And the nominations are...

I'm pleased to report that I'm up for an award for my use of language.

I've been shortlisted for Columnist of the Year in the EDF Energy East of England Media Awards, for my football articles on the MyFootballWriter website.

All right, so it's not a Pulitzer prize.  And the awards ceremony next month is taking place at a hotel near Stansted airport rather than Grosvenor House or the Royal Albert Hall.  But it's rather pleasing all the same.

I'm not sure whether I'll be able to get to the ceremony, though.  It's being held on a Thursday lunchtime, so I'd have to keep our son out of his pre-school that day and take him along with me.  Somehow I don't think a boozy media lunch is a suitable environment for a three-year-old - let alone an unsociable 48-year-old.

I'll let you know what I decide.

Posted @ 22:25:51 on 22 December 2009  back to top


Situation conflagrant

One of the first jokes I can remember Harry Hill telling - and still one of my favourites - is this one:

'My father used to say, "Always fight fire with fire".  And that's why they drummed him out of the fire brigade.'

The clever twist on a common expression, leading to an absurd image, just tickled me.  As if anyone in the fire brigade would actually do that!

But then I spotted this recruitment ad for the London Fire Brigade in yesterday's Guardian...

Posted @ 18:36:15 on 20 December 2009  back to top


When slang doesn't work

According to a report on the BBC site this week, many youngsters are being held back in the jobs market because they don't know when they should and shouldn't speak in slang...

Interviewer:  Ah, Mr Johnson.  Do take a seat.

Candidate:  What's good, guy?

Interviewer:  Er... the morning's good.  Good morning to you.

Candidate:  Safe, safe.

Interviewer:  Right.  So, you're interested in a job here?

Candidate:  Standard.  I'd bum it blue.

Interviewer:  Excellent - I think.  But why our company in particular?

Candidate:  'S proper nang, innit?

Interviewer:  Sorry?

Candidate:  Mint, da bomb, buzzin'.

Interviewer:  Actually I can hear a buzzing.  What is that?

(The candidate takes a ringing mobile phone out of his pocket.)

Candidate:  Check the ringtone, guy.  Sick, yeah?

Interviewer:  I'm sick of it already.  Would you mind turning it off?

Candidate:  Seen, seen.  Don't be vexed.

Interviewer:  Thank you.  Now, I understand that you had a spell of work experience but left before completing it.  Could you tell me a little more about that?

Candidate:  It was well long, man.  The boss was sooo dry.  Thought I was a fudge, the munter.

Interviewer:  Right.  Well, I'm pleased to say you've got the job.

Candidate:  For real?

Interviewer:  Ha!  Owned!  No, you haven't.

Candidate:  I'm ghost...

Posted @ 00:13:11 on 10 December 2009  back to top


Yeah - what that guy said...

I've come across some pretty horrendous examples of marketing-speak in a few advertising briefs I've been given lately.  I was going to include them in a post about how people often fall back on jargon to cover a lack of clear or original thinking, but then decided it would be wiser not to.  If the people who wrote those briefs were to recognise the examples, they might not put any more work my way.

Fortunately, however, advertising luminary Dave Trott has just written on this very subject in his excellent blog, so I can direct you towards that instead.

I particularly like the example he gives in a comment appended to the post, which makes the point that jargon can be used in a crafty way to reassure habitual jargon-users that you 'get' them:

In a pitch, Mike Greenlees once said to a client, "In order to increase stock-turn you need to optimise your on-shelf margins."

We won the pitch.

Later I asked Mike what it meant.

He said, "Well if they make it cheaper people will buy more."

I asked him why he didn't just say that.

He said, "Because then they would have thought I knew nothing about marketing."

Posted @ 23:44:53 on 02 December 2009  back to top


Updates upon updates

Two quick things:

Back in January, I mentioned a school in Sheffield which decided to call itself 'a place for learning' because the governors felt that the word 'school' has negative connotations.  Things just got even worse.  My wife spotted an ad in the current TES for a 'learning manager'.  That's right - they're after a teacher.

And way back in September of last year, I quoted Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker talking about how hard and unpleasant he finds it to write.  The Guardian site now has a video of him expanding further on this subject.  It's entertaining, enlightening... and rather reassuring.

