The English Pedant – Feeling fine is a fine feeling


A little while ago we looked at the potentially confusing word “quite”, with its various meanings. Another one in that vein is “fine”. It’s the sort of thing that the TEFL (English as a foreign language) teacher dreads a student bringing up, because when they ask what it means, there is more than one explanation. Even native English speakers can get confused when they start to think about this one, as I found early in my magazine-editing career when the secretary, with whom I had been at primary school, attempted to show me that education counted for nothing and anything I could do, she could do too.

So when I described a cricketer as being a fine player, she took issue with the word. Fine, she stated, meant okay. And it does. Sometimes. How is your burger? Fine. How was your day? Fine, thanks. Nothing special, just okay. Don’t worry, it’s fine.

But what about fine art and fine wines? What are they? Just average? No, they’re fine, they’re top class, exquisite. And Brian Lara, the subject of my discussion with the secretary, was a fine cricketer, as was Ian Botham and Joe Root is now. Lionel Messi isn’t just a fairly good footballer. He has a level of skill and “footballing intelligence”, if you like, that makes him exceptional. He’s a fine player.

But fine can also mean thin or very small. There is a fine line between very good and great. Sandpaper that consists of fragments of glass so small it actually feels smooth is known as fine, and its opposite in that case is coarse.

We strain fluids through a fine mesh, a fabric of very slim strands that allows liquid through but catches any solids.

Some people have fine hair. That doesn’t mean it’s just okay or even that it’s beautiful. Each strand of hair is just very thin, that’s all.

In a business document we may look at the fine detail, a close relative of “the small print”.

Then there is the weather. If that is fine, there is no rain about. There might be the odd white fluffy cloud passing through, and it might even be a bit windy, but it’s fine. Plenty of sunshine.

If someone “picked a fine time” to do something, we mean it ironically: they did it at a very inconvenient moment.

Then there is the noun; nobody wants to have to pay a fine, because it is a penalty imposed for breaking a law or rule.

And finings are substances added to beer, wine etc. to get rid of any lingering sediment or other particles, making it perfectly clear.

If we refine something, we improve it, except in cases such as sugar, where the process of removing impurities is said  to produce something that is harmful to health. It’s similar with flour, where the refining process removes the “bits” that are good for digestion and contain nutrients.

So, have you ever wanted to be teach English as a foreign language? Just steer the students away from this kind of thing, because it is almost unexplainable to an English speaker. To a Chinese speaker or even a Spaniard, it must sound a if you’re making it up as you go along.

Even writing about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wish you’d never started.

And by the way, have I missed anything?


The English Pedant – English 0 – 5 Football

Football’s European Championship starts on Friday, and as the football community  is such a confused and lawless place as regards language, let’s look at some of the linguistic mumbo jumbo that is going to be coming our way.

Take tempo, for instance: what does it mean? Originally it meant the speed at which a piece of music should be played. It then expanded its range of use to mean the rate or speed of motion or activity.

That is roughly what it means in football, but only roughly. Pundits, managers and players speak of playing ‘with tempo’, i.e briskly, or ‘without tempo’, by which they mean too slowly. What they want is a quick, sharp, snappy way of playing that doesn’t give the opposition time to settle, think and play calmly.

If you’re playing with tempo you are, in modern parlance from outside the game, “in their faces”, which is as ugly a sight as it sounds.

Tempo, then, is a noun in need of an adjective, and as such is the latest in a long line that goes back at least as far as my grandmother’s assertion that she had “blood pressure”. What she meant was high blood pressure, and I am tempted to say we all understood what she was trying to convey, but the definition of blood pressure is not a simple one to grasp. What is the blood pressing against? She had a medical problem associated with her blood – that’s as close as we need to get.

That leads us to another football term that can baffle the casual observer: the idea of pressing. What that means in this context is attempting to push the action back towards the opposition’s goal, so the battle is fought there, rather in your own territory. You might think the defensive line (usually four players)  would be way back, a few yards in front of the goalkeeper. In fact that line can be wherever the manager wants it to be, with the proviso that if one of the other guys knocks the ball through or over your line, you’d better be quicker than them to get back and retrieve it.

