Monday, 28 December 2020


On 21st December, Eddie Izzard announced that she would be using the pronouns "she" and "her" in future, because she identified as gender-fluid and was wanting to be in "girl-mode" now. She hasn't as far as I know chosen a new name, just moved to female pronouns.

A month earlier Jan Morris, who used to be James, died and received mostly respectful obituaries, having changed both gender and pronouns in the late 60s and early 70s, in a long transition as one of the first high profile transsexuals in this country.

Traditional grammar offers a small group of pronouns which differ in inflection according to number, gender and function in the sentence. But traditional grammar can't keep up with changing ideas about identity and orientation and new pronouns have entered the language:

(Converse, 1884)
thon is laughingI called thonthons eyes gleamthat is thonsthon likes thonself
(Rogers, 1890)
e is laughing I called em es eyes gleam that is es e likes emself
(Rickter, c. 1973)
xe is laughing I called xem xyr eyes gleam that is xyrs xe likes xemself
(Elverson, 1975)
ey is laughing I called em eir eyes gleam that is eirs ey likes eirself
(Piercy, 1979)
per is laughing I called per per eyes gleam that is pers per likes perself
(Hulme, c. 1980)
ve is laughing I called ver vis eyes gleam that is vis ve likes verself
(Humanist, 1982)
hu is laughing I called hum hus eyes gleam that is hus hu likes humself
(Spivak, 1983)
E is laughing I called Em Eir eyes gleam that is Eirs E likes Emself
ze, mer
(Creel, 1997)
ze is laughing I called mer zer eyes gleam that is zers ze likes zemself
ze, hir
(Bornstein, 1998)
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs ze (zie, sie) likes hirself
(Foldvary, 2000)
zhe is laughing I called zhim zher eyes gleam that is zhers zhe likes zhimself
sie, hir
(Hyde, 2001)
sie is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs sie likes hirself
(Dicebox, 2012?)
peh is laughing I called pehm peh's eyes gleam that is peh's peh likes pehself
ze, zir
(anon., c. 2013)
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called zir/zem zir/zes eyes gleam that is zirs/zes ze (zie, sie) likes zirself/zemself
fae fae is laughing I called faer faer eyes gleam that is faers fae likes faerself

Here the sheer range is dazzling (I took the chart from Wikipedia). And there is no clue to what recent gender-identities they relate to. Non-binary, gender-fluid, pansexual, intersex, transgender people might choose to use one of the above, use traditional singular pronouns or opt for the very versatile "they, them. their" choice.

The problem is the lack of universal agreement, with such a lot of choice. But there is a movement now for people to introduce themselves by pronoun as well as name: "I'm Mary; I use she and her pronouns," "My name is Sam; I use they and them pronouns." This can only be helpful.

The new pronouns are not "gender-neutral" but "non-binary."

Word of the week: Granularity

According to the Cambridge dictionary this can mean: the quality of including a lot of small details. "Granular" and "granularity" has become extraordinarily popular with politicians in the run up to the UK/EU Brexit trade deal.

Monday, 14 December 2020

No Wifi

 Grammar Grandma moved house on Friday and is having WiFi installed so no post today. She hopes to be sorted enough to post next Monday. Please send your words of the week/month/year. She is wondering about "granularity."

Monday, 7 December 2020

Tom Lehrer knew it all decades ago

One of the presents I gave my husband for his birthday last month was a CD of Tom Lehrer songs. It was surprisingly difficult to track down one with enough of the songs I remembered from the 60s: National Brotherhood Week; the Vatican Rag; the Masochism Tango.

We listened to it in the car on a long journey yesterday. Songs about pollution and VD seem remarkably topical. But there's a plethora of tracks about WW3 and nuclear warfare - We'll all go together when we go; So long Mom (I'm off to drop the bomb); Who's next? and Wernher von Braun - conjuring up memories of the fears I had growing up and why I joined CND as a teenager.

All this was much as expected but the second half of the disc has songs I never about, written for an educational series on PBS.

Since Tom Lehrer, still alive in his nineties, recently made all his lyrics and music copyright free for a few years, I was able to find the words on the Internet.   

Here is a song to teach the diphthong "-ou-:"

"I'm a very quiet hound. 

I don't bark or run around. 

I just lie here on the ground, 

With my head upon this mound. 


No one knows where I can be found. 

If they knew, then they'd be bound 

To come and take me to the pound. 

That's why I don't dare make a sound. " 


I may have told you before that from 1977 to 1995 I was the Reading Consultant to BBC Schools series Look and Read. Eighteen very good years. We had a little character called Wordy to sing songs written by people like Gordon Snell and occasionally myself. When I took over from Joyce Morris in 1977, recommended by her, the series concentrated largely on phonics. Words like sing and ping and looking would be clustered together solely on the grounds of sound.

When I joined, I moved the emphasis to meaning, so that the "-ing" would be taught as  a morpheme, conveying the sense that something was going on. We had a song with the cartoon character Bill the Brickie, singing : Why don't you build yourself a word?/Build yourself a word with an "-ing"/ To show it's happening.

But we did do some songs about sounds and I remember writing the -ar- song (Dog detective is chasing ar/what a wonderful thing!.) And there was the "S+T+R" song from Badger Girl and "I'm listening, I'm listening/for an -ow- inside a tower" from Dark Towers (RIP Peter Mayhew, who was our Tall Knight).

Anyway, the minute I heard the -ou- song, I realised Tom Lehrer had done it all before, about twenty years earlier!

