An Academic Sightseeing Day


As you may or may not know, I’ve been studying for my MRes at the University of Central Lancashire for most of the past 2 years. It’s been a fascinating journey – I’ve climbed mountains  [cue Julie Andrews!], overcome obstacles,  learnt new skills and been to the pits of despair and the heights of elation. However, all this time I have mostly just been focused on my own research topic, the English Dative Alternation* – more specifically between the years of 1410 and 1680. Sometimes it feels as though I eat, sleep and dream it. Sometimes it feels as though there is nobody or nothing else in the world apart from my area of study. Sometimes I wonder if anybody else could give a proverbial.

Today, however, was the undergraduate dissertation conference at UCLan. Being a lofty post-grad student I had vague memories of the terror I went through before I had to present my paper. This time, though, I wasn’t presenting, I didn’t know any of the presenters and I had no real involvement whatsoever. It was bliss! I could just sit and listen from a vantage point of academic interest.

There were some fascinating topics. How sleep is represented in literature, Textual analysis of the New Testament, neologisms in Harry Potter, the rhetoric of Donald Trump and forensic analysis of the language of Brendan Dassey’s interview transcripts**

Nothing was really relevant to my own thesis, and in a way it could have been considered a waste of a day which I could have spent preparing for my exam [or playing with my Lego – much nicer!] However, as I walked away, after the delicious cakes at the closing remarks, I felt strangely refreshed. I realised why – it was as though I’d been on a coach trip of English Linguistics; admiring, enjoying, learning a little bit here and there, but with no obligations whatsoever – a nice little mental holiday in fact. Nice 🙂

*English Dative Alternation: In a nutshell, the difference between I gave flowers to her and I gave her flowers.

Should you be interested in any of the topics I have mentioned, I would be happy to point you in the direction of the researchers involved.

Feel free to email me:


The Perils of Being a Proofreader


This is just a quick outlet of steam, rage and annoyance at myself; not to mention a plea for understanding. Yes, I am a proofreader – I also write bespoke poems, edit books and do English tuition but that’s another story.

Anyway, I have just, after a long afternoon’s proofreading, been sending a few messages on Facebook. I have used words such as mdae for madedoen a drqaft for done a draft, and typed, in an apology/explanation for these said typos, that I must be going croww-eyed instead of cross-eyed.

A huge problem when you make laughable claims to be good at English, is that everyone seems to be watching you like a hawk for whenever you do make a spelling or punctuation error. What people often don’t understand, though, is that there is a world of difference between bashing out words onto Facebook without even looking at the screen before pressing ‘enter’ and carefully reading somebody else’s work to check for their mistakes.

I am human; I am fallible; I make typos! The main thing to remember though, is that when I am reading other people’s work I can spot them and know how to correct them – when I am simply ranting on Social Media my fingers go faster than my brain. So, please, think of the dilemma of the proofreader – even we can get our fingers in a twist when writing in a hurry – but we take our time and check your work very, very carefully indeed.

We are all ‘The Others’

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Desmond Tutu 1931-

Holocaust Day Service


I make no apology for blogging twice about the same event; Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 [for my other post, see my Travelling Hamster site – Scarred Places ]

Words have power indeed. The words of the three speakers; Jeremy Dable, [Chairman – Preston Faith Forum], Elinor Chohan [Director at Miri Roshni Academy] and Dr Ayman Jundi [Syria Relief] were full of power. The beautifully sung words, in Hebrew, of Psalm 133 sent shivers down my spine. The tales of persecution in Srebrenica chilled me. The account of the terrible situation in Syria, of how the regime targets medical centres because that is a proven way to make the population move, sickened me. Yet, despite the news reports coming into our homes, on our TVs every evening, they all still feel far away.

We are, however, all ‘the others’. Words were used by regimes such as the Nazis to describe various groups – ‘parasites’ ‘vermin’ ‘scum’ – not a giant step from ‘lazy beggars’ ‘benefits tourists’ ‘economic migrants’ is it?

Are you educated, maybe even an intellectual? In Cambodia you would have been persecuted not so very long ago –

Are you disabled, suffer from mental illness, maybe you’re gay? Not very long ago, the German state would have sought to eradicate ‘your type’ –

Are you a Muslim? Only a few decades ago in Bosnia, and even now in Myanmar, you would be in fear of your life –

Are you a Christian? In North Korea, Afghanistan and many, many other countries, you would be at risk of arrest, torture and even execution right now –

The language of discrimination is pervasive; it creeps into the collective psyche through the media, jokes and general conversations if we don’t guard against it. Right now there are calls for the language used to describe immigrants to the USA to be chosen with care –

We are all at risk of being ‘the others’. We are all human beings with no more dignity, rights or intelligence than any other race or group.

What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Anne Frank, 1929 – 1945.




No, Thank You, I Don’t Want Fries With That.


Well, there are several reasons for my dietary choice actually. Firstly – my generous proportions make fried food rather a bad idea. Secondly – I actually prefer a nice jacket potato any day of the week but, thirdly, I AM BRITISH and I prefer to call them chips!

