How to make mistakes in English

A non-guide through some of its perplexities

This is not a prescriptive grammar. It highlights some of the puzzles of English that a writer like myself faces on sitting down to produce a text.

When I write, I'm made aware of the intractability of English syntax, rather than of the flexibility of the language, whose glories I take for granted and wish I was better at using. By forcing readers to think about the conundrums English presents, I hope to give them courage to make their own mistakes.

Obviously I depend a lot on the experts who've given their opinions or laid down the law (their law) before me. I quote shamelessly from them. But rather than trying to tell you how it is, I'm asking you to decide for yourself how it should be.

Singular and plural

A or an



Gender issues

Hyphenation and punctuation




Spelling foreign names

Splitting infinitives

A or an

A hotel or an hotel? A historian or an historian. British and US usage varies (Bryson 1987:12).


Fowler and Gowers seem to find no problem with writing Unrra and Unesco, Gatt and Nato rather than with capitals (1965:117), and they are silent about periods in the section on curtailed words, but state in their article on periods in abbreviations: "practice is not uniform , but the tendency is to omit the periods -- OED, BBC, UNO, NATO" (1965:445). This seems to me weak. If O.E.D. had punctuation it would be clear that the letters are pronounced separately, as distinct from NATO. But practice instead seems the other way round, where the periods are not simply omitted.

Spelling foreign names

MHRA says that in Russian names use "Ch" rather than "Tch", except for Tchaikovsky (p.11).


Keats's poems, Dickens's novels, Malraux's novels (pronounced Malrose), but Moses' leadership, Sophocles' plays (the same rule goes for many Greek names), according to the Modern Humanities Research Association (p.10).



"I saw it on the Internet, on the Web, at amazon.com, on their Web site, on the Home Page, in their guide to best books." Try substituting any of these pronouns for the ones used and hear how peculiar they sound. But why all these different ways of referring to the same thing?

Splitting infinitives

"To boldly go where none has gone before" -- The famous StarTrek motto/slogan/?mission statement. Not famous enough, apparently. This is what the Open University's manual Plain English says: "'Their five-year mission was to boldly go where no one had gone before.' Fault Grammar: split infinitive. Correction 'Their five-year mission was to go boldly where no one had gone before.' I mean, really!!!

Try redoing the sentence yourself. You'll see how much better the scriptwriters' choice was. Not too poetic but definitely heightened phrasing, instead of the OU's deadened prose.

Syntax/punctuation specialists might like to look at the second sentence and try to fix that according to traditional rules without benefit of typography.

Hyphenation and punctuation

Punctuate this: 'How about this?: "It is….' It uses a question mark and a colon. You'd never guess from many punctuation guides how many different marks there are, or how differently they have been used over the centuries. Similarly, who deals with one of the most useful modern punctuation marks; the  question mark prefix, as in "?mission statement"?

Again, punctuate this sentence from earlier in my non-guide: 'Then there's "Each of us has finished our work".' Does it need a colon? And how about those quotation marks? Should I repeat the original and break with the book's established pattern (my choice here) or stick to the pattern, changing the original and introducing some ambiguity of marking around the colloquial beginning? (And then there's this long-delayed question mark at the end of the previous sentence: that always bothers me.) And the full stop before or after the closing parenthesis in a full sentence: I can never decide what to do for the best.

In similar vein, what about the bibliography for titles that include punctuation marks? e.g. (another problem: no capital E or comma after g) Who Cares About English Usage?, Penguin etc. Should there be a comma?

See Nicholson Baker (1993) on the various signs used in punctuation over the ages -- from Petrarch's slash with a dot in the middle, the backward question mark used at least until Robert Herrick in the 17th century, the upside down semi-colon, and the multiple points (colon+comma, two periods+comma, three commas) used by 7th-century Irish scribes (p.72) or the Greek decision to drop word--spacing or the Roman use of the Etruscan habit of interpuncts (hovering dots between each word) (p.75).


The last sentence provides a straightforward example of one of the main problems posed by uses of parentheses for references: in lieu of footnotes, you will regularly find yourself with a double set to manipulate. As for parentheses that contain a whole sentence, the convention seems to be that you full-stop your sentence, open the parenthesis, write your comment, put a full stop, close the parenthesis and start the next sentence. It never looks right.

Periods after abbreviations

The most sensible rule I've read is that Dr and Mrs don't need periods because the word ends in the last letter of the abbreviation but "ed." for editor does, and so does "Prof." for Professor.

But then "eds" does not. I think a more sensible rule would be to drop the periods altogether. Bryson (1987:14) notes the differentiation as a British practice.


Nicholson Baker (1993, p79) calls this "the old-fashioned, 18th-century that-comma": "It has been calculated by the ablest politicans, that…" (Gibbon); "…it must necessarily follow, that…" (Thomas Paine), and notes the link with German subsidiary clauses.


Nicholson Baker (1993, p82) speaks of "the single most momentous change in 20th-century punctuation, namely the disappearance of the great dash-hybrids […], the commash, --, the semi-colash;--, and the colash :-- […] They are in Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Brontë, and George Meredith. They are on practically every page of Trollope. […] Henry James employed a few in his early writing, but revised them out of the edition de luxe that began appearing in 1907." (pp.82,83,84).


The problems here seem to me insoluble. Rational English punctuation breaks down completely and logic goes completely out the window. You can only muddle through, but the English are used to that and proud of it.

Page referencing in text: before or after the punctuation?

Is it "Vallins has said this before" (p.12). Or, "Vallins has said this before." (p.12)? There's no rule, only prejudice. Go with your gut feeling and be ready to take on all-comers. A couple of unresolvable puzzles from my earlier comments:

"It is in moments like this that Mr Spender, rather than his victims, seems to be the Golden Ass [.]" -- Vallins (1955), p19.

This one always catches me: "Fanny Burney […] is one of the most entertaining writers-down of dialogue who has ever lived." (Vallins, 1995, p20)

Which, if any, is right? Nothing I do seems to sort out the parentheses problem. And see the citations section for a different way of referencing required to avoid awkwardness in citing someone citing Shakespeare.


At some time you might find yourself quoting Shakespeare. Do you then use the form "Shakespeare (1604) Hamlet, p23"? The first puzzle is the date, the second the edition, the third the form used for citing the reference. Vallins (1951, p13), for example, uses this: "Shakespeare: Twelfth Night". Now I wouldn't mind a reference to the date (in the text) or edition used (in the references). But what do you do with lots of early texts that have no certain date, except of their first published edition, which was often long after composition? And should citers take note of variations? How? If you are not allowed to use footnotes (and the widely imposed Harvard referencing system forbids it), the text becomes very cumbersome.

K. Marx, Karl or Karlie?

When I refer to authors I prefer to use the name they give on the title page (or the name it has become the convention to use). My objection is to the absurdity of calling someone Karl Marx in the text and K. Marx in the bibliography. It makes it harder to automatically alphabetize reference lists, but then I like to know someone has been taking care of them. The parenthetic remark was to cover authors such as Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackery and the pseudonymous Georges Bataille. I'm sure Karlie boy would agree.

Which edition?

How do you -- and should you -- indicate which edition of a book you are using? I think you should. But I don't really want to see a reference to Marx's Capital with the date 1972 after it. I want the original date, and then after the publisher's name, perhaps, an indication of which I used. For example, K. Marx (1868) Capital, Commie Press (1923). But see my note about the absurdity of calling Karl K. I know Kafka and let me tell you, Karl is no K.

What about revised editions? Then I think you should put the date of the revised edition after the date of the first, i.e. Henry James (1878, 1907) Daisy Miller (I'm guessing these dates but you get my drift). Fowler's Modern English Usage, for example, first published in 1926, was revised by Sir Ernest Gowers for the 1965 second edition, and then reprinted several times. By the way, should it be cited as Sir Ernest Gowers (1965 or 1926) Fowler's Modern English Usage/Fowler's Modern English Usage, or what?

Essay collections

These days authors rely on publishing in magazines first before they put together their thoughts into a book (pretty much as they have always done since the 19th century, it seems to me). But there seem few accepted rules about how these should be referenced. For example, is Nicholson Baker's 'The History of Punctuation' to be referenced as appearing in 1993, 1996 or 1997? If 1993 the problem is that it doesn't say on which pages of The New York Review of Books the essay appeared, if 1996 the page numbers could be wrong if you are using the 1997 paperback edition (which I was). But 1997 is not when the essay was published.

Page number references

Is it p or pp when one quotes a number of different pages? p82,83,85 or pp82-5?

Et al.

One of my least favourite expressions. It fails to tell me exactly what I want to know: who are the co-authors. Should it be italicized? Should it have a full stop after al?

Electronic referencing

This is where the Safires and Rosenthals could be useful but aren't. Perhaps their conservatism keeps them away from such a fast-changing scene.

The Web

The problem here is that Web pages come and go so fast your reference may no longer be valid. So I would suggest adding a date to your page reference and, if possible, downloading the material which you should then print out and keep available for checking (by others as well as yourself). University libraries should offer storage facilities for their researchers to keep those pages, but don't.

CD-ROMs, TV shows and films


I've several reference works on CD-ROM and none of them is adequate at providing unambiguous sourcing for their texts (question: singular or plural?-- best, perhaps, to say "sourcing for texts", but then it is not clear that I'm talking about the CD-ROM texts rather than other types).


Why is it important what page a reference comes from but not how many minutes into the film a cited passage is found? In fact, it's easier to check up on a book reference than spool your way through a videotape or DVD. A book may have an index. A non-fiction work is certainly likely to have chapter headings that will enable you to guess where a passage may have come from. A film has neither. Even the chapter- device sometimes used is only exceptionally equivalent to a book chapter.

Publishers and book references

Why put the town after the publisher's name, when so many companies these days are based in Oxford or London as well as New York or Chicago or New Delhi? Why not the ISBN number? That would identify the language region as well as the book as clearly as anything else. There is a problem of course. Books before the 1970s often did not have ISBN numbers, and there are different numbers for paperbacks and hardbacks. But the idea makes as much sense as the common current practice.


Congratulate on/for

This came up in some translation work I did. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary admits both, though suggests "for" is archaic. All the U.S. authors I checked on my CD-ROM of classic works used "on", but it seems to me the distinction enables you to differentiate between congratulating someone "on" their arrival meaning "when they arrived" and "for arriving". In any case, I'd recommend recasting the sentence to remove comical ambiguity. I also think "for" is easier for English-speaking foreigners to understand.


Baker, Nicholson. 1993. 'The History of Punctuation', in The Size of Thoughts (1996), Vintage 1997. ISBN: 0099579715.

Bryson, Bill. 1984. The Penguin/Facts on File Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Penguin, 2nd edition 1987. ISBN: 0140512004.

Diané Collinson et al (1992) Plain English, Open University Press, second edition (no date for first), ISBN 0-335-15675-4 (pbk)

Crystal, David (1984) Who Cares About English Usage? Penguin. ISBN: 0140083154.

Modern Humanities Research Association (1971,1991) MHRA Style Book (fourth edition) ISBN 0 947623 39 6

Vallins, George Henry. 1951. Good English: How to Write It. Pan Books. 5th edition revised 1956.

---- 1953. Better English. Pan Books.

Actor and screenwriter, his acid view of the social scene is found most hilariously in Chabrol's 1969 Que la Bête Meurt (The Beast Must Die/Killer!) .



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