Style issues



English Plus+

Chicago Q&A








Some issues which arise while writing English are issues of style rather than correctness: there is typically more than one "right" way to do things, and what matters is to be consistent.

Some grammatical matters are minor, but still very annoying!  Here I've tried to concentrate on areas which are both commonly-heard and especially irritating.

This page discusses some examples.  Sometimes the piece is just my opinion, but in general, where I suggest solutions, more details can usually be found in standard reference books like The Oxford English Grammar or The Oxford Guide to Style. (This last, previously known as Hart's Rules, is the definitive style guide for British English and is now available – together with The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors – as The Oxford Manual of Style.)  I also admire Jack Lynch's work and he's said pretty much everything I would have liked to have said, although the link to his personal page no longer works in 2021.

The page is written in 2003 in British English (realise not realize), but I think everything here applies to all variants of English except the section on shibboleths, which will probably only make sense to British English readers.

Links that no longer work were removed in April 2021.

I also have a page of apostrophe problems.


We have vocal and spinal cords, not chords.

Double negatives

It's generally good advice in clear writing to avoid negatives, especially double ones. Rather than say it's not impossible that ... say it's possible that ...".

Many people now say or write that it's impossible to underestimate the importance of something or other, meaning (against logic) that it's important.

My favourite quote in this area comes from a BBC correspondent in Washington, who, on being asked about some lobby group or other, said:

  • But they are not the ones in power, which is not to say that they are not without influence ... because they are.

I like to think I could see the mounting panic in his eyes as the sentence got ever more out of control.


Metaphors add interest and liveliness to speech and writing, but they may also conjure up unintended images.  It's nearly always dangerous to use a metaphor with another metaphor, or with the word literally.  Some amusing examples:

  • Low-flying aircraft make a terrible impact on villages round here -- lady protesting against Heathrow Terminal 5 on local TV interview.
  • They're saddled with a millstone round their necks -- building society spokesman on TV commenting on the effect of high interest rates on young couples buying their first house.
  • We don't have much butter at all, but what little we do have we're spreading around between our customers -- Sir David Sainsbury, in TV interview during the butter shortage of the 1970s.
  • I think we're going to see four or five hot potatoes coming over the horizon ... -- Conservative MP during the Thatcher era.
  • I was literally floating on air when I got the results -- TV interviewee.

Latin words

General principle: words taken from other languages follow the normal rules for English once assimilated. So I'd make it stadiums in all cases except where you're talking about the original Roman stadia (but there you'd need to set it in italics, because it's a foreign word).

Sometimes the plural word came into English too: one criterion and many criteria, but I don't think one could argue that the word stadia transferred; presumably one is using the plural of the word stadium not a word for many Roman sports arenas? (And arena is worrying, isn't it -- presumably those who want many stadia would also want one arenum?)

There are so many words that came to English from Latin that it would be preposterous to suggest we should treat them according to the rules of Latin rather than English.

Unless one would talk of insurance premia, to say "referenda" is just pretentious. And agenda and data are both singular in English; I could have several agendas and my data is checked, not are checked. As data is a mass noun (like sugar or sand) it normally has no plural.

And I regard those who write "graffito" (Italian, I know, not Latin) with some suspicion; I feel graffiti is like data -- it has no plural and in the singular has to be "an item of data" or "a piece of graffiti".

(In scientific circles, of course, they talk of a single datum and treat data as plural, but I think we can regard that as specialised use.)

Apostrophes with
single letters

If I advise someone to "dot your is", the risk of confusion is great.  If my advice is to "dot your i's" the meaning is clear.  The problem can arise with any word that is used to mean itself: as in "a list of dos and don'ts".  There are, of course, other ways to remove the confusion:

  • Use capitals: I got three As in the test. Can't be used here, you can't "dot an I".
  • Set the special character in italic: remember to dot your is.  In some fonts this can be hard to see, and can't be used if the sentence is already in italics (although then the word could maybe be set in roman: a list of dos and don'ts).
  • Use single quotes: remember to dot your 'i's.  This can look over-fussy.
  • Use an apostrophe: remember to dot your i's.  It may not be as grammatical as the purists would like, but sometimes it's just the simplest way.

It's not just plurals, either.  If you cc a letter for someone to pp in your absence, have you cc'd it so that it can be pp'd?


  • Not email.

We don't write oring, sbend, aframe, tjunction, xray, or hbomb, so why would we write email?


Hyphens seem to be dying out, but they have their uses in joining together words which form one adjective.  A well-thought-out plan is better than a well thought out plan.  A late-night bus is better than a late night bus (which could be a late night-bus).  A well-placed (not well placed) hyphen would have prevented the absurdity of a fine toothcomb; clearly it's a fine-tooth comb which changed to a fine tooth comb and then to a fine tooth-comb and finally a fine toothcomb.

They can sometimes be omitted: I prefer website to web-site or web site, and I don't mourn the passing of to-day.  But be careful; I find noone for no-one almost incomprehensible, and the Bartleby website says it's the "preeminent" Internet publisher of reference books, which I would prefer as pre-eminent; I also prefer co-operate to cooperate, and re-arm to rearm (but reaction to re-action).

However, there is also a danger of over-using hyphens.  Their role is to resolve ambiguity: where there is no ambiguity, they are not needed.  Thus adverbs (especially those ending in -ly) do not need hyphens: a fully laden car could not be a fully laden-car, so to write a fully-laden car is to resolve an ambiguity which does not exist.  More problematic are phrases like unwanted hair remover, which could conceivably be ambiguous but generally, in context, are not, and therefore do not need a hyphen.

It is perfectly acceptable to write compound nouns without hyphens: bicycle shed, luggage rack, blood bank, cricket pitch, filing cabinet, accounts department, none of them need hyphens. I think the danger of a reader thinking that a long cricket pitch is a pitch for playing long cricket is so small that I would not venture a long cricket-pitch.  Is there a really a danger that a green filing cabinet could be a cabinet for green filing, and so we must call it a green filing-cabinet? I think not.

Finally, of course, a hyphen is also unnecessary if there's no noun to separate the compound from: a one-step process is a process consisting of one step, not a process consisting of one-step.

Silly clichés


There are some usages which seem to serve to distinguish "them" from "us". These usages, while undoubtedly incorrect from a grammatical point-of-view, seem to attract much more criticism than many other, equally incorrect, usages. To gain this ability to enrage some groups, it seems necessary for the usage to be confined to one (maybe less-educated) group of the population; people are understandably forgiving of errors they make themselves!

The prime candidate for modern shibboleth is the use of of where have is the standard form. I should of got it, he must of thought it.  This seems no worse than many other grammatical mistakes (for example the confusion between lay and lie mentioned here), but seems to come in for special criticism. Much more, say, than the equally widespread but non-standard pronunciation of thought as "fort", perhaps as "prehaps", girls as "gewse", off as "orf" or house as "hice".


I'd be happy to receive suggestions for further items – you can e-mail from the link on the left.

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