Beware of Homophones

I blame Bill Gates – doesn’t everyone?

Writing good English is hard enough without the false reassurance provided by his spell checker that’s supposed to (yes, you guessed it) check your spelling – but doesn’t. Or, rather, it does but it often gets it wrong.

I’ll rant on about homonyms in another post (I bet you can’t wait), but for now let’s confine ourselves to homophones – those words that sound the same but have different spellings. For the technically minded (everyone else skip to the next paragraph), ‘homos’ is the Greek word for ‘same’ and ‘phone’ is derived from the Greek ‘onoma’ meaning ‘sound’.

Common examples of homophones

For an example look at there, their, and they’re. Three words that sound the same but mean something quite different. In every case two of them will be wrong, but the spell checker will allow them all because they’re correctly spelt English words.

So if you want to appear illiterate, just trust your proof-reading to Microsoft Word – or any of its equivalents. Believe it or not, it is telling me I should have written ‘you’re proof-reading’ in that last sentence. The spelling is fine but it thinks I’ve made a grammatical error. Mad!

Feeling possessive?

Then what about its and it’s? Most people have to stop and think about this one. Not me, of course, and probably not you, but you know what I mean. The confusion arises because we are used to inserting an apostrophe to denote possession. Like the cat’s whiskers, the dog’s dinner, and so on. So why not the cat twitched it’s whiskers? Those whiskers do after all belong to the cat.

The first rule of English is that there are no rules. Or, where there are, they are inconsistent. So it’s – with an apostrophe – only ever means it is or it has. Never possession. Let’s hope that’s sorted out our cat and its whiskers.

Another famous group of homophones is to, too and two. Whilst two is generally well understood, the other two will often be seen tripping up the unwary. If there are any rules I can’t recall what they are.

Why not hire a professional?

For immaculate proofreading, copy-editing or copywriting, it’s always best to hire a professional. They’re usually cheaper than you expect and will make you look good.

You can contact us at

Well Paid Work for Writers – the murky details

Have you ever seen those websites – “Well-Paid Work for Freelance Writers”?

I spent a couple of hours this week looking at a few, in case there was any work that appealed to me.

After all, it’s good to find new clients: you never know when you’ll need them.

But what a revelation!

There were loads – and I do mean HUNDREDS – of advertisements for article writers, content writers, copywriters, ghost writers and so on.

Well-paid? You must be joking!

A typical ad was offering “well-paid work” for someone who could write 20 unique, original articles a day of 500 words each in correct, error-free, plagiarism-free English.

For non-mathematicians that’s 10,000 words a day.

Now, I can write fairly quickly if I’m familiar with the subject area, but for fresh, totally unique content written from scratch in first-class English, I would take 3 days to do 10,000 words. And I would charge £800 ($1,000) – there or thereabouts.

You might not believe this

The advertiser was offering $20 (£13) and more than 15 prospective writers applied. That’s $20 for 20 articles, by the way, not $20 each!

Another employer requested an “Expert Marketer with outstanding copywriting skills.”

One submission read ” i am expert typist but i am new at this n i really need this job to complete my higher education.. i promise to do the best and stand at the level of your demand”.

Now, I’m not criticising his command of the English language – I don’t speak a word of Urdu – but that’s why I would never waste my time applying for a job which requested first-class Urdu writing. I couldn’t do it.

Highly misleading feedback

The sites have feedback systems so that employers can comment on individual freelancers’ skills. There were plenty with submissions far worse than our friend from Pakistan. Some had won the job and been praised for their excellent English writing skills!

What worries me is this. If an employer who writes very little English hires an ‘expert’ English writer because they can’t do the job themselves, and goes for the $7 a day writer because they’re cheap, the employer may well accept whatever they get because they don’t know any better.

The moral here is:

I only ever submit an offer if the advertiser writes excellent English himself. That way I know he will appreciate the high quality work he receives from me.

The Pedants’ Revolt

I mourn the demise of the Queen’s English Society. Its leaders jacked it in earlier this week (June 2012) in the face of universal apathy. Their crusade to stem the deterioration in our use of language is finally over after 40 years.

