Grammar and punctuation blog

  • By PLC
  • 02 Aug, 2017

Run-on sentences; semicolonic irritation; subject-verb agreement; lack of sense; tautology; dangling participles etc

Run-on sentences

Santander Bank reminds us that the run-on sentence – also known as the comma splice – is still trampling conventional grammar underfoot, as its online service offers up this effort: ‘At 21:42 on 02 Nov your current balance is £2,693.34, please note your current balance may differ from your available balance.’ 

Why is a leading bank so shameless in not knowing where to put a full stop? Perhaps they don’t employ enough people who think it matters.

Andrew Bingham , MP for the High Peak [until June 2017], is a serial offender for the same crime. From his weekly newsletter, here’s a paragraph showing the blunder twice next to ‘however’:

‘As I said during the debate [about young people], the impact on social media on all walks of life has been huge. Many of these have been good and beneficial, however as with many things in life it can and has been used by some for the wrong reasons. The abuse through social media isn’t just restricted to young people, however the impact can be much greater on teenagers than on older people.’ (3 Nov 2016) 

The whole paragraph is depressingly illiterate and clichéd for a modern MP, who presumably has staff to check what he writes. There’s the plural ‘Many of these’, which disagrees with the singular ‘impact’. Then there’s the bungle of writing ‘it can and has been used’, which should say ‘it can be and has been used’ – or preferably ‘some people misuse it’. And presumably ‘the impact on social media’ should read ‘the impact of social media’.

So, no ministerial job at the Department of Education for Mr Bingham. However, many locals praise his efforts on their behalf and at least he has a good reputation for responding quickly to letters and emails. 
[8 Dec 2016] 

Tautology: how to avoid repetitions involving ‘reason’, ‘cause’, ‘because’ and ‘why’

We and most subeditors regard tautology as a stylistic fault. Many Ancient Britons will recall how they first encountered ‘tautology’ (repetition of meaning) – it formed part of the long-running panel game My Word on the old Home Service (which became BBC Radio 4). Participants earned points for spotting such examples as ‘They drank tea and also ate cake as well ’ and ‘It grew from a tiny little seed’. (The latter occurs regularly on the BBC’s Countryfile and Gardeners’ World, to much gnashing of teeth here at Plain Language Towers.) Thus a generation became sensitized to the horrible habit of saying the same thing saying the same thing.

These days the tautological use of ‘cause’ words seems to be hard for subeditors of print journalism to spot, if recent examples are anything to go by:

‘The reason the quarto version [of Shakespeare’s King Lear] is missing 300 lines is because Nicholas Okes, the printer, underestimated the amount of paper needed to fit the play.’ (Jack Malvern, Times, 21 April 2016)
Read: ‘The reason…is that…’.

‘The reason Leave has won the economic argument is because of the nature of the decision facing us on 23 June.’ (Steve Hilton, Times, 13 June 2016)
Read: ‘Leave has won the economic argument because…’.

‘The reason I sought medical help was because I was experiencing some uncommon physical symptoms.’ (Sarah Vine, Daily Mail, 8 June 2016)
Read: ‘I sought medical help because…’.

‘The real reason Gatwick will never be a world-class hub is because it’s dependent on Southern Rail for its so-called Express service to London.’ (Sarah Vine – repeat offender, as it were – 15 June 2016)
Read: ‘The real reason…is that…’.

‘Paul Mason…claimed yesterday that the reason   why  most of the [Labour] shadow cabinet resigned two months ago was because  they feared Corbyn [Labour party leader] would lead them to victory in a rumoured snap election.’ (Times diary, 29 Aug 2016)
Delete ‘why’ and replace ‘because’ with ‘that’.

