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.

INCORRECT

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

CORRECT

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

INCORRECT

“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.”

CORRECT

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.

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.

74 – Midi-rant: Accented moustache and suspect soundness

What on earth was I doing reading about a chap who got off on owning Rolls-Royces? A non-driver, I’m completely impervious to the delights of any automobile, so this must have been one of those temporary aberrations to which I fall prey on occasion. Anyway, here I am, deeply buried in The Sunday Times and feeling mildly bemused by this journalist waxing lyrical about how a Rolls-Royce “carries a greater weight of association, assumption and prejudice”, when I get walloped with this revelation.

“I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache with a strong Midlands accent.”

While I would agree that having an accented moustache is no more than any man selling second-hand Rolls-Royces deserves, I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not what the hack, hailed as the paper’s most brilliant writer, meant – unless it was a tortuous attempt at hilarity (which I doubt). So what is an inveterate editor to do? How about this?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache and has [OR speaks with] a strong Midlands accent.

Or might a shorter version be better?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, with a moustache and strong Midlands accent.

In either case, the solution lies in deploying coordination, that is linking units of text by means of a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, or or but).

Having overdosed on the unparalleled virtues of Rolls-Royces and the author’s verbal dexterity, I turned my attention to BBC Radio 4. To those reading this outside Britain, BBC Radio 4 is a beacon of broadcasting excellence, so I was slightly taken aback by this statement.

“She begins to suspect the soundness of her own mind.”

Had she been of unsound mind before, I wondered. But the context categorically precluded that interpretation, although it was the only one allowed by this sentence. It didn’t take me long, though, to work out what the broadcaster was attempting to say, which was this.

She begins to doubt the soundness of her own mind.

Careless word choice is at the root of many a misunderstanding, my file literally bursting with similar examples. But, since I’m trying not to be over-indulgent with this rant, I’m saving these quotes for later; I hope you will bear with me.

 

 

73 – Grammar shot: ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’

I keep meaning to entertain you with another frolic, but the serious stuff keeps getting in the way. I’m currently having a whale of a time writing a grammar book – albeit one which pays particular attention to usage. The book will be aimed at a non-specialist audience, and I’m trying my damnedest to make it as accessible as possible. I have just written a short usage tip on an error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. Even if you are not familiar with the label, you are likely to have come across the error itself. What is interesting is that, although the blunder is attributed to poor greengrocers, even educated folk stumble. I have thus illustrated this section with authentic examples taken from rather unexpected sources, and it is learning who the perpetrators are that will probably be of the greatest interest to readers. Then again, I might be wrong – what do you think? Here comes my piece.

 

Since the plural forms of nouns do not incorporate the apostrophe, those who use it with regular (i.e. s) plurals make a relatively common error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. The name of this mistake reflects the frequency with which such wrongly spelt plurals advertise produce – especially fruit and vegetables – sold in shops. Examples include: *apple’s for apples, *pear’s for pears, *carrot’s for carrots, *orange’s for oranges, etc.

REMEMBER

We do not use the apostrophe with the plural forms of nouns in the common case.

The six examples below illustrate the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ erroneously used by educated adults, the final one being particularly striking.

“Czech schools offer secondary education in a range of vocational *specialisation’s [SPECIALISATIONS].” (British government department)

“The body has responsibilities ranging from the *under-five’s [UNDER-FIVES] to higher level vocational qualifications.” (British government department)

“Almost half of all *traveller’s [TRAVELLERS] suffer diarrhoea.” (The Sunday Times)

“She is one of the class *teacher’s [TEACHERS] under the microscope.” (The Independent)

“Our *youngster’s [YOUNGSTERS] will benefit greatly.” (An election campaign leaflet by a British Member of Parliament)

“All national governing *body’s [BODIES] encourage safety.” (An examination syllabus produced by a major British examination board)

PS

I have just added my little greengrocer’s apostrophe verse, which can be found also under my English-related ditties.

