The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 9: The Handling of Words

Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.


If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.


We must now return to what I called in Chapter 4 "correctness", and consider what it means not in the choice of words but in handling them when chosen. That takes us into the realm of grammar, syntax and idiom — three words that overlap and are often used loosely, with grammar as a generic term covering them all.

Grammar has fallen from the high esteem that it used to enjoy. A hundred and fifty years ago William Gobbett said that "grammar perfectly understood enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly but so to express it as to defy the ingenuity of man to give our words any other meaning than that which we intended to express". The very name of grammar school serves to remind us that grammar was long regarded as the only path to culture and learning. But that was Latin grammar. When our mother-tongue encroached on the paramountcy of the dead languages, questions began to be asked. Even at the time when Cobbett was writing his grammar, Sydney Smith was fulminating about the unfortunate boy who was

suffocated by the nonsense of grammarians, overwhelmed with every species of difficulty disproportionate to his age, and driven by despair to pegtop and marbles.

Very slowly over the past hundred years the idea seems to have gained ground that the grammar of a living language, which is changing all the time, cannot be fitted into the rigid framework of a dead one; nor can the grammar of a language such as Latin, which changes the forms of its words to express different grammatical relations, be profitably applied to a language such as English, which has got rid of most of its inflexions, and expresses grammatical relations by devices like prepositions and auxiliary verbs and by the order of its words. It is more than fifty years since the Board of Education itself declared:

There is no such thing as English grammar in the sense which used to be attached to the term.

George Saintsbury denounced the futility of trying to

draw up rules and conventions for a language that is almost wholly exception and idiom.

Jespersen preached that the grammar of a language must be deduced from a study of how good writers of it in fact write, not how grammarians say it ought to be written. George Orwell went so far as to say that

correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear.

And more recently a teacher of English has written a book1 in which, after surveying the development of our language from the clumsy and tortuous synthetic beginnings of its Gothic origins to the grace and flexibility of its present analytical structure, he shows how in this great and beneficent reform the hero is what he calls the "lowly man" and the villain the grammarian, who constantly tried to hamper the freedom of the lowly man to go his own way; and he advocates a "grammatical moratorium" in which we may all be free to disregard the rules of grammar and continue the good work.

The old-fashioned grammarian certainly has much to answer for. He created a false sense of values that still lingers. I have ample evidence in my own correspondence that too much importance is still attached to grammarians' fetishes and too little to choosing the right words. But we cannot have grammar jettisoned altogether; that would mean chaos. There are certain grammatical conventions that are, so to speak, a code of good manners. They change, but those current at the time must be observed by writers who wish to express themselves clearly and without offence to their readers. Mr. Sykes Davies himself says that his grammatical moratorium must be preceded by some instruction in the principles of language

which will not shy from the inescapable necessity of starting from nowhere else than the position we stand in at the moment, conditioned by the past.

In this chapter, then, I shall concern myself with some points of current usage on which I have noticed guidance to be needed.

Strictly, idiom is different from grammar: the two are often in conflict. Idiom is defined by the O.E.D. as

a peculiarity of phraseology approved by usage and often having a meaning other than its logical or grammatical one.

When anything in this book is called "good English idiom" or "idiomatic", what is meant is that usage has established it as correct. Idiom does not conflict with grammar or logic as a matter of course; it is usually grammatically and logically neutral. Idiom requires us to say capable of doing, not capable to do, and able to do, not able of doing. Logic and grammar do not object to this, but they would be equally content with capable to do and able of doing. At the same time idiom is, in Jespersen's phrase, "a tyrannical, capricious, utterly incalculable thing", and if logic and grammar get in its way, so much the worse for logic and grammar. It is idiomatic — at least in speech — to say "I won't be longer than I can help" and "it's me". That the first is logically nonsense and the second a grammatical howler is neither here not there; idiom makes light of such things. Yet during the reign of pedantry attempts were constantly made to force idiom into the mould of logic. We were not to speak of a "criminal being executed", for a sentence can be executed but not a person; we were not to say "vexed question" for though many a question vexes none is vexed; nor "most thoughtless" for if a person is without thought there cannot be degrees of his lack of that quality;nor "light the fire", for nothing has less need of 'lighting'; nor "round the fireside", for that would mean that some of us were behind the chimney. So argued Landor2, a stout and undiscriminating defender of his language against the intrusion of the illogical. In spite of Fowler and Jespersen, some trace still lingers of the idea that what is illogical or ungrammatical "must" be wrong, such as condemnation of under the circumstances and of the use of a plural verb with none. The truth is, as Logan Pearsall Smith says:

Plainly a language which was all idiom and unreason would be impossible as an instrument of thought; but all languages permit the existence of a certain number of illogical expressions: and the fact that, in spite of their vulgar origin and illiterate appearance, they have succeeded in elbowing their way into our prose and poetry, and even learned lexicons and grammars, is proof that they perform a necessary function in the domestic economy of speech.

Words and Idioms, Constable & Co., 5th ed., 1943

In this chapter advice will be given about common troubles in the handling of words. After an opening section on the arrangement of words, these troubles will be classified under those with Conjunctions; Negatives; Number; Prepositions; Pronouns; Verbs.

The chapter will end with sections on Some Points of Idiom: Some Common Causes of Confused Expression: and A Few Points of Spelling.

Troubles in Arrangement

Of these three—grammar, syntax and idiom—it is syntax, in its strict sense of "orderly arrangement", that is of the greatest practical importance. The quotation that heads this chapter says that proper words in proper places make the true definition of style. But something more than " style" depends on putting words in their proper places. In a language like ours, which, except in some of its pronouns, has got rid of its different forms for the subjective and objective cases, your very meaning may depend on your arrangement of words. In Latin, the subject of the verb will have a form that shows it is " in the nominative", and the object one that shows it is " in the accusative"; you may arrange them as you like, and the meaning will remain the same. But English is different. In the two sentences "Cain killed Abel" and "Abel killed Cain" the words are the same, but when they are reversed the meaning is reversed too.

If all you want to say is a simple thing like that, there is no difficulty. But that is rarely so. You probably want to write a more complicated sentence telling not only the central event but also its how, why and where. The Americans have a useful word, modifier, by which they mean "words or groups of words that restrict, limit or make more exact the meaning of other words". The "modifiers" bring the trouble.

The rule is easy enough to state. It is, in the words of an old grammarian,

that the words or members most nearly related should be placed in the sentence as near to each other as possible, so as to make their mutual relation clearly appear.

But it is not so easy to keep. We do not always remember that what is clear to us may be far from clear to our readers. Sometimes it is not clear even to us which " words or members" are " most nearly related", and if there are many " modifiers" we may be confronted with difficulties of the jig-saw type.

The simplest type of faulty arrangement, and the easiest to fall into, is illustrated by the following examples. Their offence is that they obscure the writer's meaning, if only momentarily, and usually make him appear to be guilty of an absurdity.

There was a discussion yesterday on the worrying of sheep by dogs in the Minister's room.
The official statement on the marriage of German prisoners with girls made in the House of Commons...
It is doubtful whether this small gas company would wish to accept responsibility for supplying this large area with all its difficulties.
Whatever her thoughts, they were interrupted as the hotel lobby door opened and a young woman carrying a baby and her husband entered.

Quoted by The New Yorker from a novel.

Faulty arrangement of this sort is not unknown even in model regulations issued by Government departments to show local authorities how things ought to be done:

No child shall be employed on any weekday when the school is not open for a longer period than four hours.

"For a longer period than four hours" qualifies employed, not open, and should come immediately after employed.

And in departmental regulations themselves:

Every woman by whom... a claim for maternity benefit is made shall furnish evidence that she has been, or that it is to be expected that she will be, confined by means of a certificate given in accordance with the rules.

It is not surprising that a Department which sets this example should receive letters like this:

In accordance with your instructions I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.

I shall have something more to say on this subject in pointing out the danger of supposing that disorderly sentences can be set right by vagrant commas. But one cause of the separation of " words or members most nearly related" is so common that, although I have already touched on it, an examination of some more examples may be useful. That is the separation of the subject from the verb by intervening clauses, usually defining the subject.

Officers appointed to permanent commissions who do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraphs and officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who were not already ensured at the date of appointment (and who, as explained in para. 3, are therefore not required to be insured during service) may be eligible.

The cases where a change in the circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises is such that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated, there would be a reduction (or an increase) in the number of hours of fireguard duty which the members concerned would be liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside, stand, however, in an entirely different position.

In these examples the reader is kept waiting an unconscionable time for the verb. The simplest way of correcting this will generally be to change the order of the words or to convert relative clauses into conditional, or both. For instance:

Officers appointed to permanent commissions may be eligible though they do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraph. So may officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who ... etc..

The circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises may, however, so change that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated, there would be a reduction, or an increase, in the number of hours of fireguard duty which the members concerned would be liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside. These cases stand in an entirely different position.

Sometimes the object allows itself to he driven a confusing distance from the verb. A poet can plead the exigencies of rhyme for separating his object from his verb and say, as Calverley did,

O be careful that thou changest
On returning home thy boots.

But the official has no such excuse. He must invert the order and say

It is of paramount importance [—for that may be the expression he will he tempted to use—] that young ladies after standing in wet grass should change their boots on returning home.

In the following example the writer has lumbered ponderously along without looking where he was going and arrived at the object (officers) of the verb are employing with a disconcerting hump:

One or two of the largest Local Authorities are at present employing on their staff as certifying officers and as advisers to the Mental Deficiency Act Committees officers having special qualification or experience in mental deficiency.

He would have given himself little more trouble, and would have saved his reader some, if he had turned the sentence round and written:

Officers having special qualification or experience in mental deficiency are at present being employed on the staff of one or two of the largest Local Authorities as certifying officers and as advisers to the Mental Deficiency Act Committees.

Other common errors of arrangement likely to give the reader unnecessary trouble, if they do not actually bewilder him, are letting the relative get a long way from its antecedent and the auxiliary a long way from the main verb. Examples:

(Of relative separated from antecedent.) Enquiries are received from time to time in connection with requests for the grant of leave of absence to school children during term time for various reasons, which give rise to questions as to the power to grant such leave.

What is the antecedent of which? Enquiries, requests or reasons? Probably enquiries, but it is a long way off. In this sentence it matters little, but in other sentences similarly constructed it might be important for the antecedent to be unmistakable. The surest way of avoiding ambiguity, when you have started a sentence like this, is to put a full stop after reasons, and begin the next sentence These enquiries, or these requests or these reasons, whichever is meant.

(Of verb separated from auxiliary.) The Executive Council should, in the case of approved institutions employing one doctor, get into touch with the committee.

The Council should accordingly, after considering whether they wish to suggest any modifications in the model scheme, consult with the committee..

It is a bad habit to put all sorts of things between the auxiliary and the verb in this way; it leads to unwieldy sentences and irritated readers.

Adverbs sometimes get awkwardly separated from the words they qualify. "They should be so placed in a sentence as to make it impossible to doubt which word or words they are intended to affect." If they affect an adjective or past participle or another adverb their place is immediately in front of it (accurately placed, perfectly clear). If they affect another part of a verb, or a phrase, they may be in front or behind. It is usually a matter of emphasis: he came soon emphasises his promptitude; he soon came emphasises his coming.

The commonest causes of adverbs going wrong are the fear, real or imaginary, of splitting an infinitive and the waywardness of the adverbs only and even. Only is a capricious word. It is much given to deserting its post and taking its place next the verb, regardless of what it qualifies. It is more natural to say "he only spoke for ten minutes" than "he spoke for only ten minutes". The sport of pillorying misplaced onlys has a great fascination for some people, and only-snooping seems to have become as popular a sport with some purists as split-infinitive-snooping was a generation ago. A recent book, devoted to the exposing of errors of diction in contemporary writers, contained several examples such as:

He had only been in England for six weeks since the beginning of the war.

This only makes a war lawful: that it is a struggle for law against force.

We can only analyse the facts we all have before us.

These incur the author's censure. By the same reasoning be would condemn Sir Winston Churchill for writing in The Gathering Storm:

Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions.

Fowler took a different view. Of a critic who protested against "he only died a week ago" instead of "he died only a week ago," Fowler wrote:

There speaks one of those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved, one of the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion...

