What you didn’t learn at school – and why

My business is helping people to improve their personal communication skills – in other words, the way they interact with other people either in writing or speaking.

This covers a wide field, and can also bring in issues such as conversational skills, accents, self-confidence, self-esteem and what sort of image of ourselves we want to show to others. Sometimes I work with individuals as a tutor, sometimes I deliver training courses and workshops to groups, but the object is always the same: to demonstrate how to be a more effective communicator.

Some of my clients are business people who are self-conscious at meetings, some have an important speech or presentation to give and need some help with technique. Some speak English as their second language (or third or fourth) and want to speak it naturally way the British do, rather than in the stilted version they learned at school in their home country.

Yet although personal communication is a wide and varied subject, I have noticed some common threads running through the hundreds of clients I have tutored or trained. One of them is anxiety about the use – or rather misuse – of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I know that in the UK alone there are thousands of people, many in very responsible jobs, who worry that their poor grasp of the ‘rules’ of English language is letting them down. In a way they are right. Like it or not, other people do judge us by how we speak and write, and not just by what we say. They make assumptions about our origins, our education and even our intelligence and competence based only on how we pronounce words or construct a sentence. As somebody said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

In fact if some of my clients are a bit weak when it comes to grammatical ‘rules’, that is not necessarily their fault. In the first place English is a very flexible, not to mention eccentric, language and its very lack of rules can make it baffling to learn and use. Secondly, there was a period when strict teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation was rather out of fashion. If you happened to go to school during that period, you may not have been taught what is in this book. On the other hand, you may have been looking out of the window and not paying attention, so let’s not be too quick to blame the education system, shall we.

My experience with individual clients has led me to develop a series of training sessions called ‘English Language for Grownups’.

These are for anyone who feels they need a grounding – or a refresher – in the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation in English. It’s not like school though – it’s more fun and there are no exams.

The first sessions – called, imaginatively, Part1 – will be held in the Constanze Suite,  Kaffeehaus Amadeus, 1 Percy Crescent, Station Road, Lanchester, County Durham DH7 0EU on Wednesday 16 March  and again on Wednesday 23 March 2016, from 9 am  to 12.30pm.


The special launch price of £99 includes delicious Kaffeehaus elevenses, bottomless coffee and tea, croissants, cheese, ham, savoury nibbles etc, and everyone attending will receive a free copy of my book ‘Grammar Gaffes’.


Interested? Book online here, or email andy@andycollinspr.co.uk for more details.

English Language for Grownups

I have just found out that 4 March is National Grammar Day – in the USA at least. It reminds me that there are thousands of people in the UK who are unsure about spelling, grammar and punctuation when they are writing. I know this because some of them become my clients and ask for private tuition in just those skills.

It’s not just that they are a bit shakey in their written Eng Lang (as we used to call it at school) but very often they feel a kind of shame or guilt about it, as if their uncertainty about the use of apostrophes and so on makes them a bad person – or at least shows that they are a bit dim. I’m talking here about people with very responsible jobs, who are no doubt very good at those jobs. I have tutored business people, lawyers, accountants, even teachers. What normally happens is that their lack of grounding in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation makes no difference to them for a while after they leave school. Eventually though, they find themselves a fair way up the career ladder, where suddenly they are competing for promotion against colleagues who clearly do know how to use an apostrophe, and suddenly they are at a disadvantage (at least a perceived one). If they run their own business, they lack confidence dealing with potential clients because they are afraid their use of English will let them down. The clever ones then come to me for help!

The thing is, being a bit dodgy with your Eng Lang does not make you a bad person, or an idiot. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are skills, and like other skills they are taught, learned and improved with practice. Not being totally confident with them just shows that you weren’t properly taught them when you were younger. That doesn’t stop you learning them now.

Of course the problem may be that you didn’t pay attention at school, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. For many years the detailed teaching of spelling, grammar and punctuation went out of fashion in English schools because educationalists felt it was unnecessary and a bit restrictive and old-fashioned. If you went to school during this period (it has changed a bit now by the way), the chances are the importance of these things weren’t impressed on you. The trouble is, they often do become important when you are all grown up and the quality of your communication is an issue.

I was lucky. In the first place I am extremely old and can remember when people wrote with fountain pens without spellcheck. More importantly I went to an old-fashioned school where the ‘correct’ use of English was expected of us at all times, so we quickly learned it. Please note that by ‘correct’ I am not talking about being pedantic and writing like Dickens (I’m not that old). I mean communicating in a fluent way so that you are easily and clearly understood, without any unnecessary distractions by way of odd spellings, twisted sentences or overdone punctuation.


