Monthly Archives: April 2013

Sunday book review: English Pronouncing Dictionary

Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary
Daniel Jones (revised by A.C. Gimson)


The other day Joeri asked me a question: “am I pronouncing ‘either’ properly?” Yes, I said, because he was. He was saying ‘eether’. Then he followed up with a second question: “so it’s not ‘either’ then?” Yes, I said, because it is. He was saying ‘eyether’. He looked confused and I couldn’t explain it to him.

So when I saw an old edition (1977) of Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary at my new favourite second hand English bookshop, I couldn’t resist.

This is the first pronouncing dictionary I’ve ever owned and, I have to say, it makes me feel super clever. Open it up on any page, and you find yourself looking at a bunch of semi-recognizable letters that make absolutely no sense. I took a deep breath, wondering if it was just a bit too complicated for me. But after reading the very interesting and nicely written introduction, I was ready to tackle some of the trickiest words around: moustache was my first stop, controversy my second.

Written in 1917, the first edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary ‘described the type of pronunciation recorded as “that most usually heard in everyday speech. In the families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding-schools.”‘ This led to the name Public School Pronunciation (PSP), which was updated to Received Pronunciation (RP) in the 1937 edition.

The editor of the Fourteenth edition notes that society – and pronunciation – has moved on since these terms were created and, with no clear separation between classes, education and accent, PSP is certainly a thing of the past. The RP, the standard pronunciation used by BBC newsreaders at the time the book was written (1979), is applied in the book, with less common pronunciations indicated throughout.

After reading about the history of standard pronunciation and earlier editions of the book, I studied the notation. The characters are all familiar, but many are oddly positioned – an upside-down e here, a strangely wide u there. Even a brief look at the grid of notations equipped me to flick through a few pages and recognize the pronunciation of some recognizable, simple words. And what about either?

According to this 1977 edition of the Dictionary, either is pronounced ‘eyether’ (although not written like this… My keyboard is not equipped to show you how it really looks). A second, perfectly acceptable but less often used pronunciation appears in square brackets: [‘eether’].


Both are correct. And I do use both, depending on how the word sounds within a sentence and how much empasis I want to put on it.

So far, I’ve managed to waste at least 90 minutes flicking through this lovely book and testing my pronunciation against the norm. Endless entertainment, if slightly outdated in its context. I would say this is a great addition to any bookshelf. It’s now sitting neatly next to my OED.


Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary, Fourteenth Edition
Daniel Jones
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1977

Mixing up affect and effect can affect the effect of your message

Sometimes the English language is just mean. It gives us two words that have connected meanings and only one letter difference.

Like affect and effect.

When you’re talking you can sort of get away with this one – speak fast enough with your hand over your mouth and nobody will notice if you make a mistake. In the case of affect and effect, I think we’ve actually invented a new letter that has a sound somewhere between ‘a’ and ‘e’. But rather than invent a new letter (which, admittedly, would be fun) I’d like to give everyone a nifty way of remembering which word to use when.

First, let’s understand what the difference is. (And before everyone starts jumping up and down, I’m talking about the common, modern usage of the two words, not the less commonly used definitions or archaic meanings. There are many of them, after all.)

Affect is a verb. To affect something means to produce an effect on it.

Effect is a noun. It means a result.

The simplest way to remember which is which is that you can affect an effect – a comes before e in the alphabet. But it’s always better to have a picture in your mind, so how about this:


Image courtesy of davidhofmann08

Raven. Remember: affect verb, effect noun.

Lovely, isn’t it? The simple ones always are. I’ve remembered this for years without trying.

But just for fun, I Googled ‘affect effect mnemonic’. I must admit, it’s made me feel a bit stupid. All this talk of aardvarks being butchered with sharp sticks… I don’t think that’s going to help me at all. One website even suggests that you can remember what affect means because it sort of rhymes with infect. Really.

This has inspired me to find the best and worst mnemonics ever. Any suggestions? Add them to the comments below, email me at, or Tweet me at @LucyGoodchild. We could pull together a great collection, and maybe give out a few awards.

