From basket to casket

Sully the Dog

Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, waits with his handler at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 03, 2018. (photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Katelyn Strange)

Verbal ambiguities are frequently the cause of laughter, sometimes at inappropriate moments. During the state funeral of the 41st President of the United States, for instance, many onlookers were touched by the loyalty of George Bush’s dog, who stayed in close proximity to his master to the very end. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to write the following words on the dog’s fidelity:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket holding what remained of him.’

The unintentional humour of this sentence reminded me of this other example from my schooldays:

‘Launching the ship with impressive ceremony, the Admiral’s daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.’

In both cases, there is what might be called ‘subject-object’ confusion. In the latter example, ‘she’ could refer either to the Admiral’s daughter or to the ship (ships are frequently referred to as feminine objects). In the former, it’s not clear whether the object (the casket) is doing the ‘holding’ or the subject (Sully the dog).

To get an unambiguous sentence, we must therefore separate the subject and object.

In the case of the story of the late president, that is easily done by changing the participle form of the verb (‘holding’) into a relative clause starting with ‘that’ or ‘which’. This allows the object to have its own verb that is clearly not connected to Sully the dog:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket that held what remained of him.’

So we can change the wording to avoid embarrassment, but the question is whether we really want to. After all, it’s sometimes important to be able to laugh in the face of grief.

When is ‘a ticket’ just the ticket?


I am always impressed by non-native speakers who take real pains to learn the ins and outs of English, and who get the details right in print and in conversation. It’s all the more frustrating, then, to come across repeat errors that seem ingrained in the culture.

Among the most common errors of Slavic speakers is the omitted article. French, German, Italian and Spanish all have a word for ‘the’, but for Czechs, Poles, Russians and others, there is no such word, so it is not uncommon to hear or read sentences such as ‘When you visit castle, you will see great historical artefacts’.

Even among sophisticated English translations, articles are regularly either omitted or incorrectly used. In the Czech Republic, the most common mistake we hear is actually an addition: ‘Visitors to the Prague Castle are kindly asked to show the ticket if requested’.

a) Prague Castle, following the rule of other such place-names (for example Windsor Castle), is already defined by its title ‘Prague’. There is only one such castle in the city, and it therefore needs no definite article. It would be like saying ‘The Queen lives in the Buckingham Palace’. Of course, if there is no title, ‘the castle’ needs to be defined: ‘We are entering the first courtyard of the castle.’

b) ‘the ticket’ is also wrong, but in this case the error can be excused. After all, not any old ticket will do – surely it must be ‘the ticket’ that allows entry to the castle? Logically yes, but in the annoying idiom of English, ‘ticket’ behaves oddly.

Consider the following. Before you buy the ticket, it is undefined – just one of many tickets, so the indefinite article is fine (or in the plural, no article at all):

‘Tickets sold here’ (not ‘the tickets’)
‘A ticket must be shown as proof of purchase’ (not ‘the ticket’)
‘You must buy a ticket to enter the cathedral’ (not ‘the ticket’)

Once purchased, however, it becomes a specific ticket – yours:

‘Do you have the ticket that you bought?’ (not ‘a ticket’)
‘I’m sorry. The parking ticket (i.e. yours) expired at 6pm’ (not ‘a ticket’)

So in the original example, we would expect ‘the’, but it’s better to use a pronoun, ‘their tickets’, or simply the plural ‘tickets’, thus: ‘Visitors to Prague Castle are kindly asked to show their tickets if requested’.

All of which goes to show what a charming, but challenging, language English is.  I take my hat off to all learners!

A note on apostrophes


The much-maligned apostrophe is actually an incredibly useful punctuation mark, allowing writers and editors to distinguish in print between plurals and possessive forms of nouns in sentences that may sound identical but mean very different things:

My sister’s friend’s car = The car belonging to the (one) friend of my (one) sister
My sisters’ friend’s car = The car belonging to the (one) friend of all my sisters
My sister’s friends’ car = The car belonging jointly to the several friends of my one sister
My sisters’ friends’ car = The car belonging jointly to the several friends of all my sisters

Problems tend to arise, however, when the singular noun ends in an ‘s’, such as ‘bus’ or ‘circus’. Should one say “The circus’ clowns went on strike” or “The circus’s clowns went on strike”?