However hard I've found it to write on occasions, I've never sat in my underpants in floods of tears.

Posted @ 11:51:49 on 13 November 2009  back to top


Raven mad

It's been a couple of months now since our daughter Emily (5) decided it was time to move up from CBeebies to CBBC.  There have already been linguistic consequences; for example, our son Harry (3) had to spend some time on the naughty step yesterday for constantly shouting 'You suck!', which he's picked up from some programme or other.

And the relief at escaping such CBeebies horrors as Big Cook, Little Cook and In the Night Garden didn't last long.  CBBC has plenty of annoying programmes of its own.  Fortunately, however, Emily and Harry's favourite is actually watchable.  I'd even go so far as to say it's quite good - and the language used in the programme is one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Raven is a game show, but quite different to most of the ones served up on children's TV.  There are no shouty presenters, flashing lights, loud music or gunge tanks.  Instead, the show has a medieval Celtic setting with the contestants playing the parts of young warriors undertaking a series of challenges in a quest to prove their mettle.  The language has an archaic, almost epic feel throughout; here are the words which open the programme:

"Evil still lurks in this sinister and foreboding land.  Danger is omnipresent as the vile servants of Nevar patrol every forest and river in search of my brave warriors.  But we will hunt them and their malevolent master down and destroy his wickedness once and for all.  I must strive to return this land to its true path and bring light to the darkness..."

Even the children's names are changed.  They are given 'warrior' names like Satnav and Nobrot (well, maybe not quite like that) to fit in with the tone and setting.

I should imagine it's a lot of fun to write that show.  It feels as though the writers and the actor who plays Raven enjoy the language they use, anyway.

I wonder whether the actor continues to speak that way when he goes home in the evenings, though?  I think I would, for a laugh.

Posted @ 10:46:37 on 01 November 2009  back to top


Is it? No, it isn't...

Our five-year-old daughter Emily spent the weekend working on a project about owls.

Looking over her shoulder to see how she was getting on, I noticed one subhead that I couldn't understand at all; it read 'Owls isit'.  I was pretty sure that this wasn't meant to be an owl-related version of the old advertising slogan 'Coke is it', so I asked her what it said.

'Oh, Dad,' she sighed scornfully.  'It says "Owls' Eyesight".'

Hmm.  I still have some reservations about this phonics system they use in primary schools nowadays.

Not that this was the only linguistic mistake I spotted on Saturday.  I bought a new saucepan from Sainsbury's and spotted this on the packaging:                                  


'Twice as stronger'?  I can't decide whether the proof reader had poor grammar or poor isit.

Posted @ 11:29:01 on 19 October 2009  back to top


Safire's gems

Although I haven't yet reached the stage where I check the obituaries in the paper every day to make sure I'm not dead, there was one in the Guardian which caught my eye this week: a piece about New York Times columnist William Safire, who died on Monday.

I hadn't heard of him before - and from what I've read since, I wouldn't have had much time for his political views - but he was apparently a respected figure in linguistics in the States, defending the correct use of English and mocking poor usage.  To this end, he compiled a witty list of rules for writing (or 'Fumblerules'), which I'm happy to reproduce here...

• Remember to never split an infinitive.

• The passive voice should never be used.

• Do not put statements in the negative form.

• Verbs have to agree with their subjects.

• Proofread carefully to see if you words out.

• If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.

• A writer must not shift your point of view.

• And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)

• Don't overuse exclamation marks!!

• Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.

• Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

• If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

• Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.

• Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.

• Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.

• Always pick on the correct idiom.

• The adverb always follows the verb.

• Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

Posted @ 10:55:35 on 01 October 2009  back to top



Our daughter Emily's primary school held an Inventions Week last year.  During the week, there was a competition in which entrants had to create a device which would make a teacher's life easier.

With only a modicum of parental help (ahem), Em won second prize with her 'class controller' - a remote control which the teacher could use to modify the children's behaviour.  (Buttons included 'volume', tidy up', 'sit down' etc.)  We did consider a robot which could read and mark pupil's work, before discounting this as a preposterous notion...

