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Mind your language

This section of the web site is called Words and as it happens "words" and being pedantic about them is one of my interests.

This would, perhaps, be pardonable if I observed the highest standards of grammatical etiquette but I don't; most of the time I sound like I have been to Ian Dury's masterclass in language mangling.

Spelling, mispronunciation, malapropisms all bring out the tiresome pedant in me. Even though I believe that as a living language English should be allowed to evolve, I can't help wincing when I hear someone say "from whence" instead of "whence". If I am feeling particularly bold or I know the person well I'll generally lean over and explain that as the word whence means "from where", when they say from whence they are saying the equivalent of from from where, which sounds like the name of a dodgy 1960's French chanteuse.

I can't help correcting my son when he says "should of" instead of "should have", even though the percentage of the populace who say "should of" is now so high that it will not be long before dictionaries acknowledge the legitimacy of "should of" as an expression.

Which reminds me; why do Americans use the curious phrasing "it was not that big of a car" instead of the simpler "it was not that big a car"? It's not that they are keen to add superfluous words otherwise they would say "write to me" as the British do instead of "write me", or "he's in the back" instead of "in back".

But I digress. (You can't start a sentence with a but!) Oh, but I can.

A while back a fellow gamer who happened to be a teacher - but only a Physics teacher so that does not really count - picked me up on my use of the word less when I should have said fewer. "Ah yes, but I've got less units than you."

"Fewer units, you mean," he said.

I would not have minded but not only was he a Physics teacher but a Welsh speaker to boot!

Actually instead of being offended at having my grammar corrected I was quietly thrilled. Here was another little imperfection I could pick other people up on.

I take comfort in the fact that I am not totally obsessed by adherence to grammatical rules. A preposition is something with which I am happy to end a sentence ....

Fowler says (and I agree, which I am sure he'll find heartening) that people who insist on worrying about split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions are trying to impose the strictures of Latin on the English language. Seeing as English is not Latin there is no reason why it should follow the same rules.

In my day job I am a journalist so I suppose that might have encouraged my pedantry. Before the days of spell checkers I would cheerfully spend my day correcting spelling mistakes and typing errors. This was particularly crucial when reporting on African affairs of state as there was a prominent statesman at the time named Sithole whose name just invited a crude mistype.

Perhaps as a hangover from my editing days I still have a sharp eye for a typo or misspelling. The two words I see mispelled most frequently are lose, which is often spelt as loose, and definitely, which is often spelt as definately.

Now, if people habitually spell the word lose as loose, how do they spell the word loose? Looose, perhaps?

As for people who spell definitely as definately, how do they spell the word definition? As defination? That sounds like something boy racers do with their car stereos.

I can understand years ago people being unaware that they spelled certain words incorrectly because no fool is going to double-check every word in the dictionary, but now we have word processors, surely the definately crowd must get tired of having this misspelling corrected, even if the loose crowd remain blissfully unaware of their misspelling of the word lose because loose is a genuine word that would not be recognised as an error by the spell-check (called a literal in the trade, I believe).

As for people who pronounce the letter H as haitch instead of aitch, this really used to get on my tits until I learnt that these people were so certain that their pronunciation was correct that you could win easy money off them in a bet. Even after they handed over the money most of them insisted that the dictionary was wrong because their teacher had taught them to pronounce the letter that way. 

A high proportion of haitchers seem to come from Ireland where perhaps haitch is the correct pronunciation [I've since heard it said that, like so many things in Ireland, there is a religious divide on the pronunciation of aitch.].

I find it ironic that among a group of people (Londoners in particular) where the letter H is routinely dropped from the start of words ("I didn't 'ave an 'ope") so many people incorrectly add a redundant aitch at the start of the letter aitch.

"Ah yes!" they argue, "of course it begins with a haitch because the letter haitch makes a huh sound."

