Archives » Linguistic Annoyances

“A” One Hundred?

The formulation 100 means “one hundred” in the same way 20 means “twenty”. 100 does not stand in for “hundred”.

So why do some people write “a 100” when they mean “a hundred”?

Would they write “a twenty”? (Granted they could say “a score” instead – but, in the same way that a dozen when written as a numeral is read as “twelve”, “a score” can’t be written as a numeral. If it is, it is read as “twenty”. I can not remember ever seeing “a 12” when “a dozen” was meant.)

So why do we get this nonsense with “a 100”?

Still less should “100s” be used to represent “hundreds”. The word “hundreds” ought always to be written out. If it means anything “100s” means “one hundreds” not “hundreds”. There may be a subtle difference between the two usages but usually hundreds is sufficient to the purpose.

This folly reached a new depth for me when I recently read the phrase “a 120 miles an hour”. That would be “120 miles an hour” then, (a hundred and twenty miles an hour); not “a” one hundred and twenty miles an hour. There can’t be more than one such velocity after all.

I suspect this foolery has come in as people have drifted into the habit of writing the numeral instead of spelling out the number fully when writing prose. I was always taught that it was bad practice to write the numeral in such a circumstance.

Compassionate Conservatism?

This is something that has been bugging me for a long time.

Welfare [wel-fair] noun: the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being.

Why has this word become transformed into meaning something derogatory? Something of which those people who need it are supposed to feel ashamed? (Rather than it being to society’s shame that such people don’t have it.)


Speaking of Mission Impossible (previous post) I always hated that catchphrase, “This tape will self-destruct in ten seconds.” What on Earth was “destruct” supposed to mean? The verb is “to destroy,” not “to destruct.” (Fair enough, my dictionary defines destruct in terms of blowing up rockets. Not tape machines you will note, though, but rockets.)

Self-destruct sounds to me the invention of someone with a tin ear. What is wrong with, “This tape will destroy itself in ten seconds?” The worst that really makes sense is, “This tape will self-destroy in ten seconds.”

Eton Trifles

This week, talking about the EU budget, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, (aka Mr Irresponsible) used the phrase, “times it by.”

In today’s Guardian, on page 43, in the puzzle section (there doesn’t seem to be a webpage with this content) it claims he said on Newsnight that the Stafford hospital scandal was caused by “a serious failure on behalf of the trust board.”

He’s supposed to have been educated – expensively educated – at one of the best schools in the country. It would claim to be the best, I’m sure.

Yet it has unaccountably failed to teach him to speak English.

So much for Eton as a beacon of excellence.


I noticed quite a few commentators/pundits on the Olympics talking about the “enormity” of what some or other athlete had managed to do.

Well, the first definiton of enormity you’ll came across in most dictionaries is as “a great crime” or “monstrous wickedness.”

I don’t think any of the athletes were guilty of those (even any drug cheats about.)

It is only as the fourth definition that one of my dictionaries offers “hugeness” and the other “enormousness” – either of which words would have adequately suited the commentators’ purposes.

For myself I would prefer it if the word enormity were reserved for acts of extreme outrage; otherwise we will lose that sense (and perhaps even the sensibility) of it.



I heard this on TV recently. On British TV, I might add.

This is a word that does not exist in British English. The past participle of to sneak is “sneaked.” (How does anyone get from “sneak” to “snuck”?)

I can only refer you to this web page – where it implies snuck is not even “proper” US English.


This is a relatively uncommon but still frequent enough misconception. I have noticed it twice recently – I think in Adam Roberts’s Stone – but also in Saturday’s Guardian.

An aureole is a halo, as seen in religious paintings. Like the similar aura it is derived from the Latin word for gold and implies shininess.

What it isn’t is a small circular area, such as around a nipple. That is an areola.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Orbit, 2010, 627p.

I had a horrible notion from the title that we might be treated to the adventures of a landing party in the Star Trek sense – a surface detail – but thankfully Banks eschews that angle, instead the metaphor is literalised.

