Articles, quizzes, and grammar tips for word-lovers everywhere

Category: English in use

Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

Horse racing

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close […]

Sound and fury: cockney ducks and mimicking politicians

Cow in Glastonbury

Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among […]

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Words are wind – the language of Game of Thrones

Somehow A Song of Ice and Fire, the colossal fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, had escaped my notice until the critically acclaimed TV series hit our screens last year, prompting me to buy the first book in the series. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would spend Christmas continually […]

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Die, my dear Doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do!

Famous last words

‘Famous last words’ in the literal sense means someone’s final remarks before they die, but the phrase is often said as an ironic comment on an overconfident assertion that may later be proved wrong. A classic example of the two senses combined is the case of the Union general John Sedgwick, whose last words immediately […]

Name that cloud

Cirrus clouds

World Meteorology Day marks a highly successful collaboration under the World Meteorological Organization, involving every country, large or small, rich or poor. Weather affects every single person (every living being) on the planet, but why do people feel meteorology is not for them? Why do they even find it so difficult to identify different types […]

Mad Men, the culture of consumerism, and the language of advertising

Madison Avenue

Mad Men, the ’60s-era drama about the men and women working in a New York advertising agency, makes its long-awaited return this weekend after a 17-month long hiatus. Although less obvious than the stellar art direction and costume design in transporting viewers into a specific time, language plays an important role in creating the lived-in […]

Pi Day: or the world of homonyms, homographs, and homophones

Pi Day

Today is Pi Day, a day, presumably, when all things 3.14159 are celebrated. Unless I have made a typo in the first sentence, it should be obvious that you should not be expecting lots of “Who ate all the pies” chants as we honour the humble pastry case with filling. Similarly, the numismatists among you […]

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

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