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Be careful when you use idioms!

An idiom is an expression that means something else than its separate words might suggest. Many idioms are peculiar to a specific language. Therefore, you should be careful when you try to translate an idiom from your own language into another.

There is a children’s game called follow the leader. One child is the leader and the others must follow and repeat what that child does.

Follow the leader has become an idiom meaning go along with, do as you are told, obey. In my native Swedish the saying is follow John. When I was young I worked as a farm helper in Wales. The farmer often took me and his family to various markets and fairs, where we could discover the latest in farm machinery, admire award-winning sheep and see fine displays of cakes and flower arrangements. The whole thing meant a lot of criss-crossing over large areas from one spectacle to another, and once when the farmer was hurrying along with the rest of us following in his footsteps,  I shouted, ”Now we’re following John!” I had no idea that the English expression is different, and since the farmer’s first name was John, I thought I was really witty. I always addressed him by Mr. Wrench and never called him John. His family must have thought that I was very impolite. 

A family is walking in the gutter with sleeping mats over their heads to protect them from heavy rain.The image illustrates the idiom 'follow the leader' as a reminder to be careful when you use idioms.
Following the leader

Here are some English idioms with their equivalents in Swedish and some other languages:

Carry coals to Newcastle
To express that you do something that is redundant or completely pointless, you can say in English to carry coals to Newcastle. Since Newcastle is known for its coal, it’s meaningless to carry coals there. The French expression is porter de l’eau à la rivière (carry water to the river), and in Swedish it is gå över ån efter vatten (cross the stream to get water). The German idiom is Eulen nach Athen tragen (carry owls to Athens – the owl is a symbol of wisdom and there were many wise men in old Athens).

Beat around the bush
To say that you avoid doing or talking about something unpleasant or difficult, there is the English idiom beat around the bush. The corresponding Swedish expression is gå som katten kring het gröt (walk like the cat around hot porridge). There is a similar expression in German, um den Brei herumreden (talk around the porridge). In French the saying is tourner autour au pot (going around the pot). The Italians say menare il can per l’aia (lead the dog to the barn).

Foot the bill
If you ask someone to foot the bill, you want them to pay the costs. This is in German zur Kasse bitten (ask someone to come to the cash desk). In Swedish you have to betala kalaset (pay for the party) or stå för fiolerna (pay for the violins).

The straw that broke the camel’s back
This idiom means that something small will be the final action that causes a large and unwanted reaction. The Swedish equivalent is the drop that made the cup run over. Other European languages such as German, French, Italian and Spanish also refer to a cup that runs over.

Out of the frying pan into the fire
This is an expression saying that something is going from bad to worse. The Swedish saying is ur askan i elden (out of the ashes into the fire).

Kill two birds with one stone
This means that you can achieve two goals with just one action. In Swedish we say slå två flugor i en smäll (hit two flies with one swat). Danish and German are other languages that refer to flies instead of birds.

Miss the boat
If you are too slow to take advantage of an opportunity and it’s now too late, you miss the boat. In Swedish we say tåget har gått (the train has left).

Let the cat out of the bag
Inadvertently disclose a secret. The Swedish equivalent is prata bredvid munnen (talk beside your mouth).

Cost an arm and a leg
To say that something is very expensive is in Swedish kosta skjortan (cost the shirt).

IDENTICAL IDIOMS IN ENGLISH AND SWEDISH

Many idioms are almost identical in English and Swedish. The following are some examples.

Cast pearls before swine
Offer something to someone who does not understand it or want to use it

No smoke without fire
A rumour about someone is probably true

Play with fire
Do something risky that may harm you

Hit the nail on the head
Do or say something that is exactly right

Grab the bull by its horns
Directly take strong action to deal with a problem


Sleep like a log
Sleep very deeply without being woken by any noises

Strong as an ox
Be very strong

Like father, like son
Resemble a parent in appearance or behaviour

Sweep things under the carpet
Hide something that is embarrassing or wrong

Put your cards on the table
Be completely honest about your intentions

Eat like a horse
Eat a lot of food

Throw in the towel
Admit that you are defeated

You need to be careful when you use idioms. So, if you talk about a cat walking round hot porridge, a native English speaker will look very surprised.

You will find more English idioms here.

Farther or further?

What is the difference between farther and further?

Not a very big one, I’d say. Except in certain cases.

