What is the singular of Portuguese?

What in English is the singular noun for people from Portugal? Countryfolks’ plurals are easy. The French, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Americans, Canadians etc. (I won’t go on.)

But when you move to the singular, things become a bit more awkward. For some we’re fine – an American, a Canadian and a German can quite easily walk into a bar as a premise for a joke. And if you aren’t bothered about gender equality, you can probably introduce a Frenchman for good measure. (“Frenchy” is frowned upon.)

But what if you want to bring along a western Iberian, I think you’ll struggle. The best I can do is “Portuguese person”. But the BBC recently opted simply for “Portuguese” in reference to Mr. Mourinho:

“That’s what I read –  it was a disaster,” said the Portuguese.

I have to say, I don’t like it. It just doesn’t sit comfortably.

The problem seems unique to those countryfolk whose names end with an “ese”: Lebanese, Vietnamese, Balinese, Chinese. Although perhaps Thai suffers from the same problem.

What say you? Portugalian? Lebanonian? Chinan?

Posted by Dan, 22 September, 2013 under Grammar

Insubordinate conjunctions

In certain situations, the word “that” seems to be falling by the wayside.

The following sentence in the BBC’s article about the tragic death of a 14-year-old as a result of an alleged dog attack prompted the post:

Early indications were two of the dogs put down were bull mastiffs and two may be Staffordshire bull terriers, officers said.

Now traditionally, you’d see the word “that” after the word “were”: Early indications were that two of the dogs…”

Technically speaking, what we’re talking about is a subordinating conjunction. And my view is that the addition of the that helps with the flow of the sentence. Its omission can have you retracing your steps to make sure you’re interpreting the sentence correctly.

I’ve read many a technical spec. and business plan of late, and the same seems to be happening after the word “ensure”.

We will ensure services are restored with minimum disruption.

Ten years ago, that would never have stood. Back then, we would have ensured that services were restored. But it’s becoming more commonplace not to bother with the that.

I can’t say I like it. But I guess [that] over time, the shorter version will become the norm, and that eventually, the traditional inclusion of the word will come across as stilted and archaic.

Posted by Dan, 26 March, 2013 under Grammar | Rules

Because noun: my response

My good friend Paul today highlighted to me a rather interesting blogpost. It talks of the recent removal of a preposition after the word “because”. Examples cited include:

We invaded Iraq because freedom.

I ate all of my dessert because chocolate.

I must admit, I’ve not heard of this contraction, either in written or spoken English. Perhaps it’s an American thing, as the blog’s author is Boston-based.

It reminds me of the American English rule that the verb “to write” can be transitive when referring to a recipient. So the following is just fine and dandy in American English.

I am going to write my local senator to articulate my disappointment.

The sentence would cause all sorts of consternation in the UK, not least because we don’t have senators. When the verb “to write” is used transitively in British English, the object refers to what is being written, as opposed to who is being written to. But there’s rarely an instance where the two can be confused, so I’m not troubled by it. Indeed, I quite like the shortened American version.

Michael Ondaatje wrote the English Patient.
Oh really? And how did they respond?

Americans are also more likely to remove the preposition when referring to recent past and imminent future events, a behaviour that I simply love.

American: Can you attend the meeting Monday?
Brit: I can’t attend the meeting on Monday because I’ll be busy being pompous about transatlantic grammar differences.

But with the new “because” clause, my immediate reaction is to wait for the remainder of the trailing clause. After hearing “We invaded Iraq because freedom”, I’m awaiting something along the lines of “We invaded Iraq because freedom was the only choice”.

And because this awkwardness [sic], I’m not keen on the contraction.

Posted by Dan, 12 January, 2013 under Grammar


I learnt a new word today: syllepsis.

A syllepsis is a specific type of zeugma, which begs the question: what’s a zeugma.

A zeugma is a figure of speech in which multiple parts of a sentence are joined with a single verb or noun.

Family, religion, friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.

The verb is operating on three objects, but means something subtly different in each case.

