Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random thoughts on 'bites as bad as it barks'

BMW are running an ad for their 2 Series Coupé with this slogan:

Bites as bad as it barks

A certain fifteen-year-old, Albert Gifford, who is making something of a name for himself for taking large companies to task for their grammar, wrote a series of emails to BMW, reprinted in The Daily Mail, complaining that bad wasn't an adverb, and 'so cannot be used in this context'. But is he right?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Confusing words - near, nearby, close, next

Students sometimes get confused when to use near or nearby, near (to) or close to, and nearest or next. Master the differences with these three exercises.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Random thoughts on 'Early Doors'

Seeing the World Cup has just started, it seems a good time to look at an expression whose popularity largely stems from its use by those who write and talk about football - 'early doors'. Here are some examples taken from the online version of football magazine Four Four Two:
We got a good goal early doors, and I thought we were going to stop them scoring, we defended very well.
a side that seems to revel in giving away cheap goals early doors
former Sevilla keeper, Javi Varas, was brought in early doors to give experience in goal.
but those odds went up and up when the team dispensed of Valladolid early doors in what was an eventual 4-2 victory.
At The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms they define 'early doors' as meaning 'early on, especially in a game or contest'. That many of those who don't follow football have been blissfully unaware of this expression (at least until recently) is exemplified in a remark in an article in the political weekly magazine Tribune, from 2002:
He is also fond of the expression "early doors" although, as no one knows what that means, it is not clear if it is relevant.

Tribune, Vol 66 - 2002

So how did this expression originate? Taking my leads from an article by Michael Quinnion at World Wide Words, I decided to see what I could dig up, mainly at Google Books.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Random thoughts on the expression go missing

  • Have you seen the bread knife? It seems to have gone missing.
When we say that something or somebody went or has gone missing, we mean that it or that person (has) disappeared: the thing or person are not where we expect to find them. It is sometimes considered informal, but is often used in the British media to refer to people who have disappeared, especially in time of war and natural disasters etc.
In the past this use was mainly British, but it seems to be being increasingly used in the American media, and not all Americans are happy about it. In fact so many wrote and complained to GrammarGirl about it, that she nominated it her Peeve of the Year for 2007.
Even the BBC are in two minds about it, apparently. Writing in the New York Times in 2004, the late William Safire quoted from their style guide:
Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people, but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince, and they suggest dematerialization, which is rare.
But there doesn't seem to be anything about it in the Guardian or The Economist style guides, nor in the standard usage books.
I decided to have a bit of a closer look.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spelling and pronunciation - making sense of augh and ough

A well-known poem on the difficulties of English pronunciation starts:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, though, and through
And we might say that this applies just as much to spelling. Words with ough and augh are often cited as examples of our 'crazy' spelling system, and it's true that ough can have as many as seven or eight different sounds. But there aren't that many of these words, and they're quite easy to master.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The team are - Collective nouns in British English

'Our team are playing really well today'

That sentence is absolutely standard in British English, but unusual, 'ungrammatical' even, to American ears. The word team denotes a group of people, and is usually referred to as a collective noun. The standard position amongst grammarians and usage guide writers is that you can use either a singular or plural verb with a collective noun.
There is a difference, however, between American and British usage. While Americans will practically always use a singular verb, British speakers will often use a plural verb, something some people find hard to accept.
During the course of a (let's say lively) discussion on this topic on a language forum, I collected quite a lot of quotes from, and links to, various grammar books, style guides and commentators on English, so I thought it might be useful to gather them all here.
In no sense am I trying to persuade people to use plural verbs with collective nouns: that is your choice. My aim here is just to try and convince people that this usage has a long history and is entirely legitimate.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Random thoughts on 'Every little helps'

Recently The Guardian published an article on 'The Bad Grammar Awards', something guaranteed to bring the peevers out of the woodwork. One commenter wrote 'What about "every little helps"? That's not grammatical either.'
"Every little helps" is the current slogan of Tescos, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, and no doubt the commenter thought it was just another example of corporations playing free and easy with the English language, like McDonald's famous 'I'm lovin it' or the daddy of them all - 'Winston tastes like a cigarette should'.
Tescos' slogan had never particularly bothered me, perhaps because I had a funny feeling that this expression had been around rather longer than since Tescos started using it.
Admittedly it's rather difficult to analyse grammatically. Yes, you can have a little, but that's usually considered a pronoun rather than a noun, and you can't have two littles, so can you have every little? I suppose if I'd thought about it I would have seen it as an ellipsis of 'Every little bit counts'.
Let's imagine, however, that rather than a modern advertising slogan 'every little helps' was an old idiom or proverb; would people really be worrying about its grammaticality then, I wonder?