Tag Archives: grammar

A Finer Point: Passive aggressive

By Riffat Yusuf

Dear Readability,

Regarding your recent suggestion that my blog post might be improved by incorporating more active-voice sentences, your anti-passive bias is noted. Your call to action is uncalled for and, furthermore, I take issue with issue is taken by me with the contention that the pace of your reading is hampered by passive sentences.

PS Plain-English guidelines are exempt from all assertions and absurdities expressed above and below this line.

PPS I’m actively glaring at you, WordPress.

When the internet eventually ditches keywords for ranking purposes (I mean, keep them but don’t make content writers sweat over their optimal placement), can somebody please tweak readability formulas? That anti-verbosity algorithm which says wordiness in a sentence starts at 20 words: it needs sorting. And as for the gizmo screening for long words (two or more syllables), does a word as long as the longest word in this sentence really encumber readability? But where my gripe is majorly piqued is when WordPress sequesters my passive voice.

Voices and verbs

In grammar, ‘voice’ tells us about the relationship between the subject and the verb in a clause. If a subject is doing, carrying out or expressing a verb, the voice of that clause is active (I play football).

When the object of an erstwhile active clause takes on the role of the subject, we say the voice is passive (football is played by me). In a passive clause, we can also remove the preposition (by) and the agent (me).

The passive voice is not a tense; it can happen in the past and the present. The passive may be described as a construction or a clause, but not a verb, as June Casagrande explains in The Joy of Syntax.

There’s no denying that some verbs are less action-oriented than others. But passive and active voice in grammar have nothing to do with kinetics. Instead, voice has to do with the structure of the sentence.

Active and passive are the two official voices of English sentence structure. A third is expleted when Flesch metrics deem that of the sentences I write (in an article about passive sentences) only 10 per cent may be expressed passively. A fourth is muttered when writing experts tell me that in almost every genre, it’s easier to read a sentence where a subject actively verbs an object.

An active voice, it is said, lends itself well to informality, spontaneity, fluidity, immediacy, intimacy and, basically, whatever fusty isn’t. Listen, active voicers, you hog most of the writing space online and, if amplification for your writing style were needed, you have an ally in George Orwell’s oft-echoed one-liner in Politics and the English Language (an essay that fails readability checks with its 20 per cent passive clause saturation). What say we hear it for the passive voice?

Passive resistance

We can identify a passive clause by its form: subject + auxiliary (be or get) + past participle. That said, perhaps this accepted structure needs rethinking. (Geoffrey Pullum, I did that just for you.)

If you’ve read Fear and Loathing of the English Passive, you’ll know that a bare passive (‘that said’) doesn’t take an auxiliary verb, and a concealed passive (‘needs rethinking’) uses a gerund-participle; these phrases don’t align with the conventional structure, do they? So if the form of the passive voice isn’t as rigid as we have been taught, perhaps our understanding of what happens in a passive clause also needs revisiting.

I have read 23 explanations of the role played by each element in a passive clause. All the grammar bloggers concur that a passive subject is the recipient of the action of a verb. Pullum, who has unpacked considerably more of ‘the thousands of mutually plagiarizing bad descriptions of the passive construction’, finds that talking about a verb in terms of receipt and delivery isn’t always accurate. Not all passive subjects receive action in the way we might think.

If I were to say: ‘it is alleged by writers that passive sentences are clunky’, Pullum would point out that there isn’t actually any action being received by the dummy pronoun in my sentence. And again, in a passive construction such as ‘not much is known about …’, can we really say that the determiner (not much) receives the action of the verb?

When rules are excepted

There is a difference between the passive and the past simple: the phrase ‘there is’ isn’t it. No such distinction is made in this BBC style advice.

The active voice will help to give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact. Compare these examples. The first is in the passive; the second active:

There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.

Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

The subject of an active clause doesn’t always make a good agent. The active-to-passive process requires a little more input than switching places. If you want to flip from active voice to passive, watch out for semantic inequivalence in sentences using a negative verb.

Many people don’t speak English.

English is not spoken by many people.

That ‘rule’ about intransitive verbs not forming the passive … To a point, fair enough: ‘Jane laughs’ doesn’t invert well (‘is laughed Jane’). But as soon as she is supplied with a suitable preposition and indirect object, everybody can be laughed at by Jane. However, very few grammar blogs warn that not all transitive verbs can be passivised. They rarely highlight glitchy verbs like ‘concern’ and ‘have’.

The report concerns people I know.

People I know are concerned by the report.

You have a lovely garden.

A lovely garden is had by you.

It’s not you

Readability, I have to come clean. My passive apologia is a temporary affectation; I was beguiled by the silver-tongued deliberations of eminent linguists. Can you blame me for wanting in on Pullum’s ‘transformational generative syntactic discussions’? If you must know, the thing I like most about the passive is the word itself – the etymologically unsound lovechild of pacifist and passionate. Culpa mostly mea for this transgression, but if you’d only met me halfway I might have parsed less (ugh, those phrase markers!) and written better.