Well, if that is the case why don't we pronounce the letter F as "feff" because it makes a fuh sound? What about the letters lel, mem, nen, rar, ses, wubble-you, xex and ywhy?

Recently (long after this article was first written), the Oxford English Dictionary has, quite literally, recognised the use of the word "literally" to mean "figuratively".

I was literally flabbergasted when I heard about this. Figuratively, you could have knocked me down with a feather and, given my puny physique, maybe you have literally knocked me down with a feather as well.

Another thing that is irritating me immensely at the moment is tautologies - the needless repetition of the same thing using different words.

"Safe haven" is the big one I see in my day job; if a haven is not safe, it is not a haven. "Safe harbour", on the other hand, is acceptable because not all harbours are safe.

On my way to work I often pass a branch of the bafflingly popular sandwich franchise Subway and one day I saw the following on a poster outside the shop: Don't wait in line, pre-order your food over the phone

Translating that into English, I think that means: "Avoid the queue by phoning in your order".

The use of "pre" as a preface seems a relatively new phenomenon. 

Phone conversations used to go like this:

Buyer: Is the new book by P.E. Dantic out yet?

Seller: No. It has not been released yet.

Buyer: May I order it then, please?

Now, instead of ordering it, we apparently have to pre-order it.

The other day someone tried to pre-notify me of something, but I refused to accept it unless he gave me advance warning - those retrospective warnings are so useless, don't you think? - that he was going to pre-notify me.

On the subject of advance warnings, I see the Bank of England (BoE) pretty quickly abandoned its policy of offering "forward guidance" on interest rates and inflation trends; offering "backward guidance" is a lot easier but pretty useless, so I think simply offering "guidance" would have sufficed, but the BoE can't even do that because interest rates are set in stone and inflation is as predictable as a cricket score when Pakistan is involved in a dead rubber. 

If you know of any words that are commonly misspelt (or is that misspelled?), mispronounced or used in the wrong context do let us know. Perhaps your pet hate is nouns transitioning (sic) into verbs. Alternatively maybe you have a foible of your own, something else that inexplicably drives you nuts, like people who sniff instead of using a hanky, or people who don't stand on the right hand side of the escalators on the London Underground. If so, drop us a line and we'll feature them in a future article.

John Harrington


Scott Thompson of Montreal writes:

I came across your language page while searching for facts about the pronunciation of the letter H. We have a couple of guys here at work who insist on using "haitch," so I was glad to point out your thoughts on this point. We do a lot of web commerce solutions here, so you can imagine how many times we're forced to hear "haitch tee em ell." One of the gentlemen in question is, indeed, Irish (although he grew up in Birmingham), and the other is an Aussie.

I thoroughly enjoyed your page, with the possible exception of your tolerance for split infinitives, my personal pet peeve. You did catch some of the other things I love to hate, though. "Looser" is a term I've almost come to expect when playing games on-line.

Here are some of the more common mistakes I find (at least over here in Canada):

spelling --
You're vs Your ("Your stupid." My response: "What about my stupid?")
It's vs Its (Come on, I learned the difference when I was six)

pronunciation --
Nuclear as NOO-kyoo-ler (Do they spell it nucular?)
Kilometre as kih-LAH-mih-ter (Do they pronounce centimetre sen-TIH-mih-ter?)

I understand some dictionaries are now accepting this alternate pronunciation of kilometre. Personally, I find that consistent inflection helps to make the logical separation between metre, the unit of measurement, and meter, a tool used in measurement.
KIL-o-mee-ter versus o-DAH-mih-ter.

Seeing how Americans have already ruined the distinction between the two in spelling, I suppose pronunciation was the next to fall.

inventing words --
Disorientated (You certainly are...)

(JH replies: Is that "alternate" pronunciation or "alternative"?  "Alternative" is more common in the UK with "alternate" thought of more as a verb. It is ironic that the word "pronunciation" is one of the most commonly mispronounced words.  Many people seem to think it is spelt pronounciation.)

