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as and like

Which one should I choose?

stick man The first thing to know is that:

as = conjunction or preposition

likeverb (to express a preference) or preposition

So, think about the context … look at the meaning and the words that come before and after as and like   then decide whether you need to use a verb, a conjunction or a preposition …

The sentences below are examples of non-standard usage. Can you explain why?   My uncle can plaster a wall like he’s a real plasterer.   

   My friends are working hard for their exams, like they did last year.   

If you would like more information about as/like and practice exercises with answers, follow the link: WOW 5


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I say, I say, I say ….

king-cartoon-thWhy did the king go to the dentist?

To get his teeth crowned!

Why do we laugh (or groan) at jokes? It’s all about recognising that games are being played with language – and we understand this even if we can’t explain the linguistic process.

So what is going on in a joke? There are a number of linguistic tricks being played …


Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different spellings. These are the core of many jokes.

Where can you learn to make ice-cream?

In Sundae school.

The joke depends on us recognising the collocation ‘Sunday School’ and the denotation of ‘school’ (a place of education), but the heart of the humour lies in the homophones: the proper noun Sunday (a day of the week) and the concrete noun sundae (a type of ice-cream).

Word formation

Jokes can play games with compound words, by creating linguistic parallels that can’t actually be found in a dictionary …

Why do seagulls fly over the sea rather than over the bay?

1238704362854102575papapishu_albatross_2.svg.medBecause they don’t want to be called bagels.

The compound noun ‘baygull’ is created by mirroring the structure of seagull  (from the concrete nouns ‘sea’ + ‘gull’). Humour then arises from the homophones: ‘baygull’ (a gull that flies over the bay) and bagel (food).

Semantic ambiguity

What has a pelican got in common with the Electric Company?

They both have large bills.

This joke plays on the ambiguity of the meaning of the plural concrete noun bills: it is both ‘the horny beak of a bird’ and ‘an itemised written statement of charges for goods delivered or services rendered’. The sound and spelling of these nouns is the same, but their etymological root is different: bill (duck’s beak) comes from the Old English ‘bile’ (1000); bill (statement of charges) comes from the Latin ‘bulla’ meaning ‘seal’ (1420).    

Grammatical structure

1195445481970400763johnny_automatic_fireplace_with_Christmas_stockings.svg.medWhat did Adam say the day before Christmas?

“It’s Christmas Eve!”

The play on words here is grammatical (linked to the function of words) as well as semantic (linked to the meaning of words). In the collocation ‘Christmas Eve’, the noun ‘eve’ is a shortened form of ‘evening’ – it is commonly used to describe the day before a religious or cultural festival (e.g. Hallowe’en).

Drawing on shared cultural knowledge, the joke creates a pun on the day and on the name of the biblical figure Eve, the traditional partner of Adam. In grammatical terms, this makes Eve a vocative (a word or phrase used to attract someone’s attention) – Adam is directly addressing Eve. A vocative would usually be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. It is omitted here to create ambiguity.

Subject specific shared knowledge

Two hydrogen atoms meet and one says to the other, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?”. The first replies, “Yeah, I’m positive!”

Do you have to be a chemist to understand this joke? No, but it helps.

The joke is based on subject specific knowledge: a hydrogen atom has a single positively charged proton and a single negatively Electron_shell_001_Hydrogen_-_no_label.svgcharged electron in the nucleus. This makes it an electrically neutral atom – the positive and the negative charges are balanced. If it were to lose its electron, a hydrogen atom would no longer be neutral, but positive.

This subject-specific knowledge (positive ‘charge’) is overlaid with the familiar conversational adjective  (positive) used to assert an opinion emphatically. The humour is only apparent to an ‘insider’, someone who shares the same knowledge as the joke-teller.

And here are two for you to try …

Why did the boy take a pencil to bed?

man-drawing-mdTo draw his curtains.

  Why was the mummy so tense?mummy-md

He was all wound up.

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of and ′ve

Which one should I choose?

 The first thing to know is that:

of = preposition

′ve = verb

(a shortened form of have, typical in informal speech)

So, think about the context … look at the words that come before and after the of or the ve , and then decide whether you need to use a verb or a preposition …

The sentences below are examples of non-standard usage. Can you explain why?

   I could of run faster.

   He was tired‘ve always being last.   

If you would like more information about of /ve and practice exercises with answers, follow the link: WOW 4  

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The key to adjectives

The section on adjectives under the WORD tab is now complete. If you are studying language or want to know more about how language works – this is for you …

key 2   Unlock adjectives:

          • 5 key facts you need to know about adjectives
          • key terms that will help you to recognise and describe adjectives
          • lots of exercises for practice with answers just one click away
          • and finally a look at adjectives in context – a formal political speech, a weather forecast and a Gothic novel

This may be serious stuff, but it’s useful too!


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‘Come into my castle,’ said the spider to the fly: describing buildings in Gothic fiction

Carl_Blechen_-_Gothic_Church_Ruin_-_Google_Art_Project If you like atmospheric descriptions, then Gothic literature is for you! Castles, dungeons,  vaults, ruins – they all provide a rich setting for tales of blood and imprisonment, horror and  fear.

The language used to describe these typically Gothic settings  is always vivid, appealing to our senses and drawing us in to an unknown world. We see the dark ruins and the jagged battlements; we smell the dank rooms; we hear the distant groans.

Looking at examples, we can begin to explore more closely just how the writers create that strong sense of place. The extracts below are all taken from well-known Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The notes that follow them show how close reading reveals their linguistic secrets.

Castle Udolpho


… though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object … the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity … The gateway … leading into the courts  was of gigantic size, and was defended by two round towers, crowned by over-hanging turrets, embattled, where, instead of banners, now waved long grass and wild plants … The towers were united by a curtain, pierced and embattled also, below which appeared the pointed arch of an huge portcullis, surmounting the gates: from these, the walls of the ramparts extended to other towers, overlooking the precipice, whose shattered outline … told of the ravages of war.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)

The great castle is presented to readers as an austere hulk that dominates the landscape.

  1. references to ‘light’ are typical:
    • the noun phrase the setting sun marks the atmospheric transition between day and night
    • the clauses the light died … the rays soon faded … use negative verbs to suggest the movement towards night
    • the pre- and post-modified noun phrase the solemn darkness of evening at the end of the sentence is emphatic
  2. the location is always at a distance: the building is in an austere and inhospitable spot (overlooking the precipice)
  3. the natural world is dominant – humanity is insignificant in this environment and cannot impose order :
    • the banners (symbolic of people) have been replaced by nature’s blazons (grass, plants)
    • the adjectives linked to the natural world reflect its supremacy (long, wild)
  4. concrete nouns define the physical elements of the castle (battlements, gateway, courts, towers, turrets, curtain, arch, portcullis, ramparts) – they are subject specific and very much linked to a by-gone age
  5. colours tend to be dull:
    • dark grey is typical of the austere mood created   
    • brighter colours (purple) will often be modified by a negative adjective (melancholy)
  6. words relating to size suggest the scale: greatness (noun), gigantic, huge (adjectives)
  7. adjectives have negative connotations to set the tone: mouldering, gloomy, melancholy, more awful
  8. words associated with battle remind us of the dark, violent nature of Gothic fiction: embattledpierced and embattled, shattered (verb modifiers), the ravages of war (noun phrase)
  9. the repetition of the adjective sublime is an important element of the physical description – it combines a sense of grandeur with a feeling of awe and terror
  10. the extended metaphor of the castle as a ruler is dramatic:
    • the tripling of adjectives in the initial position (Silent, lonely, sublime …) set the tone
    • there is a semantic field of kingship (the sovereign of the scene, its solitary reign, crowned)
    • the personification brings the castle to life – the tone is negative and menacing (to frown defiance on all)

St Clare’s Sepulchre

738px-View_of_the_Interior_of_the_Apis_Tombs_at_Sakkâra._(1885)_-_TIMEAWe stopped before the principal shrine of St. Clare. The Statue was removed from its Pedestal, though how I knew not. The Nuns afterwards raised an iron grate till then concealed by the Image, and let it fall on the other side with a loud crash. The awful sound, repeated by the vaults above, and Caverns below me, rouzed me from the despondent apathy in which I had been plunged. I looked before me: An abyss presented itself to my affrighted eyes, and a steep and narrow Staircase, whither my Conductors were leading me. … I was hurried down the Staircase, and forced into one of the Cells which lined the Cavern’s sides.

My blood ran cold, as I gazed upon this melancholy abode. The cold vapours hovering in the air, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw so forlorn and comfortless, the Chain destined to bind me for ever to my prison, and the Reptiles of every description which as the torches advanced towards them, I descried hurrying to their retreats, struck my heart with terrors almost too exquisite for nature to bear.  …  A Lamp glimmering with dull, melancholy rays through my dungeon, permitted my distinguishing all its horrors.

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

Agnes is dragged by the Nuns to the ghastly sepulchre concealed beneath the statue of a saint.

  1. the first person point of view is emotive: Agnes is presented as a helpless victim through the passive verbs (I was hurried … and forced) and the indirect description of what she first sees (An abyss presented itself to me; A Lamp … permitted my distinguishing …)
  2. the sounds are immediately threatening:
    • the negative pre-modification in the noun phrases (a loud crash. The awful sound …)
    • the haunting echo indicated by the verb repeated
  3. the concrete nouns give us visual points of reference: grate, vaults, Caverns, Staircase, walls
  4. synonyms linked to entrapment draw attention to Agnes’ predicament (Cells, prison, dungeon)
  5. modifiers are negative
    • linked to Agnes’ mood: despondent, affrighted
    • linked to the location: melancholy, cold, forlorn, comfortless, 
  6. adverb intensifiers heighten the tone of desolation: so forlorn and comfortless, almost too exquisite
  7. the figurative My blood ran cold is a literary trope – a figure of speech which represents an extreme state of emotion
  8. the list of five long complex noun phrases (The cold vapours …, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw … the Chain … , and the Reptiles …) forces us to wait for the dynamic verb struck
  9. the plural abstract nouns (terrorshorrors) emphasise the inexplicable and indescribable nature of Agnes’ experience
  10. the light from the lamp (described with the modifiers dull, melancholy) brings no comfort since it reveals the nightmarish world of the vault

Castle Draculamedieval-castles-2

I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather. … The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!  … Looking out … I felt that I was indeed in prison …   The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable, and great windows were placed here where sling or bow, or culverin could not reach …

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

Jonathan Harker’s first impressions of Dracula’s castle are dominated by references to its scale and location.

  1. the description of the light as dim sets the tone 
  2. the location is extreme:
    • the adverb intensifier very in the prepositional phrase on the very edge of a terrible precipice amplifies the life-threatening nature of the spot
    • the negative connotations of the modifier terrible create an appropriate atmosphere and prepare readers for what is to come
    • the prepositional phrase on the corner of a great rock reinforces our sense of distance – the inaccessibility of the castle is important 
    • the reference to the effect of the elements (much worn by … weather) draws attention to the exposed position of the castle
  3. the scale is vast:
    • the semantic field of adjectives linked to size draws attention to the castle’s immensity (great – repeated three times; large; massive)
    • the adverb massively contributes to this – even the carvings are on a larger-than-life scale
    • the reference to height in the noun phrase a thousand feet reinforces the sense of distance and the castle’s imposing proportions
    • references to the age of the castle (old; much worn by time …) give it a permanence that can be linked to the immortality of its inhabitant
  4. the language of warfare enhances the negative tone
    • the adjective phrase in parenthesis (studded with large iron nails) establishes the defensive nature of the castle
    • the adjective phrase quite impregnable is in an emphatic position after the verb (predicative) to draw attention to the castle’s impenetrability
    • the syndetic list of weapons with repeated conjunctions (sling or bow, or culverin – a forerunner of the musket) suggests the impossibility of storming the defences
  5. the connotations of the noun prison make explicit the danger in which Jonathan Harker finds himself

Carfax Estate


At Purfleet, on a byroad, I came across just such a place as seemed to be required, and where was displayed a dilapidated notice that the place was for sale. It was surrounded by a high wall, of ancient structure, built of heavy stones, and has not been repaired for a large number of years. The closed gates are of heavy old oak and iron, all eaten with rust. … It contains in all some twenty acres, quite surrounded by the solid stone wall … There are many trees … which make it in places gloomy, and there is a deep dark-holed pond or small lake … The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to medieval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep … There are but few houses close at hand, one being a very large house only recently added to and formed into a private lunatic asylum …

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

The house that Jonathan Harker finds for Count Dracula in England is suitably gothic.

  1. the light is again dim – the adjective gloomy sets the tone
  2. the location is distant from other houses:
    • the quantative noun phrase some twenty acres emphasises its isolation
    • the repeated reference to the perimeter stone wall and the modifying adjectives high, heavy, solid mirror the impregnability of Castle Dracula perched on its precipice
  3. the scale of the house is grand:
    • the adjective phrase very large is in a stressed position after the copular verb is
    • linking it to the medieval times reinforces our sense of its size and its castle-like nature
  4. the references to its defensive qualities reminds us of Castle Dracula
    • the modifiers closed, heavy, oak and iron describing the gates reinforce our sense that this place is inhospitable
    • modifiers describing the walls (immensely thick) and the windows (high up and heavily barred) have negative connotations
    • the parallel drawn between the house and a keep (a fortified tower built within a castle) make the association with conflict more explicit
  5. the lunatic asylum is symbolic of the social outsider – people will stay away from Carfax just as they stay away from the asylum

Monks’ Hall

And now one for you to try!  Read the extract below and try to work out how the writer has used language to describe this Gothic setting.

800px-Ruins_of_Arbroath_Abbey_(18thC)The ruins covered a considerable extent, of ground, but the only part which seemed successfully to have resisted the encroaches of time, at least to a considerable extent, was a long, hall … Adjoining to this hall, were the walls of other parts of the building, and at several places there were small, low, mysterious-looking doors that led, heaven knows where, into some intricacies and labyrinths beneath the building, which no one had, within the memory of man, been content to run the risk of losing himself in. It was related that among these subterranean passages and arches there were pitfalls and pools of water … The place is as silent as the tomb …

There is a dungeon—damp and full of the most unwholesome exhalations—deep under ground it seems, and, in its excavations, it would appear as if some small land springs had been liberated, for the earthen floor was one continued extent of moisture.

From the roof, too, came perpetually the dripping of water, which fell with sullen, startling splashes in the pool below. … That dreadful abode is tenanted. In one corner, on a heap of straw, which appears freshly to have been cast into the place, lies a hopeless prisoner.

Varney, the Vampyre, James Malcolm Rymer (1847)

A challenge …

See if you can create your own Gothic building set in a dramatic landscape  in no more than 250 words using the techniques explored in this post. You will need to think about:

    • the light and colour
    • the location
    • the scale

You will have to use:

    • concrete nouns to develop the physical detail
    • negative adjectives to create the appropriate tone
    • adverb intensifiers to heighten the descriptive detail

You can enhance the effect by adding layers of meaning:

    • personify the building or the landscape
    • develop a semantic field of warfare or conflict
    • create a contrast between the human world of order and the disorder of the natural

Remember to appeal to the senses in order to draw your reader into the place you are creating.

If you send your Gothic descriptions to me (use the ‘Contact’ tab for details), I’ll create a page for the best examples – with analysis of the language features which have made them successful. 


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Should it be its or it’s? Is it different to or different from?  When do I use whom? What’s the problem with should of? Why would I write the present is for you and me to share when you and I sounds better? What’s the difference between like and as?

WOWs are Watch Out! Warnings and there will soon be a new WOWs tab at the top of the page. This will direct you to a section with answers to questions like the ones above.

Each page will deal with a commonly misunderstood feature of the English language, using straightforward explanations and examples to clear up the confusionThe aim is to help you make sure that your writing is accurate and that you can recognise non-standard usage.

If there is a particular thing that confuses you, let me know and I’ll add a page!


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megaphone-outline-mdDavid Marsh of the Guardian’s ‘Mind your Language’ blog was interviewed on the radio yesterday (13 March, Today, Radio 4) about the distinctive language used on trains and at stations. As a variety of English, Railspeak has its own vocabulary and syntax. Some of the key features Marsh identifies are:

  • the use of unexpected prepositions: we will be arriving into Didcot rather than ‘in’ or ‘at’
  • the addition of unnecessary modifiers: our next station stop is Cardiff  (the noun modifier does not provide us with useful information);  personal belongings (the denotation of ‘belongings’ is ‘personal effects’ so the adjective is superfluous)
  • the inclusion of auxiliary verbs where there is no clear semantic reason for them: we do apologise … we do wish to inform you … (for emphasis?)
  • the replacement of simple, high frequency verbs with more formal verbs: depart (‘leave’); terminate (‘end’)

For David Marsh’s article on the  ‘Mind your Language’ blog, follow the link below:

irritated man on trainAnd for anyone travelling by train, please collect other examples and use the comment link at the end of this post to report your findings. It will be interesting to see what other distinctive linguistic features we can find!

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