Etica's Guide to written English
The English language is a rich language: it has a huge
vocabulary and is spoken, in one guise or another, in every continent on the
planet. It is fast becoming the global language. But this richness comes at
a price, and that is it is a highly complex language. Its rules are many and
varied and can often seem illogical or contradictory. Mastery of the language
is a requirement of many professions, and it is highly desirable in many others.
But nobody comes naturally equipped with this mastery. Standard English has
to be acquired, usually by formal education. Sadly, however, in recent years
schools in most English-speaking countries have pulled back from teaching this
material, either through lack of time, resources or a misguided philosophy that
language cannot be governed by rules (a spoken tongue cannot and should not
be ‘corrected’), and therefore such rules should not be taught. Perhaps this
problem has been with us longer than we realise: George Bernard Shaw was moved
to say, in Pygmalion, ‘The English have no respect for their language,
and will not teach their children to speak it. . . . It is impossible for an
Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him’
Anything that helps to bring order to a language
as unruly and idiosyncratic as English is almost by definition a ‘good thing’.
Even the most ardent structuralist would concede that there must be at least
some conventions of usage (otherwise, as Shaw, again, once remarked, we might
as well spell ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’: ‘gh’ as in ‘tough’, ‘o’ as in ‘women’ and ‘ti’
as in ‘motion’). At the same time, rules of language must be its servant rather
than its master. Much as we cherish our language for its beauty and power, it
exists to enable us to communicate more effectively; any rule that obstructs
or hinders such communication is almost by definition therefore a rule that
does not deserve to be followed.
Those who wish to understand the full depth and
intricacy of the language and its everyday use are urged to consult one of the
major works on the subject, such as Fowlers Modern English Usage. How
the ‘rules’ of the language should be put into practice in written English are
best explained in Nicola Harris Basic Editing or Judith Butcher Copy-Editing.
Here I have tried to do no more than draw together answers to some of the more
common questions that users of the language have. In doing so, I have relied
very heavily on a number of sources, namely Bill Bryson’s excellent work Troublesome
Words (2nd edn, 1987, Penguin), RL Trask’s equally absorbing Mind the
Gaffe (2001, Penguin), and the wonderful OED website AskOxford.com.
Common conceptions and misconceptions
The famous American essayist, HL Mencken, was
once moved to say (perhaps in the ‘heat and agony’ of the moment!) that ‘Correct
spelling, indeed, is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by schoolma'ams
than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world.’ So, do
rules of grammar really matter? ‘Why care for grammar as long as we are good?’,
as Artemus Ward would have it. Had Shakespeare said ‘Shall I compare thee with
a summer’s day’, would we have thought any less of his work? It is surely not
necessary to go quite so far as the great French novelist Montaigne, who once
said ‘The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar’.
But surely we can agree that if language is truly ‘the dress of thought’, then
observance of the basic rules will help ensure we are not embarrassingly exposed.
These are a few that should be considered.
GRAMMAR AND WORDS
A/An: the indefinite article
Which form of the indefinite article should be
used before a word beginning with an 'h'? If the h is silent, of course,
then an must be used: an honest man, an hour or two. (Honour
and heir are other words with a silent h.) If the h is
pronounced, and the first syllable is stressed, then only a is possible: a
history of Wales is right, while an history of Wales is never acceptable.
The problems arise when the first syllable is
unstressed: should we write a historical event or an historical event?
The second derives from the days when many people pronounced these words with
no h: that is, they actually said an 'istorical event, and so
that is what they wrote.
Today though, almost everyone now pronounces
an h in such words, and you are firmly advised to prefer a historical
event: the other now looks strange or worse to most readers. The same goes
for a hotel, which is better than an hotel.
Otherwise, the choice between a and an
depends entirely on the pronunciation of the following item, not on its spelling.
Write a union, because union is pronounced with an initial consonant
sound (just like a Yule log), but write an MP, because MP is pronounced
with an initial vowel sound (just like an empty box).
Errors of this sort are common before numbers:
write an £80 million contract and not a £80 million contract.
The normal way to form an adverb is to add -ly,
as in stupidly, publicly, or humorously. However, there
- If the word ends in -ll, add -y
- For words of more than one syllable that end
in -y, remove the -y and add -ily (eg happily).
- Most single-syllable words ending in -y
are regular, except for daily and gaily.
Despite the precedents (we say almost
rather than all most and altogether rather than all together),
alright continues to be frowned upon in written English and is best,
for now, avoided.
As and like
Use like before a noun, as in 'She's very
like her mother'. Where a clause follows, you should use as or as
if, eg 'He's behaving as if he owns the place' (not 'like he owns'),
or 'You don't know him as I do' (not 'like I do').
Comparatives and superlatives
The usual way to form comparatives and superlatives
of adjectives is to add -er and -est: great, greater,
greatest. There are four groups of exceptions:
- For words ending in a consonant followed by
a -y, change the -y to an -i before adding the ending
(eg happier, happiest).
- For one-syllable words containing a long vowel
sound and ending in -e, eg late, remove the -e before
adding the ending: later, latest.
- For one-syllable words containing a short
vowel sound and ending in a single consonant (eg sad), double the final
consonant before adding the ending: sadder, saddest.
- Words ending in -l normally just add
the ending, but there is one exception, cruel. The comparative and
superlative are crueller and cruellest.
Compare to/Compare with
These two can be carefully distinguished. Compare
to should be used to liken things: compare with to consider their
similarities and differences. He compared London to Bombay means he considered
London to be like Bombay; he compared London with Bombay means he considered
the similarities between London and Bombay, and assessed their differences.
Andrew Jackson is once reported to have said
that ‘It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!’
And on similar lines, Mark Twain retorted that he didn’t ‘give a damn for a
man that can only spell a word one way.’ While it is tempting to agree, it seems
more likely that simple confusion rather than an adherence to this philosophy,
is usually responsible for an inappropriate word being used because it looks
or sounds so like another. The list of such words is a long one, but these are
some of the more common. So, do not confuse:
- adoptive with adopted: children
are adopted, but parents are adoptive.
- adverse (unfavourable, bad), with
averse (strongly disliking or opposed to, as in I am not averse
to helping out)
- affect (make a difference to)and effect
(a result or bring about (a result))
- ambiguous (primarily means `having
more than one meaning, open to different interpretations') with ambivalent:
ambiguous (having mixed feelings)
- amoral (not concerned with morality)
with immoral (not conforming to accepted standards of morality)
- appraise (assess) with apprise
- augur (be a sign of (a likely outcome)),
with auger (a tool used for boring).
