S. J. Farthing



The language people use gives rise to much emotive comment. We feel strongly about it. Perhaps it isn't surprising when language is a big part of what makes us human, and the nature of the language we use tells people a lot about each other.

The alleged incorrect use of English often gives rise to angry comments and it is particularly evident on the BBC, for example Radio 4. Typical issues are split infinitives, incorrect use of singulars and plurals in the use of verbs, and how to use the word 'different'. Many people learnt strict rules at school. Older people were led to believe that nobody had any future in employment it they broke these rules. Perhaps that was partially true at one time. I think what they find annoying is when people do achieve high position without using English correctly, and the higher the position of the offender, the worse it is.

These issues have traditionally only applied to the spoken word. Until very recently any written work would be revised and corrected by a properly trained linguist before publication.


Historic poster from old school at Tyneham

This can be very emotive and even if people do not visibly react to a person's pronunciation, they will always form some opinion of the speaker. It is a tribal thing.

I am acutely aware of this because I was born and brought up in the North of England, which is where I learnt to speak, but I now live in the South. The principal differences are in the pronunciation of the letters u (for example in Hull), and a (for example in 'class').


I have heard the expression 'put up or shut up' with a different pronuciation of the letter u in all 3 cases. The northern way of speaking is entirely consistent. The illustrated chart here from an old schools shows 'tub' and 'push' pronounced with a different u. A northern person would use the version of 'push' in both cases. Actually the Yorkshire town of Hull is a good example. If we can attempt to mimic local names for Bombay and Peking then perhaps we should pronouce Hull the way the natives do!

It gets worse, because it is difficult for a northerner to change the pronuciation of 'u' to the southern way, because in the South it is pronounced differently in different words, and having previously pronounced all such occurances of 'u' the same, we don't know which is which. When northerners try to do this they retain their consistency, but translate all the northern u's (as in 'put') to the 'u' of 'shut'. Again, there was a cabinet minister from the North East who continually spoke this way and it sounds awful. Alan Milburn I think.

You might think that when oo is pronounced as in book that, at least, would be consistent, but note the southern pronunciation of blood!


An ad for John Smiths beer said 'Class in a glass'. Well these two words rhyme whether you use northern or southern pronunciation, but they differ. On the other hand the word 'mass' is pronounced differently in the south. In the North, all three words rhyme with mass. We are not the only ones. There are at least some people in the continent of North America who pronounce these words in the northern way. Listen to the Carpenters' song "Calling occupants of interplanetary craft". Karen Carpenter pronounces the word beautifully and perfectly!


It is interesting that all the way up the west side of England and Scotland the letter r is pronounced where it appears, but it is not always pronouced in the eastern parts of the country. For example, in the west the r would be pronounced in carve, but not in calve. The names Foster and Forster would be pronounced differently. There is something similar in America. Actors who try to put on a west country accent will often add an r sound where no r is present, for example in 'idea'.

I too sometimes have a prejudice against certain pronunciations, and sometimes this is entirely illogical. Many regional pronunciations can be justified. The Irish pronounce the 'th' differently, as for example in 'three fellers' rather like 'tree fellers' (there's a joke). Who is to say which is right. Actually the Irish DO pronounce the 'h' so as to distinguish between 'three' and 'tree'. Certain regions in the Midlands and North West would pronounce the g in 'singer' as if to rhyme with 'finger'. The rest of us do not approve, but actually which is the more logical? However there is a similar pronunciation which I do not like, and that is where the letter 'k' is heard in words where there is no 'k' present, for example in 'something', and often particularly manifests in 'something Kelse'! I always regarded this as a sign of lowliness of the speaker, but there was a recent education minister who pronounces this way. Then there is 'else' itself. Sometimes pronounced 'eltz'. You can combine the two. Sommink eltz. Yuk.

Aristocratic pronunciation

There are certain people who seem to take a pride in using a kind of slurred pronunciation as a badge of superiority. It is as if taking the trouble to pronouce certain consonants is thought to be demeaning and too much trouble for someone of their elevated station, rather like putting petrol on one's own car. "I have a man to do that sort of thing". A good example is the word 'power'. I would pronounce it with two syllables pow-er, but there are some who pronounce it something like 'pa'. Another word 'often' is similar and might be pronounce rather like 'orphan'. The word 'fulfill' often omits the first 'l'. Well we all have our faults, but what bothers me is that such people have got it wrong, but seem to be saying they are so superior that they must be right, and it is the rest of us who are wrong.

Of course there are other examples ot missing consonants and even syllables. Place names often provide such examples, and there is a whole goldmine of them in nautical speak, such as 'focsle' for forecastle and 'bosun' for boatswain.

Incorrect spelling even in speech!

