All posts by shedpub

Alternatively . . . or not

This post is prompted by two cases within one week where authors have erroneously used ‘alternate’ instead of ‘alternative’.

In most cases, these two words have very different meanings.

Alternate

‘Alternate’ basically means ‘this way, then that way’, or ‘by turns’. If you’re a member of the plant genus Hebe, your leaves grow in alternate [adj.] pairs on each stem. Two leaves point this way, the next pair that way, the next pair this way, and so on.  

Or, you can arrange with another member of staff to work from home on alternate Wednesdays: she does this week, you do next week, and so on.

You can alternate [v.] between two points of view: ‘Should I buy the pink, or the blue? The pink. No, wait – I prefer the blue. No . . . curses . . .’ Similarly, the alternator in a car is a gizmo that handles alternating currents (the current flows this way, then the opposite way, then this way again, etc.).

Alternative

This basically means ‘other’, or, very similarly, an option on choices. So, if you have no alternative but to comply, you have no other option. If you hold an alternative point of view, then it is essentially another point of view.

But . . .

There is, unfortunately, a degree of blur in North America, where ‘alternate’ [adj.] is an acceptable alternative to ‘alternative’. You can, for instance, take ‘the alternate route home’, to quote the Merriam Webster dictionary.

Still, by now, at least, if you know what you want to say, and you know where you live, you can make an informed choice.

Pluralism

Above: Spotted in Petone, Wellington, 2021.

How often have you fretted over plural nouns and wondered how to handle them? Is it ‘the data tell us . . .’ or ‘the data tells us . . .’? And should we say that ‘the media holds too much political power’ or ‘the media hold . . .’?

The problem stems largely from the magpie nature of the English language: we adopt foreign words and assimilate them until they effectively cease to be foreign, but, because they retain foreign-styled plural forms, niggly problems persist. The singular of ‘data’ is ‘datum’ (from the Latin word for a ‘thing known or given’). The singular of ‘media’ is of course ‘medium’. Artists will, for instance, choose a new medium, or work in mixed media.

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors tells us firmly that ‘media’ is to be treated as a plural, but the guide is less clear on ‘data’, informing us simply that it’s the plural form of ‘datum’.

Me, I like correct usage, but I also can see that ‘the media’ is often used these days to refer to a singular collectivised entity, and that, even though it’s strictly wrong, we sticklers are, like Canute and the incoming tide, fighting a losing battle. So my personal suggestion with both ‘media’ and ‘data’ is that you fall one way or the other, but above all be consistent.

‘Criteria’ is another that seems to throw people, but there’s a strict ruling on this one. ‘Criteria’ is the plural form of ‘criterion’ (from the Greek word meaning a ‘means of judging’). So we need to be writing ‘special criteria apply’ and ‘there is one key criterion’.

Another non-negotiable is ‘strata’. You’ll sometimes hear people talk of ‘a strata of society’, whereas it should be ‘stratum’ (singular). Ditto ‘phenomenon’ (plural: ‘phenomena’).

It’s also worth noting what happens to foreign names when pluralised. In this example from the Chicago Manual of Style, the English kings take an ‘s’, but the French ones don’t, for reasons made clear:

the six King Georges of England and the sixteen King Louis [not Louises] of France

On a more light-hearted note: unless you are Italian, you may not know that the plural of pizza is pizze, or that ‘panini’ is actually the plural form of panino. What these words represent is the full assimilation of foreign terms into English, complete with Anglicised plurals: the word ‘pizza’ has entered into the language because English, despite its rich vastness, has no equal term for a dish-shaped baked-bread base topped with delicious things. Clearly, if you call Domino’s and ask for ‘two pizze’, the staff there will think you are odd – unless they too are Italian, in which case they may weep a little homesick tear and reward you with extra olives.

Name that song

Songs, books, poems, short stories, albums, symphonies, exhibitions, and more . . . When should you use italics, and when quote marks?