 Yesterday, I saw an ad

Which was really, really bad;

I stood gawping in a trance:

“Car valeting – cars and van’s”!

72 – Grammar shot: More asymmetry with correlatives (‘not/but’)

Seeing as yesterday was supposed to be a National Grammar Day (at least in America), here comes a grammar shot with a twist. What’s the twist? That hardly anybody notices that anything is amiss in sentences such as the one below, taken from a recent issue of The Economist.

“Russia has taken to arguing that it is not fighting Ukraine, but America in Ukraine.”

 Don’t worry if you can’t identify the fault; you are in good company. If you can, this post is clearly not for you. Those who wish to persevere, please note that ‘not/but’ do the job of correlative conjunctions (I wrote about the correlative conjunctions ‘either/or’ in Grammar shot no 66 on 3rd January 2015) and are thus supposed to be followed by units which do an EQUIVALENT job or have an EQUIVALENT status. This can best be seen if we bracket off what follows immediately after ‘not’ and ‘and’.

not [fighting]

but [America]

Is ‘fighting’ in any way equivalent to ‘America’? No, of course not – hence the asymmetry in the title of this post. In sentences such as this, the answer lies in moving ‘not’ and placing it where it would match ‘but’ in terms of what follows.

Russia has taken to arguing that it is fighting NOT Ukraine BUT America in Ukraine.

The bracketing below highlights the restored symmetry.

not [Ukraine]

but [America]

Asymmetry with correlative conjunctions is extremely common – though not always as easily remediable as that in this example. But, not wanting to muddy the waters, I will leave sentences requiring a more invasive intervention for later. Below are given three more examples (from quality British newspapers) where a simple relocation of ‘not’ provides the answer, the bracketing making the point clear – I hope.

INCORRECT

“It’s not a question of if, but when.” (The Sunday Times)

BECAUSE

not [a question]

but [when]

CORRECT

It’s a question of NOT if BUT when.

BECAUSE

not [if]

but [when]

 

INCORRECT

“In one school, I was not given a proper contract but a series of one-year contracts.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [given]

but [a series]

CORRECT

In one school, I was given NOT a proper contract BUT a series of one-year contracts.

BECAUSE

not [a proper contract]

but [a series of one-year contracts]

 

INCORRECT

“They are not being lazy but in tune with their natural body rhythms.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [being lazy]

but [in tune]

CORRECT

They are being NOT lazy BUT in tune with their natural body rhythms.

BECAUSE

not [lazy]

but [in tune]

70 – Grammar shot: Hypercorrection

Enjoying an otherwise well-written article in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, I was jolted by this sentence.

 “Marriage will bond Susanna and I closer together.”

 True, it’s a classic example of what, in linguistics, is referred to as hypercorrection – and I’m quite used to both seeing and hearing similar lapses – yet it never ceases to puzzle me why sub-editors employed by prestigious newspapers should stumble over basic grammar. But first, what is hypercorrection? While The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective hypercorrect as “falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestige form”, the writer Kingsley Amis was more direct, branding hypercorrection “an indulged desire to be posher than posh”. In other words, the perpetrators imagine that such hypercorrect usage is formal and seem to want to appear sophisticated, but their desire is inevitably thwarted by their failure to have grasped the principle in question. Put it another way, hypercorrection can be seen as pseudo-refined usage.

Such usage is not limited to English, nor is it confined solely to grammar, but I will concentrate here on a classic misinterpretation of English syntax involving an incorrect case of the personal pronoun I. In the Daily Telegraph example, this pronoun is in the subjective case, but it’s not the subject, the subject of this sentence being ‘marriage”. What is needed here is the objective (or accusative) case me – simply because the phrase “Susanna and me” functions as the object.

Marriage will bond Susanna and me closer together.

After all, what native speaker would write (or say): “Marriage will bond I and Susanna closer together”? Or “between I and you?” Yet reverse the order of the pronouns, and we often get the hypercorrect “between you and I”. If, however, we changed the voice of the Daily Telegraph sentence from active to passive, the phrase “Susanna and I” would become the subject, which is why the subjective case of the pronoun I would be perfectly legitimate there.