But it cannot be denied that the irresponsible behaviour of only does sometimes create real ambiguity. Take such a sentence as:

His disease can only be alleviated by a surgical operation.

We cannot tell what this means, and must rewrite it either:

Only a surgical operation can alleviate his disease (it cannot be alleviated in any other way),


A surgical operation can only alleviate his disease (it cannot cure it).


In your second paragraph you point out that carpet-yarn only can be obtained from India, and this is quite correct.

The writer must have meant "can be obtained only from India", and ought to have so written, or, at the least, "can only be obtained from India". What he did write, if not actually ambiguous (for it can hardly be supposed that carpet-yarn is India's only product), is unnatural, and sets the reader puzzling for a moment.

So do not take the only-snoopers too seriously. But be on the alert. It will generally be safe to put only in what the plain man feels to be its natural place. Sometimes that will be its logical position, sometimes not. When the qualification is more important than the positive statement, to bring in the only as soon as possible is an aid to being understood it prevents the reader from being put on a wrong scent. In the sentence "The temperature will rise above 35 degrees only in the south-west of England", only is carefully put in its right logical place. But the listener would have grasped more quickly the picture of an almost universally cold England if the announcer had said, "the temperature will only rise above 35 degrees in the south-west of England". What is even better in such cases is to avoid only by making the main statement a negative: "the temperature will not rise above 35 degrees, except in the south-west of England".

Even has a similar habit of getting into the wrong place. The importance of putting it in the right one is aptly illustrated in the A.B.C. of English Usage thus:

Sentence: "I am not disturbed by your threats".

  1. Even I am not disturbed by your threats (let alone anybody else).
  2. I am not even disturbed by your threats (let alone hurt, annoyed, injured, alarmed).
  3. I am not disturbed even by your threats (even modifies the phrase, the emphasis being on the threats).

It is also possible, though perhaps rather awkward, to put even immediately before your, and so give your the emphasis (your threats, let alone anybody else's).

Troubles with Conjunctions3


There used to be an idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with and. The idea is now as good as dead. And to use and in this position may be a useful way of indicating that what you are about to say will reinforce what you have just said.

And which

There is a grammarians' rule that it is wrong to write and which (and similar expressions such as* and who*, and where, but which, or which, etc.) except by way of introducing a second relative clause with the same antecedent as one that has just preceded it. It is an arbitrary and pointless rule (unknown in French) which will probably be destroyed eventually by usage, but for the present its observance is expected from those who would write correctly. According to this rule, Nelson was wrong grammatically, as well as in other more important ways, when he wrote to Lady Nelson after his first introduction to Lady Hamilton:

She is a young woman of amiable manners and who does honour to the station to which he has raised her

To justify the and who grammatically a relative is needed in the first part of the sentence, for example:

She is a young woman whose manners are amiable and who, etc.

Conversely, the writer of the following sentence has got into trouble by being shy of and which:

Things which we ourselves could not produce and yet are essential to our recovery.

Here, says the grammarian, which cannot double the parts of object of produce and subject of are. To set the grammar right the relative has to be repeated just as it would have to be if it were an inflective one (e.g. "Men whom we forget but who should be remembered").

Things which we ourselves could not produce and which are, etc.

The wisest course is to avoid the inevitable clumsiness of and which, even when used in a way that does not offend the purists. Thus these two sentences might be written:

She is a young woman of amiable manners who does honour to the station to which he has raised her.

Things essential to our recovery which we ourselves could not produce.


As must not be used as a preposition, on the analogy of but. You may say "no one knows the full truth but me", but you must not say "no one knows the truth as fully as me". It must be "as fully as I". The first as is an adverb and the second a conjunction.

We say "as good as ever" and "better than ever". But should we use as or than, or both, if we say "as good or better"? The natural thing to say is "as good or better than ever", ignoring the as that as good logically needs, and you commit no great crime if that is what you do. But if you want both to run no risk of offending the purists and to avoid the prosy "as good as or better than", you can write "as good as ever or better". Thus you could change:

Pamphlets have circulated as widely, and been not less influential, than those published in this volume,


Pamphlets have circulated as widely as those published in this volume, and have been not less influential.

(For the superfluous as see Chapter 6)


hen using both ... and, be careful that these words are in their right positions and that each carries equal weight. Nothing that comes between the both and the and can be regarded as carried on after the and. If words are to be carried on after the and they must precede the both; if they do not precede the both they must be repeated after the and. For instance:

He was both deaf to argument and entreaty

Since deaf to comes after both it cannot be "understood" again after and. We must adjust the balance in one of the following ways:

He was both deaf to argument and unmoved by entreaty.
He was deaf both to argument and to entreaty.
He was deaf to both argument and entreaty.

An extreme example of the unbalanced both is:

The proposed sale must be both sanctioned by the Minister and the price must be approved by the District Valuer.

Do not use both where it is not necessary because the meaning of the sentence is no less plain if you leave it out:

Both of them are equally to blame. (They are equally to blame.)

Please ensure that both documents are fastened together. (... that the documents are fastened together.)


But, in the sense of except, is sometimes treated as a preposition, but more commonly as a conjunction. Mrs. Hemans would not have been guilty of "bad grammar" if she had written "whence all but him had fled", but in preferring he she conformed to the usual practice. That is the worst of personal pronouns: by retaining the case-inflexions that nouns have so sensibly rid themselves of they pose these tiresome and trivial questions. (See also I and Me and Who and Whom.) If the sentence could have been "whence all but the boy had fled" no one could have known whether but was being used as a conjunction or a preposition, and no one need have cared.

In using but as a conjunction an easy slip is to put it where there should be an and, forgetting that the conjunction that you want is one that does not go contrary to the clause immediately preceding but continues in the same sense.

It is agreed that the primary condition of the scheme is satisfied, but it is also necessary to establish that your war service interrupted an organised course of study for a professional qualification comparable to that for which application is made, but as explained in previous letters, you are unable to fulfil this condition.

The italicised but should be and. The line of thought has already been turned by the first but; it is now going straight on.

A similar slip is made in:

The Forestry Commission will probably only be able to offer you a post as a forest labourer, or possibly in leading a gang of forest workers, but there are at the moment no vacancies for Forest Officers.

Either only must be omitted or the but must be changed to since.


The use of if for though or but may give rise to ambiguity or absurdity. It is ambiguous in such a sentence as

There is evidence, if not proof, that he was responsible.

Its absurdity is demonstrated in Sir Alan Herbert's imaginary example:

Milk is nourishing, if tuberculous.

Care is also needed in the use of if in the sense of whether, for this too may cause ambiguity.

Please inform me if there is any change in your circumstances.

Does this mean "Please inform me now whether there is any change" or "if any change should occur please inform me then"? The reader cannot tell. If whether and if become interchangeable, unintentional offence may be given by the lover who sings:

What do I care,
If you are there?

Inasmuch as

This is sometimes used in the sense of so far as and sometimes as a clumsy way of saying since. It is therefore ambiguous, and might well be dispensed with altogether.


Colloquial English admits like as a conjunction, and would not be shocked at such a sentence as "Nothing succeeds like success does". In America they go even further, and say "It looks like he was going to succeed". But in English prose neither of these will do. Like must not be treated as a conjunction. So we may say "nothing succeeds like success"; but it must be "nothing succeeds as success does" and "it looks as if he were going to succeed".

But the convention forbidding like he does, where like is a conjunction, should not frighten writers away from like him, where it is a prepositional adverb, and make them lean over backwards with such a sentence as "The new Secretary of State, as his predecessor, is an Etonian". Shakespeare knew better than to write "I am no orator like Brutus is" but felt no qualms about "it is tyrannous to use it like a giant".

Provided (that)

This form of introduction of a stipulation is better than providing. The phrase should be reserved for a true stipulation, as in:

He said he would go to the meeting provided that I went with him.

and not used loosely for if, as in:

I expect he will come tomorrow, provided that he comes at all.

Sometimes this misuse of provided that creates difficulties for a reader:

Such emoluments can only count as qualifying for pension provided that they cannot be converted into cash.

The use of provided that obscures the meaning of a sentence that would have been clear with if.


Than tempts writers to use it as a preposition, like but in such a sentence as "he is older than me". Examples can be found in good writers, including a craftsman as scrupulous as Mr. Somerset Maugham. But the compilers of the OED will not have it. According to them we must say "he is older than I" (i.e. than I am). We may say "I know more about her than him" if what we mean is that my knowledge of her is greater than my knowledge of him, but if we mean that my knowledge of her is greater than his knowledge of her, we must say "I know more about her than he (does)". Fowler, more tolerant, merely says that, since the prepositional than may cause ambiguity, it is to that extent undesirable. But it is so common a colloquialism that those who observe the OED's ruling risk the appearance of pedantry unless they add the verb.

But even the OED recognises one exception—whom. We must say "than whom", and not "than who", even though the only way of making grammatical sense of it is to regard than as a preposition. But that is rather a stilted way of writing, and can best be left to poetry:

Beelzebub... than whom, Satan except, none higher sat.

Be careful not to slip into using than with words that take a different construction. Other and else are the only words besides comparatives that take than. Than is sometimes mistakenly used with such words as preferable and different, and sometimes in place of as:

Nearly twice as many people die under 20 in France than in Great Britain, chiefly of tuberculosis.


For that (conjunction) see later.


It is sometimes confusing to use when as the equivalent of and then:

Let me have full particulars when I will be able to advise you. (Please let me have full particulars. I shall then be able to advise you.)

Alternatively the Minister may make the order himself when it has the same effect as if it has been made by the Local Authority. (...the Minister may make the order himself, and it then has the same effect, etc.)


It is safest to use this conjunction only in its temporal sense ("Your letter came while I was away on leave"). That does not mean that it is wrong to use it also as a conjunction without any temporal sense, equivalent to although ("while I do not agree with you, I accept your ruling"). But it should not be used in these two different senses in the same sentence, as in:

While appreciating your difficulties while your mother is seriously ill....

Moreover, once we leave the shelter of the temporal sense, we are on the road to treating while as a synonym for and:

Nothing will be available for some time for the desired improvement, while the general supply of linoleum to new offices may have to cease when existing stocks have run out.

There is no point in saying while when you mean and. If you are too free with while you are sure sooner or later to land yourself in the absurdity of seeming to say that two events occurred simultaneously which could not possibly have done so.

The first part of the concert was conducted by Sir August Manns ... while Sir Arthur Sullivan conducted his then recently composed Absent Minded Beggar.

Troubles With Negatives

Double Negatives

It has long been settled doctrine among English grammarians that two negatives cancel each other and produce an affirmative. As in mathematics - (- x) equals + x, so in language "he did not say nothing" must be regarded as equivalent to "he said something".

It is going too far to say, as is sometimes said, that this proposition is self-evident. The Greeks did not think that two negatives made an affirmative. On the contrary, the more negatives they put into a sentence the more emphatically negative the sentence became. Nor did Chaucer think so, for, in a much-quoted passage, he wrote:

He never yit no vileineye ne sayde
In al his lyf; unto no maner wight
He was a verray parfit gentil knyght.

Nor did Shakespeare, who made King Claudius say:

Nor what he said, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness.

Nor do the many thousands of people who find it natural today to deny knowledge by saying "I don't know nothing at all about it". And the comedian who sings "I ain't going to give nobody none of mine" is not misunderstood.

Such repeated negatives, says Jespersen, are usual in a great many languages in which the negative element is comparatively small in phonetic bulk, and is easily attracted to various words. If the negation were expressed once only, it might easily be overlooked; hence the speaker, who wants the negative sense to be fully appreciated, attaches it not only to the verb, but also to other parts of the sentence: he spreads, as it were, a thin layer of negative colouring over the whole of the sentence instead of confining it to one single place. This may be called pleonastic, but is certainly not really illogical.

Still, the grammarians' rule should be observed in English today. Breaches of it are commonest with verbs of surprise or speculation ("I shouldn't wonder if there wasn't a storm." "I shouldn't be surprised if he didn't come today"). Indeed this is so common that it is classed by Fowler among his "sturdy indefensibles". A recent speech in the House of Lords affords a typical instance of the confusion of thought bred by double negatives:

Let it not be supposed because we are building for the future rather than the present that the Bill's proposals are not devoid of significance.