What you really need, Readability, is to collaborate with writers. Take the time to ask what the purpose and audience of our work is. Very few of us have anything original to say online – or anywhere. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write, but that you could help us by delving into our motives a bit more and scoring us accordingly. Instead of marking us down with your amber and red bullets, perhaps give the reader a little pop-up: ‘This entire article is premised on a note about the passive form in Middle English that the writer chanced upon in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.’

I think I’m onto something. What if we had dilly-dally software to flag up waffle? Imagine a prompt for word accountability: an onscreen comment or query for every instance where you didn’t write what you said you would in your intro. And let’s also develop a plugin for specious content: your research is commendable, but five non-recoupable hours yield neither space nor soul for ‘inchoative and ergative aspects’ in the body of this text. Let’s see if we can’t hatch a David Crystal-shaped macro for every time anybody writes anything.

Leave it with me for now, Readability. I can really see a future in developing a ream of text-enhancement features that AI fails to deliver. I’m not sure if I should pitch to Dragon’s Den or JSTOR, but I do know that everything will make a lot more sense after it’s been checked, clarified, modified, rephrased, refined and approved by my editor.

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.


Photo credits: pencil on paper by Jan Kahánek; laughter by Hannah Gullixson, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

It’s easy to get confused about reflexive pronouns. Cathy Tingle gets a sense of ‘self’ as she reviews how we refer to ourselves.

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce … myself.’ In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a #NoPainerExplainer tweet, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics):

Use ‘myself’ when you’re the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you’re the object, use ‘me’: ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don’t use ‘myself’ to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this -self or -selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Majesty’ to the Queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself’.

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car …’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if …’ and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If the reader went back and reviewed the context, they would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden, this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a perfectly cromulent word’ (at Conscious Style Guide), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP Advanced Professional Member Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being,’ Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book that depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, is a member of the CIEP’s information team and a tutor for Publishing Scotland. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction copyediting.



This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: two kinds by Michał Parzuchowski; wrong way by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation

By Annie Jackson

Do you go cold when you hear the words ‘dangling participle’? Does the mere mention of a comma splice or a tautology make you anxious? Do you have a faint memory, perhaps from primary school, that people who write ‘proper’ English never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’? Perhaps you’ve been flummoxed by the terms used in the school materials that you’ve had to work with while homeschooling your children (you are not alone: see this article by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen).

Actually, you almost certainly know much more about grammar and punctuation than you realise. The ‘rules’ are often no more than old-fashioned preferences or prejudice, and may not be relevant anyway. It all depends on the text: a novel for young adults, an information leaflet for patients at a doctor’s surgery, or an annual report for a major company – each requires a very different approach. The tone in which the document is written, and the intended readership, will dictate how strictly grammar and punctuation rules should be applied.

If you work with words, in any capacity, and you feel that your knowledge could do with a brush-up, then the new online course from CIEP, Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation, could be just what you need.

Why both grammar and punctuation?

Let’s see how the Collins Dictionary defines grammar: ‘the ways that words can be put together in order to make sentences’. It defines punctuation as ‘the use of symbols such as full stops or periods, commas, or question marks to divide written words into sentences and clauses’.

This explains why these two subjects have to go hand in hand. Grammar is about putting words together; punctuation helps the reader to make sense of those words in the order in which they have been presented. Used well, the grammar and punctuation chosen should be almost imperceptible, so that nothing comes between the reader and the text. If they are used poorly, the reader will be confused, may have to go back over sentences as they puzzle out the meaning, and may eventually stop reading as it’s just too hard to figure out.

For the want of a comma …

Take this well-known example. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ is a friendly invitation for Granny to join the family meal. If you remove that tiny comma, the poor woman is at the mercy of her cannibal grandchildren.

More seriously, a misplaced comma can have huge legal and financial implications (see ‘The comma that cost a million dollars’ from the New York Times).

Poor grammar can have unintentional comic effects (dangling participles are particularly good for this, as you can see here). It could even affect your love life (see this Guardian article ‘Dating disasters: Why bad grammar could stop you finding love online’).

So it’s worth knowing the rules you must follow, and those that can sometimes be ignored.

Why this course?

Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation is for anyone who works with words. It aims to:

  • clarify the basic rules of English grammar
  • clarify the rules of English punctuation
  • discuss some finer points of usage and misusage
  • explain the contexts in which rules should or need not be applied.

This course alternates units on grammar and punctuation, with two basic units followed by two that go into more detail. Each unit has several sets of short, light-hearted exercises on which you can test yourself to see how well you have taken in the information. The penultimate unit discusses finer points of usage, and finally, there are three longer exercises on which to practise everything you’ve learned from the course. There is no final assessment for the course, but every student is assigned a tutor and is encouraged to ask for their help if any questions arise as they work through it.