Shirley Turner of somewhere in the UK writes:

I was fascinated to read your article and as there is an invitation to add thoughts, here are mine:

In your sentence….”certain words wrong” surely that should read ….”certain words incorrectly”.

My real aversion – other than the H one (there is even an advertisement on TV which uses haitch which is a very poor show and bad influence!) – is the old chestnut I guess of prepositions. Different must be followed by ‘from’ not ‘to’ and compare ‘with’ not ‘to’ and ‘exactly similar’ is a contradiction!

(JH replies: I will try and do better in future, Shirley! 

That should be "try to do better, surely?

Yes it should - and don't call me Shirley!)

Ron Tabor is thankful his parents did not name him Ren, and writes: 

Like you, I can be a little pedantic on pronunciation.

Obviously, there is written language and there is spoken language, so I particularly like to play games with my son, by emphasising the way that text language is written, when actually trying to speak it the same way, like "ask U R mutha".

But I digress. The reason for my email, is the mispronunciation of aitch.

This had never bothered me, as there were obviously people who were not well schooled or versed in the use of language.

However, it really bothers me that HSBC bank routinely employ people who say Haitch Es Be Ce, not only when speaking to you, but on recorded messages. "Thank you for calling Haitch Es Be Ce!" It is as though, you don't actually get employed by HSBC unless you are going to mispronounce the letter.

Is there any hope, when a large institution perpetuates an error. It will obviously get people thinking that that is the correct way to pronounce it.

Is there any way we can get them to address this issue? Presumably they do it because they try to treat all dialects as equal and considered politically correct.

(JH replies: Just refer to them as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. They will be heading back there soon anyway, I expect.)

Hazel Shandor-Hatfield of somewhere unknown to me - possibly Hatfield - writes:

Hi. I've found your site fascinating and it's good to know that I'm not the only boring pedant in the world. I have a few comments to make.

I have no objection to nouns becoming verbs (maybe this should be called "verbing) in most cases, and I consider this practice to be part of the evolution of our language. 

Verbs like "to date", "to party" and "to deplane" sometimes make phrasing less wordy and clumsy. On the other hand, listening yesterday (29.6.07) to the new Home Secretary say that she had been "tasked" by the public grated on me somewhat.

Regarding the comment about Americans usually not being keen to add unnecessary words, I beg to disagree. Their speech is littered with them: 

"come on in", "listen up", "meet with" etc.

The dreaded haitch is driving me to distraction. With the misguided notion that to say aitch is to be dropping one's aitches, schools are teaching the mispronunciation in their literacy hours and, worst of all, I've been corrected while spelling my name over the phone. I happen to have three 
aitches in my name, and in high dudgeon, told the lady on the other end of the line that I think I know how to spell my own name. I also noted that, in a televised spelling bee a couple of years ago, the children weren't corrected for saying haitch. I think we've lost this particular battle.

(JH: Never surrender, Hazel!)

Upward inflection at the end of phrases or sentences is annoying. There have been times when I've wondered if I've been told a fact or asked a question.

All in all though, I'm most dismayed by the current inability to say anything or make any point without constant "you knows", "I means" "kindas" 
and "likes." This trend has nothing to do with evolution of language, but shows a lack of ability to think through and express ideas clearly and succinctly. When thinking on the hoof, however, there's no disgrace in pausing for a second to rally one's thoughts.

(JH: The upward inflection drives me crazy? It makes me want to kill them? Imagine if we did that in print, like I am doing now?

A close friend of mine earns a few pennies completing market research questionnaires online and goes apoplectic if he is ever asked to rate, on a scale of one to five presumably, "how unique" a product is.

How dead was he, exactly, officer?

There is a lovely woman I work with who has taken this a step further, and is doing that extensive elongation of syllables that seems to be popular among Valley Gurrrrrrrrrls in California. She sounds like Donald Sinden or, more accurately, Spittin' Images' impersonation of Donald Sinden.)