What to do about this? Vigilance is the single , sole and only cure. We’ve emailed Sarah Vine about her tautological tendencies, and she’s responded by promising to desist. 
[4 Aug 2017]

By PLC 13 Aug, 2017

Washing down their food (yuk)

Some authors are addicted to the cliché of ‘washing down’ their food, usually with alcohol, as if their oesophagus is a sluice gate for masticated food particles.No doubt they ‘wash down’ their cars and drains with buckets of water, but do they really enjoy their food so little that they ‘wash it down’? Imagine if they used ‘swill it down’, which is virtually the same idea.Restaurant critics and travel writers are the chief offenders. Their fresh examples abound, like reindeer droppings in the winter snow:

  • Foolishly I washed it all down with many additional draughts of beer. (Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island, Daily Mail, 16 Aug 2016)
  • To gauge how far she [Elizabeth David], and we, had come, consider the typical supper she recollected sitting down to in the mid-1930s – ‘three sardines on bits of toast, one very tired sponge cake, two digestive biscuits’, all washed down by ‘tepid tea’ and interspersed with cigarettes. (Jenny Johnson, Daily Mail, 8 July 2016)
  • The coolest woman I have ever had the terror of breaking bread with… ordered steak, chips, tarte tatin and Epoisses, washed down with champagne for dinner at the Ritz, each element receiving only the most cursory acknowledgment. (Hannah Betts, Times, 8 Nov 2016)
  • The Randolph even forgot to serve a cup of tea to wash down the sorry affair. (Andrew Elson, Times, 18 Oct 2016)
  • Glued to the television, The Donald devoured hamburgers washed down with Diet Coke… (Toby Harnden, Sunday Times, 13 Nov 2016)
  • My spaghetti ain’t courgetti – and though I try my best to be a sugar-free zone, the occasional scoop of ice cream does, I’m ashamed to say, find its way into my gullet. Washed down, more often than not, with a nice glass of wine. (Sarah Vine,Daily Mail, 12 June 2016)
  • Visitors to Israel might one day have a chance to snack on fruits that were available during Christ’s time, and wash them down with a biblical-era beer. (Gregg Carlstrom, Times, 13 June 2016)
  • ...light insalata caprese (mozzarella, tomato and basil salad) and calorific torta caprese (almond and chocolate cake)...Wash it down with limoncello (lemon liqueur). (Lonely Planet website, 2016)
[3 Aug 2017]

Rolling hills

It seems that few articles about the countryside are complete without that dire cliché ‘rolling hills’ and its many egregious variations, eg:

  • The rolling hills and mountains are as verdant and fertile as any of the Latin poet Virgil’s descriptions… (Victoria Hislop, Daily Mail, 4 Sept 2016)
  • That home [owned by opera singer Daniela Dessi] was a beautiful house tucked among the rolling Franciacorta vineyards near Genoa. (Times obituary, 29 Aug 2016)
  • The same goes for much of northern Scotland, for the rolling hills around Rhydowen in the county of Ceredigion… (Times editorial, 18 July 2016)
There’s also been an epidemic of rolling hills on the broadcast media, particularly one of the BBC’s most popular programmes, Countryfile. Thus is the virus spread!  
[8 Dec 2016]
By PLC 02 Aug, 2017

A little death of truth on BBC’s Saturday Live – comedian’s false statement is deemed merely 'exaggeration'

As readers in the UK (at least) will know, the country re-elected a Conservative (Tory) government in June 2017, with a 54-seat majority over the Labour party but a zero-seat working majority in the House of Commons. Not everyone is happy that the Tories keep winning the popular vote and getting the largest number of seats, but even the most ardent socialists must admit that Labour keeps losing elections.

Few would deny that the BBC, which is publicly funded from the licence fee and has duties of impartiality, often seems to behave like the Labour party at prayer, with a low drone of anti-Tory sentiment among many of its presenters, guest speakers and hand-picked audiences of numerous current-affairs programmes.

An apparent example came from Radio 4’s Saturday Live on 29 July. Presented by Aasmah Mir and the staunch Labour supporter Richard Coles, the programme interviewed a comedian, Sophie Willan, about her life and hard times. She mentioned wanting to speak honestly and recalled, with some eloquence, being brought up in council care and by foster parents because her mum and dad were so intoxicated with alcohol or drugs (or both) that she was neglected. Willan went to university at age 23, but remarked: ‘They used to do a care leaver’s bursary, which they no longer do – thanks to the Tory government.’ Cue a sympathetic and contented hum in the studio: Tories wicked, Labour virtuous.

In fact, as a cursory search on the web will show, the care leaver’s bursary still exists, largely unchanged since its introduction by Labour in 2009.