There is an extensive glossary of grammatical terms as well as a list of resources, in print and online, for further study. This includes a number of entertaining and opinionated books on grammar which will prove, if nothing else, that even the pundits don’t always agree.

By the end of this course, you should have a clear idea of some of the finer points (and many of the pitfalls) of English grammar and punctuation. You should have developed some sensitivity to potential errors, acquired greater confidence, and learned strategies to make any written work you deal with clearer, more effective, more appropriate and even, perhaps, more elegant. And we hope that you will have found it interesting and entertaining at the same time.

Annie Jackson has been an editor for longer than she cares to admit. She tutors several CIEP courses and was one of the team who wrote the new grammar course. Despite many years wrestling with authors’ language, and before that a classics degree, she realises there’s always something new to learn about grammar.

With thanks to the other members of the course team who contributed to this post.

Photo credits: books by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.


That which we call a relative clause

Riffat Yusuf is an editor that or who (or possibly which) advocates for what to head ALL relative clauses.

Editing would be simpler if we replaced which, that and who/m with what. No more asking why it was the boy who and not that cried wolf. No more whiching and thating Jack’s house. No more consulting BBC Bitesize Fowlers for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. For people what need precedents, I refer you to hwæt, used extensively as a relative pronoun in the 13th century. I refer you also to more recent usage (albeit the aspirated interrogative form, inconveniently not functioning as a relative pronoun, but go with it), viz. Meg Mortimer from Crossroads: ‘Hwhat are you doing, Sandy?’

To be clear, I’m not grammar averse; I’m grammar resentful. Why was I never taught that there were words to describe other words? Pupils at my school had to study French or German to relearn English. Even then, we made do with barely-there word classes – ‘je’, ‘tu’, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ were the ‘things’ before ‘doing words’. Still, over time I upskilled enough to teach English grammar and sentence structure to other adults, so you’d think I’d be familiar with relative pronouns. And with Hart’s at hand, I surely would have plugged any restrictive and non-restrictive clause-shaped holes. You’d think.

Relative newcomer

My true, actual, concerted, write-it-down learning started when I joined a grammar practice group that SfEP Professional Member Liz Zachary very kindly set up on the online discussion platform Slack. The sentence we were looking at was almost prescient: ‘What was a mystery twenty years ago now seems entirely straightforward.’ (If only!) Fellow Slackers commented on the use of that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive clauses – parenthetical clauses, if you will. Whaaat????

I find the word ‘restrictive’ misleading. In the sentence ‘The house that Jack built is in a desirable neighbourhood’, the restrictive relative clause is ‘that Jack built’. What is being restricted here? Clearly, ‘that Jack built’ refers to the house, the antecedent; how is that restrictive, though? Calling it a defining relative clause is less perplexing because – at the risk of invoking the scorn of grammarians and children in Year 6 – I suppose it defines Jack, not Jill, as the builder.

Pause that clause

The reason why the restrictive relative clause is thus named is not to be found in the 1611 King James Bible. Pausing for digression, however, we observe the use of which where a noun is the antecedent (‘Our Father which art in Heaven’), and that where the antecedent is a pronoun (‘Blessed are they that mourn’). Aesop’s protagonist in the 17th century would have been the boy which cried wolf.

Moving along, we pay homage to Sheila Graves Geoghegan. Who was this scholar who in 1975 wrote, nay, hand-typed, authoritatively on the usage of relative clauses in Old, Middle and New English? Let’s not stalk her further lest we bump into an obituary, but, Ohio State University, what more does an erudite philologist need to do to be ranked among your notable alumni?

That which is restrictive

Would this be a good time to point out that British English restrictive clauses aren’t restricted to a single head? Whatever is built by Jack can take that or which as its relative pronoun. Or neither. To confound further, Jack can be the man who or that built the house. Either, not neither.

This would not be a good time to dwell upon whom, with its verb-or-preposition-as-object chicanery. The ‘he/she/his/her’ adjudicators for who or whom – straightforward enough for all but this petitioner – likely have their origins in the Pendle witch trials.

Why restrictive, then? For this, we consult Grammarly. To start with, if calling a restrictive clause a definitive clause doesn’t make things clearer, then we can call it an essential clause instead because the information it provides is, um, essential. So, ‘that Jack built’ is an essential part of the sentence that would otherwise read ‘The house is in a desirable neighbourhood.’

If, however, almost everybody except for Cambridge University insists on calling restrictive relative clauses just that, then Jack needs to up sticks for Grammarly’s more sound construction: ‘Children who eat vegetables are likely to be healthy.’ The relative clause-free sentence is ‘Children are likely to be healthy.’ Here, even I can see how the relative clause ‘who eat vegetables’ puts restrictions on the antecedent noun: it’s not children who exercise, or who are happy or who engage in any other health-giving pursuit that are being referred to.

And so to trample on non-restrictive relative clauses. This much I have learned: you can recognise a non-restrictive clause in British English because it always takes which as its relative pronoun. It must be offset by a pair of commas; in a sentence, a non-restrictive clause looks like this: ‘The house, which Jack built, is in a desirable neighbourhood.’ And if you swap the commas for brackets – ‘(which Jack built)’ – it’s easier to discern the clause’s aside-like, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-defining function.

I haven’t unearthed the grammar shortcuts or mnemonics I’d hoped to when I set out to learn more (anything) about relative pronouns and relative clauses. But if syntax acquisition is not beyond the ken of seven-year-olds, then there’s hope for late bloomers like me. Such as I? Here we go again …

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: houses by Lee Jeffs; tomatoes by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commas: the chameleon conundrum

Commas can be very useful little additions in our punctuation arsenal but they can also be intensely irritating. Luke Finley discusses using commas with conjunctions and independent clauses – an insertion that can raise questions and even arguments.

When I looked at commas in the July/August and September/October 2017 issues of Editing Matters, I warned that I was covering only a few of the uses of this chameleon of the punctuation world. Another that has come up on the member forums since then is their use when joining two independent clauses.

My thanks go to Shuna Meade for raising the question on the forum, and to the respondents on the thread for helping to clarify the point (and providing the chameleon metaphor!).

What’s the issue?

Some of us were taught (and some of us have ten-year-olds who are still being taught) never to use a comma before and or but when joining two independent clauses. In reality, there’s clearly no such rule.

I am a copy-editor and I work from home

I am a copy-editor, but I used to work for the council

You could insert a comma in the first example or delete the one in the second without making either of these sentences wrong. But if that’s true, why use a comma in one case and not the other? The choice of conjunction is different, clearly, but is that the decisive factor? Not necessarily; these sentences are also acceptable:

I am a copy-editor, and I have a ten-year-old son

Nick has a son too but he’s already a teenager

In the absence of a strict grammatical rule, then, how do we decide?

Close connection

The strength of the connection between the two clauses is probably the most useful consideration. In my first example I chose not to use a comma because the two clauses seemed inextricably linked: the fact that I work at home tells you something relevant about the kind of copy-editor I am.

In the second example there is a shift of focus between past and present: the comma marks this more distant connection.

In the third example, omitting the comma might misleadingly imply a connection (some illegal, nepotistic subcontracting arrangement?) between two clauses that aren’t very closely related.

The fourth is maybe the most ambiguous case: I felt that the shift here was between the previous sentence and this one, not within the sentence, so I didn’t need a comma. But this is a style choice and you’d be free to approach it differently.

However, it’s worth noting that, by definition, but is generally more likely to introduce a contrast or a change of emphasis than and, so the comma is more likely to be appropriate.

Consider also whether there’s a second subject in the second clause: if so, the relationship between the two clauses is likely to be less close – although this is certainly not always the case.

Removing ambiguity

The comma before a conjunction can help to prevent misreading:

Aristotle was an early empiricist and no great thinker …

Quite a bold claim! But the sentence continues:

… who followed could be taken seriously without having engaged with his works.

Serious misunderstanding may be unlikely here, but a comma before the conjunction would prevent an unintended jarring or comical effect that might bring the reader up short.


Commas are sometimes described as marking natural pauses in a sentence. Steven Pinker (The Sense of Style, Penguin, 2014) points out that this was once their main function, citing Jane Austen’s famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice – its two commas would now both be regarded as incorrect. Dickens also peppers his long sentences with commas: some of them now seem unnecessary or wrong, but if you ever have to read his work aloud, you might be grateful for them.

The description of commas as marking a pause isn’t always helpful – it’s fairly subjective, and it doesn’t apply equally to all comma uses. It might be worth bearing in mind in relation to the usage discussed here, though: where there’s a shift of focus as already discussed, a pause is also more likely.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.



This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: Chameleon by Cécile Brasseur; Pride and Prejudice by Elaine Howlin, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Gerunds: it’s all to do with behaviour

Gerunds can be tricky beasts. But Luke Finley has got the measure of them, and guides us through some of their uses.

The gerund is a verb in its -ing form that is functioning like or as a noun. Distinguishing between the gerund and the present participle – also the verb in its -ing form – is not always easy, but generally it can be regarded as a gerund if it’s behaving more like a noun, and as a present participle if it’s behaving more like an adjective. Recognising the ambiguities of this in practice, modern grammars tend not to categorise them separately: Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar talks about the ‘gerund-participle’.

Clear-cut uses

In some positions, it’s quite clear that the -ing form is functioning as a gerund. For example, where it’s used as the subject or object (or part of it):

Writing a sample sentence will clarify this

I’m trying to communicate this in writing

Sometimes a modifying adjective will make the noun function of the gerund clearer:

Poor-quality writing won’t help

The explanation won’t be clear if the writing is of poor quality

In other situations the gerund may be harder to identify:

My deftly explaining this aspect of grammar will help many thousands of people

The -ing word here is modified by an adverb: definitely verb-like rather than noun-like behaviour. But it’s still part of the noun phrase, so it’s a gerund.

