96: President Trump’s contribution to the Grammar Day: to tapp or not to tapp?

Just in time for today’s Grammar Day, Donald Trump fired off the following tweet:

How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phone during the very sacred election process.

In order to help President Trump out a wee bit, I’ve decided to post the relevant extract from my recently published Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 & 4 with Handy Usage Notes. The extract deals with the doubling of consonants at the end of verbs (such as ‘tap’). But the President also used the wrong tense and, if his pronouncement was meant to be a question, failed to deploy the question mark, of which more further on.

6.10                  Spelling verb inflections

6.10.1 The doubling of consonants

Before endings -ing and -ed are added to base forms ending with a single consonant letter (except x), those bases double the consonant letter if the preceding vowel is stressed and spelt with a single letter. This is exemplified below.

  • Bar ends with a single r preceded by a stressed a spelt with a single letter. Thus, bar – barring – barred. Similarly, permit ends with a single t preceded by a stressed iI spelt with a single letter. Thus, permit – permitting – permitted.

By contrast, when the vowel is either unstressed or written with two letters, there is no doubling of the final consonant.

  • Enter also ends with a single r preceded by e spelt with a single letter, but this vowel e is unstressed. This is why the doubling of the final r does not occur: enter – entering – entered. Similarly, although moan ends with a single n preceded by a stressed sound oa, this sound is represented not by one but by two letters: oa (sequences of two vowel letters representing a single sound, such as oa, ai or ea, are called diphthongs). Again then, the doubling of the final n does not occur: moan – moaning – moaned.

Exceptions to the consonant-doubling rule

The rule is broken with bases ending in g and c: those consonants are doubled despite being preceded by single unstressed vowels: zigzag – zigzagging – zigzagged; traffic – trafficking – trafficked.

Unlike American English, British English also breaks the rule in bases ending in l, m and, in a few verbs, p coming after single unstressed vowels: signal – signalling – signalled;  trial – trialling – trialled;  travel – travelling – travelled;  telegram – telegramming – telegrammed; worship – worshipping – worshipped. However, most verbs ending in p have regular spellings: develop – developing – developed; gossip – gossiping – gossiped.


As for the wrong tense, the Present Perfect (here, has gone) may not be used to refer to events which took place at a defined time in the past (such as last year’s American presidential election), this being the job of the past tense – the Simple Past, in this case. And while the structure of this part of the presidential tweet is typical of a question, no question mark is used. It is possible, however, that this pronouncement was meant to be exclamatory, but the writer’s command of English tripped him up. If a question was indeed intended, what President Trump should have written is this (stylistic and content-related considerations aside):

How low did President Obama go to tap my phone during the very sacred election process?


95: Venimently perplexed

Some of you might have heard about a recent by-election in my parliamentary constituency, Copeland. Propelled by the sense of civic responsibility, I duly attended a local hustings, at which our independent candidate revealed his impeccable Europhobic credentials with the rhetorical question “A million Poles enough for you?” No sooner had I regained composure than I was assaulted with his campaign leaflet, in which the wannabe MP regaled us with the following pronouncement:

The Green Party are being venimently [sic] against nuclear energy.

Are they really? In an obvious attempt to be even-handed, the leaflet proceeded to castigate other political parties:

The farming community has been hit by this present governments [sic] stopping of subsidies.

Predictably, the Labour Party, currently presided over by Jeremy Corbyn, did not escape unscathed either.

The same can be said of Labour supporters who vote for Jeremy Corbyns [sic] Labour Party.

In an attempt to hit us hard with his anti-global-warming message, the campaigner chided us thus:

How many times does Keswick have to flood before the resident’s [sic] get the message. [sic]

The environmental theme needed to be reinforced, so the leaflet contained the following imploration:

We all need to change our behaviour now to slow down global warming to ensure our ancestors [sic] have a planet to inhabit.

But of course! It also appeared as if our independent candidate felt that a wee threat could go a long way.

To the people who disagree with me, I have bad news for you, but you will dislike global warming and increased sea levels even less [sic]!

Will we really? And the campaigner had other gripes:

Recent cost cutting decisions such as the demolition of the public toilets in Whitehaven is [sic] disgraceful.

But, hearteningly, the leaflet wasn’t all negative:

Land based wind turbines can produce energy much cheaper and more accessible [sic] than their off-shore counterparts.

