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 alex@englishwanted.com with your thoughts!

Image by kind permission of Katie Wignall at Lookup London

Just another link in the chain

In the family of punctuation marks, there are three horizontal strokes, each with a very different function. In ascending order of length, they are the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash; and they look like this: ‘-’, ‘–’, and ‘—’.

The shortest of the three, the hyphen, links two or more words together to make a single unit of meaning, usually a compound adjective:

  • My five-year-old child has just started school.
  • You will enjoy this television’s cutting-edge features.

Please note, however, that if they are not being used as a compound adjective the words should not be hyphenated.

  • My child is five years old.
  • The television is at the cutting edge of technology.

The en dash, so called because it is the same width as a printed lower-case ‘n’, is used to join two equal components where there is a logical connection or opposition:

  • Did you watch the Barcelona–Juventus match?
  • I am taking the Glasgow–London express tomorrow morning
  • Susanna West, CEO 2008–2016.

In these examples, the first ‘en’-dash serves as an alternative for ‘versus’ or ‘against’. In the next two sentences, it replaces the word ‘to’. Please note, however, that the word ‘to’ should be used if it is paired with ‘from’: ‘She was CEO from 2008 to 2016′; ‘the train from Glasgow to London’.

The em dash, as its name implies, is the width of a printed lower-case ‘m’, and double the length of an en dash. It is used singly to replace an introductory punctuation mark such as a colon, or in pairs as a form of parenthesis:

  • Corfu is the most beautiful of the islands — green, serene, and relaxed.
  • Just then — and it really was unexpected — there came the hoot of an owl.

So next time you want to just throw up your hands and exclaim ‘Oh, dash it all!’, just be careful which one you mean…

(In parenthesis)

baked pastries

The term ‘parenthesis’ (or ‘parentheses’ in the plural) is commonly used as an alternative term for ‘brackets’.

In fact, parenthesis is the explanatory or additional wording that goes inside the brackets. And this information can be separated from the main text by a number of different punctuation marks: not just brackets, but also dashes, or, simply, commas.

So, which kind of punctuation should you choose? That’s partly determined by the degree of relevance of the parenthesis to the main clause. Consider the following sentences:

  1. The man, who made his fortune from cookies, was an expert baker.
  2. The man — who made his fortune from cookies — started out poor.
  3. The man (who made his fortune from cookies) was South African.

In sentence 1, we understand that there is a strong relationship between his skill as a baker and the fact that he made money from cookies. We use commas to show that there is no real separation of detail.

In sentence 2, the fact that he was originally poor is stressed, but the source of his fortune is not so important — it just happened to be cookies.

By the time we reach sentence 3, how he made his fortune is not at all relevant, and the brackets allow us to safely remove the information about the cookies from the main thrust of the sentence.

In all three cases, the sentence MUST still read correctly if we take out the parenthesis. This is a crucial test for proofreaders’ understanding of punctuation.