Is that shoe pastry?

A wonderful miscorrection of the Economist by Stephen J. Dubner on his Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website.

In the extract below from the Economist’s London Stock Exchange index, he suggests that pasty should read pastry.

“In the hills north east of Mexico City it is not uncommon to find Cornish pasties for sale.”

Some research needed before you go correcting people, Stephen.

Posted by Dan, 8 July, 2008 under Grammar | Life

Apostrophe madness

Now I love the apostrophe as much as the next man, assuming of course the next man is an apostrophe-crazed fool. But there is one use in particular that aggravates the shit out of me: when people head documents Do’s and Don’ts. Or Do’s and Don’t’s. The latter may be worse, with two faux pas, or better as at least it’s consistent. If you have to use the phrase, Dos and Don’ts, please. Thank you.

Posted by Dan, 16 June, 2008 under Grammar | Rules

The Link’s effect

Lynx’s latest campaign tells us men that “Its good to mix things up”. Punctuation included, it seems.


The above screenshot from the Lynx website has addressed the error, albeit with the apostrophe quite clearly added as an afterthought; the TV is yet to catch up. It reminds me of Cadbury’s Creme Egg slogan, which temporarily read “How do you eat your’s?”

Posted by Dan, 5 May, 2008 under Grammar | Life


I’ve recently started working on a project in which apostrophes are second-class citizens. In communications, they crop up where they shouldn’t, and they are distinctly lacking where they rightfully belong. The apostrophisation (Look it up! Actually, please don’t) or otherwise of its is a lottery, seemingly unconnected with context; an agenda is pluralised with an errant apostrophe, yet people in possession of stuff are merely pluralised.

Maybe my concern of 1998 that the apostrophe is a dying punctuation mark is coming true. But maybe not, given that it’s cropping up in places it shouldn’t. Hopefully my voting it one of the seven wonders of the modern world two years back will keep its profile sufficiently high to fight off its mis-use, and promote its place in our documents, below the @ sign on our UK keyboards, and below the in the US. Long may it reign.

Posted by Dan, 1 May, 2008 under Grammar | Life

King’s Cross

King’s Cross is slowly becoming Kings Cross. More and more establishments, some of them well-respected, are ignoring what I assume is the ownership of the cross by the King, deciding instead to imply an anger shared by a whole host of kings.

The recent movement of the King’s Cross Thameslink connection to St. Pancras has prompted whatever company is responsible to erect associated, apostrophe-free signage diverting its customers accordingly. I genuinely believe the trend is down to ignorance rather than defiance.

It will be another bitter blow to punctuation if and when London Underground adopts the trend, removing the apostrophe from the blue bar across its logo. I’m confident that this move is a long way off.


Posted by Dan, 6 March, 2008 under Grammar | Life

Under- and over-estimation

A John Inverdale quote from tonight’s England vs. France post-match analysis put into question the premise behind its more common opposite:

Now Jonny Wilkinson: you can’t overestimate his importance in tonight’s game.

At first, I thought Inverdale was wrong. Surely he’d meant underestimate, right? But on analysing, it seems he’s right: if I estimate his importance, then the fact that this estimate cannot ever be too high suggests that he performed pretty well.

The counter is that we can’t underestimate his performance. And surprisingly, this is equally valid. But the can’t brings with it a different meaning.

  • Can’t underestimate: the estimator should not underestimate the importance, or do so at his/her peril
  • Can’t overestimate: there is no way that the estimator could ever overestimate, no matter how hard he tried

It’s a confusing language.

Posted by Dan, 23 February, 2008 under Grammar | Thoughts

Underway, under way

For as long as I can remember, BBC News has adopted the single-word approach for the word underway. But it seems that it made a conscious decision about four months ago to increase its articles’ word counts and update its styleguide by introducing a space between the previously inseparable r and w. Every article in BBC News now seems to adopt the two-word style, although the odd anomaly slips through. BBC Sport, in its less formal style (particularly in live Premier League updates), is more likely to adopt the single-word style, most likely at the disgust of the house-style police on the news desk.

Some quick searches across the News site show 362 pages of results for the one-word variety, yet only 86 pages for the newly introduced two-worder. In Sport, the two worder has racked up a mere three pages of search results, the more common one-worder clocking up 100 pages.

I expect the News site’s results will close up over time, while Sport will retain its defiant imbalance.

My strong preference, for what it’s worth, is for the conflated variety. Thanks for listening. I say! Hello? Is anyone there?

Posted by Dan, 18 February, 2008 under Grammar | Thoughts

Strunk & White

I’m reading The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, a recommendation from Alan. It’s a lovely, pocket-sized book, and the first 47 pages have been educational and thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the following point of style.

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly used in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

I’m looking forward to the remaining 48 pages.

Posted by Dan, 18 July, 2007 under Grammar | Life

Tommorrow, tommorrow, I love ya, tommorrow

Bless her. And a lovely, if subtle, article title.

Posted by Dan, 1 June, 2007 under Grammar | Life

Crime’s against the apostrophe

We received a pre-printed gift card the other day bearing the message Its a girl. And I read a headline in a professional publication today bearing the word childrens’. Grammatical heathens.

Posted by Dan, 23 January, 2007 under Grammar | Life

Grammatical disappointment

2006 has been a year of grammatical disappointment. On both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve been stunned at the lack of grammatical awareness among colleagues and clients.

There are two types: grammatical clumsiness and unquestionable errors. The former is almost expected; the latter is becoming similarly commonplace. I’ve seen numerous documents allegedly in a state ready for distribution which have been littered with mistakes.

While Microsoft Office will correct your spelling and make sure your sums are correct, it hasn’t yet mastered perfecting the grammar of the ill-educated.

