Many people would like to be proofreaders. When they read a piece in a newspaper or magazine they notice things that they perceive to be wrong. And if they are obsessive enough about it they may want to spend their life making minor corrections. Take that last sentence, for example: you don’t start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but. We were taught that rule at school. But everyone does it these days. And is there anything really wrong with it? It reflects how we speak, and writing is becoming ever more conversational. Does it prevent us from understanding what is being expressed? I don’t think so. Would it stand up under the unscrupulous scrutiny of a court of law? I doubt it. If you have never contributed an article or story to a publication, you may think that means your writing has never been examined by a proofreader, but wait a minute: have you ever used Microsoft Word? When a word is underlined, that is the automatic spellchecker telling you you’ve done something wrong. It could be the spelling, spacing or grammar, or it could have noticed that you have repeated a word by accident (it assumes). Many people rely on the spellchecker to point out errors and are not just grateful but completely accepting of its verdicts. However (he said, avoiding using but at the start of the sentence) where do you think the rules came from? They weren’t generated by an intelligent computer. No, they were drawn up by a human being, and as such are open to debate. Every one of the rules reflects his or her opinion of what is correct. And quite honestly, you or I may not always agree. The one that gets my goat is when you refer to ‘the person who wrote the rules’ and it wants to change it to ‘the person that wrote them’. Is a person a thing? No, a building, a grape or a dog is a thing and is therefore the building, grape or dog that is referred to; a person is a human being and is therefore the person who did something. We’ve all got pet hates. Even those who you might not expect to be interested will have something to say if you ask them. This is particularly apparent to the writer who allows people he’s writing about to look at the article before it is published. Let’s say I’ve interviewed you about your new coffee shop. And I’ve started a sentence with ‘but.’  ‘In general it’s fine,’ you may say, assuming the mantle of proofreader. ‘But you start this sentence with ‘but’. ‘But you’ve just done that yourself,’ I point out. ‘Anyway, carry on.’ ‘You say we have a bewildering range of styles.’ ‘Yes…’ ‘I don’t want my customers bewildered.’ This actually happened to me once when I was attempting to describe the variety of nails and screws in a hardware store. Now, strictly speaking, I can see the owner’s point, but is anyone really going to be entering his shop, having read the article, fearing they are going to be overcome by the choice and panicking?

Belt and braces and braces

Belt and braces and braces


Return is a word that does the work of two if the alternative is go back, but when did we lose confidence in its ability to do that? When exactly did we start to talk about returning back somewhere? It’s a rhetorical question, because so many of the misuses of English just appear and spread like wildfire through the population, before threatening to make the move into people who should know better: writers, broadcasters and those in public positions whose utterances come to our attention whether we like it or not. And how do we stop it? We can’t. Even pointing it out, as I am here, does little more than attract derision.

So does talking about it in private – but note that it’s so. Not so too, which is currently sweeping the English-speaking world. You enjoy the language? So do I. Not so too do I. Where did this start? I’ll have to refer you back to the start of the article (notice an unnecessary back in there?). But the media are full of it: ‘the Prime Minister is strongly against the idea – so too the Home Secretary’.

Dismission statement

Several years ago I was happily writing a weekly column for a local newspaper on topics of my choice. My aim was to amuse people, and if I conveyed a message that was close to my heart, so much the better. But essentially I was just enjoying myself, having a one-sided conversation, not raging at the dying of the light – in fact not raging at all, but pointing things out and hoping to get the occasional inner smile out of the reader.

Then I was offered what was pitched to me as promotion: the features editor wanted me to  comment on ‘issues’, criticising what the paper saw as injustices and bad moves, making fun of politicians and so on.

It wasn’t the first time this had been suggested to me. The directors of a magazine I was editing 10 years earlier had gone as far as to outline some hilarious japes I could get up to in their name, the highlight being to christen a prominent  politician, large of stature and Richard by name, as Big Dick.

Then a couple of years ago in a different part of the country I was offered a column in which I would be expected to articulate the views of the non-writing (illiterate might be a better description) owner.

I turned down each of these offers for a simple reason: I wasn’t interested in what I saw as disingenuous pontificating against easy targets.

In the last case I did agree to write a pilot piece on the subject of council tax in the area (his choice). My research led me to the conclusion that the council in question was by no means unreasonable, certainly in comparison with others around the country, so the article reflected that. I watched the proprietor read it, smirking and grunting happily until he reached my conclusion, at which point his face fell and he said it wasn’t what he had in mind at all.

One question this raises is this: when does having opinions turns into being opinionated? There are people who have trenchant views on just about any subject you cast in their direction. My father was like that.  An intelligent and often charming man who worked hard to support a sizeable family in the civilian world even though he would have been happier staying in his beloved  RAF after the Second World War, he would rant and rave at the slightest opportunity, topic no object, and to spend time in his company, particularly in the last 20 years of his life, was to either get into an argument every time or to ride out the storm until we could move on to a subject  that didn’t poke him in the arse with a sharp stick.

The other significant thing about old Eric was that if he was railing against something a member of his immediate family had done, once it was out of his system he would support you steadfastly against the world. Thus his sons growing their hair long would lead to a protracted barrage of verbal artillery, but once his ammunition was spent and the armistice was signed, woe betide anyone outside the family who made remarks about long-haired yobboes.

I suspect, though, that even a natural ranter such as he would, if he had been a journalist, have refused to manufacture an argument on a theme he didn’t actually espouse. ‘Bloody bastards,’ he would growl, using his two favourite swear words. ‘They can do their own bloody dirty work. ‘

So welcome to The English Pedant, the blog that has a go at subjects the hired assassins don’t consider worth examining.