(You can find most of the Look and Read songs on YouTube - but there is a scurrilous version of Bill the Brickie, I should warn you!)

Monday, 30 November 2020

What can't you bear?

I belong to an online Forum called Gransnet. There is quite a lot of grumbling on Gransnet, especially about fairly hopeless-sounding husbands. And a lot of the Grans get on very badly with their daughters-in-law - and vice versa. But they also like to have rants about language.

This was a recent post, headlined "English language - where is it going to?"

"Maybe I'm being unreasonable and very menopausal but there are words that are getting under my skin.

* "Co-worker" seems to be a new word for colleague.

* "Super" this and "super" that instead of "very" or "huge", etc.

* "Denied", e.g. as in "he/she was denied entry" - instead of "refused entry", or other cases where the world "refused" would make more sense than the word "denied".

* Where has the word "donated" gone to. It's now "gifted".

* I get confused when reading a newspaper or magazine article where people are now referred to by their surnames only without the Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms. I lose the plot as to who is who confused. I'd prefer to referred to as Mrs Surname or my first name." 

                                                            A cow worker or a co-worker?

This one got a lot of replies (195 in fact). Here are some of the words and expression that Grans just won't be having with:


My bad

Meet with


Task (as a verb)

Going forward


Off of

Gift (as a verb)


At this moment in time

Fur baby (for a pet)

                                                        Credit: Nancy Wong Is this a fur-baby?

Can I get ...?

Reach out (for contact)

Park up

Invite (as a noun)

Beginning sentences with "so."

You can see they are a militant, not to say belligerent gathering of grans.

                                                        Raging Grannies by Grant Neufeld

A lot of the dislikes are for American expressions: "meet with," "reach out" (which I've seen elsewhere is OK if you are one of the Four Tops, otherwise not), "woke," "Can I get...?" "Awesome." But there was a lively discussion about "gotten," which is an American import that was originally an English export. Tricky.

A lot use an unnecessary preposition in post-position: "off of," "inside of."

But over to you. What are your pet language hates?

Word of the week: Celebrity

A noun that used to mean "fame" but now means "someone famous."  It was Chris Patten who defined it in 2011 as "someone I've never heard of." There was news today that the NHS is planning a series of ads with celebrities, serious ones, advocating having the Covid-19 vaccine. Who would you choose? I think John Craven, Trevor MacDonald, Judi Dench, Marcus Rashford, David Attenborough, Mary Berry, Juliet Stevenson.


Monday, 23 November 2020

OED word list 2020

Not a word of the week, nor yet a word of the year, which the OED usually decide on at this time, but a whole list of words, over forty of them. Not surprisingly, most are linked to the Coronavirus pandemic. But others relate to political activism, like "allyship" and "BLM."

Some, like "Veronica bucket" and "sanny" are quite new to me. How many do you know and use and do you think the OED has left any out that you would have included?

allyship n. active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it

anthropause n. a global slowdown of travel and other human activities

anti-masker n. a person who opposes the wearing of face masks

anti-vaxxer n. a person who is opposed to vaccination

BC. before Covid/before coronavirus

Black Lives Matter n. a movement formed to campaign against systemic racism and violence against black people.

blended learning n. a style of education in which students learn via electronic and online media as well as traditional face-to-face teaching

BLM. Black Lives Matter

Blursday n. a day of the week that is indistinguishable from any other

bubble n. (during an outbreak of an infectious disease) a restricted group of people whose members are allowed to be in close proximity when maintaining a physical distance is otherwise required

cancel culture n. a culture in which there is a widespread practice of publicly rejecting or withdrawing support from people or things regarded as promoting socially unacceptable views

circuit breaker n. (a) an automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit as a safety measure; (b) an automatic, temporary halt placed on stock trading, typically as a means of inhibiting panic selling; (c) a short period of lockdown intended to inhibit the spread of an infectious disease

community transmission n. transmission of an infectious disease or pathogen between members of a community, especially as a result of casual contact

coronavirus n. any of a group of RNA viruses that cause a variety of respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological diseases in humans and other animals; (specifically) a coronavirus responsible for an outbreak of serious respiratory disease in humans, especially the major pandemic beginning in 2019 

Covid-19 n. an acute disease in humans caused by a coronavirus, which is characterized mainly by fever and cough and is capable of progressing to pneumonia, respiratory and renal failure, blood coagulation abnormalities, and death, especially in the elderly and people with underlying health conditions; (also) the coronavirus that causes this disease

covidiot n. (depreciative) a person who disobeys guidelines designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19

decolonize v. to free (an institution, sphere of activity, etc.) from the cultural or social effects of colonization

defund v. to cease to fund (something)

doomscrolling n. the action of compulsively scrolling through social media or news feeds which relate bad news

flatten the curve v. to take measures designed to reduce the rate at which infection spreads during an epidemic, with the aim of lowering the peak daily number of new cases and extending the period over which new cases occur

furlough originally associated with members of the armed forces going on leave, and was chiefly used in the US. In March and April 2020 though, when it started to be used in other countries as employers were given grants to pay employees who were not working, usage shot up

hygiene theatre n. cleaning practices which give the illusion of sanitization without reducing the risk of infection

infodemic n. a proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety

Juneteenth n. 19 June, celebrated as a holiday commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves in Texas on that date in 1865.

learning modality n. a method of delivery of teaching and learning

lockdown n. a state of isolation, containment, or restricted access, usually instituted for security purposes or as a public health measure; the imposition of this state

mail-in adj. designating ballots, surveys, etc., in which results are collected by mail

moonshot n. an extremely ambitious and innovative project

net zero n. a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

pandemic n. a disease which is epidemic over a very large area and affects a large proportion of a population; an outbreak of such a disease

personal protective equipment n. clothing and equipment designed to provide the wearer or user protection against hazardous substances or environments, or to prevent transmission of infectious diseases

plandemic n. a planned pandemic

PPE = personal protective equipment

R number n. reproduction number, the average number of cases of an infectious disease arising by transmission from a single infected individual

rona n. (informal) coronavirus; Covid-19

sanny n. (chiefly Australian) hand sanitizer

self-isolate v. to undertake self-imposed isolation for a period of time, typically in one’s own home, in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

social distancing n. the action or practice of maintaining a certain physical distance from, or limiting physical contact with, another person or people (especially family and friends), especially in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

superspreader n. an individual infected with a (pathogenic) microorganism who transmits it to an unusually large number of other individuals

systemic racism n. discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group (typically one that is a minority or marginalized), arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within society or an institution

take a knee v. to go down on one knee as a peaceful means of protesting against racism

twindemic n. the simultaneous occurrence of two pandemics

unmute v. to turn on (a microphone or the audio on an electronic device), especially after having temporarily turned it off

Veronica bucket n. a type of sanitation equipment consisting of a covered bucket with a tap fixed at the bottom and a bowl fitted below to collect wastewater

virtue-signalling n. (depreciative) the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue

wet market n. (South-East Asian) a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce

wokeness n. the fact or quality of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice

workation n. a working vacation; a holiday during which one also works

Zoombombing n. the practice of infiltrating video conference calls on the Zoom application, and posting violent, pornographic, or offensive content

Monday, 16 November 2020

Hearing voices

Today's topic is Voice, an aspect of the Verb.

Perhaps you are already familiar with the difference between the Active and Passive voice? Here's a quick refresher:

"The dog bit the man" and "the man bit the dog" are both sentences in the active voice. They have the same grammatical structure, even though the event described is different.

"The man was bitten by the dog" and "the dog was bitten by the man" are both in the passive voice. They are describing the same incidents as in the first two sentences but with a different grammatical structure. (Followers of Chomsky might say they had the same Deep Structure as the first two).


All clear so far? 

What about these examples:

"The wine cost £10 a bottle"

"This dress washes at 40 degrees"

"The cake cooks well in the fan-assisted oven"

"Her books sell well"

"I photograph really badly" 

                                              Image: PETER LUNGILE CHIDOTHE

They are neither active nor passive. When I started to learn Classical Greek I was charmed to discover it had a Middle Voice that fitted the above examples perfectly. (It also has an extra number - dual, an extra mood - optative, and extra tense - the aorist, though it sadly lacks one case in  noun declension - the ablative. You have to use the genitive absolute in Greek, which sounds vaguely rude).

Once you have noticed the middle voice, you will see it everywhere.

Word of the week: Nocebo

Here, I was at first inclined, like Polonius, to exclaim, "vile phrase!" But it is a perfectly "cromulent" word as The Simpsons would say. It crops up in a report about people's reactions to taking statins. It is:

"a word that means in Latin "I will harm," as placebo means "I will please." A placebo makes patients feel better for reasons unrelated to the specific healing properties of the treatment. A nocebo makes patients feel worse (or does other harm) in the same way." Harvard Health


Monday, 9 November 2020

Harold be thy name

This is a post about "mondegreens," which is in some ways linked to the one on malapropisms

A Mondegreen results from a mis-hearing of a phrase or word in a poem or song lyric. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing that as a girl, when her mother read to her from Percy's Reliques, she had misheard the lyric "layd him on the green" in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray, as "Lady Mondegreen."

 I'm sure many of you have heard of the mondegreen, "Gladly, thy cross-eyed bear," taken from mis-hearing a hymn line: "gladly thy cross I'd bear." And I've always liked "Our Father, which art in Heaven/ Harold be thy name. (I like to think of God's real name being Harold). 

But I hadn't realised how widespread they were and that they work in other languages than English too. Wright said that the point about them and why they needed a term coined for them was that they are often better than the original wording.

"They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen" 

does make one wonder about Lady Mondegreen and why she had to die too! 

Yet the mishearing of The Star-spangled Banner to produce the nonsense adverb "donzerly light" perhaps doesn't quite make up in mystery for the lack of meaning.

A Monk Swimming by Malachy McCourt is so titled, according to Wikipedia, because of a childhood mishearing of a phrase from the Catholic rosary prayer, Hail Mary. "Blessed art thou amongst women" became "a monk swimmin'." And I can just see that monk doing the front crawl to approach the BVM.

Likewise, Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children's book by Vivian Walsh, which borrows its title from a mondegreen of the line, "all of the other reindeer" in the famous Christmas song about Rudolph. 

You can have reverse mondegreens too, as in the song which goes:

                     Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey

A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?


The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

This makes it clear that the last line is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?" 

This was apparently sung to me as a baby, since my mother was called Ivy (though not spelled in the standard way) and, by extension, my father sometimes called me "Mairzy doats," which makes me a sort of Lady Mondegreen myself! 

Word of the week: Mail-in ballot 

We call them postal votes in the UK and they seem a very good idea, especially in a pandemic. CNN say 'This is a blanket term for any ballot mailed to voters, though the completed forms can be returned by mail, to a dropbox or in person to officials or polling places. In three critical states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- officials weren't able to start processing any of these ballots until Election Day, which led to huge backlogs and slowed down the count."

