Flaunting? No. In fact, the New York Met would have been flouting Wagner’s wishes. Flout means to openly disregard  a rule or convention; flaunt means to ‘display ostentatiously’.

 One thing leads to another …

The phrase ‘old chestnut’ is an idiom. While writing this post I became curious about why ‘old chestnut’ came to mean ‘a joke, story, or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition’. (See Oxford Dictionaries) Thank you, Wiktionary, for the answer.

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Written by Wordwatch

10/02/2018 at 12:06 pm

Anchors, beech trees and boks

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Anchors and beech trees. I know, how come I’ve not covered these already? Anyway, the first bit of this will be a confession about how thick I can be, and the second bit is designed to take your mind off the first bit.

Until very recently I thought that ‘anchors aweigh’ was spelt ‘anchors away’. Well, in my defence, I’ve never had to actually write the phrase down and the ‘away’ spelling that was vaguely lodged in my mind does kind of make sense; after all, the anchor is pulled away from the seabed when the ship has to start off (or whatever the nautical phrase is for a ship starting off).

So why ‘anchors aweigh’? Well, here’s a pretty good explanation from the US Navy website:

The word ‘weigh’ in this sense comes from the archaic word meaning to heave, hoist or raise. ‘Aweigh’ means that the action has been completed. The anchor is aweigh when it is pulled from the bottom. This event is duly noted in the ship’s log.

However, the soup thickens. Apparently, says Oxford Dictionaries, nautical types are allowed to spell ‘under way’ (as when something is in progress) as ‘under weigh’. Who knew?

Root and branch investigation

So, we’ve established that I shouldn’t be editing the next edition of The Big Book of Nautical Words, but what about the beech trees?

515rbud1rl__sx362_bo1204203200_This is from the enchanting Tree Wisdom by Jaqueline Memory Paterson. She explains that the beech tree has a unique place in European legend due to the belief that thin slices of beech wood were used to create the first book, as well as surfaces for writing on.

These stories, says the author, are backed by etymology, as the Anglo-Saxon for ‘beech’ was ‘boc’ which became our word, ‘book’. ‘Buche’ is the German for ‘beech’ and ‘buch’ the German for ‘book’, and the Swedish word ‘bok’ means both ‘book’ and ‘beech’.

See, now you’ve forgotten all about the anchors aweigh fiasco. Although I will be including the phrase in future spelling tests, so be warned.

A confession and some lovely words

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hhuntitledI’m so ashamed. The butler claims he told me ages ago (he didn’t) and is now sulking in the pantry. I considered pretending that I knew all along but my reader, Gladys (who seems to be spending a lot of time with the butler lately), would never forgive me for lying. So I have to ‘fess up.

It’s all to do with ellipsis. Now, ellipsis (plural: ellipses) can mean two things:

  • a word or words that are left out (in speech or writing)
  • the punctuation mark of three dots … that indicates the position of the missing words.

images5D26IYSEWho could possibly get this wrong? Oh, that would me.

Because, apparently (she said, trying to suggest that it’s been a well-kept secret until now), when using the three dots as a punctuation mark, there has to be a space either side of them. (I *ahem* sort of thought there only had to be a space after the end of the final dot.)

Here’s a great example from the story The Sisters in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners:

No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion …

(Not read Dubliners yet? Grab a copy – if only for the final genius story, The Dead.)

Multi-tasking

The ellipsis punctuation mark is also used in informal writing to indicate a trailing off of thought …

It can be used in this way both at the end of the sentence as above, or in the middle of a sentence:

I used to think I was good at this punctuation lark … oh, well, onwards and upwards.

education-project-class-a-schools-in-victorian-timesnowadays-in-the-uk-11-638Drama and hesitation

The ellipsis can also be used to build up dramatic effect:

I can’t believe it … you mean to say … he was the murderer?

Or hesitation:

Really? It doesn’t seem possible  … he seemed to … well, I’ll wait and see.

Note the correct use of a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark in all these examples. *makes note to self while standing in corner with dunce’s cap on*

In mitigation

What can I do to make up for all this? Oh, I know, share some lovely words with you.

61kXxVeed+L__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_These are stolen from an article by Robert Macfarlane, author of the bestselling book, Landmarks, a celebration of the relationship between words and landscapes:

  • burra: a sheltered spot, tucked away out of the wind , where certain flowers can grow (used in Oxfordshire, UK)
  • kesh: a makeshift ramp or bridge over a stream or marsh (Northern Ireland)
  • wicker: a goldfinch (Cheshire, UK)
  • dimmity or dimpsey: twilight (Devon, UK)
  • hazeling: of a spring morning, warm and damp, good for sowing seed (Hertfordshire, UK)
  • smeuse: the gap in the base of a hedgerow made by the regular passage of a small animal (Sussex, UK)
  • crizzle: the freezing of open water (Northamptonshire, UK)
  • zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff (Cornwall, UK)
  • ammil: the gleaming film of ice that cases twigs and blades of grass when a freeze follows a thaw (Devon, UK)

 And finally

Note that some style guides say that as well as a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark, there should be a space between each dot. But, hey, let’s not go mad; that would be a kesh too far.

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…

5c7c51b99254bbf0de3fe374b6be1c49

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.

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