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The difference between while and whilst

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, it is always preferable to use while.

In the course of my work I read dozens of dissertations written by post-graduate students from countries far to the north of South Africa such as Malawi, Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria. None of these students is a first-language English speaker and I have noticed that without exception they use the word whilst – never while – and this made me wonder about these two words. I have always regarded whilst as archaic, pompous, too formal and, at best, rather quaint, but none of these young men and women is any of these things.

So what is the difference? Although in British English both spellings are correct, whilst is becoming less common than it used to be – except among the educated people of Africa, apparently. American English uses while for all forms of the word. And it is advisable never to use whilst when speaking.

Not always do while and whilst mean precisely the same thing. When used as a noun while (from the Old English hwil) means ‘a period of time, usually short’ e.g. wait here for a while.

It can also be used as a verb e.g. to while away the time or as a preposition (meaning ‘until’) although this usage is archaic. It is important to note that whilst cannot be used either as a noun or a verb.

It is as a conjunction, however, that they have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. Here they mean ‘during the time that’ e.g. watch the kettle while I leave the kitchen. Other meanings include ‘whereas’ and ‘although’ e.g. a qualified mechanic can repair the engine, while I haven’t a clue. Their use as a conjunction dates back to the 1500s.

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, remember that it is always preferable to use while.

Distinction between dependant and dependent.

Is it necessary to make a distinction between dependant and dependent?

This is confusing to say the least! From time to time I have to think twice before deciding whether to use the word dependant or dependent. I am never quite sure. It’s all right for Americans because they don’t make such a distinction and always use dependent.

In British English, however, dependant is the noun (someone, such as a child, who depends on another, especially for financial support) and dependent the adjective (e.g. dependent on drugs).
For those who are interested, the word has its roots in Latin (de = down, and pendeo, pependi = to hang from, to be suspended). The pendulum of a clock has similar origins.

Do you think American English loses something by not making this distinction between dependant and dependent? Or is it unnecessary to make such a distinction in the first place?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

If you were imprudent enough to discharge government ordnance in the city centre, the chances are that you would fall foul of some government ordinance. That’s hardly surprising. Yet most right-minded people would probably come to the same conclusion without fully understanding or even caring about the difference. So what is the difference?

An ordinance is a government law or decree, usually at municipal level, whereas ordnance refers to military materials, mainly weapons and ammunition.

Both words have the same Latin root (to arrange or set in order) and entered our language via Middle English, after which they split and took on different meanings and spelling.

So one little letter can make a big difference.

Presume and Assume: is there a difference?

Presume and Assume, there is a subtle difference.

When the celebrated Victorian explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone went ‘missing’ in the wilds of Africa for over six years the journalist-cum-adventurer Sir Henry Morton Stanley set out to find him. In November 1871 he eventually found Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and legend has it that Stanley greeted him with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”

Now why did Stanley say ‘presume’ and not ‘assume’? Is there a difference? The short answer is yes there is – a subtle one.

In common usage both mean to suppose or to take something as a given, and may be used interchangeably.  The difference is merely one of degree. Assume is somewhat weaker or less authoritative in meaning than presume. When a speaker is unsure of his facts he makes an assumption but when he is reasonably sure of them he makes a presumption.

So Stanley was technically quite correct. Given the circumstances, it was highly unlikely that the man beside the waters of Lake Tanganyika was anyone other than Dr Livingstone, so saying presume and not assume was correct.

Bankrupt

Where does the word bankrupt come from?

The other day I was paging through my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable when the book happened to open at the word bankrupt. For no particular reason I read what was written.

I already knew that bankrupt, like so many English words, had a Latin root, or at least part of it had a Latin root – ruptus, the past participle of rumpere, to break. The other part, banca, is an Old Italian word meaning ‘bench’, and naturally became the modern bank. Old Norse and Old English had similar words. But what I didn’t know was that the modern English word came from the Old Italian bancarotta.

If you enjoy delving into the etymology of words you will find this quite interesting, but what I read in Brewer’s Dictionary about how the word came about was more interesting still.

Bancarotta literally means ‘broken bench’. The word derives from the centuries-old Italian custom whereby an insolvent moneylender or merchant suffered the ignominy of having his table or bench broken up by the other merchants. This symbolized that he was no longer welcome to carry on trading in the market place. Simple but effective.