Anyway, back to affect and effect… all sorted? Raven. The important point is that people really notice this in writing. It pops out of the page/screen/phone when I see this mistake, and it’s so very common. It makes me discount whatever the author is trying to say.

If we all just think about ravens, maybe we’ll all make sure we get this right. (And if you find something better than my raven, please share it… they’re not the prettiest of animals.)

First impressions last

Have you ever rolled your eyes when an email popped in? Assumed something is junk mail on the basis of the poor English in the subject line? Or made a judgment about a person or a company because of the first impression they made with their email?

Email subject lines are important. They are easy to get right. And they are so often messed up.

This isn’t a blog post about how to write effective email subject lines – there’s plenty of that on the internet. This is about how to avoid five common mistakes that affect the first impression you make electronically.

Full of typos

When you’re firing off a million emails a day, it’s easy to make spelling errors. It’s also easy to identify them, thanks to the lovely red squiggly lines we all appreciate deeply. Unfortunately, subject lines of emails don’t afford us that luxury.

‘Check out this new atricle about scniece’

One way to eliminate these errors is to write the subject line in the email body or in Word first to check it. However, this won’t pick up the best typos: when the mistakes create actual words – like ‘best’ to ‘bets’. My favourite ever email subject line went something like this:

‘New research has impact on pubic policy’


Tip: check carefully for typos – especially the invisible kind.

Badly punctuated

There is no excuse to omit an apostrophe in an email subject line. It baffles me how often people fail to punctuate their subject lines properly. And simply because they are short and not covered by the standard spell check service as the main body of the email. That’s laziness.

‘Biziorek, Wed like to welcome you back to Kaiser Permanente’

In this example, provided by Travis Biziorek, the company Kaiser has missed the apostrophe in we’d. The result is jarring, unprofessional and annoying.

Another thing with noting about this is the capital letter of ‘Wed’. Presumably this is the result of the recipient’s surname being automatically entered into the subject line, and the person responsible for the text probably thought it looked more acceptable starting with ‘W’ in the absence of the name.

Tip: check your subject line carefully for correct punctuation.

Too complicated (and wrong)

People notice when your grammar is wrong. Some people will tell you: Matt Korostoff is a man I can relate to. On this forum, he politely informs Bibucket that the subject line of one of their automated emails is grammatically incorrect, because ‘I thought you would like to know.’ Thumbs up to Matt, and thumbs up to Zach Davis from Bitbucket, who responds ‘Thanks Matt… this will definitely be changing (to the “You have been granted…” form, if you’re curious)…’

The subject line of the original email was: ‘You have hereby been granted write access to organization-name/repo-name.’

When I read this the word ‘hereby’ jumps out at me. Why? It’s unnecessary. It’s old-fashioned. It’s almost certainly grander than it needs to be.

Tip: treat your subject line like any other sentence. Read it aloud. If it sounds wrong it probably is wrong.


These days we don’t all boot up a desktop computer to read our emails. Between smartphones, tablets and pop-up notifications, email subject lines get squeezed and distorted in all sorts of ways. You really have to think about this when writing them, as pointed out by Bill Lampton, PhD on this Business Know-How blog:

‘When I received my copy of the New York Times online, the title of one article was supposed to read: “No one sure what will happen to Ken Lay’s assets.” Because the title was too long to fit the allotted space, the ETS got cut from ASSETS.’

Tip: cut your subject line in different places to make sure it makes sense, makes an impact and doesn’t make anyone giggle.


Groupon’s got this one in the bag:

‘Father’s Day deals for the man who gave birth to you’

Tip: it’s always best not to say something completely stupid in your subject line. If you’re unsure about what you’re saying, ask a colleague/friend/sanity checker to read it before you hit send.

It’s pretty simple – just pay attention and pause before you send. Read the subject line. If it’s bad, it will make you look bad. And if it’s the start of a long exchange of emails, it could wind up making you look bad repeatedly.

From now on, if I receive an email with a subject line that falls under one of the categories I’ve listed here, I’ll correct it. Will you?

