Inglish, as Spoke ‘n Wrote


It seems the sign writer ran out of paint to complete the ‘R’ – until you see the first word

Mr Spelling Bee

As a writer I get asked to spell words by as many adults as children, en passant. I don’t claim to be a walking dictionary and often experiment to create new words that the ill-educated consider ‘wrong’. It’s called creative writing.

Writers and journalists are expected to be highly proficient in the job of putting letters, words and punctuation in the right order. No surprise then that, like any other flawed human, I make errors. Typos belong to the speed I use a keyboard and a schedule that allows little time to check drafts.

Spelling howlers litter the history of literature. Back in the day it didn’t matter, but once dictionaries were published the pressure was on to conform. First printers and then publishers wanted their work made easy.

“You’re a writer” said a plumber. “Spell ‘containerised.” If only I was around when local college painters sprayed ‘Mantenence Deppo’ at the storage door for Maintenance Depot.

Pedants rule

Fowler’s ‘Modern English Usage’, a one-time Bible for grammarians, actually advises we revert to the Greek and pronounce the silent ‘p’ at the front of pseudo and similar. That’s a truly eccentric proposal. Psephology is bad enough – the study of polls and statistics, but how do you pronounce pneumatic or psychic?

One of the best visual jokes I know is a naked professor standing in a pond. The caption is,  “Psychiatrist has a silent P”. But I digress.

I take the attitude spelling and grammar do not matter so long as your meaning is clear. To which grammarians answer, if meaning isn’t clear it’s because of bad grammar and poor spelling. The perceptive will spot that that is exactly what I said, only in reverse.

The fallacy of rules

Who doesn’t feel cheated taught by primary school teachers the strict rule of ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, only to discover later in life any number of exceptions: neighbour, weigh, weight, freight, sheik, deign, vein, caffeine, and so on, and so forth.

For my own part, I have to check renaissance, and millionaire to see where the double letter lands. One ‘n’ or two ‘s’s’? Actually, millionaire can have two ‘n’s’ if you like it that way. There’s lots of instances where a word has two acceptable ways to spell it. Exceptions abound. (‘Exceptions abound’ is not a proper sentence. There’s no verb in it!) Judgement can be written with or without the ‘e’ in the middle: judgment. And on it goes

The plural of one

Here’s another thing: how to write the plural of a single letter, such as the letter ‘e’ without it looking distinctly odd. Write it as ‘es’ and its singular. You have to stick an apostrophe in the middle – ‘e’s’, normally done to indicate the possessive. However, it’s not necessary when a capital letter, as in ‘Ls’, but it looks better with the apostrophe: ‘L’s’. Or does it? English can be hellish confusing.

The English language is full of potholes. Stumbles include Cholmondely, pronounced ‘Chumley’, and Mainwaring pronounced, Mannering. To my credit I can spell Balquhidder without a slip and speak it as it should be spoken.


Memory fail is most often active when trying to think of synonyms. I can spend ages going around a word in my head that isn’t quite the one I want. Take ‘block’, for example. The word I really want is halt. ‘We must halt the spread of colonialism’ is better in meaning and scansion than ‘We must block UKip.’

And there are personal foibles: I remind myself that one gets irritated by something or someone if already annoyed. Irritated is almost universally used in the wrong way. People talk of being irritated by this or that when they mean annoyed.

There is worse and ‘worser’

I console myself knowing the very worst grammarians are automobile journalists and property agents. They have a jargon all of their own. One copies the other blindly.

Car interiors are described as ‘flexible’ as if the seats bend when you sit on them. (My Mini seats did actually bend!) Property agents misuse the same adjective to describe the layout of homes when they mean ‘versatile’.

Commas are a matter of taste

“When should I use a comma?” is a regular question. There’s no single answer to that. Read over the paragraph you’ve written and drop in commas where you feel they help to make the sense communicate.

Personally, I play safe. I sprinkle commas like rain, liberally, wherever possible, in my prose, to stay on the safe side.


Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bless her, tweeted “back peddling” to an opponent when she meant back pedalling. You will find lots of malapropisms in newspapers. And you will hear them spoken in opinionated company.

Some politicians cause mirth pronouncing ‘Brexit’ as ‘breakfast’, a clumsy abbreviation designed to trap the unwary.

The first malapropism I coined was during my final year dance at primary school. It took some time to screw up enough courage to ask my favourite teacher if she was free for the next dance, but when I approached her nervously it came out as, “Miss … are you vacant for the next dance?”

The howls of laughter echo inside my skull to this day.


The infamous ‘your’ and ‘you’re’

The know-all

On one occasion a film colleague noticed I omitted the apostrophe from ain’t throughout a piece of screen dialogue.

“You can’t write it that way. It has a comma!” [He was wrong. It has an apostrophe.]

