Friday, September 6, 2013

Rob Hutton's list of journalistic clichés

My 'shameful secret’: I’ve learnt to love clichéd journalese

Rob Hutton, Daily Telegraph, 5 September 2013

The lazy and glib language used by reporters in British newspapers changes how you see the world once you understand it

Where is everyone in a lab coat a “boffin”? Where is “bubbly” either “guzzled” or “glugged”? Where do “drunken yobs” go on “booze-fuelled rampages”? You know the answer: in Britain’s newspapers. Just under a year ago, a late-night comment on Twitter led me to become an accidental collector of “journalese”, the language of reporters. It’s a world in which unnamed backbench MPs are always “senior”, where any adjustment of policy is a “humiliating U-turn”. Where the police “launch probes”, presumably with Nasa’s help. Where two people who disagree “clash”, typically after one of them has “slammed” the other.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

When is a coup d'état not a coup d'état?

The facts are not in dispute. On July 3rd, 2013 troops and tanks of the Egyptian army surrounded key installations, commandos took prime minister Morsi to a Ministry of Defence building and General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi announced that he had removed Morsi from power and suspended the constitution. The army then appointed an interim president. It is difficult to think of a power change in any country that more closely conforms to the classical model of a coup d'état. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

Yet the Obama government has refrained from using the term "coup d'état" because to do so would trigger the suspension of military aid to Egypt. This is like refusing to call a crime a crime because to do so would entail the apprehension and punishment of the perpetrator.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How to learn English?

Many people are learning English around the world. For example, some 300 million people in China, including children at school and adults in evening classes, are learning English formally.

I see from my blog statistics that readers are accessing this blog in many countries, including Russia, Burma, Korea, the United States, India, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In some of these countries, English is the native tongue, in others it is a second language. Although many readers are looking for help with the finer points of English, others may be looking for a way of starting to learn English, or learning English more effectively.

There is plenty of advice online on how to learn English, much of it from language schools.

The advice on this blog is independent and free. But it's just my point of view. There may be others.

So, what should you do if you are living in a country where people speak another language and you want to learn English? Here is some advice for you whether you are attending a formal English class or not.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Misused words: "Chronic"

"Chronic" is a term commonly used in medicine to refer to a condition that is persistent, long-lasting, as opposed to "acute".

It is incorrect to use it to mean "severe".

You could use it to talk about "chronic" economic stagnation in a country only if the economy had been in that condition for a long time and was not expected to recover. If the economy had shrunk in one or two years, "chronic" would be wrong, however deep the plunge in national output.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Gone are the days of the typing pool full of ladies busily banging away on typewriters.

Now much, if not most, communication takes the form of texting by thumb.

If, though, you do any serious writing on your computer, you should learn to touch-type.

Here's how:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Effective emails

Most of us spend much of our waking lives reading and writing emails. Badly written emails waste time and can hinder instead of promote effective communication.

What are the key things to remember when trying to write emails that will achieve their effects?

Misused words: "Disinterested"

"Disinterested" is frequently, and wrongly, used as a synonym for "uninterested".

If you don't watch football because it has no fascination for you, you can say you are "uninterested" in it. It would be wrong to say you were "disinterested" in for that reason.

"Disinterest" is the negative of "interest" in the sense of "material interest". For example, if you do not own shares in a company you can say that you are "disinterested" in its affairs. You might, though, like to read about what the company is doing in the Financial Times, so you would not say you were "uninterested" in it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Deborah Hersman of the NTSB -- model communicator

For an excellent (in the original meaning of the word) communicator in the English language, I recommend that you watch news coverage of the Boeing 777 crash in San Francisco including live or recorded press conference appearances by Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the United States National Transportation Safety Board. Her statements and answers to questions are a model of how to use language transparently and responsibly.

These are the features of an ideal communicator exemplified by Deborah Hersman:

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Would" and "Will"

"Will" indicates the future positive, for example, "he will go to work tomorrow".

"Would" indicates the future conditional, for example, "he would go to work tomorrow, but he will not go to work because tomorrow is a public holiday".

Don't use "would" instead of "will" if you know something is going to happen.

Using "would" suggests that it will not happen, but would have happened if conditions had been different.

I am aware that in some places, like Hong Kong, learners are taught to use "would" as a future positive.

It is, nevertheless, quite wrong.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Misused words: "Discrete"

"Discrete" is not the same as "discreet".

