HD English

The rapid advance in 21st-century technology affects (some would say, controls) every aspect of our lives, whether at home, school or work.  And it’s now become so ingrained that we barely notice it. For example, by far the most visible of today’s technological achievements is the one we think least about — the transition from old-school cathode ray tubes that required a whole army to install, to flat screens you can carry in your pocket or hang on a wall.

Actually, when you think about it, the characteristics of today’s most impressive screens are a great metaphor for the transformative power of language.  With this in mind, today I’d like to introduce you to a new technology. I call it HD English. So, what’s in the box?

  • Clarity and sharpness: In 2020, why would you seriously put up with a blurred, incoherent, out-of-tune message when you can have language that’s more vivid, colourful, and true-to-life than it’s ever been? That’s the beauty of high definition English.
  • Better upscaling: English used to be bulky and heavy (think of those endless Powerpoint presentations). But HD is lighter, brighter, and more efficient. Of course, you can still enjoy the classics, but with a good provider like English Wanted you’ll find even old material looks fresher and cleaner.
  • Personal experience: HD English is available everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s just ‘one size fits all’. These days you choose what you want from the widest variety of content and style, and make your writing and presentations truly individual. Say goodbye to single-use English: today’s technology allows you to stay up-to-date and personal.

See? Properly used, English can be as powerful and transformative as TV. To find out more, contact English Wanted. I’d be happy to give you a tour of our latest technology.

Fake Poohs


In the social-media-driven world of today, accuracy is more important than ever. It’s also, it seems, increasingly hard to find. A huge amount of what we read these days, on- or off-line, seems to be either deliberately or accidentally miswritten. And while readers are prepared to ‘call out’ photographic images that have been tinkered or tampered with –  in the process now universally known as ‘photoshopping’ – it’s harder to tell when it comes to the written word. 

Take this story, for example, which appeared recently on Facebook:

It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice.

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.”

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.

Because Pooh and Piglet were There. No more; no less.

Author – AA Milne
Illustration – EH Shepard

Does this story look familiar to you? It certainly did to many readers who left grateful comments on the Facebook page in question, thanking whoever posted it for ‘reminding’ them of this episode, how they enjoyed it as children, and how they still read the book to their own families.

And why not? After all, the post tells us that the author is A.A. Milne, and the accompanying illustration implies that the story is indeed from his 1928 book ‘The House at Pooh Corner’.  It’s set in Hundred Acre Wood; words like ‘trotted’ and ‘glum’ sound appropriate for Piglet and Eeyore; and the mock-title ‘Not Much Fun To Be Around At All’ is capitalized in the same way as the famous ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’.  To cap it all, there’s a Pooh-like simplicity to the story, best summed up in the final line: ‘Because Pooh and Piglet were There.’

But here truth and reality part company.

Would A.A. Milne, writing in 1928, really have used ‘okay’ so freely? Would he have used the expression ‘We thought we’d check in on you’? Or ‘hanging out with someone who is sad’? Or ‘True friends are there for you’? Just a brief examination of the vocabulary of the piece is enough to convince a number of readers that this is in fact an early 21st century parody of A.A. Milne.

Which is not to say it is bad, or wrong. In fact as parody it’s highly successful. Good pastiches like this preserve enough of the original to make us laugh out loud precisely at what is unlikely and unexpected. The first appearance of the above passage was on the Facebook site of its true author, the energetic blogger Kathryn Wallace, whose parodic versions of Winnie the Pooh are the perfect vehicle for articulating the hassled life of a busy mum. Here’s another of hers:

“I just don’t understand, Piglet,” said Pooh.

“What’s that, old pal?”

“Well, why do we have to have Mondays? They’re just so… unnecessary.”

Piglet mused on the question for a moment, his tiny ears wobbling up and down with concentration as he thought.

“Well,” he said, after some consideration. “I suppose, that if we didn’t have Mondays…well, Fridays wouldn’t be so ruddy marvellous, would they?”

