"It is one thing to use language; it is quite another to
understand how it works."
Anthony Burgess, Joysprick
THE QUEST FOR THE PURIFICATION OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
by Richard Karsmakers
As you probably know, I started studying English in September
1991. During the first months of this new academic career I
already found out I was making lots of mistakes where I had
naively thought none existed. I had been mixing up words, I had
been using words with the wrong meaning here and there. I used
wrong plural forms. I'd been using American spellings and
In other words, I have committed blasphemy against what I
consider to be the richest language mankind possesses. I decided
now was the time to bring this to a halt.
My purpose writing this series is twofold.
First of all, I am afraid, I do it to become better at using
English myself. Sorry for that; I'm afraid I'm just a bit of an
egotistical bastard. You may even think I'm arrogant at that -
after all, I'm no native myself.
Second, I do it because I would like to make sure that you, the
reader, become more adroit at its use. After all, English is the
language of the world and it is my belief that everybody should
be capable of speaking it fluently. The trouble is that even many
native speakers of English can't.
I would like to mention that this series would have been
impossible without Arnor Ltd. (who publish "Protext", which has
some impressive dictionary commands), my tutors, some grammar
books I've been using for school, and Sally - who gave me some
other informative books on English.
Rather important note: To many of you this column will be
boring. If you are one of these many, then quit now. Pressing F10
will do the job.
Plurals - Two B's or not two B's
A common mistake made by English learners as well as natives
(and generally everybody else) is the use of an apostrophe when
creating plurals. Reason enough for me to try and make a summary
of the rules pertaining English plural forms. I will add the
rules for the English possessive forms, which are often confused
with plurals, in Part II of this series.
Most English nouns simply have -s added after their singular
form to make them plural. Computers, dogs, cameras. Do note that
no apostrophe should be used as in *computer's and *camera's
(* denotes wrong forms). Use of an apostrophe implies the
possessive case (e.g. the camera's lens)! More about that in part
A. The regular plural suffix -s is preceded by -e:
1. After sibilant consonants, where ease of pronunciation
requires a separating vowel, i.e. after
ch: Benches, coaches, matches (but not conchs, lochs and
stomachs, where ch has a different sound)
s: Buses, gases, pluses, yeses (single s is not to be
sh: Ashes, bushes
ss: Grasses, successes
x: Boxes, sphinxes
z: Buzzes, waltzes
Proper names follow the same rule, as in the Joneses, the
Rogerses and the two Charleses. Do note that Joneses should
not be Jones' (as that would imply sort of a possessive
2. After -y (when not preceded by a vowel) which changes to i,
as in ladies, soliloquies and spies.
3. After -o in certain words:
bravoes (meaning ruffians; 'bravos' = shouts of bravo!)
salvoes (discharges; 'salvos' = reservations, excuses)
Do note that an -e- is never inserted
a) When the o is preceded by another vowel (cuckoos,
b) When the word is an abbreviation (hippos, kilos)
c) With proper names such as Lotharios, Figaros and
4. With words which change final f to v, like calves, scarves,
halves, knives, lives, wives, leaves, sheaves, elves,
selves, loaves, wolves, thieves and shelves. Do note that
the word dwarf has plural dwarfs. Only Tolkien uses dwarves,
which is technically incorrect!
B. Plural of compound nouns:
1. Compounds made up of a noun followed by an adjective, a
prepositional phrase, or an adverb attach -s to the noun.
a) Courts martial, cousins-german, heirs presumptive and
poets laureate. But brigadier-generals, lieutenant-
colonels and sergeant-majors
b) Men-of-war, sons-in-law, tugs of war
c) Hangers-on, runners-up, whippers-in
2. Compounds which contain no noun, or in which the noun
element is now disguised, add -s at the end. So also do
nouns formed from phrasal verbs and compounds ending in
a) Ne'er-do-wells, forget-me-nots, will-o'-the-wisps
b) Pullovers, run-throughs, set-ups
c) handfuls, spoonfuls
3. Compounds contains man or woman make both elements plural,
as usually do those made up of two words linked by and.
a) Gentlemen ushers, menservants, women doctors
b) pros and cons, ups and downs
C. The plural of the following nouns with a singular in -s is
congeries (which makes Donaldson's congery in Mordant's Need
D. Plural of nouns of foreign origin. The terminations that may
form their plurals according to a foreign pattern are given in
alphabetical order below; to each is added a list of the words
that normally follow this pattern. It is recommended that the
regular plural (in -s) should be used for all the other words
with these terminations, even though some are found with either
type of plural.