What the speaker meant, of course, was

Let it not be supposed that the bill's proposals are devoid of significance.

Another example is:

There is no reason to doubt that what he says in his statement... is not true.

Here the speaker meant, "There is no reason to doubt that his statement is true".

And another:

It must not be assumed that there are no circumstances in which a profit might not be made.

Avoid multiple negatives when you can. Even if you dodge the traps they set and succeed in saying what you mean, you give your reader a puzzle to solve in sorting the negatives out. Indeed it is wise never to make a statement negatively if it could be made positively. A correspondent sends me

The elementary ideas of the calculus are not beyond the capacity of more than 40 per cent of our certificate students,

and comments

I am quite unable to say whether this assertion is that two-fifths or three-fifths of the class could make something of the ideas.

If the writer had said that the ideas were within the capacity of at least sixty per cent, all would have been clear. Here are two more examples of sentences that have to be unravelled before they yield any meaning:

Few would now contend that too many checks cannot be at least as harmful to democracy as too few.

The Opposition refused leave for the withdrawal of a motion to annul an Order revoking the embargo on the importation of cut glass.

Neither ... nor

Some books tell you that neither ... nor should not be used where the alternatives are more than two. But if you decide to ignore this advice as pedantry you will find on your side not only the translators of the Bible,

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God,

but also, though not quite so profusely, Sir Harold Nicolson,

Neither Lord Davidson nor Sir Bernard Paget nor Mr. Arthur Bryant will suffer permanently from the spectacle which they have provided.

Nor and Or

When should nor be used and when or? If a neither or an either comes first there is no difficulty; neither is always followed by nor and either by or. There can be no doubt that it is wrong to write

The existing position satisfies neither the psychologist, the judge, or the public.

It should have been

...neither the psychologist, nor the judge, nor the public.

But when the initial negative is a simple not or no, it is often a puzzling question whether nor or or should follow. Logically it depends on whether the sentence is so framed that the initial negative runs on into the second part of it or is exhausted in the first; practically it may be of little importance which answer you give, for the meaning will be clear.

He did not think that the Bill would be introduced this month, nor indeed before the recess.

"He did not think" affects everything that follows that. Logically therefore nor produces a double negative, as though one were to say "he didn't think it wouldn't be introduced before the recess".

The blame for this disorder does not rest with Parliament, or with the bishops, or with the parish priests. Our real weakness is the failure of the ordinary man.

Here the negative phrase "does not rest" is carried right through the sentence, and applies to the bishops and the parish priests as much as to Parliament. There is no need to repeat the negative, and or is logically right. But nor is so often used in such a construction that it would be pedantic to condemn it: if logical defence is needed one might say that "did he think it would be introduced" in the first example, and "does it rest" in the second were understood as repeated after nor. But if the framework of the sentence is changed to:

The blame for this disorder rests not with Parliament nor with the bishops, nor with the parish priests, but with the ordinary man.

it is a positive verb (rests) that runs through the sentence; the original negative (not) is attached not to the verb but to Parliament, and exhausts itself in exonerating Parliament. The negative must be repeated, and nor is rightly used.


Not all

It is idiomatic English, to which no exception can be taken, to write "all officials are not good draftsmen" when you mean that only some of them are. Compare "All that glitters is not gold". But it is clearer, and therefore better, to write "Not all officials are good draftsmen".

Not ... but

It is also idiomatic English to write "I did not go to speak but to listen". It is pedantry to insist that, because logic demands it, this ought to be "I went not to speak but to listen". But if the latter way of arranging a "not...but" sentence runs as easily and makes your meaning clearer, as it often may, it should be preferred.

Not ... because

Not followed by because sometimes leads to ambiguity. "I did not write that letter because of what you told me" may mean either "I refrained from writing that letter because of what you told me" or "It was not because of what you told me that I wrote that letter." Avoid this ambiguity by rewriting the sentence.

Troubles with Number

The rule that a singular subject requires a singular verb, and a plural subject a plural verb, is an easy one to remember and generally to observe. But it has its difficulties.

Collective words

In using collective words or nouns of multitude (Department, Parliament, Government, Committee and the like), ought we to say "the Government have decided" or "the Government has decided"; "the Committee are meeting" or "the Committee is meeting"? There is no rule; either a singular or plural verb may be used. The plural is more suitable when the emphasis is on the individual members, and the singular when it is on the body as a whole. "A committee was appointed to consider this subject"; "the committee were unable to agree". Sometimes the need to use a pronoun settles the question. We cannot say "The committee differed among itself", nor, without risk of misunderstanding, "the committee on whom I sat". But the number ought not to be varied in the same document without good cause. Accidentally changing it is a common form of carelessness:

The firm has given an undertaking that in the event of their having to restrict production....

The industry is capable of supplying all home requirements and have in fact been exporting.

It will be for each committee to determine in the light of its responsibilities how far it is necessary to make all these appointments, and no appointment should be made unless the committee are fully satisfied of the need.

Conversely a subject plural in form may be given a singular verb if it signifies a single entity such as a country (the United States has agreed) or an organisation (the United Nations has resolved) or a measure (six miles is not too far; twelve months is a long time to wait).

Words linked by and

To the elementary rule that two singular nouns linked by and should be given a plural verb justifiable exceptions can be found where the linked words form a single idea. The stock example is Kipling's "The tumult and the shouting dies"; "the tumult and the shouting", it is explained, are equivalent to "the tumultuous shouting". But die would not have rhymed with sacrifice. Rhyming poets must be allowed some licence.

Perhaps these official examples might be justified in the same way:

Duration and charge was advised at the conclusion of the call.

Your desire and need for a telephone service is fully appreciated.

It might be argued that "duration and charge was equivalent to "the appropriate charge for that duration", and that "your desire and need" was equivalent to "the desire arising from your need". But it is safer to observe the rule, and to leave these questionable experiments to the poets.

Other instances of singular verbs with subjects linked by and cannot be so easily explained away. They are frequent when the verb comes first. Shakespeare has them ("Is Bushy, Green and the Earl of Wiltshire dead? ") and so have the translators of the Bible ("Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory"). If we may never attribute mere carelessness to great writers, we must explain these by saying that the singular verb is more vivid, and should be understood as repeated with each noun — "Is Bushy, (is) Green and (is) the Earl of Wiltshire dead?" Those who like to have everything tidy may get some satisfaction from this, but the writer of official English should forget about these refinements. He should stick to the simple rule.

Words linked by with

If the subject is singular the verb should be singular. "The Secretary of State together with the Under-Secretary is coming".

Alternative subjects

Either and neither must always have a singular verb unless one of the alternative subjects is a plural word. It is a very common error to write such sentences as:

I am unable to trace that either of the items have been paid.

Neither knowledge nor skill are needed.


When each is the subject of a sentence the verb is singular and so is any pronoun:

Each has a room to himself.

When a plural noun or pronoun is the subject, with each in apposition, the verb is plural:

They have a room each.


The verb must agree with the subject, and not allow itself to be attracted into the number of the complement. Modern grammarians will not pass "the wages of sin is death". The safe rule for the ordinary writer in sentences such as this is to regard what precedes the verb as the subject and what follows it as the complement, and so to write "the wages of sin are death" and "death is the wages of sin".

A verb some way from its subject is sometimes lured away from its proper number by a noun closer to it, as in:

We regret that assurances given us twelve months ago that a sufficient supply of suitable local labour would be available to meet our requirements has not been fulfilled.

So far as the heating of buildings in permanent Government occupation are concerned...

Sometimes the weight of a plural pushes the verb into the wrong number, even though they are not next to one another:

Thousands of pounds' worth of damage have been done to the apple crop.

In these sentences has, are and have are blunders. So is the common attraction of the verb into the plural when the subject is either or neither in such sentences as "Neither of the questions have been answered" or "Either of the questions were embarrassing". But in one or two exceptional instances the force of this attraction has conquered the grammarians. With the phrase more than one the pull of one is so strong that the singular is always used (e.g. "more than one question was asked"), and owing to the pull of the plural in such a sentence as "none of the questions were answered" none has come to be used indifferently with a singular or a plural verb. Conversely, owing to the pull of the singular a in the expression many a, it always takes a singular verb. "There's many a slip twixt cup and lip" is idiomatic English.

There was

It is a common slip to write there is or there was where a plural subject requires there are or there were.

There was available one large room and three small ones.

Was should be were.

It is true that Ophelia said "there is pansies". But she was not herself at the time.

Unusual nouns

Agenda, though in form plural, has been admitted to the language as a singular word. Nobody would say "the agenda for Monday's meeting have not yet reached me". If a word is needed for one of the components of the agenda, say "item No. so-and-so of the agenda", not "agendum No. so-and-so", which would be the extreme of pedantry. If one is wanted for the plural of the word itself it must be agendas or agenda papers.

Data, unlike agenda, remains the plural word that it is in Latin.

Unless firm data is available at an early date...

This is wrong. Is should be are.

If a singular is wanted, it is usually one of the data, not datum. The ordinary meaning of datum is:

Any position or element in relation to which others are determined: chiefly in the phrases: datum point, a point assumed or used as a basis of reckoning, adjustment or the like—datum line a horizontal line from which heights and depths of points are reckoned, as in a railroad plan...


Means in the sense of "means to an end" is a curious word; it may be treated either as singular or as plural. Supposing, for instance, that you wanted to say that means had been sought to do something, you may if you choose treat the word as singular and say "a means was sought" or "every means was sought". Or you may treat it as plural and say "all means were sought". Or again, if you use just the word means without any word such as a or every or all to show its number, you may give it a singular or plural verb as you wish: you may say either "means was sought" or "means were sought"; both are idiomatic. Perhaps on the whole it is best to say "a method (or way) was sought" if there was only one, and "means were sought" if there was more than one.

Means in the sense of monetary resources is always plural.

Number. Like other collective nouns number may take either a singular or a plural verb. Unlike most of them, it admits of a simple and logical rule. When all that it is doing is forming part of a composite plural subject, it should have a plural verb, as in:

A large number of people are coming today.

But when it is standing on its own legs as the subject it should have a singular verb, as in:

The number of people coming today is large.

The following are accordingly unidiomatic:

There is a number of applications, some of which were made before yours.

There is a large number of outstanding orders.

The true subjects are not "a number" and "a large number" but "a-number-of-applications" and "a-large-number-of-outstanding orders".

Of the following examples the first has a singular verb that should be plural and the second a plural verb that should be singular.

There was also a number of conferences calling themselves peace conferences which had no real interest in peace.

The number of casualties in H.M.S. Amethyst are thought to be about fifteen.

Those kind of things. The use of the plural these or those with the singular kind or sort is common in conversation, and instances of it could be found in good authors. But public opinion generally condemns it. As I have said, the phrase those kind of things, like different to, very pleased, drive slow, and the split infinitive used to be among the shibboleths by which it was supposed to be possible to distinguish those who were instructed in their mother-tongue from those who were not. Years ago Punch published a poem containing this verse:

Did you say those sort of things
Never seem to you to matter?
Gloomily the poet sings
Did you say those sort of things?
Frightened love would soon take wings
All his fondest hopes you'd shatter
Did you say "those sort of things
Never seem to you to matter"?

We have a better sense of values today. But even now it is as well to humour the purists by writing things of that kind.

Troubles with Prepositions

Ending sentences with prepositions.

Do not hesitate to end a sentence with a preposition if your ear tells you that that is where the preposition goes best. There used to be a rather half-hearted grammarian's rule against doing this, but no good writer ever heeded it, except Dryden, who seems to have invented it. The translators of the Authorised Version did not know it ("but I have a baptism to be baptised with"). The very rule itself; if phrased "do not use a preposition to end a sentence with", has a smoother flow and a more idiomatic ring than "do not use a preposition with which to end a sentence". Sometimes, when the final word is really a verbal particle, and the verb's meaning depends on it, they form together a phrasal verb—put up with for instance—and to separate them makes nonsense. It is said that Sir Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put". The ear is a pretty safe guide. Nearly a hundred years ago Dean Alford protested against this so-called rule.

I know [he said,] that I am at variance with the rules taught at very respectable institutions for enabling young ladies to talk unlike their elders. But that I cannot help.