Perhaps this example will help you to decide.

There was a time when people were taught to omit the extra ‘s’ in place-names such as St James’ Park, but these days it’s quite normal to see the ending ‘s+apostrophe+s’: St James’s Park.  In fact, the revised spelling more accurately reflects the way in which the name is spoken aloud – go ahead and try it: how many /z/ sounds do you hear?

This changing usage can be seen in the illustration to this article, which shows the one remaining old Tube sign on the left alongside the new version. 

Now, over to you. Which would you choose from the following pairs?

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

The twelve disciples were Jesus’ closest followers
The twelve disciples were Jesus’s closest followers.

Email me at with your thoughts!

Image by kind permission of Katie Wignall at Lookup London

Paying one’s dues


A frequent question concerns the correct use of ‘owing to’ and ‘due to’. Both phrases originate in the world of finance and moneylending; and of course the word ‘due’ still has the sense of ‘money owed’ in expressions such as ‘rent due’, ‘due by 14 March’ or ‘to pay your dues’.

A later, more general meaning of ‘due’ is of something well-deserved (‘with all due respect’, ‘credit where it’s due’). More loosely, it comes to refer to anything that can be simply attributed to something or someone. ‘Death was due to heart failure’, for example. As a result, ‘due to’ and ‘owing to’ have become practically synonymous with ‘because of’, and are frequently used in its place:

  1. Due to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony’
  2. Owing to the rain, the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Now, most editors agree that both of the above sentences are grammatically correct. But some purists insist that ‘due’ should not be used prepositionally, as in sentence 1, but should always be attached to a verb:

3. ‘The president’s absence was due to the rain’
4. ‘It was due to the rain that the president did not attend the ceremony.’

Equally, although ‘owing to’ works fine as an introductory prepositional phrase in sentence 2,  it would look pretty strange in sentence 3: (‘The president’s absence was owing to the rain’).

So the sensible solution seems to be to use ‘Owing to’ for introductory prepositional phrases. Elsewhere in the sentence, use ‘owing to’ or ‘is/was due to’, depending on construction.

The dating game

flat lay photography of calendar

Some of the most confusing aspects of English style have nothing to do with sentences, words, or even letters, but numbers; for instance, the thorny question of when it is better to use digits (‘1…9’),  and when to use their written equivalents (‘one…nine’).

Even among experts, there is surprisingly little agreement on this particular conundrum, and it’s a question I’ll be addressing in greater detail another time. Today, however, we are concerned with dates.

First (or should that be 1st?) comes the question of whether dates should be written using cardinal (‘2’,‘3’) or ordinal (‘2nd’, ‘3rd’) numbers. There is no single answer here: both are valid in the grammar book. But to avoid any confusion, I always suggest using only cardinals.  So, rather than ‘14th of July’ or ‘14th July’, we prefer – for the sake of clarity – ‘14 July’.


‘He arrived in Paris on 14 July, just in time for the fireworks.’

In spoken English we would naturally expand this written form to ‘the fourteenth of July’ although it’s not uncommon in American English to hear ‘fourteen July’.  ‘Each’ or ‘every’ may also replace the definite article:

‘The French celebrate their independence every 14 July (‘every fourteenth of July’).

Secondly, there’s the question of word order. Why not ‘July 14’ rather than ‘14 July’? Again, usage is broad. While there is nothing incorrect in the date following the month, a leading date can be quite useful in avoiding confusion, because it lends itself to a format in which digits and letters can be neatly alternated, thus:

Thursday 14 July 2016’ (as opposed to ‘Thursday July 14 2016’, where all the digits clump together).  With this convention, it is also unnecessary to insert any commas.

Finally, abbreviated dates. British English leads with the date, followed by the month, then the year. This way, the shortest unit of time comes first, then the longer, then the longest. 14-06-16, or 14/6/16. The logic is unassailable.