- autarchy (absolute power) with autarky
- born (existing as a result of birth)
with borne (past participle of ‘to bear’)
- broach (as in broach the subject, to
‘bring up’), with brooch (a piece of jewellery)
- censure (express strong disapproval
of) with censor (suppress unacceptable parts of (a book, film, etc)).
- climactic (forming a climax) with climatic
(relating to climate)
- complacent (smug and self-satisfied)
with complaisant (willing to please)
- complement (a thing that enhances something
by contributing extra features) with compliment (an expression of praise
or politely congratulate)
- contemptible (deserving contempt) with
contemptuous (bestowing contempt)
- continuous (primarily means `without
interruption', and can refer to space as well as time, as in the cliffs
form a continuous line along the coast) with continual (typically
means `happening frequently, with intervals between', as in the railway
has been disrupted by continual breakdowns.)
- council (an administrative or advisory
body) with counsel (advice or guidance)
- councillor(a member of a council) with
counsellor (someone who gives guidance on personal or psychological
- credible (believable, convincing) with
creditable (deserving acknowledgement and praise)
- dearth (scarcity, lack)and plethora
- defective (not working properly) and
deficient (missing a necessary part)
- definite (certain, sure) with definitive
(decisive and with authority)
- defuse (remove the fuse from (an explosive
device) or reduce the danger or tension in (a difficult situation)) with diffuse
(spread over a wide area)
- desert (a waterless area) with dessert
- disassemble (to take apart) with dissemble
(to hide something)
- discreet (careful not to attract attention
or give offence) with discrete (separate, distinct)
- disinterested (neutral or impartial)
and uninterested (not interested)
- distrust (to suspect that someone is
dishonest) with mistrust (to lack confidence in someone)
- diverse (of various kinds) with divers
(archaic word meaning ‘several’)
- draft (a preliminary version or an
order to pay a sum) with draught (current of air or an act of drinking); in North American
English the spelling draft is used for all senses.
- draw (primarily a verb) with drawer
(sliding storage compartment)
- egotism (excessive conceit or self-absorption);
egoism (less common and more technical word, for an ethical theory
that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality)
- envelop (wrap up, cover, or surround
completely) with envelope (a paper container used to enclose a letter or document)
- exceptionable (open to objection; causing
disapproval or offence) with exceptional (not typical or unusually good)
- expeditious (quick and efficient) with
- fawn (young deer, and a light brown
colour) with faun (a Roman deity that is part man, part goat)
- flaunt (display ostentatiously) with
flout (openly disregard (a rule))
- flounder (generally means `have trouble
doing or understanding something, be confused') with founder (fail
or come to nothing)
- forego (precede) with forgo
- gild (to coat in gold) with guild
(an association of craftsmen)
- grisly (causing horror or revulsion)
with grizzly (from the same root as grizzled and refers to the
bear's white-tipped fur)
- hung (a picture is hung) and hanged
(a man is hanged for a crime he did not commit)
- hoard (a store of something valuable)
with horde (a disparaging term for a large group of people)
- imminent (about to happen) and immanent
- imply and infer. Imply is used with a speaker as its subject, as in he implied that
the General was a traitor, and indicates that the speaker is suggesting
something though not making an explicit statement. Infer is used in
sentences such as we inferred from his words that the General was a traitor,
and indicates that something in the speaker's words enabled the listeners
to deduce that the man was a traitor.
- impractical (not practical; can be
done, but not worth it) and impracticable (impossible in practice)
- infringe (to break or violate (a law))
and impinge (usually + upon, to encroach)
- inimical (hostile) with inimitable (cannot be imitated)
- the possessive its (as in turn the
camera on its side) with the contraction it's (short for either
it is or it has, as in it's my fault; it's been a hot day).
- judicial (pertaining to judges or the
courts) with judicious (prudent)
- lama (a Buddhist monk) with llama
(a South American animal)
- laying (as in to lay a carpet) with
lying (as in you lie down). The past tense and past participle of 'lay'
is 'laid'; the past tense of 'lie' is 'lay' and the past participle
- licence (noun: a TV licence) and
license (verb: he was licensed to kill)
- loath (reluctant; unwilling) with loathe
- loose (as a verb means `unfasten or
set free') with lose (cease to have or become unable to find)
- luxuriant (rich and profuse in growth)
with luxurious (characterised by luxury; very comfortable and extravagant)
- marital (of marriage) with martial
(of war): a subtle but important difference!
- militate (militate against to
mean `be an important factor in preventing'), with mitigate, (make
(something bad) less severe)
- naturism (nudism) and naturist
(a nudist) with naturalism and naturalist: naturalism is an artistic or literary approach or style; a naturalist
is an expert in natural history, or an exponent of naturalism.
- obsolescent (declining, dying out)
and obsolete (no longer used)
- officious (asserting authority or interfering
in an annoyingly domineering way) with official, (relating to an authority
or public body and having the approval or authorisation of such a body)
- ordinance (an authoritative order)
with ordnance (guns or munitions)
- palate (the roof of the mouth) with
palette (an artist's board for mixing colours)
- pedal (a noun denoting a foot-operated
lever; a verb it means `move by means of pedals') with peddle (a verb
meaning `sell (goods)). The associated noun from pedal is pedaller
(US pedaler), and the noun from peddle is pedlar or peddler.
- perquisite (a special right or privilege
enjoyed as a result of one's position) with prerequisite (something that is required as a prior condition for
something else; can also be an adjective, meaning `required as a prior condition)
- perspicuous (expressing things clearly)
with perspicacious, (having a ready understanding of things)
- pour (to be be absorbed in studying
) with pore (to dispense)
- practical (good at making, organising,
or mending things) and practicable (achievable, attainable)
- practice (noun: he worked in a legal
practice) and practise (verb: he practised every day)
- prescribe (to lay down as a rule) with
proscribe (to prohibit or condemn)
- principal (first in order of importance;
main) with principle (a noun meaning chiefly `a basis of a system of
thought or belief')
- proscribe (rather formal word meaning
`condemn or forbid') with prescribe (either `issue a medical prescription' or `recommend with
- ravage (devastate, plunder) with ravish
(archaic word for rape)
- refer (to cite explicitly) with allude
(to cite inexplicictly, to hint at)
- regretful (feeling or showing regret)
with regrettable (giving rise to regret; undesirable)
- repel (to drive back) with repulse
(to excite disgust in)
- shear (cut the wool off (a sheep))
with sheer (as a verb means `swerve or change course quickly' or `avoid
an unpleasant topic', as an adjective means `nothing but; absolute', `perpendicular',
or `(of a fabric) very thin')
- silken (made of silk) with silky
(looking or feeling like silk)
- stammer (abnormally hesitant and broken
manner of speech) with stutter (involuntary repetition of sounds)
- stationary (adjective with the sense
`not moving or changing') with stationery (a noun meaning `paper and other writing materials')
- stimulant (a drug which increases activity
or makes you more alert) with stimulus (anything, though rarely a drug,
which encourages you to act)
- story (a tale or account) with a storey
(a floor of a building. In North America the spelling story is sometimes used for storey.)
- systematic (orderly and thoroughly)
with systemic (pertaining to a system)
- titillate (excite) with titivate
(adorn or smarten up)
- tortuous (full of twists and turns
or excessively lengthy and complex) with torturous (characterised by
pain or suffering), or tortious (appertaining to a tort)
- turbid (generally used in reference
to a liquid and means `cloudy or opaque') with turgid (tends to mean
`tediously pompous' or, in reference to a river, `swollen, overflowing')
- unexceptionable (that cannot be taken
exception to, inoffensive), with unexceptional, (not exceptional; ordinary)
- unsociable (not enjoying the company
of or engaging in activities with others) with unsocial (usually means
`socially inconvenient' and typically refers to the hours of work of a job)
and antisocial (contrary to accepted social customs and therefore annoying)
- venal (susceptible to bribery; corruptible)
with venial (used in Christian theology in reference to sin (a venial sin, unlike a mortal sin, is not regarded as depriving
the soul of divine grace))
- who's with whose; who's is a contraction of who is or who has, while whose
is used in questions such as whose is this? and whose turn is it?
- wreath (arrangement of flowers) with
wreathe (envelop, surround, or encircle)
- your with you're; you're is a contraction of you are, while your is a
possessive determiner used in phrases such as your turn.
One of the most common types of spelling error
is a mistake over whether a word is spelled with a double or a single consonant.
There are several possibilities:
- A word should have a double consonant, but
is written with only one. Words which may be misspelled in this way include
appoint (and related words like appointment and disappointment);
address; occur; suppress.
- A consonant is mistakenly doubled. This is
especially likely when a single consonant follows a short vowel, as in canister;
banister; pavilion. Other words likely to be misspelled in
this way include anoint; apartment; biased; omit.
- A word has two sets of double consonants,
one or both of which is left as a single letter. Examples include accommodate;
aggressive; committee; embarrass; millennium.
- One consonant in a word should be doubled
and another left single – but which is which? Likely candidates for this type
of misspelling might be appal; accumulate; parallel.
A short vowel before the consonant that should be single makes life more difficult
in words such as commemorate; desiccate; disappear;
necessary; recommend; reconnoitre; titillate.
The Caribbean and the Mediterranean can both cause problems.
Some mistakes are caused by trying too hard –
you may remember a difficult point about one word and wrongly think that it
applies to another that looks or sounds similar. For instance, though accommodate
has a double m following a double c, in accumulate the
m is single; harass has only a single r even though the
r in embarrass is double.
In general, many mistakes in the use of double
and single consonants arise from comparison with words that sound or look similar,
or with related words. For example, many people spell inoculate with
a double n, influenced by words such as innocent and innocuous;
while the number of words beginning with irr- (irregular, irritable
etc.) makes the single r in iridescent harder to remember. Even
trickier are words like fulfil and skilful, set beside full,
skill, and fill.
Groups of consonants
Words with a cluster of two, three, or more consonants
are easy to misspell: you may put the letters in the wrong order, or use too
few or too many:
Some vowel combinations are tricky too:
- Remember to put the n before the m
in enmity and environment.
- Remember the first h in ophthalmic,
diphtheria, and naphtha.
- Remember the p in symptom.
- There is a double h in withhold,
but only one in threshold.
- Don't put a p in hamster, or
a d in pigeon.
- a comes before u in gauge,
but after u in guard.
- u comes before o in buoy
- Remember all the vowels in manoeuvre.
In words such as isn't, I'm, or
don't, the apostrophe indicates that one or more letters have been left
- It's is the contracted form of 'It
is' or 'It has', not the possessive of it. The possessive is
its, with no apostrophe. So you should say `It's a lovely day' or `It's
been a lovely day', but `The dog is in its kennel'.
- You're is a contraction of 'You are'.
The possessive is your. Say `You're my best friend', but `Where is
Dangling participles often make good jokes; but
they can be confusing and it is best to avoid them. A participle should describe
the grammatical subject of the main clause, as in the sentence 'Walking down
the road, I bumped into a friend'. A dangling participle is one that the speaker
really intends to describe something other than the grammatical subject of the
sentence. If we interpret 'Riding along on my bicycle, a dog knocked me over'
grammatically, the participle riding must relate to dog, so we
end up with a dog that has first stolen a bicycle and then ridden it carelessly!
The speaker really means riding to relate to me, and anyone reading
or hearing the sentence would understand this. As a rule, however, it is best
to construct sentences so that they say what you really mean them to.
Words that are formed from existing words can
also be confusing – sometimes the original spelling stays the same and sometimes
it changes. Some to remember are:
- Words ending in -our, eg honour,
favour, labour, humour. Keep the u when you
add -able or -er – eg honourable, favourable,
labourer; favourite also keeps the u. But u is
very often lost – eg before -ous, as in humorous, glamorous,
rigorous; also in honorary and honorific.
- Occur and occurrence but refer
and reference. In verbs ending in -ur and -ur, double
the r when you add -ence; leave it single if the verb ends
in -er or -ear (appear and apparent).
- Drop the o if you add -iation
to a verb ending in -ounce. The most common example is pronunciation
Be sure that you know what you are trying to
say if you use two negative words in a sentence. In English, two negatives cancel
each other out rather than double the negative force of your sentence. 'I didn't
see no one' is a rather strange way of saying that you saw someone, rather than
an emphatic way of saying that you saw no one.
It is also wrong to say something like 'There
wasn't hardly anyone there'; hardly and scarcely should not be
used with negatives. Similarly, the verb miss already has a negative
meaning, and doesn't need to have a negative added: say `I miss seeing her',
not `I miss not seeing her'.