Every time I hear somebody pronounce "nuclear" as "nucular" I want to shoot them. There is no way you can justify it by by saying there are legitimate variations in pronouncing the individual letters. Quite often they are people who should know better. You would think that if a television presenter is going to present a programme on nuclear issues he would at least take the trouble to find out how to pronounce the most important word in the programme. The BBC have a pronunciation unit which advises people on difficult words like foreign names. We even had the President of the United States consistently making the error for ten years. Doesn't he have advisors who can tactfully point out the error of his ways, or is this a "king's new clothes" phenomenon?

I once saw a news report at the time when there were demonstrations outside a school in Northern Ireland. The school was called "Holy Cross". The presenter stood in front of the school sign and referred to school as "Holly Cross". This was a professional presenter chosen, not for his mathematical skills, but for his ability to speak. Is nothing sacred?

Incorrect spelling in song!

I can think of about three examples without trying too hard. The oldest and most glaring error I know is in Louis Armstrong's singing of "High Society":
"High - so - ci - O - tee".

Another example is Rod Stewart singing "elegence" very clearly in one of his songs.

It's a dead give-away. You might think that you can speak and sing without being able to spell. Not always so!

Italian Pronunciation

I had the opportunity to learn a little basic Italian and was impressed by the great consistency throughout the language in the way letters are pronounced. This is probably because Italian is a very modern language and formed almost by design from the best parts of a number of related regional languages. I would guess that the Italians do not have so much trouble with spelling as we do. As a general principle every letter is pronounced when it appears in a word. Even when a consonant is doubled the word is pronounced to linger a bit longer on the sound of it to show the doubling.

More about doubled letters

You can sometimes hear the effect of doubled letters in english too, in words like "appear", and I have noticed the same sort of thing still more evident in some Welsh speakers.

It is strange that the word Britannia is spelt with one t and two n's, and yet it is derived from "bregane" the french word for Brittany which is spelt with two t's and one n. No wonder spelling and pronunciation in English gives so much difficulty.


Actually my spelling is not bad at all, but I would like to defend bad spelling this way. We have come to believe that the written version of a word is the definitive one, and that is then translated into a spoken form. In reality, language always begins with the spoken word and the written form is merely an attempt to portray the sound by the use of a written word. Early writers such as Shakespeare spelt quite differently from the way we do now, and were not always consistent. Somewhere along the way the linguists have specified what they think is the correct spelling. I wonder why the word 'gauge' is spelt that way. Is it because some early writer spelt it that way wrongly, and it has become accepted as correct?

In my own writing I sometimes deliberately choose to use MY spelling for a word. (This is about as audacious and militant as I ever get!). On my English Music web site I have chosen to spell the word "ceilidh" as "ceili" very consistently throughout. Elsewhere I might use the words guage and til. Interestingly, although "until" has only one L, and "til" is clearly a shorter version, it is not in the dictionary. The Oxford dictionary allows either "till" or "'til", i.e. with an apostrophe.

Computer programming allows the freedom to define one's own names for things, (identifiers) and there is no rule about correct spelling, so a programmer can have more freedom in spelling words the way he likes, but consistency is crucial.


There are a great many cases where people confuse the past tense of a verb with the past participle. E.g. "I did it" versus "I have done it". Some people make the error one way, and others make the error the other way. For example people might say "I drunk some water" which should be 'drank'. Others might say "I had forgot his name". These errors seem to be regional and usually people are blissfully unaware of their error. It is particularly irritating when someone uses an expression like 'you was'. The reason is that the error is so elementary and so glaring. It is one of the most easy things to get right. The word YOU is very very rarely (almost never?) followed but the word WAS. Any intelligent person hearing YOU WAS should be instantly alerted to an error. (Mr Sugar, Sir?). An example of a rare exception is "what happened to you was this..."

I must admit there are some past tenses and past participles where I find it difficult to know instantly which is correct (though it is usually possible to work it out). The verb 'to spin' provides an example.


The incorrect plurality of the verb, not matching the subject.

Should we say 'The government IS' or 'The government ARE'? I think both can be justified in different situations. Technically you should not say 'The government are', but what you are doing is using an abbreviation for 'The members of the government ARE'. Consider 'The government are waving their hands in the air'. A government does not have hands so it would be absurd to say 'The government is waving its hands in the air'

Another example is "sixty seconds have elapsed". I would contend that (although the former is more natural) "sixty seconds has elapsed" is OK because it is short for saying "a sixty second period has elapsed".

Those words of latin origin and their plurals.

In english we usually add an S to form a plural, but this is not the case in other languages, notably Latin, and most linguists believe that when a latin word is used the latin plural should be used also. Examples, maximum/maxima. Perhaps the worst infringements occur with the word 'criteria'. This is the plural of 'criterion', but is often used as the singular, for example, 'there is just one criteria which matters'. This is unforgiveable, because it is pseudo intellectual. Using the word criteria in the right way should indicate an educated speaker, but using it instead of 'criterion' shows two simultaneous errors and it seems that the speaker is not only blissfully unaware of his ignorance, but believes he is being 'smart' to use the clever word 'criteria' normally used by the intelligent.