So there we have it. The word bankrupt has an Old Italian root but let’s hope that you never suffer the consequences of this word!

 

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



Is the Oxford comma necessary?

Opinions differ on whether the Oxford comma is necessary.

In Standard English (including South African English) it is permissible to use a comma directly before a coordinating conjunction in a series of (usually) nouns? At school we were taught it was not permissible.

For example, may one write, ‘I saw John, Jack, Mary, and Sue’? Is the comma between the words ‘Mary’ and ‘and’ necessary?

Some people would say yes; others would say no. My gut feeling is to say no, but maybe I’m merely a product of my sheltered upbringing. The trend in American English is to accept its use; less so for British English. I am not too sure about its acceptance in South African English. All I can be sure of is that I would never use it.
What do you think?

Incidentally, the term ‘Oxford comma’ came into prominent use when high-spirited students at Columbia University formed a group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. This led to the writing of a humorous song whose message, according to Wikipedia, was more about not caring about anything than the Oxford comma. Another name is Harvard comma, although it is properly called a serial or series comma.

 

C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh (1 September 1942)

Carolyn Janice Cherry, better known by the pen name C. J. Cherryh, is an American writer of speculative fiction.

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What is a fragmented sentence?

A fragmented sentence is a linguistic expression. It denotes a word or phrase which stands by itself although, strictly speaking, it doesn’t make up a complete sentence. A fragmented sentence is incomplete because it lacks the elements of a complete sentence.

A complete sentence comprises three components:

• a subject
• a verb
• a complete thought.

In other words, a complete sentence can stand alone and still make sense. A fragmented sentence, on the other hand, is not a complete sentence – although it does make sense, but only if taken within its context.

Consider the following sentences:

• Can we win the game on Saturday? Absolutely!
• Can we win the game on Saturday? Probably not.
• We must win the game on Saturday. But how?

In the sentences above, the words in italics are the dependent or fragmented sentences. On their own they are meaningless but when read in conjunction with what appears in front of them they take on a meaning. Therefore what is left unsaid is implied.

Use fragmented sentences sparingly

Fragmented sentences are very common in ordinary speech – listen to any normal conversation – and we often come across them in newspapers and advertisements. They can be very short, consisting of no more than one or two words.
In narrative writing fragmented sentences should be used sparingly, and if used judiciously they can add variety and vibrancy. But don’t overdo them or your writing will appear disjointed and disorganised.

Correcting a fragmented sentence

It is easy to correct a fragmented sentence, if you feel it necessary to do so. The simplest way is simply to add a comma. This will connect the dependent clause (the fragmented sentence) to the main sentence. If the sentence then becomes too long or unwieldy, create a second independent sentence which can also stand alone.

Fragmented sentences have a necessary place in narrative writing, especially where the author is replicating direct speech.

 

E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (6 January 1931)

Edgar Lawrence “E. L.” Doctorow is an American author. He is known internationally for his unique works of historical fiction.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



Defining clauses define the noun

Defining clauses introduce additional information to a sentence by defining the noun. That is why they are called defining clauses.

Take a look at this sentence: This is the house that Jack built.
The defining clause is that Jack built. It defines the house.

Defining clauses belong to the category subordinate relative clauses.

There are two kinds of subordinate relative clauses:

• Defining clauses. These are usually introduced by that, but also by which or who.
• Non-defining clauses. These are descriptive and provide information about someone or something, but this information doesn’t exactly define what is being written about. Without them the sentence still makes sense and is grammatically correct. They are introduced by relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which) which refer to a noun that appears earlier in the sentence e.g. My brother, who is older than me, owns a sports car. Note that they are never introduced by the word that. Commas (or parentheses) are used to distinguish non-defining clauses from the rest of the sentence.

Difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses

These sentences highlight the difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses:

(a) I dislike travelling in buses that are dirty.
(b) I dislike travelling in buses, which are dirty.

Sentence (a) means that I dislike travelling in dirty buses, and by implication that I am happy to travel in clean buses. This is an example of a sentence with a defining clause. If the defining clause is omitted, the basic meaning of the sentence would be changed from I dislike travelling in some buses to I dislike travelling in all buses.

Sentence (b) means all buses are dirty and by implication that I would rather use other means of transport.

