It really is appalling

Via the invaluable FleetStreetBlues, we bring you this quite magnificent strop from the pen of Simon Heffer, who is exercised by the thought that Telegraph journalists’ grasp of the language is not what it used to be. Enjoy.

From: Simon Heffer
Date: 3 August 2010 12:50
Subject: Style Notes No. 31

Dear Colleagues

We must make sure we stick to the rules on how to describe people, because to stray from consistency causes confusion. The suspect in the Wikileaks case is an American soldier called Private Brad Manning. He is also known as Specialist Brad Manning. We should stick to the familiar, and refer to him at all times (until he is convicted of anything) as Pte Manning. We have started to call him Mr Manning; which, as he is not a civilian, is just plain wrong. The only exception is with officers (usually of the rank of Lt-General or above) who have also been knighted; in which case they should be called (for example) General Sir David Richards at first mention, and then may be either Gen Richards or Sir David. Many of our readers are or have been in the services and have great attention to detail on matters of rank. Since they know at once when we get it wrong, we need to have that attention to detail too.

If you find yourself using a word of whose meaning you are unsure, do look it up in the dictionary. When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us. In recent weeks we have confused endocrinology – the study of the body’s endocrine system – with dendrochronology, which is the study of dating trees. More embarrassing still, we accused the eminent broadcaster Sir David Attenborough of being a naturist – someone who chooses not to wear clothes – when in fact he is a naturalist; and during a story about a coach crash in Paris the nationality of the driver changed from Austrian to Australian. Homogenous and homogeneous are not interchangeable and their respective meanings should be studied in the dictionary. Like embodied and embedded, which we also confused, effecting and affecting and eligibility and legibility, these pairs of words almost come under the heading of homophones, as do prostate and prostrate. We must take more care and ensure we are using the right word.

Homophones remain abundant and show up the writer and the newspaper or website. We are quality media, and quality media do not make mistakes such as these: “the luck of the drawer”, “through the kitchen sink”, “through up” “dragging their heals” and “slammed on the breaks”, all of which are clichés that might not be worthy of a piece of elegant writing even if spelt correctly. We have also confused Briton and Britain, hanger and hangar, hordes and hoards, peeled and pealed, lightening and lightning, stationery and stationary, principal and principle, peninsula and peninsular, licence and license and, in something of a pile-up, born, borne and bourn. If you are unsure of the meanings of any of these words, look them up before proceeding further.

Many of these mistakes are caused by carelessness and not properly reading back what one has written. We have had an increasing number of literals in recent weeks, both online and in the paper, which suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better. Heads of department have a particular responsibility to ensure that their staff perform to the best professional standards in this respect. We managed to perpetrate one of the worst literals of all recently – pubic for public- which may seem a laughing matter, but is not.

Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as “impacted”, and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born.

Sometimes we do not properly think of the sense of what we are writing. There is a marked difference between the meanings of convince and persuade that is not recognised by some of you. If you are unsure of the distinction, look the words up. We wrote that “too many bomb disposal experts” had died in Afghanistan, which prompted an angry reader to ask what an acceptable number of dead experts would have been. We wrote of “an extraordinary killing spree” and were asked, in similar fashion, what would have constituted an ordinary one. We wrote about someone’s youngest child being her first, which was obviously not the case. Be careful too of the distinction between renting a property and letting it. And readers also asked us how there could, as we reported, be an 18-month long investigation into a crime that was committed only 14 months ago. We need to ensure that our facts, like our arithmetic, add up.

There have also been some grammatical difficulties. The style book (which, in case you have lost your copy, is also online) specifies the distinction between “compared with” and “compared to”, and it may be worth examining. One of our writers began a sentence with the phrase “us single ladies” which suggests we need to brush up on our pronouns. We should always write one in four is, not one in four are, since one is inevitably singular. Bacteria is plural. Put adverbs in a sentence where they make the most logical sense, if you have to use them at all. This will never be by splitting the infinitive, but to write “to go speedily to town” will always be preferable to “to go to town speedily”, or any other such variant. It is different from, not different to. Under age, like under way, should be written as two words.

Finally, may I mention some factual matters? Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Air Chief Marshal is spelt thus; and Mark Antony thus.

With best wishes

Simon Heffer
Associate Editor
The Daily Telegraph


  1. Dr Paul said,

    August 5, 2010 at 12:21 am

    He’s a lot more strict than the style guide of the Guardian, which definitely accepts split infinitives, to its eternal shame. The Guardian is so in love with using plural pronouns with singular subjects — such as ‘everyone has their say’ — that I’ve even seen it used when the gender of the subject is not in doubt, something like ‘anyone expecting a baby should make an appointment with their doctor’. This annoys me, so how much it would annoy Mr Heffer one could imagine. I’m surprised he doesn’t have a go that particular bête noir of mine, the use of the word ‘critique’ as a verb, but then I doubt if he reads many recent academic books.

