Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Plain language tips’ Category

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.


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.

Veni, vidi, venti — or something

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Do you suffer from coffee confusion?  No, not a condition brought on by drinking too much of the stuff, but a type of head-spinning malady apparently afflicting coffee shop customers who don’t understand what ‘latte’ or ‘mocha’ means or that ‘tall’ (in coffee world) means ‘small’. (Does it? I’m a tea drinker.)

English: Coffee cup with cappuccino with coffe...In response, a UK store chain, Debenhams, is trying out a simplified menu in one of its London shops. A recent press release explains that anyone wanting a caffe latte will now have to ask for a ‘really really milky coffee’. But won’t that make me sound a bit like an eight-year-old?

Cappuccino and caffe mocha are also off the menu, replaced by ‘frothy coffee’ (try saying that in a hurry) and ‘chocolate flavoured coffee’ respectively.

Oh, and those ‘confusing’ size choices have also been dropped in favour of a ‘cup’ or ‘mug’.

I’m conflicted. Not only because I have no idea why someone would want to drink a venti espresso (that’s wrong, isn’t it?) instead of a non-tall tea, but because I’m usually all in favour of plain language. But I’m not sure about all of this. Isn’t the language part of the pleasure of visiting a coffee shop? I know we Brits are notoriously averse to learning Johnny Foreigner’s lingo, but if I have to pay £28.30 for a tall grande I’ll be happier if it at least sounds slightly more exotic than the mug of something I brewed in my kitchen at breakfast.

And the words aren’t that hard, are they?

Debenhams has also managed to complicate in its efforts to simplify. A black coffee is now a ‘simple coffee, with or without milk’. But isn’t a black coffee with milk a white coffee?

Perhaps a better solution would have been to keep the original names on the menu, but add a description in brackets. A winning blend (see what I did there) for both the cappuccino-challenged and the coffee cognoscenti.

Larger than something very large indeed

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English: The E-ELT

Science, eh? Lots of big, off-putting words and whatnot. Sums, too, usually. Plain language? Not so you’d notice.

Until now.

My plain language award for 2011 goes to the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It’s building an extremely large telescope. The telescope’s official name? You will never guess, it being science stuff and all, so just read on:

The European Extremely Large Telescope.

E-ELT for short.

This is an amazing piece of kit: the world’s ‘biggest eye on the sky’ as the ESO, in a slightly more poetic frame of mind, describes it. 

I’m presuming it supersedes the Very Large Telescope (yes, that’s its official name), which makes me wonder what the next, even bigger, telescope could possibly be called. The Really Extremely Large Telescope? The You Think THAT Was Big Telescope?

Speaking of plain language, the excellent Plain English Campaign has just announced its Golden Bull awards for 2011. These highlight examples of gobbledegook in public life. It’s not a vintage year for the awards, in my opinion, but worth it to find out that Harrow Council, here in the UK, has a ‘Personalisation Implementation Team’.

I have no idea what it does, but I’m guessing not astronomy.

Plain and simple — good writing guide

Plain language tips

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