“Oh Piglet,” said Pooh. “You really are the Best Pig of Greatest Brain that I have ever met. Now, can we go and celebrate the marvellousness of Fridays with gin and takeaway?”

“Too bloody right we can,” said Piglet. “Too bloody right.”

So, if the parody is not a problem, what is? Well, in the interest of copyright, research, honesty and simple transparency, the problem is in the attribution. When Kathryn’s story was copied (as it has now been hundreds of times) to social media feeds, it somehow picked up the tag ‘Author – AA Milne / Illustration – EH Shepard’. That is the problem.

If the passage is not by A.A. Milne, it should not claim to be. Anything other than the original is just Fake Poohs.  Oh, and by the way, the illustration I’ve used above is also a fake. It’s actually a copy of a drawing by E.H. Shepard, as explained in its artist’s blog.


For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost


Proofreading by definition comes at the end of most publishing projects, and for that reason is the part of the process most frequently put off or even ignored. One of the most thankless aspects of the proofreader’s job is to have a job cancelled by clients who decide at the last moment to make do with what they have.

The problem is that proofing is not built in to most project managers’ timetables. It becomes an add-on, and therefore an after-thought. Which is a bit of a surprise, given that project pipelines are built precisely to be testable for weaknesses at multiple points in the process.

Imagine that the shirt you bought turned out to be lacking a button, or that your new screen had some broken pixels; or that the self-assembly furniture pack was missing one screw. Twenty years ago, perhaps. But now, quality control is so good that these things simply never happen. And as a result, the companies do very well who churn these products out day after day to satisfy the demand of their millions of customers.

Missing components, incorrectly fitted parts, poor quality manufacture; in the world of engineering, such errors are picked out by rigorous quality control at every stage. These days QC is invariably a blend of the automated and the human, but the fact is that it happens at every stage, from planning to dispatch.

With written text, however, it is a whole different story. It seems that people are content to put up with failure, not just in the writing itself (which often defies the rules of anybody’s grammar, let alone agreed standards) but also in terms of quality control, be that fact-checking or correcting misplaced commas, dashes or brackets.

Failure to pick up a tiny error at the start of a process can lead to it becoming embedded, like a splinter, at all subsequent stages of the process: once the initial pain has worn off, it’s less likely that anyone will notice it… until infection sets in.

So, here’s a plea to all clients, past, present and potential. Please build in proofreading from the very start. Budget for it — just a small amount at a time is fine — and you will save yourself a lot of effort and cost further down the line.

The unbearable lightness of lying


Business presentations have come a long way from the dry recitation of quarterly results, the predictable analysis of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, and the proposed strategic plan ‘going forward’.

These days it’s pretty much de rigeur to liven up your presentation with a slide containing an inspirational quotation from Gandhi, Churchill, Einstein, or some other admirable historical figure. The further they are removed from the world of business the better – it makes them sound more authentic.

But in the absence of one of these global gurus, many coaches and public speakers are happy to plump for any canny definition from a contemporary business leader or (preferably) ‘influencer’. Take this for example: “Business has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

Set against a landscape of rolling hills, this snappy blue-sky quotation is the perfect opener, instantly clearing away the clutter and causing us to look at the world of business afresh, through the eyes of …. who? Now who did say that? Seth Godin? Bill Gates? Donald Trump? Alan Sugar?

Try again. According to the internet, these are the sententious words of none other than Milan Kundera, the Czech-born, Paris-dwelling author of the darkly ironic The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Joke.

Now to anyone who has read him, the attribution to Kundera really seems somewhat unlikely. After all, this author, whose works combine political satire and philosophical musings on humanity and fate, is not known for his pronouncements on the business world. Yet here they are, slide after slide (I have shown only two on this page), showing the brooding Kundera now re-cast as business guru, the rebellious author as social media influencer.


