'Friendly young woman, always sliming'

Spotted this great typo in free London newspaper thelondonpaper's "personal dating column". I'm assuming that the word is supposed to be 'smiling', although it could possibly be 'slimming'. Or perhaps the young woman in question is indeed "always sliming".

And I should point out that I was looking at this column purely for professional purposes. Really!

It's bloody sloppy: carnage and damage

Heard last night while dozing through yet another fly-on-the-wall cop-doc:

Despite the carnage he caused no one was seriously hurt

Ouch! Carnage, as any working hack should know, means widespread slaughter (indeed the word's roots can be traced back to the Latin for flesh). You can't cause carnage without killing people; the miscreant in this case had merely smashed up a few cars while being chased by the police, so what he caused was damage, not carnage.

Is it me, or is this kind of sloppy English becoming the norm as an increasing number of TV stations seek to fill our waking hours with low-rent programming?

Redundancy: long-term personal friend of mine

The publication I work for recently ran an interview with a certain individual who described his business partner as:

a long-term personal friend of mine

I love this phrase for being such a great example of redundancy in spoken language. After all, aren't friends usually personal? And can't the 'of mine' be inferred from the context? And why say 'long-term friend' when 'old friend' will do? In fact, you could replace the whole phrase with 'old friend' and be done with it.

Not that I did, of course.

PS Sorry there was no 'Friday roundup' last week but I was enjoying a long weekend at the seaside...

Half the country hasn't an NHS dentist

Gareth sent in this scan of a recent Daily Mail front page with a question about the sentence construction used in the headline, but I'd been meaning to blog about this story for a different reason.

If you can't see the scan, I should tell you that the headline reads "Half the country hasn't an NHS dentist"; the web version of the same story explicitly states what the headline implies, namely that "Half the country can't get an NHS dentist". And perhaps for some of our foreign readers I should explain that the NHS is the National Health Service – the role of which is to provide health care, often free, to anyone normally resident in England (Scotland and Wales apparently have their own Health Services).

In contrast to the headline, the story itself states only that:

In total, 23,161,368 people in England - almost half the population - received no dental care on the Health Service in the two years up to last September.

To my mind, there's a great deal of difference between someone being unable to get an NHS dentist and someone not receiving dental care from an NHS dentist. After all, there are many reasons why people might not go to an NHS dentist in any given period: they might choose to have private dental care; they might have a phobia of dentists; they might not think about going to the dentist at all.

So to say that half the country can't get an NHS dentist simply because they don't go to an NHS dentist is highly misleading. It's part of a worrying trend of NHS-bashing I've noticed in the media – other popular soft targets include the BBC and the public transport network. Of course, all of these have their failings but there's no need to invent new failings by deliberately misinterpreting statistics.

In my own experience, which probably isn't representative of anything, I've had no problem finding an NHS dentist willing to take on new patients. It does seem usual to have to pay for a private hygienist though...

The former Eastern Europe

This sentence recently came up in some copy submitted to the production desk:

The former Eastern Europe and Russia is a particular target of current expansion

Um, what happened to Eastern Europe – why is it 'former'? Have all the countries been relocated elsewhere – and if so, where? I think the writer has been dazzled and distracted by phrases such as 'the former Soviet Bloc'.

Oh, and don't get me started on subject-verb agreement...

Pro rata, pro ratad, prorate

One of our members of editorial staff wanted to use the adjective 'pro rata' as a verb, and asked the subs' desk how the past participle should be spelt. As far as I could see, there were three contenders:

  • pro ratad
  • pro rata'd
  • pro rataed

I considered them all, but they all seemed ugly and potentially jarring, so I advised the staff member to recast the sentence: for example, instead of writing 'the company pro ratad the salary', she should write 'the company paid the salary pro rata' (or, '...on a pro rata basis'). However is this a sufficient reason not to verb something – because it looks 'ugly' when written down?

And what would I have done had 'pro ratad' been used as a verb in a direct quote?