Italics are used for the titles of:
• music albums
• books
• novels, plays and anthologies
• journals and newspapers
• movies and TV series/programmes
• individual works of art
• exhibitions
• substantially long poems, such as epics

Roman type, with quote marks, serves for the titles of:
• songs
• poems (of more standard length), and also first lines of poems
• short stories
• chapters in books
• essays
• articles in newspapers and journals
• individual episodes of TV series

Here are some examples . . .

1) ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ takes up side four of Blonde on Blonde.

2) Mind you, ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ is by no means Dylan’s longest song.

3) Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Tried always and Condemned by thee’ on the back of an envelope.

4) Milton, now blind, dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters and aides.

5) ‘Purgatory’ (season 1, episode 1) introduces the key players in Wynonna Earp.

6) Do you read the Sun or the Financial Times? And how about Le Monde?

7) The Sun caters to its readers’ tastes and views.

8) Michelangelo’s David features in the cheeky article ‘“It took genius to chisel these buttocks” – the top ten bottoms in art, chosen by our critic’ (Guardian, 23 July 2020).

9) The queue for the Mona Lisa was so long that I gave up and went instead to see Joan Miró: The Colour of my Dreams at the Grand Palais.

. . . and here are some random details worth drawing out.

• Notice in 1 and 2 that you can shorten a long title, so long as you’re elegant about it. (Who, after all, uses the full title of Ziggy Stardust?) And you should obey the punctuation of the original – however tempting it is to hyphenate ‘Sad Eyed’ or lowercase ‘Of The’, or to mess with Emily’s capitals in 3.

• Paradise Lost (4) is an example of a longer poem that takes italics. See also Homer’s Iliad, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, etc.

• In 6–8, you’ll see that in normal prose newspaper titles lose their article, unless they kick off a sentence or are in a foreign language. You can drop an article, too, if the syntax calls for it; for instance, ‘another long poem is Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is more fluent than ‘Coleridge’s The Rime . . .’. Articles that form part of newspaper/journal titles are also dropped in citations, as in 8 and the following:

Knols, B. G. (1996). ‘On human odour, malaria mosquitoes, and limburger cheese’. Lancet 348(9037): 1322.

• In 8, too, note the use of nested quote marks when the title of a published paper or article already contains quote marks.

• In 9, Mona Lisa correctly appears in roman type because it’s not the official title of the mysterious lady portrait. This rule is, however, frequently flouted. The Miró exhibition, meanwhile, is set in italics.

Classical music
The titling of classical works is, like the music itself, fiendishly complicated and I don’t pretend to understand it, but I shall attempt a brief summary.

You can refer to a work by its name, if it has one:
• Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a rollicking suite of poetry set to music.
• Handel’s Elijah is an oratorio outlining the life of the prophet.

You can refer to a work by its musical form:
• Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor; his Second Symphony

Some works have acquired a nickname of sorts:
• Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was later dubbed the Emperor Concerto.
• Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, titled by the composer ‘Quasi una fantasia’, is popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata.

For further clarification, I recommend you try The Chicago Manual of Style.

 

Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons have a tendency to frighten some readers and vex many writers; if I had a dollar for each time someone asked me how to use them correctly (and I answered, ‘Uhm . . .’), I’d have an enviable savings fund.

For a bravura defence of the semicolon and colon, read Lynne Truss’s essay ‘Airs and Graces’, from her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003). It’s funny and helpful, and I entreat you to keep her book to hand if you are that kind of writer who succumbs to any degree of punctuational wobbling.

For now, though, I’ll give it my best shot.

Why use them at all?

Many writers have scorned the semicolon. For Donald Barthelme, quotes Truss, it was ‘ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’. And in his late-in-life essay collection A Man Without a Country (2005), Kurt Vonnegut refers to semicolons as ‘transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’ (No smiley/winky emoji fun for Kurt, then; and I bet it didn’t win him fans among the rainbow community, either.) Today, rather than voice scorn, people tend to fear the semicolon in the same way they dread the weirdo that always sits next to them on the train. It raises the spectre of the unknown.