A syllepsis (also known as a semantic zeugma) is a zeugma in which the grammar becomes stilted, either because of a change in meaning or through a grammatical inconsistency.

He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.

She lowered her standards by raising her glass.

The sky—and my hopes—is falling.

Syllepses are intended constructs. And I rather like them.

Posted by Dan, 6 April, 2012 under Grammar

Staff is vs. staff are

A friend emailed yesterday asking why Microsoft tried to change “staff are” to “staffs are”. Here’s some background.

Imagine the following sentence.

The staff are going to go bananas when they find out.

Now taking aside whether you’re happy about the word “bananas” in the above sentence, my understanding is that most Brits will find this sentence perfectly fine, while many Americans will smart at it. And here’s why.

Americans are much more loyal to the rule that a group noun must be treated as singular. In the main, they will treat family, team, staff as singular and the verb will obey this rule. So the England team is without a manager, my family is so dysfunctional, and the staff is going to go bananas when they find out.

Meanwhile, British people deem those sentences to read awkwardly. So in the main, we’ll tend towards adopting the plural form of the noun: the England team are going to struggle in Euro 2012, my family are going on holiday without me, and the staff are going to go bananas.

Microsoft Word, whether it’s set to UK or US English, underlines “staff are” in green, flagging it as a potential grammar violation. It suggests “staff is” or staffs are”. The former bows to the American English strictness for treating group nouns as singular; the latter suggests you may be writing about shepherds’ staffs.

I expect that American English has its limits when it comes to the pluralisation of group nouns. “Number”, for example, is one that should strictly be singular, but I expect is treated as plural on both sides of the Pond. “A number of people is going out tonight” would, I expect, cause consternation regardless of nationality.

Posted by Dan, 5 April, 2012 under Grammar

The apostrophe that few people get

Most professionals get the apostrophe. They understand when to use it, when not to, what it signifies and most of the rules associated with it. They know that it’s important that its use is correct. And they’re confident in their ability to use them correctly.

But there is one apostrophe use that always divides opinion and gets people debating, often vehemently. I have no idea what it’s called. But I know how to use it. Below is an example sentence.

Please can you give me two hundred pounds’ worth of dollars?

From the discussions I’ve had about it, most people will not use an apostrophe. Nor will they think one’s necessary when prompted. But the apostrophe is necessary, and not using one is, technically, grammatically incorrect.

For a moment, consider its singular equivalent.

Please can you give me a pound’s worth of gobstoppers?

Now apart from swapping dollars for gobstoppers, mainly to lighten the mood, the only change is reducing the two hundred to one.

In this latter example, I don’t think any semi-educated person in their right mind would think of leaving the apostrophe out. But by pluralising the amount, suddenly it becomes confusing.

This apostrophe will be the first to disappear as English changes and grammatical correctness becomes compromised with time. And eventually, likely in my lifetime, it will become grammatically incorrect to use one.

Posted by Dan, 21 December, 2011 under Grammar

Grammar: Things I can’t abide

As a professional proofreader, I look for everything that’s wrong with a piece of text. Sometimes even when not proofreading, I struggle to raise myself above the grammar.

But there are certain things that I really can’t abide. Fortunately for you, my services will get rid of such things for you—as well as countless others. Below is a short list (as opposed to a shortlist) of the ones that drive me nuts:

  • Inconsistent spacing between sentences. Sometimes one; sometimes two.
  • Faux ellipses. Three full stops/periods (…) instead of the ellipsis symbol (…).
  • Hyperlinks that underline a trailing space or punctuation mark as well as the words that form the link. (Note that if an entire sentence is being hyperlinked, the full stop/period at the end should be underlined.)
  • Italicised words or phrases that also have the leading or trailing space italicised. It’s not obvious to a lay-reader, but it kills me.
  • Inconsistent punctuation at the end of bullets.
  • Redundant spaces at the end of paragraphs. Yes, I know they’re not harming anyone, but they are doing untold damage to my sanity.