The publication finished on an uncharacteristically literate, if a tad contradictory, note:

We have the 27th best education system in the world and every year it seems to get worse. The state education system has failed to produce results, so a drastic rethink is required to improve results.

It was rather hard to resist the conclusion that the leaflet had been produced by the very embodiment of this failure.


94: The Demise of a Publisher – and the Rise of a Phoenix

Grammar and punctuation book cover 2.jpg

It was ten months ago that I proudly announced the impending publication of my linguistic opus, Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 & 4 with Handy Usage Notes, by First and Best in Education. Well, maybe not quite an opus: I had, in fact, lopped nearly a third off an earlier incarnation of the textbook, which was targeted mainly at the British Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). But, while the book had been shortened and, I hope, improved, its scope had been widened to include also older students. So all that was left for me to do was to sit back and wait for the royalties to start rolling in. Alas, a few months later I found myself a bewildered recipient of a notification of the demise of my book’s publishing house. How come: they had been going for years! Sadly, it appeared as if they were now going straight into administration.

But what is it they say about doors closing: when one door closes, another slams in your face? No, perhaps not that one, for I definitely wasn’t going to let this setback deflate me. After all, I am now a fully-fledged publisher myself. So my phoenix-like textbook is again in the public domain, as a shiny A4 paperback, elegantly bound, as well as an e-book, both available worldwide. And the best thing is that, with no middlemen to take their cut, I was able to slash the book’s price considerably. The book can be accessed via the links below, via the books page on my website or by Googling its title and author (i.e. me).






 For those interested, here’s a brief description of my textbook. The book gives an introduction to the grammar and punctuation of present-day Standard English in the context of their relevance to communication. Its up-to-date grammatical and punctuation content, rooted in British national literacy strategies, is particularly relevant to Key Stages 3 and 4 (ages 11-16), but the book can be used also for, and by, older students. Its unique selling points include concise notes addressing a range of relevant usage points, a spotlight on the areas which writers tend to find troublesome and authentic examples helping to bring the content to life. While focusing on British English, the book does point out some differences with American English – particularly in the area of grammar. Its main aims are to improve students’ communication skills (particularly written), to constitute an accessible reference source and to serve as an editing handbook.

I hope the book will serve its users well.



92 – Frolic: The Trump revelation

“Holy moly!”

“Hmmm?” “How on earth did he manage to keep that quiet?”




“The very same.”

“Keep what quiet?”

“That he had transitioned.”

“No, he hasn’t – not yet.”

“But he must have.”

“And how exactly do you work this one out?”

“Well, that’s what it says here – in this week’s Sunday Times.”

“Don’t go believing everything you read in the press. Even if it’s The Sunday Times: the stuff they ha …”

“But he is a man!”

“Of course he is a man.”

“So he must have transitioned!”

“Look, he is only a Republican nominee for now: the presidential election isn’t until November, so …”

“No, no, no!”

“Yes, yes, yes: Americans will be electing their president on November 8th; it’s a Tuesday, I believe.”

“No, no, not that!”

“So what?”

“I had no idea he was born a girl, no idea at all – fancy that!”

“A girl? Of course he wasn’t born a girl; don’t be silly!”

“But that’s what Ivanka Trump said – his daughter.”


As a young girl growing up, my father told me I could do anything that I set my mind to.

“Oh this! It’s just her grammar.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, it’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep; I call this ‘marketing as’.”

Marketing as?”

“Yep, they are always coming up with stuff like: ‘As one of our best customers, we are pleased to offer you this exclusive deal’; I keep getting marketing literature strewn with such nonsense – so does everybody else.”

“O-o-o, so it was her.”

“Of course it was her; look; what she should have said is this.”


As a young girl growing up, I was told by my father I could do anything that I set my mind to.


“M-m-m, she would … I mean he would have been too young to father a child anyway.”

“Look, it’s just a misrelated phrase – just like a dangling participle.”

“A dangling participle – what’s that?”

“Another time.”



90 – Grammar shot: The proximity trap

Yippee, my revised textbook, Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 and 4, has now been published by First and Best in Education! The book is enlivened (I hope) by examples of grammatical and punctuation booby traps, one of which is illustrated in this post. It is called the proximity trap, and it ensnares even professional writers.

As for the book itself, the link can be found on my books page; it is also given below.