"Discrete" means "separate". A camera lens looks like a single piece of glass, but it is normally made up of several "discrete" elements.

"Discreet" means "careful" or "circumspect", especially about imparting information to someone else. When you attend a closed meeting, you are likely to be "discreet" about it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Misused words: "Presently"

"Presently" means soon, not now.

The adverb to use to describe an action taking place in the present is "currently".

It is also all right to use the word "now", if it is not obvious from the present tense of the verb.

Avoid waffle like "at the present moment in time" that adds nothing to the meaning.

In Shakespeare's time, "presently" did actually mean "currently", as you can see in his plays.

Things move faster nowadays!

Spelling words starting with "for" and "fore"

Words beginning with "for" and "fore" are easily confused.

"Fore" is short for "before", so words that have the meaning of "before something" often start with "fore".

Here are the correct ways of spelling some of the most common of these:

"None" and "Neither"

"None" is an abbreviated form of "not one". It can therefore only take a singular verb, never a plural verb.

It is OK to say "none of them is coming". It would be wrong to say "none of them are coming".

"Neither" is an abbreviated form of "not either". "Either" refers to singular alternatives: either this one or that one, it does not refer to both alternatives. Therefore "either" can only take a singular verb. The same goes for its negative form, "neither".

It is OK to say "either of them is all right". It would be wrong to say "either of them are all right".

Similarly, it is OK to say "neither of them is all right" and it would be wrong to say "neither of them are all right".

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Misused words: "Decimated"

"Decimated" does not mean "mostly destroyed" or "devastated".

To decimate is to destroy one-tenth of something.

In the Roman army, one in ten of soldiers who retreated would be executed. The unlucky candidates for execution would be chosen by lot, so that all those who retreated would know there was a chance of their being selected. This was intended to discourage retreating while not destroying too many soldiers. The same method has also been used by later armies, notably the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

This practice is called "decimation".

To say "our manufacturing industry has been decimated" when you mean "our manufacturing industry has been mostly destroyed" is therefore to make a gross understatement. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tell them three times

Writing originated as a means of recording and transmitting speech.

The essentials of good presentation are similar for speaking and writing.

If you are presenting a subject to an audience, whether in speech or in writing, you will be better understood and remembered if you tell them what you want them to know three times, like this:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The five Ws

Journalists seek to answer five questions about each news story:
  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
You can memorise this list as: who, what, when, where, why?
It can be useful also for those of us who are not journalists but are writing a report, an exam answer, a letter, an email or any other piece of writing.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Complete Plain Words: a must-read classic

Sir Ernest Gowers' The Complete Plain Words is by far the best book to read on clear writing.
Sir Ernest Gowers, author of The Complete Plain Words
Sir Ernest Gowers
Read it, especially if you have to write a report, a thesis, a book or even something as short as a poster or an email advertising an event.

Here's why.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Principal and principle

Principal and principle are two different words with quite different meanings.

Be careful to decide which one you want to use and be sure to spell it correctly.

Imply and infer

To imply something is not the same as to infer it.

Implication is not the same as inference.

What's the difference?

Friday, May 31, 2013

Correct spelling does matter

Oxford University ranks in the world's top 5 universities. You would expect a professor of English from that august institution to advocate good English. But one such professor, Simon Horobin, of Magdalen (pronounced "maudlin") College, Oxford, suggested this week at the Hay Literary Festival that good spelling doesn't matter.

He's wrong. It does.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Mixed metaphor hunt

Here's something you can do to contribute to this site.

I would like you to find genuine mixed metaphors and put them in the comments section.

Mixed metaphors are common in journalism, especially sports and political writing and commentaries.

You can find many on the Web, including lots that are attributed to famous people, for example:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Greek plurals in English

The plural of Greek words ending in "-on" is a word ending in "-a". Examples:

criterion - criteria

phenomenon - phenomena

Sex and gender

Sex is a biological characteristic: a person or an animal may be male or female.

Gender is a grammatical term: a noun or adjective can be masculine or feminine.

Nowadays, many people seem afraid of using the word "sex", so they use "gender" as a euphemism for it.

An extreme example of this is the notion of "gender-friendly" workplaces, which is trendy gobbledygook for "workplaces where women are treated equally with, or better than, men". This is nonsense, because if gender includes male and female persons, then "gender-friendly" would mean "favourable to all".

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


"Likely" is an adjective, not an adverb.

It's OK to say "he is likely to remember that".

It's not OK to say "he will likely remember that".