Traditionally, British football teams had two modes, defence and attack. Note that defence is spelled with a c, not an s. Increasingly, though, the Americanisation  of attack into offense is creeping into the UK.

Again, we all know what it means, but the term offensive means something different to us Brits. If you swear in the presence of the Prime Minister’s wife, she will be offended. She will find it offensive to be spoken to like that. It’s not the same as attacking. We can verbally attack someone, but there is a difference between that and simply offending them.

This is not a subject that is going to take up much time in the England camp as they prepare to do sporting battle for their country. There may be one or two players who would understand what this blog post is about and why someone has bothered to write it, but in the main these are people more likely to be playing football games on electronic devices than discussing semantics. They have their own jargon, but I suspect many don’t even realise it.

The object with which football is played is spherical, but you will hear of people playing a long ball or a short ball, which means passing it a long way or not far. There are footballers with “quick feet”, which may or may not mean they can run fast.

There is the concept of the “footballing centre half”, which means someone who has an unusually high level of skill for a central defender and can play a measured pass rather than hoofing it away to kill the danger. And incidentally, what is the difference between a centre half and the more commonly used centre back? Answer: nothing; they play at the back, not in midfield, and centre half is an old-fashioned term which almost died out in the 1970s but is used (without thinking) to describe the aforementioned more skilful, thoughtful player in that position.

In addition to the jargon there are the garbled spur-of-the-moment pronouncements by commentators, as you see in the boxed quotes. It’s easy to talk nonsense and we all do it sometimes, but when it is recorded on radio or TV, you will never be allowed to forget it.

So if you’re going to be watching some or all of the tournament, never mind what the experts are saying and enjoy the spectacle, the rivalry and, if you will allow there is a such a thing, the beauty of certain moments.

When experts talk about the game, sometimes something just comes out and it’s garbage:

Preki quite literally only has the one foot

And sometimes they know what they’re doing:

I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.

And never forget the words of the late, great Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager and footballing sage, who disagreed with the idea that football is a matter of life and death. “It’s more important than that,” he said. But he was joking.

Will England win the Euros? Shankly again: “The only thing that surprises me is that I can be surprised.”

The English Pedant – Guess what second guess means

Dear Teacher,I have created a word it is parronk and it doesn't mean anythink but who says words have to mean sumfink_ There's no lore against it I'm allowed.

There’s a term that seems to cross my path every couple of years: second guess. What makes me notice the frequency is the fact that I have never found out what it means – if indeed it means anything. I think the reason it comes and goes as it does is that no one really understands it.

The Online Oxford Dictionary, The Pedant’s preferred reference work now that too many long-distance moves have resulted in the loss of all paper books (apart, bizarrely, from  one by the late Peter Taylor about his football management partner, Brian Clough). For decades no desk of The Pedant’s was without The Concise Oxford and a Roget’s Thesaurus, but the internet makes such things expendable.

Anyway, second guess. The Online Oxford gives these examples:

Anticipate or predict (someone’s actions or thoughts) by guesswork: he had to second-guess what the environmental regulations would be in five years' time

More example sentences
  • Good art institutions should not be about second-guessing the public's taste.
  • But while clothes shoppers are revelling in the dozens of new alleys open to them, manufacturers are despairing as they try to second-guess the kaleidoscopic public mood.
  • We've been trying to second-guess Augusta all week but there's no sense in trying any longer.

I don’t know about you, but to these eyes they look like examples of the single word ‘guess’.

There was a glimmer of hope a couple of years ago, when someone somewhere suggested it meant literally having the second guess, or prediction, so if the question is who is going to win the European Championship in football and one person says Germany, you can use your guess, i.e. the second, to say Belgium.

Merriam-Webster Online offers:

 “to criticize or question the actions or decisions of someone”

which at least is different, even if it is not convincing.

Meanwhile over at Urban Dictionary, infamous home of the puerile and crude, they racked their brains and cobbled together this attempt at grownupness:

To predict, criticize often after results are know. This normally occurs from a person who you are having a conversion with and is trying to demerit someone else or you.