Their heart was surely in the right place, though their motives were often mocked. Their greatest challenge, I believe, was to persuade people that good English mattered. And, seemingly, they failed. Those who supported them didn’t need persuading; the rest had never heard of them (probably never would), and didn’t care anyway.

The QES’s mistake was, perhaps, a refusal (or at least a disinclination) to accept that language changes. Few of us can read Beowulf in its original Old English, though that was the language we all spoke at the time it was written. Even Charles Dickens, less than 200 years ago, wrote in a style that we might nowadays find rather wooden.

Then there was the anti-Queen’s English society. Their agenda seemed to be little more than to deride the QES and everything it said and did.

But both societies were dreadful language snobs. They came across as a bunch of reactionary, elitist pedants; academics wishing to stand in the way of progress. Their writing seemed to contain the longest, most obscure words imaginable, rather like newly qualified graduates trying to impress their managers and clients. At least the QES and anti-QES, unlike many marketing graduates, used the words correctly. But they totally missed the point, which is that …

Language is all about communication – getting your message across as clearly as possible.

That’s it.

If the writer’s style is elegant then that’s a welcome bonus, but clarity is the goal.

Pedants might deplore the odd grammatical mistakes I make, but ‘good’ is often not the same as ‘correct’. My business is communication, and if my readers understand exactly what I’m trying to say then I’ve succeeded.

Despite what my domain name ( might suggest, I have no connection with the Queen’s English Society, though we do share a passion for the English language. But that’s also where we differ. The Society aims for correct English, both written and spoken, whereas I concern myself with well-written English only. And, yes, there is a difference.

Correct English can sometimes be a barrier to communication. I frequently end a sentence with a preposition; not because I’m ignorant or perverse but simply because it makes the sentence flow more easily.

Do you remember Winston Churchill’s famous comment on this subject?

“That is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.”

Ok, he was only joking (perhaps a little heavy-handedly), but I would happily write

“That’s a curious word to end a sentence with.”

Strictly speaking it should be

“That’s a curious word with which to end a sentence.”

 But I prefer my version. It flows more easily, sounds less contrived, and is unambiguous.

Clients of Queen’s English can rest safe in the knowledge that their work will always be handled carefully and responsibly.

Whether we are proofreading your work, editing and amending where necessary, or writing original copy for your brochures, articles or websites, we will guarantee that your readers will understand exactly what you are aiming to say.

Writing for the Web

Keywords and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

You hear a lot about keywords and search engine optimisation (SEO), but how much of it is just gobbledygook?

If Google and the other search engines told the world how they decide on which link appears at what position in their search results, everyone would follow the same approach and every site would have to be at number one.

So when someone tells you they have the ‘secret miracle formula’ for getting on Google’s front page, they are being less than truthful with you. They have no possible way of knowing how it’s done.

It’s my impression that the mighty Google is developing ever more sophisticated ways of measuring real quality of information on websites. So if a surfer uses ‘how to write good English’ or even ‘write good English’ as a search term, they will find this website – – on the first page. Not always at the top but certainly on the first page.

Now, I don’t know anything at all about Google’s magic formula, but I recognise well-written, good quality content when I see it. And I like to believe that’s why this site has such a high ranking.

The importance of a good headline

When writing for the web, you can easily waste a lot of money. Although Google is good at assessing quality and readability, I believe it hasn’t yet developed a method of assessing persuasiveness.

Of course I may be wrong …

But, in any piece of writing, the first task is to get people to start reading, and that’s the job of the headline.

Whether it leads you on to a sub-headline, or straight into the body of the text, its success will be judged by whether or not the reader continues reading. There’s no point in spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on well-written text if no-one ever reads it.

It’s often said that the headline carries more than 90% of the power on a web page.

So, if the headline is weak or non-existent there is a 90% chance that no-one will read your valuable text.

Don’t take the risk!

How to Write Winning Headlines

I’ve just published an eBook which takes you by the hand and helps you create magnificent, effective headlines.

Not only does it give great examples of headlines that have worked in the past, it also explains the psychology of persuasion and shows you how to choose the best approach for your particular product or service.