Sunday book review: The Deeper Meaning of Liff

The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

Pan-32220 Adams & Lloyd Deeper Meaning of Liff

Liff (n.)
A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

This year, the wonderful Meaning of Liff and I share a milestone birthday. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of a sequel to this masterpiece 30 years after the first edition. So it seemed like a good time to read the version on my bookshelf again in anticipation.

Written by the unstoppable duo Douglas Adams (if you haven’t read the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy of five, you are missing out on some magic) and John Lloyd (QI creator), The Deeper Meaning of Liff is a hilarious dictionary-style book that assigns meanings to place names.

In the preface of the original book, The Meaning of Liff (1983), Adams and Lloyd explain: ‘Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep…’

In the extended 1990 version I read, this leads to a brilliantly funny back-and-forth between the two authors, played out through each edition of the book released between 1983 and 1990. Undoubtedly the best preface I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it is a wonderful indication of their great partnership – one that results in unstoppable giggling.

The book begins with a series of maps – one for each letter of the alphabet. At first it seems that they intend to show the locations of the place names featured in the book. But the more you turn pages, the more you see they are comically skewed, squashed and manipulated, reflecting some of the ridiculous diagrammatic representations of simple things we see on a daily basis. My personal favourite is P – a grid of one square wide by three tall, with coordinates A1, B1 and C1. In A1 is an image of the UK, B1 shows the whole planet, and C1 Australia. Place names starting with P are assigned grid coordinates.

The main part of the book is set out like a dictionary – alphabetically, with recognizable abbreviations describing the words. All the words are place names (mostly in the UK but some further afield) and have been assigned meanings that do not yet have a word. The meanings give a wonderful insight into every day life and personal experiences we don’t often discuss.

Here are a few that I think we should try to get into the OED:

Abilene (adj.)
Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

Albacete (n.)
A single surprisingly long hair growing in the middle of nowhere.

Lingle (vb.)
To touch battery terminals with one’s tongue.

The meanings sometimes come from the feeling you get from a word, or its sound or to the place itself. It’s fun to find places you know whose meanings really reflect your experience:

Bude (n.)
A polite joke reserved for use in the presence of vicars.

Farnham (n.)
The feeling that you get at about four o’clock in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff is packed full of toilet humour:

Riber (n.)
The barely soiled sheet of toilet paper which signals the end of the bottom-wiping process.

There are many ways to read a book like this. You could dip in and out, use the maps as a guide, look up the places you’ve visited, or search by subject in the index. I read it cover to cover. I think that makes the illustrations even more delightful – springing up every now and again to add more description to a few selected words.


Glenwhilly (n.)
(Scots) A small tartan pouch worn beneath the kilt during the thistle-harvest.

(Incidentally, the illustrator, Bert Kitchen, is responsible for a brilliant appendix. It’s a drawing of the internal organs, pointing out the appendix. Funny, clever and educational.)

When I say I read the book cover to cover, that includes the index. I’m pretty sure it’s the only index I’ve read in its entirety. This entry for legs explains why:

extremely unwelcome things up. Scrabster
false, improvised: Ludlow
things not underneath: High Limerigg
things underneath: Hucknall
unwelcome things down: Wimbledon
unwelcome things on: Pollock
unwelcome things up: Affpuddle
useless: Clun
welcome things up: Burwash

This book is inspired and inspiring. It’s funny, witty, extremely well planned and beautifully executed. 30 years after the first edition, it remains relevant and original. This wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Now. As of today, there are 109 days until August, when the next iteration of this masterpiece is set to be published. According to The Guardian, ‘Over the last decade, QI founder John Lloyd has been “patiently squirrelling away” new examples to create Afterliff, which will also include contributions from Adams’s daughter Polly Adams and his old friend novelist Jon Canter.’

Needless to say I can’t wait!


The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Pan Books, London, 1990; ISBN 0-330-31606-0

The improtance of proof reading: how to choose your sanity checker

How did that headline make you feel about me and this blog? Disappointed? Angry? Slightly smug?