The story is well known of the nurse who performed the remarkable feat of getting four4 prepositions at the end of a sentence by asking her charge:

What did you choose that book to be read to out of for?

She said what she wanted to say perfectly clearly, in words of one syllable, and what more can one ask?

But the championship of the sport of preposition-piling seems now to have been wrested from the English nurse by an American poet:

I lately lost a preposition
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there."
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, "What should he come
Up from out of in under for?"

Morris Bishop in the *New Yorker*, 27th September, 1947.

Cannibalism by Prepositions

Cannibalism is the name given by Fowler to a vice that prepositions are specially prone to, though it may infect any part of speech. One of a pair of words swallows the other:

Any articles for which export licences are held or for which licences have been applied.

The writer meant "or for which export licences have been applied for", but the first for has swallowed the second.

For circumlocutory prepositions (in regard to and the like), see earlier.

Some particular prepositions

Between and Among

The O.E.D. tells us not to heed those who tell us that between must only be used of two things and that when there are more the preposition must be among. It says:

Between is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relationship to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say "the space lying among the three points", or "a treaty among three powers" or "the choice lies among the three candidates in the select list" or "to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower".

Between each

Grammarians generally condemn the common use of between with each or every, as in "there will be a week's interval between each sitting". It is arguable that this can be justified as a convenient way of saying "between each sitting and the next", and that, considering how common it is, only pedantry can object. But those who want to be on the safe side can say either "weekly intervals between the sittings" or "a week's interval after each sitting".

Between...or and betweeen... and between

If between is followed by a conjunction, this must always be a simple and. It is wrong to say: "the choice lies between Smith or Jones", or to say "we had to choose between taking these offices and making the best of them and between perhaps finding ourselves with no offices at all". If a sentence has become so involved that and is not felt to be enough it should be recast. This mistake is not unknown in high places:

It is thought that the choice lies between Mr. Trygve Lie continuing for another year or the election of Mr. Lester Pearson.

Between you and I

For between you and I, see I and me

Due to

Owing to long ago established itself as a prepositional phrase. But the orthodox still keep up the fight against the attempt of due to to do the same: they maintain that due is an adjective and should not be used otherwise. That means that it must always have a noun to agree with. You may say: "Floods due to a breach in the river bank covered a thousand acres of land". But you must not say: "Due to a breach in the river bank a thousand acres of land were flooded". In the first due to agrees properly with floods, which were in fact due to the breach. In the second it can only agree with a thousand acres of land, which were not due to the breach, or to anything else except the Creation.

Due to is rightly used in:

The closing of the telephone exchange was due to lack of equipment. (Due to agrees with closing.)

The delay in replying has been due to the fact that it was hoped to call upon you. (Due to agrees with delay.)

Due to is wrongly used in:

We must apologise to listeners who missed the introduction to the talk due to a technical fault.

As listeners probably know, there was no play at Trent Bridge to-day due to the rain.

Fowler, remarking that the prepositional use of due to was "now as common as can be" said "perhaps idiom will beat the illiterates; perhaps the illiterates will beat idiom; our grandsons will know". Now that this construction may be found in The Times and is freely used by BBC announcers, it seems clear that idiom is fighting a losing battle.


Grammarians do not admit following as a preposition, though its use as one is becoming so common that they may soon have to give it de facto recognition. The orthodox view is that it is the participle of the verb follow, and must have a noun to agree with, as it has in:

Such rapid promotion, following his exceptional services, was not unexpected.

But as a preposition it is unnecessary when it usurps the place of in consequence of, in accordance with, or as a result of, as in:

Following judgments of the High Court, Ministers of Religion are not regarded as employed under a contract of service.

It has been brought to my notice following a recent visit of an Inspector of this Ministry to the premises of ... that you are an insured person under the Act.

Following heavy rain last night the wicket is very wet.

Still less can there be any justification for it with a merely temporal significance. It might perhaps put in a plea for a useful function as meaning something between the two — between the propter hoc of those prepositional phrases and the post hoc of after. This announcement might claim that justification:

A man will appear at Bow Street this morning following the destruction of Mr. Reg Butler's statue of the Political Prisoner.

But the word shows little sign of being content with that rather subtle duty. More and more, under the strong lead of B.B.C. announcers, it is becoming merely a pretentious substitute for after.

Following the orchestral concert, we come to a talk by Mr. X.

Following that old English tune, we go to Latin-America for the next one.

Prior To

There is no good reason to use prior to as a preposition instead of before. Before is simpler, better known and more natural, and therefore preferable. It is moreover at least questionable whether prior to has established itself as a preposition. By all means use the phrase a prior engagement, where prior is doing its proper job as an adjective. But do not say that you made an engagement prior to receiving the second invitation.

Mr. X has requested that you should submit to him, immediately prior to placing orders, lists of components.

Sir Adrian Boult is resting prior to the forthcoming tour of the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra.

In sentences such as these prior to cannot have any advantage over the straightforward before.

Troubles With Pronouns

The use of pronouns [said Cobbett,] is to prevent the repetition of nouns, and to make speaking and writing more rapid and less encumbered with words.

In more than one respect they are difficult parts of speech to handle.


It is an easy slip to use a pronoun without a true antecedent.

He offered to resign but it was refused.

Here it has not a true antecedent, as it would have had if the sentence had begun "he offered his resignation". This is a purely grammatical point, but unless care is taken over it a verbal absurdity may result. Cobbett gives this example from Addison:

There are indeed but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a relish of any pleasures that are not criminal; every diversion they take is at the expense of some one virtue or other, and their very first step out of business is into vice or folly.

As Cobbett points out, the only possible antecedent to they and their is the "very few who know how to be idle and innocent", and that is the opposite of what Addison means.

Ambiguity in Anticedents

Be sure that there is no real ambiguity about the antecedent. This is more than a grammatical point; it affects the intelligibility of what you write. Special care is needed when the pronouns are he and him, and more than one male person has been mentioned. Latin is sensible enough to have two pronouns for he and him, one of which is used only when referring to the subject of the sentence; but English affords no such aids.

Stevenson lamented this and said:

When I invent a language there shall be a direct and an indirect pronoun differently declined—then writing would be some fun.

Direct Indirect
He Tu
Him Tum
His Tus

Example: He seized turn by tus throat; but tu at the same time caught him by his hair. A fellow could write hurricanes with an inflection like that. Yet there would be difficulties too.

Letter to E. L. Burlingame, March 1892.

Handicapped as we are by the lack of this useful artifice, we must be careful to leave no doubt about the antecedents of our pronouns, and must not make our readers guess, even though it may not be difficult to guess right. As Jespersen points out, a sentence like "John told Robert's son that he must help him" is theoretically capable of six different meanings. It is true that Jespersen would not have us trouble overmuch when there can be no real doubt about the antecedent, and he points out that there is little danger of misunderstanding the theoretically ambiguous sentence:

If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.

Nevertheless, he adds, it is well to be very careful about one's pronouns.

Here are one or two examples, to show how difficult it is to avoid ambiguity:

Mr. S. told Mr. H. he was prepared to transfer part of his allocation to his purposes provided that he received £10,000.

The his before purposes refers, it would seem, to Mr. H. and the other three pronouns to Mr. S.

Mr. H. F. saw a man throw something from his pockets to the hens on his farm, and then twist the neck of one of them when they ran to him.

Here the change of antecedent from "the man" to Mr. H. F. and back again to "the man" is puzzling at first.

There are several possible ways of removing ambiguities such as these. Let us take by way of illustration the sentence,

Sir Henry Ponsonby informed Mr. Gladstone that the Queen had been much upset by what he had told her

and let us assume that the ambiguous he refers to Mr. Gladstone. We can make the antecedent plain by

  1. Not using a pronoun at all, and writing "by what Mr. Gladstone had told her".
  2. Parenthetic explanation — "by what he (Mr. Gladstone) had told her".
  3. The former-latter device — "by what the latter had told her".
  4. By rewriting the sentence — "The Queen was much upset by what Mr. Gladstone told her, and Sir Henry Ponsonby so informed him".
  5. The device that Henry Sidgwick called "the polite alias" and Fowler "elegant variation", and writing (say) "by what the Prime Minister had told her", or the "G.O.M." or "the veteran statesman".

It may safely be said that the fifth device should seldom if ever be adopted5, and the third only when the antecedent is very close.

Avoiding pronouns

Do not be shy of pronouns.

So far we have been concerned in this section with the dangers that beset the user of pronouns. But for the official no less a danger is that of not using them when he ought. Legal language, which must aim above all things at removing every possible ambiguity, is more sparing of pronouns than ordinary prose, because of an ever-present fear that the antecedent may be uncertain. For instance, opening at random an Act of Parliament, I read:

The Secretary of State may by any such regulations allow the required notice of any occurrence to which the regulations relate, instead of being sent forthwith, to be sent within the time limited by the regulations.

Anyone not writing legal language would have avoided repeating regulations twice; he would have put they in the first place and them in the second.

Officials have so much to read and explain that is written in legal English that they become infected with pronoun-avoidance. The result is that what they write is often, in Cobbett's phrase, "more encumbered with words" than it need be.

The examiner's search would in all cases be carried up to the date of the filing of the complete specification, and the examiner (he) need not trouble his head with the subject of disconformity.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are anxious that the Rural Land Utilisation Officer should not in any way hinder the acquisition or earmarking of land for educational purposes, but it is the duty of the Rural Land Utilisation Officer (his duty) to ensure...

Arrangements are being made to continue the production of these houses for a further period, and increased numbers of these houses (them) will, therefore, be available.

Often the repeated word is embroidered by such:

the admission of specially selected Public Assistance cases, provided that no suitable accommodation is available for such cases (them) in a home.

This also is no doubt due to infection by legal English, where this use of such is an indispensable device for securing economy of words. The draftsman, whose concern is to make his meaning certain beyond the possibility of error, avoids pronouns lest there should be an ambiguity about their antecedents, but escapes the need for repeating words of limitation by the use of such or such ... as aforesaid. The official need not usually be so punctilious.

But using such in the way the lawyers use it is not always out of place in ordinary writing. Sometimes it is proper and useful.

One month's notice in writing must be given to terminate this agreement. As no such notice has been received from you....

Here it is important for the writer to show that in the second sentence he is referring to the same sort of notice as in the first and the such device is the neatest way of doing it.

Preceding it

It is usually better not to allow a pronoun to precede its principal. If the pronoun comes first the reader may not know what it refers to until he arrives at the principal.

I regret that it is not practicable, in view of its size, to provide a list of the agents.

Here, it is true, the reader is only momentarily left guessing what its refers to. But he would have been spared even that if the sentence had been written:

I regret that it is not practicable to provide a list of the agents; there are too many of them.

Each Other

Grammarians used to say that each other is the right expression when only two persons or things are referred to and one another when there are more than two. But Fowler, quoted with approval by Jespersen, says of this so-called rule, "This differentiation is neither of present utility nor based on historical usage".

Former and Latter

Do not hesitate to repeat words rather than use former or latter to avoid doing so. The reader probably has to look back to see which is which, and so you annoy him and waste his time. And there is no excuse at all for using latter merely to serve as a pronoun, as in:

In these employments we would rest our case for the exclusion of young persons directly on the grounds of the latter's moral welfare. (Their moral welfare.)

Remember that former and latter can refer to only two things and if you use them of more than two you may puzzle your reader. If you want to refer otherwise than specifically to the last of more than two things, say last or last-mentioned, not latter.

I and Me

About the age-long conflict between it is I and it is me, no more need be said than that, in the present stage of the battle, most people would think "it is I" pedantic in talk and "it is me" improper in writing.

What calls more for examination is the practice of using I for me in combination with some noun or other pronoun, e.g. "between you and I", "let you and I go". Why this has become so prevalent is not easy to say. Perhaps it comes partly from an excess of zeal in correcting the opposite error. When Mrs. Elton said "Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them", and Lydia Bennet "Mrs. Forster and me are such friends", they were guilty of a vulgarism that was, no doubt, common in Jane Austen's day, and is not unknown to-day. One might suppose that this mistake was corrected by teachers of English in our schools with such ferocity that their pupils are left with the conviction that such combinations as you and me are in all circumstances ungrammatical. But that will not quite do. It might explain a popular broadcaster's saying "that's four to Margaret and I", but it cannot explain why Shakespeare wrote: "All debts are cleared between you and I".6

It is the combination of oneself with someone else that proves fatal. The official who wrote: "I trust that it will be convenient to you for my colleague and I to call upon you next Tuesday" would never, if he had been proposing to come alone, have written "I trust that it will be convenient to you for I to call upon you....". A sure and easy way of avoiding this blunder is to ask oneself what case the personal pronoun would have been in—would it have been I or me—if it had stood alone. It should remain the same in partnership as it would have been by itself.