Due to/owing to
Most authorities continue to accept that due
is an adjective only and must always modify a noun, so that he was absent
due to illness would be incorrect, and should be recast as his absence
was due to illness. Owing to can be used in all cases (so he was
absent owing to illness or his absence was owing to illness would
both be acceptable). Often because can be used instead of either!
Do not say 'equally as', eg 'This model is equally
as effective'. You can use either equally or as on its own. In
sentences such as 'My new car is just as good as the old one', where two nouns
are compared, you could replace just as with as, but it would
be wrong to use equally.
The usual way to form a plural is to add an -s,
eg dogs, popes.
If the word ends in -ch, --s, -sh,
-x, -z, then add -es, eg branches, masses,
bushes, boxes, chintzes.
Most words that end in -f or -fe
change the ending to -ves (eg wives, calves), although
there are exceptions (eg beliefs, chiefs, dwarfs, gulfs,
For words that end in a vowel + y, add
-s, eg days, boys.
If a word ends in a consonant + y, change
the -y to -ies, eg babies, spies. Words that end
in -o normally just add -s, but there is a group of words that
add -oes: these include buffaloes, dominoes, echoes,
goes, grottoes, haloes, heroes, mangoes,
mosquitoes, potatoes, tomatoes, tornadoes, torpedoes,
vetoes, and volcanoes.
Haves and have-nots
Remember the had in sentences like 'I
had better go now'. Because 'I had' can be contracted to 'I'd', people often
hear it as I and leave out had altogether. 'I better go' is not
correct in standard English; always use I'd or I had.
Avoid ‘Should of’! In sentences like 'I
might have known' and 'You should have gone', many people use of instead
of have. This too is based on a mishearing, and is wrong: remember to
He, she, or they?
People are increasingly using the plural pronoun
they to refer to one person if they do not know whether that person is
male or female. Until quite recently, he was generally used to refer
to a person of either sex, as in `Every child needs to know that he is loved',
but nowadays many people feel that such a use is sexist. He or she is possible, but is rather awkward. They is generally
accepted in sentences using words such as someone or anyone,
eg 'Anyone can join if they are a resident'. More people object to they
being used after a single noun, as in 'Ask a friend if they can help'. Partridge
continued to do so in Usage and Abusage (1973 revision):
‘they, their, misused for he, his
as in "Anyone thinks twice when their life is at stake", read "his
Although Fowler (in 1926) disliked the practice,
the latest edition notes that ‘the process seems irreversible’. The OED, while
admitting that it was ‘not favoured by grammarians’, gives several examples
dating from the fifteenth century to George Bernard Shaw’s Candida: ‘It’s
enough to drive anyone out of their senses’ (1898).
Part of our earlier teaching was the result of
a tendency to use the third person plural pronouns in a vague and unattributable
way, such as ‘They say that’, ‘They should do something about it’, when ‘it
is said that’ and ‘Mrs Bloggs told Mrs Jones, who whispered to me’ or ‘The parish
council should take action’ would at least give a clearer direction. The lack
of a named subject is irritating and careless in such contexts but that doesn’t
make the use of the third person plural wrong. Indeed, according to Longman’s
Guide To English Usage (1988):
‘It is perfectly legitimate to
use "they" for "people in general" (They say we’ll have
a hard winter) or for "the authorities" (They took my licence away).
It is often better to do this than to rely constantly on the passive, as in
"My licence was taken away".’
In communications referring, for example, to
groups of people such as ethnic minorities or elderly patients, the use of the
third person plural is not only widespread but it is also, more crucially, much
easier to read:
‘If you feel that your friend or
relative needs additional support, ask for an assessment of their needs.’
‘It is important that your friend
or relative has regular eye tests so that they can continue to make the most
of the sight that remains to them.’
Headings can be a very effective way of guiding
the reader through a narrative. They are at their most effective when kept short,
and to the point. You should ensure too that the first sentence under a heading
can stand on its own were the heading to be removed: the heading should not
be treated as the start of the sentence which follows it.
I or me?
Be careful to use the pronouns I and me,
he and him, she and her, we and us,
and they and them in the right place. Use I, we,
etc when you are talking about someone who has done something (ie who is the
subject of the sentence), and use me, us, etc. when you
are talking about someone who has had something done to them (ie who is the
object of the sentence). People most often make mistakes over this when
they are talking about more than one person:
- 'Me and Annie had a dog once'; 'Adrian and
me were going out'. In these sentences you should use I, not me,
because the two people are the subject in both.
- Watch Helen and I while we show you'. You
need me here, as the object of watch.
- Everything depends on you and I'. Use me,
us, etc. after prepositions.
A good guide in cases like these is to see whether
the sentence sounds right with only the pronoun. If 'Me had a dog' is wrong,
then so is 'Annie and me had a dog'; if you wouldn't say 'Watch I while I show
you', you shouldn't say 'Watch Helen and I'.
It's right to say 'between you and me', and wrong
to say 'between you and I'. This is because a preposition such as 'between'
should be followed by an object pronoun such as 'me', 'him', 'her', and 'us'
rather than a subject pronoun such as 'I', 'he', 'she', and 'we'.
I before e
The spelling rule that most people know best
is ‘i before e except after c’. Generally it is safe to
follow this rule – eg achieve, believe, niece, siege,
and yield beside ceiling, conceive, deceive, and
receive. One very important exception is seize, spelled with e
before i; others are caffeine and protein. Species
goes the other way, with ie following c.
I and e in combination can represent
a lot of sounds besides long e; you may have problems with some of these
- Short e: spelled ie in friend;
but ei in leisure, heifer.
- Short i: ie in mischief,
sieve; ei in forfeit, counterfeit.
- Long a: ei in weigh, sleigh,
neigh, neighbour, eight, eighty, reign.
- eir: ie in fierce;
ei in weird
- Others to remember; foreign; height
and weight (spelled the same way though they sound different); hierarchy;
Long e can cause some problems when it's
spelled in other ways too. A and e are worth noticing:
- Ea is a very common spelling for long e, as
in heat or breathe. Be careful to put the a before the e in anaesthetise,
haemoglobin, and leukaemia.
Less or fewer?
Use the comparative form fewer with plural
nouns, eg 'There are fewer people here than there were yesterday', rather than
saying 'There are less people . . . ' Use less with uncountable nouns
– that is, ones with no plural form, eg 'He has less money than I have'. Strictly
speaking, ‘eat less cake and biscuits’ should be rendered ‘eat less cake and
fewer biscuits.’ This is perhaps an example of when it is better to apply good
sense and preserve the flow of the text, rather than strictly apply the ‘rules’
of the language.
