Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Technical stuff’ Category

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.)


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.


Available now: Wordwatch for Kindle

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Wordwatch for KindleWell, the cover looks good… (that bit wasn’t me).

Here’s the blurb:

This is a basic guide to writing well. Aspects of grammar and punctuation that commonly cause confusion are demystified in plain English. You’ll find clear instructions on the correct use of possessive apostrophes, commas, speech marks, hyphens and semicolons.

Other topics include the subjunctive, split infinitives, and the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’. You can also learn more about active and passive sentences; commonly used foreign words and phrases; and word classes, including nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Also included is a brief, no-nonsense guide to politically correct language.

Coming soon: a paperback version.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon UK.



Is it a verb? Is it a noun? An introduction to the gerund

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Some words are ugly and some grammatical concepts are very tricky indeed. And sometimes ugly combines with tricky. But I know you like a challenge.

Exhibit A: the gerund.

Don’t go — the butler’s serving drinks afterwards.

This explanation involves verbs and nouns.

Because — drum roll — a gerund is a verb that takes it upon itself to be noun. But only when it feels like it, of course.

Government health warning: This is quite a difficult area and grammarians disagree over its finer details. The following is just a brief insight but may explain some of those ‘strange’ constructions you sometimes see. Also, a little basic knowledge of the gerund can come in handy when writing or speaking formally.

Deep breath.

Verbs that can become nouns end in ‘ing’, for example, ‘leaving’ as in the following:

Would you mind me leaving?

Would you mind my leaving?

But which version, strictly speaking, is correct? Well, the second version is correct because ‘leaving’ is being used as a noun, making it a gerund. A good test is to replace the word you are not sure about with another similar word that is definitely a noun (and not one of those pesky words that can be both a verb and a noun):

Would you mind me absence?

Would you mind my absence?

The first example is obviously wrong.

And here’s a slightly trickier example of the gerund in action:

I like that man wearing aftershave.

I like that man’s wearing aftershave.

The first sentence means that I like the man (who happens to be wearing aftershave).

The second means that I like the fact that he’s wearing aftershave.

You can see that the verb ‘wearing’ has become a noun in the second sentence because it is preceded by a possessive apostrophe.

This doesn’t cover everything about gerunds, but it’s a good start. Next time someone mentions it you can look intelligent and murmur ‘verb acting as a noun’, and that’ll be you off the hook.

Here’s some more info on gerunds.

Picture: ajschwegler

The past might be the future (and sophistry)

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Pilate Washing His Hands, Girolamo Romani

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, I’m three times as thick.

Just let that sentence wash over you for a moment; I’ll come back to it.

In the meantime, to explain my recent triple thickness, I couldn’t answer the following question:

The past tense in English always refers to the past. True or false?

The question arose as part of a course on teaching English as a foreign language. My answer (‘Yes, occasionally. Tea, anyone?’) didn’t quite pass the mustard.

The correct answer, you may be surprised to learn, is ‘false’. Look at the following sentence:

If I won the lottery, I’d never work again.

‘Won’ is obviously the past tense of ‘win’, but the sentence isn’t referring to something that has happened in the past (the speaker or writer hasn’t won the lottery).

In this case, the past tense of the verb ‘win’ is doing another job; it is being used (correctly) to imagine something that might happen in the future.

(To be technical, sentences containing clauses such as ‘If I won the lottery’ are given the grammatical label ‘conditional’.)

Three times as thick as…

Ah, yes, you spotted the fatal flaw in my opening sentence. To wit, it is meaningless. This came up because the following claim is emblazoned across a bottle of Carex hand wash I recently bought:

3X faster germ kill

Leaving aside the inelegant phraseology, the question left hanging is, of course, three times faster than what? A freight train? I had to scrutinise the back of the bottle with an extra-strength magnifier to discover that the product now works three times faster ‘than our previous hand wash’. Oh, I see, as fast as that. Is that fast?

Such sophistry really gets my goat, and so I have duly (and politely) emailed the good burgers of Carex (twice, because my first email was ignored, no idea why) to ask for some specific ‘germ kill’ timescales.

If I received a reply, I’d be very surprised. (<<< See what I did there?)

More tense talking

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