Leave out the Latin

One of our members of staff recently phoned his GP practice and asked to see a specific doctor. ‘Sorry, he only comes in pro re nata,’ the receptionist told him. It wasn’t until he’d put the phone down and  looked up  the phrase that he knew for sure what she had meant, writes Cathy Relf.

It would be considered crass – and more than a little odd – for a native English speaker speaking to another native English speaker to switch to another language mid-sentence. So why do some people think it’s acceptable to do so with Latin?

To be effective, writing needs to be clear and accessible. It shouldn’t confuse the reader or require them to reach for a dictionary. In fact, when someone has to look away for long enough to look up a word, they may never return.

Only a minority of native English speakers have any formal knowledge of Latin. In the UK in 2011, just 9,650 pupils out of a total of 5.15 million took a Latin GCSE. That’s less than two per cent. Admittedly, that proportion was slightly higher when your average businessperson was at school, but the fact remains that the moment you slip in a line of Latin, or even over-pepper a sentence with post, ad hoc and per se, whether it’s apropos (appropriate) or not,  you risk alienating the majority of your readership.

There are some professions – medicine and law, for example – where Latin is a crucial part of the language (although lawyer Wayne Schiess makes a good case against using unnecessary Latin in legal writing). But outside of those professions, there are few cases where using an expression that your readers may not understand would be better than writing it in plain English.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with studying or taking an interest in Latin – after all, much of our language is based on it. And it’s fine to use commonly understood abbreviations such as  eg, ie, etc, if they’re genuinely more appropriate than for example, that is, and  and so on. Just make sure you use them correctly.

Latin on the loose

We’ve rounded up five examples of Latin obstructing meaning, below. If you’re not familiar with the Latin terms, hover over them for a rough translation, or click to see the full definition.

Here’s Kathy Gyngell blogging for the Daily Mail:
‘This is what the Bishops’ amendment to exclude child benefit from Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cap plan, inter alia, endorses – the continuation of entitlement.’

A paper from the Social Development Agency:
‘This Vademecum is intended as a handy reference guide to using budget heading on information, consultation and participation of representatives within undertakings.’

A Wired.com article on the rules of cooking:
‘While there are certainly still subjective and somewhat impenetrable qualities to one’s cuisine — de gustibus non est disputandum — there is an increasing rigor in the kitchen.’

An article on robo-cars:
‘And given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on police use of GPS, even when tracking criminals, the idea that more technology in the car leads ipso facto to more government control is questionable.’

And, making a case for the teaching of Latin in schools,  Boris Johnson writing in the Telegraph:
‘Suppose you are captured by cannibals in the Mato Grosso, and you find a scrap of Portuguese newspaper in your hut revealing that there is about to be an eclipse; and suppose that by successfully prophesying this event you convince your captors that you are a god and secure your release – I reckon you would be thankful for your Latin, eh?  And even if you reject any such practical advantages (and, experto crede, they are huge), I don’t care, because they are not the point.’

How many of them could you follow, without checking the definitions?

With the possible exception of Boris Johnson, whose Latin is at least relevant to the subject in hand, these are all quite bizarre language choices. In the first case, ‘among other things’ would have been a much better and clearer expression than inter alia.

In the second, the use of Vademecum (or vade mecum, as it is more commonly spelt) alongside ‘handy reference guide’ is tautologous. It essentially says ‘this handy reference guide is intended as a handy reference guide’.

In the third, what purpose could there be for writing in Latin, other than for the writer to show that he can? And in  the fourth, the ipso facto is unnecessary – if any clarification is needed, ‘automatically’ or ‘directly’ would do fine.

The case against

While studying Latin is admirable, using it in everyday language isn’t. Not only does it sound pompous and offputting, it obstructs communication. Even Boris doesn’t make an argument for actually using it, merely for knowing it in case of encounters with cannibals who can’t read newspapers.

When writing, always keep your readers at the front of your mind. What do they need to know, and how can you best communicate it? If the answer to the second question is ‘in Latin’, then by all means go ahead – but those occasions are, we suspect, rare.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you spotted some Latin on the loose? Can you defend any of the above examples? Do you have a particular phrase that you’re fond of dropping into writing? Leave us a comment below.

<<Read the March 2012 e-bulletin

Hit or myth: ‘I shall’ is more polite than ‘I will’

You may have a vague memory of once being told to use I shall for formal occasions, but is it too formal? Too old-fashioned? Will people point and laugh? Or are  shall and will simply interchangeable? Let’s explore, shall we?

Modal (helping) verbs

Shall and will are modal verbs (sometimes called ‘helping verbs’). These combine with the main verb to indicate how it should be read. Specifically, shall and will show that we’re referring to the future. For example, in the title of the well-known protest song, We shall overcome. Or:

You shall go to the ball, Cinderella.