Might or may?
People often confuse 'may have' and 'might have'.
'May have' should be used only when you are not sure whether or not something
happened. If you want to say that at some time in the past it was possible for
something to happen but in fact it did not, use 'might have'. So saying 'an
accident in which two people may have drowned' implies that you do not know
whether the people are alive or dead; if you say 'two people might have drowned',
you are implying that they survived, although the accident could in other circumstances
have led to their deaths.
When you use pairs like 'both . . . and', 'not
only . . . but also', or 'neither . . . nor', make sure that each word in the
pair is in the right place. The two words should introduce symmetrical structures,
eg 'both at home and at work', not 'both at home and work'.
Strictly speaking, you should say either 'He
looked neither to right nor to left' or 'He looked to neither right nor left',
but not 'He looked neither to right nor left'. Similarly, a sentence like 'She
is not only a talented singer but writes her own songs' is badly formed. You
could rewrite it as either 'She is not only a talented singer but also a composer'
or 'She not only sings but also writes her own songs'.
- To form a possessive from a singular noun,
add an apostrophe followed by s: 'the girl's book'.
- Add an apostrophe to plurals ending in s,
e. g. 'the girls' books'.
- If a plural noun does not end in s,
add an apostrophe followed by s: 'the children's toys'.
- Also add an apostrophe to a name ending in
-es that is pronounced like the word is: 'Moses' mother'.
- Other names ending in s, eg Jones
and James, ought to take an apostrophe followed by s: Jones’s book.
Increasingly, the final s is being omitted, as it sounds awkward: Jones’
The ‘rule’ that a preposition should not end
a sentence is almost a century out of date. The rule was enshrined by eighteenth-century
man of letters Bishop Robert Lowth in his idiosyncratic Short Introduction
to English Grammar, where he urged readers not to end sentences with a preposition
if they could decently avoid it. Too many people took him too literally and
today the ‘rule’ is widely considered an affectation. Indeed, some sentences
are difficult to imagine with the preposition anywhere but at the end of the
sentence: ‘this bed has not been slept in’, ‘what is the world coming to?’,
‘I don’t know what you are talking about’. Churchill’s famous scribbled comment
‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put’ is often cited in
support by those seeking to preserve the old ‘rule’, whereas in fact Churchill
was quite deliberately demonstrating the absurdity of the rule.
Words are often misspelled when they contain
a letter that is not pronounced – the silent p in psychology and
related words is an obvious example. It's easy to leave out these silent letters.
Some letters are particularly likely to give trouble:
Remember too the t in mortgage and
the b in debt, doubt and subtle. Watch out as well
for the i in parliament.
- C. Many words are spelled with a silent
c following s: for example abscess, descend (with
descent); omniscient; words ending in -esce, -escent,
or -escence, such as acquiesce, effervescent, convalescent.
A silent c may also occur before k or q: examples include
acknowledge; acquainted; acquire.
- D. Silent d is easy to omit
before j, as in adjourn; adjunct; adjudicate;
- G. G should precede n
in words like align; foreign; reign. G is also
sometimes followed by a silent u, as in guarantee; guard;
- H. Silent h is particularly
common after r – as in diarrhoea (made harder by the double
r and the diphthong oe); haemorrhage (a double r
adds to the difficulty again); rhythm. C is another letter
likely to be followed by h- in saccharine, for example – and
remember the h in silhouette.
Some words may have whole syllables that are
not pronounced and may be left out in writing. Contemporary is is often
pronounced and spelled contempory; itinerary is similar.
Sometimes the omission of a letter or syllable
comes from a mistaken pronunciation. Many people fail to pronounce the c
in Arctic and Antarctic, and so leave it out when writing the
words. The first r in February is often left out in both speech
and writing, as is the first r in secretary. Quantitative
may be shortened in speech to the more manageable quantitive, and spelled
Sitting and standing
Say 'I was sitting on the bus' and 'I was standing
in the queue', not 'I was sat' and 'I was stood'.
Sometimes a word sounds as though it contains
another familiar word:
- There is no cocoa in a coconut.
- Bated breath has nothing to do with
- Corridor is not related to door.
- Sacrilege has the i first and
the e second, unlike religion.
- Abseiling is quite different from
Sometimes it is just part of another word that
causes a mistake:
- Privilege has no d, unlike,
- Attach and detach end in -ach,
not -atch, unlike dispatch.
- A protuberance is something that protrudes;
but it has no r after the t.
- Dissect has a double s, though
bisect has only one.
- Psychedelic has an e after psych,
A sentence fragment is a piece of a sentence
punctuated as though it were a complete sentence. Used judiciously, this can
be very effective in informal writing: eg ‘Can Arsenal win the Premiership this
year? Probably not’. ‘Probably not’ is a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments
are out of place in formal writing and, where they occur, are usually mistakes.
Make sure your sentence has a subject (the noun) and an action (the verb): it
sounds obvious, but one or other is surprisingly often omitted.
Whatever you may have been taught at school,
it is incorrect to say that the split infinitive is a grammatical error. It
is not. At worse, it is a rhetorical fault – a question of style. Nor is the
split infinitive widely condemned. That too is untrue. As Bryson says ‘No one
would ever argue that a split infinitive is a virtuous thing, but it is certainly
no worse that some of the excruciating constructions foisted on us by those
who regard it with an almost pathological dread’ He goes on to give some examples
from the Times, all with a certain ring of desperation about them: 'The
agreement is unlikely significantly to increase the average price; 'It was a
nasty snub for the Stock Exchange and caused it radically to rethink its ideas’;
‘The education system had failed adequately to meet the needs of industry and
commerce, he said’.
The problem in each instance is one of a simple
conflict between the needs of the infinitive and the needs of the adverb. The
natural position for the two elements of a full infinitive is together: 'He
proceeded to climb the ladder’. With adverbs the most natural position
is, very generally, just before the verb: ‘He slowly climbed the ladder’.
The problem of the split infinitive occurs when the two are brought together:
‘He proceeded to slowly climb the ladder’.