NB I see in my Oxford English Dictionary that there is a verb 'prorate': "allocate or assess pro rata". However this isn't in common use this side of the Atlantic, as the OED recognises, so isn't much of an option. But it would be a very useful verb to have...

A pensioner writes

Having been languishing on the Costa Brava (it's a hard life as a pensioner) I missed the Engine Room's anniversary but wanted belatedly to congratulate JD on the way it's developed. While my esteemed colleague let me join him on the blog it's always been his baby and I've really enjoyed catching up on his entries and the comments from our fellow enthusiasts of English as she is writ. Having spent so long in the engine room holding the line against manglers of the mother tongue it's nice to know we're not alone.

Enough with the valedictions already; here's a warning spotted at Gatwick Airport on the way back from Spain: "Dogs must be carried on the moving pavement". Which led Mrs Apus to wonder where we could borrow a pooch apiece because clearly we wouldn't be allowed in without one.

What a carry on...

Friday roundup 4: AmE, writing blogs, low pay...

Another Friday roundup:


The first of this week's additions to the blogroll is Separated by a Common Language, "observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK". So it addresses some of the issues I look at in The Engine Room, albeit from a different perspective. And the linguist in question is Lynneguist, who you may have noticed commenting here from time to time. I wrote earlier this week about a misunderstanding I had regarding the spelling of the word 'cemetary', and Lynneguist picked up on this for her own blog, so I am glad to see my foolish error making its way round the internet.


If you have an interest in linguistics, you may be familiar with my second addition – Language Log. It's got a crisp new template and sorted out its own blogroll so I thought I would give it a mention. It's quite an academic blog, although not without a sense of humour. I find the lack of a comment facility a little frustrating, though – especially when the bloggers there write something I disagree with. Which happens fairly often.


Something else I stumbled upon this week is a list of 40 writing blogs, especially useful if you are an aspiring freelance writer. I can't promise that all the blogs on this list are good, though.


Finally, I found this on BigLorryBlog – it seems that the credit crunch is having more of an impact than we might have realised:

Talk about minimum wage...

Happy birthday to The Engine Room

It's exactly a year since I wrote the first post on The Engine Room, so I suppose today is the blog's first birthday. Happy birthday to us!

In that time, Apus and I have written 353 posts; we've had 19,477 hits (not including those from our own good selves); and we've made $10.60 in advertising revenue from AdSense. Hey, that's nearly enough to buy ourselves a beer each! I think we've earnt it.

Without being too cheesy, thanks to everyone who has helped, commented, made suggestions, sent in articles and emails, linked to us or just acknowledged our existence.

Oh, and seeing as it's the blog's birthday, I thought you might be interested to see our current top five Google searches (ie the ones where people actually click through to us). I've linked them to the posts in question:

The last one seems a bit specific. I'm surprised many people are Googling that exact phrase!

Two chipmunks and an Alvin

I was in a shop at lunchtime that had a promotion on for the DVD release of the Alvin and the Chipmunks film.

It suddenly occurred to me: the title 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' implies that Alvin (unlike Simon and Theodore) isn't actually a chipmunk. Otherwise it would be 'Alvin and the Other Chipmunks' or 'Alvin and Two More Chipmunks'.

But if he isn't a chipmunk, what is he? And aren't they all supposed to be siblings?

Shows, crows, and the busiest day of the year

It's press day in show week – perhaps the busiest day in our magazine's calendar. With twice as many news pages as usual to sub, lay out, proof, correct, send down and approve, all of the production desk has a hectic five or six hours. Not to mention that our technical editor has to do all of his proofing remotely, as he's down at the show too.

Actually we've gone to press now, which is why I have a few minutes to write this post. We'll find out tomorrow if there were any major screw-ups, I suppose.

I did nearly let an embarrassing one slip through earlier – tapping in a headline for one story, my finger must have slipped, as instead of writing 'New Magnum cab draws crowd' I wrote 'New Magnum cab draws crows'. Quite a surreal image. Fortunately I spotted it before it went out on proof. I'm sure our proofreaders would have picked up on it, though I can only imagine the stick they would have given me...