Susanna and I will be bonded closer together by marriage.

 Let me offer you a brief grammatical summary. Like nouns, most pronouns in English have only two cases: common (somebody) and genitive (somebody’s). However, six pronouns have three cases: subjective (I), objective/ accusative (me) and genitive (my).

Subjective

I

we

he

she

they

who

Objective/ accusative

me

us

him

her

them

whom

Genitive

my

our

his

her

their

whose

A few further examples of hypercorrection with the personal pronoun I follow; I have many more on my file.

 “There are 10 years between Ruth and I [me] …” (The Sunday Times)

“Two of the children live with my wife and I [me].” (The Independent)

“To you or I [me], it sounds like the ultimate indulgence.” (The Daily Telegraph)

“My children were dealt with at home by Norma and I [me].” (A former British Prime Minister quoted in The Guardian)

Hypercorrection with I is so common that I’ve penned this short rhyme to alert readers to this trap.

 You must never even try

Saying, “Come with Greg and I”,

For it’s always – you will see –

Always, “Come with Greg and me”.

 

69 – Frolic: Babies and participles

“Blimey, your health service …”

“Yes?”

“It’s incredible.”

“Do you think so?”

“Well, maybe not all of it, but your midwifery – the mind boggles.”

“It does?”

“Absolutely. I mean delivering babies isn’t usually a walk in the park – not in Poland anyway.”

“I’d say not anywhere.”

“A-a-a-a, but that’s just it.”

“That’s just what?”

“It is, apparently.”

“It is what?”

“A walk in the park.”

“Look, you are not making any sense here – what is a walk in the park?”

“How you deliver babies. In Britain.”

“Get away!”

“No, no, it is. Or, at least, it can be.”

“Says who?”

“The Times Educational Supplement. I’ve found this article – in your archives. Listen to this.”

 “When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, children will seize on writing as they do art and drawing.”

 “Oh this, ha, ha, ha!”

“What’s so funny? I mean what a feat: they manage to deliver kids in a fresh way. And artistic! I defy you to beat that.”

“No, no, they don’t deliver children!”

“What do you mean they don’t deliver children? Are you saying that The Times Educational Supplement would have wilfully misinformed its readers?”

“No, no, of course not; it’s just that they didn’t know their grammar.”

“Are you saying you need to know grammar to deliver babies?”

“No, yes, I mean everybody needs grammar to communicate – grammar is the mortar that holds the bricks of vocabulary together – but this has nothing to do with babies; it’s a dangler.”

“A dangling baby?”

“NOT A BABY THERE IS NO BABY – IT’S A DANGLING PARTICIPLE!!!”

“A dangling what?”

“Participle. ‘Delivered’ is a dangling participle here.”

“Why is it dangling?”

“Because they made it refer to the wrong noun.”

“They did?”

“Absolutely. They obviously thought that you could relate an initial participle such as ‘delivered’ to the object – which, in this sentence, is writing – but you can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“Nope. Initial participles will always be interpreted as referring to the subject of the main clause – ALWAYS. And the subject here is children.”

“Sure, it’s an important subject.”

“No, no, I don’t mean a subject of discussion – I mean grammar. It’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep. But it’s very easy to put right. Whenever an initial participle is meant to refer to the object instead of the subject, you just change the voice of the main clause from active to passive – that’s all.”

“Is that really all?”

“Yep. Because, when you change the voice, the object becomes the subject.”

“And what happens to the subject?”

“It becomes the agent.”

“Secret?”

“Get away! Look, what they were trying to say was this.”

  “When delivered in a fresh, artistic way, writing will be seized on by children as eagerly as art and drawing.”

 “Blimey.”

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!

67 – Maxi-rant: Moving sheds, the comma splice and interpolated coordination

“Wow, what a feat!”

“What feat?”

“Of engineering. I’ve read that Britain is famous for its engineering. They’ve had this … this famous Brunel, if I remember correctly.”

