Friday, 14 December 2012


Capital Letters

Capital letters are not really an aspect of punctuation, but it is c onvenient to deal with them here. The rules for using them are mostly very simple. (a) The first word of a sentence, or of a fragment, begins with a capital letter:
The bumbling wizard Rincewind is Pratchett's most popular character.
Will anyone now alive live to see a colony on the moon? Probably not.
Distressingly few pupils can locate Iraq or Japan on a map of the world.

(b) The names of the days of the week, and of the months of the year, are written with a capital letter:
Next Sunday France will hold a general election.
Mozart was born on 27 January, 1756.
Football practice takes place on Wednesdays and Fridays.

However, the names of seasons are not written with a capital:
Like cricket, baseball is played in the summer.
Do not write *"... in the Summer".
(c) The names of languages are always written with a capital letter. Be careful about this; it's a very common mistake.
Juliet speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
I need to work on my Spanish irregular verbs.
Among the major languages of India are Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil.
These days, few students study Latin and Greek.

Note, however, that names of disciplines and school subjects are not capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages:
I'm doing A-levels in history, geography and English.
Newton made important contributions to physics and mathematics.
She is studying French literature.

(d) Words that express a connection with a particular place must be capitalized when they have their literal meanings. So, for example, French must be capitalized when it means `having to do with France':
The result of the French election is still in doubt.
The American and Russian negotiators are close to agreement.
There are no mountains in the Dutch landscape.
She has a dry Mancunian sense of humour.

(The word Mancunian means `from Manchester'.)
However, it is not necessary to capitalize these words when they occur as parts of fixed phrases and don't express any direct connection with the relevant places:
Please buy some danish pastries.
In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
I prefer russian dressing on my salad.

Why the difference? Well, a danish pastry is merely a particular sort of pastry; it doesn't have to come from Denmark. Likewise, french windows are merely a particular kind of window, and russian dressing is just a particular variety of salad dressing. Even in these cases, you can capitalize these words if you want to, as long as you are consistent about it. But notice how convenient it can be to make the difference:
In warm weather, we keep our french windows open.
After nightfall, French windows are always shuttered.
In the first example, french windows just refers to a kind of window; in the second, French windows refers specifically to windows in France.
(e) In the same vein, words that identify nationalities or ethnic groups must be capitalized:
The Basques and the Catalans spent decades struggling for autonomy.
The Serbs and the Croats have become bitter enemies.
Norway's most popular singer is a Sami from Lapland.

(An aside: some ethnic labels which were formerly widely used are now regarded by many people as offensive and have been replaced by other labels. Thus, careful writers use Black, not Negro; native American, not Indian or red Indian; native Australian, not Aborigine. You are advised to follow suit.)
(f) Formerly, the words black and white, when applied to human beings, were never capitalized. Nowadays, however, many people prefer to capitalize them because they regard these words as ethnic labels comparable to Chinese or Indian:
The Rodney King case infuriated many Black Americans.
You may capitalize these words or not, as you prefer, but be consistent.
(g) Proper names are always capitalized. A proper name is a name or a title that refers to an individual person, an individual place, an individual institution or an individual event. Here are some examples:
The study of language was revolutionized by Noam Chomsky.
The Golden Gate Bridge towers above San Francisco Bay.
There will be a debate between Professor Lacey and Doctor Davis.
The Queen will address the House of Commons today.
Many people mistakenly believe that Mexico is in South America.
My friend Julie is training for the Winter Olympics.
Next week President Clinton will be meeting Chancellor Kohl.

Observe the difference between the next two examples:
We have asked for a meeting with the President.
I would like to be the president of a big company.
In the first, the title the President is capitalized because it is a title referring to a specific person; in the second, there is no capital, because the word president does not refer to anyone in particular. (Compare We have asked for a meeting with President Wilson and *I would like to be President Wilson of a big company.) The same difference is made with some other words: we write the Government and Parliament when we are referring to a particular government or a particular parliament, but we write government and parliament when we are using the words generically. And note also the following example:
The patron saint of carpenters is Saint Joseph.
Here Saint Joseph is a name, but patron saint is not and gets no capital.
There is a slight problem with the names of hazily defined geographical regions. We usually write the Middle East and Southeast Asia, because these regions are now regarded as having a distinctive identity, but we write central Europe and southeast London, because these regions are not thought of as having the same kind of identity. Note, too, the difference between South Africa (the name of a particular country) and southern Africa (a vaguely defined region). All I can suggest here is that you read a good newspaper and keep your eyes open. Observe that certain surnames of foreign origin contain little words that are often not capitalized, such as de, du, da, von and van. Thus we write Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, General von Moltke and Simone de Beauvoir. On the other hand, we write Daphne Du Maurier and Dick Van Dyke, because those are the forms preferred by the owners of the names. When in doubt, check the spelling in a good reference book. A few people eccentrically prefer to write their names with no capital letters at all, such as the poet e. e. cummings and the singer k. d. lang. These strange usages should be respected. (h) The names of distinctive historical periods are capitalized:
London was a prosperous city during the Middle Ages.
Britain was the first country to profit from the Industrial Revolution.
The Greeks were already in Greece during the Bronze Age.