The authorities are almost unanimously agreed
that there is no reason to put the needs of the infinitive above those of the
adverb. In practice the problem can usually be circumvented. Most adverbs are
portable and can be moved to a position from which they can perform their function
without interfering with the infinitive. In the example above, for instance,
we could say: ‘He proceeded to climb the ladder slowly’ or ‘Slowly he proceeded
to climb the ladder’. But that is not to say that there is any grammatical basis
for regarding the infinitive as inviolable.
When moving the adverb produces ambiguity or,
to use Fowler’s words, ‘patent artificiality’, the cure is at least as bad as
the disease. Consider again one of the Times sentences: ‘The education
system had failed adequately to meet the needs of industry and commerce, he
said’. The adverb here is clearly out of place. As written, the sentence suggests
that the education system had set out to fail and had done so adequately. Partridge
cites this sentence: ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations’. Moving
the adverb could only result in clumsiness (‘further to cement’) or ambiguity
(‘to cement further’). Bernstein cites these constructions, all crying out to
be left alone: ‘to more than double’, ‘to at least maintain’, ‘to all but insure’.
According to the self-styled grammar experts,
that is restrictive, while which is not. Many grammarians insist
on such a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best
writers in the language could not tell you the difference between them, while
many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two
confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your
For the curious, however, the relative pronoun
that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of information
about its antecedent: for example, 'The word processor that is used most
often is WordPerfect.' Here the that phrase answers an important question:
which of the many word processors are we talking about? And the answer is the
one that is used most often. In the sentence 'I've lost the book that I was
reading yesterday', that introduces information that the listener needs
in order to know what book is being talked about.
Which is non-restrictive: it does not
limit the word it refers to. An example is 'Penn's ID center, which is
called CUPID, has been successful so far.' Here that is unnecessary:
the which does not tell us which of Penn's many ID centers we're considering;
it simply provides an extra piece of information about the plan we're already
discussing. 'Penn's ID Center' tells us all we really need to know to identify
it. Similarly, in the sentence 'This book, which I bought yesterday, is very
interesting' which tells the listener something new about a book that
has already been identified. You should not use that in sentences of
It boils down to this: if you can tell which
thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use
which; if you can't, use that.
There are two rules of thumb you can keep in
mind. First, if the phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since
'Penn's ID center' calls for a comma, we would not say 'Penn's ID Center, that
is called CUPID.'
Another way to keep them straight is to imagine
by the way following every which: 'Penn's ID center, which
(by the way) is called CUPID. . . .' The which adds a useful, but not
grammatically necessary, piece of information. On the other hand, we would not
say 'The word processor which (by the way) is used most often is WordPerfect,'
because the word processor on its own isn't enough information – which
A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell
which, and which to tell that.
This or these?
A common mistake is to use the expression 'These
kind' or 'These sort', as in 'These sort of situations are always difficult'.
The correct forms are 'This kind' and 'These kinds' – you could say either 'This
kind of situation is difficult' or 'These kinds of situation are difficult'.
A more formal expression is 'Situations of this kind'.
Verbs and subjects
Remember to use a plural verb with a plural subject
and a singular verb with a singular subject. This may sound obvious, but there
are several reasons why it may become less straightforward:
- Some words look as though they are singular
when they are in fact plural, especially words ending in -a like criteria,
bacteria, and phenomena. The singular forms for these are criterion,
bacterium, and phenomenon. Use plural verbs: 'The bacteria multiply
rapidly' (not 'multiplies'); 'These are important criteria' (not 'This is
an important criteria').
- In Latin, data and media are
plural nouns. In English they used to be treated as plurals and took a plural
verb; now, however, unless you are writing in a formal scientific context
you should regard them as normal singular nouns that go with a singular verb.
- Collective nouns (eg crew, team,
government, committee) can be treated as either singular or
plural. As a general rule, it is best to use a plural form when emphasising
the separate members of the group (eg 'The committee were arguing about the
finances') and a singular form when treating the group as a whole ('The committee
is delighted to offer you the prize').
Many words are easy to misspell because of the
way in which their stress pattern affects their pronunciation. When they occur
in unstressed syllables, the different vowel sounds merge into a sound like
‘uh’ or ‘er’. You may then find it difficult to remember which vowel is correct
in a particular word.
- People often confuse unstressed e
and a in words like category, desperate, separate,
grammar. It is easy to muddle pairs such as allude and elude,
affect and effect, which have very similar pronunciations.
- You may want to write unstressed e
as er, especially in words like integrate, which it is easy
to confuse with words beginning with inter-.
- It's easy to confuse o with both a
and e in unstressed syllables. Words which you may find difficult include
corroborate (not -erate) and propaganda (not propo-).
In unstressed syllables, e sometimes has
a short i sound. You may find it hard to remember which words spell this
sound with an e (eg artefact, benefit, indigenous,
liquefy) and which spell it with an i (eg dilapidated,
purify). It is easy to confuse elicit with illicit.
Some words that are already hard to spell can
give further trouble when endings are added, eg to put a verb into the past
tense. Enthral, for example, sounds as though it should be spelled with
a double l but in fact has only one; but the l is doubled
in enthralled and enthralling. The i in profited
and profiting is short, which makes it sound as though there should be
a double t; but in fact there is only one, as in the present tense profit.
These examples may be confusing; but a few basic
rules will help:
When you form the past tense of a verb, or add
- Verbs ending in a double consonant keep it
(add, added, adding, embarrass, embarrassed, embarrassing).
- Double the final consonant if the verb has
only one syllable and the vowel is short – eg clap, clapped, clapping.
- Double the final consonant if the verb has
two syllables and the second is stressed – eg occur, occurred, occurring,
acquit, acquitted, acquitting, prefer, preferred, preferring . This rule explains
the confusing enthral and enthralled, fulfil and fulfilled.
- Leave the final consonant single if the verb
has two syllables and the first is stressed – eg credit, credited, crediting,
budget, budgeted, budgeting. This rule explains profit. It has some important
exceptions: focused and biased are usually spelled with a single s in British
English, and a final l is always doubled.
- Leave the final consonant single if the verb
has more than two syllables and the final syllable is not stressed – eg benefit,
benefited, benefiting, develop, developed, developing.
- If a verb ends in e, just add d to form the
past tense. Most verbs drop the e before -ing (timing, using). Ageing usually
keeps the e; and singeing must keep it to distinguish it from singing.
Who or whom?
Strictly speaking, it is correct to use who
as the subject of a verb and whom as the object, eg 'Who saw
you?' but 'Whom did you see?' It is also strictly right to use whom
after a preposition, as in 'To whom were you talking just now?' In practice,
few people follow this rule; most use who all the time, and a sentence
like 'To whom were you talking?' can sound too formal.