You’re running the risk of people thinking bad things about you and your product/company/brand by failing to proof read your text effectively. It’s not something you can do yourself, so you’ll need to choose a sanity checker.

Would you pay £12 to be taken to St Pancreas? (I think I might… it sounds like a terrifying adventure.) Thanks to Nico (@nfanget) for the photo!

Whenever I’m planning to issue a press release, send out an email campaign or post an important form, I call on one of my sanity checkers to read the text and identify typos. (They earn the name as a result of my reaction to them finding errors: ‘I must be mad to have missed that!’)

I said sanity checkers plural – that’s important. People have to have holidays. People get sick. They don’t all work in your office and live in your house. And if, like me, you produce a lot of writing, you can’t expect one person to check every word.

Choosing your sanity checkers can be tricky, so here are my top tips.

1. Look for attention to detail. It’s no use choosing someone who doesn’t notice typos. See number 2.
2. Test them. Plant a few typos, wrongly placed apostrophes, double spaces. See if they notice.
3. Don’t choose your co-writer/editor. Your sanity checker should not be familiar with the text you ask them to check. That’s the easiest way to miss mistakes.
4. Pick someone who won’t show off. There’s nothing worse than haughtiness in a proof reader.
5. Pick someone honest. It’s pointless having a sanity checker who’s too shy or polite to tell you about typos.
6. Go for a native speaker. In an ideal world, they will be checking their natural language, making it easier for them to spot mistakes.
7. Make sure they can work MS Word. Like it or not, we write using Word. So make sure they understand how to track changes.
8. Check that they follow instructions. You don’t want endless comments and suggestions on your style of writing and argument structure at proofing stage.
9. Favour convenience. Yes, it’s easy to work with someone in Mongolia thanks to the internet. But is it convenient? If you need quick feedback, choose someone who’s awake at the same time of day as you.

What do you look for in a sanity checker?

Pull yourself together – the abuse of reflexives

If you’ve ever worked in an office or business environment, you have invariably heard any number of abuses of the English language (see this hilarious article from Forbes on business speak).

But the thing that really makes me burn – the mistake that’s more bafflingly annoying than all the rest – is the flagrant misuse of reflexives.

Does this ring a bell?
‘We received the price list from yourselves on Monday.’

How about this?
‘It’s a product sold by ourselves.’

Oh dear. Here’s what Partridge has to say about the matter:

Myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. There is a tendency to employ these pronouns where the simple I (or me), you, she (or her), he (or him), it, we (or us), you, they (or them) are sufficient. The self forms are either reflexives, as in ‘I hurt myself’ or emphatic additions, as in ‘He himself did not know’.

(Usage and Abusage, p.199.)

One of the examples of misuse Partridge provides is heard all too often in today’s offices: ‘He sent the inquiry to yourself.’

It should be: ‘He sent the inquiry to you.’ (Or, even better, ‘he sent you the inquiry.’)

Fowler considers this use of reflexive pronouns ‘questionable’ and ‘beyond reproach’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, p.510.) Yes, reflexives have an air of officialdom about them. Shoving them into otherwise simple sentence makes the speaker sound, well, more official. Only that’s not the case at all – it makes the speaker sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. It makes them sound like they’re glossing. The misuse of ‘ourselves’ and ‘yourselves’ is an attempt to over-decorate language, and it doesn’t work.

In technical terms, words like ‘myself’ are used if the object of the sentence: ‘I hurt myself.’ (Someone (subject) hurt something (object).)

If you want to refer to ‘us’ or ‘you’ or ‘me’, try using those simpler words before you resort to ‘ourselves’ or ‘yourselves’ or ‘myself’. Does it sound right? Then it is right.

Fortunately, this practice hasn’t yet crept too far into written communications. So we still have time to pull ourselves together (yes, that’s ok) before it’s too late.

Sunday book review: Origins of the Specious

This is the first of a weekly book review post – if you’ve got any suggestions please share them!

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman

Origins of the Specious
sets the record straight on some common misconceptions about the English language. It’s so good, it actually made me angry.