By contrast, the American system of month-date-year is, frankly, weird; and it leads to many errors by clerks and copywriters the world over. There are many things to be commended in American stylistic convention, but this is not one of them.  It is high time the system was abandoned.

Time for a trim

barber barbershop haircut men

‘Without doubt, the ability to summarize is one of the most critical skills in the editor’s toolbox. Drafts can be much too wordy and verbose, sentences too lengthy, and paragraphs — frequently stuffed with subordinate clauses and parentheses — just too complex to allow the reader to understand the meaning with any immediacy. To be able to capture what is being communicated in a way that preserves its essential meaning while reducing the word-count is an invaluable asset, and one that should be applied more regularly than it is: the job of a good editor is to remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important.’

Whoa — hang on a moment! That opening paragraph is a perfect example of some prose that could really do with a haircut. It’s composed of just three sentences, but contains over a hundred words — far more than necessary.

A quick analysis shows that the paragraph has just two main points: it explains what a summary is for, and expresses the opinion that summarizing is something every good editor should be able to do. Yet the piece of writing as a whole is full of repeated and redundant phrases.  For example, ‘wordy’,  ‘verbose’ and ‘lengthy’ all mean pretty much the same thing. It should be possible to combine all these words into one.

The long second sentence is also a candidate for editing. It suffers from exactly the mistakes it describes: too many clauses bunched together. It can be considerably simplified by cutting it down to a single clause with one main verb: ‘Drafts are often too complex for readers to understand at first sight’.

In the final sentence, we read that good editing ‘preserves essential meaning while reducing the word-count’, and at the same time that an editor should ‘remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important’. This is saying the same thing in two different ways. One of these sentences must go.

Here are my own attempts at a summary. I have set myself targets, respectively, of 50 words, 30 words and 10 words.

50-word target:

‘The ability to summarize is a critical skill for editors. Drafts are often too complex and lengthy for readers to understand straightaway. A good editor should be able to reduce the word-count while preserving the essence of a piece of writing. And they should do so more often than they do.’ (51 words)

30-word target:

‘Summarizing is a critical skill for editors. Drafts can be too complex to understand straightaway. Editors should therefore reduce word-counts while preserving meaning, and do so regularly.’ (27 words)

10-word target:

‘Good editing includes the ability to reduce length while preserving meaning.’ (11 words)

All stressed out

black and brown long coated dog birthday

One of the most important lessons for English speakers is understanding how a shift of emphasis from one word to another can alter the meaning of a single sentence. In the following short story, words emphasized like this carry additional stress when spoken.

The twins were arguing again.

I never said Freddie ate your cake.’ ‘Well someone said it,’ snapped Anne, and that someone sounded very much like you, Ted.’

Ted was indignant. ‘I never said Freddie ate your cake! Or at least, I never said Freddie ate your cake.’ ‘Aha!’ exclaimed his sister. ‘So you didn’t say so but you might have murmured it under your breath?’

‘No, that’s not what I meant either,’ replied Ted. ‘Look. I never said Freddie ate your cake. OK? It might have been someone else.’

Anne turned over this new possibility in her mind. ‘So you’re basically saying — sorry, mumbling — that someone else ate my cake. But Freddie was involved, right?’

Ted squirmed. Anne had this uncanny knack of squeezing the truth out of people with her superior grammatical skills.

‘OK. Freddie was involved. But I never said Freddie ate your cake.’

‘Oh right,’ replied Anne, sarcastically. ‘So he might have — oh, I dunno — sat on it? But at least we’re sure he didn’t eat it.’

Embarrassed at being wrong-footed again, there was only one thing left to do. Ted squared up to his sister. ‘Alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll come clean. Freddie ate the cake. But it wasn’t yours. I never said Freddie ate your cake. He ate mine.’

Anne paused. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘He never ate your cake. Actually, if Freddie ate anything of yours it was that rather tasty-looking bar of chocolate I left for you next to your bed.’

The door nudged open. The six-month-old puppy, Freddie, padded into the bedroom, his nose smeared in the last remains of Anne’s chocolate.

‘See? I never said Freddie ate your cake,’ smiled Ted, triumphantly.