So widespread is the error that even the hallowed Economist has included the ‘Milan Kundera’ line in its 2012 Book of Business Quotations. In fact, it may well be its inclusion in that weighty tome that has convinced many internet users that the quotation must be authentic.

But if not Kundera, who exactly did come out with this (after all fairly platitudinous) bit of business-speak? Well, it will hardly surprise many readers from the world of corporate management to learn that the actual author was Peter Drucker, the highly prolific ‘father of management thinking’. In Drucker’s 1954 book The Practice of Management, we find the following: “Any business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.” Bingo.

Yet a number of websites — including one called Marketing Insider Group — still defend the attribution to Kundera, with sentences like these:

(Knowledge drop: Most people attribute the above quote to Peter Drucker who clearly borrowed from the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being when he said:  “Because it is its purpose to create a customer, any business enterprise has two – and only these two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.” But Milan said it first.)

What? When he was only 15 years old?

Now my real problem with all this is that if the opening slide of the presentation gets the quote wrong, or happily goes ahead and attributes it to the wrong person (and the example of Milan Kundera is — believe me — just the tip of the iceberg), then why on earth should we trust the slides that come next?

Why might the graphs showing growth over the last quarter not also be riddled with mistakes, accidental or otherwise? Why might the strategic plan not be copied from another company’s website? (after all, plagiarism is not unknown, even in the world of business). And why might not some of those great corporate strengths actually be weaknesses?

I imagine some readers find my objection to those using ‘fake news’ somewhat flippant. Just ask then, was the chart showing diesel emissions to Volkswagen shareholders accurate? Do documents listing workplace policies on pay and conditions always resemble the truth? Or are they, too, examples of ‘sliding truths’?

So much of what we see at first sight in a presentation is superficial, and sadly is too easily accepted by the audience.

It is our job to question it. That’s hard, but it has to be done. Or, as Milan Kundera noted: ‘On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.’

Please, don’t critique me!


The word ‘critic’ originally denoted a judge, whose job was to draw the (often fine) distinction between a good or bad action, a defendant’s guilt or innocence, or the positive or negative outcome of a disease. Life is full of such ‘crisis’ points; the outcome either way could, after all, turn out to be ‘critical’. The essential point was that the critic was impartial, and the decision could go either way.

But by the time this Greek word entered the English language (like so many other words, it first appeared in the works of Shakespeare, in 1598), ‘critic’ had already taken on the negative connotation it has today. Appropriately enough, the critics who attracted the greatest opprobrium were those in the theatre, whose reviews could make or break a reputation, but more frequently the latter.

Amid all this negativity, a new expression was needed. Only a hundred years later, the French ‘critique’ became popular in England to refer not to the critic but to the work of the critic – be it an essay, a review, or a printed article. By 1751, ‘critique’ was being used as a verb, but one which was blissfully free of the reputation of ‘criticize’.

So now a person could write a critique, which might or might not be critical in a negative sense. Equally, one could ‘critique’ a performance, or a piece of writing, again without necessarily condemning it to the limbo of one-star reviews.

But language is a living thing. Words, and their meanings, are constantly shifting under the pressure of popular usage. Roll on to 2019, and we have a problem.

Partly as a result of the popularity of TV talent shows presided over by experts from the music industry, ‘critique’ itself has now been infected with the same sense of disparagement as ‘criticize’. So we have ended up with two verbs, ‘criticize‘ and ‘critique’, used pretty much interchangeably, and both of them negative in tone. “I don’t mean to critique you,” says the 21st-century critic, “but that was terrible.” Actually, critiquing is their job – but that’s not what they mean.

In the story of language, it’s quite normal for speakers to adopt new expressions when a word has become so ambiguous that it requires some special distinction to be made. And it’s true that over time, such distinctions can in turn be eroded. Perhaps ‘critique’ is too close to ‘critic’ to imply something different or opposite. In which case we need to start all over again. Which word would you recommend as the new ‘critique’?