Grating English

Here follow lots of examples of what I consider to be bad English, which I come across very often.


There are two pronunciations of this word. With the stress on the last syllable, it is a verb, and with the stress on the second, it is an adjective. “He would alternate [verb]. One morning he would walk to work, then the next he would drive” “The club met on alternate [adjective] Thursday evenings.” The concept described is one of two things changing back and forth predictably. Neither version of this word means alternative, which has an entirely different meaning. An alternative to one thing is another. The sentence, “I think we should take an alternate route,” would be a very strange suggestion indeed. I suppose it would most probably mean that the speaker believes that the best way to find the restaurant would be to turn left at the next junction, then right, then left, then right…

American Pronunciation

English is a language native to the English. It is now spoken throughout Britain. Americans also speak English, but it is widely believed that they speak it less well. Some of the differences between American and British English were caused by the Americans preserving older ways of speaking English. Not all the American differences are bad. Some are merely differences. However, when I hear a member of Her Majesty’s general public using American pronunciation for no good reason, it grates on me. Come on, chaps, let us speak our own language our own way, eh? Where the Americans have a different way of saying a word, they almost invariably have an uglier way of saying it. There are of course many examples, here are three:

Research: this word has the stress on the second syllable, not the first. I’d prefer to hear reSEARCH, not REEsearch.

Schedule: I suppose the word school might be the source of this confusion. The word in Britain is pronounced without a hard K sound. It is “shedule”, not “skedool”.

Lieutenant: This derives from a French word. Literally, it refers to the man who becomes the tenant of command in lieu of the captain - lieutenant. One could assume a French accent, I suppose, and pronounce it as would the snail-chewing scoundrels from the Land of Garlic. However, we Brits have adopted our own way of saying the word, and this refers to the meaning of it. The man who is left as tenant of command when the captain is away is the “left-tenant”, and that is how the word is pronounced. The Americans manage an interesting double, and pronounce it in a way that reflects neither its meaning nor its origins, and they say “loo-tenan”. I know of no reason to copy them.

[Note also that the word is pronunciation, not, as I usually hear it mispronounced, “pronounciation”.]


The apostrophe is now being misused so often by so many people that it is feared that it will go out of use entirely or become meaningless. This is odd, given that it is perhaps the most simple piece of punctuation to use. It is so simple in fact, that I am here going to try to write down a comprehensive guide to its use.

An apostrophe is used to indicate ownership of something. Where it is placed depends on whether the word it is used on is singular or plural. If a book (singular) is blank, then one might say that there is nothing on the book's pages. If the pages of many books (plural) are blank, then one might say that there is nothing printed on any of the books' pages.

There are three exceptions to the above.

1. If the plural word does not end in S, and an S is added in order to show ownership, then the apostrophe comes before the S, as in a children's poet, or the people's champion.

2. If a singular word ends in S, then there are two options. One is to put the apostrophe after the S, as in, "Hector donned Achilles' armour." The other is to add a second S and put the apostrophe before it, as in, "St. James's Square." I prefer the latter, but the former is used by convention with classical and biblical names.

3. In possessive pronouns, the apostrophe is not used. Therefore the words yours, hers, theirs have no apostrophe. The greatest confusion comes with the word its because the word it's does also exist but has a separate meaning. Its means belonging to it, whereas it's is short for "it is". The single exception is the impersonal pronoun one's.

The apostrophe is also used to indicate where letters of a word have been left out. Hence fish 'n' chips, don't, I'll, fo'c's'le (forecastle), and '20s (instead of 1920s).

Australian intonation?

A very annoying habit, common amongst the young, and which I think comes from watching too many Australian soap operas, is that of ending sentences on a high note. The voice goes up at the end of a sentence, or even at the end of each phrase. The effect of this is to make the speaker sound as if he is doubtful whether the listener is familiar with any of the words being used, and is constantly questioning the listener’s comprehension, and asking for assurance that all is understood. For example, the sentence, “A very annoying habit, common amongst the young, and which I think comes from watching too many Australian soap operas, is that of ending sentences on a high note,” might be spoken as follows (capitals indicate syllables spoken with a strong upward intonation) : “A very annoying HABIT? common amongst the YOUNG? and which I think comes from watching too many Australian SOAP OPERAS? is that of ending sentences on a HIGH NOTE?” If the listener were truly baffled by such rare terms as habit, young, soap opera, and high note then this would be patronising, but just about tolerable. For those of us who have no such trouble, it is blinking irritating.


