Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘parts of speech

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

Past or passed?

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I'm so adjective, I verb nouns.
Image by louisa_catlover via Flickr

Sometimes the words ‘past’ and ‘passed’ are confused. To understand the difference, we’ll first look at ‘past’ and ‘pass’.


Past is an adjective(or ‘describing’ word) meaning gone by in time and no longer existing. For example:

  • The danger is now past.
  •  Past attempts to win had failed.
  •  I enjoyed the past 12 months.

Past is also a noun(the name of something) meaning a previous time.  For example:

  • The past is a mystery to me.
  •  In the past, women were not allowed to vote.


Pass can also be a noun meaning, for example, the name of a document, a qualification or a route through mountains. For example:

  •  I will need a bus pass.
  •  I got a pass in the music exam.
  •  I will take the pass through the mountains.

However, and most importantly in relation to the past/passed conundrum, is the fact that ‘pass’ is also a verb (or ‘action’ word) meaning to move in a particular direction. For example:

  • Please pass the salt.
  • Aeroplanes pass by overhead.
  • They will pass through many towns on their way home.

Past or passed?

‘Past’ can only be used as an adjective or a noun, as explained above.

However, as a verb, ‘pass’ becomes ‘passed’ to show that something has already happened (the past tense). For example:

  • She passed the salt.
  • Aeroplanes passed by overhead.
  • They passed through many towns on their way home.

Technical stuff — part 12: intransitive and transitive verbs

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Sleeping, male baby cat. Red hair.
Image via Wikipedia

This sounds horrible but isn’t really.

Intransitive verbs are simply verbs that can stand alone in a sentence. For example:

  • The man blushed.
  • I live.
  • The kitten sleeps.

Transitive verbs are verbs that need to be completed with the help of an object to ensure the sentence makes sense. For example:

  • He missed (verb) the bus (object).
  • She takes (verb) the leftovers (object)
  • They eat (verb) the fish (object).

Most transitive verbs can also be used without an object.

Find out more about nouns, verbs and adjectives

Written by Wordwatch

05/04/2010 at 2:06 pm

Technical stuff – part 12: prepositions

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Image via Wikipedia

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

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