  2. chris y said,

    August 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

    The objection to split infinitives, which are native to English, is a legacy of bad Latinists of the 18th century and should be rejected with comtempt.

  3. Newton Emerson said,

    August 5, 2010 at 11:56 am

    My first writing job was with an American computer magazine, where I realised to my horror that British English is an illogical mess while American English is almost mathematically rigorous. Our casual plural singulars are the worst: when I read “the government are…” I still physically cringe.

  4. robert said,

    August 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    So long as the meaning is clear I don’t see the need to nitpick.

  5. August 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Simon Heffer is clearly a pompous pedant.
    Look at these three sentences, which do you prefer?
    1)“My wife told me to probably expect you”, he said.

    2)“My wife told me to expect you probably”, he said.

    3)“My wife told me to expect probably you”, he said.

    Simon Heffer thinks that the first sentence which is clearly the best and most natural use of language is wrong. Languages change, the meanings of words and grammatical rules change with time. If they didn’t we would still be speaking the language that Shakespeare spoke. We’re not. He’s fighting a losing battle if he thinks he can preserve the prescriptive rules he was taught in his prep school.

    Personally I prefer to consult descriptive grammars that actually describe the way English is structured now. Grammar is flexible and with the passing of time there are changes in meaning and use of grammatical forms.

  6. RJ said,

    August 5, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Split infinitives were used by Jane Austen, George Elliot and many others. Seems like a good pedigree. There are plenty of references on the internet.

  7. Newminster said,

    August 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Mr Heffer might like to have a particular word with his crossword compilers whose use of the language has become increasingly dubious of late. One of the Quick Crossword culprits appears to be of the view that ‘haggle’ is synonymous with ‘barter’.
    As yet I haven’t seen the Telegraph writers confuse “flout” and “flaunt” but no doubt that will come.

  8. weserei said,

    August 6, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Splitting an infinitive is generally the best option in the event of an adverb, as it creates the least potential for ambiguity.

  9. (X)MCCLXIII said,

    August 7, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I did enjoy the strop. Thanks.

    I suspect that Heffer’s attitude to Stuart Hurlburt’s three sentences would be the same as mine: that each is dreadful, a clue that the “probably” is redundant. Even “probably to expect you” would have been rubbish. As for “the way English is structured now”, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sentence construction like any of those, and still less seen one written down before! I hate to think which grammars Stuart might be consulting.

  10. Axolotl said,

    August 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    “Look at these three sentences, which do you prefer?”

    None. They’re all nonsensical.

    On the split infinitive: this is a perfectly acceptable construction, which was not only has been used since the era of Old English, but has been in near-continuous use ever since. Furthermore, Fowler agrees with me.

    Heffer is a bore and a useless historian, but he is quite correct to excoriate illiteracy of the sort that conflates “endocrinology” with “dendrochronology”. Still, what sort of standard can a paper which hired Bryony Gormless be realistically held to?

    I suggest grammatical prescriptivists, in seeking ‘purity’, speak either Latin or Anglo-Saxon, in their quest for the correct way to speak English. They won’t find it in either, of course, but they’ll be able to mislead a far smaller section of the population in this way.

  11. August 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    OK, my example came from the Collins Cobuild English Grammar, Harper Collins 2005.

    The introduction says the following about the examples used:
    “One of the really unusual features of this grammar is that all the examples are chosen from the Bank of English corpus, part of Collins Word Web. The Bank of English currently stands at around 524 million words, and is the largest corpus of its kind in the world. I believe this to be a sound basis for a grammar…”

    Translation – the grammar is based on an analysis of a database of real examples of modern usage.

    My point anyway is that pedants like Simon Heffer are not only bores but they are plain wrong. I would also suggest that he might want to look at his own grammar. Why did he write, ‘bacteria is plural’? If bacteria is plural then it should read bacteria are plural, unless of course bacteria is an uncount noun. (The rule is that the verb should agree with the subject.) You see my point? It really doesn’t matter as long as the meaning is clear.

  12. August 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    On consideration the sentence I quoted from Simon Heffer was correct in context. He wrote, ‘Bacteria is plural’. The verb should agree with the subject, but bacteria is not the subject. The subject of the sentence is implied – he’s not talking about bacteria as such but the word bacteria.

    I should think before I type!

    Anyway that doesn’t change the point that he’s a boring old fogey who thinks he owns us. I hope he’s the first up against the wall when the revolution comes. He thinks he knows it all but he doesn’t. He’s not a linguist so he repeats a load of old bollocks based on out dated prescriptive rules which should be ignored.

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