Another common use of gerunds is in forming compound nouns:

In my free time I enjoy water-skiing, base-jumping and free-ironing*

*Some artistic licence has been employed in this sentence.

This process seems especially popular in the world of corporate jargon: brainstorming, streamlining, upscaling, and so on.

Because of the gerund’s dual properties of noun and verb, new verbs are often then back-formed from these compound nouns; to crowdsource might be the kind of neologism some people love to hate, but it’s a good demonstration of the elasticity of language.

Trickier uses

One trickier aspect of usage is deciding between the gerund and the to-infinitive to follow a verb. Sometimes only one or the other is possible. In other cases either is possible but the meaning may be subtly different. This can often trip up English learners, even those who are quite fluent. No doubt this is because there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: it depends on what the preceding verb is. If you speak English as a first language you tend to pick the right one by instinct, without even being aware that you’re making a decision; learners of English have to try to memorise lists of what goes with what. In the following examples only the gerund works:

I enjoy running by the sea

I can’t imagine swimming in it

With different verbs – even though the meanings are not that distant from the first versions – the gerund would not work and only the infinitival form will do:

I want to run by the sea

I don’t need to swim in it

The verb like can work either way, but with slight nuances of meaning. With the gerund, the enjoyment of the activity itself is emphasised. With the to-infinitive, there is greater emphasis on the regularity or repeated nature of it:

I like running on Sundays, but sometimes I have to do the ironing instead

I like to run on Sundays, but I only like to swim in the summer

This choice between the gerund and the infinitival form doesn’t occur only after verbs. And in some cases it’s a difficult call. You might see a formulation like the following sentence in a relatively formal text:

We conducted this survey with the aim to understand gender variations in …

Is this wrong? It sounds stilted, but it’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. In a proofread you might judge it just about acceptable and leave it, but in a copy-edit I think you’d be likely to change it to the more natural-sounding gerund: the aim of understanding.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.



This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: Water-skiing by Tobia Sola, Running by the sea by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Zombies Rule Grammar. OK? Alright?

By Riffat Yusuf

Part 1 of The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity – a trilogy no less spellbinding for having been authored anonymously – explores the short-lived collaboration between the protagonist, an aspiring writer, and their editor. The novel’s self-published author, who remains unidentified since taking their first Zoom call with CIEP in a Boris mask (or was it?), granted permission for us to reproduce excerpts of an early, edited draft.

Chapter 2

And then, after the deathly knock at my front door – tintinnabulum operatus est, as the plaque very clearly states, but bear with since this is a macabre Halloween tale – arose a mewl. An eerie whine, all the more unsettling for the inclusion of an adult voice, ‘Trick or treat?’

AQ1 Please don’t use and or any other coordinating conjunction at the start of a sentence. Since is a time adverb; use because instead.

There they stood, a pillowcase, net curtain and dustbin liner arrayed between them: a ghoul, a ghost and their undead parent.

AQ2 There are three characters here, among rather than between.

‘I’d like a treat, please,’ said I – for quipping is my plume de forte – ‘and then you’re welcome to move on.’

‘None of us,’ said the muffled voice of Number 54’s youngest resident, adjusting his plastic mask, ‘are going nowhere.’

AQ3 Double negative for authenticity is fine, but none is followed by is.

‘None of us,’ insisted the mask, ‘ain’t going nowhere until you pass a message on.’

AQ4 A preposition such as on at the end of a sentence is not a usage up with which English grammar should put.

‘On,’ entombed the voice, ‘to your copyeditor. Tell them to not impose rules predicated on the say-so of dead people who tried, over centuries past, to squish English grammar into a Latin-shaped syntax.’

AQ5. Abrupt character development here – see Chapter 1: ‘the gormless snivel, progeny of the Drydens next door’. Also: entombed or intoned?

I was beginning to wonder if sweet little Johnnie wasn’t, in fact, a descendant of England’s very first Poet Laureate. He, whose mission to save English grammar from decimation, has stood firm for over 300 years.

AQ6 What a spooky coincidence: I am a huge fan! To channel the spirit of John Dryden, use decimation if you mean reduce by one-tenth. Also, don’t use over with quantities; more than is correct here.

Hopefully, the sudden chill that was creeping vampirically through my veins was little more than the want of a cardigan.

AQ7 Only use hopefully as a sentence adverb if you wish to say that the chill was operating in a hopeful manner.

There was something untoward at hand.

To say the least.

A pus-oozing, gnarled hand.

A prop. Courtesy of Johnnie’s mum – she often lends a hand (!) at school plays.

Thrusting a bucket towards me.

A bucket bearing the label ‘read me’.