As a mark of her indenture, the Sichultian, Lededje Y’Breq, is an Intagliate; tattooed – not just inked but imprinted so thoroughly that the marking carries right on down to the cellular level. On the latest of her escape bids she bites the tip of her master’s nose off and, enraged, he kills her. But without either’s knowledge she has been implanted with a Culture neural lace and her consciousness is translated thousands of light-years to a Culture ship where she is revented into a new body. One part of the novel follows Lededje as she is transported back across the galaxy to confront her erstwhile master, Joiler Veppers, who is also given a narrative strand of his own. Other viewpoint characters are Yime Nsokyi, a member of the Culture organisation known as Quietus, Vatueil, who has a series of military adventures in a virtual war between the supporters and antagonists of the afterlives known as Hells, and Prin and Chay, who enter a Hell to gain evidence to campaign against its use.

The last three of these narratives are mostly set within virtual environments – though Prin does escape his Hell and bears witness against it in the Real. I hesitate to call this business of the Hells nonsense but it makes these strands inherently problematic. At first they appear gratuitous, there merely to provide a dose of mayhem and gore. Yes, entities within virtualities may suffer – even in the case of Hells continuing beyond “death” there as the torment never ceases since they are reincarnated instantly – but if they are not real characters why should we invest our sympathy in them; why should we care? (Agreed, none of the characters in a novel are really real, but having them as explicitly virtual does stretch the bounds of suspension of disbelief and of empathy too far, to my mind. If there are no lessons for the real world – and how can there be? The environments described are not real within the narrative – why, exactly, are we reading? Consider the unsatisfactory nature of a story which is revealed to be all a dream. Isn’t a simulation only an upgraded class of dream?)

A further niggle is that there might actually be two books here. There are certainly two main plots which are linked through Joiler Veppers. Continuity suffers as a result. Neither story arc builds up enough momentum before dissipating. Either might have made a more compact 300 pager instead of this one’s 600 pages – which, though, does have lovely end papers in a fractal design.

Banks, however, ties all the threads together plus throws in the usual space battles and grand set pieces along the way. However, a certain lightness of touch at times, a casual irreverence, suggests he might actually be sending up this whole Space Opera lark.

Minor quibbles. Lead cannot be amphoteric though its oxide(s) may. The density of an element is not related to its atomic number. Contrary to what Banks states, gold will sink in mercury rather than float, whereas lead will float, not sink – this would be the case no matter what planet you are on. We also have proofreading errors such as (three times) pixilation – the act of becoming confused or drunk – for pixelation – image blurring – though the latter is employed once; and there is a miniscule.

There is more than enough in Surface Detail though, I would have thought, to satisfy the adherents of Space Opera. And apart from the virtual Hells I was entertained, in particular by the Lededje sequences.


The recent outbreak of food-borne disease in Germany caused by the organism E. coli has had me groaning at the utterings of the news presenters and reporters.

To be clear: E. coli is a bacterium. To refer to disease-causing bacteria is incorrect in this context unless there is another, different, organism also involved in spreading the disease.

An individual E. coli organism can of course rapidly produce copies which mean there are loads of them about but they are still the same species, the same type of bacterium. There is only one bacterium involved.

Curiously nobody seems to get confused about this sort of thing when a virus, rather than a bacterium, is the problem. Reporters will say for example, “the virus is spreading.” (Compare “the bacteria are spreading.”)

But then, unlike bacterium, the word virus has an English plural, not a Latin one.

Learn The ******* Rules!

So it’s not just me!

I clicked through to this while looking at a comment Jim Steel left on facebook.

Ann Patty may be a kindred soul.

Her point about proof reading at publishing houses is a good one.

I would have had the same reaction as her to errors in a manuscript.

If an author doesn’t know the nuts and bolts of the language she/he is writing in it’s like an electrician not knowing how to wire a circuit (only a bit less dangerous.) I don’t feel inclined to trust her/him any more.

The thing is, misuses such as the lay/lie confusion are becoming so widespread that they are in danger of obscuring the valuable distinction between the two meanings and the chances are English will, in the future, be the poorer for it.

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