(i) The names of festivals and holy days are capitalized:
We have long breaks at Christmas and Easter.
During Ramadan, one may not eat before sundown.
The feast of Purim is an occasion for merrymaking.
Our church observes the Sabbath very strictly.
The children greatly enjoy Hallowe'en.

(j) Many religious terms are capitalized, including the names of religions and of their followers, the names or titles of divine beings, the titles of certain important figures, the names of important events and the names of sacred books:
An atheist is a person who does not believe in God.
The principal religions of Japan are Shinto and Buddhism.
The Indian cricket team includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsees.
The Lord is my shepherd.
The Prophet was born in Mecca.
The Last Supper took place on the night before the Crucifixion.
The Old Testament begins with Genesis.

Note, however, that the word god is not capitalized when it refers to a pagan deity:
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea.
(k) In the title or name of a book, a play, a poem, a film, a magazine, a newspaper or a piece of music, a capital letter is used for the first word and for every significant word (that is, a little word like the, of, and or in is not capitalized unless it is the first word):
I was terrified by The Silence of the Lambs.
The Round Tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The Shoop Shoop Song.

Important note: The policy just described is the one most widely used in the English-speaking world. There is, however, a second policy, preferred by many people. In this second policy, we capitalize only the first word of a title and any words which intrinsically require capitals for independent reasons. Using the second policy, my examples would look like this:
I was terrified by The silence of the lambs.
The round tower was written by Catherine Cookson.
Bach's most famous organ piece is the Toccata and fugue in D minor.
I don't usually like Cher, but I do enjoy The shoop shoop song.

You may use whichever policy you prefer, so long as you are consistent about it. You may find, however, that your tutor or your editor insists upon one or the other. The second policy is particularly common (though not universal) in academic circles, and is usual among librarians; elsewhere, the first policy is almost always preferred.
(l) The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words, is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence:
Thomas Edison famously observed "Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
But there is no capital letter if the quotation is not a complete sentence:
The Minister described the latest unemployment figures as "disappointing".
(m) The brand names of manufacturers and their products are capitalized:
Maxine has bought a second-hand Ford Escort.
Almost everybody owns a Sony Walkman.
Note: There is a problem with brand names which have become so successful that they are used in ordinary speech as generic labels for classes of products. The manufacturers of Kleenex and Sellotape are exasperated to find people using kleenex and sellotape as ordinary words for facial tissues or sticky tape of any kind, and some such manufacturers may actually take legal action against this practice. If you are writing for publication, you need to be careful about this, and it is best to capitalize such words if you use them. However, when brand names are converted into verbs, no capital letter is used: we write She was hoovering the carpet and I need to xerox this report, even though the manufacturers of Hoover vacuum cleaners and Xerox photocopiers don 't much like this practice, either.
(n) Roman numerals are usually capitalized:
It is no easy task to multiply LIX by XXIV using Roman numerals.
King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera.
The only common exception is that small Roman numerals are used to number the pages of the front matter in books; look at almost any book.
(o) The pronoun I is always capitalized:
She thought I'd borrowed her keys, but I hadn't.
It is possible to write an entire word or phrase in capital letters in order to emphasize it:
There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE to support this conjecture.
On the whole, though, it is preferable to express emphasis, not with capital letters, but with italics. It is not necessary to capitalize a word merely because there is only one thing it can possibly refer to:
The equator runs through the middle of Brazil.
Admiral Peary was the first person to fly over the north pole.
The universe is thought to be about 15 billion years old.