“Isambard Kingdom.”

“Yes, yes, that’s what I mean: in your kingdom.”

“No, no, it was his name: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

“His name? Wasn’t it rather unusual?”

“Very. But it was simply an amalgamation of his parents’ names.”

“I see. Anyway, what your Duke of Westminster has achieved here is surely worthy of this Isam … Isam … this Brunel.”

“And what is that?”

“Constructing moving sheds.”

“Moving sheds? You mean like … like on wheels?”

“Not sure; they weren’t all that specific.”

“Who wasn’t?”

“This week’s Sunday Times.”

“What exactly did they write?”

“This.”

 “The sheds are large and airy, they can move around.”

 “But this makes no sense; let’s have a look. Ha, ha, ha! They didn’t mean it like this!”

“But that’s what they …”

“I know that’s what they wrote, but you can’t use pronouns like this.”

“You can’t?”

“Nope; pronouns are useful if you want to achieve textual cohesion or to avoid repetition, but you have to be careful to make them refer to the right nouns.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean they meant cows – not sheds.”

“They meant cows?”

“Yep: this was about this farm, set up by the Duke of Westminster, where dairy cows were kept indoors all the time. And the farm’s director was trying to defend the practice, you see.”

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

“That’s exactly what the late Mandy Rice-Davies said to the judge. But the point is that a pronoun will usually latch onto the nearest preceding noun agreeing with it in person and number.”

“It will?”

“Absolutely. And, in this sentence, the nearest congruous noun is ‘sheds’ – hence the confusion.”

“I s-e-e-e-e. So are you saying … you mean that … what exactly do you mean?”

“This; let me write it down for you.”

 The sheds are large and airy; the cows can move around.

 “A-a-a-a-a.”

“It’s an absolute minefield, I’m telling you. It’s very easy to end up with pronouns whose reference is, at best, unclear and, at worst, completely misleading. And, often, you have unintentional hilarity to boot.”

“What boot?”

“No, no, it’s just a saying. And, of course, they had the comma splice in there.”

“The comma splice?”

“Yep: the one after ‘airy’. You can’t just plonk a comma between individual sentences like this.”

“Why not?”

“Because this weakens both sentences. If you don’t want to divide them with a full stop, you’d usually use either a semi-colon or a connective.”

“Or a connective? How …”

“Look, look, I have three different connectives for you here.”

 The sheds are large and airy, and the cows can move around.

The sheds are large and airy, which is why the cows can move around.

Because the sheds are large and airy, the cows can move around.

 “I s-e-e-e; so you wouldn’t use a comma on its own there?”

“You certainly wouldn’t use a comma on its own there. But people often do. There is this myth that it’s a mistake made largely by kids, but the comma splice is quite common among adults – including professional writers.”

“Blimey.”

“And look what they wrote further on.”

“What?”

 “If the facilities are good and the cows are well managed, the welfare of cows kept inside can be as good and in some cases better than they would be outside.”

 “So? Maybe it can.”

“No, no: can’t you see the mangled interpolated coordination?”

“Inter-what?”

“Interpolated coordination; it often gets mangled – particularly if you don’t use commas.”

“How do you …”

“Look, what they should have written is this.”

 (…) the welfare of the cows kept inside can be as good as, and in some cases better than, that of those kept outside.

 “‘As good as, and in some cases better than, something’ is called interpolated coordination. If you use both commas – as you should – it will be easier to see that you need ‘as’ after ‘good’.”

“It will?”

“Well, it should. And, of course, the cows’ welfare won’t be better than they. The whole sentence is an almighty mess.”

“But I thought you said it was this farm manager, didn’t you? I mean, you’d expect him to know about cows and that, but this intercol … interbol … interpol …”

“Sure, but you’d think The Sunday Times could stretch to a sub-editor, wouldn’t you?”

“But aren’t you supposed to be having this standard-of-living crisis? The one that your Labour Party is always banging on about?  Maybe your press can’t afford a sub-editor these days?”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”