x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Summing up the year in grammar, in alphabetical order

The final My Word column of 2009 looks back, in alphabetical order, on what I hope has been a thought-provoking year of pedantry, whimsy and banter.

Since the end of December is a time for lists, the final My Word column of 2009 looks back, in alphabetical order, on what I hope has been a thought-provoking year of pedantry, whimsy and banter. A is for Americanisms. There is a place for them but, subject to all my generous concessions, that place is the United States. B is for J R Bartlett, whose Dictionary of Americanisms charted, as early as 1859 (the first edition), the development of the US and UK as countries divided by a common language.

C is for clichés, phrases that start life as clever or useful but become worn out by overuse. Point out mine, but only after reflecting on an important qualification from the author and editor J A Spender: "The hardest worked cliché is better than the phrase that fails." D is for dictionaries, whichever you use. Treat them as critical friends offering help, correction and choice. But be prepared for occasional inconsistency and confusion.

E is for editors. Whether they call themselves copy editors, page editors or old-fashioned sub-editors, may they continue to save me from my own lapses. F is for Fowler's Modern English Usage, an indispensably grumpy reference work. G is for garner, an ugly word meaning to gather or collect. I assumed it to be rooted in the American Midwest of the 1920s, and discouraged its use, only to discover impeccably European etymology. I still discourage its use.

H is for the hope that public authorities at least aim for clear, grammatical English in documents and on street signs. I is for indorse. American friends scratched their heads last week when I described it as an Americanism for endorse. But it was used by Mr Bartlett and is mentioned in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. J is for journalism, a trade that produces memorable writing but also some of the worst crimes against good English.

K is for knowing the rules of grammar before feeling entitled to break them. L is for the lyrics of pop songs. Listen with pleasure but avoid, at all costs, reading them on the printed page. M is for My Word and its modest contributions, from the Arabian to the Mediterranean and suburban London, to the defence of elegant English. N is for newspapers. It is in the public interest that the good ones, and even the reasonable ones, should triumph over economic adversity and changing habits.

O is for the misplaced only. Even grammarians disagree on whether it is misplaced at all. P is for punctuation. Remember that omission, as much as misuse, can alter meaning. Q is for the Queen's English Society. We may quarrel with certain of the views its members advance, but it is reassuring that the society exists at all. R is for the readers who constantly keep me on my toes. S is for style guides. All self-respecting publications need them.

T is for The Times of India, never allowed to forget a headline confirming the inadvisability of throwing stones from glasshouses: "Are the local poilce competent enough?" U is for understatement, almost always the best way of expressing even extreme emotions. V is for very, a gift to any sub-editor who needs to reduce a word count. W is for "winterise", the word an official seemed to use when describing what must be done to Eurostar trains to allow them to go from the cold outdoors into the warmer Channel Tunnel without breaking down. Promise me it was a mishearing.

X is for Xanadu, an "imaginary wonderful place" (Concise OED) where "everyone obeys the style guide" (My Word). Y is for the young, that the written word continues to seem relevant to them. Z is for my disapproval of -ize endings unless the word is size or prize (or similar). Let us all recognise the merit of -ise, realise how more pleasing to the eye it is and organise our writing accordingly. Winterise is still not a word but I do have three more for 2009: happy New Year.

Colin Randall in a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae