The English Pedant – Dumb and dumber

Picture the scene: a cheap recording studio in a basement in a once-elegant street alongside the Clyde in Glasgow. In a small booth (a floor-to-ceiling cubicle, usually used for recording voices), a man hunches over an acoustic guitar to record the backing track of a simple song he has played a thousand times. It’s different when you’re just playing it, rather than singing at the same time. You’d think it would be easier, but with no melody line or words to guide him the man becomes too aware of what he is doing. He loses track of where he is: how many more times does he have to play this sequence before the verse ends and the chorus starts? Halfway through he fouls it up and stops.

Through the microphone the engineer hears a muttered “You f***ing moron.” It’s the guitarist talking to himself. And that guitarist was me.

What I didn’t realize was that I was using a technical term formerly used by psychologists to define an individual’s intellectual level.

The word “moron” was coined by a psychologist in 1910, based on a Greek word meaning “dull”.

I used the word deliberately because it seemed more appropriate than the other options: idiot, imbecile, pillock, berk and on down the list to profanities. In fact the first and second in that list are also technical terms. “Moron” was originally used to describe someone with an IQ of 51-70, which is higher than that of an imbecile (26-50) and an idiot (0-25). The average IQ is between 90 and 110. Einstein clocked up 160.

I used moron because it sounds duller than the others. There is something exotic in the Frenchness of imbecile, while an idiot appears in my mind as a slightly hysterical, unpredictable figure. But moron sounds just plain dull, colourless, lifeless.

The psychological terms have fallen out of favour in these non-judgmental days, when any term that could conjure up negative connotations is quickly stamped out and replaced by  something watered down or obscure.

The list of informal options (I found this one online) is a long one. Dope, ninny, chump, dimwit, goon, dumbo, dummy, dum-dum, dumb-bell, loon, jackass, bonehead, fathead, numbskull, dunderhead, chucklehead, knucklehead, muttonhead, pudding-head, thickhead, wooden-head, airhead, pinhead, lamebrain, pea-brain, birdbrain, zombie, jerk, nerd, dipstick, donkey, noodle.

Notice how it went distinctly American in places? And yet it includes dipstick, as popularised by the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses.

The same site then gives us a category called British informal, which  ranges from old fashioned (nit, nitwit, twit) to the current favourite numpty, along with such essentials as berk, prat, pillock, wally, git, wazzock, divvy, nerk, dork, twerp, mug and muppet.

I remember a conversation a few years ago in the office of a local radio station, where a rather strange young man had just started appearing, on work experience.  He wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t unpleasant, so he wasn’t really a pillock or a git; he was just a bit slow and a committee of us decide the word was plonker. Not even a fully-fledged one, but a bit of a plonker (another Only Fools staple). Harmless, forgivable, almost endearing.

It is said that the Inuit have many different words for snow, although the current received pub-talk wisdom is that that is not true.

I wonder if they sit around in igloos and discuss the number of  English words that can describe an unintelligent person.


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 – Txt spk

Economy is an important concept for a writer. Economy of words, that is. You don’t waste them. And more importantly in this impatient world, you don’t subject your readers to more of the hard labour of reading than they are prepared to put up with.

This blog breaks current rules every day, in that it contains articles (sorry, posts) of between 500 and 1,000 words. And it sometimes makes people think.  That is not a recipe for success in this day and age, but the fact that some people do read it demonstrates that the notion of reading for pleasure does still exist and that communication has not yet been reduced to a series of ultra brief titbits about celebrities.

The chief culprit here, as we have discussed before, is the text message. You’ve got to keep it brief on a phone for several reasons, principally the fact that the keypad is so small that it’s difficult and boring to compose anything of substance.

I can’t help but admire those who bash away with their thumbs and manage to convey their thoughts to friends squinting at a small screen as they sit in their room, hiding from their parents, or while bouncing down the aisle of a bus with a Big Mac in the other hand.