But Donald Trump referred to them just as "ballots" which confused me, as every vote is a ballot and, when he said, "if there were no ballots, there would be no problem," he seemed to be saying, "if there were no votes, the election wouldn't be problematic."

Actually, he probably does think that at this moment. Ironically, he voted by mail-in ballot himself.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The way that you say it

This is a post about accents and dialects. Let's get one thing straight at the beginning. EVERYBODY has an accent and a dialect! There is no such thing as a neutral accent or dialect, but there are some that have been accepted (by whom?) as the norm.

In English, the way of speaking known as Received Pronunciation (RP), or BBC English or The Queen's English is an accent of the South East of the country, which has been accepted so long as some sort of gold standard that people who use it, like me, sometimes state that they don't "have an accent at all." But we do; it's just that ours has been deemed the way everyone "ought" to speak.

Even RP changes. The very clipped version known as XRP (ex-Received Pronunciation) can be heard if you listen to wartime radio news bulletins or the Queen's early broadcasts. This has mutated over time within the Royal Family, so that Prince William's accent is much closer to his non-Royal contemporaries' - even though Prince Charles still pronounces "house" to rhyme with "mice."


If you watch the Netflix series The Crown, you will hear that Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman have modified the XRP accent of the monarch and not precisely imitated it but given a impression of greater formality and inhibition in language which goes well with the role. Of course people do tailor their accents and everything else linguistic to suit their context and companions. This is known as register and maybe we can talk about that another time. 

Ex-PM Tony Blair was much mocked for adopting a glottal stop and other aspects of what is disparagingly called Estuary English, in order to sound more like a man of the people. He was also a converger, which I have some sympathy for, since I am one myself. My daughters used to say they could tell who was on the other end of the phone by the accent I adopted while talking to them. 

Anyway, accent is different from dialect, because it is about phonology and intonation. Whereas dialect is about vocabulary and syntax. Of course, it's true that people who use a regional dialect will probably have a regional accent too.

The dialect equivalent of RP is Standard English (SE).  It is possible to speak SE with a regional accent, whether from this country, the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, without using a different dialect. Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden all speak Standard English but with the accents of the countries they come from.

So who are the dialect-speakers apart from ourselves? You may well be a user of dialect yourself and not use Standard English, except in rare formal situations like a job interview. If you want to listen to English regional accents and dialects, this is a good site:

What is true of English is true of other languages too. If you are an Italian speaker and travel in Tuscany you will hear the distinctive pronunciation of "c"s and "g"s of the locals, so that "Coca Cola" sounds like "Chocha Chola" with a sound like the "ch" in "loch." 

There are well-known "dialect poets" like Roberts Burns and William Barnes who wrote as they spoke. And many examples in prose literature, which are hard to read, because they are signalled by a lot of extra punctuation and new spellings (to represent accents). You will find many examples in Thomas Hardy,  D H Lawrence, Mark Twain and Harper Lee, but it's fair to say that these last are not using their own speech patterns but those of their less well-educated and lower status characters.

When does a dialect become a separate language? The "Romance languages" (French, Italian, Spanish etc.) began as dialects of spoken Latin. Some people believe that a dialect becomes a language when it acquires a definitive written form. 

As a coda to thinking about accent and dialect, there is an even smaller sample than a region: a person's idiolect. (This is, along with zeromorph, one of my favourite linguistic terms). It covers an individual's speech patterns - both accent and intonation, choice of words, characteristic expressions and so on. It is how we can recognise immediately on the radio or in a telephone call a great range of people from celebrities to personal friends.

Word of the week: What else can in be but lockdown? Here in England today is the first of a four week lockdown, meaning not quite what it did at the end of March.


1. the confining of prisoners to their cells, as following a riot or other disturbance: The prison lockdown continues, more than three weeks after the death of a guard.
2. a security measure taken during an emergency to prevent people from leaving or entering a building or other location: The school remains under lockdown due to police activity in the area.The governor implemented a statewide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus—residents may not leave their homes for nonessential activities.The army base was on lockdown after a report of shots fired.
3. a freeze or pause: Banks aren’t lending during this credit lockdown."
Lockdown definition
The kind we are embarking on today fits the second definition, though it can feel a lot like the first.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Grammar Grandma is running late this week

Because of the new lockdown starting on Thursday and the fact that we are due to move house at the end of the month, we are rushing around like headless chickens trying to fit in what we need to do Monday-Wednesday.

I hope to post on Thursday.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Mrs Malaprop walks among us

Mrs Malaprop was a character created by English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775). Her name is a nod to the French expression mal à propos, or inappropriate. What Mrs M does is misuse words, in much the same way as Dogberry does in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which was one of my A level set texts (we also had King Lear, thank God).

Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (1895)


We recently re-watched the DVD of Kenneth Branagh's sundrenched film of Much Ado, in which Dogberry was played by Michael Keaton and his sidekick Verges by Ben Elton, and they were so excruciatingly unfunny as to de-rail an otherwise excellent version (Has anyone ever seen a funny Dogberry?)

Anyway, Dogberry and Mrs Malaprop both use the wrong words "to comic effect," as Wikipedia assures us. Mrs M refers to someone as "the pineapple of perfection," which is actually quite nice (mistake for "pinnacle"). And I'm afraid, thanks to her, that one daughter and I use "derangements" when talking about plans we are making. Dogberry is called "tedious" by Leonato, which he definitely is, though Dogberry takes it as a compliment, meaning goodness knows what.