You don’t have to take my word for it. Through my connections with Durham University I sometimes talk to academics who mark essays and exam papers and they often complain about the poor quality of Eng Lang displayed by some students. Those students really do lose marks for it, too – not because the markers are being picky but because they expect undergraduates to be able to express ideas clearly. Poor use of grammar is a barrier to understanding.

My experience with individual clients has led me to develop a one-day course called ‘English Language for Grownups’ which I am busy organising now. This is for anyone who feels they need a grounding – or a refresher – in the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation in English. It’s not like school though – it’s more fun and there are no exams. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, drop me a line to andy@andycollinspr.co.uk and I’ll let you know how you can take part. I’ll see you there. Or is it their? Or they’re?

Do you really mean what you’re saying?

A good friend of mine has just described me as a pedant. Well in some ways maybe I am. When it comes to the use of words, though, I am not that strict: it just pains me when people who are clearly unaware of the real meaning of a word use it in completely the wrong context.

A misuse which really sets my teeth on edge involves the use of the word ‘epicentre’. This word has become common in news reports and is almost always used wrongly, most often when the speaker just means to say ‘centre’. Epicentre means the point on the earth’s surface directly above an earthquake (the Greek prefix ‘epi’ signifying ‘above’). It does not mean the ‘dead centre’ of anything. So, if I say ‘Durham is the epicentre of scholarship in the north of England’ it would mean that scholarship in the north of England exists underground, with Durham on the top of it.

Another groanworthy mistake is  using ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’. If you are disinterested it doesn’t mean you are not taking an interest – it means you are objective and free from bias (ie not an interested party).

Something over which I suppose I am a bit of a pedant, mainly because I studied philosophy in my youth, is the use of the expression ‘beg the question’.  Speakers who know no better say ‘it begs the question…’ when they mean ‘it prompts the question, or it raises the question…’. To beg the question actually has a very specific technical meaning, dating back to Aristotle if you must know. It means to assume a proposition that, by a circular argument, involves the conclusion. For example, ‘Freedom of speech is important because people should be able to speak freely’. If that baffles you, then you are almost certainly using the phrase ‘beg the question’ wrongly.

Which prompts the question…when you use the word ‘literally’ do you mean it literally? To say something literally indicates that you mean it exactly as you are saying it, to the letter (literally). Quite often it these days is used just to spice up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, eg ‘He literally exploded!’, ‘It was literally raining cats and dogs!’, ‘There were literally a million people in my car!’. Do you really mean that? Okay, I do realise that nobody would take these statements literally in conversation. The problem is that by continually exaggerating like that, we rob the words of meaning and make everything overblown and weak.

A similar effect happens with the very common word ‘incredible’, which seems to be used more and more often and is quickly using its real sense of ‘unbelievable’. Documentaries on TV promise us incredible stories of survival or some such. Well thanks, but frankly I would like to hear some credible stories, otherwise what’s the point? TV journalists describe, say, the scene of a natural disaster as ‘incredible’ when the pictures being shown are all too real. Worse still, they say it is ‘undescribable’. Surely the journalist’s job is to describe the scene to make it credible?

I could go on….and on…but I won’t. Maybe my friend was right after all.

What is ‘Received Pronunciation’?

When people come to Britain, having learned English in another country, they are often amazed by the number of different ways there are of speaking the language. Britain is not, after all, a very big place, yet the accents of and dialects of Yorkshire, say, or Cornwall, County Durham or Birmingham, let alone Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are surprisingly diverse. Even native speakers can sometimes find it hard to understand someone from another part of Britain. For people whose first language is not English it can be a nightmare.

There is no such thing as ‘standard English’. The nearest we have to that is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP. The word ‘received’ in ‘Received Pronunciation’ is used in its old sense of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ (as in ‘received wisdom’).

RP is what you sometimes hear referred to as ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’ or even ‘the Queen’s English’, although none of these terms is particularly useful in defining it. These days we hear all sorts of accents at Oxford University or on the BBC, and the only person who speaks like the Queen is the Queen. In fact, the British Library* reckons that only about 2% of the population of the UK speaks in Received Pronunciation.

RP is more or less based on the English of the South East and East of England. It was first identified as a particular way of speaking in 1869. Its influence really became significant, though, when the BBC was founded as a national radio broadcaster. Lord Reith, the first head of the BBC, wanted a standardised way of talking for his presenters which would be equally clear and acceptable throughout Britain. RP was chosen, even though for most listeners it represented a relatively upper-class manner of speech. The point was that RP, unlike other accents, does not give any indication of where in the country the speakers comes from. I sometimes call it ‘Vanilla English’ because it has all those interesting (but confusing) local features left out of it.

