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Posted in 2017


What makes a writer a writer? Posted on 9 January 2017 by James Cowan in Writing

Actually, I sometimes think, it would be easier to write this the other way round. What is not a qualification for the title of "writer"? But first, definition: for the purpose of this article, I define a writer as someone who is creating a manuscript to be read by other people, many of them strangers. This means "not just by family"! To start with the blindingly obvious, having access to a word-processing package is not a qualification. Rather like always using GPS to navigate instead of ... Read more

Troublesome words 3 Posted on 19 January 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

More random words often misused, abused and generally causing confusion – among readers as well as writers! "Partake" and "participate" are a wonderful pair. Partake is an interesting word in its own right – and not because it is often mistaken with another similar word. "Partake" never means "to take part", even though it sounds as if it should. It used to mean to "eat", and it still does when it is used followed by "of", or by a full stop ("He partakes ... Read more

Dictating to your computer Posted on 29 January 2017 by James Cowan in Automation; Writing

I have mentioned dictation software a few times in my blogs on Troublesome Words, having had limited experience of its use. For purposes of this post, I went back and tried again, with better results than I had anticipated. There is quite a lot of reasonable dictation software around, also sometimes called "voice [or speech] recognition" software. There is even free software in Windows, which I have found to be as good as a quite expensive offering. And it didn't need ... Read more


On numbers Posted on 8 February 2017 by James Cowan in English language; Proofreading; Writing

Funny things, numbers. The way you write about them can show you up in an amazing fashion. Let's start with percentages. Everybody knows what a percentage is, it's the proportion of a sample that fits a particular profile. "50% of cars are red" means that fifty out of every hundred cars, half of all cars, are red. No ambiguity here. But wait ... there's more! It is possible, under some circumstances, that the percentage quoted may be larger than 100 – for example ... Read more

Jargon 2: All in the ear of the beholder Posted on 18 February 2017 by James Cowan in General Semantics; Jargon

I was recently reminded about an incident in my not-too-distant past when I was confused by what (here, at least) I am prepared to call "inadvertent jargon". This occurred when I found that in a relatively new job, my colleagues were using an acronym whose meaning I knew to mean something entirely different, and specialised. Much of my career was spent working with computers. In this moderately arcane world, there is a commonly-used acronym "TLA", meaning "Three-Letter Acronym". Except in my new ... Read more

Troublesome words 4 Posted on 28 February 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

Recently I found that I have been calling this series the same as Bill Bryson has called a book being touted to me by an Internet bookseller. Sorry Bill, didn't mean to step on your toes. But there is really a "principle" at stake here, the "principal" reason for my writing about it being that a lot of people don't seem to know they are different words, mean different things and are used differently. To start with, a principle has ... Read more


No writing is a complete waste Posted on 20 March 2017 by James Cowan in Writing

If you have checked out the "About" page of this site, you will know that much of my career was spent working with computers. In this moderately arcane world, there is a saying that "no program is a complete waste: it can always be used as a bad example". How terrifyingly true! So bad were some of the examples that I had to "improve" that I wrote an article for the computing press debating whether a better ... Read more

Punctuation 2 Posted on 31 March 2017 by James Cowan in Punctuation

Returning to the topic of the comma, there is a riddle about the difference between a cat and a comma. Answer: "the cat has claws at the end of its paws; the comma's a pause at the end of a clause." A clause being more-or-less a sentence, with a noun and an action in it. So the comma in "Chief Executive, John Smith said" is horribly out of place. Commas can be used alone when they are separating things that ... Read more


Specialist proofreading: fiction vs. business vs. academic Posted on 10 April 2017 by James Cowan in English language; Proofreading

You might think proofreading is proofreading is proofreading. But actually it isn't. Yes, proofreading anything in English has points in common with all other English proofreading, but each subgroup of manuscripts has its own idiosyncrasies. Let's start with what they all share. In earlier blogs I have talked of the way the English language works, and how it is changing. Anything written in English is subject to these influences, and to that extent the proofreader's task is similar ... Read more

English is still changing Posted on 20 April 2017 by James Cowan in English is changing

A common source of confusion – and it appears in the newspapers so often it is clear that the confusion is rife among many who are being paid to know better – is with words like "seaside", "portside" and "backseat". The "seaside" is a place; the "sea side" is a description of an area (as opposed to the "city side", for example of a road). Similarly, the "port side" of a boat is the left side of the boat as you face ... Read more

Troublesome Words 5 Posted on 30 April 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

I am forever being amused (almost to tears) by the confusion between "amount" and "number". It's quite simple: you have amounts of things that can be divided – petrol, sugar. You have numbers of things that can't – such as people. You can have a litre of petrol, and half a litre of petrol. You can have a person, but really half a person is actually not much of anything. Some meat, and body parts, but it probably doesn't move or talk ... Read more


More thoughts on why people write badly Posted on 11 May 2017 by James Cowan in Bad writing

I have already written about why people write badly, but in that post I based my thoughts on the way the language was learned – essentially, generally, from the family, who may very well not know accurately either the meanings of the words they use, nor how they have changed since those words were learned. And similarly with grammar, punctuation, and so on. But there is another fundamental difference between communicating through speech and using the written ... Read more

More about jargon Posted on 21 May 2017 by James Cowan in Jargon

The more I think about jargon, the more I can see where the problems arise (isn't that always the way?). This time, I was spurred by comments I heard recently on the radio about the incomprehensibility of scientific articles. The issue seemed to be that the speaker, not a scientist, had apparently found an erudite paper they wished to read, based on the title or the abstract, but could not comprehend it. And the fault was therefore the author's. It seemed ... Read more

