Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘good English

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.


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

Some things are worth repeating (and others aren’t)

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Can't Repeat

Image via Wikipedia

Repetition is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

Some writers think that repeating the same word is to be avoided at all costs, but that’s not so. Very often, the linguistic gymnastics involved render a piece of writing inelegant and amateurish.

David Sexton, writing in the London Evening Standard, provides a brilliant example of the strained effect that arises from trying, unnecessarily, to avoid repetition. In his piece he quotes a well-known UK broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, several times. At various junctures, according to Sexton, Bragg ‘argues’, ‘says’, ‘contends’, ‘complains’, ‘thinks’ and ‘wonders’.

Hmmm, could Bragg not have opined, expounded, expressed and expatiated as well?

Sexton should have just ditched all the fancy words along with his thesaurus and used ‘says’ throughout. The reading eye glides easily over this type of repetition and does not become distracted by a steadily mounting pile of synonyms strewn about the page.

On the other hand…

Look at this from the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

Mr. Paladino may have low approval ratings downstate. But to some residents around Buffalo, Mr. Paladino, a prominent local real estate developer, is a hometown hero. High turnout in Erie County, where Buffalo is, helped Mr. Paladino win the Republican primary.

As the column points out, a pronoun or two would have spared readers the jarring repetition of Mr Paladino’s surname in three consecutive sentences.

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None more use than a grammar book

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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

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