Anyway, why am I conjuring up Mrs Malaprop and Dogberry in today's post?  Because they are alive and well in the British media. Witness the pervasive "honing in" as used on Radio 4 last week, in describing tactics for coping with You Know What. 

The phrase is, of course, "homing in," like a missile or a bit like a pigeon, but "honing" conveys the idea of precision, so has misled the speaker.

I had a friend many years ago who used to say "when push comes to pull," instead of "when push comes to shove." And another acquaintance who thought that "ultimatum" meant something like "ultimate aim in life," as in "her ultimatum was to be a secretary." These don't exactly count as malapropisms; maybe they are "eggcorns."

Do give me examples of malapropisms you have heard or seen.

Word of the week: translocation

No good looking this up on the Internet: you will get a "chromosomal abnormality." It is now being used as a description of a method of moving soil from the site of the HS2 route to another place so that its biodiversity might be preserved. It could of course mean "enforced migration" or describe what Donald Trump had done to immigrants' children, 545 of whom have not been able to be re-united with their parents.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Word of the Week

I'm instituting a new feature: word (or phrase) of the week. It might lead on to an aspect of grammar, punctuation or vocabulary or might be tacked on to the end of a post about something else but there will be a new one to analyse and brood over every week.

It will come as no surprise that this week's word is circuit-breaker.

Here is Wikipedia's definition: "A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current from an overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after a fault is detected. Unlike a fuse, which operates once and then must be replaced, a circuit breaker can be reset (either manually or automatically) to resume normal operation."

I'll tell you something else it is at the moment: a metaphor. For the government of Wales and perhaps soon that of N.Ireland, Scotland and the whole of the UK is not literally going to install electrical switches anywhere. They are going to attempt to halt the spread of Corona Virus by avoiding an overload of cases in their area. So "circuit-break(er)" or "fire-break" in the case of Wales is a technical term being used metaphorically.

What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? A metaphor takes a word or phrase from one semantic field and applies it to another. For example, "the handling of the pandemic has been a total car crash." No actual cars have been involved; it's a metaphor.

A simile (from the Latin "similis" = "like") says that something is like something else. "A total lockdown (metaphor) acts like a circuit-breaker (simile)." It makes the comparison clear which the metaphor just implies.

Both metaphor and simile are "figures of speech." (There are loads more, which might crop up in future weeks).

Monday, 12 October 2020

Nobody likes a pedant

"1a : one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge. b : one who makes a show of knowledge. c : a formalist or precisionist in teaching."

This is the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "pedant." You see you have to get to the third possibility before you find anything positive said. No-one enjoys being corrected so pedants tend to be unpopular. But if you are a pedant, like me (unapologetically so), you actually spend a lot of time not correcting people and biting your tongue.

Just this morning on Facebook I have seen the following:

1. Two children's story's

2.  "Who's school" and "stationary" for "stationery"

3. My friend showed x and I a new way ...

4. Under bed draws

The only one I commented on was the second - because it was part of a meme pointing out that teachers were not getting pay rises, though MPs were.  It seemed to be a bad place to make grammatical or vocabulary mistakes. Even so, someone replied that the message was more important than proofreading. No doubt but it would have been a better post without them.

The first was in an inquiry to a children's book group I belong to; the writer is a newbie and someone I don't know so it would have been unkind to correct her.

The third is common even among people "educated" at Eton. It is just plain wrong. And so easy not to do! Just take out the other person. You would never say "my friend showed I," unless you were speaking dialect. It was in a post by a published author too.

The fourth is seen every day in FB advertisements for items for sale such as "chests of draws."[sic] But this one made me think of Tracy Emin's unmade bed installation.

In an article in the Guardian headed "Why do pedants pedant" David Steele concludes: "So, why do pedants pedant? We don’t really know, but some tangential studies infer it’s to do with a mixture of personality, status-signalling and group identification."


I couldn't find a picture of a pedant, but you can take the one at the top of this post as a real life example. And here is a picture of a "chest of draws," actually so labelled on Wikimedia Commons. Sigh.



Monday, 5 October 2020

New words

Grammar Grandma takes requests! Today, new words and phrases, technically known as "neologisms."

These arouse strong feelings and the request for this post included the statement, "we like 'Normality' which is a Nice Word, and ... we hate 'Normalcy' which is a Very Horrid Word Indeed." Nice words and Horrid Words tend to be defined in the eye of the beholder but let's look at these two.

"Normality"is much older than "normalcy," and, as so often with words that annoy UK speakers of English, the latter is an American import.

                                              Warren G. Harding, who did not invent "normalcy."

Merriam Webster says,

"Warren G. Harding adopted this word in the presidential election of 1920, stating that he was for “normal times and a return to normalcy.” “A return to normalcy” soon became the slogan most identified with his campaign, to the considerable chagrin of many who felt that normalcy was either a corruption of normality, or simply a non-existent word. A columnist in the New Orleans States spoke for many when he wrote “The friends of Senator Harding are defending his language now by saying that “normalcy” is a perfectly good word. Well, so is jackasstical, when applied to fantastic verbiage.”

Normalcy did exist already, although it was not, at that time, a particularly common word. It had a specific function in mathematics, and our earliest known record of the word comes from a mathematical dictionary published in 1855:

If we denote the co-ordinates of the point of contact, and normalcy, by x” and y”, the equation of the tangent is, y-y” = dy”/dx” (x-x”).
—William Guy Peck, Mathematical Dictionary and Cyclopedia of Mathematical Science: Comprising Definitions of All the Terms Employed in Mathematics-An Analysis of Each Branch, and of the Whole, as Forming a Single Science, 1855

Some of the people who savaged Harding for his use of normalcy did allow that the word existed, but felt that since it was a term peculiar to the iniquitous realm of math it should not properly be employed to indicate normal things. However, Harding was also not the first person to have manhandled normalcy out of its jargonistic cocoon; plenty of other, less-famous, people had been using it in such a manner since the 19th century.

