Archives for category: Language

What’s the story, is it free rein or free reign? Something that has confounded me for a good while.

To me, both spellings and implications make sense. To give someone free rein is to loosen the metaphorical reins to the point where they can do as they please.

To give someone free reign is practically the same thing, though it sounds more regal, more majestic if you like, reflecting the meaning of the word spelled that way.

Apparently the former is the correct spelling and use of the phrase. See here from Merriam-Webster, whose US provenance doesn’t negate the conclusion for UK English I don’t think.

Somewhat tangentially, in fact totally tangentially, here’s a question whose answer you should file away for potential pub quiz benefit. What’s the only word in the English language which ends in mt? Answer – dreamt! Compound verbs featuring dream don’t count :-).

Hello and Happy New Year! I wish you a simply stellar 2020. I wonder if they had as much fun with the year 1010 as we will have this year.

This very day, the 1st of January, reminds me of an example as to why marketing is always leveraging the nuances of language in its work.

Here’s my example. This is the eighth year that I’ve blogged. Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? Eight years! Except it isn’t really. It’s not that I’ve been blogging for eight years. It’s not even that I’m into my eighth year of blogging. Let me explain.

I started blogging in 2013. Fairly late in 2013, September in fact, but September nonetheless. Counting up the years – 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 – this is indeed the eighth year that I’ve blogged. At least one post in each of those years, and if you exclude 2013 and 2020 I’ve blogged 156 times in each of them.

In reality the elapsed time is exactly six and a third years, or six and one third as our US friends would say, but eight years, or the eighth year, sounds much more impressive.

Trading on these nuances is what helps us marketers stretch our claims to our advantage, but not to breaking point.

It would take some going to get into my eighth year of blogging, and what seems like an eternity to have been doing it for eight whole years. Not gonna happen, don’t think.


The Germans have a word, actually I’m sure they have several other such examples, that conveys something that’s really hard to express in English without using a far less economical explanation.

Wikipedia describes the word as ‘a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities encompassed by the term include coziness, peace of mind, and a sense of belonging and well-being springing from social acceptance.’

Whenever I think of the word I imagine being in a warm chalet half-way up a ski slope, with a roaring fire, comfy chairs, a bunch of friends and family, and a glass of gluhwein or a bowl of gulaschsuppe with a hunk of bread. I don’t ski very often at all, but I hope I’m conveying that feeling of snugness, without I hope, the feeling of smugness, that we can all experience without going alpine.

One of the wonders of there being loads of different languages is that they all have certain words relating to their own culture and are so idiomatic that you need a paragraph or even a book to do them justice in your own tongue. Another example would be the Danish word hygge, which is surprisingly close to gemütlichkeit in its meaning.

Whatever your own preference of word, I wish you much of it.

What is the rule when it comes to using numbers in content? Should we use numeric symbols or spell them out? I don’t definitively know, but that won’t stop me offering some standards around which how I like to operate.

First things first: I think dates and big numbers should always be represented numerically. They’re simply too tiresome to spell out, unless for some quirky or emphatic reason. What I’m really talking about is the instances where we want to use smaller numbers.

1 example to start. It looks awkward if you begin a sentence with a number, unless it’s a bulleted or numbered list.

The key is consistency I think. If you’re going to use a small number a small number of times, spell the small number out. It can be quite emphatic and also easy on the eye. If you’re set on numerals, be consistent, but try not to begin sentences with a number. Here’s an example of a post I wrote where I spell out the numbers consistently and refer to dates numerically. Spoiler alert: you can’t click on that post until after January 1st 2020. I’ve never ever published a link to a document available in the future before, it feels slightly odd.

Where do you stop the bigger the numbers get, and how do you punctuate? I’m OK with seventeen. I’m also OK with twenty-three, if the context is right and there aren’t too many numbers in the content. What about one hundred and thirty-eight? It’a bit unwieldy isn’t it, and did I get the hyphen right? The higher the number, the more unwieldy, unless it’s a round number, naturally.

So, spelling out numbers depends on the 3 C’s: consistency, context and common sense. And would you believe it, according to this source you only need to hyphenate the numbers between 21 and 99, or twenty-one and ninety-nine. Technically, then, we’d write thirty-two million, seven hundred and ninety-eight thousand, four hundred and fifty-six, though why we wouldn’t put 32,793,456 is lost on me.

A good while back I blogged about how to discern between its and it’s. Easy, right? Its is always the possessive pronoun, as in ‘the dog buries its bone’, and it’s is only ever an abbreviation of ‘it is’ – unless of course it is capitalised to IT, as in ‘IT’s role in shaping world economies’. And don’t be confused with those speech marks either, they’re not apostrophes!

And then I read this phrase, quite recently: ‘it’s more trouble than it’s worth.’ No, no, no! I said to myself, the second it’s should be its, as in ‘It’s more trouble than its value.’ Until I googled it, and discovered that the more commonplace version uses it’s, as in ‘It is more trouble than it is worth.’

Wrong all those years.

Fortunately, both versions are acceptable – and in fact both versions mean pretty much the same thing – but it gives you an idea of the differences between the economy of spoken English and the clarity of written English. I’d always heard the phrase and assumed the noun worth, and therefore the pronoun its, when in fact it is more commonly the verb ‘to be worth’.

Sheesh! Did you follow that? Panic over.

And finally, my third of 3 selections in this second series of best entries in Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English, a desk calendar featuring an ancient or obscure word for each day of the year.

This word is the fabulous ‘williewaught’. No, it’s not relating to a part of the male anatomy. It means a large amount of alcoholic drink. As in, he’s had an absolute williewaught full, although they probably never used that kind of phrasing back in 1895. It apparently comes from the Scots word quaich, and before that the Gaelic word cuach, meaning drinking cup, but I’m struggling to see that.

This particular page of the calendar also offers a delightful bit of history around Oktoberfest. People heading to Oktoberfest sometimes say they’re going ‘to the meadow’, and apparent reference to the original site of the festivities.

And finally, on the subject of drinking to excess, to ‘come home by the villages’ meant to be drunk in the early twentieth century, since hostelries were in the villages. To come home by the fields, conversely, where there were no pubs, meant to be sober. Fabulous stuff.

Here’s my second choice in the second 3-part series of cool words from Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English, which is one of those page-a-day desk calendars currently adorning my home office.

My choice today is the glorious ‘beastle’, which apparently means to befoul or make filthy. Perhaps it gives rise to the adjective beastly, which we still use these days, though that’s more than likely a variant of the noun beast.

As with part IV, this entry also sticks in the mind for the accompanying ‘on this day in history’ narrative, being the anniversary of the death in 2001 of James ‘The Fox’ Phillips, who was by all accounts one of the earliest eco-saboteurs.

He was a biology teacher who got sick of industrial polluters and from the late 1960s covertly sabotaged – or ‘made filthy’ – factories and terrorised company CEOs in his locality. He seems to be have been the forerunner and perhaps inspiration for organisations like Greenpeace.

Earlier in the year I featured 3 of my favourite instances of Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English calendar, a daily rip-off page devoted to ancient and obscure words. I thought it a good time to revisit them with another 3-part series.

Today’s choice is from 1st October: a come-off

It means an escape or evasion, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard it used that way. It dates from early twentieth century American English.

The calendar not only features a word or phrase, it also ties it to something historical that happened on this day. A Jewish chap called Niels Bohr was helped away on the 1st of October 1943 from Denmark to Sweden and the plan was supposed to be that he would then go to America to help the atomic weapons effort. He dug his heels in since Sweden wouldn’t take Jewish refugees, until the country relented.

As a rather touching postscript, when Sweden’s refugees returned to Copenhagen after the war, they found that their neighbours had looked after their homes. And the rest is history, specifically atomic history in Herr Bohr’s case.

I was on a website the other day and on their home page they described how they ‘were setup in 1993’. This looks plain wrong to me.

There’s an easy distinction to me. To set up is the verb, it’s two words, like put up, show up, grow up and so on. Setup is a noun, and a pretty modern one at that.

It simply reads much better to say ‘we were set up in 1993’, or better still, since passive verbs are not great in this context, ‘we set up the business in 1993.’

Here are some more examples of how verb and noun drive a different format of the word or words:

‘The setup was all wrong for that meeting.’

‘That meeting was a disaster. They set us up.’

‘Let’s set up the meeting this way, because the right setup will set us up for a good outcome.’

Verb is two words, noun one.

Yes, I know I’m being slightly pedantic and the sense is clear from what the company has written on their website, even though they don’t know or care about the distinction. But it looks odd that way, and puts me off. Is it just me?


There’s a scene in the film Jack from 1996 where Robin Williams plays a child in a prematurely aged man’s body. After describing why he was late for something – I haven’t actually seen the film but I remember this scene just from the trailer – using words and hand gestures to describe his visit to the toilet, the lady he’s talking to says ‘well that’s more that I needed to know.’

There are of course many variations on the TMI or Too Much Information phrase where we reveal too much personal information for the comfort of whoever we’re talking to.

I heard one the other day, used by one of my sisters-in-law and I expect you’ve been using it yourself already. It’s the act of ‘oversharing’. I thought this was hilarious, and it describes exactly what’s happening.

Our social adroitness attunes us to what is acceptable in terms of sharing information on ourselves. For some people who don’t have the social calibration set quite right for a given situation, this balance between sharing too little and sharing too much is a hard one to strike.

It has its parallels in work as well, by which I don’t mean social interactions between the individuals in a company or companies, but more the exchanging of information between people as part of a deal or project.

You can share too little, or undershare I guess – which doesn’t seem to attract the level of opprobrium that its generous counterpart does – or you can overshare, providing the other party with more than is useful for them, forcing them to waste time getting to the good stuff.