‘White’ and ‘wight’

I’m jumping on the Halloween bandwagon with this week’s homophones: white and wight. I sometimes read people have been to the ‘Isle of White’ or would like to discuss the actions of the ‘Wight Walkers’ in Game of Thrones.

ghostsWhite

  • the colour (such as that of milk or snow)*
  • pale or light in colour
  • a person or people with pale or light-coloured skin
  • counter-revolutionary

Wight

  • a living being (in archaic usage)
  • a ghost, spirit or other supernatural being
  • a specific shipping forecast area covering part of the English Channel (‘Wight’)

My tip: a wight could be a ghost.

*I’m aware scientists may disagree with referring to white as a colour but it’s acceptable to do so in general usage.


Sources:

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Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, Jeremy Butterfield

I was given a copy of Damp Squid: the English language laid bare for Christmas. I’d like to say one of my best friends knows me so well that this was a gift he picked himself, but I asked for the book and he called me a nerd when he gave it to me.

This is the publisher’s description:

How many words are there in the English language and where were they born? Why does spelling ‘wobble’ and why do meanings change? How do words behave towards each other – and how do we behave towards words? And what does this all mean for dictionary-making in the 21st century? This entertaining book has the up-to-date and authoritative answers to all the key questions about our language.

Source: Damp Squid

Jeremy Butterfield edited the recent edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and I have shared some of his articles on Twitter. I admire his work; I think he is an eminently sensible man.

Damp Squid is aimed at a British audience but I am sure an American reader would understand most of the references (or at least understand them enough in context).

I think it is fair to describe the book as a love letter to the Oxford Corpus. The corpus is made up of global English texts, of all types, that can be read electronically. From this, researchers can draw conclusions about how the English language is being used.

BookshelfButterfield uses the corpus to explore the evolution and usage of English. He focuses on how the language is used rather than on prescribed ideas of how it should be used. If you have read some of my previous posts, you are probably aware that I usually write about standard usage rather than ‘correct’ usage. The book gives a good overview of how standard is determined and the problems that arise from trying to present one ‘correct’ version of English.

You might think that a book taking a close look at spelling and grammar would be dry and a bit dull. On the whole, Damp Squid is entertaining and interesting. Butterfield is mostly successful in balancing depth of information with amusing examples (“spam rage – the incandescent anger caused by dozens of emails offering to enhance parts of your anatomy you were perfectly happy with”). The discussion is accompanied by explanatory tables of usage statistics and illuminating quotes from such figures as Samuel Johnson.

All the chapters are clearly written and accessible. You don’t have to be a language expert to enjoy the book but an interest in the English language is probably required.

Two of my favourite chapters are those on where words come from and words that often group together. You might recognise the eggcorn in the title: damp squid. It appears in the chapter discussing idiomatic phrases, and the chapter is fascinating (especially the section comparing idioms from different languages).

I read Damp Squid in a few enjoyable hours (it is 165 pages excluding notes and index). You can find more reviews on Amazon, and you can probably acquire a second-hand copy for a reasonable amount if you fancy adding it to your bookshelf. Or you could start your Christmas list early.

The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser & Stephen Curtis

The Penguin Writer’s Manual features on my list of recommended books and my own bookshelf. The blurb describes it as follows:

The Penguin Writer’s Manual is the essential companion for anyone who wants to master the art of writing good English. Whether you’re composing an essay, sending a business letter or an email to a colleague, or firing off an angry letter to a newspaper, this guide will help you to brush up you communication skills and write correct and confident English.

via The Penguin Writer’s Manual.

BookshelfThe book isn’t as belligerent as that passage makes it sound. The value of this book is probably not in the depth of its explanations. If you need a quick refresher on what an adverbial phrase or a preposition is, this will help. The sections on word usage and vocabulary are also useful.

I think the value of this book is in its advice. The Penguin Writer’s Manual was published in 2002, but its content is still surprisingly relevant. (I am still coming to terms with 2002 being a long time ago.)

If you need to write a business letter but you aren’t sure what to include, the guidelines are well explained with examples of good practice. Other types of communication you may not do on a daily basis are also addressed, such as letters of sympathy or job references.

The authors also give more general advice, including discussions on style and effective communication. Much of the advice is easy to understand and apply, and yet in some ways profound:

One of the wisest uses of time is to think about precisely what it is you wish or need to say.

The book has 352 pages and would be easy to tuck into your bag if you wanted to work outside. You can find the book and more reviews on Amazon, but you can probably pick up a second-hand copy for a very reasonable amount.

Punctuation..? by User Design

User Design has very kindly sent me a free copy of Punctuation..? to review. (I haven’t had any previous involvement with User Design and I am not receiving any kind of payment for this review.)

Punctuation..? aims to explain the functions and uses of 21 punctuation marks. The intended audience seems to be broad, but the content is focused on the British English use of punctuation.

It is a slim book at 36 pages. It is staple bound (or saddle stitched) with the title of the book on the spine.

Used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Printed on good quality paper, it feels nice in the hand. However, I don’t think this can help to justify the £10 price tag.

The illustrations are idiosyncratic but charming. They are the main selling point of this publication. Readers who are easily bored should find the often amusing drawings enough reason to keep reading.

I was very pleased to see en dashes and em dashes touched on as well as hyphens. I was also interested to see guillemets, interpuncts and pilcrows included.