So we thought we’d test the BBC’s impartiality and desire for straight talking by asking Saturday Live if it’d correct its contributor’s error in the next programme, given that her comment might have misled the public and even persuaded some care leavers not to seek support for attending higher education.

Nope, the programme certainly wouldn’t correct it, said the editor, John Goudie, who also looks after Start the Week , In Our Time , Desert Island Discs , Only Artists , and the British Museum Partnership Project: Living with the Gods (busy fella). He told us: ‘Sophie Willan perhaps exaggerated the situation that some care leavers experience…Her perception is that the care leaver's bursary was cut…Saturday Live is not the forum for a detailed discussion of higher education support.’

So there we are. A demonstrably false statement is merely ‘exaggeration’. And if a contributor perceives there’s a hippo in the hedge, that’s because there really must be a hippo in the hedge. It all rather suggests that the BBC doesn’t mind fake news as long it reflects its own generally leftist agenda – or is that a false ‘perception’? 

[2 Aug 2017]

By PLC 02 Aug, 2017

Run-on sentences

Santander Bank reminds us that the run-on sentence – also known as the comma splice – is still trampling conventional grammar underfoot, as its online service offers up this effort: ‘At 21:42 on 02 Nov your current balance is £2,693.34, please note your current balance may differ from your available balance.’ 

Why is a leading bank so shameless in not knowing where to put a full stop? Perhaps they don’t employ enough people who think it matters.

Andrew Bingham , MP for the High Peak [until June 2017], is a serial offender for the same crime. From his weekly newsletter, here’s a paragraph showing the blunder twice next to ‘however’:

‘As I said during the debate [about young people], the impact on social media on all walks of life has been huge. Many of these have been good and beneficial, however as with many things in life it can and has been used by some for the wrong reasons. The abuse through social media isn’t just restricted to young people, however the impact can be much greater on teenagers than on older people.’ (3 Nov 2016) 

The whole paragraph is depressingly illiterate and clichéd for a modern MP, who presumably has staff to check what he writes. There’s the plural ‘Many of these’, which disagrees with the singular ‘impact’. Then there’s the bungle of writing ‘it can and has been used’, which should say ‘it can be and has been used’ – or preferably ‘some people misuse it’. And presumably ‘the impact on social media’ should read ‘the impact of social media’.

So, no ministerial job at the Department of Education for Mr Bingham. However, many locals praise his efforts on their behalf and at least he has a good reputation for responding quickly to letters and emails. 
[8 Dec 2016] 

Tautology: how to avoid repetitions involving ‘reason’, ‘cause’, ‘because’ and ‘why’

We and most subeditors regard tautology as a stylistic fault. Many Ancient Britons will recall how they first encountered ‘tautology’ (repetition of meaning) – it formed part of the long-running panel game My Word on the old Home Service (which became BBC Radio 4). Participants earned points for spotting such examples as ‘They drank tea and also ate cake as well ’ and ‘It grew from a tiny little seed’. (The latter occurs regularly on the BBC’s Countryfile and Gardeners’ World, to much gnashing of teeth here at Plain Language Towers.) Thus a generation became sensitized to the horrible habit of saying the same thing saying the same thing.

These days the tautological use of ‘cause’ words seems to be hard for subeditors of print journalism to spot, if recent examples are anything to go by:

‘The reason the quarto version [of Shakespeare’s King Lear] is missing 300 lines is because Nicholas Okes, the printer, underestimated the amount of paper needed to fit the play.’ (Jack Malvern, Times, 21 April 2016)
Read: ‘The reason…is that…’.

‘The reason Leave has won the economic argument is because of the nature of the decision facing us on 23 June.’ (Steve Hilton, Times, 13 June 2016)
Read: ‘Leave has won the economic argument because…’.

‘The reason I sought medical help was because I was experiencing some uncommon physical symptoms.’ (Sarah Vine, Daily Mail, 8 June 2016)
Read: ‘I sought medical help because…’.

‘The real reason Gatwick will never be a world-class hub is because it’s dependent on Southern Rail for its so-called Express service to London.’ (Sarah Vine – repeat offender, as it were – 15 June 2016)
Read: ‘The real reason…is that…’.

‘Paul Mason…claimed yesterday that the reason   why  most of the [Labour] shadow cabinet resigned two months ago was because  they feared Corbyn [Labour party leader] would lead them to victory in a rumoured snap election.’ (Times diary, 29 Aug 2016)
Delete ‘why’ and replace ‘because’ with ‘that’.

What to do about this? Vigilance is the single , sole and only cure. We’ve emailed Sarah Vine about her tautological tendencies, and she’s responded by promising to desist. 
[4 Aug 2017]

By PLC 02 Aug, 2017

‘Polarity of the dichotomy’ baffles jury

Judge Peter Thornton, the chief coroner, has told his colleagues to use plain English after a jury was asked to determine ‘the polarity of the dichotomy’ in the case of Sean Jackson, 26, who died at Elmley prison in Kent (reports The Times, 20 July 2016). At the High Court, Judge Thornton and Lord Justice Beatson said the phrase, used by the assistant coroner for Mid Kent and Medway, was not helpful.
[8 Dec 2016]

Making judgments more readable – the Jackson style

A 17-page judgment by Mr Justice Peter Jackson has been widely commended for its plain language (full judgment:  Lancashire County Council v M  [2016] EWFC 9 ). 

It begins: ‘This judgment is as short as possible so that the mother and the older children [aged 12 and 10] can follow it.’

The judgment makes much use of short paragraphs, contractions, short sentences and the active voice. The tone is humane but brusque. It refers to the activities of Mr A, a white British Muslim convert who wanted to take his children to Syria under the guise of a trip to Disneyland, Paris. It explains why the children should have only limited contact with him. At the time, Mr A was facing trial for trying to buy guns and ammunition. The Times (15 Sept 2016) says it understands Mr A has since been convicted.

Since parts of the judgment are as poignant as they are direct, it’s worth quoting a short passage in full:

For several weeks before Mr A was arrested in November, he was being secretly recorded by the police. I have read a lot of those recordings. They show what Mr A really thinks and how he hides it from the mother and the children.



In the recordings, Mr A says that he would sacrifice his life for his religion. He shows his hatred for this country because we are unbelievers who do not live under sharia law. He says that Islam is against democracy and voting. He pulled down posters encouraging people to vote that had been put up in one of the mosques. He wants Britain to be a Muslim country. He wants Muslims to be above non-Muslims. He wants men to be above women. He hates gay people. He says that Mr B is not fit to be a father because he has used drugs. 



Mr A agrees that he said these things but says that he didn’t mean them, and that he was desperate because the children had been taken away for no reason. I do not believe that. His explanations were ridiculous. And I don’t accept that he only started to hold those views after the children were taken away.



After thinking carefully about this and listening to everyone, I do not agree with Mr A at all. People are not out to get him. His problems are his own fault. I do not know why he was trying to buy guns and whether he is dangerous to everyone. The jury will decide about that. What I am clear about is that he is dangerous to the children and their mother because of the way he behaves and because the mother is not able to stop him. There is a good side to Mr A – everyone has a good side – and this makes it hard for H and A and their mother to see what he is really like.

When he gave evidence, Mr A was more interested in making speeches than answering questions. He says that there is a plot by police and social workers to smash up his happy family just because he is a Muslim. He clearly doesn’t feel responsible for anything that has happened. He accused everyone of being sneaky liars who have taken his whole life from him. The truthful people are locked up and the liars are free. He has nothing to lose: “If you want me to be a terrorist, then that's what I’ll do.”

Mr A is very sorry for himself but I noticed that he never showed he is sorry for the mother or the children. Instead, he wants them to feel sorry for him. They shouldn’t be. For him, they are not the most important things. What is most important to Mr A is Mr A and whatever views he holds at the time.

Seeing a judgment written so tersely raises questions about why judges would write in any other way in any other case in any other court. How much time and money would be saved if the Jackson style were taught in law schools and widely adopted by the judiciary? 
[8 Dec 2016]
By PLC 02 Aug, 2017

Parking kingpin convicted by his own camera

We’ve reported regularly on the rising tide of private-parking penalties at hospitals and supermarkets all over the UK, many of them based on unclear signs, dodgy terms and conditions, and the use of surveillance cameras (see several issues of Pikestaff and our articles under ‘Publications’).