Here the words equator, north pole and universe need no capitals, because they aren't strictly proper names. Some people choose to capitalize them anyway; this is not wrong, but it's not recommended.
Capital letters are also used in writing certain abbreviations and related types of words, including the abbreviated names of organizations and companies, and in letter writing and in the headings of essays. There is one other rather rare use of capital letters which is worth explaining if only to prevent you from doing it by mistake when you don't mean to. This to poke fun at something. Here is an example:
The French Revolution was a Good Thing at first, but Napoleon's rise to power was a Bad Thing.
Here the writer is making fun of the common tendency to see historical events in simple-minded terms as either good or bad. Another example:
Many people claim that rock music is Serious Art, deserving of Serious Critical Attention.
The writer is clearly being sarcastic: all those unusual capital letters demonstrate that he considers rock music to be worthless trash.
This stylistic device is only appropriate in writing which is intended to be humorous, or at least light-hearted; it is quite out of place in formal writing. The use of unnecessary capital letters when you're trying to be serious can quickly make your prose look idiotic, rather like those content-free books that fill the shelves of the "New Age" section in bookshops:
Your Eidetic Soul is linked by its Crystal Cord to the Seventh Circle of the Astral Plane, from where the Immanent Essence is transmitted to your Eidetic Aura,...
You get the idea. Don't use a capital letter unless you're sure you know why it's there.
Summary of Capital Letters:
  • the first word of a sentence or fragment
  • the name of a day or a month
  • the name of a language
  • a word expressing a connection with a place
  • the name of a nationality or an ethnic group
  • a proper name
  • the name of a historical period
  • the name of a holiday
  • a significant religious term
  • the first word, and each significant word, of a title
  • the first word of a direct quotation which is a sentence
  • a brand name
  • a Roman numeral
  • the pronoun I

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Thought I should put this old favourite up here:

Here she blows him out:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?


But here she changed the punctuation:

Dear John

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours?



Thought I should put these old favourites up here:

Dear John
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever 

or did she mean:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours?
And this one"

My dear Pat,

My dear Pat

The dinner we shared the other night -- it was absolutely lovely! Not in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine anyone as perfect as you are. Could you -- if only for a moment -- think of our being together forever? What a cruel joke to have you come into my life only to leave again; it would be heaven denied. The possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy with joy. I face the time we are apart with great sadness.
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can't stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.
And now here's the same letter, punctuated differently:
Pat the dinner we shared the other night. It was absolutely lovely--not! In my wildest dreams, could I ever imagine anyone? As perfect as you are, could you--if only for a moment--think? Of our being together forever: what a cruel joke! To have you come into my life only to leave again: it would be heaven! Denied the possibility of seeing you again makes me giddy. With joy I face the time we are apart.
With great "sadness,"
P.S.: I would like to tell you that I love you. I can't. Stop thinking that you are one of the prettiest women on earth.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Initial caps?

National Insurance? Income Tax? State Pension?

What's the proper way to write these terms? It seems there's widespread institutional acceptance that reference to national insurance (and often income tax, also) always uses initial capitals. Surely these should not have initial caps? I have heard the argument that the practice (at least with national insurance) arises from the correct capitalisation when the acronym is used (NI or NIC for contributions), which is then reverse-engineered to retain the capitals. What about the state pension, as well? I feel general discussion about the subject should use lower case, but perhaps the 'products' should be capitalised: Basic State Pension and Second State Pension. I would be grateful for any thoughts on the subject. Thanks

Friday, 27 January 2012

How many Fs?

How many Fs in the following sentence?


Many people say three... in fact, because we skim words, and because we pronounce 'of' 'ov', most fail to spot that there are in fact SIX Fs:


Tuesday, 24 January 2012


I cluon'dt blievee that I culod actually udnretsnad what I was raednig. Usnig the amzanig pwoer of the hmuan biarn, aorccnidg to rsreach at Cmabidrge Uivnreisty, it deonst mttaer in what oderr the lettres in a wrod are, the olny ipmroatnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat lterets are in the rghit place.
I couldt believe that I could actually understand what I was reading. Using the incredible power of the human brain, according to research at Cambridge University, it doesn't matter in what order the letters in a word are; the only important thing is that the first and last letter are in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem. This is because the brain does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole. Amazing, eh?

Monday, 9 January 2012

Pronunciation (Hints)

Hints on Pronunciation for Indians

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don't call it 'deed'
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose.

And cord and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd mastered it when I was five.

SEO: keywords waste of time?

"Modern SEO is all about crafting content so compelling that other people want to promote it by linking to it or sharing it. "

Some interesting thoughts on LinkedIn about the merits of SEO. So glad to see a return to proper writing...

