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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Creating words: blending

Peter_Newell_-_Through_the_looking_glass_and_what_Alice_found_there_1902_-_page_110‘Well, “SLITHY” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word. … “MIMSY” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).

 Humpty Dumpty talking to Alice,
     Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871)

Portmanteau – a case or bag for carrying clothes
Etymology: from the French porter – ‘carry’manteau – ‘coat’

Like Lewis Carroll’s metaphorical hinged suitcase, lexical blends are made up of two distinct parts: usually the first part of one word and the second part of another. They are also called portmanteau words (after Carroll’s use of the word in 1871). Other examples from Through the Looking Glass include:

chortle (V) – chuckle and snort

galumph (V) – gallop and triumph

We have been blending words for a very long time:

flounder (V) – possibly from flounce + blunder (1592)

dumbfound (V) – dumb + confound (1653)

squiggle (V) – possibly from squirm + wriggle (1816)

Blends can create adjectives and verbs:

prissy (Adj) – prim + sissy (1842, uncertain origin)

ginormous (Adj) – giant + enormous (1948)

guestimate (V) – guess + estimate (1942)

breathalyse (V) – breathe + analyse (1967)

But most blends are nouns. They mark changes in society, particularly in the media, and in the fields of science and technology. See if you can identify the source words in each case (answers at the bottom of the post!).


brunch (1896), affluenza (1973), netiquette (1982)


travelogue (1903), biopic (1947), simulcast (1948), fanzine (1949), mockumentary (1965)


stagflation (1965), shorting (1975)


bit (1948), modem (1958), pixel (1969), email (1979), freeware (1982), shareware (1983), malware (1990), blog (1999)


camcorder (1982), smartphone (1996)


smog (1905), lox (1923), liger (1938), zonkey (1953), hazmat (1980)


Chinglish (1957), Spanglish (1967), Japlish (1960), Hinglish (1967)

We know a blend has been embedded in the language when it exists in more than one word class, or adopts familiar suffixes:

email – noun (1979); verb (1983)

guesstimate – noun (1936); verb (1942);  guesstimation – noun (1937); guesstimator – noun (1948)        

 Some blends are used in the media (as an abbreviated form of language, which is often described as journalese) or in subject specific fields (e.g. computing), but have not yet made it into the dictionary:

staycation – stay-at-home + vacation

voxel (a measure of colour in computer graphics) – volumetric + pixel

vlog – video + blog

Blends can be used imaginatively to create characters (dragots = dragon + robot), places (Firor = fire + moor) and conceptsoctophant2 (magrifice = magnanimous + sacrifice).  A combination of surprising words draws together the characteristics of each so that the writer can challenge our expectations.


SOCIAL: brunch = breakfast + lunch, affluenza = affluent + influenza, netiquette = internet + etiquette

MEDIA: travelogue = travel + monologue, biopic = biography + picture, simulcast = simultaneous + broadcast, fanzine = fan + magazine, mockumentary = mock + documentary

ECONOMIC: stagflation = stagnation + inflation, shorting = short + selling

TECHNOLOGY: bit = binary + digit, modem = modulator + demodulator, pixel = pics (pictures, abbreviated to pics/pix) + element, email = electronic + mail, freeware = free + software, shareware = share + software, malware = malicious + software, blog = web + log

PRODUCTS: camcorder = camera + recorder, smartphone = smart + telephone

SCIENCE: smog = smoke + fog, lox = liquid + oxygen, liger = lion + tiger, zonkey = zebra + donkey, hazmat = hazardous material

HYBRID LANGUAGES: Chinglish = Chinese + English, Spanglish = Spanish + English, Japlish = Japanese + English, Hinglish = Hindi + English

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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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The art of analogy

To illustrate one thing by its resemblance to another has been always the most popular and efficacious art of instruction. There is indeed no other method of teaching that of which any one is ignorant but by means of something already known.

From The Idler, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Analogy is a useful tool in the writer’s kit: it allows us to create a comparison between two apparently unconnected things in order to make a point clearer, to develop an argument or to communicate an attitude. There may be linguistic indicators such as the subordinating conjunctions as or as if … or the preposition like … to draw attention to the analogy.

The following examples show how analogy can be used to affect the audience in different ways.