The colon seems not to raise so many hackles, perhaps — who knows? — because of the comforting symmetry of its two dots, or its more forthright helpfulness (as I shall explain). But taken together, the colon and its semi chum throw people into a mire of confusion, particularly when the choice between them is not abundantly clear.

Each of them serves as a specialized interface between two complete sentences, thus linking them into a compound sentence. At a push, both the colon and semicolon can (usually) stand in for a full stop. Conversely, a full stop can substitute either of the other two; but there are times when a full stop either is too brutally terminal or allows no scope for nuance, clarification or elaboration.

Colons develop and clarify

Here’s an example of how a colon can develop your point and/or add clarification. First, the limitations of a full stop.

  • The date was a disaster. At the end of the evening, Joe forgot to see her into a cab home.

Was the date disastrous because of Joe’s failure to arrange transport? Or did the cab error merely heap misery on an already worthless evening? The former seems likely, but, reading this terse account, we cannot be altogether sure.

Let’s look at it again with a colon on board:

  • The date was a disaster: at the end of the evening, Joe forgot to see her into a cab home.

Now, the colon makes it painfully clear: next time, Joe must remember the cab.

In this usage, then, the colon relates the first statement to the second and, importantly, tells us that the second statement will unpack the first.

A couple more examples:

  • He had found a world in which he felt comfortable: one that was full of sparkly glamour, wild parties and people who could punctuate.
  • The camp rules are very clear on this point: Anyone caught drinking will be sent home.

Did you notice in that second example the capital letter following the colon? A capital is warranted where the material following the colon consists of more than one sentence, or is a formal statement (as above), a quotation, or direct speech.

Colons introduce lists

As illustrated throughout this post, the colon can introduce lists.

  • There were two things she lacked: a moonless night and a shovel.
  • Here’s what we offer:
    – Preferential rates on week nights.
    – A guaranteed seat in the front three rows.
    – Group discounts for parties of five or more.

Semicolons are buoyant

If you like reading the kind of novel where a moody hero pockets a 9mm Beretta before breakfast and spends the day dispatching goons, you’ll probably find shorter sentences are the go. Terse. To the point. That’s fine. I’m not a snob. I do too.

If, however, you long for a more engaging construction that weaves mellifluously through thought and expression like the carved arabesques of an antique screen, or at least manages longer sentences without breaking sweat, you’ll probably find semicolons somewhere discreetly performing the task of punctuational knicker elastic and holding the whole thing aloft.

Here’s a paragraph from the prelude in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

What the semicolons do here is enable the author to form compound sentences that connect thoughts and invite the reader onward, while also giving points at which to pause for breath. They impose phrasing and pace, serving as springboards from which sentences with comma’ed clauses can sail on.

You may have spotted that in Eliot’s sentences above, the material following the semicolon isn’t quite the full sentence; illustrating how rules are written to be broken. These days it’s more in vogue to use a dash in such places — but to me, a dash can feel like a handbrake turn at speed. I prefer the graceful bounce of a semi.

Semicolons help in lists

Lynne Truss explains how the semicolon ‘performs the duties of a kind of Special Policeman in the event of comma fights’. Her description is bang-on, and it’s an essential function, as you’ll see from my example below.

In the space of three years, they lived in Shepherd’s Bush, on the street where Monty Python filmed the silly walk sketch, in Brockwell, with a view of the park, in Clapham, with some pleasant-if-Sloaney flatmates, and in East Acton, where the goods trains rattled the bedroom window at night.

If you knew London well enough you could make sense of this, but most readers would prefer some sorting, thus:

In the space of three years, they lived in Shepherd’s Bush, on the street where Monty Python filmed the silly walk sketch; in Brockwell, with a view of the park; in Clapham, with some pleasant-if-Sloaney flatmates; and in East Acton, where the goods trains rattled the bedroom window at night.

When things get fuzzy

I mentioned earlier that the choice between colon and semi isn’t always clear-cut. To illustrate this, here is an example I’ve lifted from the Chicago Manual of Style:

  • The officials had been in conference most of the night: this may account for their surly treatment of the reporters the next morning.

In this first version, the colon tells us the second statement will directly amplify the first, and it also underscores the close relatedness of the two parts of the compound sentence.

  • The officials had been in conference most of the night; this may account for their surly treatment of the reporters the next morning.

In version two, with a semicolon, the sense of amplification is diminished (though not altogether lost), and so the two parts of the sentence stand more apart; and yet the semicolon nonetheless links them, establishing continuity of thought.

The key point is that both versions are valid. Your choice of punctuation can make shifts that are subtle, nuanced.

Clear as mud?

Planes, trains, automobiles and ships

First, a confession. Back when we were younger, my wife and I had a series of arthritic, crumbling Triumph cars, and most of them had names. There was a Herald called Tallulah, then Betty the Vitesse; next came a GT6 whose name I forget, but it was probably sweary, given the amount of money I threw away on the damn thing.

Look, I’m not alone in naming my transport. Charles Lindbergh shot from mail-boy obscurity to titanic fame when he made his non-stop solo flight across nearly six thousand kilometres of Atlantic Ocean in a modified Ryan by the name of Spirit of St. Louis. And then there’s the Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress known as Memphis Belle, one of the first of its type to notch up 25 missions at a time when life for bomber crews was shockingly short.

Another record-breaker is Pacific-type LNER Class A3 locomotive number 4472, better known as the Flying Scotsman. One of its tasks was to haul trains on the London–Edinburgh Flying Scotsman service. Built in 1923, rebuilt lately for millions of quid, the Flying Scotsman is still running today.

And ships. Sink the Bismarck! Raise the Titanic! (Or lower the Atlantic — much cheaper!)

Note that ships’ prefixes, such as SS (Single-screw Steamship), HMS (His/Her Majesty’s Ship), etc., are never italicized: HMS Ark Royal; RMS Titanic; SS Great Eastern.

This next para is for naval-gazing nerds only. Skip if you’re not.

Warships belong to a class, which enables them to be grouped according to their design. Bismarck was a Bismarck-class battleship, whose only other member was Tirpitz. Because Bismarck was the lead ship (the first of her class to be built), she lent her name to the class. To complicate this, there are nested classes. The County-class heavy cruisers (1928–59) of the British Royal Navy comprised three subclasses, Kent, London and Norfolk, all of whose ships were named after English counties. My point here is that ‘County’ is not italicized.

And now the riveting question of whether or not to include the definite article — the Titanic, the Mary Rose, and so on. Descriptions of naval engagements tend to omit it. By way of example, here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia account of Bismarck’s sinking:

In the ensuing battle Hood was destroyed by the combined fire of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which then damaged Prince of Wales and forced her retreat.

I reckon you can add the ‘the’ or omit it, just so long as you are consistent. (Note, too, that with a possessive — Bismarck’s — the apostrophe and ‘s’ remain in roman type.)

My next post on names will cover titles of books, records, artworks, and so on.

As for those Triumphs, they are gone. Never again! Abstinence makes the heart go Honda.

Naming names

Before I pop my clogs, I’d like to write a book on the scientific names by which all natural organisms are known — plant and animal and everything in between.

Seriously, it’d be blissful: I’d throw in names like Eschscholzia (six consonants in a row!), Upupa epops (funny-sounding!), or Arcticalymene viciousi (a trilobite named after a Sex Pistol!).

On that last one, by the way, there are many dozens of famous/infamous people/groups that are immortalized in the scientific names of animals or plants: for example, Hugh Hefner (a rabbit), Indira Gandhi (bird), Radiohead (ant), Beyoncé (fly), David Bowie (spider, of course), Mussolini and Hitler (berry and beetle respectively) and Henry Rollins (jellyfish). Frank Zappa’s name is remembered in a rodent, snail, spider, bacterium, jellyfish and fish. The full list of critter-slebs is here.