Here, the main verb is go, and shall tells us that the ball is in the future. It may also tell us more, about the mood of the sentence, but we’ll get to that in a bit.


The history of these words can get a bit complicated. So you can skip straight to the verdict if you just want a straight answer.

Those sticking it out for dinner-party fodder may like to know that we have John Wallis, a seventeenth century mathematician and author of Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae mostly to blame for promoting the theories below.

Old English verbs

Once upon a time, in Old English, shall and will were proper verbs. Shall indicated obligation or command, while will meant wish or want.

It was deemed that the first person (I/we) should take will – as you can know what you wish but not what others do – while the second (you) and third person (he/she/it/they) would take shall – as you don’t give yourself commands. Though you might ask for commands, or about the wishes of others, so you could say Shall I/we? and Will you/he/she/they?

Still with us?

Coloured future: expressing intention, determination or promise

At this time there was no future tense separate from the present tense, and people began to use shall and will with other verbs to refer to upcoming events. In this usage there were still the traces of the original meanings of command and wish – expanded to include promise, intention, determination or threat on the part of the speaker. The usage therefore held on to the rules above: I and we with will; you, she, he, it and they with shall.

You shall go to the ball (I promise)

You shall be home by midnight (I command)

I will be crowned Queen of the world! (I am determined)

They shall rue the day they stole my crown (I threaten)

Simple future

Now we come to that half-remembered rule that some hold so dear. The funny thing is, it essentially uses the leftovers of the rules above. The combinations not yet in use became those to use for expressing the simple future: I and we with shall; you, he, she, it and they with will.

I shall go to work on Monday

You will be 32 in February

They will come to your party

And compare the above vow to become Queen of the world (and I will) with the simple statement:

I shall be crowned Queen of the world. (The ceremony’s at 12.00.)

(Also, note that  should and  would follow the same – ahem – rules as  shall and  will.)

Shall we drop it?

If you think this is ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated, then you’re not alone. Or wrong, for that matter.

In his 1908 style guide The King’s English, Henry Fowler – just before he spent 15+ pages (yes, really) laying out the rules – made this disclaimer: ‘while [the correct use of shall and will] comes by nature to southern Englishmen [… it] is so complicated that those who are not born to the manner can hardly acquire it.’ You wonder why he didn’t simply stop there.

The rules have never been consistently applied, according to Pam Peters in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. ‘These paradigms were, however, enshrined in textbooks of later centuries and still taught a few decades ago,’ writes Peters. ‘Their neglect is one of the better consequences of abandoning the teaching of grammar in schools.’

Even in legal language, where shall does still regularly appear, to mean ‘has a duty to’, there are those who would like to replace it – because it is so often misused ­– with will or must.

Verdict: don’t worry about it

Yes, shall does add a touch of formality and can emphasise determination – and there’s nothing to stop you following the above rules to the letter, be you a southern Englishman or nay. The late professor of linguistics R L Trask had some good advice: ‘Do not try to use shall if the word does not feel entirely natural, and especially don’t try to use it merely in the hope of sounding more elegant. Doing so will probably produce something that is acceptable to no one.’

You’d also be in a minority: shall is already peculiar not just to the UK, but to England alone. And even here, will is increasingly used in all instances, and the world has yet to grind to a halt. This is one of those times when common sense and common usage can sit happily together.

In the end, perhaps we shall overcome, but will shall? Probably not.

60-second fix: learnt or learned?

Is it learnt or learned? Spelt or spelled? Dreamt or dreamed? If you’re unsure, you’re in good company, writes Cathy Relf. Neither the dictionaries nor the newspapers agree, so it’s hardly surprising that the rest of us are confused. We carried out a quick Twitter poll and found that opinions were scattered. So, let’s clean up the confusion.

Dictionaries differ

The Oxford and Collins dictionaries agree that both spellings are acceptable, but offer no usage guidance. For learn, dream and spell, Oxford lists the –ed spelling first, noting that learnt and spelt are used chiefly in British English. Collins agrees, except in the case of spell, for which it lists spelt as the primary spelling.

So do the papers

In the newspaper style guides, opinion is split. The Guardian specifies spelled for the past tense and  spelt for the past participle (So I spelled it that way in the past, but I have spelt it this way today), while The Times and The Telegraph stick to  spelt in both instances.

The Times prefers learnt, while The Guardian says to stick to learned ‘unless you are writing old-fashioned poetry’. The Telegraph says: ‘learnt is what one did with a lesson: learned describes an erudite person’. (Good point: don’t forget that learned doubles up as an adjective, meaning wise or well educated, and spelt as a noun, meaning a variety of wheat.)

It’s a similar story with dreamThe Guardian says to use dreamed, while The Times and The Telegraph specify dreamt.

It’s a British/American thing

Clear as mud? Thank goodness, then, for The Economist, which simply lists the –t endings as British English and the –ed endings as American English.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage agrees. It acknowledges that both spellings are acceptable, but notes that the  –t endings are more common in British English, learned is more common as the past form and dreamed is used for emphasis and in poetry.