An appeal to our emotions

1325627622728677631Sick… can I draw an analogy … if babies were dying in hospital for lack of drink and their skin breaking down, society would be up in arms and if nurses said, ‘Well, I’ve put the bottle in the crib and I’ve put the nappy in the crib – I can’t understand why the baby’s died.’ And yet at the end of our lives we may have that level of dependency and we may need that level of care …

Anne Challoner Wood, Director of ‘See Change in Dementia Care’, Today, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

 A Care Quality Commission report (published on 12 March 2013) has shown that older people suffering from dementia who are admitted to hospital with a minor, avoidable condition stay much longer and will often never return home.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker explicitly draws attention to the fact that she wishes to make a comparison using the polite question can I draw …
  2. the analogy is introduced with the conditional conjunction if which marks the example as hypothetical
  3. specific references to minor, avoidable conditions  experienced by people with dementia are linked directly to a baby  (lack of drink = dehydration; skin breaking down= pressure sores)
  4. the use of hypothetical direct speech highlights the absurdity of the situation
  5. the fronted conjunctions And yet make the link between the imagined baby and the reality for people suffering from dementia clear

The emotive effect is hard-hitting.  The figurative up in arms sets the tone of indignation that we should feel for this neglect. The analogy works because it takes an image which will make us all feel outraged and shows how the same argument applies in the debate about care for people with dementia.   

A visual explanation

… an American commentator recently described the kind of decline of public service in the United States as akin to seeing, from a 11954280451742271342shipswheel_john_olsen_01.svg.meddistance, a ship that appears to be veering from one direction to another. The captain and the crew must appear to be maniacs, but in fact on closer inspection there’s no captain or crew at all – just a set of ideologues committed either to Jesus Christ or to Adam Smith temporarily grabbing the wheel before being thrown overboard …

Paul du Gay, Copenhagen Business School, In Defence of Bureaucracy, Radio 4 (12 March 2013)

The programme explores the relationship between the civil service and government ministers. We choose our government every four years, but the civil servants remain constant, providing continuity and stability to our services.  In America, the situation is quite different – the civil servants change each time the administration changes.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the speaker focuses attention on his topic (the kind of decline of public services)
  2. the analogy is introduced with the subordinating conjunction as and the comparative marker akin to …
  3. the visual image of the ship is established – something familiar, making the abstract topic concrete through a lexical set of nouns (ship, captain, crew, wheel)
  4. proper nouns establish the two extremes of American politics: ideologues committed to either Jesus Christ (i.e. the Republicans) or Adam Smith (i.e. Democrats)
  5. the image of conflict and the adverb of time (temporarily) suggest that the process is illogical

The effect is to clarify an otherwise abstract concept: the visual element helps listeners to appreciate the difficulties that arise from having a transient rather than a permanent civil service. The analogy works because it creates a comic scene which is easily understandable and memorable.

An expression of attitude


Order. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) is noisier in heckling the Secretary of State than he was in heckling me at Essex university 30 years ago. He needs to calm down.


1197093693305734410johnny_automatic_monkey_silhouette.svg.medWith respect, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence. That is what I would say. Let me bring something forward – [Interruption.] No, monkeys can jump around, but the noise they make is not necessarily relevant.  

  Commons Debates, ‘Under-occupancy’,
Hansard (11 March 2013)

The debate focuses on proposed legislation which has been called the ‘Bedroom tax’ – people in social housing with a spare room will have their housing benefit reduced. The Speaker interrupted debate to stop persistent heckling by the Labour MP Ian Austin.

So, how does the analogy work?

  1. the Conservative minister, Iain Duncan Smith, makes a direct criticism of a Labour MP (the hon. Gentleman’s noise covers a complete lack of intelligence)
  2. politeness markers like the prepositional phrase (With respect) and the formal title the hon. Gentleman aim to soften the criticism, making it appropriate for the formal, adversarial context
  3. the implicit analogy links the Labour MP and a monkey through the repetition of the noun noise
  4. Austin’s arguments against the legislation are implicitly reduced to the chatterings of a monkey i.e. noise without meaning or relevance

The effect is expressive here. Ian Duncan Smith communicates his opinion clearly in the comparison. It allows him to be rude without breaking the unwritten rules of parliamentary exchange – the language was not seen to be inappropriate because The Speaker did not interveneThe analogy works because it creates a comic image which allows the minister to undermine his opponent.

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Words that cause offence

“I can see myself leaving here quite soon. I love this country but I’ve had enough of it. I don’t see what we’re being given back. I just see the country being raped …” 

Ray Winstone, talkSPORT Radio (8 March 2013)

Free_speech_doesn't_mean_careless_talk^_-_NARA_-_535383Does free speech give us the right to say anything without censorship or should we avoid offending others?

In a chatty radio interview, Winstone used an emotive verb to express his feelings about the British tax system.  It reflected a personal point of view: the government shows a lack of responsibility in the way it uses the tax revenue it raises and Winstone believes it is ruining the country.

While celebrities often complain about high tax rates, Winstone’s choice of verb has caused a media storm. Opinion is divided. Is he a straight-talking bloke using colourful language that is typical of his hard-men film characters? Or is he an insensitive rich man  failing to distinguish between a serious crime and a personal gripe?

