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.




93 – Mini-rant: Dead survivors?

Having been greatly distracted by two momentous events, Brexit and the American election, I’ve been very remiss with this blog. And, let’s face it, language misdemeanours, however diverting, pale into insignificance with what’s going on in the world. But having stumbled across this snippet, widely broadcast by the British media, I’m unable to resist a mini-rant. The revelation came courtesy of an eminent foreign correspondent, who commented on a catastrophic plane crash thus.

There is little hope of finding survivors alive.

Although overcome with an overwhelming sadness, I nevertheless wondered whether there might be some dead survivors – an obvious (to me, at least) interpretation of this tautological statement. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, tautology – saying the same thing twice in different words – is a stylistic fault which is quite common, but the venerable BBC and its reporters might be expected to be above such lapses. What the correspondent should have said is, of course, this.

 There is little hope of finding anybody alive.

Or this.

 There is little hope of finding any survivors.

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!

89 – Grammar shot: Prepositions at the end (busting a myth)

It’s been a long time, but my mammoth task is finally over: I have just finished revising my grammar book for British schools. This explains my silence, although some of you might have found it a welcome break from my ramblings. Although English grammar wouldn’t have changed since 2003, when my work was first published, I desperately wanted to improve the book. To paraphrase the well-known adage, the work of an inveterate reviser is never done!

And what an experience it was. First of all, whatever possessed me, all those years ago, to produce a book of 128,000 words? In the intervening period, I have done a great deal of writing (and an even greater deal of rewriting) and copy editing and have come to prize economy of expression. So I set about pruning, snipping, lopping, chopping off and paring down determinedly. By the time the operation was finished, some 45,000 words had disappeared – yet the book seemed none the worse for it. In fact, I sincerely hope that it has emerged enhanced. Naturally, I have made numerous other improvements, but that’s by the by. What matters is for teachers and students to get as good a deal as I’m capable of offering, and I’ve certainly done my damnedest. The book is now with my publisher, First and Best in Education; I’ll announce its publication with great fanfare. In the meantime, I’ll be posting grammatical and punctuation snippets from my oeuvre, the first coming right up. It aims to bust a popular myth that we mustn’t end sentences with prepositions. Utter nonsense! Here it is.

Busting a myth: prepositions at the end

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

As the name ‘preposition’ (‘preceding position’) suggests, the preposition usually comes before its complement, although – in some cases – prepositions are placed at the end of sentences. It is thus a myth that we shouldn’t end sentences with a preposition, and people shouldn’t be fed this silly proscription. The examples below show that the end position is obligatory when the prepositional complement becomes the subject.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

He is interested in Rebecca.

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

Rebecca is the girl he is interested in.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

I find it difficult to live with her.

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

 She is difficult to live with.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

I am passionate about grammar.

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

Grammar is what I am passionate about.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

Look at this view!

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

This view is worth looking at.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

You must comply with this rule.

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

This rule must be complied with.

Prepositional complement following the preposition

You should always listen to sound advice.

Prepositional complement as the subject obligatory preposition at the end

Sound advice should always be listened to.

A few other examples of prepositions commonly appearing at the end of sentences are given below.

What a state you are in!

That’s where I am at.

He has no savings to speak of.

Prepositions are also usually placed at the end of questions and sentences with reduced relative clauses.


What are you staring at?

Who is she waiting for?

Where are they going to?

Where do you come from?

What is he up to?

Who are they listening to?

Reduced relative clauses

She is the one he’s been waiting for.

This is the subject she is interested in.

That’s the person he lives with.

They are the ones you want to watch out for.

In a more formal register (style), many – though not all – similar sentences will have equivalents in which the preposition is placed before its complement. Such usage, however, is perceived by many as stilted and is rare in speech – apart, perhaps, from the last example.

For whom is she waiting?

To whom are they listening?

She is the one from whom he can’t bear to be parted.

That’s the person with whom he lives.

This is the subject in which she is interested.

In short, you may plonk prepositions at the end to your heart’s content!


88 – Some little light relief with spelling (From my satirical book: Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?)

This is also from my political – and linguistic – satire, Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?


Chapter 14


It had been a hectic time since our ill-fated team-building event, with all the SPs busily working on their priority deliverables. Having got over my concussion, I immersed myself in FART’s policies, procedures, standards, visions, priorities, tenets, agendas, regulations, principles, doctrines, prescriptions, proscriptions, instructions, rules, precepts, commands, conventions, codes, protocols, directives, decrees, orders, schedules, exclusions, guidelines, recommendations, suggestions and advice. Oh, and process maps and process flow charts, of course. Among all this spiritual nourishment were also the writings of my more established colleagues.

Imagine the extent of my discombobulation when I discovered that I couldn’t rely on my powers of comprehension as reliably as I had – undoubtedly naively – assumed I would. My perplexity desperately needed an outlet, but there was only Crystal around, for our Cluster was having another action-packed day: Greg was attending a meeting of the Current Government Thinking Committee, Morag was attending a meeting of the Shared Vision Committee, Duncan was attending a meeting of the Common Purpose Committee, Ant was attending a meeting of the Information Technology Advisory Forum, Violet was attending a meeting of the Inter-Divisional Liaison Group and Trace was attending a meeting of the House, Lift and Stairwell Committee.