Hiding the light Posted on 31 May 2017 by James Cowan in Writing

I recently rediscovered Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. And this time I found it vaguely disappointing. For those who don't know it, a bit of background. King Richard III of England (1483–1485), the last English king to die in battle (Bosworth, 22 August 1485), has long been vilified for a number of actions. This vilification is based not as much on facts as upon the following king's (Henry VII's and the ensuing Tudors') need to justify his rebellion against ... Read more


Troubling phrases Posted on 10 June 2017 by James Cowan in Troubling phrases

I have long thought a number of phrases had little point or purpose, and recently the over-use of one on the radio caught my cynical ear. Granted, I am a proofreader, so I really should confine my comments to the written word and the management thereof, but some clichés are so annoying that they deserve to be highlighted and proscribed. And if they crop up in speech, inevitably they are cropping up in text as well – if you think in ... Read more

A 10-Step Program for Ridding Your Writing of Empty Superlatives Posted on 20 June 2017 by James Cowan in Guest posts; Writing

I saw this on LinkedIn this week and thought it worth bringing to my readers' attention by adding it to my blog – with the author's permission, of course!

Posted on his blog on 12 June 2017 by David Rosenbaum

In the thought leadership content game, we are awash in a sea of superlatives. All projects are highly successful, and most are profoundly transformational. Experts are deeply experienced, and company employees are greatly empowered by extraordinary change management programs. These superlatives spritzed over thought leadership writing make it easy for readers to dismiss these projects, experts, and programs as mere marketing collateral or advertising. Your target audience doesn't read thought leadership to be pitched to. It reads it to be ... Read more

Proofreading online versus using a local professional Posted on 30 June 2017 by James Cowan in Proofreading

Where to start? In several earlier blogs I discuss the fact that English is a language not of rules but of conventions, and that the conventions differ between regions. Thus to an American reader, saying "his clothes fitted him well" is at best weird, and at worst wrong, as American for "did fit" is the same as for "do fit", and both are "fit". And though I was born in the UK, I was brought up from the age of ... Read more


Abstraction Posted on 10 July 2017 by James Cowan in General Semantics

In my previous blog about General Semantics (see "Jargon 2: All in the ear of the beholder", 18 February 2017), I touched briefly on the topic of abstraction. The idea that in most cases we are only talking about certain aspects of something, not the whole thing. Thus, depending on your topic, you may want to talk about a cow as a heavy animal which damages damp pasture by walking upon it. Or as an animal which can generate ... Read more

English grammar Posted by James Cowan on 20 July 2017 in English language; Writing

I mentioned in an earlier blog that English is not "rule-based', merely a system of conventions ("More art than science", 3 October 2016, under Proofreading). That is, there are very few ways to be entirely "wrong" in English, although there are traps that can make you look less clever in the way you write. The easy one, that a surprising number of writers fall into, is to let the form of the verb (the "doing") and the number of "actors" who are ... Read more

Troubling phrases 2 Posted on 30 July 2017 by James Cowan in Troubling phrases

I saw the other day a magazine entitled "UFOlogy" on the same shelf as New Scientist in the local corner store. As if there really was a science devoted to "UFOs". A UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. So the science is devoted to the unknown. Sounds terribly metaphysical. But why should any flying object be "unknown"? Does it mean "Not yet identified", in the way that a mate of mine used to say that a fish in a rock ... Read more


Troublesome words 6 Posted on 9 August 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

A pair of non-interchangeable words that are sometimes in fact interchanged anyway, is "hung" and "hanged". "Hanged" is used almost exclusively to refer to a method of killing, usually following a judicial process. It is an instance of "passive voice", meaning that the process was or will be carried out on the person by someone else, generally unspecified. Thus "I sentence you to hang" or "to be hanged", and "Dick Turpin was hanged". "Hung" on the other hand, rarely involves ... Read more

Poor old Coventry Posted on 19 August 2017 by James Cowan in English language

I recently had the experience of trying to explain being "sent to Coventry" to my daughter, and was almost immediately out of my depth. I simply had no idea whence it came. I knew that during the Wars of the Roses, which was a to-and-fro between two major houses with pretensions to the English throne in the back half of the 1400s, culminating in the accession of the Tudors to the throne in 1485, every time Coventry was threatened or ... Read more

Learning English Posted on 29 August 2017 by James Cowan in English language

I recently proofread some work created by a native speaker of a language which was not English. I am sure I could not have done as well as he did in a foreign language (least of all his – I have tried), and I found only a few errors (far fewer than I usually find in English-first-language writers' work!). But it set me to thinking about the differences between English and a number of other European languages. The main one relates ... Read more


Troublesome words 7 Posted on 08 September 2017 by James Cowan in Troublesome words

There are a lot of words which end either in "-ice" or in "-ise" – for example advice and advise, device and devise – which have different meanings, and occasionally (actually, I think, only the ones already mentioned!) have a different pronunciation. There are quite a lot, too, which have different spellings due to local idiosyncrasies – "defence" does not exist in the USA, although "defensive" is used in both US and real English. However, as I am in an English-speaking ...Read more

More on Abstraction Posted on 18 September 2017 by James Cowan in General Semantics

There is more to abstraction, and this time it is in the lap of the beholder. If you, in the role of listener or reader, become aware that an abstraction is (or even may be) being used and that its parameters (i.e. that the qualities of an item which are pertinent to the discussion) have not been made clear, then it is up to you either to analyse what you are hearing or reading to try and identify them, or ... Read more




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