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Blogs about the English language

Note that these entries are in date sequence – oldest first.

English – what a strange language (1) Posted on 5 July 2016 by James Cowan in English language

English must be hellish to learn as an adult. No doubt about it. We use words from other languages, some of them with odd characteristics (e.g. "kudos" is not a plural!). To an outsider, English-speakers may seem to be using rules they make up as they go along. And so we do, when we speak, the context, tone and even body language allowing a reasonable ... Read more

English – what a strange language (2) Posted on 03 September 2016 by James Cowan in English language

Once the basic structure of English became fixed, and spelling, with the invention of the printing press (and the dictionary!), the English people were great at travelling all over the World, and bringing back words that they found useful to add to the general hodgepodge. They probably weren’t unique in this, but I am not concerned, here, with the story of other languages. Not even of American. So users of English are familiar with “agenda” from Latin, “criteria”, from ancient Greek (even if not with the fact that this is the plural ... 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

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 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

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

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