Sentence (a) is an example of a sentence with a defining clause, and sentence (b) is an example of a describing or non-defining clause. If the describing clause is removed from this sentence the basic sense of it remains the same i.e. I dislike travelling in all buses.

A non-defining or describing clause is normally introduced by a comma. A defining clause is essential to the sentence and cannot be put within commas. It is important to note that it can’t be omitted without eliminating or severely limiting the sense of the sentence.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that e.g. I live in the house that Jack built.
Here the defining clause is so fundamental that if it were to be omitted, the sentence would be incomplete and confusing. It defines the house as being the only house built by Jack.

In the sentence I live in a house, which Jack built the meaning is that Jack has possibly built several houses and I live in one of them. This is an example of a non-defining (or describing) subordinate clause.

Points to remember

Who and which may also be used to introduce defining clauses but that is almost always preferred.
That is used to introduce defining clauses only.
That always defines rather than merely describes.
• Defining clauses must not be marked off with commas.
Who, and sometimes that, refers to people, but that and which refer to things.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by the word that, and, unlike non-defining clauses, are essential to the meaning of the sentence.

 

Tana French
Tana French

Tana French (1973)

Tana French is an Irish novelist and theatrical actress.

“Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”

 


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What is a footnote?

What is a footnote? It is a note or comment which, for some reason or other, is not able to be accommodated in the main body of the text and is placed at the bottom of the page on which it applies.
A footnote provides supplementary content or information which is important, useful or interesting. Its purpose is to add to or simplify what is contained in the text. It should never contain complicated, irrelevant or non-essential information. It is used when you want to add a comment to a sentence you have written, and the comment isn’t directly related to what you have written.

Where do you put a footnote?

Footnotes are created on your computer or laptop by inserting a symbol in the most suitable place in the text and reprinting that symbol at the bottom of the page, followed by your comment. Whenever possible, put the footnote at the end of a sentence. It should be placed immediately following the full stop (period) or whatever punctuation mark completes that sentence. If, for clarity’s sake, it needs to be placed in the middle of a sentence, try to put it at the end of the most relevant phrase, after a comma or other punctuation mark. If this can’t be done then put it immediately behind the most relevant word.

Use footnotes only when necessary

The most important rule to remember regarding footnotes is: do not use them unless they are absolutely necessary.
Too many footnotes make your writing laborious to read and make it appear cluttered and disorderly. Never use information that is incorporated in a footnote if it can just as easily be incorporated in the text itself. Academic writers are often guilty of using too many footnotes which could just as easily have been placed in parentheses within the main text. So think carefully before deciding if a footnote is absolutely necessary. Your work should be a pleasure to read – or at least easy to read.

Flagging footnotes

The best way of flagging footnotes is by means of numbers, although if you don’t require too many footnotes it is permissible to use other symbols, such as an asterisk. This is not recommended, however.
Footnotes at the bottom of a page should be set apart in some way from the main body of the text. It is preferable to put them in a smaller typeface than the text itself and separate them with a horizontal line. Your program usually does this automatically. If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page then it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. But if this happens you might as well incorporate the information it contains in the document itself.

Footnotes in academic writing

In academic writing footnotes are employed mostly to refer to other work of which you have made use, or to which you wish to direct the reader’s attention. The best system to use is the Harvard system (also called the author-date system). In this system you state the author’s surname and the year of publication, e.g. (Smith, 2005). If the reference is part of the structure of the sentence, the date is placed in parentheses, e.g. Smith (2005). These in-text references will allow the reader to turn to a fully detailed list of references in your bibliography at the back of the document. Note that the numerous rules for citing references in academic works are the subject of an article on its own.

Endnotes

When you see a footnote in the main text you have the choice of reading the comments at the bottom of the page or continuing to read the text and deal with the comments later. One of the advantages of endnotes, which are the same as footnotes except that they appear at the very end of the text, is that they aren’t so intrusive and don’t interrupt the flow of the text. Personally I prefer footnotes. If you want your readers to read the footnotes immediately, footnotes are a better way of getting their attention.

Footnotes and endnotes are useful forms of punctuation, especially in academic works, but remember to use them sparingly.

 

William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi.

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



The apostrophe and why it is so troublesome

The apostrophe is the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It certainly causes much perplexity but it is there for the sake of clarity. The word is derived from the Greek to turn away.