The word bonus refers to something extra that one might not otherwise have, which comes added to some other thing or things. This is quite a specific meaning, and it is useful to have a word that can specify this, and celebrate it. The advantages of having the word bonus in the English language are thrown away, however, when someone says, "That's an added bonus." As opposed to what other sort of bonus - a subtracted one? This weird ambiguity is introduced by the hideous tautology of describing a bonus as "added". Of course, it could be that one bonus was expected, and that a second bonus is gained unexpectedly, and this is added to the first. In this unusual case, the phrase added bonus might be logical, but it would not be clear, thanks to the frequent misuse of the word bonus.

Centre Around

“The controversy centres around the affair between the government minister and his secretary.” No it doesn’t. It cannot. Nothing can centre around anything else. This is a contradiction in terms. Something might centre on something else, or revolve around something, but never centre around.


The word gender derives from the same root as the word genre. It means something like category. Language scholars have noticed that words in languages can be divided into groups that share certain characteristics, and these are called “genders”. Most of us in Britain over the age of about twenty or thirty first encountered this word when we were taught French at school. In French, there are two categories of noun. One takes “le” as the definite article, and “un” as the indefinite. The other takes “la” and “une”. Largely because the words for man and boy fall in one category, and those for woman and girl fall in the other, these are for convenience called “masculine” and “feminine”. The word for door in French is “la porte”. We might say that door in French is feminine, in that it shares certain characteristics with female things, such as taking la and une for articles. The French, however, are not saying that a door is actually female, that it produces eggs and one day may give rise to a baby door.

Because of the confusion between “feminine” and “female”, many people have mistakenly started to think that gender refers to whether some thing is male or female. We already have a word for that: sex. In fact, some languages have several categories of noun, not just two. German has three, and other languages have far more. There are only two sexes. If you mean sex, say “sex”.

Football language

Football pundits and commentators speak astoundingly bad English, and set dreadful examples. They are particularly bad offenders with confusion between singulars and plurals (see “Plurals!” below). Here are two more common errors:

Clinical: The Oxford English dictionary lists a few meanings of this word. These are “of or at the sick bed”; when applied to words like death and medicine it means judged by observation of a person’s condition/observed symptoms; lastly, “objective, dispassionate, coldly detached”. It derives from a Greek word meaning bed. Which of these meanings, I wonder, does a television commentator have in mind when we see a jubilant player celebrating after scoring a goal, and he says, “It was a great cross from his team-mate, and as ever the finish was clinical”?

Came Away With A Result: If a football team were to be thrashed seven-nil, then this would be a result. It would also be an embarrassing defeat. Unaccountably, the word result seems to have become confused with victory.

Hard To Say Words

Some words are hard to say. One might argue that this is a fault with the language, and that we should change the words. Once we used to say “cup-board”, but a P followed by a B is tricky to say clearly, so this word has become “cubb’d”. For now, though, we are stuck with some tricky words, and I must say that I prefer to hear them said properly. These include secretary, February, recognise, library, probably, and specifically. These words are opportunities to show that one can manage difficult sounds. Think of them as like the triple jumps in an ice skating dance routine.


The verb to hope is used less and less often. Instead, people try to substitute the adverb "hopefully", and fail. The following sentences are not synonymous:

I hope to arrive on time.

I will arrive on time, hopefully. (or Hopefully, I will arrive on time)

The first expresses a hope. The speaker is expressing some possibility of future failure. The second is quite different. It is an expression of certainty. I will arrive is the finite verb, and one that predicts arrival. Hopefully in that sentence is an adverb that qualifies the verb. It states that when the speaker does in future, as he certainly will, arrive, then he will do so in a manner full of hope.