AQ8 Regarding sentence fragments: you haven’t replied to my email from last week, so I cannot rule out that ‘The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity’ isn’t earmarked for academic submission. I would, therefore, ask you to redraft to include any missing subjects or verbs.

Therein, among the five-pence pieces and donations of Poundland confectionery – too many spendthrifts and nary a dentist living on this street – I found a book. A 64-page booklet, to be more precise, entitled Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

Chapter 3

[Our narrator has finished reading John E McIntyre’s delightful take on prissy pedantry.]

I chuckled at ‘peevers gotta peeve’, intending to fully pass off McIntyre’s observation as my own in my next communiqué with my editor. Suddenly, I shuddered a morbid shiver of dreaded realisation. No, it wasn’t the guilty swell of imminent plagiarism. Was it …? Could it …? Surely not.

Surely my editor wasn’t one of those unquestioning souls cursed to forever observe what Arnold Zwicky called zombie rules?

I read over all the amendments my editor had suggested. And then it hit me like a Bloomsbury rejection letter: not a single one of the rules my editor had prescribed was a cast-iron canon of copyediting.

AQ9 In my defence, Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ says that split infinitives are …

I spurned my editor’s advice and googled like a banshee for editorial guidance that would drive a garlic-laced spike into the style and grammar cobweb enmeshing me. Where were the editors ready to pour distilled daylight on the corpus of zombie rules?

AQ10: Hyperbole?

A minute later, I found James Gallagher, a slayer of ‘rules that refuse to die’. His three reasons for our reluctance to let go of groundless grammar are unnerving. He says, ‘People’s use of grammar is also tied up in their self-perception and it’s used to broadcast their level of education. It’s also used as a barricade to prevent others from accessing their realm.’

I reflected on my own language snobbery and insecurities, searching for an editor who might release me from ‘an unnecessary and awkward straitjacket’. Why, Erin Brenner, of course! The clarity she dispatches in her adroitly reasoned blog posts would disperse all lingering zombie doubts. From hopefully to however and from since to split infinitives, Erin exposes the conflations of grammar and style that allow zombie rules to take root in the first place. But way less wordily than anything I have written. (And a CIEP fact sheet on zombie rules is now available too…)

Chapter 63

I leave you, dear reader, with a penny of wisdom gleaned from my cautionary tale. Half is for the apostrophe I very confidently leave out of Halloween. And the remaining ha’penny is for people like you (yes 100% like, not such as: thank you, McIntyre p18) without whose patience and solicited nomination for the Booker Prize, The Zombie That Ruled Grammar for Infinite Eternity might never have been written. Perish the thought.


Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.


Photo credits: Beware of Zombies by Chris Hall; Hands by Daniel Jensen; Person behind fog glass by Stefano Pollio, all on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

CPD: staying motivated

By Hilary McGrath

Have you ever tried to study but found it hard to stay focused? Am I alone in formulating a great plan, then abandoning my learning when the initial enthusiasm has waned? Continuing Professional Development is important but staying motivated can be hard.

Building on the study of language has always been particularly important for me as a translator and proofreader. Being able to write well and to correct errors was not enough though – I wanted to be able to properly name the troublesome parts of the texts I was working on. A dangling modifier? An attributive adjective? A predicative phrase? I needed to study the function and structure of English grammar, so I considered my options.

Take a course

I considered taking an in-house course. Having a fixed date and a valid reason to take some time off work is an advantage. But the need to travel and pay for accommodation makes this an expensive choice.

Another option was an online course – an efficient way to learn, especially for those who live far from big cities. Distance learning usually means there are start and end dates, deadlines and a certificate to show you have put in the work. The CIEP offers a Brush Up Your Grammar course, for example.

But I had to take cost into account. Unfortunately, I’d already dipped into my CPD budget, having recently attended a one-day workshop and completed an online course. How about self-study, then?

Buy a book

Buying a book and working through it slowly but surely was the next obvious thing to do. But, before I could even choose a book to buy, I knew my main problem would be staying motivated. How could I be sure I would stick with my learning plan?

Find a buddy (or several)

I made the fortunate discovery, through the CIEP forums, that other editors and proofreaders had the same idea as me. Together we selected a book – Grammar: A student’s guide by James R Hurford. Then, Slack was suggested as a communication tool for collaborative study. It was free, easy to join and very intuitive to use. It would become our virtual classroom.

Set some SMART goals

  • Specific – we chose a textbook that had exercises at the end of every section and answers to check at the end of the book.
  • Measurable – we studied the agreed section during the week, completed the exercises, checked the answers and discussed any difficulties or revelations once a week.
  • Attainable – the chosen textbook started with the basics but provided fuel for further discussion.
  • Relevant – as professionals working with language, building on our knowledge of English grammar was useful and important.
  • Time-bound – we would work through the book, literally from A to Z, on a weekly basis over a few months.

How did it work out?