...but now it seems that it's about to happen.  The Times Educational Supplement reports today that a UK exam board is to start using computers to 'read' and assess English essays from next month.  There is even speculation that automated marking of essays will be extended to GCSEs and A-levels; the research director at another exam board is quoted as saying that this is a question of 'when, not if'.

This seems a crazy notion to me.  How can a computer, however advanced, pick up on the subtle nuances of a piece of writing?  How can it fully appreciate an elegant turn of phrase, a clever double-meaning, a particularly appropriate metaphor or references to other works and quotations?  It might be able to detect poor spelling or grammar, but that's about it.

For example, if a computer were to 'read' the book I've just finished (Instructions for Living Someone Else's Life by Mil Millington), it might well spot the errors which the proofreader missed, such as 'it'd had truly become something that made her spirits sag...' (p.238) or 'alternations'  (p.233).  However, it wouldn't enjoy bits like:

'Etiquette and the mechanics of temporal shifts had him trapped in a pincer movement.  As, come to that, did Katrina's legs.' (p.224)

'...a groan like a creaky door rolled about in the dark alcove inside his head where his throat and nose met secretly to plot phlegm.'  (p.229)

As the English lecturer quoted in the TES article remarks, students will end up writing for the computer instead of for people - which will be absolutely 001101010101000101110111011010101.

Posted @ 22:18:12 on 25 September 2009  back to top





(Sorry, was I shouting just then?)

Posted @ 22:27:25 on 05 September 2009  back to top


B*gger me!

When you've finished revising or editing a piece of copy, it's very important to check the whole thing thoroughly to make sure that it reads as it should.

Otherwise you could end up with something like this headline, which appeared in some editions of the Daily Express this week:                        


 Apparently the first version of the headline ran: 'Can Dec finally match Ant?'  It was decided to change this to 'Can Dec at last match Ant?' - but somehow the 'a' from 'at' was added to the 'nally' of 'finally' with the result above.

Posted @ 20:14:50 on 02 September 2009  back to top


Miscellaneous mistranslations

A couple of language-related things in the media today.

First - and following on from this recent post about making mistakes in French - there's a funny story on the BBC website about a British woman who was looking for a place to stay in a small French town.  She spotted a place called the 'Hôtel de Ville' - and not realising that this means 'Town Hall', went inside to enquire about a room.  Before doing so, she popped into the toilet.  When she came out, she found that the building had been closed and she was locked inside overnight.

(It wouldn't have happened in Germany.  Their word for 'town hall' is 'Rathaus', so the woman would hardly have wanted to spend a night there.)

The other item concerns 'Chinglish', or the ungrammatical and often incomprehensible English frequently found on signs in China.  The Telegraph reports that the embarrassed authorities in Shanghai are launching a campaign to get rid of all such signs before the World Expo takes place there next year.

It's a shame, really.  The signs are very entertaining, and at least the Chinese offer translations to visitors, which is more than we usually do in Britain.  You can see plenty of examples of Chinglish herehere and here - but these are some of my favourites:

- 'To take notice of safe. The slippery are very crafty.'  (A warning at a sloped entrance to a shopping mall)

- 'Please keep your legs'  (A sign next to an escalator)

- 'Deformed man toilet'

- 'Please bump your head carefully'

- 'Building asks a smoked visitor in the outside smoking section that you cannot smoke in'

- 'I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face'  (A 'Keep off the grass' sign!)

Posted @ 14:25:35 on 24 August 2009  back to top


French Vogue

Three linguistic observations from our (very enjoyable) holiday in France last week:

i)  Misspelled signs are not the preserve of English-speaking nations.  (This may sound obvious, but for some reason we tend to assume that all notices we see abroad have perfect spelling and grammar.)  On the journey home, we saw an electronic sign above the motorway which advised: 'Faites une pose toutes les 2 heures'.  I assume the person who posted this meant 'pause' rather than 'pose'; that is, they wanted us to take a break every two hours, rather than strike a pose in the manner of Madonna's Vogue.

ii)  I mentioned last August that the French often give their clothes shops English names which sound a bit funny to us.  Here's another one for the list: 'Gentleman Farmer'.  (It seems to be a chain; there were branches in both La Rochelle and Rouen.)  Strangely, the items in the shop windows didn't look like they'd be worn by either gentlemen or farmers.

iii)  The fast food chain 'Quick' is quick in the same way that fun runs are fun and the German Democratic Republic was democratic.