I set off, hopefully is a perfectly good phrase, expressing that the speaker started a journey, and as he did it, he did so in a hopeful manner, feeling at the time the emotion of hope.

Infer versus Imply

I’ve dealt with this one already, but I’ll just say again that this one grates.

Less versus Fewer

Less means “not as great a quantity”, and fewer means “not so great a number”. So, you might choose to have “less” wine poured into your glass, because wine can be poured into a glass in varying quantities. You would not choose to have “less” people coming to your party, because numbers, not quantities, of people turn up to parties. You don’t invite people by weight. You would not say, “Eighty-eight stones, three pounds, four ounces of people came to my party last year, but I had to tell two stone six to leave.”

Now, on being informed of this, people have said to me “Oh for goodness sake, Lloyd, I can’t when I’m talking stop before choosing a word and think to myself, ‘is this an infinitely divisible quantity or a matter quantifiable only in integers?’ - I just say ‘less’. It doesn’t matter anyway.” It is true that the first couple of times after learning the rule, you may find yourself having to stop to think, but it soon becomes second nature. No one I know has any trouble choosing between much and many, and yet the distinction is the same. None of my friends ever says to me, “How many wine would you like me to pour you?” or, “How much people do you think will come this year?”

As for whether it matters, well, it certainly matters to me. Here is the test: I want you to start getting much and many confused from now on. Whenever you can, get it wrong. Then see how people react to you, and see what you sound like to yourself. That’s how you sound to me when you say “less” when you mean fewer.


This word is not to be used lightly. It does not mean very, nor nearly, it means actually, in the exact literal meaning of the word. "I literally died of embarrassment!" So who is speaking this - your revenant? "It was hell, literally hell!" Gosh, I'm impressed that you escaped from the prison of eternal torment - do tell me how you did it. "He was literally on the wrong side of the road!" How is that any different from, "He was on the wrong side of the road"? A good use of this word might be, "He was knocked out of the competition, literally," because one might imagine that the boxer was beaten by some method other than being punched unconscious, and one gains the information that he lost through a knock-out.

Lying Laying

A news report I heard yesterday said that an injured person had been left “laying on the pavement” by his attackers. Laying what? bricks, perhaps? Laying down plans for an early retirement? The reporter meant that he was left LYING on the pavement, but said otherwise. The verbs to lie (down) and to lay (bricks or whatever) do indeed share the part lay, but they do not share all parts. He lay on the sofa (past). He laid bricks all last weekend (past). I lay bricks for a living (present). He lies on the lawn (present). We have lain here for too long (past participle).


The word majority is singular. Its plural is majorities. It refers to a proportion greater than half of some total number. One might use it to say, "The majority of British subjects has been abroad." This would mean that over half of the people living in Britain have been to some foreign land. Notice "majority has" because it is singular. There is a trend to use fancy long words in an effort to sound formal and clever, and this leads to ridiculous sentences such as, "The majority of the water in the bucket spilt." Here the majority is used incorrectly when the simple and correct word most would do the job. You can't have a majority of water. Majorities are made up of people, or perhaps sometimes things, but not quantities.


This word describes a short period of time. If I were to see someone “momentarily”, then I would see them for a very short period, during which I might not get a good look at them, and my description of them in court might be wanting. The word does not mean soon. Too often I hear the like of, “I will be with you momentarily, and then we can have a long talk.” This is illogical. We cannot have a long talk in a very short time.


If I do something to you, and you do the same to me, then this is mutual. I cannot have a friend to you. That doesn’t make sense. If I have a friend who is also a friend of yours, then we have a common friend, or have a friend in common, but we do not have “a mutual friend”. Also, if I am your friend and you are my friend, then we are simply “friends”. “Mutual friends” is a weird tautology - it suggests that this is a special type of friendship as opposed to the more usual type where A is friends with B, but B hates A’s guts.