A little wine at once warms them into candor and normalcy, and then grand airs fly off like a covey of partridges, not to return, at least the same evening.
The Chicago Times, 14 Feb. 1875

The party appetite may have become etherealized, changed to babe-like normalcy.
Vermont Watchman & State Journal, 8 Mar. 1893

They want money of over-full value. It is the return to normalcy in monetary value that they wish to prevent.
The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), 7 Sept. 1896

Many newspapers, in reporting on Harding’s use of normalcy, stated that it was in several contemporary dictionaries. Harding himself made this point, when he was asked on the campaign trail to define the word: “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary, and I did not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I did find, and it is a good word.” However, given that this was taking place at a time when information spread less rapidly than it does today, it is understandable that many people thought that it must have been invented recently."

I hope that helps. If you think "normalcy" is a Horrid Word, like my correspondent, you can still use "normality." 

Personally, I find "herstory" to be a Horrid Word, even though it was coined by my generation of feminists to reclaim history from the chaps.

Polonius thought "beautified" to be a "vile phrase" in Hamlet's letter to his daughter Ophelia; these things are very subjective.

Some neologisms I admire and use: "mansplaining," though just as linguistically hybrid as "herstory," does the job without need for further explanation. Apparently, there is also "hepeating," to mean making a point by a man that a woman has already made and had ignored. I can imagine using that.

Here are some more for you and you can judge if they are Nice or Horrid:

Al desko - eating at your work desk (cf Al fresco)

Chugger - a charity "mugger."

Covidiot - one who does, thinks or says stupid things during the current pandemic

Fatberg - a disgusting drain or sewer blockage of fat and other detritus

Frenemy - a mixture of friend and enemy

Glamping - glamorous camping


Photobomb - getting yourself into someone else's photo without their knowing.

Twerking - dancing provocatively, using a lot of bottom


Tell me which are the ones you like and which you hate, even if not listed here. Personally, I use the word "cromulent" which comes from American TV show The Simpsons and means something like viable, acceptable. It has even made it into the OED.


Monday, 28 September 2020

Saying the same thing twice

Tautology is a concept taken from logic. In everyday language it means saying the same thing twice. You may think you never do this but it is quite common to say "ATM machine," "ID card," "Please RSVP." All of these are tautologies. ATM = Automated Teller Machine; ID stands for Identity Document; RSVP = Répondez si'il vous plait (Please reply).

I'm sure you can think of others: a dry desert, a dead corpse, pre-pay in advance etc.

Sometimes tautology is deliberate, for effect, as in "It is what it is," "It's over when it's over,""Enough is enough." My father used to get very angry about "a new innovation." (You see pedantry can be inherited) But I gradually realised he was wrong: after all, if you had an innovation last year but this year have thought of an improvement, it is exactly that, a new innovation. 


This post was prompted by my middle daughter, who is annoyed by "global pandemic" (oh dear - it's being passed to the next generation). There were more than 300 comments about this phrase on Reddit. The WHO definition  is:

   "A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease".

By that criterion, "global pandemic" would indeed seem to be a tautology. But look at this article, "What is a pandemic?" in the Journal of Infectious Diseases 2009, co-authored by one Anthony Fauci.

"The sudden emergence and rapid global spread of a novel H1N1 influenza virus in early 2009  has caused confusion about the meaning of the word “pandemic” and how to recognize pandemics when they occur. Any assumption that the term pandemic had an agreed-upon meaning was quickly undermined by debates and discussions about the term in the popular media and in scientific publications. Uses of the term by official health agencies, scientists, and the media often seemed to be at odds. For example, some argued that a level of explosive transmissibility was sufficient to declare a pandemic, whereas others maintained that severity of infection should also be considered" 

The authors conclude: "There seems to be only 1 invariable common denominator: widespread geographic extension." So, as long as the definition does not insist upon "worldwide," I suppose Fauci and co would not regard "global pandemic" as tautologous.

Aldersgate street is a tautology
                                                           Aldersgate Street is a tautology

What about Oxymoron? It's a term from ancient Greek, meaning literally "sharpdull," so that it comes to symbolise words or phrases which contradict each other. We pretty much accept "bittersweet," "love hate relationship," "a deafening silence," and so on.

The French have a good one: "joli-laid"(m) and "jolie-laide" (f). It means "pretty-ugly." And it has been used of some of their most attractive celebrities.

                                                                       Jean-Paul Belmondo

                                                                          Jeanne Moreau

Do tell me your favourite oxymorons, even if you have invented them yourself.

Monday, 21 September 2020

A field day

Hard hat, jodhpurs, saddle, stables, gymkhana, curry comb, crop, mucking out. 

 What is Grandma on about? I've just listed a group of words and phrases that create what linguists call a "semantic field." If you see them all grouped together, you know that what is being referenced is horse riding. Every activity or academic discipline has its own semantic field. (It is sometime called a "lexical field). Whatever it is called, the link is the meaning of all these terms.

It could be apron, wok, saucepan, chopping board, knife, bain-marie, spatula - and the semantic field would be cookery. I'm sure you could think of your own examples.