Now that I have you in my clutches, we will progress to the nitty-gritty: how should we present scientific names?

Please carry on for goodness’ sake

All organisms fit into a naming system that has been refined over the years, thanks in large part to the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, aka Linnaeus. It was his passion for pigeon-holing that led to a formalized system in which every organism owns a unique two-part name.

Domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Human (Homo sapiens). Hoopoe (Upupa epops).

These names draw primarily on Greek or Latin or both, and, while some honour a person or place, others may describe the thing itself. For instance, the seven-spot ladybird is Coccinella septempunctata.

The great advantage of a binomial is that, like an old-school version of the barcode, it bestows uniqueness, which allows scientists to bypass the inconsistency sown by common names. To give you an example, the species known in Britain as the German cockroach is apparently known in Germany as the Russian cockroach, and in Russia as the Polish cockroach. No one wants to own the grubby little sod. So by using its Linnaean name, Blatella germanica, we will avert most international incidents (with apologies to Germans).

Above its binomial, every animal species fits into a hierarchy that branches like a tree and can be remembered by the mnemonic ‘Please Carry On For Goodness’ Sake’, or Phylum>Class>Order>Family>Genus>Species. (There are additional divisions and subdivisions, such as suborders; but PCOFGS are the big six.) Under this system, the domestic dog is classed as follows:

Phylum: Chordata [species with a dorsal nerve cord and other defining features]
Class: Mammalia [all mammals]
Order: Carnivora [carnivores]
Family: Canidae [dog-like carnivores]
Genus: Canis
Species: familiaris

It’s a process of refinement. At the order level, Carnivora contains dogs, bears, raccoons, mustelids, cats, seals and more. But jump down one level to Canidae and we’re dealing only with dogs, wolves, foxes and their ilk. Jump again, to Canis, and we have phased out all of the foxes and some of the dogs. We could even drop below the domestic dog and add a subspecies: the dingo is Canis familiaris dingo.

You’ll see from the above that italics are used only for the binomial (genus and species) and, if present, the subspecies. All higher taxa — Canidae, Carnivora, etc. — are set in Roman type.

Note, too, that the genus name is always capped but the species name never is, even if it derives from a proper name. See, for example, germanica and viciousi above.

Also, for the sake of economy, we can abbreviate genus and/or species names after their first mention:

  • Canis familiaris is found worldwide, but C. f. dingo is restricted to Australia.

Proper noun vs generic form

Any formal taxon name can be extracted into a generic noun or adjective. So, members of Canidae are canids (n.), and a domestic dog has typical canid (adj.) dentition. Tyrannosaurus rex was a tyrannosaur. A llama is a camelid (family Camelidae). Note how the extracted words do not have an initial capital.

What you want to avoid is mixing this system up. Do not, for instance, talk about Carnivores. They’re carnivores (also known as carnivorans), in the order Carnivora.

In short: abbreviations and acronyms

I picked this topic after stumbling across an arresting piece of branding copy (see below), and it struck me how little I know this corner of style. So let us journey together into a letter-strewn wilderness.

This much I do know:

  • An abbreviation is a bunch of capitals (GOP, NAACP, USA).
  • An acronym is a word you can pronounce formed from a bunch of capitals (radar, laser, scuba, NATO, WYSIWYG, FOMO). Indeed, acronym comes from the Greek words for ‘short name’.

A few style points deserve mention; if I’ve missed any, please shout.

1) How and when should you give the long form of an abbreviation or acronym?

For something that is well known in short form, you probably don’t need to spell it out. If you write that ‘East Germany joined NATO in 1990’, most readers will be familiar with that organization. But if you do choose to add the gloss, it should follow in brackets.

  • NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was founded in 1949.
  • The UN (United Nations) has brokered another ceasefire in Yemen.

If your ‘thing’ is best known in long form, but you want to refer to it several times, then give an abbreviation (after the long form) at first mention in your text.