As motivation was my key concern prior to starting, I was pleased that I was always able to find the time to join the weekly meetings. If I had been working on my own, I might have been less diligent. The whole exercise gave me a solid foundation in grammar and the desire to continue building on this in the future.

An unexpected outcome

This was a great way to get to know colleagues better. The group was small enough so that we could chat comfortably, but large enough to keep moving forward if one person couldn’t attend. There were so many advantages to working together like this – the most unexpected one was that the learning experience was so enjoyable.

Working alone but together

I found that this kind of learning suits me. I could work at my own pace during the week but use the regular meetings to keep on track. It was nice to know that I was not alone when I found something particularly hard to understand. And Slack was ideal for our purposes, giving us a dedicated space to work together.

What’s next?

For me, a combination of taught courses and self-study is perfect. But self-study is easier if you can find people with similar goals, whether in your personal life or through your professional networks. Then all you need is a book and a plan. Would I do this again? Absolutely! Anyone interested in joining me?

Hilary McGrath is a freelance proofreader and translator (French–English) living in the southwest of France. Find her on Twitter @hilary_mcgrath.



Photo credit: opened book by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Punctuating quotes: UK and US differences

Outside or inside, before or after? Punctuating quotes can be a bit of a minefield, as Luke Finley points out.Us-UK English

A quick search on the SfEP forums reveals that punctuating quotes is an area that trips many of us up – and not just those with less experience. This isn’t a surprise, because there’s extensive variation in the conventions. In this column I focus on quotes in non-fiction texts: conventions for reported speech in fiction are arguably even more subjective.

Academic/formal writing

In academic writing and other materials that cite in a strict academic style (policy papers and the like), the conventions are fairly fixed.

UK/US variation

In US English, closing punctuation goes inside the quote marks, whether the quote is a complete sentence or not, and whether the punctuation was there in the original quoted material or not:

Svolik identifies the “twin problems of dictatorship,” going on to explore how different institutions address these problems.

In UK English, in the same example the comma would follow the closing quote mark (which would more usually be a single quote mark – but that’s another story). However, UK English does put the closing punctuation inside the quote marks if the quote is, or ends with, a complete sentence:

Balkin says that ‘almost all political activity may be constitutional. Often we may only know what counts later on, when practice and precedents become settled.’

Punctuating with citations

Where a parenthetical citation (eg in author–date style) appears immediately after the quote, the punctuation follows it, in UK or US style:

‘… precedents become settled’ (Balkin, 2011).

Displayed quotes

In displayed quotes there are typically no quote marks to interfere with the closing punctuation. In this case, if there is a citation it follows the closing punctuation:

… precedents become settled. (Balkin, 2011)

Other non-fiction texts

Separating quotes from text

Where quoted material is part of a longer sentence, it’s often separated from the text using commas:

He said, ‘show me where the comma should be’.

In more formal writing, or where the quoted material is longer, a colon might take the place of the comma. Or it might be omitted altogether for very short quotes or where the quote is integrated into the syntax of the sentence:

About commas, he said simply ‘Hate them!’

He said that he was kept awake at night worrying about ‘the horrors of punctuation’.

Punctuation inside or out?

The UK approach is generally to be guided by whether or not the punctuation ‘belongs’ to the quoted matter. ‘Belongs’ is often interpreted (eg The Economist Style Guide goo.gl/w52udb) to mean a natural pause regardless of how the original quote was punctuated.

‘This sentence’, she said, ‘has a full stop but no commas.’

‘On the other hand,’ she continued, ‘this sentence has both.’

The US approach – which is common in British fiction and increasingly in journalistic writing – is to punctuate inside the quote marks regardless of whether the sense of the quoted matter requires it.

Use your own good judgement

As is clear from my qualified statements, these are conventions, not hard-and-fast rules. Sources such as Butcher’s Copy-editing and New Hart’s Rules are good for the range of approaches but don’t necessarily tell you which to use in a particular case. Others, such as Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation, offer their own preferred approach – which may be clear and persuasively argued, but doesn’t necessarily preclude a different approach.

In the end, it comes down to your client’s preference, the need for consistency and your own judgement. For example, Trask argues for minimal punctuation – why use additional marks to signal that a quote is coming up when the quote marks already do that job? This notion is attractively straightforward but, as an editor or especially as a proofreader, you won’t always be in a position to impose such an approach.


Luke FinleyLuke Finley, an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and left the public sector soon after, to edit and proofread full time. He will edit just about anything but specialises in social policy.



This article first appeared in the SfEP magazine, Editing Matters, in November 2016.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Picture credit: raphink, on Pixabay.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

‘Pedantry is not a good look’: the radical message of English Grammar Day

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

So, when I told another SfEP member that I was going to English Grammar Day at the British Library, he was like, ‘I hope it doesn’t just involve complaining about Americanisms and overworked shop assistants writing “Out off order” signs’. Well, I was kind of expecting it would be just that – but, you know, it actually turned out to be kind of a subversive celebration of language change. And, yes, it also acknowledged the numerous linguistic tics I’ve already used in this opening paragraph. I suspect that prescriptively inclined delegates went home despairing of the deteriorating state of the English language. But, if they did, they weren’t paying attention.