From Showtime series Weeds Season 3 Episode 7-He Taught Me How to Drive By 
 Marvin: Are you second guessing me bitch?!

Thanks, guys, you really are the natural reference work of the illiterate internet.

So, I guess, as the Americans would have it, that second guess doesn’t mean anything at all. Somebody used it once and it sounded good, so other people used it, but only once, because they couldn’t make it work.

It’s nonsense, it’s a myth. Unless you know better, in which case please let us know with a comment or email.


The English Pedant – The right to be wrong

Rod Yard-Kipplin

There was something on Facebook last week about common English errors – you might have seen it before, because we all see different things. It was a list including there, they’re and their etc, explaining what each one meant and asking something like “Is it really that difficult?”

It’s the kind of thing we look at every week on The English Pedant, but whereas here it is just pointing things out, that appeared to be one person’s one-off attempt to get it off their chest. This being the internet, where there is freedom to express an opinion, along with the messages of agreement there were two people who defended their right to write badly.

Oddly, both claimed to be “a writer”, and both said they could write perfectly well but chose not to do so on Facebook because, as one said, “this isn’t school”.

I’m not going to quote them verbatim, because for one thing the standard of their English in this context is likely to be an amalgam of being sloppy because it’s FB and wanting to show they are not morons. And the other thing is I would have to go hunting for the posts, and I’ve actually got more important things to do.

The point is, if these people are to believed, there are those who can write perfectly well but actually choose to write badly, which begs the question: is it easier to do something badly than to do it well? Is it easier to write a sentence with no punctuation than to put in the occasional comma? Can somebody’s brain be so tired that they don’t have the energy to select one from there, they’re and their?

Perhaps it’s a question of habit. On Thursdays on this blog you will find Kaycee’s Klasic Films , which I write in the character of a 30-something London woman, Siobhan Kennedy-Clark (her mates call her Kaycee), who didn’t have much of an education and can’t write to save her life. She is different from me in several ways: she’s a woman and I’m not, she’s younger than me, she’s unmarried, didn’t do well at school and all in all she looks at the world very differently, but her views and opinions come out in a way they wouldn’t if I was just being me.

Because I spend most of my time trying to produce clean, flowing, clear work, it pains me to deliberately make mistakes and I have to go through sentences and remove punctuation, because I’m in character and this woman doesn’t know the rules, so to be convincing I have to break them. Her paragraphs can be two or three sentences long and often the thread changes in the middle of them, whereas one of the purposes of the paragraph is to let the reader know you’ve changed tack. Siobhan’s writing is almost like stream-of-consciousness.

When I have bashed out 600 words as Siobhan, I read it through and see how it’s come out. And funnily enough, it’s not that hard to follow what she’s saying, sometimes to the extent that I find I’m slipping when I move on to the next post, which is meant to be written properly.

Here is how she would wrap up this post:

So what do you think is it okay to not try when your on Facebook cos it ain’t like being at school is it we had enough of that when we was kids and I no if I had of listened a bit more to the teachers I would of been able to do it without thinking but their’s no point worrying about it now is they’re what’s done is done and you no what I’m saying so who cares.


The English Pedant – Why is it wrong to talk properly?


The Campaign Against Posh Accents (CAPA), which has been running unofficially and without that handy acronym, has led to the fact that it is increasingly rare to hear the crystal clear, honeyed tones of a Charlotte Green, to name  one of the most recent of a breed  of BBC Radio Four announcers. She might sound a bit like a Victorian governess, but is there really anything wrong with that?

It’s only British people who find it offensive in some inverted-snobbery way. People from other countries may find it slightly amusing, but they tend to like it.

You still hear voices of that type all over the BBC outside the UK (Katty Kay, for instance, talks to millions on BBC World News America in her nice-English-girl accent).  But you will never hear a classic English broadcaster’s voice on the youth-orientated Radio One, where a regional accent – and preferably a sloppy one – is regarded as having more credibility. Thus you will find accents from the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland, Belfast and particularly the Londonish south, but not the sound of the previously respected, educated English person.