  • Dunedin businessman James Mills founded the Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo) in 1875. As it steadily extended its tentacles through the Pacific trade routes, the USSCo came to be known as the ‘Southern Octopus’.

2) What about the definite article?

As per my NATO/UN examples above, acronyms representing bodies/institutions generally don’t need the definite article, whereas abbreviations do.

  • NATO; DARPA; PETA; SEATO.
  • The GOP; the UN; the NAACP; the WHO.

3) Uppercase or lowercase?

Some acronyms have entered the language to the point where we generally present them in lowercase, or at most with an initial capital. Some institutions deliberately style themselves so.
• Acas [Britain’s conciliation service]; radar; scuba.

There are some oddities, too, such as Anzac Day, which commemorates the sacrifices made by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops.

Note, too, that some institutions style their conjunctions in lowercase — MoMA, DoJ. Others retain caps where you might not expect them, often out of recognition of their etymology: ABBA, for instance, or IKEA. (You know about the Swedish supergroup. As for IKEA, it was founded by Ingvar Kamprad, who grew up at Elmtaryd, near the village of Agunnaryd.)

And note, on that point, the various ways of glossing abbreviations and acronyms:

  • radar (radio detection and ranging); laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
  • SaaS (software as a service).

On this last point, you can cobble together any abbreviation you like if it suits your purpose, but take care with initial capitals, as these are often unwarranted: software as a service is, after all, a generic term. Similarly:

  • RFP stands for request for proposal, not Request for Proposal.
  • My car’s AC performs air conditioning, not Air Conditioning.

Finally, I had promised that arresting piece of branding copy. See what you make of this:

Founded in 1914 as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA is now known simply as “AIGA, the professional association for design.” When referring to us, “AIGA” will do the trick—not “the American Institute of Graphic Arts,” not “the AIGA,” and not AIGA pronounced as a word (“Ay-guh” or “ā-gə”). You only need four little letters to spell one big design community. Say it with us now: A-I-G-A.

You, me and everybody

If — as I’m doing now — you tend to address your readers as ‘you’, and yourself as ‘I’, the trick is to remain consistent, and not switch arbitrarily to another pronoun, nor bring in so many characters that the reader becomes confused.

That’s not to say we (look, there’s another!) can’t bring in a whole cast of pronouns when it suits us. Here, first, is my recap on who’s who and what they do. Most of it’s pretty obvious, but I reckon it can’t hurt.

I, me: ‘I identify as the narrator, the voice behind the opinions expressed here.’ When you identify as ‘I’, you lay claim to the originality of your ideas, but you also bear responsibility for them. (There’s nowhere to hide.) ‘You’ and ‘I’ is fine for run-of-the-mill prose; more academic writing tends to shy away from ‘I’ in favour of depersonalising the discourse, although some authors will refer to themselves coyly as ‘the author’. [Referring to yourself in the third person, by the way, is called illeism, from the Latin ille, ‘that person’. Julius Caesar often used this device when giving an account of his deeds, in the hope of fostering the illusion of impartiality.]

You: ‘You are my reader, my intended audience.’ This very direct form of address has the advantage of engaging the reader and making them feel as though you’re speaking to them personally, but you need to take care not to sound as though you’re accusing them of some misdeed.

We: ‘We is either the author and reader, but more usually is a broader collective “we” representing people in general.’ The great advantage of ‘we’ is that it’s inclusive: admitting your readers into a kinship can make them feel supported and comforted. It avoids the accusatory vibe, while still enabling you to slip in some hard truths. (‘We all could use some practice at this.’)

They: ‘They is a person or persons other than the writer and the reader,’ unless  you’re being some weird kind of illeist (see above). Adding a third-party dynamic not only can be useful in practical terms, but also allows you to characterize, subtly or otherwise, different subsets of your readership. ‘They don’t love you as I do,’ and so on.

One: For use only by comedians and stodgy Poms.

