No comma sense: Three common uses for this little grammar tool

Eats, shoots, leavesI once punned in a headline “No comma sense”.

This referred to a number quoted by a government department which did not know where to put the comma between noughts so it had created an astronomical number, millions more than what was accurate.

With numbers commas and their placing are critical. With words, commas are the most helpful grammar tool, to help make sense of a sentence. Continue reading "No comma sense: Three common uses for this little grammar tool"

How important is email accuracy?

Street poster
Read all about it


Is email an art or science? If we consider science as accurately written text and art as anything slapped down on the page, then I would be persuaded to think that email leans towards the latter.

I had a very hard learning experience working at a daily newspaper. With the prestigious title of deputy chief sub editor, deemed the most suitable candidate ‘by far’ at the time of the appointment, a misspelt email almost caused by undoing.

I wrote an email for the text for the street posters for distribution that night. Suffice to say the email had a couple of mistakes. The layout guy was none the wiser and put the text on the page exactly as it was briefed. That I was there to check the posters after they were printed for signing off, and well in time to correct the error, was not enough to absolve my careless ways.

Subsequently the editor called me in to admonish my sloppy email and cautioned ‘never again’.

Since then I have made a concerted effort to pay attention to how I write my emails. You would think that those working in media and publishing where words are the business would be the most pedantic. You would be wrong. This is where I have seen the most errors.

An editorial director once responded: “We aren’t taking pitches till Apil.” To a birthday message a new media CEO replied, “Thanks for the wises.”

Another publisher I work with writes shocking emails and it leaves me wondering why email in the written form is such a poorly regarded science.

Some emails are so minimalist that they contain no salutation and try to communicate the whole message in the subject line. These I really resent.

Is there an email code? For friends and family just slap it down – content is all that matters, but for business and potential clients, grammar and punctuation are important too, very important.

I don’t have the answer and I don’t claim to be word- and grammar-perfect in every exchange, but I do know that a shoddily written email does not go down well with the recipient and may, as in my case, have devastating repercussions.

Your feedback is welcome.

English idioms: how they get distorted


The other day, a friend asked, “How do you spell towing the line as in the sense of complying? Is it toing or towing?

This is just one of many examples of how idioms become distorted over time.

The correct spelling, to answer my friend, is toeing.

The original idiom stems from a literal situation. Athletes were required to stand behind the starting line, literally with their feet (toes) properly behind the line, so that no athlete would have an advantage over the other. Others say, it refers to barefoot sailors standing to attention. Either way, a toe is definitely involved.

It always helps to understand the origins of the metaphor to be able to spell it correctly.

Here are some other idiomatic phrases that have been confused over time and often incorrectly used.

Do you give someone free rein or free reign. The latter usually refers to person of royalty ie king or queen who would reign over their people. It’s horses, however, that wear reins.

You often hear the phrase rein in. This means to tame or pull back, so if you want to say free rein, which means the opposite, think of horses.

Do you say chomping at the bit, or champing at the bit? The temptation to say chomping is great as it seems to make sense. For the origin, It’s down to horses again, the meaning literally to chew on a metal mouthpiece, translates to impatience or eagerness.

It’s widely held that “chomp” is a variant of the older “champ.” They both mean noisily chewing on something, but “champ” is the term that has long been associated with this idiom, in the tradition of English history.


Please leave your comments below.

Basic English: Four of the most common mistakes

In my job as a sub editor I come across so many basic errors in grammar and the use of unnecessary words.

These are exhibited by junior writers with no more than six months of cub training to senior writers and even contributors who are academics in their respective fields.

These are just a few of the most common.


1.The councillor wants a sponsor so that she can be able to educate her team.

Can: the verb ‘can’ is mainly used to mean ‘be able to’ as in the sentence can he move? = is he physically able to move?” so says the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thus in the above sentence ‘can’ must be used on its own or use be able on its own, but the ‘be’ would change to ‘is’ (is able)


2.John is at the bar, meanwhile at the same time, his girlfriend is outside flirting with his cousin.

Meanwhile: (adverb) in the period of time between two events. 2. At the same time. (Oxford)

Thus in the sentence above, ‘at the same time’, is just a waste of words. The meaning of ‘meanwhile’ is unnecessarily duplicated.


3.Following after the storm, there was hail damage to many cars parked in the street.

Following; a preposition, coming after or as a result of. (Oxford)

Following the storm … is the correct way to write the sentence. Adding ‘after’ makes the grammar clumsy, to say the least.


4.The campus will be close for a period of one month.

Period: noun a length or portion of time

In the above sentence the specific period is already qualified and defined, that is, a month.

It is well understood that a month comprises on average 30 days, thus there is no further need to qualify it with the words period of.

Please take note  - a month, a year, a week, a day, an hour a minute, a second.


Never say, ‘for a period of one year’.

She ran every day for a year.


Please pay attention to these basic phrases and make sure your writing remains crisp.


Five word pairs to increase your word power

Today I’d like to share these word pairs that always confuse new writers. Not to sound arrogant there are plenty words in the English language that I need to check on for correct usage, despite considering myself an English language professional.

I have selected these five word pairs so that you can easily increase your word power.

Appraise  is to assess or estimate the worth of: to appraise an item of jewelery.

Apprise is to inform or notify: the officer apprised us of our right

As may be used as a conjunction that introduces dependent clauses: George talks as his father does. Informally, it may also be used as a preposition in comparative constructions like: Jean-Claude is as forgetful as me (or as I am).