Get fantastic headlines here

The basics of style

English is more than one language.

Apart from U.K. (Queen’s) English, there’s obviously U.S. English. But where did it all start?

Because the UK has been invaded countless times over the centuries, its language is an amalgam of many tongues.

The Roman occupation some 2,000 years ago lasted 400 years, so much of our vocabulary and word structure is derived from Latin roots. Where English words sound similar to Spanish, Italian and French, that is where the Latin root is evident. These are part of the group known as Romance languages.

Old English was where things started, though it contained vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary brought across by German settlers up to and including the 5th century (400 – 499 AD).

Vikings invaded in the 8th and 9th centuries (700 – 899 AD) and left much evidence of Norse languages.

Then in the 11th century the French invasion brought Norman French vocabulary as well as sentence structure and spelling conventions.

No wonder English contains so many different words!

English is the leading language of international communication and an official language of the European Union as well as current and former members of the Commonwealth.

Because of the international influence of the United States from the mid-20th century, any business in the world that is serious about exporting needs to embrace English as a central feature of its trading style.

Verbs and their tenses

Remember Latin? Verbs of the first, second, third and fourth conjugations? All very structured; all very logical.

Well English isn’t like that. You just have verbs … period. Doing words like I ‘eat‘ or I ‘drive‘ a car and so on.

Now clearly you can drive a car yesterday, today or tomorrow. You may still be driving it, or you may not.

Here are some verb tenses. Every tense had its own different word ending in Latin so you could tell immediately whether you invaded England yesterday, are in the process of invading today, or are planning to invade tomorrow.

I have used the Latin name for each tense – which was generally agreed upon – rather than an English name which may not be the only possibility.

Some people talk about simple forms others about continuous. The easiest rule to learn about English is that there are no real rules.

Present tense: I invade; I am invading (it’s something I’m doing now)

Future tense: I shall invade; I will invade (it’s something I shall or will do in the future)

Imperfect tense: I invaded (it’s something I did in the past – an activity I undertook)

Perfect tense: I have invaded (it’s something I have done – something I have achieved – and have finished doing)

Pluperfect tense: I had invaded (suggesting it was a long time ago, something which had already happened e.g. when I invaded England, I had already invaded France)

Future Perfect tense: Before tomorrow night, I shall have invaded England

Conditional tense: If you invaded England, you would be surprised how few English people you met. (The conditional tense usually follows the word ‘if’).

Is that enough for now?

Verbs, subjects and objects

Every sentence must have a verb. If there is no verb then it is not a grammatically correct sentence.

I mentioned in an earlier post (Nouns and verbs) that verbs are ‘doing’ words. There are two types of ‘doing’ and thus two types of verb. Let me illustrate with examples.

If I say I am swimming, then the verb is intransitive. I (the doer) am called the subject, the person who is doing the swimming, but there is no object. I’m not swimming someone or something, I’m simply swimming.

If I were to say I am driving a car, however, there is clearly an object (the car) so the verb is transitive. I (the doer) am driving a car (the object).

Things get tricky, though, because some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on how they are used. Take eating, for example. I am eating is a good sentence: it tells you what I’m doing. In this context the verb is being used intransitively. But what if I said I am eating an apple? There is a subject (me) and an object (the apple) – the thing which I’m eating. In this case the verb is therefore transitive.

This idea of a subject and an object is fundamental to understanding how verbs work. Whoever is doing the doing, so to speak, is the subject and whoever is having it done to them is the object.

In each of the following examples the word ‘I’ is the subject, the action word is the verb and the recipient of the action is the object. Each example follows the same format: subject – verb – object.

I drive the car. I hit the ball. I ring the bell. I eat the meal. I write the article.

A further complication is the ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ form of the verb. Where we say ‘I ring the bell’, I (the subject) am ringing the bell (the object). This is using the verb in its active form. Another way to express this would be ‘the bell (object) is rung by me’ (subject) and in this instance the verb is being used in its passive sense.

Where the verb is intransitive, it does not have an object.

Examples are: I run. I walk. I eat. I sleep. I read. I swim.