If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the sight of a word with a ‘z’ where there ought to be an ‘s’ (“look at all these Americanisms… it’s just not proper English!”), tells the joyful tale of how Thomas Crapper, toilet mogul, lent his name to the act (“before that they didn’t have a rude word for it”), and gets hot under the collar when people mispronounce niche (“It’s NEESH!”), then prepare to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and slightly cross. It’s never nice when someone shows you how wrong you are.

Authors Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman pair up again, after writing You Send Me and running the popular website (which you should definitely visit). O’Conner is the bestselling author of several books on the English language, including Woe is I. A former editor at the New York Times, O’Conner has written for many outlets over the years, and it shows. Her engaging, clear, readable, witty style makes sailing through her books a breeze. Written in her voice, Origins is no exception.

I read the paperback version of the book and, while I’m a big advocate of the idea that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I do want to comment on it. The book is delightfully floppy. It’s nice to hold, which makes its page-turning quality even more enjoyable. And the cover itself is vibrant and eye-catching. Dead easy to locate on my bookshelf.

Origins of the Specious addresses several misconceptions, concluding that:

  • The common contention of the British that American spelling is ruining the language is misguided: American spelling is often closer to the original English. Same goes for pronunciation
  • The assertion of some old-school grammarians that you shouldn’t split infinitives, and any number of other rules, is outdated. Language evolves. And you can start a sentence with ‘And’
  • Sometimes incorrect English falls into common use, becoming acceptable (think ‘ain’t’ and double negatives)
  • The origins of some of our best swear words aren’t as fun as you think (ship high in transport; kunda; Thomas Crapper – all wrong)
  • You don’t just sound a bit silly if you throw a lot of French phrases into your speech – you’re probably using phrases made of French words that the English invented

I could go on, but that would spoil the surprise.

One of my favourite sections of the book is all about plurals; specifically Latin versus Greek word endings. Have you ever stumbled over how to refer to the octopus when you want to talk about more than one of them? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people plump hopefully for ‘octopi’. Incorrect. The authors explain delightfully that this common mistake is down to the Latinists, who replaced all the Greek word endings with Latin ones (octopi instead of octopodes, or octopuses as is now accepted; gymnasia instead of gymnasiums; syllabi instead of syllabuses), happily making them sound pompous. Incidentally, this section also helped me calm down a bit about paninis. (“Would you refer to a piece of spaghetti as a spaghetto?” – p185.)

This is one of the most entertaining romps through language I’ve had in a long time. It’s beautifully written, hilariously funny and at times unbelievably shocking. That’s what makes it so good – it makes you question yourself, your own beliefs about the language. It’s brilliantly researched (although reaching the notes section at page 205 of 266 made me feel sad that I hadn’t prepared myself for the end) and expertly executed.

I highly recommend this book. It’s on my list of books to read for a second time.

Origins of the Specious
Random House, New York, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-8129-7810-0

Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

There are some important things to say about enable and allow – two words involved in one of the most common mistakes made in business communication. For starters:

They are different words with different meanings.

This might seem simple enough, but it is being disregarded left, right and centre in the world of business. How many times have you seen an advert that promises ‘this new thing allows you to be happier/richer/taller than ever before’? Allows? No.

Allow is another way of saying permit. Your parents allow you to stay up late at the weekend. Your boss allows you to leave the office early.

Enable is defined as providing with the means or opportunity. A mobile phone enables you to talk on the move. A blog enables you to rant about bad grammar.

Quite different. The problem is that they get mixed up all the time. A new product doesn’t give you permission to do something. It might help you do something, or facilitate that action (i.e. enable) but it doesn’t give you permission (i.e. allow). I’ll say it again:

They are different words with different meanings.

But if it’s truly too difficult to select the appropriate word, there is an alternative – a word that is a synonym for enable and allow: let. Let means permit and facilitate – and it’s nice and simple.

So if you can’t decide whether to use enable or allow, use let instead. Maybe we should all use it anyway, it’s far more straightforward.