The mastermind of this ‘industry’, which extracts about £200million in penalties from motorists every year, suddenly resigned as chief executive of the British Parking Association in February 2017. Despite Patrick Troy’s high public profile as chief flak-deflector over the years, with regular appearances on TV and radio, there was strangely no blizzard of tributes from his friends at the companies he’d helped to enrich.

The reason became clear in March at Westminster Magistrates’ Court when Troy pleaded guilty to offences of outraging public decency after he was caught filming up a woman’s skirt at Vauxhall station, London. The prosecutor said: ‘The defendant was seen holding his phone at an angle below her skirt and the witness saw the red recording light on and a clear image of the skirt and back of the woman’s legs,’ he said.

‘The witness challenged him at platform eight and followed him onto the train where he was seen with his hand in his right pocket fidgeting with something. It is thought he was trying to get his phone out to delete the image. The police were called and when the train stopped at Clapham Junction he was arrested. A number of other images were found on the phone.’

Troy told police: ‘Sometimes I wonder, I suppose it’s for sexual gratification, I don’t know, that must be the conclusion.’ He pleaded guilty to an act outraging public decency and was sentenced to 18 weeks’ imprisonment, suspended for two years. Troy was also made subject to an indefinite Sexual Harm Prevention Order (SHPO), which prohibits him taking pictures on public transport. The magistrate, John Newgas, said offences had occurred over a 10-month period, with a range of victims affected.

Troy must also comply with a 35-day designated activity requirement and up to 100 days on a programme chosen by the probation service. ‘This offence is so serious custody is the only option, due to harm and risk,’ added Mr Newgas. ‘A suspended sentence is serious. If you commit an offence within 24 months the sentence could be reactivated. You are on a warning and quite lucky to not be in prison.’ Troy must also pay £85 costs and a £115 victim surcharge. [ Source link ] [20 April 2017] 

By PLC 14 Jul, 2017

A useful website ( http://stylematters.margaretashworth.com , full of editing hints and tips, highlights the gradual demise of traditional subeditors on national and local newspapers by showing, among other things, the blunders arising from unsubbed text.

Subeditors, or subs, are journalists who spruce up, tighten and often rewrite copy submitted by reporters to make it ready for publication and understandable to the readership. Old-style subs who really care about punctuation, spelling and grammar have become rarities, says the website’s founder, Margaret Ashworth, a former Daily Mail sub who worked for the paper for 39 years, in an article in Communicator (istc.org.uk, Spring 2017).

There’s also a fine piece about the changing job roles of editors, subs and writers on former journalist Hugh Dawson’s web page: http://www.tomorrowsnewspapers.co.uk/yesterdays-journalists/4557750139

Here are a few recent examples from our own files that would/should/could have been spotted by subs.

Forgo forgotten : The Times (3 Mar 2017) reports that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo chief executive, has been deprived of her $2million cash bonus for 2016 after 1.5billion customers had their accounts hacked. ‘She has also voluntarily foregone her stock awards worth millions.’ That should be ‘forgone’, from the verb ‘forgo’, meaning to do without. To forego means to go before, as in ‘As stated in the foregoing paragraph’ and ‘foregone conclusion’.

Situations rampant : The Sunday Times (20 Nov 2016) gets into a repetitious tangle with the ‘situation’ of footballer Wayne Rooney: ‘…here was the practical reality of the 31-year-old’s wholly unsatisfactory situation as he faces what looks increasingly like a crisis situation with his club and manager…’.

Tautology 1 : The Times chess column on 10 Feb 2017 says: ‘Starting tomorrow, I shall be covering the best games [from the tournament] in this column. Here is a foretaste of things to come.’ Omit ‘of things to come’.

Tautology 2 : Ann Treneman’s review of the musical Floyd Collins (Times, 30 Sept 2017) shows signs of the kind of hasty copy filing that subs rectify: ‘There is a fantastic pacy number performed by the journalists sent to Kentucky to cover the sensational story. In terms of the cast, Rebecca Trehearn, as Nellie, her voice piercingly clear, is exceptionally good in terms of singing.’ The double ‘in terms of’ is truly woeful in a truly woeful sentence.