The association of someone else with oneself sometimes prompts the use of myself where a simple I or me is all that is needed, e.g. "The inspection will be made by Mr. Jones and myself". Myself should be used only for emphasis ("I saw it myself") or as the reflexive form of the personal pronoun ("I have hurt myself").


This pronoun is specially troublesome because the convenient English idiom of using it to anticipate the subject of a sentence tends to produce a plethora of its. A correspondent sends me this example:

It is to be expected that it will be difficult to apply A unless it is accompanied by B, for which reason it is generally preferable to use C in spite of its other disadvantages.

This, he justly says, could be put more effectively and tersely by writing:

C is generally preferable, in spite of its disadvantages, because application of A without B is difficult.

Never put an it on paper [said Cobbett,] without thinking well what you are about. When I see many its on a paper I always tremble for the writer.


One has a way of intruding in such a sentence as "The problem is not an easy one". "The problem is not easy" may be a neater way of saying what you mean.

What pronoun should be used with one? His or one's, for example? That depends on what sort of a one it is, whether "numeral" or "impersonal", to use Fowler's labels. Fowler illustrates the difference thus:

One hates his enemies and another forgives them (numeral).
One hates one's enemies and loves one's friends (impersonal).

But any sentence that needs to repeat the impersonal one is bound to be inelegant, and you will do better to rewrite it.

"One of those who..." A common error in sentences of this sort is to use a singular verb instead of a plural, as though the antecedent of who were one and not those—to write, for instance, "It is one of the exceptional cases that calls for (instead of call for) exceptional treatment".


Four hundred years ago, when the Thirty-nine Articles were drawn up, it was good English idiom to use the same as a pronoun where we should now say he or she, him or her, they or them, or it.

The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right title and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

This is no good reason for the present pronominal use of the same and same, which survives robustly in commercialese. It is to be found to some extent in official writing also, especially in letters on business subjects. This use of same is now by general consent reprehensible because it gives an air of artificiality and pretentiousness.

Example Alternative version
As you have omitted to insert your full Christian names, I shall be glad if you will advise me of same, As you have omitted to insert your full Christian names, I shall be glad if you will let me know what they are.
With reference to the above matter, and my representative's interview of the 12th October, relative to same... With reference to this matter and my representative's interview of the 12th October about it...
I enclose the necessary form for agreement and shall be glad if you will kindly complete and return same at your early convenience. (For same, substitute it.)

In the following sentence,

I am informed that it may be decided by X Section that this extra will not be required. I await therefore their decision before taking further action in an attempt to provide,

I like to think that the writer stopped abruptly after provide, leaving it objectless, in order to check himself on the brink of writing same. But he might harmlessly have written it.

They for He or She

It is common in speech, and not unknown in serious writing, to use they or them as the equivalent of a singular pronoun of a common sex, as in: "Each insisted on their own point of view, and hence the marriage came to an end". This is stigmatised by grammarians as a usage grammatically indefensible. The Judge ought, they would say, to have said "He insisted on his own point of view and she on hers". Jespersen says about this:

In the third person it would have been very convenient to have a common-sex pronoun, but as a matter of fact English has none and must therefore use one of the three makeshift expedients shown in the following sentences:

The reader's heart — if he or she have any. (Fielding.)
He that hath ears to hear let him hear. (A.V.)
Nobody prevents you, do they? (Thackeray.)

The official writer will be wise for the present to use the first or second, and not to be tempted by the greater convenience of the third, though necessity may eventually force it into the category of accepted idiom. The Ministry of Labour and National Service have adopted another device, but it is an ugly one, suitable only for forms:

Each worker must acknowledge receipt by entering the serial number of the supplementary coupon sheet issued to him/her in column 4 and signing his/her name in column 5.

Whatever justification there may be for using themselves as a singular common-sex pronoun, there can be no excuse for it when only one sex is referred to.

The female manipulative jobs are of a type to which by no means everyone can adapt themselves with ease.

There is no reason why herself should not have been written instead of themselves.


What, in the sense of that which, or those which, is an antecedent and relative combined. Because it may be either singular or plural in number, and either subjective or objective in case, it needs careful handling.

Fowler says that its difficulties of number can be solved by asking the question "what does it stand for?"

What is needed is more rooms.

Here Fowler would say that what means the thing that, and the singular verb is right: On the other hand, in the sentence "He no doubt acted with what are in his opinion excellent reasons", are is right because what is equivalent to reasons that. But this is perhaps over subtle, and there is no great harm in treating what as plural in such a construction whenever the complement is plural. It sounds more natural.

Because what may be subjective or objective, writers may find themselves making the same word do duty in both cases, a practice condemned by grammarians. For instance:

This was what came into his head and he said without thinking.

What is here being made to do duty both as the subject of came and as the object of said. If we want to be punctiliously grammatical we must write either:

This is what (subjective) came into his head and what (objective) he said without thinking.

or, preferably,

This is what came into his head, and he said it without thinking.


The New Yorker of the 4th December, 1948, quoted a question asked of the Philadelphia Bulletin by a correspondent:

My class would appreciate a discussion of the wrong use of which in sentences like "He wrecked the car which was due to his carelessness".

and the answer given by that newspaper:

The fault lies in using which to refer to the statement "He wrecked the car". When which follows a noun it refers to that noun as its antecedent. Therefore in the foregoing sentence it is stated that the car was due to his carelessness, which is nonsense.

"What is? Carelessness?" is the New Yorker's query.

Which shows how dangerous it is to dogmatise about the use of which with an antecedent consisting not of a single word but of a phrase. Punch has also provided an illustration of the same danger ("from a novel"):

Mrs. Brandon took the heavy piece of silk from the table, unfolded it, and displayed an altar cloth of her own exquisite embroidery....upon which everyone began to blow their nose....

The fact is that this is a common and convenient usage, but needs to be handled discreetly to avoid ambiguity or awkwardness.

The required statement is in course of preparation and will be forwarded as soon as official records are complete, which will be in about a week's time.

Here it is unnecessary; the sentence can be improved by omitting the words "which will be", and so getting rid of the relative altogether.

The long delay may make it inevitable for the authorities to consider placing the order elsewhere which can only be in the United States which is a step we should be anxious to avoid.

Here the writer has used which in this way twice in a single sentence, and shown how awkward its effect can be. He might have put a full-stop after elsewhere and continued, "That can only be in the United States and is a step we should be anxious to avoid".

Which and That

On the whole it makes for smoothness of writing not to use the relative which where that would do as well, and not to use either if a sentence makes sense and runs pleasantly without. But that is a very broad general statement, subject to many exceptions.

That cannot be used in a "commenting" clause (see Chapter 10); the relative must be which. With a "defining" clause either which or that is permissible, but that is to be preferred. When in a "defining" clause the relative is in the objective case, it can often be left out altogether. Thus we have the three variants:

This case ought to go to the Home Office, which deals with police establishments. (Commenting relative clause.)

The Department that deals with police establishments is the Home Office. (Defining relative clause.)

This is the case you said we ought to send to the Home Office. (Defining relative clause in which the relative pronoun, if it were expressed, would be in the objective case.)

That is an awkward word because it may be one of three parts of speech — a conjunction, a relative pronoun and a demonstrative pronoun. "I think that the paper that he wants is that one" illustrates the three in the order given. More than one modern writer has tried the experiment of spelling the word differently (that and thatt) according to its function; but not all readers are likely to find this expedient helpful, and any official who used it would be likely to get into trouble.

It is a sound rule that that should be dispensed with whenever this can be done without loss of clarity or dignity. For instance, the sentence just given might be written with only one that instead of three: "I think the paper he wants is that one". Some verbs seem to need a conjunctive that after them more than others do. Say and think can generally do without. The more formal words like state and assert cannot.

The conjunctive that often leads writers into error, especially in long sentences. This is not so much a matter of rule as of being careful.

It was agreed that, since suitable accommodation was now available in a convenient position, and that a move to larger offices was therefore feasible, Treasury sanction should be sought for acquiring them.

Here a superfluous that has slipped into the middle of the sentence. The first that was capable of doing all the work.

All removing residential subscribers are required to sign the special condition, that if called upon to share your line that you will do so.

That is another case of careless duplication.

As stated by the Minister of Fuel and Power on the 8th April, a standard ration will be available for use from 1st June, 1948, in every private car and motor cycle currently licensed and that an amount equivalent to the standard ration will be deducted....

The draftsman of this forgot how he had begun his sentence. He continued it as though he had begun "The Minister of Fuel and Power stated.. ." instead of "As stated by the Minister of Fuel and Power". The consequence was that he put in a that which defies both sense and grammar.

The Ministry of Food allow such demonstrations only if the materials used are provided by the staff and that no food is sold to the public.

In this sentence the use of that for if is less excusable because the writer had less time to forget how he had begun.

Their intention was probably to remove from the mind of the native that he was in any way bound to work and that the Government would protect him from bad employers.

This example shows the need of care in sentences in which that has to be repeated. If you do not remember what words introduced the first that, you may easily find yourself, as here, saying the opposite of what you mean. What this writer meant to say was that the intention was to remove the first idea from the native's mind and to put the second into it, not, as he has accidentally said, to remove both.

Who and Whom

Who is the subjective case and whom the objective. The proper use of the two words should present no difficulty. But we are so unaccustomed to different case-formations in English that when we are confronted with them we are liable to lose our heads. In the matter of who and whom good writers have for centuries been perverse in refusing to do what the grammarians tell them. They will insist on writing sentences like "Who should I see there?" (Addison), "Ferdinand whom they suppose is drowned" (Shakespeare), "Whom say men that I am?" (translators of the Bible). Now any schoolboy can see that, by the rules, who in the first quotation, being the object of see, ought to be whom, and that whom in the second and third quotations, being in the one the subject of is, and in the other the complement of am, ought to be who. What then is the ordinary man to believe? There are some who would have us do away with whom altogether, as nothing but a mischief-maker. That might be a useful way out. But then, as was asked in the correspondence columns of the Spectator by one who signed himself "A. Woodowl" (31st December, 1948):

Regarding the suggested disuse of whom, may I ask by who a lead can be given? To who, to wit, of the "cultured" authorities can we appeal to boo whom and to boom who?

Whom will take some killing, too. Shakespeare and the translators of the Bible have their distinguished followers to-day, such as Sir Winston Churchill ("moves made by Republican malcontents to displace their leader by someone whom they imagined would be a more vigorous President"), Mr. E. M. Forster ("A creature whom we pretend is here already"), Lord David Cecil ("West, whom he knew would never be seduced away from him"), The Times ("He was not the man whom the police think may be able to help them") and even Mr. Somerset Maugham ("Bateman could not imagine whom it was that he passed off as his nephew"). This usage is moreover defended by Jespersen.

Sometimes, though more rarely, the opposite mistake is made:

A Chancellor who, grudging as was the acknowledgment he received for it, everyone knew to have saved his party.

But it has not yet become pedantic — at any rate in writing — to use who and whom in what grammarians would call the correct way, and the ordinary writer should so use them, ignoring these vagaries of the great. He should be specially careful about such sentences as:

The manager should select those officers who he desires should sign on his behalf.

The manager should select those officers whom he authorises to sign on his behalf.

There has been some argument about who should be authorised to sign on the manager's behalf.


There is a grammarians' rule that whose must not be used of inanimate objects: we may say "authors whose books are famous", but we must not say "books whose authors are famous"; we must fall back on an ugly roundabout way of putting it, and say, "books the authors of which are famous". This rule, even more than that which forbids the split infinitive, is a cramping one, productive of ugly sentences and a temptation to misplaced commas.

There are now a large number of direct controls, the purpose of which is to allocate scarce resources of all kinds between the various applicants for their use.