As mentioned above, presenters on the BBC are no longer all RP speakers. The emphasis today is on clarity of speech and on understandability, neither of which are necessarily affected by accent alone. Yet when my clients tell me that they want to speak ‘properly’, or even ‘posh’, I know it is normally Received Pronunciation they have in mind, even if they have never heard that phrase. Like Lord Reith in 1922, they are looking for a manner of speaking which is equally clear and acceptable wherever they go in Britain, with no distracting regional features.

As a tutor I am lucky in that respect. I come from the south east of England and I had the kind of education where I was encouraged to speak in Received Pronunciation (my real natural accent is more Essex). I know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and I can pass that skill onto my clients. Lord Reith, I am sure, would be very proud.


*If you are interested in RP and the accents of Britain, the British Library website is an excellent place to visit – http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/received-pronunciation/

What are the main rules of English grammar?

For anyone learning English as a second language, one of its most baffling and frustrating aspects is its general lack of grammatical rules. Those of us who are native English speakers don’t really need to think too much about rules when we are speaking the language: we just know from experience that some things sound ‘right’ and some sound ‘wrong’. Most of us would find it hard to explain why one is better than the other, unless they are pedants like me – or should that be ‘as I am’? We have just grown up hearing everyone else speak English, and accept that there are right and wrong ways of using it.

Unluckily for those learning English for the first time in later life, our language is extremely diverse and has stolen words, expressions and even bits of grammar from all sorts of other languages. In fact we rather pride ourselves on the rich mix of linguistical sources, and the fact that we don’t have any kind of ‘language police’ to lay down the laws of grammar as they do in some other countries. Our language is continually developing and shifting and adopting new words. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which most people think of as the official guide to the language, doesn’t really tell us what we should be saying. It just tells us what we are saying.

English never has been a fixed, regulated language. It came here with the Anglo-Saxons from what is now Germany (which is why English and German are so similar) but has since been heavily influenced by Viking Norse, Norman French, Dutch, and more recently by the languages of the British Empire, especially India. Most of what we think of as English grammar was really Latin grammar, adapted and imposed on English by scholars from Henry VIII’s time onwards.

All this wouldn’t necessarily matter very much – after all, as long as people understand me, does it really matter if my grammar is perfect? However, sometimes it does matter. Many of my clients are professional people who reach a stage in their careers when they become self-conscious about the way they speak and write. Usually this is because they are competing for promotion against colleagues who went to posher schools than they did, where strict grammar was considered important. Whether we like it or not, there are some circumstances where you are going to be judged if you say ‘ain’t’ when all around you are saying ‘aren’t’ (or better still, ‘are not’).

Here are a few examples where I find people often trip themselves up, and let themselves down, with their English.

They’re & Their & There – not to be confused. They’re = they are; Their = belonging to them; There = in that place.

It’s & Its – careful with that apostrophe. It’s = it is; Its = belonging to it

Speaking of apostrophes – the apostrophe should be used when showing possession (Sue’s cat) or when letters or numbers have been left out (he’s gone, 1 Jan. ’09). It should not be used in forming the plural of ordinary words, as in apple’s and pear’s or I saw two dog’s, or in possessive pronouns such as hers, yours, or theirs. If showing possession with a plural word ending in the letter ‘s’, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ (cats’ paws if more than one cat, but women’s, men’s and children’s because women, men and children, though plural, don’t end in ‘s’). Phew!

Practice & practise – Practice is a noun (general practice); Practise is a verb (I practice medicine). Same with advice and advise.

Should have & should of – always should have, never should of. Likewise could have, would have.

Imply & infer – Imply = say something in an indirect way; Infer = reach a conclusion or decide that something is true on the basis of the evidence available. Often confused.

Less & fewer – less when you’re referring to something that can’t be counted or doesn’t have a plural (e.g. money, air, time, music, rain; fewer if you’re referring to people or things in the plural (e.g. houses, newspapers, dogs, students, children). So less money but fewer children.

Who & that – who for people (ladies who lunch); that for things (doors that open)

You and me & you and I – use the pronoun I, along with other pronouns such as we, he, she, you, and they, when the pronoun is the subject of a verb:

He went to bed.
Clare and I are going for a coffee.

Use the pronoun me, along with other pronouns such as us, him, her, you, and them, when the pronoun is the object of a verb:

Danny thanked them.

The dog followed John and me to the door.

Different from & different to & different than – different from is best; different to is almost as good; different than is incorrect in British English (but fine if you are American)