Pet Sematary. I mean cemetery. Or do I?

A small admission. For many years, until quite recently, I thought that 'sematary' was just the American English spelling of 'cemetery'.

My elder brother's copy of the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary (pictured) was to blame.

As I understand, in the novel the sign for the pet cemetery is incorrectly spelt, having been written by children (the sign, that is, not the novel). The title of the novel refers to that incorrectly spelt sign. But how was I supposed to know that?

Especially as I would be more inclined to say 'graveyard' anyway...

Friday roundup: Apprentice, blogs, limos, Croydon

Time for this week's Friday roundup:


I'm a fan of The Apprentice, which is in its third series here in the UK, and watching it this week I was amused to hear one of the contestants referred to (by Voiceover Man) as a "trained barrister". I didn't know that you could become a barrister without training. What's that – you can't? Then surely just 'barrister' would have done. Or maybe he meant "trained as a barrister but not practising as one..."

Alan Sugar, silver fox


A couple of additions to our blogroll, both worth checking out: Copy-Editing Corner and Headup: the blog. Seems there are more blogging subs/copy editors than I realised... Talking of which, it might be time that I subdivided my blogroll as it's getting a little unwieldy.


Earlier in the week Apus wrote a post mentioning the origin of the word limousine, and the photo I downloaded from image library Morguefile to accompany the post turned out to have been taken by the author Emily Roesly. I thought it only fair that I gave her a plug...


A story in free paper Metro about a teenager who had difficulty ordering a taxi because of the slang she used made me laugh this morning.


And lastly, I had an email from my mum saying: "I know Posh and Becks called their son Brooklyn, but I've just come across a child called Croydon!"

It's not as unlikely as you might think, oh mother of mine – after all, Croydon has often been referred to as the "Manhattan of South London". On the other hand, David Bowie called it "complete concrete hell" and he's not often wrong...

Colchester Castle: mind your 'V's and 'U's

Something a little different today. Gingerous has emailed in this photo of a (20th-century) plaque at Colchester Castle:

And he asks: "Why is the letter U is replaced with the letter V in all the text?"

I've already sent a brief reply to Gingerous but I wasn't 100% confident in my answer. So, just for a change, I was wondering if anyone out there would like to have a go at giving an explanation...

Metro: dubious festival fashion advice

Even though festival season is still months off, free paper Metro yesterday ran a fashion guide to looking "festival-fab" and "Glasto-glam". It included this piece of questionable advice:

Crowd pleaser: A big hat is a hit on so many levels: it's a sun visor, you can be spotted from a distance and, if all else fails, it will hide hideous hair.

I don't know about you, but whenever I've been in a crowd at a festival, trying to watch a band but having my view restricted by someone in a massive hat, I've been less than pleased.

On the plus side, wearing a big hat at festivals makes you an obvious target for projectiles such as mud, beer cans, and bottles of -um- yellow liquid...

Don't be a dummy, choose a smaller hat

We've been critiquing Metro a lot recently, notably on its statistics...

How heavy is the Apple MacBook Air?

Gingerous has emailed in an amusing quote from a review of the MacBook Air laptop (pictured above) which he came across in the April edition of IT Manager magazine:

The MacBook Air is Apple's take on the ultraportable notebook. At a mere 1.4kg and 4mm at its thinnest point and 19mm at its thickest (the hinge at the back), and weighing in at just 1.36kg, it's definitely ultraportable.

Gingerous rightly comments: "Now I'm not sure on the grammar side of things (although it didn't read too well to me), but why does the weight of the laptop get mentioned twice and why are they different?"

Um, maybe it depends on how full the hard drive is. Or does anyone have any better suggestions?

The online version of the story sadly doesn't contain the offending copy...

Tory border force to 'pursue crime'

There was a great quote in one of our news stories today, attributed to Shadow Home Secretary David Davis:

“We would establish a dedicated UK border force with proper police powers to secure our borders and pursue crime, from human trafficking to drug smuggling.”

I was kind, and changed 'pursue' to 'tackle'. Not everyone who used the quote was quite as nice, though...