John Fountain
• Agree with you 100 per cent Richard. The whole SEO debate about keywords is pretty much dead in the water thanks to Google and the way it now searches. Here's something I cut and pasted - '85% of the total factors that determine how a web page is ranked in a search engine is based on things that happen off the page itself.' By that they mean the amount of links to the site, bookmarking and tweets that mention the site.

Modern SEO is all about crafting content so compelling that other people want to promote it by linking to it or sharing it.

This kind of content is best provided by a professional copywriter. So what is the role of the SEO specialist today becasue I'm not sure.

Richard Owsley • I read an article recently where the writer had interviewed twenty top Google SEO people about keyword density. To a man they were agreed that keyword density has no effect whatsoever on today's algorithms. The searches are far, far more sophisticated than that and stuffing your pages full of keywords, apart from making the copy sound moronic and the design look cluttered, is akin to flat earth theory.

I have had many instances in the past two years of clients showing me the advice they got from their SEO 'specialists' which in my eyes was either worthless, or which I could have given myself in two minutes. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen around.

Getting the design work you want: ten pointers for success.

Do you get the results you expect from your designer?

I've recently found myself involved with a couple of projects where the clients were not at all happy with the design proposals they had been given — yet didn't know what they could do about it.

Take Company A (a firm of accountants). They had a need to re-name and re-brand their business. Knowing next to nothing about the process they put their trust in a firm of 'designers' that they had found in a local telephone directory. They called me in to help with PR, but mentioned their concerns over the design proposals, and asked for my advice, given my background in design management and identity development.

It turned out that the designers had met the client once, at the designer's offices, so they had little or no understanding of the client's corporate personality. They hadn't put anything down in writing regarding approach or strategy, except to give a fee for the design work (and the client, naively but perhaps understandably, assumed that this would embrace all that was needed).

Although the designers had agreed to prepare three options, they emailed design proposals, rather than presenting and explaining the designs in person. They provided three design proposals that each adopted essentially the same approach, but with slightly different executions. Two of their solutions (one a hand-shake as logo, one a too-obvious rendition of 'money') were breathtakingly childish, and reminded me of a school project. There had been no attempt to indicate a process by which a multitude of potential avenues might have been explored around the services and benefits the company offered its audience. They had more or less created logo concepts on the back of an envelope and said "take it or leave it".

I offered to 'broker' the process for them, and when I met the designers they admitted that they had had provided two 'rubbish' concepts so that the client would choose the third. They were not prepared to provide any alternative concepts, but as it happens, the client did like one of the proposals, and so agreed to proceed. But as artwork for stationery was being prepared, they kept making basic mistakes and not following instructions. It became clear that they simply didn't appreciate the attention to detail required. With a deadline looming, and things beginning to spiral out of control, I advised the client to cut their losses and find a different designer who could provide more constructive support for the rest of the work required in this critical process.

They agreed a fee to end the relationship and keep the design they liked; I found them a designer who had a more professional approach, who ensured everything ran smoothly to launch date.

The tips I would pass on are these:

1. If you're paying a fee, you're in charge. Make sure things happen the way you want them to.
2. Prepare a clear brief. Write down your requirements and expectations. You could use my Briefing Form [ if you like.
3. Hold a beauty parade. Research possible designers: check local directories, ask colleagues, friends for recommendations.
4. Visit your shortlisted designers in their offices; get them to visit you in your offices.
5. Ask them to make a formal proposal describing how they would work and what they would provide for the fee.
Make sure you understand what's going to be involved. Ask your designer to explain the process.
6. I'm against expecting designers to provide design solutions as part of the pitch process. You should be able to judge their expertise from other work and their attitude; then reward them for the proposals they prepare. Reputable designers will always work with you to revise designs if necessary to achieve a result that works and, ideally, that you're happy with. It's true that sometimes personal opinions diverge, but this is where it's important to be clear about the terms for ending the relationship if necessary.
7. Once you appoint a designer, agree the process: be clear what happens at what stages; be clear that your approval is required at all key stages.
8. Agree costs for each stage of the work (initial concepts, first proposals, fine-tuning proposals, preparing final artwork, handing over all final material). Be clear what 'extras' might cost (and what might be counted as extra work). Be clear what you get for the fee you pay. That should typically include all development work and the final artwork that you can use in the future, as well as your ownership of the copyright for unlimited use (once the fee has been paid).
9. Make sure the designers present and explain their proposals in person
10. If you're developing a new name and logo, be sure that someone checks availability and that you are not in danger of infringing someone else's copyright.


From Poke

They say:

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.

After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité