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How do you solve a problem like ‘however’?


Maybe all those hours of reading and writing made the final stages of proofreading and copyediting seem too exhausting? Maybe after spending so long reading the same words over and over again, the ideas you were trying to get across seemed clear and easy to understand?

Whatever the reason, when you consider all the work you’ve done, the things that your proofreader/copyeditor/supervisor/lecturer/teacher have commented on just don’t seem to be THAT big a deal. It’s certainly not enough to justify going over all of it again and restructuring your content – which took a bloody long time to write in the first place – just to get rid of the occasional ‘however’. We have all been there.

I spent years being told that my work used ‘however’ too much and my sentences were too long and ‘muddy’. It wasn’t until I started proofreading and copyediting other people’s work that I finally understood what my teachers and lecturers were talking about. Here is an extract from an essay I wrote 18 months ago..

I decided to write this blog to offer some solutions to four common problems I’ve observed, in my editing career so far, that seem to need most intervention. I just wish I’d known about these solutions when I was a student!

Judging language correctness: a visual framework

Only last year, debates over the correctness or incorrectness of written language use made front page news.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide for his staff prompted more column inches than most linguists, grammarians or copy editors would have thought possible on such a dry topic. Including some from this commentator. Not all the opinions were complimentary.

And I don’t really like adding to the tally of column inches on JRM.

But the debate prompted me to revisit a visual tool I use in my shortcourse classes at City, University of London to try to help students conceptualise the idea of correctness.

When is it legitimate to challenge something on grounds that it’s incorrect? And when is it not?

Image by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

“Mainly dry for most”: compulsive hedging language in weather forecasting

One thing is certain about the British weather: its uncertainty.

That uncertainty will only increase over time as the polar ice melts, sea levels rise, the jetstream gets further disrupted, and one-in-a-thousand-year events start to occur annually.

Pity then the intrepid British forecasters whose every word is hung onto nightly by farmers, fishermen, event organisers, sportspeople, families and dog walkers – and insurers.

Coming up with the right scenario from hundreds of computer-modelled scenarios is hard enough in itself. Finding the right language to describe the selected outcome – to deliver with airy reassurance, grim precision or obvious glee – is even harder.

So it’s hardly surprising that forecasters are inclined to be not very definitive in their predictions. The risk to reputation is one thing. More than thirty years on people still chuckle at poor Michael Fish and his quote, inevitably taken out of context, from the afternoon of 15th October 1987.

The economic risk to the farmers and fishermen is another thing. The weather matters meaningfully to many. Livelihoods and even lives are at stake: best to not get it wrong.

Still, couldn’t the forecasters be a bit less – well – vague?