"Phenomenon" is another similar word.


Writing the symbols for half, three quarters etc is very difficult in typed text, not to mention such terms as one and a half. Fortunately we can write a half as 1/2. This is entirely logical because / is the symbol for division and a half is 1 divided by 2. The problem comes with something like one and a half. If you write 1 1/2 the meaning is not clear, and could be confused with eleven stroke two or 11 divided by 2. The answer is to write it as 1+1/2. This is reasonably close to the normal symbol for one and a half, but more importantly it is mathematically correct too. One plus a half. Some typewriters had symbols for a half, quarter and three quarters and they probably exist in an extended character set for the PC, but using this method allows any complex fraction to be written in simple inline text, for example 2+3/8 etc.

We sometimes see the expression 24/7 meant to be read aloud as 'twentyfour seven' and meaning 24 hours and 7 days a week. Open all hours. The problem is that / is the symbol for division, and 24/7 intends no concept of division of 24 by 7. Indeed multiplication is implied. It would be more logical to use 24*7 but people would have to get used to it.

Text speak and the use of numbers

Sorry, but I really don't like the use of numbers to mean words in expressions like Phones4U and Up2You. I know that in sending text messages it can be much easier if abbreviations are used. Personally I never use 4 to mean 'for', and never use 2 to mean 'to', but will sometimes use 2 for 'too' as in 'I love you 2'. (But that can be an unfortunate freudian slip).

In text messages I can tolerate it, but in the case of trade names I get very suspicious of any business who uses numbers this way in their business name and I AVOID THEM. It has done me no harm!

In the case of domain names (for web sites)... well it's a bit more forgiveable because the version in words might be unavailable, and the use of numbers can serve to separate words when no spaces are allowable.

Logical use of language.

I am sometimes surprised and pleased that language sometimes acknowledges mathematical principles. In maths we distinguish between things which are countable and not countable, even if both are infinite. We use different language for countable things. Words like amount or number. It is regarded as bad english to talk about an amount of people for example. Where people are concerned, somehow the need to use the correct form is more important. It is something to do with respect. Saying something like 'there was a large amount of people in the crowd' sounds as if you could specify the amount of people by giving the total weight rather than the total number.

There is a whole set of words which are used for countable things, and an equivalent set of words used for uncountable things.

Some animal words which are the same in the singular as the plural, such as fish, sheep, deer, and even sometimes elephant. This seems to be related to how you view the group of animals, i.e. not as individual entities, and such language seems similar to the above.

There seems to be something vague in language about the use of "and" and "or", and their use does not always agree with the use of "and" and "or" in logic.

Statements of the form "Everybody doesn't go shopping on Sunday" do not say what they intend, i.e. "Not everybody goes shopping on Sunday"!

This is vaguely connected with De Morgan's Theorem which is a theorem of logic which states:
not (A and B) = (not A) or (not B).

The Whole Truth

"I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". Well "the truth" and "nothing but the truth" are both clear enough. but what does "the whole truth" mean?. Do people think it means "wholly the truth"? If so it is the same as "nothing but the truth". How do you decide what is the whole truth. When do you know that what you have told is all there is to say. You would have to describe every detail of everything you knew.

It would not matter if we were talking about casual informal conversation, but this is meant to be a solemn oath in court, and backed by threat of prosecution. You would think the legal profession would get their logic and their language right.

Twice as slow etc

The problem with expressions like 'twice as slow' and 'twice as cheap' is that we are not quite sure what they mean, and yet such expressions are often used by people purporting to give serious statistics. If it is to mean anything precise at all, 'twice as slow' must mean exactly the same as 'half as fast'. We are talking reciprocals. However there is another interpretation. Driving at 60mph on a single carriageway road is not slow at all. It has a slowness count of zero, so if you were to go twice as slowly you would still be going at 60mph.


What does it mean to say something is 'twice as hot'? The answer is, probably nothing. There is only ONE true scientific meaning, that is the temperature is based on the abslolute temperature scale, starting at -273 degrees centigrade. In reality when people use such an expression they are probably talking about the temperature in degrees centigrade. You can forgive such language in everyday language, but I noticed that in the BBC programme "Walking With Monsters" they showed different periods of ancient history and screen captions showed things like "The temperature was 20% higher than present".

Then there is the question, what does it mean to say something is twice as cold?