I also prefer to talk about TV series rather than seasons, and the phrase ‘Monday through [or even worse, ‘thru’] Thursday’ brings me out in a rage. OK, I must admit I’m probably fighting a losing battle against the American form of our language; it’s arriving daily with TV programmes, advertisements, fast food outlets etc. As a student of the history of the English language I know how our tongue has been influenced since the very beginning by contact with other nations [where would we be without baguettes, shampoo and saunas*?] so I will, perhaps, just have to grit my teeth and bear it.

A very interesting article appeared in The Guardian and I would recommend you take a few minutes to read it.

However, despite the fact that I acknowledge that language must change or die, I will never, to my dying day, say ‘Should of’, ‘Would of’ or ‘Could of’ – so there!


* French, Hindi and Finnish

Exciting News

This is just a quick piece of news I am bursting to share with you, dear reader[s?]. If you didn’t know already, there is a wonderful magazine about language called Babel which I find extremely enjoyable. It’s written in an informative but not overly-academic way and I have previously mentioned a few of its articles on my own Facebook page

Anyway, I saw a post on their Facebook page, recently, asking for people to submit articles for their ‘Ask an Expert’ section. Previous questions have included ‘Why do we use the letter X to symbolise a kiss?’ and ‘What is the difference between In hospital and  In the hospital?’ I hesitatingly volunteered to research an upcoming question ‘Why is the grammar of the proverb ‘Needs must’ so odd? Needs must… what? Be acknowledged?’ To my amazement they not only accepted my offer, but they liked my answer and it just may feature in an upcoming issue. So, why is the grammar so strange? You’ll have to get yourself a copy of Babel to find out!

You can read more about Babel for yourself on Facebook at

or their site can be found at

We unspecified number of Eastern Magicians are.

We all know about the Three Kings who visited Jesus in the stable, don’t we? They’re in all the Nativity sets, on Christmas cards and we sing happily about them. We even know their names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. So, that’s that – ok? Not quite.


Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about them. The only gospel to mention them is Matthew. He says ‘Lo three kings/wise men/magi, called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar turned up that very same night. They arrived right after the shepherds and entered the stable where the baby Jesus had just been born.’ – Hmmm, does it really? Let’s take a quick look – the version below is from a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. It makes the words come alive in a very relevant, up-to-the-minute way. [My emphases in bold italics]

Matthew 2:1-12The Message (MSG)

Scholars from the East

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
    no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
    who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

Not quite what happens in the school Nativity play, is it? No mention of there being three. Who says six might have brought gold, two frankincense and 37 myrrh? [If there were 45, I hope Mary had enough clean cups and saucers in her HOUSE for them all]. Yup, it doesn’t mention them going to a stable, or seeing a baby – it talks about seeing a CHILD in a HOUSE. (

So, what or who were they? The word Magi is an ancient word, defined by the Collins dictionary thus:  the Zoroastrian priests of the ancient Medes and Persians.

They were definitely men of learning. They were certainly men of great learning. The word Magi comes from the greek word ‘magos’ (where the english word ‘magic’ comes from). Magos itself comes from the old persian word ‘Magupati’. (


Chances are, they looked a bit like this  – no cardboard crowns in sight! So, whoever these wise, definitely wealthy and learned men were [sorry, ladies – the Bible is clear on that point, they WERE men!] their story has somehow turned into our well-known ‘We Three Kings’. They saw a star, they knew it meant the birth of a king, and they came to worship the King of kings. Wise men indeed. And they have given us some nice shiny costumes for the annual play – not to mention some lovely Christmas stamps. Have a happy, blessed Christmas and a great 2018.


For more about the history of Magi and what the Bible says, try this page:

What’s the Japanese for ‘Umm’?


We all pepper our speech with those little not-quite-words such as ‘umm’ and ‘errr’, don’t we? Had it ever occurred to you that you were speaking English when you made those sounds [called fillers in Linguistics, should you want to know]?


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Apparently, one of the most common ways of showing you are not a native speaker of a language – no matter how proficient you may be – is to forget to use that language’s own fillers during speech.

In Polish, for instance, the sound equivalent to ‘Umm’ is yyy or eee.

Japanese has ええと [pronounced eto I am informed] and Welsh has iawn.

So, should you be chatting away in Polish and you state – with perfect grammar and pronunciation – that ‘I think I might, ummm, try a new hairdo’ [Myślę, że mogę, ummm, spróbować nowej fryzury], that ‘ummm’ has just betrayed your non-Polish nativity. *

Say Myślę, że mogę, yyy, spróbować nowej fryzury, on the other hand, and nobody would suspect a thing [unless they spot your penchant for watching Coronation Street without Polish subtitles]. Novice spies – take note!

By the way – she waffles, off topic, isn’t fryzury a lovely word to describe a hairdo. Mine is definitely quite fryzurish every morning!

For more on this subject, [fillers not fryzury-style hair], try these links to get you started.


* Nativity – lovely word we don’t use often enough, except at Christmas. And it IS darned near Christmas [there’s virtual snow on this site and real snow on the streets outside], so I feel justified in using it. Happy Christmas everybody and a blessed New Year



All French People are Male!