The root of the problem has to be schooling. The trend is generally more prevalent among younger workers (although it’s surprising how often the older generation can get it wrong), indeed suggesting that educational standards have dropped over time. I also think the trend is exacerbated through laziness. People sometimes know the rule that they’ve broken (its/it’s being a prime example) once their copy has been corrected.

While I would be the first to give myself the pedant label (well, maybe not the first), I’m confident that my issue here goes beyond pedantry.

For the record, while both countries fall short of the mark, my experience suggests that grammatical standards in the American workplace are higher than those here in the UK.

Here’s a little test to keep you on your toes.

Posted by Dan, 21 December, 2006 under Grammar | Life

Apostrophe makes grammatically incorrect comeback

The Metro newspaper today tried to make up for its double apostrophe omission last Friday. In its offline article about the despicable Connor family from Brooklands, Manchester, it reported that “Natalie [Connor] faces 11 years’ in prison for manslaughter.”

Maybe the apostrophe is making a comeback, in a grammatically incorrect way.

Posted by Dan, 20 December, 2006 under Grammar | Life

Y-O-U-R means your; Y-O-U-’-R-E means you are!

Marks and Spencer has some grammatically incorrect slippers on sale at the moment. They contain a red card that you can pull out, which reads: Your Off.

Reminds me of the Friends episode where Ross teaches Rachel the meaning of your and you’re.

Posted by Dan, 17 December, 2006 under Grammar | Life

The death of the apostrophe?

Two headlines in this morning’s Metro:

  • Airports growth is a step nearer
  • 30 years jail for trying to kill PC

There should be an apostrophe after both Airports and years, although the former is potentially excusable.

Standards are slipping, and the apostrophe seems to be bearing the brunt.

Posted by Dan, 14 December, 2006 under Grammar | Life and the errant em dash

When you search for flights on and click search, you are presented with a holding screen, informing you that: is searching for
flights on selected travel dates:
Thu 23/11/2006 — Sat 25/11/2006

(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, 20 November, 2006 under Grammar | Life

The seven-dot ellipsis

Most people don’t understand that the ellipsis is in itself a symbol of punctuation. It consists of three dots in succession, and Microsoft kindly converts it into a single character when you type that third full-stop.

I’ve sat through countless presentations today. Many attempted to use the ellipsis (usually at the end of a pensive slide title), but all failed grammatically in using it correctly, opting for more than three dots, perhaps to elicit additional anticipation from its audience. The most common number was seven, which is particularly irksome as it’s not divisible by three, resulting in Microsoft converting it to two ellipses and a full-stop, with inconsistent spacing throughout. Grammar heathens.

So now you know.

Posted by Dan, 1 November, 2006 under Grammar

The Spelling Bee: winning/losing words

Here is some information on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is held every year in America. It’s so popular, it even gets some significant coverage on ESPN.

The fascinating part of the above-linked page is the list of winners and the winning words. Such is the nature of the competition, a winning word for the winner is by definition a losing word for the runner(s)-up.

First of all, it’s obvious that the standard has increased significantly over time. I don’t know the meaning of the last 13 years’ winning words, and would struggle to spell any of them. Meanwhile, there must have been some runner-up kids kicking themselves in the competition’s early history, as the following list shows:

  • 1928: albumen
  • 1930: fracas
  • 1932: knack
  • 1934: deteriorating (please!)
  • 1935: intelligible
  • 1937: promiscuous
  • 1940: therapy
  • 1941: initials
  • 1970: croissant

Some of the above faux-pas are an indication of how our language has evolved. Others are no doubt howlers that drew gasps from the live studio audience.

Posted by Dan, 16 October, 2006 under Grammar

The hyphen, the en dash and the em dash

I’ve always been quite interested in typography, but one subtlety I’ve never researched is the array of dashes available, nor their correct grammatical uses. This Wikipedia article gives a very detailed explanation, but here’s a shorter version.

Essentially, there are three types:

– the hyphen or minus (-)
– the en dash (–)
– the em dash (—)

(Note that the hyphen and en dash may look similar under small font settings, but they’re actually different symbols.) The hyphen or minus isn’t actually a dash at all. It’s used to hyphenate words or as a mathematical symbol.

The en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen, being half as long as the font is high. So if you’re using twelve point, an en dash is six points in length. (Its name comes from the fact that this is generally the approximate width of the ‘N’ character.) Essentially, it’s used where there is a connection between two things.

– Date and time ranges: June–July, 1–2pm, 3–5 years old
– Page ranges: pp. 38–55
– New York–London flight
– Where two words shouldn’t be hyphenated, but are associated: mother–daughter relationship
– As a hyphen in compound adjectives, where the adjectives don’t refer to one another: pre–World War II, anti–New Zealand

Finally, the em dash is twice as long as the en dash. As such, it’s as long as the font is high. It’s used in the following instances.

– To mark a sudden ‘parenthetical’ break of thought, either at the end of a sentence (in which case you use one) or mid-sentence (where you use two). Here, it could be thought to be replaceable by a colon or parentheses respectively.
– To mark an open date range (Dan Harrison, 1973—)

In North American and old-British usage, the em dash should never be surrounded by spaces in the first example above. Although not officially sanctioned, modern practice is to instead use a spaced en dash, which I prefer. It gives necessary space to the break, allowing the reader to breathe and mentally separate what is to follow from that which has preceded.

Just as with the degree sign (°), it’s a shame that neither of the dashes has made it to the standard keyboard, leaving writers to copy and paste it from somewhere else, or use some difficult-to-remember keyboard shortcut.

Nonetheless, I will strive to use these correctly moving forward.

Posted by Dan, 19 February, 2006 under Grammar