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.