Both words can be used regarding distance. There are language purists who maintain that farther refers to physical distance and further to imaginative distance, but common usage does not seem to make that distinction. (If you want to stick to the distinction, it may help to remember that farther has far in it.)

The café is at the farther end of the street.
I can’t walk any farther.
Can you see her at the further end of the corridor?
We can’t get any further – there is a tree across the road.

The music room is on the left further down the corridor

Further can also mean more, in addition.

We need to look further into this.
Does it need further explanation?
Further (= Furthermore), recent research has shown this to be true.

In examples like the above, use further and not farther.

We can find further in some common sayings:

Nothing could be further from the truth.
We’ll deal with that further down the road (= later on, in the future).
He can’t see further than the end of his nose.
This will be in effect until further notice.
They left without further ado (= immediately, without delay).
Seek no further!
This can be seen as a further expression of her influence on the political development.
Further to our telephone conversation this morning, I am writing to confirm our order for ten ink cartridges.
I have nothing further to add.

Further can also be a verb, meaning promote, develop, help.

What can we do to further her studies?
He only  wants to further his own interests.

In sum, if you want to write farther, do so only when it is a matter of physical distance. You will never be wrong using further.

Read about the difference between furthermore and moreover here.

Take or bring

These two words usually indicate direction in relation to the speaker or the listener.

Take implies moving something from where the speaker or listener is.
Bring implies moving something to where the speaker or listener is.

Can you take my dress to the dry cleaner’s?
You can bring it back when you come next week.
Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?
Don’t take your car to work today. There’s an awful traffic jam in the centre.
Bring the salt, please!
Wait a second! I’ll bring you your towel.

In the last sentence we look at the situation from the listener’s point of view. In other words, we have changed the perspective as in the following examples:

I took your briefcase home with me by mistake.
Thanks for your kind invitation. I’ll be happy to come. Shall I bring some wine?

A woman is standing in front of a lot of wine bottles in a liquor store
Shall I bring some wine?

To sum up, think of movement to or from a position. You can compare with come and go. You come here and you go there. Bring it here and take it there.

That said, you may find that either take or bring is used when the direction is unclear or unimportant. It can also depend on whether you put the emphasis on here or there, if you think about where you are now or already imagine yourself at another location.

When you say ”Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?”, you are still at home. When you say, ”Shall I bring some wine?”, you are already imagining yourself at the party.

With respect to and in respect of

The two phrases with respect to and in respect of both mean regarding, concerning. While both are used in British English, in respect of is seldom used in American English.

With respect to your enquiry we can deliver the items by Friday.
The two novels are very different in respect of the development of their respective characters.

Both these expressions are used in formal writing. When we speak, we have other ways of expressing regarding, as you can see here.

To a non-native English writer, the use of prepositions in English is often confusing. In the phrases we are looking at here, we cannot change the prepositions and say, for example *in respect to (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).

To have respect for someone is to show consideration or respect towards a person or admire someone for their qualities, ideas, actions, etc.

She has great respect for her grandfather’s long experience.
I have no respect for people who keep interrupting others.

Overuse of the -ing form

As we have seen in another blog post, the -ing form, the present continuous, indicates that something is going on just for the moment.

I’m writing an email on the balcony (momentarily).
He writes articles for monthly magazines (a regular activity).

He is living in France (temporarily).
I live in Sweden (Sweden is my home country).

To say that someone is only temporarily in a place, the verb stay is often used.

He is staying at a small hotel in Lyon.

Man on a balcony is writing on a laptop
I’m writing an email on the balcony

Non-native speakers of English whose mother tongue only has the present simple sometimes tend to overuse the present continuous when they speak English, since they believe that to be the common form. Even if they intend to convey a permanent state, they may say or write sentences such as the following (for the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text):

*I’m travelling to work by bus every morning all year round. (Since this is what happens regularly you should say I travel to work by bus every morning.)

*He is designing cars. (This is his permanent job, hence the correct sentence would be He designs cars.)

*They are playing golf every weekend. (This is a habit, so it should be They play golf every weekend.) 

*That book is costing nine dollars. (That is a fixed price, so the correct version is That book costs nine dollars.)

*They are making washing machines. (Unless this is a temporary production and they normally make refrigerators, we must write They make washing machines.)

You should think twice before using the -ing form in English!

They are making cars. Really?

What’s the difference between He plays football and He is playing golf?

The person we are talking about is obviously a professional footballer, but right now he is active on a golf course.

In English there are two ways of expressing an action in the present tense: the present simple and the present continuous.

