Category Archives: language

Anachronisms and pesky unknown unknowns to puzzle us

key on keyboard labelled Oops! for mistakeWriters of historicals are always on the lookout for anachronisms. They still trip us up, time and again. But the real elephant traps are the unknown unknowns [© D Rumsfeld?], the things we don’t know we don’t know—and, as a result, we don’t know we’re getting wrong.

I was prompted to write this blog by some of the reactions to my post about habit words, a couple of weeks ago. woman with clock, pointing finger at headSo this week’s post is about anachronisms of various kinds.

Anachronisms? The standard definition is something out of its time—an object, an expression, an attitude—something that does not belong in the period of the story.

We wouldn’t put electric light in a Regency setting, for example. That one is easy to spot. But how am I, as a historical writer, supposed to spot the ones that lurk in the undergrowth of my ignorance? Continue reading

Habit Words : Use, Abuse, Remedies

snoopy at pink typewriterDo you use habit words in your writing?

I bet you do. Perhaps all authors do? A few weeks ago, in her excellent presentation on snappy dialogue at the RNA Virtual Conference 2020, Virginia Heath confessed to overusing the phrase “he huffed out” as a speech tag for her heroes. Virginia, being a professional, knows how to catch and reduce her use of habit words. Do you?

To start at the beginning: what are Habit Words?

yellow bollards, repetition concept

Repetition can be boring. And people do notice…

Habit words and phrases are part of an author’s voice, the words and phrases that come naturally and automatically, that trip off the tongue, that make the writing sound like you. Continue reading

Clarity : Language Use and Misuse : Pedantique-Ryter rants

One of the casualties of the pandemic has been language. Clarity matters. What, I ask you, is social distancing?

couple distanced from each other

Social distancing? Or is it really physical distancing?

Regency ladyRegency servantIn my (pedant’s) book, social distancing relates to the strata of society.

So… Regency aristocrat Lady Evadne Piddling-Coot is socially distanced from her washerwoman Hattie Gutbucket. If they were to meet — unlikely, one would think — Hattie would drop a curtsey and say nothing. Or, if they met in a confined space such as a staircase, Hattie would turn to face the wall and Lady E would continue on her regal progress as if Hattie were not there at all.

Some fellow pedants have pointed out (in vain, sadly) that social distancing actually means physical distancing. What else could it mean, when we are talking about 2 metres, or 1 metre, or 1 metre plus? Continue reading

Criteria for Plural Phenomenon : Pedantique-Ryter rants

The other week, when I was reading the news online — I do occasionally use the internet, in case you were wondering — I came across an advert from a major UK bank. It may be one of the largest in the world, but it certainly is not the most educated. crime scene tapeThe HSBC advert (for it was they!) said, roughly:

The criteria for our offer is X…

Not an exact quote, but the subject of the sentence was the word “criteria” and the verb was definitely “is”.  And I decided, on the spot, that I could never, ever bank with HSBC.

oops! key on keyboardEven the authors in the Libertà hive know better.
I mentioned it to dear Sophie on the telephone and I could hear her teeth grinding.
Quite right, too.

Sophie knew better. Why didn’t #hsbc ?

Criteria? Singular or Plural?

Continue reading

Incoherent English : a Pedantique-Ryter Rant

Incoherent English? Yes, another bee in the Pedantique-Ryter bonnet.

Radio 4 Today programme in the dock for incoherent speech

industrious bee on flowerIn a short interval between my summer educational tours, I happened to be listening to what the pundits maintain is the UK’s “must-listen” political programme — BBC Radio 4’s Today. I heard an interviewer ask a question that was incoherent.

To save that interviewer’s blushes, I shall not repeat the actual words used. The question was roughly along these lines:

“As a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, I’m sure our listeners will want to know whether you would support policy X.”

Question: who is the supporter of the RIP?
[Note: As far as I know, no political party admits to that name. Perhaps one of them should?] Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter: Could Have or Could Of?

We could of had it all

exclamation mark in fireIf you do a web search for could of, you’ll find quite a few people searching for song lyrics. Examples of search terms include: exploding champagne as in "it could of been the champagne"It could of been the champagne

and “It could of been me.”

We could of had it all” was a search for a song by Adele, called Rolling in the Deep.

And the line in question was, of course,
We could HAVE had it all“.

What’s happening here?

Continue reading

Mnemonics: spelling and those dreaded lists

exclamation mark in fire; just right for mnemonicsMnemonics for spelling

Mnemonics, as a word, is no advert for English spelling. And English spelling most certainly needs help. What’s the point of that silent M at the start? (Blame the Greeks. Their spelling isn’t easy either.)

English spelling (and pronunciation) may well be the world’s worst. How many students, trying to learn English as a foreign language, have been flummoxed by:
through, thorough, cough, enough, hiccough, sough, dough?

I often have problems with words where changing the spelling changes the meaning: practise/practice and the like. The spellchecker is no help to me with that, of course.

My regular bugbear is affect/effect. I have to stop to work out which is correct when I’m writing.
The Oxford Dictionary tells me that affect and effect are quite different in meaning, though frequently confused. (A statement of the bleedin’ obvious?) Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

hand slicing through a stone question markEnglish usage is full of constantly changing meanings. How often do you yell at the radio or TV because some idiot presenter doesn’t know his (or her) English usage? How is it that educated people so often get fairly common words wrong?

English is a vibrant, living language and evolving all the time.

Not always changing for the better, in my pedantic view. But I know I am probably fighting a losing battle against sloppy English.

Changing meanings as words enter more common usage

Some words used to have very specific and precise meanings but have been misused so much that the original meaning has no traction any more.
So, if I say, “We underestimate the enormity of the decimation,” what do I mean? Continue reading

Female names : flowers, fashions and faux-pas

single blush-pink climbing rose flower against blue skyvariegated ivy growing up a stone wallleaves of a rather leggy laurus nobilis (bay) tree

The images above (in case you were wondering) show various plants from my drought-ridden garden, specifically: rose, ivy, catmint, bay (laurel). Anything strike you about them?
Yes, three of them also provide female names.  At least, they do in English.

I don’t think it’s usual to call a baby girl “Catmint”. Unless you know someone called that?

But Rose, Ivy, and Laura (Laurel) used to be fairly common.

bee on lavender flowersspikes of blue delphiniumsAlong with Pansy,
Lily,
Hyacinth,
Lavender,
Poppy,
the occasional Delphine (Delphinium),
and loads more… Continue reading

Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time

Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?

Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:

Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?

Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?

Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist? Continue reading