Why use three words when one will do, even if
you are a lawyer? If you keep it simple, there is a better chance of conveying
your meaning. Here are some examples:
As to whether
at the present time
at this moment in time
at present or now
because of the fact that
by virtue of the fact that
due to the fact that
has a tendency to
in the absence of
in the event of
in the near future
in the not too distant future
the question as to whether
That great Thespian Ralph Richardson once observed
‘In music, the punctuation is absolutely strict, the bars and rests are absolutely
defined. But our punctuation cannot be quite so strict, because we have to relate
it to the audience. In other words we are continually changing the score.’ While
the greatest of actors are free to take liberties with their scripts, the writer’s
relationship to his or her audience is perhaps a little less forgiving. What
follows is a brief guide to punctuation: what to use and when, and some of the
more common pitfalls. For a more detailed study, see the Penguin Guide to
The main functions of the apostrophe are to indicate:
(a) omitted letters (don‘t, can’t, note that the apostrophe replaces
the missing letter, rather than indicating where the words divide: wouldn’t
rather than would’nt); and (b) to show the possessive (ie genitive)
case (Don’s horse, the school’s computer, the people’s choice). Do not
use an apostrophe to form a plural. A sentence like 'Please keep the gate's
clear' is wrong.
Two other types of error occur with some frequency
and are worth noting. They involve:
- Multiple possessives. This problem
can be seen here: ‘This was first seen in Arthur Sullivan’s and William Gilbert’s
much-loved operetta The Pirates of Penzance’. Are both of the
apostrophes necessary? The answer in this case is no. Because the reference
is to a single operetta, written jointly, only the second-named individual
needs to be in the possessive. Thus it should be: ‘Arthur Sullivan and William
Gilbert’s operetta’. If the reference were to two or more operettas written
separately, both names would have to carry apostrophes. The rule is: when
possession is held in common, only the nearer antecedent should be possessive;
when possession is separate, each antecedent must be in the possessive.
- Plural units of measure. Regardless
of the size of the unit of measure, you should include the apostrophe. So,
just as you would say ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ you should
also say ‘He was given 30 days’ credit’ and ‘Mr Johnson, who had 25 years’
service with the company’. Note the position of the apostrophes in these examples;
as days and years are plurals, the apostrophes follow the s.
The colon marks a formal introduction or indicates
the start of a series. A colon should not separate a verb from its object
in simple enumerations. Thus it would be wrong to say: ‘The Magi were: Caspar,
Melchior and Balthazar’. The colon should be removed. But it would be correct
to say: ‘The Magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar’ or ‘Caspar, Melchior
and Balthazar were the Magi’. The use of the colon should be distinguished from
the use of the semi-colon (below); they are not interchangeable.
The trend these days is to use the comma as sparingly
as form and clarity allow. But there are certain instances in which it should
appear but all too often does not. Equally, it has a tendency to crop up with
alarming regularity in places where it has no business. It is, in short, the
most abused of punctuation marks and one of the worst offenders of any kind
in the English language. Essentially there are three situations where the comma’s
use is compulsory and a fourth where it is recommended.
- When the information provided is clearly
parenthetical: ie where the information between the commas
is incidental to the main thought: you could remove it and the sentence would
still make sense. The sentence ‘Mr Jones, known for his aversion to spiders,
leapt in the air’ is correctly punctuated (‘Mr Jones leapt in the air’ still
makes sense without the words between the commas). Failure to put in a comma
is particularly common after a parenthesis, as here: ‘Mr Doyle, director of
the Institute of Management Research (IMR) says ...’ Sometimes the writer
recognises that the sentence contains a parenthetical thought, but fails to
discern just how much of the information is incidental, as here: ‘At nine
she won a scholarship to Millfield, the private school, for bright children
of the rich’. If we removed what has been presented as parenthetical,
the sentence would say: ‘At nine she won a scholarship to Millfield for bright
children’. There should be no comma after ‘school’ because the whole of the
last statement is parenthetical.
When the incidental information could stand alone as a sentence, it needs
to be set off with stronger punctuation – either dashes or parentheses.
Do not use a comma if the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the
sentence. In 'The man who lives next door is very helpful', the words 'who
lives next door' tell us which man is being talked about. You could only say
'The man, who lives next door, is very helpful' if you had already identified
the man in some other way.
- When the information is non-defining. The
problem here is related to that discussed above. Consider the sentence
‘The chances of winning the Premiership again are excellent, the manager
of Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson claimed last night’. The writer has
failed to understand the distinction between (a) ‘Manchester United manager
Sir Alex Ferguson claimed last night’ and (b) ‘The manager of Manchester United,
Sir Alex Ferguson, claimed last night’. In (a), the name Sir Alex Ferguson
is essential to the sense of the sentence; it defines it. If we removed it,
the sentence would say: ‘Manchester United manager claimed last night’. In
(b), however, the name is non-defining. In effect it is parenthetical. We
could remove it without altering the sense of the sentence: ‘The manager of
Manchester United claimed last night’. When a name or title can be removed,
it should be set off with commas. When it cannot be removed, the use of commas
When something is the only one of its kind, it should be set off with commas;
when it is only one of several, the use of commas is wrong. The error frequently
occurs when a marriage partner is named: ‘Mrs Thatcher and her husband Denis
left London yesterday’. Since Mrs Thatcher has only one husband, it should
be ‘and her husband, Denis, left London yesterday’.
- With forms of address. When addressing
people, commas are obligatory around the names or titles of those addressed.
‘I’m choking doctor’ should, one assumes, be written ‘I’m choking, doctor’.
- With interpolated words or phrases. Words
such as moreover, however, meanwhile and nevertheless and
phrases such as for instance and for example traditionally
have taken commas, but the practice has become increasingly discretionary
over the years. In Britain they have been more freely abandoned than in America;
Fowler, for instance, seldom uses them. They should be used when they suggest
a pause or when ambiguity might result. This is especially true of however.
Consider these two sentences: ‘However hard he tried, he failed’; ‘However,
he tried hard, but failed’. To keep from confusing the reader, if only momentarily,
it is a good idea to set off however with commas when it is used as
Note that the subject of a sentence can never
be separated from the following predicate by a single comma, no matter how long
that subject is. The sentence ‘The fairy tale castle of Neuscchwanstein, stands
on a hill overlooking the plain’ is incorrectly punctuated.