 From my revised textbook: Grammar and Punctuation for Key Stages 3 & 4

In standard English, a verb must agree with its subject in number and person: i.e. The improvement of standards is not an easy task – not *are an easy task. Familiarity with clause elements allows us to realise that it is the entire phrase the improvement of standards that is the subject of this sentence. Thus, this rule can be further refined as follows: if the subject is a multi-word phrase, the verb must agree with its head (the most important word). In the example given above, the singular noun improvement is the head of the noun phrase the improvement of standards that constitutes the subject. This is why we have to use a singular verb, despite the fact that immediately before the verb comes the plural noun standards.

Violations of the principle of subject-verb agreement are relatively common even among educated adults, including education professionals, such as OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) and its school inspectors as well as teachers – and even professors of English. A handful of examples, all attributed, from my huge selection is given below.

One of the main culprits is the so-called ‘proximity trap’. Writers who fall into this trap make the verb erroneously agree with the noun nearest to it – whether this noun is indeed its subject (or, to be precise, the head of the noun phrase acting as its subject) or not. This mistake is exemplified below, with both the head of the noun phrase constituting the subject and its verb being emboldened and italicised. The asterisk marks the sentences whose authors have fallen into the proximity trap.

Subject-verb disagreement

*Team inspector covering IT needs to see whether improvement in standards are sufficient since last inspection. (OFSTED’s Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools; Effective from January 2000)

Subject-verb agreement

Team inspector covering IT needs to see whether improvement in standards is sufficient since last inspection. [= improvement is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Check if your preliminary analysis of performance and other output data indicate if there are any significant differences in the attainment. (OFSTED’s Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools; Effective from January 2000)

Subject-verb agreement

Check if your preliminary analysis of performance and other output data indicates if there are any significant differences in the attainment. [= analysis indicates]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Teachers’ implementation of the strategies are good. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Teachers’ implementation of the strategies is good. [= implementation is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The importance of good attendance and punctuality rates are well promoted by the school. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

The importance of good attendance and punctuality is well promoted by the school. [= importance is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Teachers’ skills in developing pupils’ creative awareness varies between the classes. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Teachers’ skills in developing pupils’ creative awareness vary between the classes. [= skills vary]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Sometimes oral learning of tables or facts are set. (OFSTED inspection report)

Subject-verb agreement

Sometimes, the learning by rote of tables or facts is set. [= learning is]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The remains of the body was found in the vessel. (The Independent)

Subject-verb agreement

The remains of the body were found in the vessel. [= remains were]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The development of the tests play a pivotal role in teaching and learning. (The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)

Subject-verb agreement

The development of the tests plays a pivotal role in teaching and learning. [= development plays]

Subject-verb disagreement

*No evidence of any ability, experience or qualifications were required. (The Sunday Times)

Subject-verb agreement

No evidence of any ability, experience or qualifications was required.[= evidence was]

Subject-verb disagreement

*Participation in these courses have been coupled with high success rates. (The Times Educational Supplement)  

Subject-verb agreement

Participation in these courses has been coupled with high success rates. [= participation has]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The professor’s concerns about prescription mirrors earlier criticisms by schools. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Subject-verb agreement

The professor’s concerns about prescription mirror earlier criticisms by schools. [= concerns mirror]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The impact of these prices imply that inflation would still be 1% in 2013. (The Economist)

Subject-verb agreement

The impact of these prices implies that inflation would still be 1% in 2013. [= impact implies]

Subject-verb disagreement

*The academic qualifications of those entering training has remained the same. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Subject-verb agreement

The academic qualifications of those entering training have remained the same. [= qualifications have]

So mind how you go – and spread the word about my revised textbook. Millions of thanks!

87 – Grammar shot: Faulty Coordination (From my satirical book: Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?)

Here comes another grammatical sketch from my political satire, Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?

Chapter 10           SOD

“Ha, ha, ha, read this.”

“Which one, Crystal?”

“The last one.”

The e-mail, from Greg, went like this, “Trace phoned earlier today. Her granddad died and won’t be in the office today.”

We were both duly seized by an attack of giggles – slightly unseemly, given the circumstances. Seeing as Greg was in another meeting – possibly Information Technology Implementation Committee or the Marketing and Market Penetration Issues Focus Group – I spotted an opportunity for another little grammatical session with Violet.

“Violet, why don’t you sit next to me for a bit?”

The girl nodded, came over and parked herself in Greg’s chair.

“Have you seen Greg’s e-mail about Trace’s granddad? May he rest in peace.”

“I have; poor Trace.”

“Yes, it’s awfully sad. But have you noticed that Greg actually attempted to resurrect him?”