Present simple

We use the present simple when we talk about

– a permanent (or nearly permanent) situation:

My uncle lives in Spain.
He works as a tourist guide.

– what we do regularly, habits:

Her brother collects rare books.
I drink black coffee in the morning.

– what is always true:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
A Tesla coil produces high-voltage electric pulses.

– what happens in a book or a film:

The two friends plan a robbery.
At the end she marries a millionaire.

Present continuous

We use the present continuous when we talk about

– things that are happening just now:

The water is boiling, so you’d better find the teabags.
Look, it’s raining!

– a temporary situation:

My uncle is staying at a small hotel during his visit to Paris.
He is practising his French.

– temporary or annoying habits:

I’m spending too much time on Facebook these days.
Mum is always complaining about the mess in my room.

– what we see in a photo:

Here we are waiting for the limousine.
The children are waving to grandma from the balcony.

To sum up:

Use the -ing form when you write about what is going on temporarily and the simple form when you write about what happens regularly.

The same applies to the past:

Past simple

My uncle worked in a bookshop.
I ran to school every morning.

Past continuous

They were running to catch the train.
What were you doing at seven o’clock last night? I tried to call you.

A few people are running in an underground station i London. The image illustrates the present continuous They were running to catch the train.
They were running to catch the train.

Often past simple and past continuous are used in the same sentence to say that something happened in the middle of something else going on:

I was having breakfast when the doorbell rang.
When Susan came home, her husband was cooking dinner.

In the last example, her husband had started cooking before Susan came home. If he started cooking after she arrived, we would say 

When Susan came home, her husband cooked dinner.

So, to say They are making cars would suggest that the activity is only temporary. Production in a car factory is a long-term activity, and therefore we must write They make cars.

Non-native writers of English may tend to overuse the -ing form. Read more here.

Can you write ‘I were’ instead of ‘I was’?

Yes, you can and in some cases you should.

Was and were are past forms of the verb be, an irregular verb that is extremely common.

We use was in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he, she, it):

I was tired and sat down in my favorite armchair.
She was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door.
It was the first Tuesday in April.

The other persons take the form were:

Were you happy with the result?
We were together.
They were down by the river.

Was and were are also auxiliary verbs, that is, they are followed by another verb:

I was having a nap when you called.
Was he really doing that?
I thought you were going to help her.

It is possible to use were also with I, he, she and it. We do so in situations that are not real. It can be a hypothetical situation (usually with the word if):

Even if he were my boss, I wouldn’t do it.
If I were you, I would definitely accept the offer.
If this were true, you could stay there for a whole month.

It can be wishful thinking:

I wish I were in Rome again.
How I wish that she were here!

Tourists outside the Colosseum in Rome, Italy
I wish I were in Rome again…

This form of the verb is called the subjunctive mood. The were form with you, we and they is also subjunctive in hypothetical or counterfactual statements, even if it does not differ from the indicative form used in ordinary sentences:

If they were younger, I would offer them a job (subjunctive).
They were already there when I arrived (indicative).

You should avoid writing *I wish that she was here. (For the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text.)

That’s OK!

In a previous blog entry we looked at acronyms and initialisms. Probably the most common initialism is OK. Meaning acceptable, everything is in order, go ahead, I approve, etc., it is used in many languages.

Just as internet-savvy young people nowadays use fancy abbreviations such as 2Y2 (to you too), CU L8ER (see you later) and TNX (thanks), people in the 1830s also made up funny abbreviations, often based on intended misspellings. They could, for example, write KY for know yuse, meaning no use. All right was abbreviated OW (oll wright). OK was such a misspelling, supposed to mean oll korrect. It became popular when it first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.

In 1840, President Martin van Buren campaigned for reelection, and his supporters chose O.K. as the motto for the campaign. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and supporters formed O.K. Clubs around the country. In the end, van Buren was not okayed by the voters; his opponent William Henry Harrison won the election.

OK became increasingly popular and is used all over the world in various versions such as okeh, okie, okej, okey, ookoo, owkej, hokay and others.

You can write OK in different ways, with and without full stops and in uppercase or lowercase letters. If you write for a journal, you should consult its style guide. OK is also written okay, and in student slang it became okey-dokey or okie-dokie.

Space people at NASA added a letter; AOK means All OK.

The initialism has its own sign: to signal OK, you form a circle with your thumb and first finger with the other fingers pointing upwards.

A hand showing the OK sign with thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers pointing upwards.
That’s OK!