Unfortunately, the book is let down by errors, clunky prose and a lack of clarity. I find some of the explanations to be unhelpful or slightly misleading. This is a shame because Punctuation..? could be an excellent introductory guide after a little polishing.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

The book is ideal if you want to spark someone’s interest in punctuation. It would also be ideal for a child who finds the topic of punctuation difficult or intimidating.

For adults, you might enjoy it as a quirky primer. But if you want to know how to use punctuation correctly, I can’t recommend anything more than Trask’s Guide to Punctuation.

Paragraphs

A few months ago, I tweeted this:*

Paragraphs tweet

Most people are able to use paragraphs very well without any help from me. But occasionally I am confronted with a solid block of words that makes my heart sink a little.

You can think of paragraphs as units of thought. There are no real rules about how long they should be, but one-sentence paragraphs should not be used too often and paragraphs any longer than a page are going to lose you readers. As usual, context will dictate what is appropriate. The best way to approach it is one idea per paragraph. (This doesn’t have to be a huge change of idea – it is usually nuanced.)

It might be helpful to consider the structure for paragraphs in essays. They should typically be structured as follows: introduce idea, elaborate on idea, reach conclusion and/or establish direction for the next paragraph. This can be applied to most other writing situations but its usefulness will depend on style and context (again).

Paragraphs are particularly important for web-based content, and they should be fairly short. Because readers tend to scan text online, gaining and keeping their attention is easier with short paragraphs.

Paragraphs break up the text, making it look less intimidating and more accessible. They make it easier to follow and understand the argument, discussion or narrative. And they will help the writer to focus on and progress through their ideas.

Use paragraphs. They’re great.

*The universe Twitter largely ignored me.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (ed.)

This is my latest book recommendation. I consult this book regularly and it rarely lets me down. Respected and authoritative, it is a book with a sensible and measured approach to the English language.

The 7,500 entries are displayed in an A–Z fashion (like a dictionary, as per its name) with clear explanations and examples. It covers grammar, syntax, spelling, word choices and meanings, punctuation, and differences in English usage around the world. Fowler’s is my favourite source for identifying myths and ‘rules’ that are unnecessary and that damage good writing.

I referred to it in my previous post on ending a sentence with a preposition, and I have directed clients to it when discussing preferred forms of words. I even flick through it occasionally just to see what interesting entries I stumble across.

My hardback copy of the latest edition has 928 pages – you probably won’t want to carry it around with you! But it is an excellent publication to add to your collection. And (to my chagrin) it seems to be a lot cheaper to buy now than it was when I bought it.

Ending a sentence with a preposition

Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely fine. Do it. You can cite the following sources to anyone who says you shouldn’t:*

  • For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, David Marsh
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor)
  • Oxford A–Z of Grammar & Punctuation, John Seely
  • Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts
  • Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser & Stephen Curtis
  • The Chicago Manual of Style

Sometimes sentences ending in prepositions should be rewritten because they lack impact or read badly, but they are not ‘wrong’. It is only in the most formal of contexts that placing a preposition before its object is a must. In fact, in some situations it is only appropriate for the preposition to come at the end of a clause or sentence (see Fowler’s for more on this).

Don’t ruin your writing trying to obey this ‘rule’. It is not a thing.

* Martin Cutts calls these people ‘fossils’. I couldn’t possibly comment …

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, R.L. Trask

If you struggle with punctuation, this is the book that you should acquire a copy of.

I have many, many books that I refer to when I am working. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R. L. Trask is probably the most accessible one on the subject of punctuation.

The definitions, explanations and examples are simple and easy to understand. The text is well laid out and not an overwhelming block. At 162 pages it isn’t an intimidating tome and you can take it with you to wherever you like to write. It is incredibly thorough (especially the chapter on commas) and even deals with aspects that are not strictly punctuation (such as capitalisation).

I recommend this book because no one should be afraid of punctuation. Sometimes it gets tricky, but most of the time it is fairly straightforward. I know that people worry about their use of commas or what a semicolon is actually for. But once you have the knowledge how, you will be surprised at your ability to wield them effectively in your writing. The guidelines are expertly set out in this book, and they will give you the confidence you need to be able to use punctuation at its best.

Reading

I have a professional ‘About’ page, which you can find here, but I am also a real human being. I am going to express some of my real human self, starting with my relationship with reading.

Although I read as a job, I still retain my love of reading as a whole. In fact, I think my job has only increased my love of words – I have read some things that I never would have done otherwise, and they were fascinating, beautiful and enriching. Proofreading and reading are different techniques, and they are for different purposes, but I enjoy them both.

As a child I was always engrossed in a book (or two, or more). There are boxes and boxes of my books in the attic. I can’t bear to part with them. I am one of those people who can read in whole phrases or sentences at a time, not word by word. I was in the top percentage of every verbal reasoning test I did. Words make sense to me. They are a comfort and a wonderful challenge.

http://mrg.bz/XT9kBmHowever, there was a brief spell during my time at university where I could not bring myself to read for pleasure. I was reading to gain knowledge, to inform my essays, to prepare for exams, and it wore me down. I couldn’t find any joy in words anymore. This was especially true when I was reading about the terrible, horrible things that human beings do to other human beings.

I turned to television and to films for my stories. And while they are enjoyable mediums, they are not as deep and as engrossing as a book. I think that was part of why I embraced them. They didn’t have the same impact that written words did.

It took a while but reading has returned to being a joy for me. I try to read widely, and I am not a ‘book snob’. My current stack of books to read ranges from Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death to The Pilgrim’s Progress.