Newsreader intonation

Today, newsreaders, who should be good examples to us all of speakers of fine English, speak increasingly poor English (even on Radio 4, which I find particularly sad). For the moment, I shall confine myself to their intonation, which is that of newsreaders and no one else. Journalists on television speaking to camera also speak in a manner quite alien to the rest of humanity. I would far rather they spoke normally. One particularly common and infuriating habit of newsreaders is to put massive amounts of stress on wholly inappropriate little words. One might hear the following (capitals indicate strong stress): “And now a report from Minty Ghosh, our European correspondent who is IN Brussels.” “Yes, hello, well we’ve just been told that Tony Blair is going TO the European Parliament Building…”

The stress on in suggests that the key fact to be understood is that Minty is IN Brussels, and not merely near there. Surely Brussels is the word deserving stress. That Tony is going TO somewhere would indicate that this is as opposed to his going FROM or PAST that place, which the listener might expect to be more likely.

I have been told that this newsreader intonation is something that newsreaders are taught to use when reading autocues. The theory is that if stress on prepositions is heavy, then ridiculous though this may sound, it does at least avoid a reader’s reading what comes next with the wrong stress, which might require the whole sentence’s being read again for the sake of clarity. This may be true, but I think that it would be better for the reader to read through his script first to avoid this mistake.


The word none is a contraction of not one. It means the same as “not one”. Consequently, it takes the singular. Imagine that someone else’s young son is playing with several of your knives. You may wish to reassure a worried parent that this is safe. You would not pick one up and say, “This one are not sharp”. You would say, “This one is not sharp”. Similarly, you could say, “Not one of them is sharp,” or, “None of them is sharp.” A common error that grates on me is, “None of them are sharp.”


The word only should appear immediately next to the words it qualifies, otherwise ambiguity is very likely. "I only served him four pints yesterday," could mean that no one else but the speaker served the man four pints. It could mean that the speaker served the man as recently as yesterday. It could mean that the speaker served no more than four pints to the man. It could mean that the man was the only person yesterday to have been served four pints by the speaker. It could mean that yesterday was the only day on which the speaker ever served the man four pints. It is a very ambiguous sentence. It could even mean that the speaker did not do anything else involving the man and four pints of beer, he merely served the man the pints. The following are not ambiguous:

"Only I served him four pints yesterday" (No one else served him this number of pints).

"I served him only four pints yesterday" (I served him no more than four).

"I served only him four pints yesterday" (I served no one else this number of pints).

"I served him four pints only yesterday" (It was very recently that I served him four pints - mildly ambiguous with the next version of the sentence).

"I served him four pints yesterday only" (On no other day did I serve him four pints).


Fewer and fewer people seem to be able to tell the difference between a singular word and a plural one. In English, it is usually easy to tell, since almost all plurals end in the letter S, but people still get horribly confused. Take the word team. This is the singular. Teams is the plural. Simple, eh? Apparently not. It is common to hear something like, “The team are playing well.” If several football teams were all playing well, then one might say, “The teams are playing well.” Note the tell-tale S on the end of “teams”. If the speaker means to say that just the one team on its own is playing well, then he should say, “The team IS playing well.”

The common counter-argument to this is that a football team is made up of many players, and so one should use the plural are, not the singular is. Rubbish. The rule is really very simple and unambiguous. The verb agrees with its subject, and if the subject is singular, the verb is singular.

Other words commonly confusing people are the names of countries and organisations. “Liverpool is playing from right to left on your screens,” is what the commentator should say, not “… are playing…” Similarly, it is, “Brazil looks like a formidable team,” not, “Brazil look like a formidable team.” (that last error is actually correct as an imperative, so if the commentator were issuing an order to the country Brazil to try and appear unified and formidable, this would be correct grammatically, but a rather odd instruction). Crew, government, committee, council, are all singular nouns, easy to convert into plurals by adding an S, and there is only one Newcastle United, so never let me hear you say, “Newcastle are going to win the cup,” because Newcastle IS going to win the cup.


Unlike momentarily, this word actually does mean soon. It is common to hear pompous people use this as a longer version of now. The phrase at present means roughly the same as now, but there is a difference between present and presently. Presently is not quite the present, but almost - it will be the present soon.