Given the countless other demands on their time, it is obvious why they seek to reduce words to skeletons. It’s called shorthand, and it has been around quite a long time. Sir Isaac Pitman developed his system in 1837, and there may have been those at the time who feared that would be the end of written language as they knew it. But it wasn’t.

A few years ago I embarked on a shorthand course run by a nice but bossy woman named Sandra. We were a motley crew: middle-aged journalists, young journalists, secretaries, civil servants and others with some reason to want to be able to write quickly. The teacher’s role in such a situation is different from when she is standing in front of a class of children. What she has here is a bunch of people with their own reasons for being there, their own requirements and their own youthful past when they may or may not have been attentive students. So she was bossy for a reason.

To her credit, Sandra’s bottom line (sorry, getting all jargonistic there) was that while she taught us how to abbreviate words, if we came up with our own ideas and they worked to the extent that when we read back what we had scribbled down during a test and ultimately in real life, if we could understand it, it was okay. My dad used to do it, mainly by leaving out vowels. He would sign birthday cards to my Mum “Yr lvg hsbd.”

When you create your own system, at least you should be able to remember what everything means. Looking at a list of other people’s text abbreviations, though, can be confusing.

Try these, from an online list I came across:

BLNT. No? Better luck next time. The context  might give it away, but otherwise you could be racking your brains for the extra ingredient in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Or maybe bacon, lettuce, no tomato.

RUOK we can probably all manage. And ROFL – rolling on the floor laughing.

But how about ROTFLUTS? I suspect that was planted in the list by a pro-language subversive: it means rolling on the floor laughing, unable to speak. Apparently. And obviously they wouldn’t include the comma, because that’s punctuation, a phenomenon whose days, some would say, are numbered.

BRB and BTW most of us can get: be right back and by the way. But how about CMIIW? Correct me if I’m wrong, says the list. I reckon they just made it up to be clever.

Way down in the Y section there sits this: YRYOCC. You’re running your own cuckoo clock (although they spelled cuckoo as cookoo). I have no idea what that means even when written in full and spelled correctly.

Under W, along with the well-known WTF we have WIIFM (what’s in it for me), which would benefit from a question mark, but that’s not going to happen.

But then the subversives are at it again.

WISP. Anyone? Beats me too. Winning is so pleasurable. Has anyone ever said those four words together? Certainly not often enough to merit creating a labour-saving acronym.

Incidentally, strictly speaking, an acronym is an abbreviation using the first letters of words and pronounced as a word itself, so WISP could count, but now we’re getting into mind-twisting pedant territory.



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 – Why fun is not funny

Funny is a funny word, isn’t it? Funny haha or funny peculiar, that is the question. Or it’s one question, anyway: there is also the similar but not identical concept of fun.

Lots of things in life can be fun but don’t make us laugh. A trip to the zoo or a game of darts. Flying a kite. Having sex. These things are fun, but they don’t necessarily cause us to giggle, cackle or any of the other variants of laughter.

To the non-native English speaker, though, it’s not so much that the two words are interchangeable, but more that fun doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to exist anymore. They experience something that is what we would call fun and they say it’s funny.

Anyone who has ever explained the difference will know the look of disbelief, pity, almost contempt, on their face. “I enjoyed it,” they’re thinking. “And English adjectives often end in y. Therefore it was not fun, it was funny. Fun is a noun.”

We can and do use it as a noun, in fact. That was fun. We had fun.

So it can be “that was fun” or equally well “that was funny”?

Well, you think, it’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been speaking English all my life and there has always been that difference.

So no. It was either fun or it wasn’t. Unless it caused hilarity, in which case it was funny.

And then there’s the “peculiar” meaning of funny. How did that come about? Probably simple misuse a few generations back, because it doesn’t mean hilarious or even mildly amusing. It means puzzling. The Pedant’s ancestors would have been hard at work, pointlessly pointing out that the King’s English was being corrupted. Or the Queen’s if it happened in Victorian times.