Posted @ 16:27:22 on 06 August 2009  back to top


Left, right, left, right...

My word of the week, if not month, if not year:


It means the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions - left to right, then right to left and so on.  (A bit like the numbers on a snakes and ladders board.)

I came across the word for the first time in the Guardian puzzle section last Saturday.  How could I have lived for over forty-ahem years without ever discovering it before?

Posted @ 22:08:47 on 22 July 2009  back to top 


Commons parlance

There was a Select Committee meeting at the Houses of Parliament last week on the subject of official language - or to be more specific, the confusing jargon which is frequently employed by politicians.

You can watch the meeting here, though I should warn you that it goes on for well over an hour.  Oh, and there's no sound for the first minute or two while people are taking their seats.  But there are enough interesting thoughts in there to make it worth a look.  A few to look out for:

16 mins  The Chair of the Committee quotes a George Orwell remark from 1946 which suggests that a chaotic political situation may be improved by addressing the language people use.  In other words, if politicians speak and write more clearly, the rest will follow.

25 mins  David Crystal, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, suggests that the period when formal grammar was no longer taught in schools may have something to do with the readiness of the current generation of politicians and civil servants to fall back on meaningless stock phrases.

34 mins  The Chair offers the theory that MPs have picked up much of their jargon through travelling in first class on trains and overhearing the conversations of management consultants - though with this perk likely to disappear in the wake of the expenses scandal, they may soon be less exposed to consultant-speak.

36 mins  Professor Crystal speculates that new media - Twitter, blogs and the like - are likely to influence political language.  In particular, the need for brevity on Twitter (where Tweets can be no longer than 140 characters) may have the effect of sharpening what politicians say.

54 mins  One of the MPs on the Committee cites an example of a particular word being given a meaning different from most people's understanding of it; he points out that the word 'entitlements' in Gordon Brown's recent document 'Building Britain's Future' does not seem to mean 'things to which people have a right'.

(Usually, of course, it's phrases rather than individual words which have meanings at odds which what the words suggest.  Simon Hoggart, the Guardian's political sketch-writer, comments on the phrase 'Care in the Community' early in the meeting [12 mins]: 'We're all in favour of care, we're all in favour of community... in fact, as we know, it means poor mad women exposing themselves in Victoria Gardens.')

There were a few aspects of political language which, to my surprise, weren't covered.  I thought that its use to deliberately confuse or mislead the public might be a major concern.  Coded statements (e.g. 'I have no plans to do so' meaning 'I fully intend to do so') weren't mentioned.  And the word 'redacted' - the term used to describe the heavily blacked-out expense claims of MPs published recently - wasn't used once.

But it was still a worthwhile conversation, and one which needs to be repeated at regular intervals.  After all, there will be politician-speak as long as there are politicians.

Posted @ 23:44:14 on 15 July 2009  back to top


Sorry this isn't a vlog

Oh, hello.  I'm just taking a break from watching webisodes of my favourite docusoap and listening to reggaeton to write this brief entry, which I've earmarked to let you know - be you friend or frenemy - that the American publisher Merriam-Webster has just released a list of new words and phrases which have made it into its 2009 dictionary.

Our old friend 'staycation' is in there - but I can't say I've ever heard of any of the others, let alone used them.

Right, I'm off for a shawarma at the cafe round the corner.  (I am a green-collared locavore, after all.)

Posted @ 11:27:00 on 10 July 2009  back to top



Oh dear, oh dear.

It's just been announced that the Russian gas company Gazprom has set up a joint venture with a Nigerian company called NNPC.

The name of this joint venture?  'Nigaz'.

It's hard to think of a worse possible name.  Perhaps if Weetabix set up a new company in conjuction with Marks & Spencer, it could be called 'WeeMarks'.  (Something that might be tackled by 'BudgeMarks', a merger between Budgens and M&S.)

Or how about a company formed by a major news provider and a mobile phone network: 'CNNT-Mobile'?

No, I think Nigaz still outdoes them all.

Posted @ 21:58:59 on 02 July 2009  back to top