There is a curious double standard in operation here. As the world celebrated the 90th birthday of Sir David Attenborough, was there a word of criticism of his accent? I certainly didn’t see or hear any. So if Attenborough is allowed to do it, why isn’t everyone else?

I’m not advocating a return to the stilted tones of a British newsreel of the 1950s, or the refined voices of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, because those accents died out in the 60s anyway, but is there really any need to pronounce past  like pasta rather than parst, if that’s how you were brought up to say it?

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it is my duty to allow students some leeway in their pronunciation. There is British English (or rather English English, because the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish sound very different), there’s American English, Canadian English, Australian English and variants from New Zealand and India to the Caribbean. They are all perfectly valid. As long as a student communicates clearly and unambiguously, that’s fine.

What I can’t (or won’t) do is change the way I sound. I don’t have a regional accent. There is such a thing as a Guernsey accent, but I don’t think I’ve got one. People refer to me as English and I don’t usually correct them unless we have the time and they have the language skills for my description of where and what Guernsey is.

I’ve been told that the way I pronounce water (waw-ter rather than wadda) sounds like an orgasm, but I have never thought that was a complaint.

Several students have told me they like my neutral accent, which they no doubt compare with what they hear on films and TV, largely from America. That, of course, is a big influence, and the popular British films such as the James Bond series give people an idea of how a Brit “should” sound. There has never been a “frightfully English” Bond, although Roger Moore had a bigger touch of posh about him than most. The supporting cast, such as Douglas Llewellyn’s Q and Judi Dench’s M, led the way in Englishness, but even then, they weren’t cartoon upper class twits, just ordinary British people. And Sean Connery, let’s not forget, is Scottish, so when he talks to “Blawfelt”, he doesn’t sound like David Cameron.

Given the global obsession with youth and the dumbing-down which proclaims, “my ignorance is just as good as your education”, how long before James Bond is played by a monosyllabic cockney goth who can’t make a th sound and is therefore a goff?


The English Pedant – Quite a condundrum

If you are quite sure it is quite likely to rain, do you mean you are absolutely sure that it is a fair possibility_ Or that you are fairly sure it's definitely going to_It's quite confusing, isn't it_ Quite the most confusi

When teaching English to non-native speakers, something that comes up now and then is the need to withhold information for fear of complicating matters. Take quite, for instance.

When we use it nowadays we usually mean a medium degree of something. Quite warm, quite cold, quite loud, quite quiet. It means fairly; it doesn’t mean 100%.

And yet not so long ago it meant quite the opposite.  Quite the opposite. In that context it means completely or absolutely.

Both meanings are currently in use, so the EFL teacher has to decide which one to teach and which to hide. (Students need to be presented with simple explanations, rights and wrongs, where possible. Only the very advanced ones should be burdened with such brain-twisters.)

If we say the identity of quite is quite complex, we mean it’s somewhere between perhaps 30% and 60% on the complexity scale.

And then there is the difference between “he’s quite a conversationalist”, which is complimentary, and “he’s quite the conversationalist”, which can have a disparaging, bitchy tone. “My ex-husband is quite the man-about-town”.

How did this happen? It’s a condundrum, isn’t it? Well, quite. Exactly.

It has to be down to our old villain, ignorance. Someone got it wrong and others heard it, understood what the speaker or writer meant,  didn’t mark it down as incorrect, and started using it incorrectly too.

Now, trend-spotters, a brand new one came the Pedant’s way just this week. It was in a regular weekly football column by a former player and now pundit who broadcasts his views via the BBC. In his “team of the week”, he spoke of a young Manchester City striker and how Pep Guardiola, who will take over as manager at the end of the season, must be looking forward to working with such talented youngsters. But instead of soon-to-arrive manager or perhaps incoming manager, he told us Guardiola was the incumbent manager.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Quite easy? No, very easy. The word incumbent sounds as if it means someone who is heading this way, but it doesn’t mean that. It  means the current manager.

