Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘adjectives

Eclogues and shivering sizars

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Philip Larkin

Why do writers use words that many, if not most, readers won’t understand? And, more importantly, did you know that a sizar can shiver? I’ll come back to that.

Here’s the first word: eclogue

And here’s where I stubbed my toe against it (from Robert Macfarlane’s review of  the Edward Thomas biography, Now All Roads Lead to France, published in the Guardian):

Even as the plains of Belgium were being scorched … the poets were still living out their eclogue, with conversation the labour and poetry the harvest.

And the definition of ‘eclogue’? It simply means a short poem, especially, apparently, a ‘pastoral dialogue’ (whatever that is; I did google it, but got distracted by some shiny things). See Oxford Dictionaries. So, there you have it. Tempted to use it? No, nor me.

Next up, also in the Guardian: sizar. John Banville, writing a review of The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, suddenly and bizarrely asserts:

 …yet the wealth and profusion of detail within it would purblind Larkin’s own shivering sizar.

Here’s a quick quiz for you:

A sizar is:

a) Always cold, that’s why it shivers
b) A ration of bread or beer
c) An undergraduate at Cambridge University or at Trinity College, Dublin, receiving financial help from the college and formerly having certain menial duties

The answer is c, but the word derives from b which is an obsolete meaning of the word ‘size’. See Oxford Dictionaries.

Larkin went to Oxford University. He couldn’t have been a sizar, shivering or otherwise.

 Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘purblind’, which is an adjective. Not a verb.

More on journalistic writing 


Written by Wordwatch

01/02/2012 at 3:23 pm

Technical stuff – part 12: prepositions

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A preposition is another type of word along with, for example, verbs, adjectives and nouns.

Prepositions are often used to describe where someone or something is or the time that something took place.

For example:

The firework display will start in the evening. (‘In’ is the preposition.)

The cat is between the fence and the wall. (‘Between’ is the preposition.)

The food is on the table. (‘On’ is the preposition.)

I work during the day. (‘During’ is the preposition.)

You’ve probably heard the mantra that you can’t place a preposition at the end of a sentence. Well, you can. Find out more.

Here’s a list of common prepositions:

  • To
  • Over
  • Under
  • Along
  • Above
  • Across
  • At
  • in
  • Below
  • Among
  • Off
  • On
  • Towards
  • With
  • During
  • Before
  • After
  • For
  • Between
  • Beside

Nouns, verbs and adjectives

Technical stuff – part 11: adjectives (ungradable)

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An example of a two-day weather forecast in th...
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Adjectives are describing words.

Most adjectives can show a difference in degree. For example, ‘hot’, ‘hotter’ and ‘hottest’.

However, some adjectives cannot show this difference in degree. For example, you can be ‘dead’, but you can’t be ‘deader’/’more dead’ or ‘deadest’/’most dead’.

Adjectives that cannot show a difference in degree are called  ‘non-gradable’ or ‘ungradable’. Other examples include:





However (there’s always a however), although some strict grammarians say that because ‘unique’, for example, is an ungradable adjective, it is always a punishable offence to use phrases such as ‘very unique’ or ‘really unique’. Well,  that isn’t quite so: ‘unique’ has a secondary meaning of  ‘remarkable or unusual’ and so it is OK to use such phrases, depending on the context.

So, I think we can relax and sometimes cut ourselves a little grammatical slack on the ungradable adjectives front.

Update: January 2013

The following is from Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s errors and ommissions column:

There are no degrees of infallibility

This is from a business story published on Wednesday: “That’s only its second ever annual loss since launch in 1997. While that’s an impressive record, it will raise questions among investors about whether Mr Harding’s venture is as infallible as it had previously seemed.”

Two things to note. “Ever” is redundant, as it often is. A second ever annual loss is no worse than a second annual loss – and any rhetorical reinforcement the point might need is supplied by “only”. “Questions about whether Mr Harding’s venture is as infallible as it had seemed” is nonsensical. There are no degrees of infallibility; the venture is either infallible or it is not. And it is silly to talk of “questions” about whether it is infallible. Obviously something is happening that is less than ideal, so it isn’t infallible; there’s no question about it. In this contest, “infallible” is the wrong word.

Here’s Oxford Dictionaries on ‘infallible’.

More on nouns, verbs and adjectives

Technical stuff – part 13: pronouns

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A curious kitty. Un ejemplo de curiosidad.
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We use pronouns all the time. They often help us to avoid boring repetition when we are writing and speaking. For example, look at the following sentence:

John said that shortly after John arrived John decided to eat John’s lunch and then feed John’s cat.

Of course, what we would really write is:

John said that shortly after he arrived he decided to eat his lunch and then feed his cat.

Instead of repeating the name ‘John’ we are using the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’.

So a pronoun is simply a word used to replace another word.

Very often, a pronoun is used to replace a noun, as in the sentence above where we see the noun ‘John’ being replaced with the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’.

Different types of pronoun

No need to get bogged down in this, but you may be interested to know that there are different types of pronoun. These are:

Personal — for example:

I, me, we, us, he, him, you, her, she, they, them

Possessive — for example:

mine, yours, ours, hers, his, theirs

Reflexive — for example:

ourselves, himself, herself, themselves

Demonstrative — for example:

this, those, that, these

Interrogative (used to ask questions) — for example:

who, whose, what, which

Indefinite — for example:

some, something, everyone, everything, someone, both, each, neither

Relative — for example:

who, whose, that, which (e.g. ‘The house that Jack built’)

Nouns, verbs and adjectives

Written by Wordwatch

24/02/2010 at 2:56 pm

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