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.


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)


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.


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


not [a question]

but [when]


It’s a question of NOT if BUT when.


not [if]

but [when]



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


not [given]

but [a series]


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


not [a proper contract]

but [a series of one-year contracts]



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


not [being lazy]

but [in tune]


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


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).








Objective/ accusative














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”.


66 – Grammar shot: Asymmetry with correlatives (either/or)

Happy New Year! I have decided to introduce yet another type of post, namely a grammar shot. While I will aim to keep such posts light-hearted, the emphasis will be on grammar.


“How right they are.”

“About what?”


“What about it?”

“You either have it, or you don’t.”

 “Either you have it, or you don’t.”


“No, no, I mean asymmetry.”

“But I was talking about charm.”

“No, yes, what I mean is that you’ve got asymmetry there.”

“Where, where? Pass me the mirror, will you?”

“No, no, not your appearance.”

“Thank goodness! You know what they say about beauty: the more regular your features …”

“No, no, no! I’m talking about grammar.”

“Grammar? What has grammar got to do with charm?”

“No, no, not with charm. But you said: ‘You either have it, or you don’t’.”


“You see, ‘either/or’ are correlative conjunctions.”

“Are they really?”

“Yep. Or correlatives – for short.”


“Well, people often misplace them, and what results is asymmetry. It’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep; you’ve just made it.”


“Aha. Just bracket off what comes after each of the correlative conjunctions, and you will see.”

“How do you mean?”


 You either [have it], or [you don’t].


“Now extract the bracketed stuff and put it side by side, like this.”

 First bracketed unit: have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t


“Well, how does it look?”


“No, no, that’s not the point.”

“So what’s the point?”

“Would you say that these two bracketed constituents do an equivalent job or have an equivalent status?”

“I don’t know; are they meant to?”

“Absolutely. Look what happens when I do this to my version.”

 Either [you have it], or [you don’t].

 First bracketed unit: you have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t

“Are the bracketed constituents equivalent now?”

“I suppose; but does it really matter? As long as you can get what the stuff’s about …”

“Oh yes, yes, the famous proclamation.”

“What famous proclamation?”

“We know what we mean – the less you know, the more often you trot it out. I mean … I don’t mean … not you, obviously. But asymmetry is asymmetry: while some instances can be barely perceptible, others are more striking.”

“They are?”

“Yep. Take this; it’s from The Sunday Times.”

 “She’s either criticised for being too fat or too thin.”


“Never mind who; just bracket off what comes after either and or.”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean that what they should have written is this?”

 She’s criticised for being either too fat or too thin.

 “Absolutely. But that was easy. Just look at this – from The Evening Standard.”

 “Nick should either be able to carry on investing via his Personal Equity Plan (PEP) or by using the tax shelter within the new Individual Savings Account (ISA).”

 “Hmm …”

“Brackets, brackets!”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean this?”

 Nick should be able to carry on investing either via his PEP or by using the tax shelter within the new ISA.

 “That’s it, that’s it! And this is from The Times Educational Supplement.”

 “Teachers would either be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.”

 “You mean this?”

 Either teachers would be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.

“By Jove, you’ve got it! But such asymmetry is extremely common; even professors of English stumble over their correlatives.”

Professors of English?”

“Yep; and all sorts of other luminaries. And it’s not only ‘either/or’ that are problematic.”

“Get away!”

“No, no, I’m serious. Other correlatives notorious for being misplaced are ‘neither/nor’, ‘both/and’, ‘not/but’, ‘not only/but also’ and ‘whether/or’.”


“So mind how you go and, when in doubt, just use brackets.”

“Hmm, I think I’d better.”



Daily Frolic 16: Will I come to a sticky end?

My Dear Readers,

I fervently hope it’s not a farewell, but if you never hear from me again, this might be because I’m locked away in the Tower of London. And this is why …

“Your Queen …”


“Elizabeth 2nd …”

“Yes, yes – why?”

“Isn’t she’s widely respected?”

“Absolutely – even by the Scots.”

“Even by the Scots?”


“And by the Commonwealth?”

“And by the Commonwealth.”

“And by Canada?”

“You numpty: Canada is in the Commonwealth. Come to think of it, so is Britain.”

“Oh … well … anyway, I’ve been thinking …”


“No, seriously, I can’t get my head round it, but I think there is a plot …”

“A plot? What sort of plot?”

“To undermine your Queen.”

“You must be joking! She is a national treasure – nobody would dare.”

“That’s what I thought, but … but … you had this independence referendum, didn’t you?”

We didn’t – the Scots did.”

“Same country, same thing.”

“Just don’t say this in Scotland. So what about the referendum?”

“The result.”


“Well, some people were very happy – weren’t they?”

“They were indeed.”

“Including the Queen?”


“And then she spoke on 19th September.”

“She did indeed.”

“But I think somebody had interfered with her speech.”

“How do you mean?”

“You said she had people to write her speeches, didn’t you?”

“All important people do.”

“That’s it, that’s it – they must have interfered with it.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know why, but they must have done; I heard it on the radio.”

“What exactly did you hear?”

“Your Queen said this.”

 “Now, as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”

 “‘Things that HELPS’ – she said this?”