Here the writer, having duly respected the prejudice against the inanimate whose, finds that controls the purpose is an awkward juxtaposition, with its momentary flicker of a suggestion that controls is a verb governing purpose.7 So he separates them by a comma, although the relative clause is a "defining" one (see later), and the comma therefore misleading. In his effort to avoid one ambiguity he has created another.

Sir Alexander Cadogan added that legislatures were not unaccustomed to ratifying decisions the entry into force of which was contingent on circumstances beyond their control.

Here the writer has properly resisted the temptation to lessen the inevitable ugliness of the construction by putting a comma after decisions. How much more smoothly each sentence would run if the writer had felt at liberty to say controls whose purpose and decisions whose entry.

The rule is so cramping and so pointless that even the grammarians are in revolt against it. Onions regards it as permissible to use whose in such circumstances in order to avoid the "somewhat awkward collocation of of which with the definite article". Fowler said:

Let us in the name of common sense prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar and present intelligibility and obvious convenience on their side, and lack only starch.

There are welcome signs that Fowler's advice is now being followed in official publications:

The hospital whose characteristics and associations link it with a particular religious denomination.

That revolution the full force of whose effects we are beginning to feel.

There has been built up a single centrally organised blood-transfusion service whose object is...

Troubles with Verbs

-ing endings

Words ending in ing are mostly verbal participles or gerunds, and, as we shall see, it is not always easy to say which is which. By way of introduction it will be enough to observe that when they are of the nature of participles they may be true verbs (I was working) or adjectives (a working agreement) or in rare cases prepositions (concerning this question) or conjunctions (supposing this happened); if they are of the nature of gerunds they are always nouns (I am pleased at his coming)—or rather a hybrid between a noun and a verb, for you may use the gerund with the construction either of a noun (after the careful reading of these papers) or of a mixture between a verb and a noun (after carefully reading these papers). It is most confusing, but fortunately we are seldom called on to put a label on these words, and so I have preferred to give this section an indeterminate title.

Numerous pitfalls beset the use of ing-words. Here are some of them.

Absolute construction

This is, in itself, straightforward enough. The absolute construction, in the words of the O.E.D., is a name given to a phrase "standing out of grammatical relation or syntactical construction with other words". In the sentence

The chairman having restored order, the committee resumed,

the phrase "the chairman having restored order" forms an absolute construction.

But there is no absolute construction in the sentence

The chairman, having restored order, called on the last speaker to continue.

Here the chairman is the subject of the sentence.

Because of a confusion with that type of sentence, it is a curiously common error to put a comma in the absolute construction. (See Comma.)

Unattached (or unrelated) participle

This blunder is rather like the last. A writer begins a sentence with a participle (which, since it is a sort of adjective, must be given a noun to support it) and then forgets to give it its noun, thus leaving it "unattached".

Arising out of a collision between a removal van and a fully loaded bus in a fog, E. C. F., removal van driver, appeared on a charge of manslaughter.

Grammatically in this sentence it was the van-driver, not the charge against him, that arose out of the collision. He probably did; but that was not what the writer meant.

Whilst requesting you to furnish the return now outstanding you are advised that in future it would greatly facilitate.

Requesting is unattached. If the structure of this rather clumsy sentence is to be retained it must run "Whilst requesting you I advise you that..."

As I have said, some ing-words have won the right to be treated as prepositions. Among them are regarding, considering, owing to, concerning and failing. When any of these is used as a preposition, there can be no question of its being misused as an unattached participle:

Considering the attack that had been made on him, his speech was moderate in tone.

If, however, considering were used not as a preposition-participle but as an adjective-participle, it could be unattached. It is so in:

Considering the attack on him beneath his notice, his speech was moderate in tone.

Past participles, as well as present, may become unattached:

Administered at first by the National Gallery, it was not until 1917 that the appointment of a separate board and director enabled a fully independent policy to be pursued.

The writer must have started with the intention of making the Tate Gallery (about which he was writing) the subject of the sentence but changed his mind, and so 'administered' is left unattached.

Formal application is now being made for the necessary way-leave consent, and as soon as received the work will proceed.

Grammatically received can only be attached to work; and that is nonsense. The writer should have said "as soon as this is received".

Unattached Gerund

A gerund can become unattached in much the same way as a participle:

Indeed we know little of Stalin's personality at all: a few works of Bolshevik theory, arid and heavy, and speeches still more impersonal, without literary grace, repeating a few simple formulas with crushing weight — after reading these Stalin appears more a myth than a man.

Grammatically "after reading these" means after Stalin has read them, not after we have.

The use of unattached participles and gerunds is becoming so common that grammarians may soon have to throw in their hand and recognise it as idiomatic. But they have not done so yet; so it should be avoided.

Gerund versus Infinitive

In what seems to be a completely arbitrary way, some nouns, adjectives and verbs like to take an infinitive, and some a gerund with a preposition.

For instance:

Aim at doing Try to do
Dislike of doing Reluctance to do
Capable of doing Aim to do
Demur to doing Hesitate to do
Prohibit from doing Forbid to do

Instances could be multiplied indefinitely. There is no rule; it can only be a matter of observation and consulting a dictionary when in doubt.

The fused participle

All authorities agree that it is idiomatic English to write "the Bill's getting a second reading surprised everyone": that is to say it is correct to treat getting as a gerund requiring Bill's to be in the possessive. What they are not agreed about is whether it is also correct to treat getting as a participle, and write "the Bill getting a second reading surprised everyone". If that is a legitimate grammatical construction, the subject of the sentence, which cannot be Bill by itself, or getting by itself must be a fusion of the two. Hence the name "fused participle".

This is not in itself a matter of any great interest or importance. But it is notable as having been the occasion of a battle of the giants, Fowler and Jespersen.8Fowler condemned the "fused participle" as a construction "grammatically indefensible" that is "rapidly corrupting modern English style". Jespersen defended it against both these charges. Those best competent to judge seem to have awarded Jespersen a win on points.

What is certain is that sometimes we feel one construction to be the more idiomatic, and sometimes the other, and, in particular, that proper names and personal pronouns seem to demand the gerund. Nobody would prefer "He coming (or Smith coming) surprised me" to "His coming (or Smith's coming) surprised me". That is sure ground.

For the rest, it is always possible, and generally wise, to be on the safe side by turning the sentence round, and writing neither "the Bill getting, etc." (which offends some purists) nor "the Bill's getting, etc." (which sounds odd to some ears) but "everyone was surprised that the Bill got a second reading".

The Subjunctive

The subjunctive is the mood of imagination or command. Apart from the verb to be, it has no form separate from the indicative, except in the third person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive form is the same as the indicative plural (he have, not he has; he go, not he goes). Generally therefore, in sentences in which the subjunctive might be fitting, neither the writer nor the reader need know or care whether the subjunctive is being used or not.

But the verb to be spoils this simple picture. The whole of the present tense is different, for the subjunctive mood is be throughout — I be, he be, we be, you be and they be. The singular (but not the plural) of the past tense is also different — I were and he were instead of I was and he was. In the subjunctive mood what looks like the past tense does not denote pastness; it denotes a greater call on the imagination. Thus:

The subjunctive is dying; the indicative is superseding it more and more. Its only remaining regular uses are:

Other correct uses of the subjunctive may be found in contemporary writings, but it is probably true of all of them that the indicative would have been equally correct, and certainly true of many of them that the subjunctive has a formal, even pedantic, air. The notice "Please do not ring unless an answer be required", though still, I believe, to be found on some academic front doors, strikes us today as an archaism.

Misuse of the Passive

Grammarians condemn such constructions as the following, which indeed condemn themselves by their contorted ugliness:

The report that is proposed to be made.
Several amendments were endeavoured to be inserted.
A question was threatened to be put on the paper.
A sensational atmosphere is attempted to be created.

Anyone who finds that he has written a sentence like this should recast it, e.g. "the proposed report", "attempts were made to insert several amendments", "a threat was made to put a question on the paper", "an attempt is being made to create a sensational atmosphere", "Motion made: that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question" is an ancient and respectable Parliamentary formula, but should not be allowed to infect ordinary writing.

Hope should not be used in the passive except in the impersonal phrase it is hoped. We may say "It is hoped that payment will be made next week", or "payment is expected to be made next week", but not "payment is hoped to be made next week". The phrasal verb hope for, being transitive, can of course be used in the passive.

Omission of a verb

Where a verb is used with more than one auxiliary (e.g. "he must and shall go") make sure that the main verb is repeated unless, as in this example, its form is the same. It is easy to slip into such a sentence as:

The steps which those responsible can and are at present taking to remedy this state of affairs.

Can taking makes no sense. The proper construction is shown in:

The board must take, and are in fact taking, all possible steps to maintain production.

Shall and Will

Twenty pages devoted to this subject in The King's English begin with the following introduction:

It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the length of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them from their constant failure to take him right; and the unobservant is the victim of false security.

Fowler's view in short amounts to this: that if anyone has been brought up among those who use the right idiom, he has no need of instruction; if he has not, he is incapable of being instructed, because any guidance that is short and clear will mislead him and any that is full and accurate will be incomprehensible to him.

Every English text-book will be found to begin by stating the rule that to express the "plain" future shall is used in the first person and will in the second and third:

I shall go
You will go
He will go

and that if it is a matter not of plain future but of volition, permission or obligation it is the other way round:

I will go (I am determined to go or I intend to go)
You shall go (You must go, or you are permitted to go)
He shall go (He must go, or he is permitted to go)

But the idiom of the Celts is different. They have never recognised "I shall go". For them "I will go" is the plain future. The story is a very old one of the drowning Scot who was misunderstood by English onlookers and left to his fate because he cried, "I will drown and nobody shall save me".

American practice follows the Celtic, and in this matter, as in so many others, the English have taken to imitating the American. If we go by practice rather than by precept, we can no longer say dogmatically that "I will go" for the plain future is wrong, or smugly with Dean Alford:

I never knew an Englishman who misplaced shall and will; I hardly ever have known an Irishman or Scotsman who did not misplace them sometimes.

The Irish and the Scots are having their revenge for our bland assumption that English usage must be "right" and theirs "wrong".

Nevertheless the rule for the official must be to be orthodox on doubtful points of doctrine, and text-book orthodoxy in England still prescribes shall with the first person to express the plain future.

Would and Should

The various shades of meaning of would and should derive in the main from the primary ideas of resolve in will and of obligation in shall: ideas illustrated in their simplest form by "he would go" (he was determined to go, or he made a habit of going) and "he should go" (he ought to go).

As colourless auxiliaries, merely indicating the subjunctive mood, the text-book rule is that should is used in the first person and would in the second and third. Should, which is colourless in the first person, resumes its tinge of ought in the others: in "If you tried you should succeed" it has a nuance not present in "If I tried I should succeed". But the rule requiring should in the first person is now largely ignored (compare Shall and will); would and should are used indifferently. Even a Professor of Poetry can now use them for what seems to be merely elegant variation:

If we could plot each individual poet's development, we would get a different pattern with each and we would see the pattern changing. ... We should notice Mr. Auden, for example, breaking suddenly away from the influence of Thomas Hardy...

In such a phrase as "In reply to your letter of ... I would inform you..." would is not a mere auxiliary expressing the conditional mood; it retains the now archaic meaning of "I should like to". On another page I have deprecated the use of this expression on the ground that, since it is archaic, it cannot help being stiff.

Because would has this meaning, grammarians condemn such phrases as "I would like to", "I would be glad if", "I would be obliged if" and so on. Should, they say, ought always to be used: to say would is tantamount to saying "I should like to like to", "I should like to be glad if", "I should like to be obliged if" and so on.

"It would appear" and "I should think" are less dogmatic, and therefore more polite, ways of saying "it appears" and "I think".

Split Infinitive

The well-known grammarians' rule against splitting an infinitive means that nothing must come between to and the verb. It is a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen, a grammarian as broad-minded as he was erudite.

This name is bad because we have many infinitives without to, as "I made him go". To therefore is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling the good man a split nominative.

It is a bad rule too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly and makes for ambiguity by inducing writers to place adverbs in unnatural and even misleading positions.

A recent visit to Greece has convinced me that the modern Englishman fails completely to recognise that...