1. -a (Latin and Greek) becomes -ae:
Alga, alumna, lamina, larva, nebula, papilla
Formula has -ae in mathematical and scientific use
2. -eau, -eu (French) add -x:
Beau, bureau, chateau, milieu, plateau, tableau
3. -ex, -ix (Latin) becomes -ices:
Appendix, calix, cortex, helix, matrix, radix
Index and vortex have -ices in mathematical and scientific
uses (otherwise regular)
4. -is (Greek and Latin) becomes -es (pronounced as eez):
Amanuensis, analysis, antithesis, axis, basis, crisis,
ellipses, hypothesis, metamorphosis, oasis, parenthesis,
5. -o (Italian) becomes -i:
Concerto grossi (concerto grossi), graffito, maestro,
Solo and soprano sometimes have -i in technical contexts
6. -on (Greek) becomes -a:
Criterion, parhelion, phenomenon
Automaton's plural is -a when used collectively (otherwise
7. -s (French) is unchanged in the plural (not pronounced in
singular, pronounced as -z in plural):
Chamois, chassis, corps, faux pas, fracas, patios
8. -um (Latin) becomes -a:
Addendum, bacterium, candelabrum, compendium, corrigendum,
cranium, crematorium, curriculum, datum, desideratum,
dictum, effluvium, emporium, epithalamium, erratum, maximum,
minimum, quantum, scholium, spectrum, speculum, stratum
Medium in scientific use, and in the sense 'a mass of
communication' (a mass medium) has plural -a; the collective
plural of memorandum ('things to be noted') is in -a;
rostrum has -a in technical use; otherwise these words are
regular. In the technical sense 'starting point' datum has a
9. -us (Latin) becomes -i:
Alumnus, bacillus, bronchus, cactus, calculus, fungus,
gladiolus, locus, narcissus, nucleus, radius, stimulus,
Focus has plural -i in scientific use, but otherwise is
regular. Genius has plural genii when used to mean 'guardian
spirit', but in its usual sense is regular; corpus, genus,
opus become corpora, genera and opera.
10. The following words of foreign origin are plural nouns; they
should normally not be construed as singulars: Bacteria,
candelabra, criteria, data, graffiti, insignia, media,
phenomena, regalia and strata.
E. There is no need to use an apostrophe before -s:
1. After figures; the 1990s.
2. After abbreviations; CDs, SOSs.
But it is needed in the following examples: Dot the i's and
cross the t's, fair do's, do's and don'ts.
F. A number of nouns form their plurals by means of a change in
the medial vowel (this is called mutation):
Foot - feet, tooth - teeth, goose - geese, louse - lice,
mouse - mice, man - men, woman-women
G. Some nouns have the same form in the singular as in the plural
(this is called the zero plural). We can distinguish:
1. Some names of animals: Carp, pike, plaice, salmon, trout,
grouse, deer, fish and sheep.
2. Some names of nationalities: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese,
Portuguese and Swiss.
3. Some nound ending in -s and -es: Barracks, headquarters,
means, works, series and species.
H. Some nouns add -en with their plural:
Example: Child - children, ox-oxen.
I. A note should be made on the fact that some nouns in English
usually only appear in plural. Some of these are:
Binoculars, tights, shorts, scissors, pyjamas, trousers,
pants, spectacles, pincers, thanks, wages, premises,
linguistics, physics, arrears, contents, customs, fireworks,
headquarters, riches, savings, surroundings, stairs,
mathematics, proceeds, billiards and draughts.
Difference of singular or plural can here be made with a
special construction, e.g. "a pair of trousers"/"two pairs
J. Some other nouns have singular only. Some of these are:
Evidence, advice, information, furniture, clothing, news,
luck, fun, sugar.
Difference of singular or plural can here be made with a
similar construction as that mentioned above, e.g. "a piece
of furniture"/"two pieces of furniture".
Some selected cases of English use
This section will be included in each part of this series. It
will pick selected items from a list of things that are confusing
in the English language and treat them. This time I will look
into the rather extensive bit concerning the differences between
American and British English (not treating the pronunciation).
Short interruption that has nothing to do with English
Check out Igor Strawinky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" at loud
volume. It's the heaviest classical bit of music I've ever heard
and it's blimmin' brilliant!
End of short interruption that had nothing to do with English
whatsoever. Back to those selected items of confusing English.
American English - Why Protext offers separate UK and US
I grapple in the dark as to why the Americans seem to find it
such fun to bastardise the English language. All the time they
tend to use alternative spellings and even alternative idiom -
and I haven't even mentioned alternative pronunciation. For
everyday life this presents no problems. For English students,
however, it's a serious bummer.
-ce or -se
Advice, device, licence and practice are nouns in British
English. The difference with the verbs is that those are spelled
with an s, i.e. advise, license, etc. Even the noun prophecy
works that way with its verb, prophesy.
American English favours license, practice, etc. for both the
noun and verb forms. However, the nouns defence, offence and
pretence are spelled with c in British English and s in American.
-o- or -ou-
British English uses ou where possible, as in colour, favour and
humour. American English uses color, favor and humor there.
The only exceptions (yes, those are the things that keep the
whole thing interesting) where American English uses -ou- are
glamour and saviour.
-l- or -ll-
When endings beginning with a vowel are added to word stems, l
is always doubled after a single vowel in British English,
independent of where the stress falls.
Examples: Controllable, flannelled, jeweller and panelling.
In American English, the l then obeys the same rules as most
other consonants. Thus: Traveler and marvelous (no doubling of l
if stress is not on the preceding syllable) and compelling and
pally (doubling of l if stressed syllable precedes).
Also note: skilful, thraldom and wilful in British English;
skillful, thralldom and willful in American.
-dge- or -dg-
When, in British English, a suffix beginning with a consonant
(like -ful, -ling and -ment) is added to a word ending with a
silent -e, that silent -e is obtained.
Examples: Abridgement, definitely, amazement. Exceptions to this
rule in British English are argue - argument, awe - awful, due -
duly, eerie - eerily/eeriness, true - truly, whole - wholly.
In American English this e is dropped after dg and before a
suffix starting with a consonant.
Examples: Fledgling, judgment (though the latter may be found in
British English official legal works).
The final silent -e is omitted in American English spelling in
several words in which it is found in British English, and
likewise with the final -ue in endings like -gogue and -logue.
Examples: Ax, analog, adz, epilog, program and pedagog.
Irregular past verbs
In British English: Quit - quitted, spit - spat, sweat -
sweated. In American English: Quit - quit, spit - spit, sweat -
-re or -er
In British English, there are quite a lot of words that end with
-re at the end. In American English, however, they are often
written with -er. The following words have -re in British English
and -er in American English: Acre, cadre, euchre, lucre,
massacre, meagre, mediocre, ogre and wiseacre. Do note that metre
and centre are also spelled with -re in American English! A meter
is a measuring device.
Different idiom and different spellings
British English American English
Behind Back of
(Note: Floppy Disk is proper British English)
Dressing gown Bathrobe
Foetal, foetus Fetal, fetus
(Note: Computer program is proper British English)
(Note: When used as an adverb, as in "really nice"/"real nice")
(Note: Don't confuse with sleigh)
Stuff that's only allowed in American English
American English Can be used to replace Br.E.
Aside from Apart from or except for
Liable to Likely to
No way Certainly not
Overly Excessively, too or over-
Overview Survey, review or outline
Through Up to and including
Write To compose a letter
(Note: In the sense "I will write you about it")
Also, American allows a structure like "I don't want no war",
whereas British English prefers "I don't want any war" or
something along those lines.
Some last notes
Some more differences between American and British English could
not be fitted in any of the above bits and will therefore be
Some typical American English words, further, are: Condominium,
fresh (as in "to get fresh with someone"), trash (as in "to throw
away something") and zipper.
Some typical British English words are: Callow, choleric,
constabulary, daft, duvet, fag (as in "cigarette"), lav (as in
Typical American structures are I just ate (I have just eaten),
in school (at school), different than (different from), protest
(protest against) and most (almost).
There are also words that have a different meaning. Some
examples are jam (jelly), nervy (impudent, not nervous) and mean
(nasty, not stingy).
All of this will be ended with some words that are American
only, e.g. realtor (estate agent), rotunda (concourse), running
gear (vehicle's wheels and axles), sassy (cheeky), scam (fraud),
scofflaw (habitual law-breaker), to second-guess (be wise after
the event) and tacky (seedy, tatty).
Needless to say, whenever you want to write something formal you
should try to keep either to American or to British English.
That's about it for this time. I promised Stefan not to make
this stuff too boring, nor too long. To all of you except for the
British language puritans I have probably failed miserably with
regard to the first bit. Well, at least I didn't make it too
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.