By now, I had been through my own baptism of committee fire, having attended my very first meeting of the Big CORPSE. Before the meeting, Morag had e-mailed us the agenda accompanied by the following message: “Blackberries will be needed”.

“Won’t the hotel supply them? That’s what usually happens.”

“Too expensive, Ali.”

“You mean because they are out of season?”

“Uh? Rewind.”

“Well, blackberries usually ripen in September.”

By now, Crystal, who had been giggling fairly quietly, was laughing so hard she could barely draw breath for all the gasps. “She … ha, ha, ha … she means … our … ha, ha, ha … smartphones … ha, ha, ha.”


“‘Course I’m meaning our smartphones – what else did you think I was meaning?”

“But that’s not how you spell BlackBerrys.”

“‘Course it is, Ali.”

“No, no: you use ‘y’ – not ‘i’. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Look, Ali, I know for a fact – for a fact – that you write ‘two ladies, three baddies, four ditties’, eksetera, eksetera, eksetera – with an ‘i’. The ET have told us that you have to change ‘y’ to ‘i’.”

“Absolutely, Morag, but proper nouns are an exception.”

“No offence, Ali, but all our words are proper, aren’t they, Greg?”

“Indeed they are, indeed they are. You might have some improper ones in Polish, Ali, but, in English, everything is proper.”

“No, no, no, proper nouns are names of people, places, organisations, gadgets, things like that – it’s a grammatical term.”

“Not your grammar again – go and get a life!”

“But Morag’s rule does not apply to names, Greg. For example, if you had more than one person called Kerry or Perry, you’d write Kerrys and Perrys – with a ‘y’ – not Kerries and Perries – with an ‘i’. Where you do have to use ‘i’ is with plural forms of common nouns.”

Greg and Morag exchanged their usual look, to which I have, by now, become quite accustomed, and Greg terminated the exchange with a stern, “Basically, we don’t do common, you know what I’m saying.”

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.


86 – Grammar shot: Tautology (From my book: Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat? Please see the previous post)

“This tautology – could you tell me a bit more about it, Ali?” asked Violet. We had adjourned to the foyer, where, to my surprise, brand-new refreshments had been laid on, with chocolate cake, carrot cake, lemon cake, cheesecake, cupcakes and flapjacks attempting to subvert the government’s healthy-eating offensive.

“Tautology is where you repeat a word or statement needlessly or re-state an idea in different words; it always involves redundancy because the repetition is unnecessary. As I said to Gavina, widget and gadget making is always practical – have you ever heard of theoretical widget and gadget making?”

“No, never.”

“Precisely. Tautology is a fault of style, but it’s actually quite common; there’s plenty of it in FART’s publications.”

“Can you remember any examples?”

“How could I possibly forget? ‘Acceptable performance in this unit will be the satisfactory achievement of the Summative Standards.’”

“What’s tautological?”

“Satisfactory achievement – have you ever heard of unsatisfactory achievement?”

“No, never.”

“That’s why we should omit satisfactory.  But this sentence is illogical anyway because performance is not achievement.”

“So what would you say?”

“‘Acceptable performance in this unit will be confirmed by the achievement of the Summative Standards.’ And how about this one: ‘This will improve students’ learning experience positively across the curriculum’?”

“An improvement is always positive?”

“Of course. So?”

“I’d remove ‘positively’.”

“Absolutely. And this one: ‘This will provide a positive incentive for students to improve their literacy and numeracy’?”

“It’s similar: an incentive is always positive.”

“Spot on, Violet. There is a lot of tautology about: collaborate together, good benefit, mutual cooperation, new beginning, new innovation, past history, recall back, revert back, share the same, unite together, successfully give up, unsuccessfully fail, positively improve/ support/ enhance, Morag’s pre-planningthere are literally countless examples.”

“But we are always saying past history, Ali.”

“I bet you are, but history is always past – have you ever heard of future history?”


“Precisely. And I bet you are also saying forward planning. 

“All the time.”

“But planning is always forward, isn’t it? When did you last plan backwards?”


“My point exactly.”

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.”

83 – A Different Frolic: Beyond the Misty Fells

I have been quite busy contributing to, as well as copy editing, typesetting and publishing, a book by Skiddaw Writers, of whom I am one. The book, entitled Beyond the Misty Fells, is a kaleidoscope of travels and personal journeys; it explores landscapes, adventures, discoveries – and language, the last bit reflecting my own contribution. The paperback is out now (link below); the e-book will be published next week. Below is quoted one of my humorous chapters.