Dashes should be used in pairs to enclose parenthetical
matter or singly to indicate a sharp break in a sentence (‘What’s that heading
this way – ouch!’) or to place emphasis on a point (‘Only two things in life
are certain – death and taxes’). The more common errors with dashes are similar
to those already observed with commas, namely:
- Failing to mark the end of a parenthetical
comment with a second dash: ‘The team – widely regarded as the best in the
world, expects to win another championship this year’: the comma should be
replaced by a dash.
- Allowing a word or phrase from the main part
of the sentence to become locked within the parenthetical area, as here: ‘There
is another institution which appears to have an even more – shall we say,
relaxed – attitude to security’. Removing the words between the dashes
would give us an institution with ‘an even more attitude’. Relaxed belongs
to the sentence proper and needs to be put outside the dashes: ‘There is another
institution which appears to have an even more – shall we say? – relaxed attitude
An ellipsis (sometimes called an ellipse) is
used to indicate that material has been omitted. It consists of three full stops
(. . .), usually spaced. When an ellipsis occurs at the end of a sentence, a
fourth full stop is normally added. The fourth full stop is not part of the
ellipsis and therefore there should not be a space between it and the ellipsis:
ie . . ..
Exclamation marks are used to show strong emotion
(‘Out, damned spot!’) or urgency (‘Help me!’). Do not use to emphasise a simple
statement of fact.
Full stop(or period)
There are two common errors associated with the
full stop, both of which arise from its absence. The first is the run-on sentence
(that is, the linking of two complete thoughts by a comma). For instance: ‘Confidence
is growing that opec will resolve its crisis, however the Treasury is drawing
up contingency plans’. Here the comma should be replaced by a full stop, to
form two complete sentences. The second lapse arises when a writer tries to
say too much in a single sentence. There is no quota on full stops. When an
idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea
to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.
The principal function of the hyphen is to reduce
the chances of ambiguity. In general, hyphens should be dispensed with when
they are not necessary. A hyphen is used in the following circumstances:
to join two or more words so as to form a compound
or single expression, eg
Today people are increasingly doing without such
- dressing table
to join words in a compound expression that is
put before a noun, eg
- a well-known man (but the man is well
- an out-of-date list (but the list is out of date)
to join a prefix to a proper name, eg
to make a meaning clear by linking words, eg
twenty-odd people/twenty odd people
or by separating a prefix, eg
to separate two identical letters in adjacent
parts of word, eg
to represent a second element that is shared
by all the items of a list, eg
- two-, three-, or fourfold.
to divide a word if there is no room to complete
it at the end of the line, eg
The hyphen comes at the end of the line, not
at the beginning of the next line. In general, words should be divided at the
end of a syllable: dicti-onary would be wrong. It is best not to divide
words at all, if possible.
One place where they are not required by sense
but frequently occur anyway is with ‘-ly’ adverbs, as in ‘newly-elected’ or
widely-held’. Almost every authority suggests that they should be deleted in
Parenthetical matter can be thought of as any
information so incidental to the main thought that it needs to be separated
from the sentence that contains it. It can be set off with dashes, brackets
(usually reserved for explanatory insertions in quotations), commas or, of course,
parentheses. It is, in short, an insertion and has no grammatical effect on
the sentence in which it appears. It is rather as if the sentence does not even
know it is there. Again, to be sure that you have the parentheses in the
right place, try removing the words enclosed by the parentheses: if the sentence
still makes sense, then there is a good chance the parentheses are correctly
When a parenthetical comment is part of a larger
sentence, the full stop should appear after the second parenthesis (as here).
(But when the entire sentence is parenthetical, as hero, the full stop should
appear inside the final parenthesis.)
The question mark comes at the end of a question.
This sounds obvious, but the question mark is surprisingly often omitted.
Occasionally question marks are included when
they are not called for. Sometimes, the problem is a failure to distinguish
between a direct question and an indirect one. Direct questions always take
question marks; ‘Where are you going?’. Indirect questions never do: ‘I would
like to know where you are going’.
When direct questions take on the tone of a command,
the use of a question mark becomes more discretionary. ‘Will everyone please
assemble in my office at four o’clock?’ is strictly correct, but not all authorities
insist on the question mark there.
A less frequent problem arises when a direct
question appears outside a direct quotation: ‘Why does this happen to us? we
wonder’ is, strictly speaking, the correct construction. But such constructions
are clumsy and are almost always improved by being turned into indirect questions:
‘We wonder why this happens to us’.
Quotation marks(inverted comas)
Quotation marks are used to enclose a direct
quotation (he shouted ‘give it to him’), to distance the writer from
a word or phrase (he was said to be a ‘man of the people’, whatever that
means), and to set off a word or phrase which is merely being talked about,
rather than used (Men are stronger than women: ‘men’ is an irregular plural).
An issue that arises frequently in Britain, but
almost never in America, is whether to put full stops and other punctuation
inside or outside quotation marks when they appear together. The practice that
prevails almost exclusively in America and is increasingly common in Britain
is to put the punctuation inside the quotes. Thus: ‘He said: “I will not go.”’
But some publishers prefer the punctuation to fall outside except when it is
part of the quotation.
When quotation marks are used to set off a complete
statement, the first word of the quotation should be capitalised (‘He said,
“Victory is ours”’) except when the quotation is preceded by ‘that’ (‘He said
that “victory is ours”’). Fowler believed that no punctuation was necessary
to set off attributive quotations; he would, for instance, delete the commas
from the following: ‘Tomorrow’, he said, ‘is a new day’. His argument was that
commas are not needed to mark the interruption or introduction of a quotation
because the quotation marks already do that. Logically he is correct. But with
equal logic we could argue that question marks should be dispensed with on the
grounds that the context almost always makes it clear that a question is being
asked. The commas are required not by logic but by convention.
The semicolon is heavier than the comma but lighter
than the full stop. Its principal function is to divide contact clauses – that
is, two ideas that are linked by sense but that lack a conjunction. For instance:
‘You take the high road; I’ll take the low road’. Equally that could be made
into two complete sentences or, by introducing a conjunction, into one (‘You
take the high road and I’ll take the low road’). The semicolon cannot be used
if what precedes or follows is not a complete sentence: ‘In 1991, the music
world was shaken by a tragic event; the death of Freddie Mercury’. Here a colon
should replace the semicolon. ‘I don’t like him; not at all.’ In this case a
comma should replace the semicolon.