What to do?

Unless your company has a preference, it’s really up to you – just pick one and then stay consistent. If you’re a patriotic type (and, erm, British), then  learnt, spelt and dreamt may appeal. Indeed, we in the Emphasis office are fond of the  –t ending.

However, bear in mind that as  –t endings are peculiar to the British, they do come with a slight hint of fustiness. If you’re writing for an international audience, you may wish to switch to  learned, spelled and dreamed instead.

More 60-second fixes:

Affect and effect

Bear and bare

Compare to and compare with

Complimentary and complementary


Different to/from/than

Judgement and judgment

Lead and led

Palate, palette and pallet

Reign and rein

Should have and should of


Substitute for/with


When should you use a thesaurus?

Do you have one of those friends that you love to bits but whose every word should be taken with an enormous bag of salt? Well, that’s basically the relationship you should have with your thesaurus. Love it, but with caution.

Next time you reach for it, first ask yourself why. If it’s because you’re looking for a longer word in the hope of impressing your reader, stop right there. Readers judge writers who use simple language as more intelligent than those who needlessly pick long words, according to research by Professor Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University.

But the real danger of the thesaurus lies in the fact that each word it contains is out of context, and words don’t work well alone. Every word, however closely related to another it may be, has its own unique connotations: as David Crystal puts it, ‘[the thesaurus] contains no true synonyms’.

In his book Words Words Words, Crystal compares the apparent equals youngsters and youths, and asks: ‘Which group would worry you?’ And isn’t it true that you’d expect youngsters to be innocently playing in the park, while youths in hoodies skulk in the bushes?

And suppose a colleague was about to email you ‘I want to hold a meeting soon’, but then got thesaurus-happy and instead sent:

I ache to carry on a tryst lickety-split.

Well, that’s a harassment case waiting to happen, surely.

The best description of the thesaurus’s function comes from Professor Simeon Potter, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Linguistics. He said of thesauri (yes, thesauri): ‘[they’re] a good reminder of words momentarily forgotten, but a bad guide to words previously unknown.’

If you know a word, you can recognise its suitability. If you take your old friend’s word for it, you could end up with a sentence that assumes a bizarre life of its own.

And, for anyone still doubting the dangers of thesaurus over-reliance, take a friendly tip and consider this case study.

Communication Lab 5: separated by a common language

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32 minutes

Listen now to the latest programme, featuring linguistics expert Dr Lynne Murphy talking about the differences between UK and US English.

Further reading

Hear something you want to know more about? Here are some useful links.

Check out Lynne’s excellent blog Separated by a Common Language (and here’s how to spell ‘woa/whoa/woah’). You can also follow Lynne on Twitter @lynneguist.

Our post on giraffe bread tells how the tiger changed its stripes.

Rob got five, Lynne got seven – see how well you do in our new dictionary words quiz.

Meet the mucus troopers and the adultescents in Collins’ 2004 attempt to create a Living Dictionary.

If you too think that there’s a lot to be said for learning a word a day, try following @wordoftheday on Twitter.

Finally, if you’d like to keep track of those pesky Britishisms in American English, see Ben Yagoda’s blog Not One-Off Britishisms.

<<Read the March 2012 e-bulletin

Sainsbury’s prove good PR is easy, tiger

Have you heard about the tiger that’s turned into a giraffe?

The real story isn’t quite so magical as that sounds. But Sainsbury’s response to a letter from a little girl, which has now led them to change the name of their tiger bread to giraffe bread, was certainly inspired.

For those who missed it, the UK supermarket received a letter last May questioning the name of the pattern-crusted loaf: why call it ‘tiger’ when it was clearly not stripy? ‘It should be called giraffe bread’, the letter went on. ‘Love from Lily Robinson age 3½.’

What’s more, as of 31 January, it is – at least for now. A victory that may be for Lily (who actually ‘hasn’t got much time for’ the story, according to her mother’s blog, where the letters appeared). But it’s Sainsbury’s reputation that’s the real winner, as the story has become an internet sensation. And it’s all thanks to the well-judged and endearing reply that customer-service manager Chris King (age 27?) sent.

‘Thanks so much for your letter,’ he wrote. ‘I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

‘It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a looong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.’

You’d also have to be pretty silly not to realise the power of social media now has over public opinion. (More than four thousand people Like the Chris King from Sainsbury’s is a legend Facebook page at the time of writing.)

Customer-service representatives probably spend most of their time appeasing angry and outraged letter-writers. But this is a great reminder that you can generate a lot of good feeling by making time for the sweet and silly correspondence too. That’s how you’ll really earn your stripes.

If you’re in the customer-service field, you might also like our article on how to make the most of positive correspondence: Now you’re talking my language.