There’s another strain of the word, too, which is particularly prevalent in British English: meaning awkward, difficult, or argumentative. You find “I’m not being funny” or perhaps “I’m not trying to be funny” as a disclaimer before a question or statement criticizing something. “I’m not being funny, but are you going to wear that cap in court?” or “I’m not trying to be funny, but haven’t you got any decent CDs?”

It’s a losing battle, of course, just as resisting any language change is. Many Americans are now saying funny when they mean fun. You get swamped with it and start doing it yourself.

With the worldwide issue of immigration  as prominent as it is, we come to the question of whether people settling in a new country should be obliged not only to speak the language but to speak it properly.

And that, frankly, is unenforceable, because there are so many variants among the native population. When there are Scots asking “How?” when they mean “What?”, we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

When there are millions of African Americans saying “Ah ight” instead of “All right” how can we insist that Spanish speakers learn the difference between v and b, so they can differentiate between very and berry?

But shouldn’t we at least try? And shouldn’t newcomers at least listen to what we’re saying, just as we try to pronounce their language properly?

I once worked with a Polish woman, well-educated and highly intelligent, who insisted on pronouncing salmon as sal monn. And when I say she insisted, I mean I pointed out to her that it was one of the most common mistakes among non-native English speakers, and that it should sound something like sammen, but she said, “Well, you say it your way and I’ll say it mine.”

The cartoon Brit in France turns up at a campsite and is looking for the office. “Essa kerr – eel ee ah – ern byoroe eecee?” If he’s staying, should the French let him labour in this way or should they teach him how to say it correctly? Surely a polite and helpful demonstration would be better for all concerned.

Shouldn’t we accept we still have a lot to learn and keep trying?

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 – When is an it really a they?

Do you ever find yourself deliberately avoiding a word or a phrase because you’re not sure it’s correct? If you do, it can mean only one thing: you think about what you say and write. You care. And that is an admirable quality in this day and age.

One such item that concerns me is this: when should a single entity be treated as a plural? In other words, when is an it a they?

This is the sort of thing that proofreaders have to make a decision on. You and I might refer to sports clubs and teams as they, but the stickler insists it should be it: Manchester United is one of the most famous clubs in the world of football. But when we talk about how Manchester United played in 2015/6, we have to conclude that they had a disappointing season (by their standards).

A different sort of stickler might permit the plural, but only in the third person, whereas a Man U supporter is likely to say we. “We haven’t been the same since Fergie retired .”

As a Chelsea fan, I would have to say to the Man U people, “I agree, but you haven’t had such a bad season as we have”. Chelsea have had an abysmal nine months. We are a shadow of our former selves. I can only hope we get back to normal next time.

We make this grammatical exception because we’re talking about a team. Similarly, when a team is representing a country, it becomes they. Brazil is a country in South America, but when its football team plays in the World Cup, it becomes a plural. Brazil are always a force to be reckoned with. So are Germany. As for the US, they haven’t quite got there so far, but they have put up a good showing several times.

You will notice that the person doing the objecting here is referred to as a stickler rather than a pedant. That is because this is The English Pedant, and for once The Pedant is on the side of the  transgressor. So I have permitted myself a bit of leeway with forms of address, and the stickler (more commonly a “stickler for detail”) is a close relative of the pedant, but perhaps a sub species.

What other single things do we refer to as they? Bands, groups, collections of musicians.

The same newspaper proofreader who used to  object to the sports department’s use of they for sports teams was also of the opinion that The Beatles was the most popular band in history, whereas most of us would agree that they were, not it was.

The late, lamented English DJ, John Peel, got himself caught up in this through being a thinker in a world where talking about bands and groups happened all the time. He came to question something that everyone else failed to notice: we say “this is the Rolling Stones, this is One Dimension, that was Bob Marley and the Wailers”. Peel eventually found himself saying “Those were The Crabs on the Crab label with I’m a Crab. And these are The Velvet Underground”.

So where do you draw the line? Perhaps we should all admit that we are pedants up to a point. Those of us who have come out already will not insist that the rest come out with their hands up, just that they  acknowledge that they too have standards.

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.