Above are some of the reasons I’m a proofreader, and why arguably I’m no fun to be around.

Posted by Dan, 16 July, 2011 under Grammar

Carrying over a who

I paused on reading the following sentence in a BBC News article recently.

Inquiries also continue over the disappearance of Susan Rushworth, 43, who also worked as a prostitute and was last seen near her home in the Manningham area of Bradford on 22 June last year.

In the latter half of the sentence, the carry-over of the who is unacceptable.  The two constructs—”worked” and “was last seen”—are sufficiently different from one another to necessitate a second “who”.  I’m not sure whether the issue lies in the verbs being different in nature, or whether it’s because their context is so very different, but a second “who” is needed before the “was”.  If it had instead read:

[…who also worked as a prostitute and attended Bradford University

…then that would have been perfectly fine.

The two instances of the word “also” also grate.  Faux pas most definitely intended.

Posted by Dan, 30 May, 2010 under Grammar

The Natural History Museum’s em dash faux pas

The Natural History Museum has followed Expedia’s bad example in their use of the dash to indicate date ranges.  Remember, kids: en dash for ranges, unless the latter date is not yet fixed (e.g. for living people), in which case use an em dash.

Decode: 8 December 2009 — 11 April 2010

Posted by Dan, 10 March, 2010 under Grammar | Rules

Expedia.co.uk and the errant em dash

When you search for flights on expedia.co.uk and click search, you are presented with a holding screen, informing you that:

Expedia.co.uk is searching for
flights on selected travel dates:
Mon 23/11/2009 — Fri 27/11/2009

(Obviously the dates in question are those pertinent to your requested jaunt rather than mine.)

The em dash (—) between the dates should be an en dash (–), and there shouldn’t be any spaces.

It’s only a tiny point, but on a screen that all flight-bookers will see, they should really get it right.

Posted by Dan, under Grammar

A single version of English

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was an internationally-recognised standard for written English? If people saw the word color (or indeed colour) and didn’t recoil. If there was a widely acknowledged view as to whether The meeting Thursday or The meeting on Thursday was acceptable.

I’m not asking us to can our respective versions of English—British, American, Australian, Canadian etc. I’m instead suggesting that a new version of English is created that would, over time, supersede our respective versions, taking the loveliness from each and consolidating it into a single set of rules that people can abide by in certain media, predominantly the web at first.

And I’m not suggesting that any one of our beautiful set of idiosyncrasies overrules those of the other countries’. There are some beautiful American constructs; and some equally beautiful British ones. I’m sure the same is true of the other variants, although I’m less familiar with these.

To achieve the goal, I’m proposing we first brainstorm the inconsistencies. And then we bring together five leading literary luminaries representing each of the English variants to agree on which version is preferable, leaving aside their local bias.

The whole process would strengthen the language and bring closer the English-speaking world.


Posted by Dan, 21 November, 2009 under Grammar | Thoughts

Should of vs. should have

I have a couple of well-educated ex-colleagues who shall remain nameless who, in the written form, have started using the phrase should of, in the following context:

Mum should of gone to Iceland.

I must stress that this is not the actual phrase they used.  They used more business-like phrases.  But you get the picture.

Speech has always influenced the development of written language.  But the world we now live in is made up of people whose English education is often, at best, questionable—people who, even if educated appropriately to suspect a mistake, have neither the time nor the inclination to search for the truth.  This means that mistakes like that above will become increasingly prevalent with time, which is a shame.

The correct construct is:

Mum should have gone to Iceland.

Or indeed:

Mum really shouldn’t have gone to Iceland.  Especially now that they’ve fired Kerry Katona.

Posted by Dan, 4 November, 2009 under Grammar | Life

Tenet, tennent and tenor

Yesterday I heard three different words used to mean the same thing—two of them wrongly.

The word that everyone was reaching for was tenet.  And although one person correctly used the word, his colleagues used tennent and tenor.

And their repeated use of the incorrect variants was such that I was forced to question my own confidence that tenet was indeed the correct variant.  It is.

