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.




81 – Midi-rant: The Education Secretary in a comma tangle

“It says here that Nicky Morgan is your Education Secretary.”

“She is indeed.”

“Goodness me!”

“No, no, they say she is quite good.”

“It’s not that!”

“What do you mean it’s not that? You wouldn’t want cabinet ministers to be incompetent, would you?”

“No, no, it’s how she was quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. She is supposed to have been speaking about changing her mind on gay marriage.”

“Oh yes, yes, she used to be against. I mean, honestly – in this day and age …”

“No, no, NO: it’s not THAT!”

“So what is it then?”

“How they put it.”

“How did they put it?”

“What changed my mind was talking to same-sex couples.”

“So? All credit to her, I’d say. Not everyone would publicly admit to changing their mind – and on such a sensitive issue at that.”

“No, no, no, it’s this idiotic comma!”

“What idiotic comma?”

“The one they plonked after ‘mind’. Look at this!”

And, indeed, there is was, leaping off page 5.

 “What changed my mind, was talking to same-sex couples.”

“Oh yes, yes, it’s not all that uncommon, the comma separating the subject from its verb.”

“How come? Isn’t that a basic punctuation principle? I mean that you don’t separate those bits of the sentence that are closely related?”

“Of course it is. But I don’t think British schools used to be bothered. They may be now, but they weren’t for a long time.”

“Good grief!”

“I know, I know. So many folk are in the dark.”

“Including newspaper sub-editors?”

“Including newspaper sub-editors. And, of course, to avoid this error in all contexts you need to be taught that the subject needn’t be a noun phrase and may be a nominal clause such as this.”

“I wonder what your Education Secretary would make of that.”

“‘Must try harder,’ I should imagine.”

80 – Punctuation shot: Common misuses of the comma

Although there is considerable flexibility in the use of the comma, there are some contexts where this punctuation mark is obligatory; I wrote about this in my previous post. But the comma often puts in an appearance where it’s decidedly unwelcome, some of its common misuses being illustrated below. First, though, a quick summary. Many people assume that the comma corresponds to pauses in speech, but this happens only occasionally. In essence, punctuation is governed largely by grammar. As far as clauses are concerned, those clause elements which ‘belong together’ don’t get separated from each other with the comma, while those elements which are more peripheral to the rest of the sentence do get marked off by the comma – or commas. By the way, clause elements are: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

For example, we don’t separate the subject from its verb – simply because they are buddies: they ‘go together’. But what seems to confuse people is that the subject (as well as the object, complement and adverbial) can be a very long noun phrase. In the sentence: “The lady who arrived early this morning and has since been patiently waiting at the front of what has now become quite a lengthy queue must be retired”, the bit before the verb ‘must be’ is the subject and should not be separated from the verb by the comma because both parts belong together. Needless to say, a sentence can contain even longer noun phrases, and punctuation depends primarily on what function those phrases perform in the sentence – NOT on where we need to draw breath. But, in order to determine the function, one needs to be familiar with at least basic grammatical principles, and this is where problems arise.

In the brief overview below of some common misuses of the comma, the asterisk signals faulty usage.

Before pre-modifying adjective(s) having a closer relationship with the noun being modified than the preceding one(s):

*All students are entitled to broad, general education. (‘General’ is more integral to ‘education’ than ‘broad’, which is why this comma, which would translate into ‘and’, is inadmissible.)

*Virgin Trains offer fast, wireless internet access. (‘Wireless’ is more integral to ‘internet’ than ‘fast’, which is why this comma is inadmissible.)

Between central clause elements (subject, verb, object and complement) – both phrases and clauses:

*Additional copies of this specification, can be purchased from SQA. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Information about developing skills, is given in all our documents. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Teachers should remember, that teaching grammar is terribly important. (Inadmissible comma between verb and object)

*It is difficult to obtain from food alone, enough Vitamin E. (Inadmissible comma between verb – followed by an adjunct – and object)

*This slide gives writers, a brief overview of where not to use commas. (Inadmissible comma between two objects)

*Beautiful landscape is, only a part of Cumbria’s appeal. (Inadmissible comma between verb and complement)

With many types of subordinate causes (adjuncts) following the main clause:

*They can go out and play, after they have finished their homework.

*She would help him out, if she could.

*You must tell me, where you two met.