“Listen” I shot back, “James Joyce wrote can’t and won’t without an apostrophe, so I’m in good company! Pay attention to the bloody quality of the dialogue not the written grammar!” In everyday speech we omit grammatical accuracy for immediacy of meaning. We break up sentences, fracture them, recast, hesitate, and repeat words.

Verbal hurdles

No matter our education, we pay little or no attention to grammar when communicating verbally. Oxbridge dons are no better. They overlook perfect grammatical sentences in their speech. But weirdly (yes, you can begin a sentence with a conjunction) we adopt written language in speech when it isn’t necessary.

Readers will have heard a pundit or politician answer a question by saying ‘eg’ rather than saying for example. Another is counting on their fingers as they make a list of things, “Well, ‘a’ we can do this, and ‘b’ we can do that.” Odd how abbreviations strictly for written English are used in everyday speech without embarrassment.

The split infinitive

How do you avoid the infamous split infinitive?

The answer is you don’t have to if you don’t want to. The problem of the split infinitive only arises when the infinitive appears with the preposition to, and an accompanying adverb, or adverbial phrase. If you put adverbial words between theto’ and the verb, you split the infinitive. Pedants think those who employ split infinitives are uneducated.

I avoid the split infinitive only because it makes a sentence sound clunky.

The glitch is in the relationship between English and Latin. In Latin the infinitive appears as one word. You cannot split the infinitive in Latin. We dropped Latin grammar when men wore tights and cod pieces. The exception is public schools, such as Eton, but it teaches Latin for England’s future civil servants to interpret heraldic inscription, and to separate its students from the rest of us, the riff-raff.

In any event, the rule is, there is no rule. Treat the split infinitive as a preference.


For the want of a comma her butt grew bigger

Speak English not Scottish

My primary education was severely wanting in anything remotely connected to cultural education. I was chastised for saying “aye” instead of yes. I was told to lose dialect words, such as ‘siver’, the Edinburgh word for the drain in a road gutter, ‘stank’ in Glasgow.

When I entered drama tuition I was warned sternly to lose my Scottish accent or expect to lose my career in theatre. (I fancied direction of plays and films, but that’s another story.) My tutors were English and sadly Scottish too. Colonised habits die hard.

Older readers will remember the furore over Glaswegian speaking journalist Cliff Hanley’s entry to BBC Scotland’s morning radio news programme. Outrage poured from all quarters of society, thousands of furious listeners, from Glaswegians to posh Jocks, all railing against a non-BBC Southern voice.

What was the BBC thinking? Snobbery and pomposity flowed as thick as molasses.


Think before you ink

Class barriers

When I worked a short time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was astonished to discover English actors speaking Shakespearian lines and sonnets in their local tongues, Somerset, Devon, Suffolk. The artistic director Trevor Nunn explained that local accents enrich characterisation. “That is the reality those actors bring to the role. Why should I demand a BBC accent and have everybody sound like a blueprint of voice tuition?”

English accents and dialect words make Shakespearian verse rhyme. Without it the verse doesn’t scan.

This revelation coincided with the entertainment world opening the door to working class playwrights and actors: Arnold Wesker, C.P. Taylor, John Osborne, the multi-talented John Byrne; in actors we got the Welsh Stanley Baker, the Scottish Sean Connery, the Liverpool-Irish Peter O’Toole and the English Albert Finney, to name too few. Class barriers broke down.

Arriving full circle

Today, fashionable actors speak with plummy voices once more, and are educated at Eton. Presumably they’re no longer expected to make Shakespeare’s verse rhyme.

We are left with Scottish politicians who want people to think they had a full-blown English public school education. When it comes to affecting an upper crust English accent the former MP, Malcolm Rifkind, is top of the list of worst offenders. Next comes the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson who can torture any vowel to death.

As for people like me who spend long periods in the United States and return with a creeping pseudo American accent, the less said the better … dude.

I now ‘boldly’ hand this essay over to grammar pedants, or is it pendants?…..



(An abridged version of this essay was published in iScot magazine – support the march to full democracy, order a subscription.)

This entry was posted in Scottish Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Inglish, as Spoke ‘n Wrote

  1. diabloandco says:

    Erm! I am not sure I should mention this given the content, but isn’t’ plummy’ spelt with two ‘m’s’?

    ‘ Keer Cleap ‘entertained me so much that I am still wiping up the coffee-thanks!

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Morning, Diablo.
    I’ve not corrected anything yet from last night’s sessions in the wee sma’ hours, so you’ll find the infamous stray comma somewhere it shouldn’t be, and who knows, maybe a split infinitive too. Need my coffee first. Glad it entertained – a change from reading reams of print on Tory hatred of Johnny Foreigner. That subject comes next.