Okay, back to that non-gendered pronoun. In its more traditional usage, in place of a messy ‘she/he’, it invites even messier switches from singular to plural: ‘When someone wears a ballgown by Balenciaga, they enter a world of feminine mystique.’ I’ll sometimes rewrite to avoid this construction. When ‘they’ serves as a pronoun for individuals who identify as neither ‘he/him’ nor ‘she/her’, it adds no grammatical problems.

There’s nothing to stop you using all the pronouns in a piece of writing, so long as you don’t confuse them. The more you add, the more care is required in ascribing actions or points of view to the different players.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when couples argue publicly, like in the supermarket or the pub? Are they totally shameless? Surely we own the right to buy our groceries or enjoy a drink in peace.

On a final note on pronouns, take care not to confuse subject (e.g., ‘I’) and object (‘me’). ‘She loves you more than I’ does not mean the same as ‘She loves you more than me’. Similarly, the title of this post, which quotes Elton John – ‘You, me and everybody got a part-time love’ – is a classic example of songwriters abusing grammar and getting away with it; still, at the end of the day, Bernie Taupin is a millionaire and I’m not.

How very dare you?

Is ‘very’ useless? Not entirely. But often, yes.

When I was a child, and our family went for walks on the Welsh coast, we’d occasionally come across dead things — a fox, a sheep, a rabbit — and I would sometimes ask my parents if such-and-such was indeed dead. My father generally tramped on ahead, so my mother, on checking said corpse, would usually reply, ‘Oh yes. Very dead.’ This bemused me because I knew that death, like pregnancy, was the ultimate binary option — either you are, or you ain’t — and I was still reasonably blind to her mordant wit.

I use this anecdote flimsily to concede that ‘very’ has its uses. As an intensifier, it adds a more factor; and yet there’s only so much more it can impart before it is as useless as an overprescribed antibiotic. If I’m skimming a CV, I don’t want to read that someone is ‘very experienced’: I should like their track record to be the judge of that. Either they are experienced, as Jimi might have posited, or they’re not. And if someone says they’re feeling ‘very tired’, how’s that on a scale of mildly pooped to done in? Are they exhausted, bone-weary, drained, shattered? When you think of the rich possibilities English offers, such paucity of vocab seems a crime.

While we’re at it, ‘very unique’ or ‘so unique’ are nonsensical expressions. Like death and pregnancy, it’s a binary thing: you’re either a one-off or you’re not.

‘Very’ is not alone. ‘Actually’, ‘really’, ‘basically’, ‘absolutely’ are others that have crept onto the page from our spaghetti-like spoken English. (If you’ve ever transcribed an oral account, you will know what I mean; you may also find the word ‘just’ sprinkled everywhere like sugar on a teenager’s porridge. Get rid of it.)

Then there are tautological phrases, such as ‘return (back)’, ‘combine (together)’, ‘(basic) necessities’, ‘(advance) warning’, and those unhappily married couples ‘cease and desist’, ‘aid and abet’, ‘first and foremost’, etc. The list of words that pointlessly pack our prose is long. Very long.

Crunching the numbers

Should you spell out numbers, or present them as Arabics (numerals)? Could you cheekily mix the systems without anyone noticing?

The problem with number style is its flexibility. For example, there’s nothing wrong with any of the three examples below. Each is internally consistent in its treatment of categories — i.e., age, linear measure and mathematical units. And that, basically, is the key: whatever you do, you absolutely must be consistent.

At the age of eight I stood 4 feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown 3 inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run 2 miles.

At the age of 8 I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By 9, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

At the age of eight I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

The publishers I work with tend to focus on a few core rules, which can be treated with latitude so long as consistency is applied. These rules are good for most uses besides books. Here are some of the basics and their variations.

 

Single/double digits, large round numbers

In non-fiction, it’s common to spell out numerals from zero to nine, then switch to Arabics for double digits upwards. Arabics are, quite obviously, suited to scientific or technical text. In fiction or more anecdotal non-fiction, such as a life story or memoir, you might prefer to spell out numbers (at least up to ninety-nine), because it fosters warmth and fluency. Usually, too, it’s appropriate to spell out large round numbers.