The apostrophe has three purposes

• It indicates the possessive case (as in the lion’s den).
• It indicates the omission or contraction of one or more letters (as in can’t for can not).
• It indicates (but not always) the plural of figures or letters (as in Mind your p’s and q’s or The swinging 60’s).

Note that English is not consistent in the use of apostrophes. American English favours using the apostrophe after figures but British English does not. So in British English one writes 60s or 1980s, not 60’s or 1980’s. In South Africa we do not follow American English.

The possessive apostrophe

The possessive apostrophe is followed by an s to indicate the possessive singular form of a noun e.g. the lion’s den. This applies even to names ending in s, such as Thomas or Jones e.g. Mr Jones’s car. Note, however, that opinions differ on how to deal with singular nouns ending in s, as in boss. Some writers say that we should add an apostrophe only (as in American English) although in British English it is correct to add an apostrophe followed by an s. So in American English the boss’ office and Mr Jones’ house is correct and in British English the boss’s office and Mr Jones’s house is correct. As mentioned earlier, in South Africa we follow British English.

For the possessive plural form the apostrophe is put behind the s. So the lions’ den tells us that the den belongs to several lions. This is understandable as nobody pronounces the word lions as if it had two esses (or is it s’s?).

Confusion caused by the apostrophe

Some confusion can arise in words such as people, women and children which, although plural, are treated in the same way as singular nouns e.g. the children’s playground. More confusion is caused by names ending in s, such as Ulysses. The possessive form is not pronounced as if it had an extra s, as in Ulysses’s travels. Therefore we say and write Ulysses’ travels.

And even more confusion occurs with the possessive plural forms of mice (plural of mouse) or dice (plural of die) or pence (plural of penny). These are treated as singular nouns e.g. mice’s tails.

The apostrophe and possessive personal pronouns

Possessive personal pronouns never take an apostrophe. These are: ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs and whose.
Except in rare cases of separate possession, as opposed to joint possession, we do not use two possessive apostrophes together. Therefore it is wrong to write Jack’s and Jill’s pail of water. Only the last-mentioned noun has the apostrophe: Jack and Jill’s pail of water.

The apostrophe indicating contractions or omissions

Omissions or contractions are shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been left out. Common examples are it’s, we’ll, can’t and don’t. Remember that the apostrophe is placed exactly where the omitted letters should have been. It is not wrong to use omissions / contractions in formal writing, but use them sparingly. Some words that have been written as contractions for ages are still written with apostrophes: o’clock (of the clock), man o’ war (man of war) and fo’c’s’le (forecastle).

Clipped forms are fairly common in English. They are similar to contractions or omissions but differ in one important respect. They are formed by chopping off a piece of a longer word to make a word in its own right. Examples are gym from gymnasium, flu from influenza, bus from omnibus and phone from telephone. These words are accepted in their own right and are not written with apostrophes.

Contractions and omissions must be distinguished from abbreviations. They include Mr for Mister, Dr for Doctor, kg for kilograms and sci-fi for science fiction. Years sometimes appear in their abbreviated form: ’98 for 1898 but never the ’39 – ’45 war. Instead you write the 1939 – 45 war.

Apostrophes are sometimes used in non-English names: O’Brien, O’Hara, D’Angelo, D’Artagnan. Apostrophes are also sometimes used when representing words in non-standard forms of English. For example the Scottish poet Burns writes gi’ for give and a’ for all.

Apostrophes forming plurals of letters or figures

As a general rule an apostrophe is never used when writing plural forms. Examples of errors are pizza’s instead of pizzas, video’s instead of videos and Jones’s instead of Joneses.

In British English the apostrophe is not used when pluralising dates: the fashion of the 1980s. However, it is used when pluralising letters: there are four i’s and four s’s in the name Mississippi. Without these apostrophes this sentence would be hard to understand.

Apostrophes are sometimes used when writing a group of numbers, as in many 1000’s of birds, although it is preferable to write the number in words.

As a general rule always use the apostrophe if it seems essential for clarity.

 

Richard Bach
Richard Bach

Richard Bach (23 June 1936)

Richard David Bach is an American writer. He is widely known as the author of the hugely popular 1970s best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”



John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History