“He did?”

“He did: he should have written that she wouldn’t be in the office, of course. I call this type of error faulty coordination.”

“What’s coordination?”

“When we link words, phrases and clauses with the coordinating conjunctions and, or or but, for example: ‘We must and will persevere’, ‘Sink or swim’, ‘We are bloodied but unbowed’ – constructions like this.”

“So coordination is not hard?”

“Of course it isn’t – we use it all the time. But as soon as you put a label on it, people panic and think, ‘It’s grammar – I don’t do grammar’. But the point is that we ‘do’ grammar every time we say or write something.”

“Do we?”

“Absolutely. Because grammar is simply about how we arrange words in phrases, clauses and sentences.”

“Is that all?”

“That is all. But there are lots and lots of principles organising language, and we all need to be aware of them. Coordination is one example – it sounds innocuous but can be a minefield.”

“It can?”

“Well, take Greg’s e-mail for a start. Coordination does trip people up all over the place. And, when it goes wrong, it can be quite funny.”

“Do you remember any examples?”

“Lots; many are blunders made by educated adults. Take this: ‘She made friends at school, but never a boyfriend’ – what’s gone wrong there?”

“Hmm, she can’t have made a boyfriend – can she?”

“Of course not. So?”

“But never had a boyfriend?”

“Absolutely! Or this: ‘Thirty years ago, students received full grants and no tuition fees.’”

“Why would students receive tuition fees?”

“Spot on – so?”

“And didn’t have to pay tuition fees?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes, faulty coordination can be genuinely misleading. I’ve just found this in my local newspaper: ‘A wheelie bin was found to be on fire in a passageway and was quickly put out.’”

“The bin?”

“No, the fire. So?”

“And the fire was quickly put out?”

“Absolutely. And that funny notice in our kitchenette: ‘After the tea break, staff should empty the teapot and stand upside down on the draining board’ – it’s a classic. There’s lots of mangled coordination in FART’s bumf as well.”


“Absolutely; listen to this: ‘Students should identify, solve and apply solutions to problems’ – what’s wrong here?”

“You don’t solve solutions?”

“Absolutely. So?”

“Students should identify and solve problems?”

“Spot on. And this: ‘Students should gather, evaluate and present information in the form of a plan’ – what’s gone wrong here?”

“The plan is only about presenting information.”

“Exactly. So?”

“Students should gather and evaluate information and present it in the form of a plan?”

“Absolutely! But there is also pseudo-coordination.”


“Yes, when people say ‘Try and do’ when they mean ‘Try to do’.”

“That’s what Morag always says,” whispered Violet.

“How about we try and do some work, girls,” said Morag, who had stopped tapping away and was peering at Violet and me over the top of her computer.


84 – Frolic: Fused Participles (FROM my book: Don’t Dangle the Investigators! Parodies and Participles)

I have decided that, before I can proceed with further books on grammar, I need to refine what I have already written. Having thus shortened Hilarity with Misrelated Participles, I have re-published it as Don’t Dangle the Investigators! Parodies and Participles. Below is a short extract from the book, in which my Polish granny and I go shopping and, most unexpectedly, find ourselves discussing fused participles.


Granny and I left the gallery and headed for the mackerel. Unfortunately, our way was blocked by three highway-maintenance vehicles, a mechanical digger and a large sign proclaiming Men at Work.

“Those British men, they aren’t terribly modest, child, are they?”

“Why not, granny?”

“Well, our men just go to work and that’s it. But, here, they put up signs.”

“No, no, granny, it’s simply a warning.”

“Do you have to warn people that your men are at work? Is this a rare occurrence?”

“No, no: it’s only when they dig up the road.” Indeed, when we got closer to the sign we could see a large hole in the road, with exposed pipes jutting out from both sides. One highway-maintenance man was peering intently into the hole, another highway-maintenance man was shouting into his mobile phone, two highway-maintenance men, their backs to the hole, their arms akimbo, were ogling the passing females and wolf-whistling at the younger ones, yet another highway-maintenance man was leaning on a shovel and puffing on a fag, and the sixth highway-maintenance man was sitting in the cab of his vehicle reading a newspaper. Well, reading might be stretching it somewhat, for my sneaky peek revealed that the gazette was full of photographs of scantily clad lovelies and appeared to feature very little print, but, one way or the other, he seemed totally engrossed in it.

“Where are they?”