  3. Jammy Dodger says:

    I feel education is sorely lacking these days. Those of us of a certain age were lucky to having spelling lessons and who can foget the tests? But I confess, I know a split infinitive is ‘bad’, just couldn’t tell you what one is! I must have been off school that week.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Welcome, Jammy. Star Trek’s “To boldy go where no man has gone before” is the most often quoted example of a split infinitive.

  5. TheItalianJob says:

    I was lucky in Scottish schooling, when studying for my “Highers”. I wanted to be an engineer (been one all my career), so my three main “Highers” were maths and science based. My other two were English (compulsory then) and Geography which I really enjoyed.

    English held me in good stead when having to compile reports, prepare bids etc in my job, so evidently English and good grammar is an important factor in ones life.

    Having spent most of my career overseas and out of Scotland, my Fifeshire accent has however remained with me. And why shouldn’t it?

    Regional dialects and accents are important to distinguish where you originate from. and there is no worse person than a Scot who tries to change and even “anglicise” their own native tounge as such does Rifkind who you highlight in your discussion above.

    PS Due to my Italian parentage I grew up with speaking Italian with a Neopolitan dialect and was corrected by my Roman cousins on my trips to Italy as a youngster.

    Aren’t accents and dialects a wonderful thing. Love the word “siver”. Brings back good memories.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    PS: Due to my Italian parentage I grew up with speaking Italian with a Neopolitan dialect and was corrected by my Roman cousins on my trips to Italy as a youngster.”

    I’m sure I’d enjoy listening to your Neapolitan accent, IT. Italian is thee most beautiful spoken language, even a stage Italian. Bellissimo!

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    Ha, ha! (Note correct placing of a comma.)

  8. TheItalianJob says:

    Grazie mille GB. Just noticed my punctuation and grammatical errors, in my post above. Mi scusi.

    Also grew up with the lovely Neopolitan folk songs, which I adore. This led me into the beautiful folk songs of both Scotland and Ireland which I also adore and sing, when in the right context, such as a Burns supper. I’m also a big Burns fan.

  9. jdman says:

    “liberally sprinkle commas around”
    Does Rev Stu know about this?
    Dives for cover.

  10. Grouse Beater says:

    Hi JD. Not seen much of you on that site these days!

  11. Puzzled Puss says:

    I do love the idea of a ‘spilt infinitive’ (paragraph heading).
    How did you spill that infinitive? Can you just mop it up, please?

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    That’s called creative writing! 🙂

  13. Quote “No matter our education, we pay little or no attention to grammar when communicating verbally”. Tell that to my German wife. She loves Latin and always corrects my German grammar errors (interrupting me in the middle of a sentence) even when the meaning is crystal clear. Gives pedantry a whole new dimension.

    And believe me, making German grammar errors is very, very easy.

  14. jimnarlene says:

    We say “siver”, in Ayrshire, too.
    I remember getting the belt, at primary school, for speaking in Scots; then being encouraged to speak it, by my English teacher, at secondary school.

  15. Microsoft Word’s (amusing) grammar checker reports split infinitives, but only to enquire to what degree you wish to split the infinitive. So ‘I wanted to seriously be an astronaut’ might be preferable over ‘I wanted to so terribly seriously and strongly be an astronaut’.
    When I moved to a central belt primary school from the borders, my teacher chastised a boy for saying ‘dinnae’. ‘Does anyone know what he should have said?’ she asked. My hand shot up. ‘Divnae’ I said.

  16. Grouse Beater says:

    Yes, split infinitives are the butt of many a joke since ‘Star Trek’, but they’re not the heinous crime we were told they were. And a good reply to your teacher, Dougie! 🙂

  17. Auld Bob says:

    When I were a lad, No Wait! Is that not a Lancashire accent? In my boyhood … Ach! When I bided in Edinburgh, we could tell which part of the city or from The Port of Leith, a speaker came from. The nearest there was to an uniform Edinburgh accent was Morningside.

    Our usual geography teacher in the school in Leith went off sick and we got a supply teacher who spoke with a very affected Morningside accent. During her first class she was teaching European Cities and asked the class to, “Name cities in Belgium with a port”, and got some good answers but apparently one answer was not included.

    At this she became a little upset and, stamped her foot, saying loudly, “Children! Children! Ostend”.

    The entire class rose to their collective feet.

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    Am still laughing and chuckling, Bob! With your approval that’s an anecdote I can dine out on. I can see them standing in my mind’s eye.

    Aye, Miss Brodie’s Morningside accent is easily identifiable.

    I have a photo of the original house that stood alone on Churchill crest, the rest cattle land down the slopes. Tradesmen were told to enter by the ‘morning side’, which in time gave the new tenements their district name.

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