Had this conversation taken place in a private context, it would have been an inappropriate verb, but ephemeral – once spoken, it would have been gone. In the public context of a radio interview, however, lexical choice becomes a more delicate matter.  However informal and personal the occasion may appear, however well the participants may know each other, broadcasters should always be aware of their wider audience. Their language must be acceptable.

Perhaps the form of the word here plays as much a part in causing offence as its denotation and connotations. The passive continuous verb form (being raped) creates a sense of immediacy that makes the act itself more prominent. While recognising that the use is figurative, the effect is unpleasant.  Equating rape and paying taxes is a rather thoughtless comparison.

An interesting contrast can be drawn with the title of a novel published in 1959: The Rape of the Fair Country. This novel by Foxes_Bridge_CollieryAlexander Cordell tells the story of the Welsh iron and coal communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo during the  Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.  The figurative ‘rape’ here describes the destruction of the Welsh landscape by industry and the exploitation of the workers in their bitter struggle with the English ironmasters.

It is difficult to imagine this title causing offence, perhaps because ‘rape’ is the head of a noun phrase rather than the head of a verb phrase. Its effect is therefore less forceful. Moreover, there is a clear social and political argument underlying the lexical choice: its emotive connotations are designed to make us think about the situation in the Welsh valleys as the workers face physical hardship and the ravishing of their land.

Unfortunate – yes; malicious – no. Whether you think Winstone has been politically incorrect or not will probably depend on whether you think the wider point he makes is personal or political.

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The key to nouns

The section on nouns 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 nouns:

          • 5 key facts you need to know about nouns
          • key terms that will help you to recognise and describe nouns
          • lots of exercises for practice with answers just one click away
          • and finally a look at nouns in context – flatpack DIY instructions, a political speech and a product review

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

Follow the link to get started.


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That’s not what I meant at all …

… it was a matter of taking the words completely out of context, twisting the context …

Hilary Mantel, interview on “Night Waves”, Radio 3 (Thursday 7 March)

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, found herself at the centre of a media frenzy when ‘sound-bites’ were taken from her 5,500 word lecture and published in the daily newspapers.610px-Holt_Renfrew_Mannequins

a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung

a shop-window mannequin with no personality of her own, defined entirely
by what she wore

a mother-to-be

her only point and purpose being to give birth

These noun phrases were splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Her comments were described as “an extraordinary and venomous attack” by the Daily Mail; as “misguided … wrong”  by David Cameron ; as “pretty offensive” by Ed Miliband. What no-one bothered to do, however, was to look at the phrases in context.

Mantel’s lecture, ‘Undressing Anne Boleyn’, was the first of the Winter Lecture series organised by the London Review of Books. We 505px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Anne_Boleyncan see immediately that the context was formal and academic (the lecture took place in the British Museum). Her content focuses on royal bodies: the appearance, the role and perceptions of royal women. And this too is formal and academic, setting the modern against the historical, the personal against the public. Her lexical choices and her tone are appropriate – there is no evidence that she intended to challenge the linguistic expectations of her audience, purpose and context by making a malicious attack on a public figure. 

Out of context, the complex noun phrases may seem judgemental.  In context, it is clear that this was an appeal for clemency rather than a direct criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was an analysis of the ways in which the press and public opinion shape the way we think about the Royal Family rather than a deliberate act of discourtesy.

For anyone who reads carefully, these widely publicised noun phrases reflect Mantel’s central argument.  They represent the perceptions created by the media – they are the masks imposed upon a royal wife. The head words doll and mannequin emphasise the passive role Kate Middleton is expected to play, smiling sweetly, or picking up a hockey stick and obligingly running a few paces.  The imagery is pitch-perfect: the media analyse her clothes, her body shape (is she thinner? is her ‘bump’ making her ‘radiant’?), but we never hear what she thinks. She is presented to us by the press as a puppet … her personality irrelevant. 

Mantel is a skilled craftsman. Her words are chosen precisely and her effect is considered. We can see this in the complexity of the noun phrase structure. Each example here contains a modifying clause (relative: on which certain rags are hung; non-finite: defined by what she woreto-bebeing to give birth) which provides additional information. This information is crucial to the image represented by the head word. References to clothing and to the absence of personality reinforce the general point Mantel is making  in her lecture about media representation:718px-PAUL_DELAROCHE_-_Ejecución_de_Lady_Jane_Grey_(National_Gallery_de_Londres,_1834)

We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them.   

Her text is a skilful and intelligent piece about the power of the media to shape public attitudes.  If the phrases quoted above are to be understood as their author intended them – go to the original and see them in context!

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