“Who, granny?”

“Those men at work.”



“Here, here, these six here.”

“But they are not working.”

“Maybe they are on a break.”

“But it’s not long since lunchtime.”

“It’s probably an early-afternoon break, granny. I imagine they will then have a mid-afternoon break and a late-afternoon break. Unless, of course, they’ve gone home by then.”

“Do they need six men to dig one hole? When they have a digger.”

“A-a-a-a, they might not need six men, but at least they have created employment for six men.”

Having pondered this rationale for a while, granny followed me to the supermarket.

“Where the hell is everything?” Having purchased smoked mackerel at the fish counter, we made for the sauerkraut, but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. “Blast, they’ve moved everything around again.” We walked up and down several aisles in pursuit of the elusive sauerkraut. “Here it is! We can make you some bigos now; it will remind you of Poland. They call it a hunter’s stew over here.” I grabbed the jar, and we made for the checkout.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but where did you find this sauerkraut?” enquired a deep manly voice behind me. I nearly tripped: he said my! I quickly turned round, and, for a brief moment, our gaze became locked. “Of course I don’t mind your asking,” I said with a broadest smile I could muster. “It’s down the next aisle – on the left. By the pickles.” He smiled, nodded his acknowledgement and kept looking at me. It was clear that, in that fleeting moment, there was created a bond of common understanding between us: he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. And he knew that I knew that he knew … anyway, I’m sure you get my drift. Then, granny tugged at my sleeve and hissed, “Stop staring at him like this; you are a married woman.” The spell was broken, the stranger turned away and proceeded in the direction of the pickles, and we made for the checkout.

“Why were you gawping at him?”

“I wasn’t gawping!”

“Yes, you were. You looked as if you’d seen a unicorn.”

“Did I really? Well, he did say my, granny.”

“What was he supposed to have said?”

“You see, many people would have said me: do you mind me asking. But he said my. And I said your – to let him know that I also knew.”

“Is it such a big deal, child?”

“Well, not if you are a well-rounded human being, granny, it isn’t. But you know that I’m mad about grammar, don’t you?”

“If you ask me, it’s the most superior form of madness, child.”

“Thank you, granny. People have been saying things like ‘I hate them misbehaving’, ‘she feared him leaving’ or ‘there is no chance of us winning’ for yonks, of course.”

“Of course, child.”

“A-a-a-a, but that’s just it, granny.”

“That’s just what?”

“Well, the participial constructions such as these make much more sense when their personal pronouns are in the genitive case.”

“What’s the genitive case?”

“A type of possessive.”

“As in their, his and our, child?”

“Absolutely, granny. After all, I’m not trying to say that I hate them, am I?”

“Well, you might be. If they’ve been beastly to you, for example.”

“No, no: I didn’t hate the perpetrators themselves – I hated their misdemeanour.”

“That’s more like you, child.”

“Thank you, granny. So you just say ‘I hate their misbehaving’, and you can rest assured that you won’t be scarring them psychologically for the rest of their natural.”


What what?”

“Natural what?”

“Life. By the same token, she did not fear him himself, did she?”

“You never know, child: he might have been violent. Or offered to help with the ironing.”

“No, no: she feared his leaving. Changing the case of the personal pronoun from objective to genitive – or possessive – transforms the participle from purely verbal into a hybrid.”

“A hybrid? You mean like a Labradoodle?”

“Great analogy, granny. A hybrid participle has some features of a verb and some of a noun. Hybrid participles are sometimes called gerunds. Whichever label you use, they denote the thing you hate – or the thing she feared.”

“Nimble things, these participles: metamorphosing from verbs into nouns just like that.”

“They certainly are, granny. By contrast, the purely verbal participles in constructions such as ‘them misbehaving’, ‘him leaving’ and ‘us winning’ have been dubbed ‘fused’.”

“By whom?”

“The Fowler brothers. Over a hundred years ago, they heaped condemnation on such usage.”

“Did it work?”

“No, granny; condemnation rarely does; you need far subtler tactics. Anyway, fused participles continue to be widely used. But the thing is that, these days, pretty much all of those who are clued up about grammar agree that, in similar contexts, the genitive case of personal pronouns is vastly preferable to their objective case. Actually, in formal communication the possessive has become the norm. It’s like a litmus test.”

“A litmus test?”

“Yep. You know instantly that people who say ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking’ know their onions – you just know.”

“Onions are every bit as good for the brain as the mackerel.”

“No, no, granny: it’s just a saying – I meant grammar.”

“Indeed, indeed: a well-nourished body will allow one’s mind to fire on all cylinders, and grammar certainly requires all of one’s cylinders to be in tip-top condition; you know what they say.”

“What do they say, granny?”

Mens sana in corpore sano.”

“Absolutely, granny, but even copious quantities of onions and mackerel won’t do the trick if grammar is off the menu.”

“How could grammar possibly be off the menu, child? It’s the structural basis of communication.”

“I know, granny, I know, but they had it off the menu here for decades – I’ve told you. It’s only now that they seem to be waking up to its importance.”

“Well, onions should certainly help there, child: they improve alertness.”

78 – Frolic: When editors fall asleep on the job

Finally, they have cracked it! The venerable Oldie has just provided an answer to the question which has been vexing us for ages.

“The overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept that climate change is occurring thanks to factual evidence gathered over decades and more.”

So that is why climate change is occurring – fancy that! And what length of time is more than decades? Some more decades? Careless word order is at the root of many a misunderstanding, yet a moment of reflection (aka editing, a concept which seems alien to some) is all it is likely to take to prevent similar slip-ups. Usually, moving an unfortunately placed phrase or clause does the trick.

Thanks to factual evidence gathered over decades, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept that climate change is occurring.

Meanwhile, the editor of Your Money section of The Daily Telegraph had me utterly baffled with this sentence.

“You battled long and hard to get redress without success.”

I imagine getting redress without success would be nigh on impossible. Yet all it takes to make this oxymoron disappear is one, judiciously positioned, comma.

You battled long and hard to get redress, without success.


You battled long and hard, albeit without success, to get redress.

Not a Guardian devotee, I was nevertheless hooked by an article on multiculturalism. Having been appointed professor of public policy at Stanford University, the author, originally from Canada, was waxing lyrical about becoming an American citizen. And not only did the professor expose the abject failure of multiculturalism in Western Europe – he also made a ground-breaking anthropological discovery. The latter went like this:

“The judge actually told us we now had equal rights to anyone in the country who had lived there for 3,000 years.”

Where the US leads, the rest of the world follows, so I rejoiced at the prospect of such phenomenal longevity. Alas, I quickly realised that what the professor must have been trying to say is this:

The judge told us we now had the same rights as anyone whose ancestry in the country went back 3,000 years.

Even so, one needs to plan for one’s retirement, which is why I devour articles on pensions. Imagine the extent of my discombobulation when I read this in The Daily Telegraph.

“Annuities provide a guaranteed income for the rest of someone’s life in retirement, but when they die the pension dies with them.”

So what is one supposed to do when one’s annuity dies? Having been diligently saving into a private pension, I began to panic – only to remind myself that pronouns are often used in ways which obscure their reference. Phew!

Annuities provide a guaranteed retirement income for the rest of someone’s life, but, when the person dies, the pension dies with them.

Finally, in an interview to The Sunday Telegraph an Italian chef goes a boast too far with a description of his six-acre kitchen.

“My villa has eight bedrooms, a cinema room, outside kitchen and inside kitchen set in six acres with a vineyard and private lake.”

Why such nonsense should ever be allowed to slip the editorial net is hard to fathom.

My villa has eight bedrooms, a cinema room and not only an inside but also an outside kitchen and is set in six acres with a vineyard and private lake.

This is what happens when sub-editors fall asleep on the job.

76 – Grammar shot: Tautology

It is said that Britain’s middle class starts the day against the soundtrack of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the most influential early-morning purveyor of news and current- affairs reportage. If I’m sentient at that time of day, and not otherwise engaged, I also tune in. A few days ago, the commentary covered the ill-fated American adventure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, with the presenter hitting us with this:

“The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco that failed.”

Now, have you ever heard of a fiasco that succeeded? No, me neither – simply because a fiasco means ‘a complete failure’. This is why this statement is tautological.  Tautology is the use of a word or words which repeat an idea unnecessarily. It is thus a stylistic fault involving redundancy. What the presenter should have said was this:

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a complete fiasco.

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a venture that failed.

Tautology is surprisingly common – even among educated adults. Let me give you an example from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by four professors of English, for whom it is an uncharacteristic lapse, their sizeable Grammar being probably the most authoritative source of information about how the English language is organised.

“The wording should not be misunderstood in some sense not intended by the speaker.”

How often do we actually intend to misunderstand messages? Well, it does happen, but that’s not what was meant by the four linguistic luminaries, who should have written this:

The wording should not be interpreted in some sense not intended by the speaker.

Tautology may also result from using adjectives alongside their synonyms. This is usually done to amplify a characteristic but always backfires. The four examples given below come from reputable sources, including the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). In each quote, one of the two highlighted adjectives is tautological and should, therefore, be removed.

“There is evidence of effective action on the main key issues.”  (Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools by OFSTED)

“(…) to understand features of formal official language (…). “ (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“(…) children spend introductory time with the reception class on a regular weekly basis.” (OFSTED inspection report)

“We think it is inconceivable that Spain should demand our sovereignty as the trade-off for having decent civilised relations.” (The Guardian)

Another type of tautology is when people use adjectives which express characteristics inherent in the nouns they modify. Examples include positive benefits (are there negative benefits?), a new innovation (is there an old innovation?), an unexpected surprise (is there an expected surprise?) and a negative prejudice (is there a positive prejudice?) Such tautological usage is just as common as the deployment of synonymous adjectives. The examples quoted below also come courtesy of educated adults.

“He is then ready to return to reality, and welcome its positive benefits [WRITE: benefits].” (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“Oramo said yesterday that his appointment had come as ‘an unexpected surprise[WRITE: complete surprise].” (The Daily Telegraph)

“Cut research and you slow new drug innovation [WRITE: innovation].” (The Sunday Times)

“One misconception is that positive self-esteem [WRITE: EITHER self-esteem OR positive self-image] exists independently of skills and abilities.” (The Independent)

So mind how you go: tautology is a trap ensnaring even those whom we might reasonably expect to be able to spot and avoid it.

75 – Grammar shot: The possessive myth

This post has been inspired by my friend who questioned the apostrophe in sunglasses’ fans. And who could blame him? Britain’s schools teach their pupils that such apostrophes indicate possession, so he, not at all unreasonably, asked whether the fans actually belonged to the sunglasses, which, of course, they didn’t. This, however, does not make this apostrophe incorrect. And this is why.

English nouns have two cases: the common case (boy/boys) and the genitive case (of the boy = boy’s and of the boys = boys’). The common case is the base form – the one we see in a dictionary: apple(s), compassion, grammar, house(s), London, Manhattan, police, Tuesday(s), war(s). The genitive case is more nuanced because it conveys a range of meanings.

Admittedly, one of the functions of the genitive case is to indicate possession – but it’s far from the only one. But, because of the indoctrination – albeit unwitting – by British schools, some people use the terms genitive and possessive interchangeably; others seem unaware of the former altogether. However, equating the genitive case with possession is an oversimplification because, as I’ve mentioned, the genitive conveys also other meanings. Those meanings are listed below.

  • Possessive genitive: John’s book (the book belongs to John)

  • Subjective genitive: John’s application (John made an application = the application was made by John)

  • Objective genitive: John’s release (John was released = they released John)

  • Genitive of origin: John’s story (John told a story)

  • Descriptive genitive: a boys’ school (a school for boys)

  • Genitive of measure: ten days’ leave (the leave lasted ten days)

  • Genitive of attribute: John’s courage (John is/was courageous)

  • Partitive genitive: the house’s roof (the roof is a part of a/the house)

As for the noun classes with which the genitive frequently appears, they are as follows:

  • Personal names: the Robinsons’ family house, Obama’s reforms
  • Personal nouns: the twins’ older brother, my mother’s cooking
  • Animal nouns: the cat’s tail, this dog’s collar
  • Collective nouns: the nation’s resources, the committee’s decision

The genitive is further used with certain kinds of inanimate nouns:

  • Geographical names: Africa’s future, China’s growth, California’s climate, London’s inhabitants, Harvard’s alumni
  • Locative nouns (for regions, institutions, heavenly bodies, etc.; some can be similar to geographical names): the world’s population, the hotel’s entrance, the club’s pianist, the church’s mission, the school’s history
  • Temporal nouns: a day’s work, yesterday’s news, this year’s sales
  • Other nouns relevant to human activity: mind’s eye, my life’s goal, love’s young dream, the novel’s structure, the play’s philosophy, science’s influence, the treaty’s ratification

So that’s the genitive case in a nutshell. Needless to say, this exposition is going straight into my book on grammar, which, I hope, will dispel many myths surrounding the subject.