We were taught at school that you must not say VERY UNIQUE and I agree. It is because the state of uniqueness is absolute and so cannot be diminished and needs no very. I disagree however that you cannot say almost unique, because something almost unique is NOT unique and so can be subject to degrees on near uniqueness. Actually the term 'almost infinite' is probably used more freely even by serious educated people, and yet mathematically the term is impossible. In numerical terms any number which is not infinite, however large, is still vastly smaller than infinity. You could double it or multiply it by a million and it would still be nowhere near infinite! Nevertheless there is a sense in which 'almost infinite' has some meaning. It is where we can think of no practical distinction between the large number and infinity, in so far as it affects us. For example, "There is no point in abandoning part of our sea defences to allow some of the sea to be absorbed. The amount of sea water is almost infinite".

The words 'perfect' and 'possible' are similar to 'unique', but somehow there seem to be qualifying words acceptable for 'perfect' which are not acceptable for 'unique'. 'Very perfect' is questionable, but not as bad as 'very unique'. I suppose it is because perfection is somewhat relative and not quite so absolute as uniqueness. Perfection is never actually achieved, whereas uniqueness is.

There are abundant examples of absolutes in the case of negatives. 'Impossible' for example.

By Definition

Sloppy use of the expression 'by definition' really irritates me. I was trained in mathematics where the expression is sometimes invoked in a piece of logical reasoning such as a mathematical proof. When used in this way it MUST be used accurately. Careless speakers will often say it just to add weight to their argument, or to pad out their speech, or to make themselves sound erudite. Here is an example.

"The BBC are, by definition, highly respected throughout the world." - WRONG!

"The BBC are, by definition, a broadcasting organisation." - CORRECT!

Different From

The old school rule was to always say 'different from' and never 'different to' or 'different than'. The strictness of this has reduced now in modern speech even to the extent that hardly anybody says 'different from' any more, with "different to" being more common in England. There seems to be a difference in the USA. They say 'different than' a lot. I think there is some mistake in insisting on always saying 'different from', but nevertheless I always do, and I think it is preferable. 'From' inplies separation whereas 'to' implies togetherness. If we think about the usage of the opposite word, 'similar' we always say 'similar to' and never 'similar from' etc.

'Different from' is SAFE, and avoids misunderstandings. Consider the following: 'Chalk and cheese are more different than chocolate and cheese.'

Ever-changing language.

Words gradually shift in meaning. It is informative to look at the etymology of a word, but care should be taken not to use a word to intend its original historic meaning.

We should accept that the meanings of words might have changed considerably. On the other hand there is a balance to be struck and it is a good idea to keep in mind the original meaning to provide a slightly different emphasis.

Some words were starting to change around the time I was born. Probably the words fabulous, fantastic and incredible were so. My first understanding of the word 'ignorant' was to mean 'rude' and I think most people took it to mean that. School teachers would call children 'impertinent' to mean 'impudent'. It was a long time before I knew the real meaning of either word.

I have seen other words change in meaning within my lifetime.

The latest word to have changed is immigration and immigrant. People especially politicians are using the words migration and migrant in their place. The original terms have developed a pejorative quality, their replacements have a somewhat different meaning. Migration suggests "coming and going" but the word migration is often used where the more specific immigration is clearly the intended meaning. This usage is an attempt to stress that there is nothing wrong with migration, hence their use by politicians who advocate immigration.


Under construction


We use euphemisms all the time. Sometimes to replace the coarse four-letter anglo-saxon words, or sometimes to replace milder language which nevertheless refers to something which CAN be unpleasant.

The problem with a euphemism is that when it is first introduced it gives an acceptable image to an unpleasant concept, but after a time the word itself becomes tainted with its euphemistic meaning and cannot be used in its normal way without that association.

There is a debate about whether we should use the words lavatory or toilet. Some say the former is the correct one, but actually BOTH are euphemisms. Lavatory means wash house and toilet refers to dressing. It is even difficult to think of a correct word for this place. The only word I can think of is latrine, but this has connotations of military or communal use and is mostly used by zoologists for an area used by animals.

Terms of abuse

There is a debate in the media about the use of those coarse four-letter anglo-saxon words. We know what they are. For example there are questions about when these words should be used on television dramas, or in interviews and chat shows. My view is that they should certainly be allowable when they have their intended and true meaning. (Actually this is hardly ever the case). The expression "term of abuse" says it all. The problems arise when they are used simply as an expletive. Actually even this word "expletive" is a bit too mild. The dictionary says it is a word introduced merely to make up a required quantity. Not bad.


People seem to find it difficult to know what to call a person. The words 'man' and 'woman' are avoided. Sometimes there is some justification when we do not wish to specify gender or age, but even the word 'person' is avoided and the latest term is 'individual'. Well perhaps we should spare a thought for Guy Fawkes or William Wallace and many others.

House and Home

I find the expression "The housing ladder" distasteful. It carries an assumption that people buy a house, not so much to live in, but as a stepping stone to graduating to a series of bigger and better ones.