In the 19th century a German called Konrad Duden invented a wonderful sort of cross between a dictionary and a thesaurus. He compiled regular dictionaries too: there are twelve volumes of his work. But what is now known as a "duden" is a kind of pictorial dictionary which takes one semantic field at a time and labels all the elements. I have the "Oxford Duden of Pictorial Italian" and jolly useful it is too.

In the last six or seven months we have been bombarded with social distancing, lockdown, hand sanitiser, PPE, shielding, second wave, moonshot, world-beating, test and trace, Covid-19, coronavirus, hotspot, quarantine, herd immunity, super spreader, self-isolation ... no guesses as to the semantic field there.


And then there's pandemic. I have been asked to write about "global pandemic" so next week's post will be about tautology. Is "global pandemic" tautologous or not?


Monday, 7 September 2020

Easily confused?

 This is a vocabulary post. There are pairs of words whose meanings are different but look so similar that some people find it hard to know which to use in any given situation. Take "uninterested" and "disinterested."

If you are "uninterested" in something, as I am in all sport except Men's Grand Slam tennis, it means you take no interest in it; it is not for you.

"Disinterested" is what you want those adjudicating sport to be, whether umpire, referee or line judge, having no personal or financial "interest" in the outcome. It's the same as "impartial." It never means not having an interest in something, in the sense of not finding it interesting.

Then there's "imply" and "infer." I imply; you infer. In other words, to imply is to suggest something - "I wouldn't buy a used car from him," whereas to infer is to pick up the suggestion - "You mean he isn't trustworthy?"

"Affect" and "effect." To affect something is to have an effect on it! "Knowing his past history with women affects my decision whether to go out with him" and "The effect of what she told me made me say no."

"Complement" and "compliment." You "complement" something by adding to it, making it more effective or complete. "That colour really complements her red hair." Whereas to "compliment" someone or pay them a "compliment" means to say something nice to someone. "She complimented her friend on her new dress" or "He paid her the compliment of listening to what she had to say."

"Emigrate" and "immigrate." You can't to one without the other. You "emigrate" from the country you are leaving and "immigrate" to the country you are moving to. When we talk about "immigrants," we should remember that they are "emigrants" from somewhere and think about why.

"Flaunt" and "flout." I see this mistake in printed books. They are both verbs. You "flaunt" your good looks, your car, your superior grasp of grammar. You "flout" the rules or the conventions.

"Loose" and "lose." One is an adjective and the other a verb. "Loose" is the opposite of "tight." And "lose" is the opposite of "win." They don't even sound the same.

"Stationary" and "stationery." These do sounds the same. The way to remember the difference is that "stationery" is sold by a "stationer." Whereas "stationary" means static or standing still.

"Fawn" and "faun." A fawn is a baby deer and gives its name to a sort of beige colour. A faun is a creature like Mr Tumnus in Narnia and is human above, goatlike from the waist down. Its also sometimes called a satyr.

"Hoard" and "horde." Another pair that sound the same. A hoard of gold is what Smaug the dragon sits on and a horde of people is a crowd, often a hostile one.

                                                                      A hoard of treasure
                                                     Statue of Attila the Hun and his horde

Monday, 31 August 2020

The Preposition Proposition

Remember what prepositions are? You can always check up on terms in the Parts of Speech page on this blog.

Prepositions are usually very small words, like "in," "on," "for," "from." Their use is much more stable that that of other parts of speech. Linguists sometime refer to them as "grammatical words," (along with articles and pronouns), as opposed to "lexical words," which carry the main content of a sentence. So, in the sentence:

He ran recklessly over the railway track without looking

"he," "over," "the" and arguably "without" are grammatical words, little units that give you the who and where and how, while "ran," "recklessly," railway track" and "looking" give you the meat of the meaning.

"Over" and "without" are the prepositions here, doing their job in holding the sentence together, like the mortar between bricks, to mix my metaphors.

Very occasionally prepositions take on a new meaning or use. Take "into." As well as conveying "inside" and a notion of entering, a couple of decades ago, it took on the meaning of having an interest in, as in 

"She's really into geology."

And then came the inventive use, for millennials, of innocent little "into" to mean "sexually attracted to."

This movie dates from 2009 but I'd heard the expression years earlier on Friends or Sex in the City. (Incidentally, it's always that way round; no-one seems to use "she's not that into you.")

And then there is the relatively recent use by train announcers of  "The train is arriving into Banbury." (usually followed by the equally redundant "Banbury is your next station stop," where either "station" or "stop" would do the same work.) "Arriving" already tells you that the train is drawing into the station.

Train arriving at Banbury station
                                                       A train arriving at Banbury station

(By the way, "into" is written as one word and "on to" is heading that way. I never write "onto" myself but I see it everywhere so it will soon be the norm).

Another change in preposition use that I've noticed is "for" after "excited" and similar words instead of "about." E.g.

"I'm excited for your birthday party" rather than "I'm excited about your birthday party."

"I'm happy for your exam result" rather than "I'm happy about your exam result."



Has anyone noticed any other new usages of prepositions? Tell me in the Comments below.

Monday, 24 August 2020

The menace of the full stop

I was going to write about prepositions this week and how their use is changing but an item on the radio today derailed me and prepositions will have to wait.