Tautology 3 : ‘The only reason why [Major] Booth’s body was identified nine months after his death was because of his engraved MCC cigarette case from England’s tour to South Africa in 1913-14 that was found among his remains.’ In this sentence, ‘reason’ and ‘because’ are doing each other’s job. Omit one of them.

Wrong idiom : ‘For Tara [Palmer-Tomkinson] knew she was desperately ill. While the pituitary tumour, as she was at odds to make clear in our interview, “seemed to have gone away”, a rare auto immune condition ravaged her body.’ (Daily Mail, 9 Feb 2017) For ‘at odds’, which means ‘in opposition to’ or ‘in dispute with’, read ‘at pains’, ie ‘eager’.

Refute versus  deny : ‘Afghan officials accuse her [Captain Niloofar Rahmani) of lying. They have refuted claims that her life is at risk and demanded that the US reject the asylum application.’ (Times, 27 Dec 2016) To refute means to disprove, so here it’s likely that ‘deny’ was meant, since the report gave no evidence for what the officials said.

Oh Laud : In his Times rugby column on 3 Feb 2017, Stuart Barnes writes: ‘In France, more than any other country, the No 9 tends to laud it over the No 10.’ For ‘laud’, which means ‘praise’, read ‘lord’ which means ‘act in a superior way’. As prowling pedants, we try not to lord it over other humble scribes.

Take off and landing : You’d hope an alert sub would notice the incongruity in this sentence about Mary Tyler Moore, comedy actress, in the Daily Mail on 26 Jan 2017: ‘In 1961, Moore’s career began to take off as she landed the role of Laura Petrie, the suburban New York wife.’ 

[6 Mar 2017]  
By PLC 14 Jul, 2017

[29 May 2017] Jargon and officialese remain rampant in West Yorkshire as a local resident discovered after raising concerns with Leeds city council’s highways department, using simple vocabulary and short sentences as follows:

I note that on Holt Lane, there are two main speed humps in the carriageway and separate narrow humps close to the kerb on each side of the road. On Farrar Lane there are only two humps.

I have concerns that the small narrow humps could be potentially dangerous to cyclists who are obliged to ride close to the kerb.

Is the installation of the smaller humps to specification?

Other speed hump installations seen on Spen Lane/Morris Lane between Queenswood Drive and Kirkstall Lane do not have the small kerbside humps. They do however have a wide white painted stripe close to the kerb.

The council’s response, written by an assistant engineer, soon lurched into obscuranto. Students of that strange tongue will note, in particular, the author’s use of ‘vertical feature’ and a fondness for impersonal-passive constructions like ‘it is believed’ and ‘it is acknowledged’, traditionally associated with evading responsibility:

The determination as to when to implement the ‘tear drop’ markings and humps at the side of the speed cushions depends on the width of the carriageway and the need to avoid leaving a gap between kerb and cushion or between cushion and cushion that is wide enough for a vehicle to pass through, but the road is not wide enough to have a three cushion layout as per Holtdale Approach. Farrar Lane is sufficiently narrow enough to require only one cushion within each lane, whereas Holt Lane is wider and the need to provide the additional features is present.

The Council moved away from using just painted areas some time ago, after it was found that drivers soon became aware that these areas could be driven through without experiencing any vertical feature. Whilst the lack of vertical feature is beneficial to cyclists, it was determined that the presence of a vehicle in that space would present a greater danger to cyclists. It was therefore determined that small humps should be used in these situations to prevent drivers from entering this space usually occupied by cyclists. It is acknowledged that the resultant situation does require cyclists to then pass through the same gap between the cushion and smaller hump, however it is believed that this is generally along a similar line to that taken by cyclists and drivers respect the position of the cyclist and will generally wait until past the speed cushion to pass, so as to not cause themselves undue discomfort in driving over the speed cushion incorrectly.

If the city’s highway engineers write like this, there’s little wonder the Leeds inner ring road remains so tortuous.
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