1) The hut still lay twelve miles away, and rain began to fall. We pressed on.
2) And so I learnt at forty-nine that my knees would not last forever.
3) Our laboratory test subset fell within the sample range of 2.4–5.0 mg.
4) Naked mole-rats typically weigh 30–35 g.
5) There must have been a thousand people at the party.
6) On our mole-rat field trip, undergraduates outnumbered fellows three to one.

Some notes on the above:
In 2 (and I’ve covered this before, I know), avoid writing ‘from 30–35 g’. Use either ‘30–35 g’ or ‘from 30 to 35 g’. The same goes for ‘between . . . and’.
In 3, the second figure includes the decimal place because ‘2.4–5’ would have been ambiguous.
In 6, you could equally have ‘. . . outnumbered fellows 3:1’.

Can you mix single and double digits? The Chicago Manual of Style says no. Rather:

  • On the research trip our party ranged in age from 9 to 16.

If you choose to override this with the zero-to-nine rule — ‘from nine to 16’ — make sure you’re consistent throughout your text.

 

Direct speech

Numbers in direct speech are commonly spelt out, although there are acceptable exceptions (for, e.g., years, fractions, and other complicated situations).

  • ‘I’ve been admiring your new layering technique for at least fourteen minutes,’ she murmured.
  • ‘We’ve used these Kyoto thinning scissors since 1977,’ I said proudly.
  • ‘Crikey, this mole-rat weighs 43.2 grams,’ remarked Jenkinson.
  • ‘My dog weighs sixty kilos, but he’s a big softie.’

 

Numbers at the start of sentences

Avoid beginning a sentence with Arabic numerals. Rearrange the sentence to avoid spelling out huge or clunky numbers — although spelling out a massive number can be effective in making a point.

  • Thirty-nine years ago, I could run up this staircase in under one minute.
  • Two thousand and thirty mole-rats live in the area. [This is clunky.]
  • The area is home to 2030 mole-rats. [This is better.]
  • Two hundred and fifty thousand citizens voted for this idiot.

 

Time . . .

As with other numbering issues, there’s flexibility in how you present times of the day, depending on context, tone and style, and whether you’re of a military persuasion.

  • We usually broke for tea around four o’clock, then took a stroll on the cliffs.
  • Tea will be served punctually at 4 p.m. Dinner is at 7 p.m. Do not be late.
  • Tea is at 1600 hours, final briefing at 1630.
  • At 7.10 p.m. I texted ‘Where are you?’ There was no reply. I sent a second text at 7.12, and a third at 7.21. Finally, at 10.03 p.m. came his terse reply: ‘With Jill.’

Note that in US English, punctual times use a colon in place of a full stop.

 

. . . and date

You see all sorts of date styles on homemade handbills and posters outside the village hall, but dates can be boiled down to two systems: British English and US English.

British English

  • The ceremony will take place on 5 September.
  • It will take place on 5 September 2020.
  • It will take place on Saturday, 5 September 2020.

American English

  • The election is scheduled for November 3.
  • It will take place on November 3, 2020.
  • It will take place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

As ever, there is the option of a more lyrical style. With special occasions that are known by the date on which they occur, capitals are appropriate.

  • We always celebrate the Fourth of July.
  • My birthday, on the third of July, is generally forgotten.
  • At least I’m invited to their Cinco de Mayo fiesta.
  • We’ll be shutting our dogs in as usual on the fifth of November.

Ideally, avoid mish-mashes like ‘the village fete will be on the 4th November’ — but, to be honest, no one’s likely to object.

 

Ordinals

Leading on smoothly from that topic, we normally spell out ordinals. For instance:

  • Embarrassingly, my parents finished seventh in the egg-and-spoon race.
  • Her twenty-first was a lavish event, with elephants and pink champagne.
  • ‘Blues, twentieth-century blues / They’re getting me down . . .’

 

A topic I’m dodging for now is the presentation of page number ranges. Too big! Another time.