An alien’s English odyssey

“I’ll pay for the cruise if it’s the last thing I do!” declared my mother, an ardent Anglophile, rather effusively. The cold war was on, the iron curtain was down, communism was in full swing and the free world was out of reach to us Poles. But she was head over heels in passion with the English language and worshipped a small island hanging off the western edge of Europe and, somewhat confusingly, concealing its greatness behind the white cliffs of Dover. Seeing as we were firmly in the grip of communism’s tentacles and couldn’t wriggle free to travel to the West, my mother hatched a cunning plan: she would send me on a cruise taking in the English Channel so that I would at least be able to catch a glimpse of the famous cliffs, which, to her, symbolised Britain. Granted, I wouldn’t be allowed to disembark, but my simply feasting on the sight of the island so revered by her would, she decided, be enough.

Although I never did go on that cruise, I nevertheless studiously devoured English and its grammar and, like my mother, fell hopelessly in love with the language, which would become the great passion of my life that would eventually lead me to Britain – and to this book.

Getting to this juncture had been a long, circuitous and bumpy ride, though. The English textbooks of yore, which were a veritable font of knowledge about those faraway islands, depicted a baffling but oh-so-tantalising world inhabited by moustachioed gentlemen invariably called Mr Black or Mr Brown, who always wore bowler-hats and pinstripe suits and carried umbrellas. I remember wondering whether these umbrellas offered adequate protection against the cats and dogs which were apparently always raining down on them. The sugar-coated ladies in frilly pinnies were continually rustling up heavenly delights, and the beaming and well-scrubbed kiddies at their knee were, without exception, referred to as ‘merry and gay’. I couldn’t quite understand why, when I finally made it to Britain in the early Eighties, I’d get filthy looks off blithe young gentlemen, otherwise perfectly agreeable, whenever I complimented them on their exuberance with the entirely fitting – or so I thought – “My, you are so gay!”, but that’s by the by.

But even such wholesome-looking people as those depicted in my English textbooks would evidently get peeved from time to time, and I formed the impression that they would then let off steam by kicking either the bucket or themselves. Oh, and they’d also kick the habit. I wasn’t thus in the least surprised that their dialogue was peppered with the interjections “My foot!”, as foot injury must have been an inevitable consequence of such outbursts. If you discounted those who didn’t have a leg to stand on, that is. And, judging by how often they would spill the beans, they seemed to me rather clumsy. On the other hand, they’d get on their high horse without falling off, so I failed to reach a definite conclusion one way or the other.

I also wondered why they were so fond of expressing themselves cryptically: you see, while they would say “Come through”, they would never explain through what exactly. Or whenever they announced they had fallen over, they kept you guessing as to over what exactly they had fallen. And why did they never give you a straight answer to “How do you do?” Such a perfectly straightforward question, you would think, yet they never actually explained how they did. But that’s not all – far from it.

Apparently, everybody in Britain always talked about the weather. And they had some very interesting national dishes incorporating cool cucumbers, keen mustard and red herring. Why, when they had such delicacies, they’d also eat their hats seemed entirely unfathomable. Then again, they appeared to harbour a strange dislike of the old hat, so maybe that’s why. And, of course, they drove on the wrong side of the road, which – to them – was right, although it was actually left. Another unsolved mystery was why they would stuff their fish into kettles. Confronted by such eccentricities, I felt I had no option but to try to read between the lines. Imagine my relief when I realised that, despite their frequent references to pet hate, they didn’t really hate pets all that much – certainly not the top dog or mother hen. On the other hand, they did chase wild geese and seem strangely reluctant to be sold a pup. And I must admit that their practice of skinning the cat appeared to me thoroughly repugnant, but they made up for that somehow by organising parties for stags and hens.

Their eccentricity notwithstanding, most of them seemed kindly, polite (it was only their health that was rude) and beguiling, so I grew up with the notion of a genial, though decidedly quirky, people who spoke a difficult but fascinating language which was hard to write and even harder to pronounce and where every rule had umpteen exceptions. Little wonder that, to me, Britain was mysterious, intriguing and alluring; it was also tantalisingly out of reach.

But, finally, when your border guards happened to be on a fag break, I managed to sneak into this great country (that your border controls were lax even then is incontrovertible). Imagine my delight when, at long last, I was able to delve deeply into the British psyche. Take the writing on the wall, for example. Since the lovely natives always uttered this phrase in grave tones, I was able to deduce that, like me, they didn’t approve of graffiti. And when you heard that they were always getting a third degree, you couldn’t help but be awed by their putting such great store by higher education. Needless to say, I was deeply touched by their enthusiastic “You can say that again”, with which they were always letting me know that they simply couldn’t get enough of my exotic accent. Charming people! And very, very helpful when it came to giving directions: they were always telling you where to get off. And what amazing generosity: they would even lend you their ear!

Anyway, lady luck had undoubtedly smiled on me, allowing me to put down roots in this wonderful country and to indulge my all-consuming passion for English with utter abandon. After a spell as a teacher of English and broadcaster at the Polish Section of the BBC, I enjoyed many adrenaline-charged years running public examinations, developing different types of qualifications for both English and Scottish authorities, carrying out linguistic research, copy editing and penning articles and books on English grammar, punctuation and usage. The sketches which form my section of this book are representative of my frolicsome style, offering a glimpse into my weird inner world, where humour and grammar blend into a whimsical mix.

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.”