“It’s a quality product.” Is it really? what quality? weight? height? price? speed of delivery? A product has many attributes, many qualities, many things about it that might be described in some way. The word quality on its own describes nothing. If someone sent you out to buy some “colour paint”, would you know which paint to buy? If you mean that a product is very good, then you might express this by saying that it is a “high quality product.” This would distinguish it from a low quality product, which would, of course, still be a quality product, but then all products are. There is nothing in the universe so perfectly bland as to have no qualities whatsoever.

Reflexive pronouns

A bizarre fashion has sprung up for using reflexive pronouns nonsensically where simpler pronouns would do. On a television programme called Big Brother there appeared a woman called Jade whose facility to come up with entertainingly awful English while talking at great speed was astonishing. It would have taken a genius to speak the way she did deliberately, and Jade was no genius. A particular remark she made which sticks in my mind is, "I just batted a blind eye - it's water over the bridge." She was a particular fan of reflexive pronouns. She would say, "I'm told that yourself have been talking about myself," when she meant to say, "I'm told that you have been talking about me." Reflexive pronouns are used to indicate that a verb has been acted out by the doer of that verb upon himself, as opposed to upon someone or something else. Helen might wash a plate, Helen might wash you, but Helen cannot wash yourself. Only you can wash yourself.


The Americans have a strange way of using the word regular. They use it to mean any of ordinary, normal, standard, and even medium. The word has many meanings, but none of these is one. A regular shape has some sort of evenness and symmetry. A square is a regular shape. A person not suffering from constipation might euphemistically be called “regular”. Men who have served for a long time in the professional army are “regulars”. A thing that happens repeatedly at a predictable time is “regular”. The size of a pair of trousers between large and small is medium. If a person is ordinary, call them ordinary or normal. If you call them “regular” then a speaker of British English will be wondering whether this is thanks to a high bran diet, or which regiment they were in. If you are at a refreshment stall, and you are asked if you want a “regular coke”, ask them how big is the coke, and how often you get it.


English has many tenses and moods, one is the subjunctive. This is the mood of the hypothetical, not the actual. I am not a wild west hero, but perhaps I might want to be. I could say, “I wish I were a wild west hero”, and you would know that I am not talking about reality, but about a fantasy. Were I to say (I used the subjunctive there again - did you notice?), “I wish I was a wild west hero”, then this would mean something quite different. “I was” is the past tense. My statement would mean that my present wish is that at some time in the past I had been a wild west hero. Perhaps I am a wild west hero today, and am expressing the desire that this state of being be at an end. Here are some examples of the subjunctive tense:

“I demand that he withdraw from the competition” [“He withdraws” or “he is withdrawing” would refer to actuality, but this is a demand that the current state of affairs should change, and an acknowledgement that at present he has not withdrawn from the competition.]

“I thought that he were here” [In my thoughts, he appeared to be here now, not at some time in the past. “I thought that he was here” would mean that in my head it was established that at some point in the past he was here.]

“I suggest that he be expelled from the school” [If I were to say, “I suggest that he is expelled from the school”, then my suggestion would be that the current situation is one in which he has already been expelled from the school.]

“God save the King!” [A simple present factual statement would be “God saves the King”, but this is an expression of hope, not of actuality. It could also be an order to God to save the King (imperative), but people tend not to give gods orders.]

“If need be, I could come and collect you” [Most English speakers use the subjunctive phrase “if need be” correctly, without knowing it to be a subjunctive. This is a “set phrase”.]

“If he were to realise his mistake, he could avoid repeating it” [This predicts that he will not realise his mistake - a pessimistic use of the subjunctive.]

Subjunctives drop the S on the end of the third person (so “withdraws” becomes “withdraw”), and use “were” and “be” for all parts of the verb To Be. It would take rather a lot of words to explain which of these two you should use when, and I think that any native English speaker would instinctively know which is correct, having seen the above examples.

Unnecessarily Long Words

There are people who can speak normally, but when they come to write something for public reading, they find it fitting to use pointlessly long words and phrases. Start is a perfectly good word, and it would be a very extraordinary situation in which commencement would be better. I'm not sure I've ever heard utilised spoken when used wouldn't be better. If you mean now, say “now” rather than “currently at this present moment in time.”


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