*You should abide by school rules, while you are at school.

*Students will improve their writing, through learning grammar.

*Teachers will have many opportunities, to observe students.

Before adverbial phrases in the final position:

*You should indicate where essential skills are present, across the whole qualification.

*I will call you, from my mobile.

With defining (restrictive) relative clauses:

*The girl, who used to work with me, has moved to Rome.

*Snakes, which are poisonous, are best avoided.

With defining (restrictive) post-modification:

*The lady, standing in the doorway, is our neighbour.

*The procedure, to be followed, is outlined in this manual.

With defining (restrictive) apposition (both phrases and clauses):

*Our friend, Ted, is always ready to help. (Inadmissible commas – provided Ted isn’t our only friend)

*The fact, that this school selects by ability, is widely known.

With defining (restrictive) amplification:

*Languages, such as Polish, are considered difficult by the British.

*The literacy strategy wants methods, such as looking at books, to be used when appropriate.

Needless to say, there are many more ways in which writers misuse commas, but, if I were to list, and exemplify, them all, I would end up with a sizeable tome!

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.

77 – Punctuation shot: Commas with relative clauses

Although I have already exemplified the importance of commas with relative clauses, I did so jokingly. This post is a more sober take on the subject, which causes much confusion among writers. Relative clauses, which post-modify nouns and do the job of an adjective, begin with relative pronouns which, that, who, whom and whose. Such post-modification can be restrictive (aka defining) or non-restrictive (aka non-defining). Both types are exemplified below.

Restrictive (defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 The girl who used to live next door has moved away.

This is the photograph that we took in Spain.

Snakes which are poisonous should be avoided.

The chap whose ladder I have borrowed must be out.

The couple whom we met last week are coming to tea.

Restrictive relative clauses are essential to the meaning of the noun (or nouns) they modify. This is why they are NEVER set off by a comma – or commas.

 Non-restrictive (non-defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 Susan, who used to live next door, has moved away.

Rattlesnakes, which are poisonous, should be avoided.

Mr Jones, who is our GP, is retiring soon.

Tom, whose ladder I have borrowed, is obviously out.

The Browns, whom we met last week, are coming to tea.

Unlike restrictive relative clauses, non-restrictive ones are always set off by commas. Why? Because we don’t need them to understand the rest of the sentence. In other words, whatever you can cut out of a sentence without changing its meaning you should separate by commas. Whether a clause is restrictive or non-restrictive has thus a direct bearing on sentence punctuation. This principle, fundamental though it is, is widely misunderstood, and blunders abound – some with seriously misleading, or unintentionally hilarious, consequences. Do you think any parent in their right mind would send their darling child to a school making this statement in its prospectus?

We will punish all children, who are disruptive.

No, me neither. But remove the comma, and the school might find itself oversubscribed.

We will punish all children who are disruptive.

And do you think our poorer senior citizens would vote for a party putting forward this proposal?

Pensioners, who don’t need free bus passes, should be deprived of this perk.

But they may well back a party if its manifesto declared this:

Pensioners who don’t need free bus passes should be deprived of this perk.

Punctuation blunders with relative clauses crop up all over the place. This is what I found in The Times Educational Supplement.

“Children are owed a duty of care by schools which are ‘in loco parentis’.”

Are they really suggesting that some schools are not responsible for children in their care? No, of course not; thus:

Children are owed a duty of care by schools, which are ‘in loco parentis’.

More examples can be found in Maxi-rant 12: Another elusive comma, published on 15 October 2014. Finally, I have a handy tip for you: whenever a relative clause post-modifies a name (which will, of course, be capitalised), you will need to put a comma after it because names are usually self-defining: whatever modification follows will merely supply additional details. This, again, is an area where writers often blunder. The sentence below comes from The Sunday Times.

“I like Theresa May who is tough.”

But what about all the other Theresa Mays? They may also be likeable. But, of course, this venerable newspaper did not mean what it said. Thus:

I like Theresa May, who is tough.

My final two examples come courtesy of The Economist.


“This [rescuing a mortgage lender] from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.


This from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande, who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.


“Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.”


Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen, who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.