“She did. If you don’t believe me, just Google ‘Queen’s Speech 19 September 2014’ – it’s all over the internet.”

“I do believe you, actually – it’s a classic.”

“It is?”


“Is that why they chose this error?”


“The plotters: the people in charge of her speech.”

“Look, there was no plot!”

“But, but … she must … they must … I mean she can’t …”

“Look, I really don’t want to discuss this: as they say, walls have ears.”

“What yours have is peeling wallpaper – that’s for sure.”

“No, I mean it. You’ve heard of the Tower of London?”


“Well, I’d rather be outside than inside.”

“Why? I think you should definitely go inside: it’s very interesting; we went on this tour, and …”

“No, no, I don’t mean a tour. Look, you know I write a blog, don’t you?”

“You write a blog?”

“Yep – about common errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, stuff like that. I try to make it funny, but it doesn’t always work.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t.”

“What? Oh forget it. Anyway, I wrote about this mistake in my very first post.”

“You did?”

“Yep. We had this Secretary of State for Education; his name was Michael Gove – well, still is. That’s what he said.”

 “I am not one of those people who HAS an instant answer.”

 “The Secretary of State for Education?”

“Yep; and Kenneth Clarke, another former Secretary of State for Education, said this.”

 “I am one of the few people who HAS met Jean-Claude Juncker.”

 “You are kidding!”

“Nope; it’s a common pattern. You see, many people get awfully confused by this ‘one’awfully – and think that they need a singular verb. But they don’t: the verb has to agree with THINGS and PEOPLE – not with ‘one’ – so it has to be plural.”

“But you said that number agreement was basic grammar.”

“It is.”

“So how come …”

“Look, they don’t like grammar here – or, at least, didn’t use to.”

“Why? Grammar is simply about how we construct sentences, isn’t it?”

“Yep, but many reckon native speakers don’t need it.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am, sadly.  Look, just read my post.”

“I will, I will. Shall we contact the Palace then?”

“And say what?”


One of the things that HELP [NOT helps]

One of the people who HAVE [NOT has]

 “Go right ahead; just leave me out of it.”


I apologise for revisiting the subject, the trigger being the Queen’s speech of 19th September 2014. The jocular post in which I wrote about this error for the first time, Accordant Waverleys and Discordant Secretaries of State (Post 1), can be found in the archives under May 2014. I actually published it on April 25th but as a page rather than a post (at the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing technology-wise – no, please don’t tell me I still don’t) and twigged only on May 9th, which is why it appears under that date.

Maxi-rant 7: The ubiquitous ‘like’

No, not the filler ‘like’ in the likes of (the pun intended): “I, like, dig them motors, like”, with which one’s hearing is assailed rather more frequently than is good for one’s equilibrium, but ‘like’ which is forced to act as a conjunction. As it is, ‘like’ slogs hard as a verb, noun, adjective, adverb, preposition and suffix, and the last thing it needs is being dragooned into linking clauses, which is one of the jobs done by conjunctions. Although such mistreatment is extremely common, imagine the extent of my discombobulation when I spotted this title on the front page of The Economist.

Let’s party like it’s 1793

The Economist! This bastion of a vigorous turn of phrase, expressive simile and colourful metaphor scores relatively low on my GBI (grammatical-blunder index), so this use of ‘like’ came as a bit of a shock, and I immediately succumbed to my congenital editorial compulsion, scribbling down the correct version.

Let’s party as if it were 1793

Fair dos, it does look – and sound – a bit formal, but, if the front page of The Economist is not the right place for formality, I don’t know where is. (By the way, there is no full stop at the end because it’s a title, while my ‘were’ is the subjunctive.) Unlike ‘like’, ‘as if’ and ‘as though’ are bona-fide conjunctions, and it is these conjunctions that usually save the day in similar contexts.
In case you thought this quote was a momentary aberration on the part of this venerable magazine, I have another example, with my amendment given underneath.

The good times for Gazprom once seemed like they would never end. (The Economist)

It once seemed as if the good times would never end for Gazprom.
It once seemed as if, for Gazprom, the good times would never end.

If you don’t believe me, please feel free to refer to, among others, The Oxford English Dictionary, which has the following to say about this use of ‘like’: “Now generally condemned as vulgar or slovenly, though examples may be found in many recent writers of standing.” You bet they may! The New Shorter OED is more concise, declaring this usage as being “now non-standard”.
The so-called quality British press abuses ‘like’ on a regular basis; below are given four more examples – as always, with my corrections.

It’s not like I can claim I have somewhere to go. (The Sunday Times)

It’s not as if I can claim I have somewhere to go.

Black teachers often feel like their face doesn’t fit. (The Times Educational Supplement)

Black teachers often feel as though their face doesn’t fit.

Sound like you mean it. (The TES Magazine)

Sound as if you mean it.

With some children, it can be like you are communicating with aliens. (The Times Educational Supplement)

With some children, it can be as though you are (OR were) communicating with aliens.

Needless to say, an ordinary punter is even more likely to mistreat ‘like’ –not that YOU are any ordinary punter, of course!



I forgot that I had penned a little ditty about this.


Let me issue an injunction:

LIKE is never a conjunction;

We should use AS IF instead:

“It does look AS IF he’s dead”.