David Davis: Vows to pursue crime

Friday roundup no.2

Last week I instigated a Friday roundup but this week's is going to be rather short because Apus has already written two fine posts today.

  • The job title 'hazardous goods manager' has been making me laugh – is that just a goods manager who is a hazard to others?
  • Talking of job titles, our technical editor pointed out a great one that made it into the pages of our publication: 'knowledge transfer network manager'. Anyone know what that means?
  • I'm thinking of trying the JargonFish widget on the Engine Room – anyone out there had any good/bad experiences with it?
  • And has anyone noticed all the adverts that Adsense has been serving us for 'Sarah Beeny's Dating Site'? Exactly how many people is La Beeny looking to date?

A longer roundup is promised for next week...

Word origins: hobby, limousine

Here are a couple of examples culled from recent TV programmes.

Evidently Henry IIX kept a stable of "hobby horses", leading to the use of the word hobby for any pastime that takes up a lot of time and money, though for some reason his use of decapitation hasn't survived as a synonym for divorce. And it seems limousine derives from the French sheepskins used to keep chauffeurs nice and snug.

Who says telly isn't educational?

A limousine, somewhat obviously

To reassure JD that I can still read as well as slob in front of the box, just today I finished The Last Corsair, a history of the WW1 German surface raider the Emden. It's an almost unbelievable yarn and well worth a read.

Following their hair-raising adventures the survivors of her crew were treated to a 'bierabend' (beer-evening). Could that be the origin of the phrase to go on a bender?

Language isn't everything

Having retired from the engine room (this is being written in my caravan at the seaside, the sun's shining and it's all rather wonderful) I have bags of time to watch telly. Recently I caught a late night showing of a movie called Redemption, having been warned in the TV guide to expect "moderate bad language".

Fair enough, the language wasn't shocking – but the plot included a monk being bricked up alive and torture involving plugging in an iron and leaving it on the hapless victim's chest.

Needless to say it put me off my cocoa and left me wondering if the TV guide's engine room might be well advised to pay less attention to offensive language and more to offensive plots.

Metro: How many white people in Britain?

It's dodgy statistics time again, today courtesy of free paper Metro.

In the midst of an feature about 'the state of the nation', based on a National Statisticians article on society, Metro makes the following claim:

Percentage of UK population classified as white
2007: 90%
(England 65%)

Um, given that England makes up about 50 million of the UK's 60 million-ish population, this just doesn't add up.

If 90% of the UK's 60 million population is white, that's 54 million of them who are white and 6 million not. Even if every one of those non-white folk lives in England (which isn't the case), that still gives England a white population of 44 million, or just over 80%.

So either the figure of 90% is wrong, or the figure of 65% is wrong. Or possibly both. When I spot something like this in a feature, it immediately makes me mistrust the entire thing and I usually just stop reading.

Just a thought: any chance that figure of 65% was supposed to refer to London?

Tearing things out of papers
is not my forte...

The beaver wax puzzle

A little language puzzle based on an event from my childhood.

When I was young, I was a Cub Scout. On my first overnight camp, at the age of eight or so, I was excited to learn that we would be making 'beaver wax' that evening. But what was that? I knew what beavers were, and I knew what what wax was, of course, but I couldn't connect the two in my mind. Baloo and all the older Cubs seemed to know what beaver wax was, so I didn't want to ask and look foolish.

My question to you is: what did we make that evening? (And no, it was nothing inappropriate...)

Forest: a good place for beaver wax?

Juxtaposition: syphilis and a banana

A great example of juxtaposition in yesterday's free paper thelondonpaper, as you can see from the scan below (click on the image for a larger version).

A question to the 'urban doc' on syphilis is next to a question on vegan diets – the latter being illustrated by a picture of a semi-peeled banana.

It made me laugh, anyway. But I can't quite decide whether this was a deliberate move on the part of thelondonpaper's production desk or just a happy accident.

And rather embarrassingly, our web editor just walked over to ask me something when I had the scanned article blown up to massive proportions on my Mac...