68 – Grammar shot: Interpolated coordination

I feel it was a tad unfair to leave you, in my previous post, more or less high and dry after hitting you with the term ‘interpolated coordination’, with which some of you may be unfamiliar. In this post, I’m trying to atone for the lapse. The logical start would be a brief overview of coordination. Coordination is a way of combining words, phrases and clauses of equivalent status into more complex structures by means of coordinators. Coordinators include coordinating conjunctions and, or and but and punctuation. Coordination is an exceedingly common procedure, and it’s not at all necessary to be aware of the term to be able to perform the operation without mishaps, although it is by no means plain sailing. But that’s not what this article is about.

Examples of coordination:

 I like apples, plums and pears.

Sink or swim.

They were bloodied but unbowed.

I was late; consequently, I wasn’t allowed to sit the exam.

 So far, so uncomplicated. We, however, also use the so-called interpolated coordination, a very common device, but one which often seems to present some writers with difficulties – hence this post. Since to interpolate means to insert, interpose, incorporate, inset, interpolated coordinate constructions are constructions where one is ‘inserted’ inside another. This usage is illustrated in the examples below.

Examples of interpolated coordination:

She is, or at least was, a famous pianist.

He is known for his love for, and expertise in, grammar.

Some girls consider themselves not just equal to, but the same as, boys.

 In order for interpolated coordination to work, the inserted unit MUST be enclosed by two correlative commas (the most common), dashes or brackets. Why?  Because it is inserted – or interpolated. But the point is that it often lacks the required punctuation, this being illustrated through the two examples below.

 Both correlative commas (or dashes/ brackets) missing (very common):

 “It was perfectly possible to get an A grade in history without the slightest interest in or grasp of the subject.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Write: interest in, or grasp of, the subject.

 The second correlative comma (or dash/ bracket) missing (very common):

 “Extra money and facilities must be focused on, not away from the disadvantaged.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Write: focused on, not away from, the disadvantaged.

 Interestingly, I have found no examples with the first correlative comma (or dash/ bracket) missing, although such omission can be seen with other constructions. I am using the three examples below to exemplify the omission of relevant prepositions – another type of error – but there are punctuation mistakes in two of them as well.

 “The imperial bureaucracy must be accountable and the servant of the commonwealth.” (The Sunday Times)

 Write: must be accountable to, and the servant of, the commonwealth.

 “Nobody loves fancy dress as much (or is more ill-advised in its adoption) than members of the Royal family.” (The Daily Telegraph)

 Write: as much as (or is more ill-advised in its adoption than) members of the Royal family.

 Occasionally, the omission of a preposition is likely to result in unintentional hilarity.

 “Every school should offer classes for parents to teach them how to talk and play with their children.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

 Blimey, you would think that parents can talk already!

Write: to teach them how to talk to, and play with, their children.

So mind how you go with interpolated coordination!

Frolic: Meek parents and content disjuncts

“Blimey, those British parents!”

“What about them?”

“I never knew they could be so meek.”

“Meek? British parents?”

“Well, to allow yourself to be abused like this when you are a fully-functioning adult. Particularly when there’s a few of you and only one abuser.”

“Depending on the type of the abuse, I suppose. What have you been reading now?”

The Daily Telegraph.”


“They wrote about this children’s doctor who sexually abused not only the boys he was supposed to be looking after but also their parents.”

“You are kidding!”

“No, no, look: that’s what they wrote.”

  “John Farmer, prosecuting, told the court how Bradbury abused boys with their parents in the room and said the doctor began using a camera pen in an attempt to gain images of the boys when partly clothed.”

“No, no, it’s the commas!”

“But they said it was sexual abuse.”

“I know, I know, it’s absolutely awful, but he didn’t actually abuse the parents.”

“But they said he had abused boys with their parents!”

“No, no, no: ‘with their parents in the room’ is a content disjunct.”

“A what?”

“A content disjunct – a type of adverbial.”

 “Of what?”

“Adverbial – one of the five clause elements. This one is actually a contingency construction.”


“Oh never mind; the point is that ‘with their parents in the room’ should have been enclosed with two correlative commas.”

“Correlative commas?”

“Yep, commas that come in pairs – because they co-relate. If The Daily Telegraph had used these commas, the meaning would be completely different.”

“I s-e-e-e, so he didn’t actually abuse the parents themselves.”


“But, even so, they must have twigged.”

“Well, it says here that he was behind a curtain, doesn’t it? So they probably couldn’t see him.”