In the next post I’ll start to look at verbs and their tenses. In this area English is much simpler than many other languages.

Pedantry and Prepositions

In our rush to write perfect English, we should perhaps pause for a moment and consider the importance of style. Whilst some words and phrases are quite clearly wrong, there are occasions when style can legitimately overrule supposedly correct sentence structure. Just because a sentence disobeys one or more rules, it is not necessarily badly written.

One example is the rule that you must never end a sentence with a preposition. So, ‘here’s a good example to start with.’

Technically that’s wrong: it should really be ‘here’s a good example with which to start.’

But ‘here’s a good example to start with’ sounds much cleaner and better balanced – and somehow flows more freely. There are no ambiguities, the meaning is clear and it sounds like the way we would speak.

Writing and speaking are different forms of the same thing – communication. It is a common mistake to write in a more formal way than we would speak – but why do we sometimes try? Perhaps it’s a vain attempt to impress; perhaps, if we are older citizens, it’s just the way we were taught.

A famous joke involving Winston Churchill tells how a magazine editor once changed a sentence of his so that it did not end in a preposition. Being proud of his writing style, Churchill became angry and scribbled over the document ‘This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

That may or may not be correct English – at least the sentence does not end with a preposition – but it’s just plain ugly. In the end … style must always come first.

When you first start to learn fencing or karate, you are taught precise moves. This is how you move forwards; this is how you move backwards; and so on. It is only when you have mastered the exact mechanics that you can begin to develop your individual style – the subtle differences that will make you a champion.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Could of; Could have; Could’ve

How many times have you seen someone write ‘I could of done better’, ‘I should of taken greater care’, ‘I might of been late’.

All are very common – but all are very wrong!

They should read ‘I could have done better’, ‘I should have taken greater care’, ‘I might have been late’.

The mistake originates from writing down exactly what you hear.

In normal speech we would say ‘I could’ve done better’ (short for ‘could have’), ‘I should’ve taken greater care’ (short for ‘should have’) and ‘I might’ve been late‘ (short for ‘might have’).

In each case, the ‘ve’ sounds like ‘of’ when spoken, but it should be ‘have’, not ‘of’, when written down.

Its; it’s

We are so used to inserting an apostrophe to denote possession, that we sometimes write it’s when we should say its.

The cat’s tail may be long and fluffy but its purr is smooth and mellow.

You write it’s only when a letter has been omitted, as in it is or it has.

It’s a nice day; it’s been fun spending it with you.

When something belongs to it, you should always write its without an apostrophe.

There; their; they’re

There is nothing in the cupboard – their cupboard is empty so they’re in danger of starving. There you have it!

In the case of they’re, the apostrophe indicates that a letter has been omitted. They’re is short for they are.

Your; you’re

I am your friend; you’re my friend.

As with they’re, the apostrophe replaces an omitted letter. You’re is short for you are.

Conjunctions and Interjections

Conjunctions and Interjections

There are eight ‘Parts of Speech’. We’ve had a quick look at nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs,pronouns and prepositions. Finally we come to conjunctions and interjections. Neither of them are particularly difficult to understand, but they play important roles when you are trying to learn how to write good English.

CONJUNCTIONS are joining words, meaning literally ‘joining together’. Typically they will join two or more ideas, things, actions, and so on. Examples are “and, but, or”. As with all parts of speech, conjunctions are a part of the English language which can become extremely complicated – if you let them.

Our aim is always to promote clear writing. To make that possible you do need to understand the basic rules of grammar, but you do not need to become a Professor.

INTERJECTIONS convey feeling or emotion. They are quite easily recognisable as they are often followed by an exclamation mark, such as “Ouch!”, “Hello!”, “Hey!”

You should now have a basic understanding of English grammar. Maybe one day I’ll go into greater depth for those who are interested, but for now it’s enough to grasp the principles and, most importantly, put them into practice.

Next will follow some brief posts about punctuation. As with parts of speech, punctuation marks are essential building blocks of good written English. But they are simply tools, things you use to write good English.

Keep your tools sharp and they will serve you well!