Julie Snell writes:

My pet hate is the mispronunciation of the letter H as in 'haitch' possibly because it is now occurring so frequently on radio and TV advertisements when promoting HD television. I have heard examples of this several times this morning on Classic FM but my misery was compounded when an announcer referred to 'Kanaw' Soup.

(JH: That must have made you want to ger-nore your own fingers off.)

Amanda and Kevin Lee from the land of Oz weigh in:

So many people, especially TV and radio announcers nowadays say "..there's lots of people here today".. aaaahhhh!!!!

Also, how about "athaletes" aaaahhhhh!!

Thanks for your page. Came to it in a search on "Haich" because of the way ALL the teachers at our local primary say it!

(JH: Watching the Ashes series it was noticeable how often the Aussie commentators used the phrase "pretty ordinary". It appears to be a euphemism for "bad" but I presume a recently retired cricketer can't bring himself to use that adjective to describe a player with whom he has probably played with or against. I find that pretty ordinary.)

Colin Baker takes time out from time travelling to write:

Dropped in to your site, and I have a couple of additions:

How about WHINGING instead of "WHINGEING"; "AGING" instead of "AGEING", or "PRONOUNCIATION" instead of "PRONUNCIATION"??!!

(JH: Aging is an American spelling, and while I understand the reasoning behind removing what Americans regard as superfluous letters (e.g. color, medieval), "aging" just looks wrong, as if the letter G should be pronounced as a hard "guh" rather than a soft "zyuh".

My spill-chucker (ho, ho) seems to accept either spelling of whinging/whingeing.

On the subject of Americanisms, what's with this word "ouster", meaning removal of a person from office. Surely an ouster is the person doing the ousting, not the act itself?)

Anthony Enticknap spoils our fun by arguing that pronouncing aitch as haitch is acceptable:

The wikipedia entry on this has some interesting things to say about its pronunciation:


Although it's wise to take any wikipedia entry with a pinch of salt, I think it's worth noting that the pronunciation of the letter 'H' is often regional. Just as some would pronounce the word 'grass' to rhyme with 'gas' and other would elongate the vowel so it rhymes with 'farce', it's merely a matter of personal preference. True, the letter
'H' is not present at the start of the spelling 'aitch', but language is forever changing, so maybe it should be there.

Indeed, the spelling 'aitch' is not necessarily correctly - if
wikipedia is to be believed, this depends on what the original of the letter is:

"The American Heritage Dictionary(r) of the English Language derives the letter's name from French hache from Latin haca or hic, from which it can be argued that the pronunciation aitch is a result of h-dropping. The Oxford English Dictionary says the original name of
the letter was /aha/; this became /aka/ in Latin, passed into English via Old French /atʃ/, and by Middle English was pronounced /aːtʃ/"

(JH: Sorry, my web editor cannot cope with those characters, so you'll just have to guess what they are.)

Regardless, it seems to make more sense to pronounce the letter as 'haitch'. How would you describe one case of this letter? As 'a 'H''?

This would be spoken as 'a aitch', which is far more difficult to pronounce than 'a haitch'. Writing 'an 'H'' would seem to be grammatically incorrect, but the 'incorrect' pronunciation would allow you write it correctly.

(JH: I would pronounce it as "an aitch". Did you know the word orange was originally "norange" but after years of referring to "a norange" it became "an orange". Perhaps "an naitch" would lead to the letter H being pronounced "naitch", which I would not mind so much; it is partly because people who pronounce H as "haitch" routinely drop their aitches on other words that I get so irked by it.)

While I agree with most of what you say at
www.fbgames.co.uk/words/language.htm I have to disagree with you on
this. I would say that either pronunciation is acceptable.

(JH: In which case Anthony - or Anphony as some people would not doubt call you - I will not print your reply. Oops! Too late!

Thanks for your comments.)