The item was about how teenagers or Generation Z find it intimidating for people to use full stops, or periods, in text messages, tweets, WhatsApps etc. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph (the latter behind a paywall) had screaming headlines:

Now snowflakes are triggered by FULL STOPS: Sensitive readers find the humble dot 'weird, mean or too blunt' (Daily Mail)

Generation Z feels intimidated by full stops, experts find (Daily Telegraph)

The thing is, these "experts" were academics in New York, who interviewed 126 undergraduates in 2015. So why does this rear its head again now? The researchers found that the very limited number of subject responded to statements couched as text messages as "insincere" if ended with a full stop. There was no such reaction if the statements were presented as hand-written notes. (I have been unable to read the full article as my "institution," the London Library, does not stock Computers in Human Behavior, which is the journal it appeared in).

But that fine linguist David Crystal, perhaps responding to their research in his blog in 2016, said:

"Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing:

John's coming to the party [statement of fact]
John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!]"

He gave the same example on Radio 4 this morning and I must admit it's a puzzle to me but then your Grandma is the sort of person who uses semi-colons in emails and wouldn't dream of leaving out punctuation in a text.

                                                                 Photo credit Jennie Scott

What do you think? Do you find full stops in short messages insincere or intimidating? It is certainly true that the use of full stops is changing. You don't find them after Mr or Ms these days or after initials in a name like T S Eliot, where once they were de rigueur. I am currently reading Berdardine Evaristo's Booker-prizewinning novel Girl, Woman, Other, where she eschews full stops and capital letters at the beginnings of paragraphs and sentences. (The title should be girl woman other, really)

Interestingly, Blogger would not allow Girl, Woman, Other as a tag, because the commas create separate tags.

Monday, 17 August 2020

As you like it

Alas, this is not an essay on Shakespeare's comedy set in the Forest of Arden. Though there may be some of Jacques' cynical view of human nature. No; the title was designed to draw you in and talk about the use of "like" in contemporary English.


If you are a grammar nerd, like your Grandma, you might still be fighting a losing battle against "like I do." But I think the use of "like" instead of "as" for a conjunction is here to stay. I would say, "as I do" or "like me," but I accept I'm an old fuddy-duddy about this usage.

 What annoys more people than me is the use of "like" to punctuate speech. It's employed as what linguists call a "filler" or a "hesitation marker." Others are "er" and "um' or that strange waffling noise our Prime Minister makes. A filler gives the speaker time to think, even if only for a second, while searching for the next word. 

Watch this YouTube clip from 2016 in which two London teenagers are teaching the interviewer about the use of terms such as "gassed" and "bookey." They are quite unaware of how often they are using "like" as a filler. 

"It means, like, to be, like, excited or wowed by something," says Lily, defining "gassed." There's no sense of any comparison here; it's just a filler.

Also interesting and equally annoying to some, is the use of "like" to mean "say" or "said." Imagine this report of a dialogue:

"He was all like 'I got my A* in English' and I'm like 'well, I got a C because of this f***ing algorithm."

There's no "he said, she said" any more apparently. It's all "he's like, she's like." But it doesn't work in writing.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Lie, Lady, Lie

We're taking a break from punctuation this week to look at the difference between "lie" and "lay."

Have you looks at my Parts of Speech page? One important part of speech - well, they all are really - is the verb. Verbs can be transitive or intransitive and all that means is that the transitive ones take an object. That sounds rather abstract so here are some examples:

"I live in a house" vs. "I love my house." In the second example "my house" is the object of the verb "love." So love is a transitive verb. You need to love something. "Live" is intransitive, i.e. it has no object. You can live your life, in which case the verb has become transitive because "life" is the object.

Many verbs can be both. You can sing a song or sing beautifully. But some are resolutely intransitive, like "sleep." But you can say "I slept a long sleep," even though it isn't very idiomatic.

How does this help with "lie" and "lay"? Well, "lie" is intransitive; it doesn't have an object. Whereas "lay" requires an object:

"I always lay the table half an hour before a meal."

"Our best hen lays an egg every day."


"If I lie down on my bed after lunch, I always fall asleep."

The confusion arises because the past tense of "lie" is "lay."

What? Why? Don't do that to me!

Hold on; take a deep breath and it will be OK. Let's put those sentences in the past tense.

"I always laid the table half an hour before a meal but then I got a life."

"Our best hen laid an egg every day till she died."

"If I lay down on my bed after lunch, I always fell asleep."

The problem is that US English uses "lay" intransitively. Hence the Bob Dylan song, "Lay, Lady, Lay."

Credit: Rowland Scherman, 1960s

So, if Bob had been using Standard British English, he would have entitled his song, "Lie, Lady, Lie," but then he'd have lost the sexy overtones of another meaning of "lay" with an object.

Monday, 27 July 2020

You're OK

The most common grammar "mistake" I see is the confusion between "your" and "you're."

"I hope your OK" is never right. Why not? "You're" is a contraction of "you are" - remember last week I said that apostrophes mean something has been left out? In this case, a space and the letter "a." It's difficult to find a picture to illustrate this, so here is a cat from Portugal:

Photo credit: Alvesgaspar
You're quite sure it's not your cat? (see what I did there?)

Speaking of "there," another pitfall awaits with there/they're/their.

"They're quite sure their cat is still over there." There's that apostrophe replacing the "a" of "are" again.

What about "its" and "it's"? Well, it's a cat = it is a cat. It looks like the king of its territory. "Its" because there is no letter or letters missing.

But you said apostrophes can mean possession!

I know I did and they can and do. It's OK to write "the cat's territory" but not "it's territory."

Why? I don't know. With "it" it's only "it's" when the "i" of "is." is missing.  This is one you're just going to have to learn; I feel your pain.

Here is a picture of a cake:

Photo credit: James Petts