Posted by Dan, 22 September, 2009 under Grammar | Life

And vs. but

I love Elon Schoenholz’s use of the word and in his review of the Chrome Metropolis bag on the Cool Tools website.  (Lovely website, btw.)

Chrome’s Metropolis is expensive, and well worth the price if you live car-light and don’t use a rack and panniers or Xtracycle.

Most people would use the word but after the comma, signifying the high price as a weakness.  But, like the positioning of Stella Artois, the and positions the product’s high price in a positive light, alongside well worth the price.

A lovely little device.

Posted by Dan, 28 August, 2009 under Grammar

Out of orifice emails

The Outlook interface for creating and editing your out-of-office email response is dreadful. In Outlook 2007, it constitutes a text-box four lines high, maybe 350 pixels wide for entering raw, unformatted text. Keep typing and you’ll get a vertical scrollbar.

And the interface does not allow for spell-checking.

The dreadfully constrained interface and the lack of a spell-checker make for out-of-office emails littered with typos and grammatical heathenry, an email that is sent to way more people than any other.  I would estimate that over half of those I receive contain at least one error.

Today’s examples:

  • I am out of the office until Friday 22nd May and will limited access my emails during this time
  • I am out of the office at a and will be back at work on the 26th May 2009

Please.  Copy your email into Word.  Read it, check it and double-check it before turning your out of office on.  Thank you.

Posted by Dan, 21 May, 2009 under Grammar | Life

Too high for Nate

Lots of sites, both professional and otherwise, seem to be using a double-hyphen when they mean to use an em dash.  It’s as if they know that they need a long dash, but can’t be arsed to insert one.

The double-hyphen looks hideous, but it’s as if I should give them credit for trying.  How about trying a bit harder and typing ALT+0151 (on the number keypad, not the top row).  Or if you’re in WordPress (I am, don’t you know), hit the Insert Custom Character button sporting a Ω symbol, having hit the Show/Hide Kitchen Sink button).  The em dash can be found on the second row, fifth symbol from the right.

Here you’ll find more on the correct use of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes.

Posted by Dan, 11 April, 2009 under Grammar

The space line continuum

The space immediately after a link should never form part of the link itself. And the space after a portion of a sentence emphasised via a different fount should never share that of the emphasised portion.

Laziness through double-click and “intelligent” drag selecting gives an outcome that jars. With me at least.

Posted by Dan, 7 February, 2009 under Grammar | Rules

Carriage return, line feed

I read with interest and some amusement today’s news of Luc Costermans breaking the world blind road speed record.

My favourite part of the article was the paragraph-hungry BBC’s decision to separate these two sentences into two paragraphs.

Two years ago Mr Costermans completed a tour of France piloting a light aeroplane.

He was accompanied by an instructor and a navigator.

Surely the second sentence is a sufficient qualification of the first to negate the need for the carriage return, line feed.

Posted by Dan, 11 October, 2008 under Grammar | Life

Ben Dirs: crimes against the apostrophe

During the BBC’s online Olympic coverage this morning, there was the following update at 10.45:

1045: And we’re off – Sarah Stevenson versus Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico. Can the Doncaster lass keep her head while all around her are losing theres’? The 20-year-old Mexican is the current world middleweight champion, a title she won in Beijing last year.

Fortunately, they “corrected” it quickly to:

1045: And we’re off – Sarah Stevenson versus Maria del Rosario Espinoza of Mexico. Can the Doncaster lass keep her head while all around her are losing theirs’? The 20-year-old Mexican is the current world middleweight champion, a title she won in Beijing last year.

A couple of heinous errors from Ben Dirs, whose name is itself a stroke of genius.

Posted by Dan, 23 August, 2008 under Grammar | Life

‘I have never ended on an unstressed syllable!’

A fabulous article articulating the tension between journalists and sub-editors in the newspaper industry. Lots of sweariness, some beautiful humour and some artistically-crafted, unedited prose. Well worth a read.

Posted by Dan, 25 July, 2008 under Grammar | Life