Some of the stones ... must have been of such a size that they failed completely to melt before they reached the ground.

Does the modern Englishman completely fail to recognise, or does he fail to completely recognise? Did the hailstones completely fail to melt, or did they fail to completely melt? The reader has to guess and he ought never to have to guess. In these two examples the context shows that the right guess for one will be the wrong guess for the other.

Nor is this all. The split infinitive taboo, leading as it does to the putting of adverbs in awkward places, is so potent that it produces an impulse to put them there even though there is not really any question of avoiding a split infinitive. I have myself been taken to task by a correspondent for splitting an infinitive because I wrote "I gratefully record". He was, no doubt, under the influence of the taboo to an exceptional extent. But sufferers from the same malady in a milder form can be found on every hand. We cannot doubt that the writer of the sentence "they appeared completely to have adjusted themselves to it" put the adverb in that uncomfortable position because he thought that to write "to have completely adjusted" would be to split an infinitive. The same fear, probably subconscious, may also be presumed to account for the unnatural placing of the adverb in "so tangled is the web that I cannot pretend for a moment that we have succeeded entirely in unweaving it". In this there is no possibility of splitting an infinitive because there is no infinitive. But the split infinitive bogy is having such a devastating effect that people are beginning to feel that it must be wrong to put an adverb between any auxiliary and any part of a verb, or between any preposition and any part of a verb.

The infinitive can be split only by inserting a word or words between to and the word which, with to, forms the infinitive of the verb. "To fully understand" is a split infinitive. So is "to fully have understood". But "to have fully understood" is not.

In the first edition of Plain Words I wrote of the rule against the split infinitive:

Still, there is no doubt that the rule at present holds sway, and on my principle the official has no choice but to conform; for his readers will almost certainly attribute departures from it to ignorance of it, and so, being moved to disdain of the writer, will not be "affected precisely as he wishes".

A friend whose opinion I value has reproached me for this, making no secret of his view that I am little better than a coward. I ought, he tells me, to have the courage of my convictions. I ought to say about the split infinitive, as I said about the "inanimate whose", that it is right for the official to give a lead in freeing writers from this fetish. The farthest I ought to allow myself to go along the road of safety-first is, according to him, to say that it is judicious for an official to avoid splitting whenever he can do so without sacrificing clarity, ease and naturalness of expression. But rather than make that sacrifice he should resolutely split.

My friend may be right. Rebels will find themselves in good company. Here is an example of a good literary craftsman goaded into apologetic rebellion against this tyranny:

As for Spotted Fat, that prudent animal (whom the Go-go now proceeded to condignly beat till ordered to desist) had swum straight ashore without the slightest effort.

Having written this sentence in his book On the Eaves of the World, Reginald Farrer appended the footnote:

I have never yet, I believe, split an infinitive in my life; here, for the first time in my experience, I fancy the exigencies of rhythm and meaning do really compel me.

Bernard Shaw was emphatically on the side of the rebels. In 1892 he wrote to the Chronicle:

If you do not immediately suppress the person who takes it upon himself to lay down the law almost every day in your columns on the subject of literary composition, I will give up the Chronicle. The man is a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot and a self-advertising duffer ... Your fatuous specialist ... is now beginning to rebuke "second-rate" newspapers for using such phrases as "to suddenly go" and "to boldly say". I ask you, Sir, to put this man out ... without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between "to suddenly go", to "go suddenly" and "suddenly to go".. Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place.

Quoted in Grant Richards' Author Hunting, Hamish Hamilton, 1938.

But the most vigorous rebel could hardly condone splitting so resolute as the crescendo of this lease.

The tenant hereby agrees:

  1. to pay the said rent;
  2. to properly clean all the windows;
  3. to at all times properly empty all closets;
  4. to immediately any litter or disorder shall have been made by him or for his purpose on the staircase or landings or any other part of the said building or garden remove the same.

Some points of Idiom


Following the example set by approve, agree is showing a disposition to shake off its attendant prepositions to, on and with, and to pose as a transitive verb. "I agree your figures", "We must agree the arrangements for this", "I agree your draft". Some correspondents would have me castigate this, but I do not think there is any great harm in it. It is true that established idiom requires "I agree with your figures", "We must agree on the arrangements" and "I agree with" or (if from a superior) "I agree to your draft". But the change has probably come to stay, and will be absorbed into English idiom.


The proper construction is to avail oneself of something. Avoid the ugly passive construction such as "this opportunity should be availed of". "Taken" or "seized" or "made use of" will do instead.

Averse and Adverse

It is usual to say averse from, though there is good authority for averse to. (What cat's averse to fish?) But adverse is always to.


It used to be widely held by purists that to say "under the circumstances" must be wrong because what is around us cannot be over us. "In the circumstances" was the only correct expression. This argument is characterised by Fowler as puerile. Its major premise is not true ("a threatening sky is a circumstance no less than a threatening bulldog") and even if it were true it would be irrelevant, because, as cannot be too often repeated, English idiom has a contempt for logic. There is good authority for under the circumstances, and if some of us prefer in the circumstances (as I do), that is a matter of taste, not of rule.


There is a difference between compare to and compare with; the first is to liken one thing to another; the second is to note the resemblances and differences between two things. Thus:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

If we compare the speaker's notes with the report of his speech in The Times....


There is a difference between consist of and consist in. Consist of denotes the substance of which the subject is made; consist in defines the subject.

The writing desks consist of planks on trestles.

The work of the branch consists in interviewing the public.


It is wrong in writing, though common in speech, to omit the on or upon after depends, as in:

It depends whether we have received another consignment by then.


In the sense of to be different, the idiom is to differ from.

In the sense of to disagree, it is either to differ from or to differ with, which you please.


There is good authority for different to, but different from is today the established usage. Different than is not unknown even in The Times:

The air of the suburb has quite a different smell and feel at eleven o'clock in the morning or three o'clock in the afternoon than it has at the hours when the daily toiler is accustomed to take a few hurried sniffs of it.

But this is condemned by the grammarians, who would say that than in this example should have been from what.

Direct and Directly

Direct, although an adjective, is also no less an adverb than directly. To avoid ambiguity, it is well to confine directly to its meaning of immediately in time, and so avoid the possibility of confusion between "he is going to Edinburgh direct" and "he is going to Edinburgh directly". Here are two examples from recent departmental circulars, the first of the right use of direct and the second of the wrong use of directly:

Committees should notify departments direct of the names and addresses of the banks.

He will arrange directly with the authority concerned for the recruitment and training of technicians.


Idiom requires whether or if after a positive statement and that or but that after a negative.

I doubt whether he will come today.

I have no doubt that he will come today.


Either means one or other of two. Its use in the sense of each of two, as in:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,

or in:

The concert will be broadcast on either side of the nine o'clock news,

is common, and there does not seem to be any good ground for Fowler's dictum that it "is archaic and should be avoided except in verse or special contexts".


Do not let as intrude between equally and the word it qualifies. Not equally as good, but equally good.

First and Firstly

There used to be a grammarians' rule that you must not write firstly; your enumeration must be: first, secondly, thirdly. It was one of those arbitrary rules whose observance was supposed by a certain class of purist to be a hallmark of correct writing. This rule, unlike many of the sort, had not even logic on its side. Of late years there has been a rebellion against these rules, and I do not think that any contemporary grammarian will mind much whether you say first or firstly.

First two

For more than a hundred years pretty arguments have been carried on from time to time round the question whether one should say the first two or the two first. Some famous grammarians, notably Dean Alford and Jespersen, have supported the two first, but the majority of expert opinion is overwhelmingly against them. So the first two holds the field. But the point is not important. Everyone knows what you mean, whichever you say.

Follows (as follows)

Do not write as follow for as follows, however numerous may be the things that follow.

"The construction in as follows is impersonal, and the verb should always be used in the singular" (O.E.D.).


Have got, for possess or have, says Fowler, is good colloquial but not good literary English. Others have been more lenient. Dr. Johnson said:

"He has got a good estate" does not always mean that he has acquired, but barely that he possesses it. So we say "the lady has got black eyes", merely meaning that she has them.

And Dr. Ballard has written:9

What is wrong with the word? Its pedigree is beyond reproach. If the reader will consult the Oxford English Dictionary he will find that Shakespeare uses the word. So does Swift; Ruskin uses it frequently, and Augustine Birrell in Obiter Dicta asks

"What has the general public got to do with literature?" Johnson in his Dictionary gives possession as a legitimate meaning of the verb to get, and quotes George Herbert. Indeed he uses it himself in a letter to Boswell. The only inference we can draw is that it is not a real error but a counterfeit invented by schoolmasters.

When such high authorities differ, what is the plain man to think? If it is true, as I hold it to be, that superfluous words are an evil, we ought to condemn "the lady has got black eyes", but not "the lady has got a black eye". Still, in writing for those whose prose inclines more often to primness than to colloquialisms, and who are not likely to overdo the use of got, I advise them not to be afraid of it. The Americans have the handy practice of saying "I have gotten" for "I have obtained" and reserving "I have got", if they use the word at all, for "I possess." But the usual way for an American to express an Englishman's "I haven't got" is "I don't have".

Hard and Hardly

Hard, not hardly, is the adverb of the adjective hard. Hardly must not be used except in the sense of scarcely. Hardly earned and hard-earned have quite different meanings.

Hardly, like scarcely, is followed by when, not by than, in such a sentence as

I had hardly begun when I was interrupted.

Than sometimes intrudes from a false analogy with

I had no sooner begun than I was interrupted.


The expression "more than one can help" is a literal absurdity. It means exactly the opposite of what it says. "I won't be longer than I can help" means "I won't be longer than is unavoidable", that is to say, longer than I can't help. But it is good English idiom.

They will not respect more than they can help treaties exacted from them under duress.

Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm.

Writers who find the absurdity of the phrase more than they can stomach can always write "more than they must" instead.


One inculcates ideas into people, not people with ideas; imbue would be the right word for that. A vague association with inoculate may have something to do with the mistaken use of inculcate with.


Inform cannot be used with a verb in the infinitive, and the writer of this sentence has gone wrong:

I am informing the branch to grant this application.

He should have said telling or asking.

Less and Fewer

The following is taken from Good and Bad English by Whitten and Whitaker:

Less appertains to degree, quantity or extent; fewer to number. Thus, less outlay, fewer expenses; less help, fewer helpers; less milk, fewer eggs.

But although few applies to number do not join it to the word itself: a fewer number is incorrect; say a smaller number.

Less takes a singular noun, fewer a plural noun; thus, less opportunity, fewer opportunities.

Order (In Order That)

May or might are the words to follow "in order that". It is incorrect to write "in order that no further delay will occur" or "in order that we can have a talk on the subject". And it is stilted to write in order to where to will serve equally well. Jack and Jill did not go up the hill in order to fetch a pail of water. English idiom recognises so as to and so that they might as alternative ways of expressing purpose, but has not yet admitted the American so without that ("so they could fetch a pail of water").


Twenty-five years ago Fowler pointed out that this word was having "very curious experiences" in that, although an adverb, it was being used more and more both as an adjective and as a noun. These experiences have certainly not abated since then.

The adjective that otherwise dispossesses is other. This is exemplified in such a sentence as

There are many difficulties, legal and otherwise, about doing what you ask.

The noun that otherwise dispossesses is whatever noun has the contrary meaning to one just mentioned. This is exemplified in such a sentence as

I will say nothing about the reasonableness or otherwise of what you ask,

where the word replaced is unreasonableness. Sometimes, Fowler might have added, it is used as a verb too, e.g.

we shall be glad if you will now confirm or otherwise your desire to avail yourself of our offer,

where the word replaced is deny.)