“But, but … how could anybody not have noticed that this doctor was partly clothed? Surely, alarm bells must have rung or something …”

“Ha, ha, ha, it wasn’t he who was partly clothed!”

“But that’s what it says …”

“I know, I know, but it’s a relatively common error. Look, participial adverbials really are a minefield – how many times? What they should have written is this.”

 John Farmer, prosecuting, told the court that Bradbury had abused boys, with their parents in the room, and said the doctor had begun using a camera-pen in an attempt to obtain images of the partly-clothed boys.

 “Or they could have said: ‘to obtain images of the boys, who were partly clothed’. What they can’t do is leave this sentence as it is.”

“But that’s exactly what they did.”

“Yep, that’s exactly what they did.”

“So how …”

“Don’t even ask!”

Midi-rant 13: The comma calamity

“Good grief, when did this happen?”


“This disaster.”

“What disaster?”

“What do you mean what disaster? That which wiped out over 80% of the world’s human population.”

“80% – are you sure? Well, there were the 1932 China floods, the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, the 1970 Bhola cyclone, the …”

“No, no, no, while I was away.”

“You mean when you were trekking in the outback?”

“Yep. Perhaps I should have kept abreast, but I wanted to experience total isolation. That will teach me.”

“But nothing happened – only Gonzalo.”

“What happened to him?”

“No, no, it was a hurricane. But it killed only four people – nowhere near 80% of the world’s population.”

“Over 80%, actually.”

“Look, you are not making any sense.”

“Well, so why did they write this?”


“This – look.”

They are amongst the 1.2 billion people around the world, living in what is sometimes called ‘energy poverty’, or ‘off-grid’.

“Oh this, ha, ha, ha!”

“What’s so funny? Before I left, there were over 7 billion people in the world, and now we are down to 1.2 billion – jeez!”

“No, no, no, it’s the comma!”

“Who isn’t making any sense now? How can a comma wipe out 6 billion people just like that?”

“No, no, no, they have no idea that you don’t use the comma with defining clauses. The participial clause beginning with ‘living’ defines the clause about people, which is why we mustn’t separate the two clauses with a comma.”

“We mustn’t?”

“Nope: they belong together. What they should have written is this.”

They are amongst the 1.2 billion people around the world living in what is sometimes called ‘energy poverty’ or ‘off-grid’.

“Hmm, but this publication is supposed to reach many readers – are you sure there was no calamity?”


“In that case, they need a copy-editor.”

“You are not kidding!”

Maxi-rant 12: Another elusive comma

This rant follows on from that on the killer comma (no 11, September 25th), which addressed the illiterate comma used with defining (or restrictive) relative clauses, that is clauses such as the one in the sentence below.

We are going to come down hard on teachers who are incompetent.

Since the bit coming after the relative pronoun who (which is called a defining relative clause) gives essential information, it must never be separated from the rest of its sentence by a comma, something entirely lost on the hapless Doug – and many like him. Conversely, non-defining (or non-restrictive) clauses, which merely supply additional details, get separated with either one comma or two (depending on their position in the sentence). Or rather, should do, but often don’t. And when they don’t, that’s what can happen.

“Fancy that!”


“This – in The Times Educational Supplement.”


“This advice. You see, they had these language support units – apparently.”

“Who did?”



“They disbanded them – under Section 11.”

“Under Section 11?”

“Yep. And they hung the staff working in these units out to dry, basically.”

“Councils did? I thought they were on the side of hard-working people.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Apparently, they told them to go and work for less money.”


“I know, the cheek of it: you do the same work, and they tell you that you have to accept a lower salary.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive; look – that’s what they wrote.”

The units were disbanded and staff were told to take up posts with schools which refused to match their old salaries.

“A-a-a-a, it’s non-restrictive.”

“How can you say it’s not restrictive? If you ask me, it’s highly restrictive. And immoral, actually.”

“No, no, I mean a non-restrictive clause.

“Look, whatever clause they had inserted into this immoral Section 11, they should have been hauled up in court, trying to rob hard-working folk like this.”

“No, no, no, it wasn’t intentional!”

“How can it not have been intentional if they had put it in Section 11? Are you saying our law-makers are asleep on the job?”

“No, no, no, no! I meant a non-restrictive relative clause; they should have used a comma there.”

“And how would a comma have helped the workers, exactly?”

“No, no, not the workersthe meaning. Look, what this hack should have written is this.”

The units were disbanded, and staff were told to take up posts with schools, which refused to match their old salaries.

“Is this what they should have written?”

“Absolutely. You see, those language-support folk were simply told to apply to schools – full stop. There was no suggestion that they should accept lower salaries.”

“There wasn’t? But they wrote …”

“I know, I know. Look, the bit after which is a non-restrictive relative clause.”

“It is?”

“Absolutely. That’s why it must come after a comma. This means that those people were directed to schools.”

“That’s what I said!”

“But NOT specifically to those schools which refused to match their old salaries – to schools in general. It’s just that, by then, schools had them by the short and curlies, didn’t they? I mean, the units had been disbanded, so what were these poor people supposed to do? They had no choice. So you see how the absence of one little comma can derail meaning.”

“Fancy that!”

This bewilderment appears to be shared by a significant proportion of writers, who keep omitting this important comma. Here are a few more examples.


Teachers will have ready access to professionals such as educational psychologists who can help. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Teachers would be rather silly if they sought help from professionals who couldn’t help, wouldn’t you think?


Teachers will have ready access to professionals such as educational psychologists, who can help.


Many students fear tests which can slow progress and drive them to drop out. (The Times Educational Supplement)

They are not stupid, students, are they? If I were faced with tests which can slow progress and lead to my dropping out, I’d be quaking in my boots.


Many students fear tests, which can slow progress and drive them to drop out.


The guidance was endorsed by the unions who deserve credit. (The Times Educational Supplement)

And what about the unions which don’t deserve credit? Did they not endorse the guidance?


The guidance was endorsed by the unions, which deserve credit.


The Labour Party has alienated teachers who ought to be its friends. (The Guardian)

Only those teachers who ought to be its friends? I don’t think so, somehow.


The Labour Party has alienated teachers, who ought to be its friends.

So there you have it: one of the many important uses of the comma, which one ignores at one’s peril – with the comma being necessary also before this particular relative clause.

The Hyphen Story

Hyphen – two main uses

Unlike you, my esteemed reader, the hyphen isn’t complicated at all. This unassuming little mark has two main uses:

  • to mark divisions within words

  • to prevent misinterpretation (however momentary such misinterpretation may be).

The hyphen puts in an appearance:

  • with compounds: runner-up, lift-off, passer-by, open-minded [attitude], parent-teacher [association], five-year-old [boy], on-the-spot [fine], little-used [car], healthy-schools [coordinator]

  • after prefixes: un-English, pre-school, ex-wife, non-standard, co-op, re-form

  • to divide words at the end of a line of print (self-explanatory).

It is the second use of the hyphen that is particularly important: the last thing you want is to confuse your readers. For example, if your sofa is covered again, it is re-covered rather than recovered, if your flat is leased again, it is re-leased rather than released, and if your team is disbanded and formed again, it is re-formed rather than reformed. Misinterpretation is particularly rife with pre-modifying compounds (a man eating shark OR a man-eating shark?). The story below has been inspired by two whoppers I came across in The Sunday Times, similar lapses being very common – if perhaps not quite as funny.


Sorry, Dave, you have already seen the story itself, although this is an updated version.


The Hyphen Story


The sun burst in through the bay window, its rays bringing out the pinkness of the hydrangeas tastefully arranged on the table and playing tricks with her friend’s hair, making it appear even blonder than it really was.

At her age, she should have started going grey, Sheila reflected, a tad grudgingly. Her own hair was well on the way to complete whiteness, and even though she was sorely tempted to restore it to the colour of her youth, she worried that such a blatant manifestation of vanity might not sit well with her exalted position in the community. She was President of the local Pickle-Appreciation Society, after all. And Chairwoman of the Knitting-for-Peace Association. Not to mention Convener of the Marmalade-Muffin Fellowship, of course. So she couldn’t risk succumbing to frivolities such as dyeing her hair, could she? Wouldn’t it be better, though, if everybody got greying at a similar age? After all, both she and Clare were in their early sixties, yet you’d need a magnifying glass to spot a white hair on Clare’s head.

“More tea?” asked Clare, lifting her best china teapot in an anticipatory gesture.