Before I start, apologies for the lack of posts recently, my thesis has now been submitted and normality is resuming. You have been warned. OK, as I was saying:

Ever been to France? Have you ever noticed the lack of female French people? No? Look harder!


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French, along with many, many languages, [far too many if you ask me] has no neutral pronouns. Huh? Sorry – I’ll put it another way. In English, we talk about males as ‘he’, females as ‘she’ and inanimate objects as ‘it’ [ok, maybe not ships … but mostly we do]. If we are talking about a group of people we only have the words ‘them, they’ etc…nicely gender-neutral.

Because of this,  we don’t pluralise He and She for groups of males or females and talk about ‘hes’ or ‘shes’. Imagine:

‘Here come the bridesmaids…shes look lovely, don’t shes?’

Just not English, is it? However, in French, the word elles is a plural for a group of females, as  ils is for a group of men. The trouble starts when talking about a mixed group. Instead of some gender-neutral plural, the masculine ils is used by default, meaning that you would have no way of knowing just from this if the group included females or not.

Many generations of language students in English-speaking countries have puzzled over this; cries of ‘SEXIST’ have reverberated round many a classroom, yet we always presumed the French were fine with it. We thought they just gave a Gallic shrug and said something along the lines of c’est la vie.

It has emerged, though, that French women themelves are not happy about the inherent sexism in their language. This article from the Daily Telegraph sums it up:

One reason for the current state of affairs, cited in the article, is…shall we say…slightly controversial –

Above all, it was applied for “political” rather than linguistic reasons, they argue, citing a 17th century work by linguistic state advisor Dupleix on French linguistic “purity”. This reads: “Because the masculine gender is more noble, it takes precedence alone against two or several feminines, even if these are closer to their adjective.”

OK, have you calmed down yet, dear female readers? [I haven’t!!!!] Sadly, even those who are pushing for a change appear to be struggling to find a sensible solution. One such idea being mooted is the inclusive approach:

The inclusive approach splits up words using a mid punctuation point, so the plural for all friends becomes “ami·e·s”. Dear friends becomes “cher·e·s ami·e·s”.

Hmmm, can’t see that catching on, can you? So, as the debate continues across the channel , let’s leave THEM to it and have a nice cuppa instead!istock_000003335090small_1_1

A Singularly Plural Problem


Recently, one of my students asked me why her tutor had returned her work with a lot of words circled [in that angry way which only university tutors can]. The phrases which seemed to have caused this person the most outrage were ones such as ‘the company posted their profits’. Why should something as seemingly innocuous as this cause marking-pen overdrive?

Let’s look at the nice drawing above – it’s a family, ok? So what is your family like? OR….what are your family like? Hmmmm, both questions are acceptable grammatically, are they not?


I’m a sucker for Victoria [ITV Sundays 9pm – do NOT phone or text me, ok?]. In last week’s episode, one of the characters remarked that ‘my staff is arriving tomorrow’ [or something along those lines – please don’t quote me]. The point is, this person must consider their staff, of several if not hundreds of people, as a singular unit.

Back to my perturbed student. She clearly considered the company she was writing about to consist of a group of individuals and, therefore, used the plural to refer to it. The posh person in Victoria looked upon their staff as a unit which acted and functioned as one entity so used the singular.

This got me thinking about other similar collective nouns –

Government [is in session/are discussing?]

Team [had its best match ever/ played their best today?]

Crew [sails the ship/ sail for Africa]

I’m sure we could put our heads together and come up wth many, many more…but my tea’s cooking!

One golden rule, though. However you view the team/family/government/your staff – once you have decided on singular or plural, then be consistent in your choice throughout. The company posted its year-end profits and announced their floatation on the stock market…………no, no, no!

There are actually some rather pernickity rules, but this blog post from the OED is more than good enough for me:

However, don’t get in trouble with the Police – they are always plural apparently!



Let’s Have a Passive Unaggressive.

When I am helping students with their English assignments for school or college, one problem many have is remembering what the passive voice is. The classic, grammatical answer, is that the subject is a non-active patient of the verb…..hmmmm, yeah, that makes it a lot clearer, doesn’t it?


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A while back, however, I came across this small piece of genius on the Grammarly blog which makes remembering almost foolproof.  The link is here:

In a nutshell, if you can add ‘by zombies’ to the end of the sentence then it will be in the passive voice, as opposed to the active.


Image from:

So, it’s not really good English to say ‘Jack ate the cake by zombies’…that doesn’t really make much sense [unless, maybe, there was a party of zombies picnicing nearby?] If, however, you were to say ‘the cake was eaten by ……. ‘ and in the space you could insert either ‘Jack’ – the sensible option, or ‘zombies’ – the more interesting option, then you have a passive sentence. The cake is, basically, sitting minding its own business when it gets eaten. I’ll leave it to Sherlock to decide by whom.

One problem though….zombies don’t usually eat anything as mundane as cake. Nor do they often play football or drive cars. Hamsters, however…….



Images from:

So, rather than making the passive so aggressive and zombiesque, I prefer to hamsterfy it….The football was kicked/ cake was eaten/ car was driven by a hamster…. and the proof is in the pictures!