Fowler condemns both these as ungrammatical. Since it is just as easy in the first case to write other and in the second either to omit or otherwise or to substitute the appropriate noun, there is no reason why one should not be on the safe side and do the grammatical thing. But it would be wrong to leave the subject without quoting Dr. Ballard:

A new pronoun is as rare a phenomenon as a new comet. Yet it dawned on me the other day that a new pronoun had insidiously crept into the English language. It was heard on everybody's lips, it was used on the platform and in the press, it figured prominently in blue-books and official papers. And yet I could find it in no dictionary—not, that is, as a pronoun—nor could I discover it among the lists of pronouns in any grammar, however modern. Still, if the current definition is correct, the word is beyond doubt a pronoun. The word is otherwise. A committee is appointed by an educational body to report on the success or otherwise of the new organisation of schools. What does otherwise stand for? Why failure, of course. And failure is a noun. Therefore otherwise is a pronoun. ... I thought at first with Mr. H. W. Fowler that otherwise, so used, was not a pronoun but a blunder. But when I considered the people who used it so—schoolmasters and school inspectors, and ambassadors, and statesmen and judges on the bench—I could not accept Mr. Fowler's views. For I would rather wrong the dead—dead languages that is—and wrong myself and you than I would wrong such honourable men. There is no help for it. Otherwise is a pronoun.

Sometimes other gets its revenge, and supplants otherwise.

It is news to me that a sheep improves the land other than by the food fed through it.


You may say "He prefers writing to dictating" or "he prefers to write rather than to dictate", but not "he prefers to write than to dictate".


You may choose any one of three constructions with prevent: prevent him from coming, prevent him coming and prevent his coming.

Purport (verb)

The ordinary meaning of this verb is "to profess or claim by its tenor", e.g. "this letter purports to be written by you". The use of the verb in the passive is an objectionable and unnecessary innovation.

Statements which were purported to have been official confirmed the rumours.

should be

Statements which purported to be official confirmed the rumours.


Unlike consider, count and deem, regard requires an as in such a sentence as "I regard it as an honour".


Require should not be used as an intransitive verb in the sense of need as it is in:

You do not require to do any stamping unless you wish (you need not)


Special arrangements require to be worked out in the light of local circumstances (special arrangements will have to be...).


To substitute means to put a person or thing in the place of another; it does not mean to take the place of another. When A is removed and B is put in its place, B is substituted for A and A is replaced by B. Substitute is wrongly used in:

The Minister said he hoped to substitute coarse grain with homegrown barley,

The Minister ought either to have used the verb replace, or, if he insisted on the verb substitute, to have said "to substitute home-grown barley for coarse grain".

Such and So

It will take some time to unravel such a complicated case.

There are those who say that this is unidiomatic, and that we ought to say "so complicated a case". But if we choose to regard them as pedants we shall have Fowler on our side, and so cannot be far wrong.


The idiom is unequal to, not for, a task.


One of the most popular objects of the chase among amateur hunters of so-called grammatical mistakes used to be very with a past participle — "very pleased", for instance. It is true that very cannot be used grammatically with a past participle — that one cannot, for instance, say "The effect was very enhanced"; we must say much or greatly. But when the participle is no longer serving as a verb, and has become in effect an adjective, it is legitimate to use very with it as with any other adjective. There can be no objection to "very pleased", which means no more than "very glad", or to "very annoyed", which means no more than "very angry". But it will not do to say "very inconvenienced" or "very removed", and in between are doubtful cases where it will be as well to be on the safe side and refrain from very.


Worth has a prepositional force, and needs an object. This object may be either while (i.e. the spending of time) or something else. It is therefore correct to say "this job is worth while"; it is also correct to say "this job is worth doing". But one object is enough, and so it is wrong to say "this job is worth while doing".

Worth-while as an adjective ("a worth-while job") has not yet reached more than colloquial status.

Some Common Causes Of Confused Expression

Confusion between more and less

It is curiously easy to say the opposite of what one means when making comparisons of quantity, time or distance, especially if they are negative. A common type of this confusion is to be found in such statements as "Meetings will be held at not less than monthly intervals", when what is meant is that the meetings will be not less frequent than once a month, that is to say, at not more than monthly intervals. A similar confusion led during the war to the issue of a Control of Maps Order prohibiting the sale of maps drawn to a scale greater than one mile to the inch, instead of greater than one inch to the mile, as was intended.

Maximum and minimum sometimes cause a similar confusion, leading to the use of one for the other. An example is the following sentence, which is taken from a passage deprecating the wounding of wild animals by taking too long shots at them:

It would be impossible to attempt to regulate shooting by laying down minimum ranges and other details of that sort.

It would indeed.

Another correspondent sends, as an instance of ambiguity of a similar kind,

On the mainland of Ross the population has been more than halved in the past twenty years.

Though not actually ambiguous, this is certainly not the clearest way of saying that the population has fallen to less than half.

Expression of multiples

We learn at an early age that if we want to declare one figure to be a multiple of another the proper way of doing so is to say that the first is so many times the second, "Nine is three times three." But in later life some of us seem to forget this and to say "Nine is three times greater (or three times more) than three". Not only is this an unnecessary distortion of a simple idiom, but a stickler for accuracy might say even that it was misleading: the figure that is three times greater (or more) than three is not nine but twelve. I was moved to these reflections by the following passage:

The figure set for the production of iron ore in 1955 is 3,500,000 tons, more than twelve times greater than in 1936; for pig-iron it is 2,000,000 tons, ten times greater than in 1936; for cement 4,000,000 tons, twice as much as in 1936.

The writer of this seems to have forgotten the formula of his multiplication tables until reminded of it by finding himself up against the awkwardness of having to say "twice greater". Confusion is even more likely to be caused if percentages are used. "Production was 250 per cent greater than in 1928" leaves the reader guessing whether it was 2½ times or 3½ times as great.


By this I mean a particular form of what the grammarians call tautology, pleonasm or redundancy. Possible varieties are infinite, but the commonest example is writing "the reason for this is because..." instead of either "this is because" or "the reason for this is" than as in the first of these examples.

The Ministry of Food say that the reason for the higher price of the biscuits is because the cost of chocolate has increased.

The subject of the talk tonight will be about... (A confusion between "the subject will be..." and "the talk will be about...")

The reason for the long delay appears to be due to the fact that the medical certificates went astray. (A confusion between "the reason is that the certificates went astray" and "the delay is due to the fact that the certificates went astray".)

The cause of the delay is due to the shortage of materials. (A confusion between "the cause of the delay is the shortage" and "the delay is due to the shortage".)

By far the greater majority... (A confusion between "the great majority" and "by far the greater part".)

He did not say that all actions for libel or slander were never properly brought. (A confusion between "that all actions ... were improperly brought" and "that actions ... were never properly brought".)

An attempt will be made this morning to try to avert the threatened strike. (Those who were going to do this might have attempted to do it or tried to do it. But merely to attempt to try seems rather half-hearted.)

Save only in exceptional circumstances will any further development be contemplated. (A confusion between "only in exceptional circumstances will any further development be contemplated" and "save in exceptional circumstances no further development will be contemplated".)

The common fault of duplicating either the future or the past is a form of this error.

The most probable thing will be that they will be sold in a Government auction.

This should be "The most probable thing is that they will be".

The Minister said he would have liked the Government of Eire to have offered us butter instead of cream.

This should be "he would have liked the Government of Eire to offer....".

Qualification of Absolutes

Certain adjectives and adverbs cannot properly be qualified by such words as more, less, very, rather, because they do not admit of degrees. Unique is the outstanding example. When we say a thing is unique we mean that there is nothing else of its kind in existence; rather unique is meaningless. But we can of course say almost unique.

It is easy to slip into pedantry here, and to condemn the qualification of words which are perhaps strictly absolutes but are no longer so treated — true, for instance, and empty and full. We ought not to shrink from saying "very true", or "the hall was even emptier today than yesterday" or "this cupboard is fuller than that". But this latitude must not be abused. It is strained when an official circular defines "draining a bulk tank" as "removing the liquid contents that remain after emptying"; it is certainly carried too far in this quotation:

It may safely be said that the design of sanitary fittings has now reached a high degree of perfection.

Nor should we condone the expression more or less wholly, even though I found it in a book on style by an eminent contemporary man of letters. Nor does the comparative seem happily chosen in more virgin, which a correspondent tells me he has seen in an advertisement.


Pronouns were invented to avoid the necessity of repeating nouns. The section on pronouns deals with this subject, and also with the device known as "the polite alias" or "elegant variation".

Unnecessary repetition of a word is irritating to a reader. If it can be avoided in a natural way it should be. For instance, in the sentence

The Minister has considered this application, and considers that there should be a market in Canada,

the repetition of "consider" gives the sentence a clumsy and careless air. The second one might just as well have been "thinks". It would have been easy also to avoid the ugly repetition of essential in the sentence

It is essential that the Minister should have before him outline programmes of essential works.

But where the same thing or act is repeatedly mentioned, it is better to repeat a word than to avoid it in a laboured and obvious way.

Irritating repetition of a sound (assonance) is usually mere carelessness.

The controversy as to which agency should perform the actual contractual work of erection of houses.

Reverting to the subject of the letter the latter wrote... (This is indefensible because it could so easily be avoided by calling "the latter" by name.)

Since a certain amount of uncertainty still appears to exist.

This is not even true, for I feel sure that what really existed was an uncertain amount of uncertainty.

A few points of spelling


Autarchy means absolute sovereignty. Autarky (sometimes mis-spelt autarchy) means self-sufficiency. The difference in spelling reflects the different Greek words from which they are derived.


In the ordinary usage of today dependant is a noun meaning "a person who depends on another for support, position, etc." (O.E.D.). Dependent is an adjective meaning relying on or subject to something else. Dependants are dependent on the person whose dependants they are.


Enquiry and inquiry have long existed together as alternative spellings of the same word. In America inquiry is dislodging enquiry for all purposes. In England a useful distinction is developing: enquiry is used for asking a question and inquiry for making an investigation. Thus you might enquire what time the inquiry begins.


To forego is to go before (the foregoing provisions of this Act). To forgo is to go without, to waive (he will forgo his right).

Ise or Ize

On the question whether verbs like organise and nouns like organisation should be spelt with an s or a z the authorities differ. The O.E.D. favours universal ize, arguing that the suffix is always in its origin either Greek or Latin and in both languages it is spelt with a z. So do the University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge. Other authorities, including some English printers, recommend universal ise. Fowler stands between these two opinions. He points out that the O.E.D.'s advice over-simplifies the problem, since there are some verbs (e.g. advertise, comprise, despise, exercise and surmise) which are never spelt ize in this country. On the other hand, he says

the difficulty of remembering which these ise verbs are is the only reason for making ise universal, and the sacrifice of significance to ease does not seem justified.

This austere conclusion will not commend itself to everyone. It does not do so to the authors of the A.B.C. of English Usage, who say roundly, "the advice given here is to end them all in ise", a verdict with which I respectfully agree.

← Chapter 8: Choosing the Precise Word

Chapter 10: Punctuation →

  1. Grammar without Tears, by Hugh Sykes Davies, The Bodley Head, 1951↩︎

  2. Imaginary Conversations between Horne Tooke and Dr. Johnson and the Author and Archdeacon Hare.↩︎

  3. This is an elastic heading. It may for instance be said that neither both nor like is strictly a conjunction. But their caprices make it convenient to include them in this section.↩︎

  4. It has been pointed out to me by a correspondent that there are really only three. Out is an adverb, forming, with of, a composite preposition. Another sends me the improved variant: "What did you bring that book I don't like to be read aloud to out of from up for".↩︎

  5. This journalistic trick is out of favour now. But it used to be an accepted feature of fine writing. There is a remarkable example in the extract from The Times of 6th December, 1848, printed in the issue of 6th December, 1948. The reference is to a forthcoming demonstration of M. Molk's newly invented "electric searchlight":

    At this period of the evening the moon will be in its zenith, but M. Molk does not apprehend any sensible diminution of the lustre of his light from the presence of that beautiful luminary.

  6. Shakespeare is notoriously the grammarians' despair. Even Hamlet, a young man of scholarship standard if ever there was one, said "between who?" when Polonius asked him, "What is the matter, my Lord?"↩︎

  7. Care should be taken to avoid the "false scent" that comes from grouping words in a way that suggests a different construction from the one intended, however fleeting the suggestion may be. In the sentence:

    "Behind each part of the story I shall tell lies an untold and often unsuspected story of hard work..."

    the words "I shall tell lies" irresistibly group themselves together until the eye has passed on. Never try to correct this sort of thing with a comma; always reconstruct.↩︎

  8. Society for Pure English, Tracts XXII et seq.↩︎

  9. Teaching and Testing English. The same writer's Thought and Language contains an even longer and more spirited defence of got.↩︎