“Yes please, darling. Marvellous tea.” Clearly, it wasn’t nearly as good as the one she herself makes, Sheila thought, but she did appreciate the effort her friend was pouring into their fortnightly get-togethers – even though the cakes were invariably purchased rather than baked at home. But what could you reasonably expect of a grammarian? And a lonely one at that? While they were both widowed, at least Sheila had her three wonderful children – especially wonderful now that they have all left home. And eight enchanting grandchildren. Well, obviously not enchanting all the time, but the best thing was that, at the end of a delightful but exhausting day, you could hand them back to their parents. And whom did Clare have? No children, no siblings, rattling round in her large house with only grammar for company. What sort of life was that? For a brief moment, Sheila contemplated suggesting that they should up the frequency of their meetings to once weekly, but sanity prevailed, and she stopped herself – albeit at the very last moment. After all, she always made an effort to come up with a riveting topic for conversation, didn’t she? So let’s not go over the top: it’s quality – not quantity.

“The mystery; I must tell you about this mystery, darling.”

“What mystery is that, Sheila?”

“With this gay bar owner.”

What gay bar owner?”

“In Manhattan. My cousin’s just written: her friend is at sixes and sevens.”

“Why is that?”

“Apparently, my cousin’s friend’s grandson – this gay bar owner – has just got engaged.”

“So? Don’t they have same-sex marriage in the States? Same as we do?”

“That’s just it: he got engaged to a female. My cousin writes that she is an adult film actress – look.” Sheila handed her friend a neatly written letter (they weren’t into all this e-mail nonsense; there is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned epistle), which confirmed her bulletin.

“Well, some gay people do get married to partners of the opposite gender. For all sorts of reasons.”

“Apparently, he’d got her up the duff.”

“But … but didn’t … didn’t you say he was gay?”

“Well, that’s what she wrote – look.”

“I can see, I can see.”

“It all sounds highly fishy, if you ask me.”

“Hmm … At least his fiancé is an adult: let’s hope she knows what she’s letting herself in for.”

“But that’s just it: apparently, she’s just seventeen – hardly an adult.”

“I see … ”

“And what I can’t work out is why his family are disgusted by her profession.”

“Are they really? If you ask me, that’s a bit old-fashioned. After all, acting has been respectable for a long time. I didn’t know that Americans could be so narrow-minded.”

“You wouldn’t think so, would you, darling? Not with all those Hollywood studios and that. I can’t quite get my head round it, to tell you the truth.”

“Just a sec, just a sec, maybe … maybe what’s missing there is the hyphen.”

“A high what, darling?”

“No, no: a hyphen.”

“If you ask me, darling, what’s missing there is a sense of perspective.”

“No, no, no, I mean a hyphen in ‘a gay-bar owner’ and ‘an adult-film actress’. You just use this sign – like a short dash – to create a pre-modifying compound to prevent misinterpretation.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely! You see, a gay-bar owner – with a hyphen – may not necessarily be gay himself, and an adult-film actress – again, with a hyphen – may not actually be an adult.”

Sheila gave her friend a look infused with a mixture of doubt and incomprehension. “Well, there were no high … high … no short dashes there – you saw yourself.”

“I know, I know, and that’s exactly the problem.”

“You think that is the problem?”

“Absolutely! You see, the absence of the hyphen can be genuinely misleading. And funny. Just compare ‘a little used car’ with ‘a little-used car’, ‘a hard drug user’ with ‘a hard-drug user’, ‘a small business owner’ with ‘a small-business owner’, ‘a dirty joke teller’ with ‘a dirty-joke teller, ‘a short course director’ with ‘a short-course director’, ‘a real estate broker’ with ‘a real-estate broker’, ‘a popular music station’ with ‘a popular-music station’, ‘real ale enthusiasts’ with ‘real-ale enthusiasts’, ‘a black cab driver’ with ‘a black-cab driver’ – you can actually hear the hyphen there. I have harvested hundreds of examples with the missing hyphen, hundreds!”

Sheila looked at her – now unhealthily animated – friend with barely disguised pity. How could she possibly have entertained weekly get-togethers? Much as she loved Clare, her obsession with grammar was, clearly, abnormal, and her grammatical expositions were unendurable to any well-balanced human being.

“Gosh, is that the time already, darling? I’m afraid I must dash: these annual general meetings of Knitting for Peace are an awful bore, they really are, but one tries to do one’s best for one’s community. You must tell me all about this high thingy next time – you ABSOLUTELY MUST!”