Many people nowadays write "likely" when the word they need to use is "probably".

Monday, May 13, 2013

Style guides (and what to put on your desk)

Newspapers, publishers and broadcasters have to use language correctly and consistently. They do this by maintaining their own style guides. Using one or more of these can help you write better English, provided you do so carefully.

What does a style guide contain? What can you use one for? Which one(s) should you buy or download? What other reference works should you have on your desk?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Misused words: "Literally"

"Literally" means "not figuratively", i.e. actually, or "word for word". Yet many people use it in the opposite sense, or as an intensifier.

The UK's deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, in a radio interview, said:

"It makes people so incredibly angry when you are getting up early in the morning, working really hard to try and do the right thing for your family and for your community, you are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax."

Mr Clegg was presumably not really urging us to believe that people who pay low rates of tax live in a different galaxy. (I will leave his misuse of the word "incredibly" to another post.)

Submit examples of incomprehensible writing

Do you receive infuriating, badly-written junk mail? Or letters from government or companies that are full of jargon and officialese?

If so, you are welcome to post them in the comments section or email them to me at for publication on this blog.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

SEC promotes plain English

Which of these is easier to understand:



You should rely only on the information contained in this document or that we have referred you to. We have not authorized anyone to provide you with information that is different.


George Orwell's classic essay on writing good English

Here is a short essay by George Orwell which explains how to write plain English.

George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm
George Orwell (Eric Blair)
The examples are out of date, because it was written in 1946, but the main points are still relevant.

If you don't have time to read all of it now, at least read (and preferably memorise) Orwell's six rules:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What do I know about English?

At some stage while reading these blog posts, you might ask yourself,"Who does this Ken Davies think he is? What does he know about English? Has he ever written for a living, or edited, or taught English, or taught English as a Foreign Language?"

The answer is "yes" to all those questions.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cutting unnecessary words

Here's one tip that may save you time and effort and improve your readability.

The next time you have to write anything, go through it when you have finished and cut out any words that are not needed.

"Going forward"

There are a number of phrases which add nothing to the meaning of a sentence but are frequently used by commentators on the business and/or economic scene. Their purpose appears to be socioeconomic: they indicate that the speaker or writer wishes to appear an authoritative expert, worth many times the salary of a comparable academic or a mere member of the public with a similar opinion.

One of these that I find particularly irritating is "going forward". The speaker/writer invariably inserts this in a sentence that already contains a future tense, for example "price increases will decelerate going forward", so the phrase is clearly redundant.

Is "English English" the only good English? No.

English is not the sole property of the English.

To write and speak correct English you do not have to live in England or have been taught by an English person.

American English is widely used internationally and many people who grew up speaking other languages decide to learn American English.

There are many other countries that use English as their main language or as a common language that links diverse language groups. For example, the Philippines prides itself on being the second largest English-speaking country in the world.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Yes, this blog is for you

You are reading this blog post in English.

You may be:

  • A professor of English Language or English Literature at Oxford University.
  • A newspaper editor anywhere in the world.
  • A high school student in California
  • A teenager in Nigeria playing games on the Internet.
  • A street pedlar in Calcutta (Kolkata)
  • A learner of English in an evening class in Osaka
  • A non-English tourist about to visit Australia.
  • A Scottish crime novelist.
  • Most probably none of these, but another kind of person speaking, writing or learning English.

Whatever your level of English, this blog will address points that you may find useful in improving your English.

To improve the blog, please feel free to post comments and questions.

Thank you, US, Germany, S Korea and Hong Kong!

I am greatly encouraged to see from my Statistics page that, although I did not advertise this blog anywhere on the web and I only started it yesterday, there have already been several people who have visited the blog from the United States, Germany, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Thank you for reading this blog. Please feel free to send comments. At this early stage, I would particularly welcome questions, which I will try to answer to the best of my ability.

Monday, April 29, 2013

My campaign for better English

Good communication matters.

Bad communication can create misunderstanding. Sometimes it kills people.

More often, it just misleads them.

Speaking personally, it irritates me.

But this blog won't be of any use to anyone if it's just a dustbin for my complaints.

I want to help everyone to use the English language to communicate more effectively with other people, wherever they live.

Bad English may be the result of bad teaching, no teaching, or the effect of bad writing and editing in the mass media.

It is not difficult to put right.

In this blog I will help anyone who wants to improve their English to deal with problems that they would otherwise not be told about.