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Black and white picture of a street in Aberdeen on a rainy, overcast day

A dreich day in Aberdeen

Having a good fudgel? Need a cwtch?

Words are extremely powerful: expressing and shaping our beliefs, feelings and opinions. They help us develop a sense of belonging, build a strong identity, and influence how we act and behave.

As a copywriter, it’ll come as no surprise that words, their meaning and their origin, are something I’m particularly interested in.

And if you noticed, and objected, that I ended my sentence with a preposition there, you may be interested in this.

Enter my less-than-scientific and not quite representative study.

In current media parlance, I ‘took to’ social media, asking friends and followers to contribute their favourite words or phrases.

While I wouldn’t say the results led to a deeper understanding of the human condition, they were genuinely interesting.

What’s more, the heart emoji, the Global Language Monitor’s international word for 2014, wasn’t mentioned once.

Let’s start close to home.

Most of the suggestions came from specific parts of the UK, perhaps emphasising that the words we use are often a means to articulate an affiliation with, or sense of belonging to, where we come from, and places we hold dear.

England:

  • ‘Stood there like cheese at fourpence’ (waiting idly/timewasting) comes from the Lancashire mill towns where, at one time, fourpence was expensive for cheese and pricing it as such would mean a lot was left unsold
  • Also from the north-west: ‘Stood there like piffy on a rock bun’ (hanging around unnecessarily)
  • Nesh: Someone susceptible to feeling cold

Wales:

  • Cwtch (pronounced cootch, to rhyme with butch). Recently, Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens suggested to two fighting players that if they wanted a cwtch (a cuddle, hug) they should do it off the field

Scotland:

  • Dreich (dreary, bleak – eg this post’s featured image), outwith (outside/beyond) and stramash (uproar/tumult) were all suggested, as well as scunnert (fed-up): “I’m fair scunnert the day.”

Northern Ireland:

  • Thaveless (someone who’s pathetic/useless); ‘Catch yourself on’ (get a grip of yourself, wise up) and ‘stickin’ out’ (brilliant) eg: “That dinner last night was stickin’ out.”

And suggestions from the European mainland included:

Germany:

  • Lichtgrenze (literally means ‘border of light’): It’s the name given to the lit balloon installation where the Berlin Wall once stood, marking 25 years since its fall
  • Weltschmerz translates as ‘world pain’ and describes a weariness because of a perceived mismatch between the ideal world and how things really are

And finally….

Anyone who’s had an argument will have experienced Denis Diderot’s l’esprit de l’escalier (literally staircase wit): the predicament of thinking of the perfect retort or comment too late.

So whether you like a Chic Murray-esque paraprosdokian turn of phrase: “My girlfriend’s a redhead. No hair, just a red head,” or are having a fudgel (pretending to work), join in and suggest your favourite words.

Close up image of thesaurus entry for the word 'grammar'

To strand and split: unforgivable or acceptable?

I don’t have an inner pedant.

Instead, mine is particularly obvious and opinionated: liable to dole out some serious side-eye if you put an apostrophe in the wrong place.

That said, there are two so-called grammar misdemeanours I’ll tolerate and even encourage: ending sentences with prepositions and splitting infinitives.

They’re rules that grammarians, keen to bring English in line with Latin language structure, sought to introduce centuries ago.

And both continue to stimulate debate today. But, bearing in mind the years that have passed, and how they came into being, do they have a role or relevance in modern English?

I’m not sure they do.

Prepositions

Prepositions, including to, by, on, at and about, describe the relationship between parts of a sentence or clause.

Avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition can make what you’ve written seem clumsy and stilted or even, as is often said, Yoda-esque.

For example:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so paid for it had to be.

Rather than the much more natural:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so it had to be paid for.

Split infinitives

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s goal when he pitched Star Trek to television executives, the Shatner-narrated ‘to boldly go’ opener is probably the best known example of a split infinitive (where an adverb is placed between the word ‘to’ and the verb).

For what it’s worth, I believe avoiding split infinitives can make writing lose some of its impact or even subtly change the meaning of a sentence. Not really what you what when you’re trying to communicate clearly.

To compare:

  • Susan decided slowly to walk to work: she took a while to come to her decision to walk to work.
  • Susan decided to slowly walk to work: she walked slowly.
  • Susan decided to walk to work slowly: the meaning here is ambiguous. Did she take her time deciding, or did she walk slowly?

I think the added emphasis a split infinitive gives is important too, particularly if, for example, it’s being used in marketing materials to plainly articulate to potential customers why a specific product or service is the right one for them.

Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting we split infinitives or strand prepositions just to be objectionable; however, I am proposing, in the interests of unambiguous copy and plain English, that there are times when it’s appropriate, even desirable, to over-ride these supposed rules.

One thing’s for sure, the grammar debate looks set to continue.

What do you think? Are these conventions outdated and irrelevant or compulsory and pertinent?