You should, however, be cautious about using this OK sign in certain countries, where it might be vulgar or offensive. In Brazil, for example, it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger (up yours!). The sign has also become linked to white supremacist groups in the USA.

There have been alternative suggestions about the origin of OK. One theory says that the abbreviation is from the Choctaw language (the Choctaws are a Native American people in the southeastern United States). An example of folk etymology is the belief that OK comes from the Scottish och aye, meaning oh yes. Another explanation points out that the letters OK were stamped on biscuits given to soldiers in the American Civil War. The biscuits came from Orrin Kendall’s bakery. But the most probable explanation is the one from the Boston Morning Post.

What is a backronym?

In an earlier blog post we looked at acronyms.

While an acronym is formed from a phrase, a backronym (or bacronym) is a word that is supposed to come from a phrase, but that phrase has been constructed (often humorously) to fit an existing word.

A well-known example of a backronym is posh, meaning stylish, elegant, upper-class. There is a popular belief that posh came from ’port out, starboard home’. It was thought that rich people would book two cabins on their voyage to India and back home, one on the port side of the ship and the other on the starboard. In that way they made sure that they could travel more comfortably, away from the heat of the sun. However, posh was quite simply a slang word in the late 1800s for an overdressed dandy. Another meaning of posh was a small coin, money. 

Starboard side of the deck of a passenger ship.
Port or starboard?

Another backronym is golf, which is – erroneously – said to come from gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. The word golf is considered to come from Middle Dutch cold, meaning stick or club.

A few more backronyms:

CopConstable on patrol
FordFix or repair daily
IBMIt's Better Manually
NavyNever again volunteer yourself
TipTo ensure promptness

A CAPTCHA is a distorted code you copy on a website to access a page. This is to prevent automated attacks on a website. The acronym is said to mean Completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart. However, I am not sure that the word is a true acronym. It was probably made in analogy with gotcha, ’I have got you’, meaning that you have caught somebody doing something wrong. A gotcha also means a sudden unexpected problem. The interesting thing is that there now is another way to prevent hackers from accessing a web page – and it is called GOTCHA, said to mean Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. If you don’t know Alan Turing or the Turing Test, read here or here.

The Morse signal SOS is said to mean Save our Ship or Save our Souls. In fact, the alarm signal is …- – -… (three short, three long, three short without any pause), while the letters SOS in Morse code are three short, pause, three long, pause, three short.

Another distress signal is Mayday, mainly used by airplane or ship crews. It is used in voice communication via radio. In a life-threatening emergency the word is repeated three times. The word is said to have been created by Frederick Rockford, a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London in 1923. Mayday supposedly comes from the French m’aidez meaning ‘help me’ or venez m’aider meaning ‘come and help me’. So Mayday is not a backronym.

Neither is May Day, which is something completely different. It refers to the first of May (or the first Monday in May) being a festival in many countries to celebrate the arrival of spring.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They are formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase and usually, but not always, written in capital letters. An acronym is pronounced as a word:

ASAPAs soon as possible
HIRCHuman–industrial robot collaboration
NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
PINPersonal identification number
POTUSPresident of the United States
SARSSevere acute respiratory syndrome
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency

Some words created as acronyms have become so common that people do not know they are acronyms. Some examples:

laserlight amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radarradio detection and ranging
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sonarsound navigation and ranging
taserThomas A Swift's Electric Rifle

There are other abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word, but they are pronounced as individual letters. These abbreviations are called initialisms. Some examples:

B2BBusiness-to-business
BMXBicycle motocross
CEOChief executive officer
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
DIYDo-it-yourself
FAQFrequently asked questions
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
IPOInitial public offering
NHLNational Hockey League
RFIDRadio frequency identification
WWWWorld Wide Web
An RFID tag.
Detail of an RFID tag used on a garment

The most common initialism is probably OK. It is such a popular abbreviation that it deserves its own blog post.

Communicating on the internet has created many abbreviations:

2F4UToo fast for you
AFKAway from keyboard
BBSBe back soon
LOLLaughing out loud
KISSKeep it simple, stupid
ROFLRolling on the floor laughing
YOLOYou only live once

How the first letter in an abbreviation is pronounced determines whether the indefinite article should be written a or an. Compare the following:

A UNESCO spokespersonAn unknown person
An FBI agentA federal agent
An HR managerA human resources manager

In my next blog post you can read about backronyms.

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