If this word suddenly changes its meaning, it’s quite likely there is only one man to blame.

The English Pedant – What real means today

At last I know whatreal love feels like.It's unreal.Well it was last week. Now it's real again. I think.

There is a term in the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) world: false friends. It means words in another language which look so similar to one in your own language that you think they must mean the same.

Unfortunately this is often not true and using them can be spectacularly embarrassing. Take the English word embarrassed, for instance. There is a Spanish word embarazada. This is so obviously from the same source that the Spanish one has got to mean that feeling of wanting  to drop through a hole in the floor because something has happened that is too humiliating to bear. Right?

Wrong. Embarazada means pregnant. Somewhere back in the mists of time they probably both meant one or the other, or perhaps something else entirely, but they went their separate ways and are now poles apart. It is even hard to imagine a situation where being pregnant is merely embarrassing – it is too highly-charged for that.

Most welcome, certainly. Inconvenient, maybe. Utterly unwelcome, in certain cases. But merely embarrassing, no.

Learning a foreign language is complex enough without the target moving all the time, but that is happening more than ever.

The British tennis player Heather Watson did quite well at the Miami Open this year and when she finally headed for home after a fourth round defeat, she tweeted “Thanks Miami Open. It’s been real”. What is a foreign student to make of that one?

In this case the false friend is the same English word, which most people know: real. It means genuine, true – something like that. And yet in recent years it has taken on a life of its own. First we had the expression “Keep it real”, for which there is no universally agreed definition and which can therefore mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Perhaps the most likely common meaning is “Don’t be pretentious. Keep it (your behavior, your attitude, your message or whatever it is) down-to-earth”.

So that’s something for the English-speaking population to wrestle with, never mind the poor language-learner.

Then there was unreal, which started to mean strange, weird, hard to believe. And not only that, but any of those things in either a positive or a negative sense. So Heather could equally well have said the Miami tournament had been unreal for her.

Unless, that is, it now means something else altogether and it just hasn’t filtered through to the Pedant  yet.

The English Pedant – How trendy are you?




Some people are very impressionable when it comes to new usages of words. They will leap on them as if it were a way of demonstrating their intelligence or at least making themselves attractive.

When whoever it was first said “I hear you” when they meant “I understand what you mean”, such trendies not only heard it but bandied it about with gusto. At about the same time – the late 90s – they also lapped up an expression someone had coined when they meant two people had similar attributes or characteristics: “They’re from the same place”. They dropped “in future” the moment they heard the totally unnecessary “going forward”.

They will leap on words and expressions without thinking them through. And that’s a sign of thoughtlessness.

But then there are those who use new expressions to persuade us that they are modern, forward-thinking people, on the ball but part of the crowd. “See? I’m one of you.”

Their life becomes “a roller coaster” because it makes everyday ups and downs sound more exciting.

British politicians are currently on a mission to use the expression: “it’s a game-changer” in every speech they give, because it makes them sound sporty, alert and “innovative”, to use a vastly overworked and often meaningless word.


Of all the mutant expressions currently worming their way into a new niche in the language, reach out is the most despicable. Until recently it was a needy person who reached out to friends – reached out for help, that is. Now it is being used by people who don’t need much help at all, but want to be seen as vulnerable and worthy of some sympathy and assistance.

When a politician talks about “reaching out”, he or she is reaching out for nothing more or less than your vote, your rubber-stamp, your approval. He is attempting to shrug off the intelligent public’s natural contempt for his kind. He’s saying it is tough out there and even if he might come across as slimy, manipulative and underhand, he is just Mrs Smith’s little boy doing his best in a dog-eat-dog world.

So beware the insincere person “reaching out” to you. They might well be reaching into your pocket rather than your heart.

The English Pedant – Who needs the exclamation mark? (!)

A horse! A horse!!My kingdom for a horse!!!Get me a frigging horse immediately!!!!!!!!!!

Do we really need the exclamation mark? Or does feeling we need to use it mean we have failed to express ourselves properly?

The question was raised by my dealings with a friend who is attempting to step up from Facebook pundit to paid journalist. As part of the transition, she started a blog, in which some sound advice and shrewd observations are, in my opinion, let down by a tendency to emphasise points by doing this!

Or even worse: this!!!

Not to mention the sly, winking one in brackets (!)

Doesn’t the exclamation mark belong in the notebooks and diaries of teenage girls, where they are used to convey levels of astonishment or shock, possibly combined with question marks to introduce a note of doubt and perhaps tempt the reader to engage in some naughty thoughts?

“And then he asked if me to meet him that night!!!???!”

In serious writing (not necessarily all that serious, in fact, but when the writer expects to be taken seriously), do we need that sort of reinforcement?

If the news is “North Korea has declared war on the US”, do we have to add something to make it sound dramatic?


Punctuation is not an exact science. Its purpose is to guide the reader and make the writer’s meaning clear.

If, for instance, we were writing about someone who had been threatening or intimidating someone else, we might report that he said “I’m going to kill you.” Does it need an exclamation mark to confirm that the aggressor was serious? It is highly unlikely that he said it kindly, so we can assume it was meant malevolently unless otherwise stated: He said gently, with an eerie smile, “I’m going to kill you.”

If the aggressor was particularly excited or enraged, we could say: He screamed “I’m going to kill you.”

If he wasn’t serious: “I’m going to kill you if you’re wrong,” he said wryly.

But however many punctuation marks you use, they’re not going to convey the mood of the remark. Only words can do that.

So do we need it? The exclamation mark, I mean!!!!

Well, in the carefree, careless world of social media, by all means! Gorge on your tittering, double-meaning, thigh-slapping punctuation!

But in the real world, I don’t think so!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The English Pedant – Death notice

The English Language

I was recently asked (by a Spanish-speaking teenager to whom I am teaching English) what “wanna” meant. It is symptomatic of the way the English language is going, now that the world and his wife (and their text-speaking kids) have the ability to communicate online without fear of being corrected or even challenged.

“Wanna,” I explained, ”is not really a word at all. It is the way want to sounds when we don’t pronounce it properly” (which for most of us is most of the time). Almost everybody says wanna and gonna and woulda and shoulda and coulda.

What happened with woulda, shoulda, and coulda is that they evolved via would’ve, should’ve and could’ve, all of which are happily accepted as correct.

The question is, then, if we are prepared to write would’ve etc. without feeling we’re letting the language-loving side down, should we allow wanna and gonna into the legitimate world?

This brings into question the whole evolution of language, because if, as we have seen many times before in this blog, the dictionaries are just waving these words through like a Customs officer who wants to go home because he’s been on duty all night, sooner or later those dictionaries will in effect be written by people with no qualifications, no interest in what they are doing and no awareness of what they are doing.

That is why blogs like this exist – because we care.

Does it matter if a generation of internet-addicted young people use gonna without knowing or thinking about what it is and where it came from? Does it matter if people whose first language is English think there is a word upmost, which the rest of us know is really utmost? These people know what it means – they just get the spelling and pronunciation wrong. Something about up makes it sound right: up is good (and therefore down is downright bad), so if they’re doing their upmost to speak properly, that fits, doesn’t it?

Sooner or later the world is gonna wanna kinda dictionary (no, too long, let’s call it a dicsh) that telz it like it is. None of this old-fashioned correctness. If people can learn to drive on their own, do they also have to be subject to the rules of the road? Or is that like saying they can learn about sex from internet pornography (sorry, porn) and need no information or encouragement about how the physical acts can benefit by being accompanied by emotions such as love and affection?

Readers, I would like your opinions on this.

Do teachers still have a responsibility to point out right and wrong, develop skills, instill good habits?

In many countries society is less judgmental than it used to be. In some areas there is no such thing as failing a test – you just get a score of 0 out of 100, but that doesn’t reflect badly on you.

When a 14-year-old who is in the middle of a decent education reads me a passage with complete disregard for punctuation, running one clause, one sentence and one paragraph into another, do I have a responsibility to teach her what commas and full stops mean and why they are there? Or shall we give up the struggle?