Jen Gibson of Ashford in Kent, gets a couple of things off her chest:

The word "mischievous" being pronounced as "mischievIOUS". My husband pronounces "mischievous" this way just to p--- me off. It works.

The word "percolator" being pronounced as "percUlator".

And, ironically, the word "pronunciation" being pronounced as "pronOUNciation".


Regarding the phenomenon of people using the word "less" when "fewer" would be correct: The Tesco Supermarket advertising agents are guilty of this grammatical crime. I can't for the life of me remember which ad it is in (probably because I was so horrified I have now blocked it out of my consciousness, as I have many other traumas) but I think there's a statement at the end consisting of only three words - " _____ less _____" 
which makes the error even more obvious!

(JH: It has got to the stage in my regular gaming group now that less and fewer must both be used incorrectly, as a matter of course. "I lost that game because I had fewer time," or "I do not think any fewer of you just because you came fifth in a four player game".

Regarding "Americanisms": - How about "calvary" instead of "cavalry"?  Ugh. "Calvary" is easier to say.

(JH: I am surprised no one has mentioned "libary" yet. "Arks" instead of "ask" is another interesting one; I believe it has crossed over from the Afro-American community into general parlance, innit?)

Mike Adrian asks: 

How about people saying pronounciation instead of pronunciation and using the American pronunciation of "Loo" tenant instead of the British "Lef" tenant (Lieutenant) and Skedule instead of Shedule (Schedule)

(JH: Much as I love pronouncing lieutenant the English way, no one ever takes a day off in left, do they? 

As for schedule/skedule, I probably imagined this, but I thought in British English we use the K pronunciation when it is an agenda and the SH one when it is a timetable. I'm probably full of skit on this one, though.)

And what about Pew instead of Per in Peugeot?

(JH: Yes, indeed. I believe the Americans pronounce the brand Pew-got. If there are any Americans reading this, try pronouncing it Purr-zho if you want to sound a tad European.

The sports shoe company set up by Adi Das is routinely pronounced by septics (Cockney rhyming slang - look it up) as if it had been set up by someone called Adee Das.

On one of the rare occasions I watched an episode of "Friends", the Ross character was talking about having spent some time in Ib-itzer; it took me ages to realise he meant Ibiza (ib-eef-ah).

Which reminds me: is Ibiza in the Bally-arric islands or the B'leer-ic?)

And what about Pew instead of Per in Peugeot?

Edward - presumably not HRH - writes:

One thing that really annoys me is the word "gamer." As a computer game player myself, I feel ashamed to be called that - basically, because I see it as an American abuse of language created for marketing purposes. "Game" is a noun; the verb "game" means "gamble," as far as I know. Yes, I may be a gambler, but when it comes to computer games I am a "player."

I don't know, really - I just read "big of a" one too many times and started looking all over the internet, trying to prove that it was incorrect. Wikipedia, of course, has no articles that I could find, about it, and every other article on there seems to use the same grammar as that anyway!

(JH: I never really thought about the gamer thing until now. In my day job I often have to write about "online gaming companies" when my natural inclination is to call them "online gambling companies".)

Rob Clay - that's a name, not a pastime - sends this missive from Northampton:

Well done on picking up on some of the ways in which the English language has been 'dumbed down'. 

One of my pet hates is the way that the letter 'T' is practically missed out of the middle of words, or at least is almost imperceptible. I notice it more in 'Yoof Culture', when kids today can be heard to say something like,
"You gettin' a tah-oo? I fort I might get a car-oon, like Bugs Bunny or sumfin'".

Tattoo and cartoon are just two that spring to mind. I'm sure you can think of others. :-)

(JH: I am on shaky ground here, Rob. My parents and my brother and sister are all Cockneys, and I am from your actual Essex estuary area, so I am afraid the glottal stop is part of my 'eritage.

I've toned it down over the years but there was a time when not only would I have pronounced "cartoon" as "car-oon" but also "something" as "sunnink".)



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