Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘good grammar


headerWelcome to Wordwatch Towers where you’ll find lots of stuff about how to write well.

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A woman without her man…

Good grammar and punctuation aren’t optional extras:

A woman without her man is nothing.

With the correct punctuation all becomes clear:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.


Try to or try and?

with 22 comments


Should we write ‘try to’ or ‘try and’? Or are both equally OK? Look at these examples:

He consulted with a trainer at most of the changes of ends, and ate bananas and bars to try and boost his energy levels but De Bakker completed a 6-0 6-3 6-2 rout. (The Independent newspaper)

Enemies of the coalition might try and renew his edicts after Tuesday’s budget. (The Guardian newspaper)

The American writers F Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner all received the Nobel Prize for Literature and all were alcoholics, said Dr Smith. “The idea that drugs and alcohol give artists unique insights and powerful experiences is an illusion,” he said. “When you try and capture the experiences [triggered by drugs or alcohol] they are often nonsense.” (The Independent newspaper)

In fact, ‘try to’ is correct when writing formally as explained by Oxford Dictionaries. So in the first two examples, the writers should not have used ‘try and’.

The third example is more tricky as it’s, presumably, the accurate transcription of Dr Smith’s words. There’s nothing wrong with using ‘try and’ informally and when speaking. However, this example raises the old conundrum: to what extent should newspapers correct the grammar and spelling of interviewees and contributors?

Commonly confused and just plain wrong



with 14 comments

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The death of the English language (and civilization generally) due to the proliferation of texting is regularly reported but, along with Mark Twain’s demise, this is surely an exaggeration.

First of all, it’s nothing new and did not arrive with the computer age. For example, the convention of writing ‘SWALK’ (Sealed with a loving kiss) at the end of love letters or on Valentine cards has been around for decades. And I can remember that children’s comics and annuals in the 1960s regularly included teasers such as the heading of this post. (Too wise you are too wise you be I see you are too wise for me.)

Interpreting ‘C’ as ‘see’ didn’t exactly boil my brain as a child or render me incapable of learning how to read and write properly.

However, its history goes back even further as a letter published in the UK newspaper, the Guardian, revealed. The writer, Brian Read, recalls that his father used ‘text language’ as a teleprinter operator in the 1920s and 1930s and carried on doing so into his retirement, signing off letters to his son with: Thx for yr ltr bi bi.

The grammarian, David Crystal, wrote an excellent article about text language, also published in the Guardian a while back, in which he says that texting is: …merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings.

Indeed, a recent study carried out by Coventry University has found that texting is ‘actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children’.

Crystal adds that no disaster is pending. I agree. Unless the gradual evolution of massive opposable thumbs represents a threat to the human race.

Btw, this gr8s on me…

Grammar writer, Lynne Truss, wrote in the Guardian a while back:

We pedants are supposed to hate texting, but we don’t. We are in love with effective communication, and there’s nothing more effective than sending a message direct from your phone to someone else’s, sometimes from the hairdresser’s (which I mention for a reason). “I CANT BELIEVE U PUT APOSTROPHE IN HAIRDRESSERS,” a friend texted me recently (he obviously had a bit of time on his hands, too). “Oh, I felt the apostrophe was required,” I texted back, happily – in both upper and lower case, with regular spacing, and a comma after “Oh”.


Neologisms — new words and phrases

Double negatives

with 16 comments

Double negatives drive some people to distraction. Here are a few examples:

Wizard of Oz (1925 film)

“Nobody sees the Wizard! Not nobody, not nohow!”

  • I don’t know nothing.
  • He doesn’t want nothing.
  • They’re not doing nothing for me.
  • She said she didn’t have nothing to say.
  • It didn’t come as no surprise to me.

Double negatives cause some people palpitations because, strictly speaking, they mean the exact opposite of what is intended.

However, after noting that double negatives of this type should obviously be avoided when speaking formally and in all but the most casual writing, we can then get off our grammatical high horses and relax a little. Using double negatives is not, at least when I last checked, a treasonable offence. As the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) notes:

In practice this sort of double negative is widespread in dialect and other non-standard English and rarely gives rise to confusion as to the intended meaning.

The ODE also notes that double negatives are standard in some other languages such as Spanish, and were normal in Old English and Middle English.

Correct use of the double negative

A further interesting point (and another important reason to get off our high horses) is that double negatives can be used judiciously in all types of writing and speaking to add subtlety. Compare, for example, the following two statements:

  • I was not unimpressed with his performance.
  • I was impressed with his performance.

The first statement is at face value a simple double negative having the same meaning as the second statement. However, the effect is subtler: the first statement implies an all-important ‘but…’. In other words, the speaker is politely communicating that they have reservations.

More from Oxford Dictionaries on double negatives

Accents and dialects

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