Editors tend to be descriptive, not prescriptive, in their approach

For me, the day raised the issue of how we, as editors, can balance the prescriptive and descriptive elements of language use. It’s all very well for academics to shrug their shoulders and agree that things change, but where do we stand when our job is to ensure that text in the public domain is correct?

Or is that our job? Perhaps we should regard our work more as facilitating communication. Most modern editors would probably agree that it is. SfEP members formed a good proportion of the audience and I didn’t hear any of them grinding their teeth (except when it was suggested that nobody would miss the possessive apostrophe). In fact, most of us nodded at Rob Drummond’s graph indicating that pedantry decreases as language knowledge increases.

When people criticise the language of others, it’s almost always about more than language

Take Zwicky’s bias warnings, quoted by David Denison:

  • The recency illusion – a belief that things you notice recently are recent.
  • The frequency illusion – once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere but that doesn’t mean it happens all the time.

We all have our tics and bugbears. I hate constructions like ‘We were sat on the bench’ and ‘Come with’ (it’s ‘come with ME’, dammit!) and would correct these in written text without a second thought. On the other hand, I am aware that all my conversations are peppered with the oft-despised ‘like’. As Rob Drummond said in his talk, ‘standard’ English is an arbitrary accident of history, reflecting the balance of power and personal choices that may, or may not, have gained wider traction. The speech of those who decry ‘like’ or the exclamatory ‘so’ almost certainly features other discourse markers that nobody seems to mind – ‘kind of’, ‘well’, ‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘actually’. Your ‘overuse’ of linguistic tics may be someone else’s normal. They’re not necessarily devoid of meaning, either – it was pointed out that certain academics’ use of ‘as it were’ could imply that the speaker feels that ordinary words are not adequate to express the brilliance of their insight!

There is evidently a difference between what people say and what people think they said, and, frankly white, middle-aged, middle-class men – those with the power – receive less linguistic criticism than other groups in society. Everyone has preferences but when these become judgements and prejudices, these preferences are problematic. The use of ‘he’ as a singular generic pronoun has, thankfully, fallen out of favour but the lack of an alternative term raises new issues. Charlotte Brewer analysed actor James Woods’ recent tweet complaining about the singular ‘they’, taken by many to be transphobic. Dictionaries tend to avoid the matter, as well as failing to reflect new definitions of other gendered words – ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, for example. Do dictionaries record or sanction use – or neither? A woman may have a wife, whether or not the dictionary says it’s possible.

Non-standard may become standard but, even if it doesn’t, non-standard does not mean sub-standard. In fact, it often does a better job of communicating than standard forms. A good example is the sophistication and eloquence of much grime music and rap. Check out The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company for more evidence.

To misquote Taylor Swift: ‘Hey, kids! Grammar is fun!’

Grammar is often taught in primary schools by those who are not confident in describing the technical details. To be honest, many editors make a good living without knowing what a modal verb is, or caring about the difference between ‘which is better?’ and ‘which is best?’. Does it matter? Probably not, if the aim is to pass Key Stage SATs or to make a passage of text easier to understand. But English Grammar Day showed that grammar is about much more than whether fronted adverbials improve a piece of prose.

Editors normally work with the written word. Most users of English differentiate between writing and speaking modes, but younger people often blend the two. Electronic forms of communication (texting, for example) may reflect spoken language written down, but we don’t yet have the terminology to grammatically assess it.

There is always an element of choice in how we use language. Non-standard grammar can both reflect, and play a role in, the performance and expression of our identities. Code-switching is not a problem for most speakers if they first recognise the need and then choose to do so. Contrary to rumour, there is apparently no evidence that GCSE and A-Level examiners have come across text-speak – clearly, young people know how to meet the standards appropriate to the situation. The theme of our 2017 SfEP conference was ‘context is key’ – nobody is saying that students shouldn’t use standard grammar in formal essays, but they don’t need to use it in everyday writing and speech, as long as their audience understands them.

Which brings us back to how editors could address these issues. There’s one short answer. Rob Drummond added a coda to his graph that, ‘You can become a pedantic anti-pedant and that’s unattractive as well.’ Our job, as those with the language knowledge, is to educate pedants. And, sometimes, our job is to recognise that we are those same pedants.

With thanks to the day’s speakers, who provided the springboard for my thoughts in this blog post and to whom I apologise for any inadvertent plagiarism: Charlotte Brewer, Jon Hutchinson, David Denison, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Barbara Bleiman, Rob Drummond and John Mullan.

And with apologies to my proofreader for the first few sentences.

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. Check out her micro book reviews on Ju’s Reviews. Don’t ask her to explain what a modal verb is.


You can brush up your grammar with the SfEP’s online course.

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.