Like is a preposition is followed by a noun or pronoun: Jane looks like her mother. It may also be used as an adjective meaning "similar": Terry and I have like minds.

Canvas is cloth or fabric: a canvas bag to bring to the beach, or an artist’s canvas.

Canvass means "to conduct a survey or examine thoroughly", or "to seek votes": She canvassed all potential voters before writing a summary.

Site is a noun meaning "a place": At which site will we stage the party?

Sight is a noun meaning "view": The sight of the New York City skyline is spectacular, or The sight of starving children in Rwanda is devastating.

Africa's future leaders
Africa's future leaders

Amused is when something is entertaining: The children were amused by watching the kittens play.

Bemused means "bewildered" or "lost in thought": George was bemused by the unexpected ending to the movie.

Writing this, I have learnt something, I hope you have too.


A deadly blutterance: How words are formed


Blasted, blithering and blooming. All lovely descriptive words with a possible to probable note of irritation in how they are expressed, depending on context of course.

These words remind me that the art of conversation could be in jeopardy what with SMS, Twitter and Google-speak.

As the age of digitisation overwhelms us tweeny and teeny boppers, young adults and even baby boomers are forced into a language compromise.

Generations are crippling language, literally cutting off its limbs to express themselves in words of three or four letters. Fingers become adept at superfast touch typing and there’s no time for long words (although predictive text does help, except when in haste you accept the wrong word, looking like it was the right word) and a quick burst of text is communicated.

In previous blogs I’ve written about how words are formed and combining which often, truth be told is shortening is one of the ways. From this technique comes blutterance – utterance and blast or something similar.

Most of the information on blutterance centres on Boston Legal, created by prolific screen writer David E. Kelly. He, through his characters, must be credited for the creation of this delightful expression.

Urban Dictionary defines it as n. cross between "utter" and "blab/blubber/bluster" and such. Meant to convey a sense of poorly chosen words spoken in passion.


This is the scene from Boston Legal:

You're a Crane, get used to it. ... I first saw the client and his wife together. ... said because we were arguing, it would-it would qualify as an excited blutterance.

Bernie: She said what she heard wouldn't be hearsay. She looked it up. We were arguing, so it would qualify as an excited blutterance.
Alan Shore: Blutterance isn't even a word, much less a defense! You murdered someone over a fake word!

-Alan Shore (James Spader) Boston Legal

Boston Legal ran in 2005 and since then the word does not seem to have had much airtime.

I hope, having read my blog, you will start ‘bluttering’ with due regularity or at least use it in your writing.


Theft and larceny: correct usage

With so much exposure to people’s dirty legal laundry and equal amounts of televised fictional dramas – Law and Order my personal favourite – I often heard the charge of larceny and never understood what it meant. So today I delved into it.

In its simplest definition, larceny is theft. But falling into the legal domain, there is greater complexity to it. says, “Theft in English law is now defined in statutory terms as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it. In Scots criminal law, theft is the felonious taking or appropriation (or retention) of the property of another without his consent and in most cases, but not necessarily) with the intention to deprive him of it permanently. defines theft: A criminal act in which property belonging to another is taken without that person's consent.

The term theft is sometimes used synonymously with larcenyTheft, however, is actually a broader term,

encompassing many forms of deceitful taking of property, including swindling, embezzlement, and false pretenses.

Some states in America categorise all these offenses under a single statutory crime of theft does a great job of explaining the differences between the terms robbery, burglary, theft and larceny, which it says, are distinguished by the means, the methods and the victims of these takings.

She says theft and larceny are the same thing and refer to taking something of value with the intention of depriving the owner, that is, no intention of giving it back.

A common example of theft and larceny is shoplifting.

Theft and larceny have a scale from grand to petty or petit. In the United States the difference between grand and petty is about 500 dollars (R7000) depending on the jurisdiction. If you steal a packet of pens from a stationery store, that’s petty theft; but if you help yourself to a car parked on the side of the road, unlawfully, that’s grand larceny.

Hand in the cookie jar
Petty theft, we've all done it

Unlawful entry adds to the seriousness of the crime. This constitutes burglary. TransLegal says “unlawful entry is sometimes called breaking and entering or housebreaking, but it is also an element of a burglary and when you burgle, as you would do in British English, or burglarise a premises, it means you have entered that premises to take something or to otherwise commit another crime.

When a person is the target of a theft, it’s called robbery and the seriousness is measured against the level of physical threat, or even perceived threat. What’s key here is that the threat of force has only to be felt by the victim for the charge to be robbery.

TransLegal says a mugging, when you hold somebody up on the street, in public, is a robbery. A purse snatching when you steal somebody’s purse from their body, that’s a robbery.

Interestingly, ‘A car-jacking when you steal a car with somebody in it, that’s another example of a robbery. (Note, this is not grand larceny) One of the most frequent crimes is cell phone theft, and if stolen from hour hand, pocket or handbag on your person that is a robbery.

In summary, a person who commits theft or larceny, is a thief, a burglary, a burglar. If a person perpetrates a robbery, that person is called a robber. Law is a fascinating area and if you are going to write about it accurately you need to do your research.

When my five-year-old nephew asked a man casually minding his own business walking through a park, “Are you a robber,” I thought, oh how cute. Now I think, oh dear, how embarrassing for his mother.