What I learnt today

I have been proofreading again today and found I wasn’t sure about expressing values in texts, in this particular instance whether the degree sign for “degress Celsius” had a space before it. Here is where I found the answer
It is a US government website, so it is presumably accurate, at least for American English texts.
Of course, putting the space in then leads to the tricky problem of making sure that the digit and the measurement value don’t get separated at the end of the line – the so-called non-breaking spaces e.g. in Word. But that is a completely different topic!

English Punctuation

Our writing workshops always include a short session on punctuation. It seems to be the comma that causes most difficulties. Not many people know about using a comma, so for many texts, correct placement isn’t a problem. However, here is my one basic tip as a start to improving comma placement in texts where it does matter (e.g. academic texts).


If your sentence doesn’t start with the subject of your sentence, you should put in a comma just before the subject.
In the sentence above, the subject of the sentence is “you”. I haven’t started the sentence with “you”, so I have put a comma before it.
If I had written the sentence
“You should put in a comma just before the subject if your sentence doesn’t start with the subject of the sentence”,
then the sentence wouldn’t need a comma because I would have started the sentence with the subject.
I hope this made sense, and we’ll be adding further hints along the way.

Metaphors, similes and the like

A long time ago, I posted on George Orwell’s 6 writing tips. There I used the words metaphor and simile. They, and analogy have always confused me, so here is my explanation of the three terms.
  A simile is used to describe something by comparing it to something else using the word “like” e.g. His bald head looked like a boiled egg. A metaphor is similar but the word “like” isn’t an essential part of the sentence e.g. He ran as fast as a bullet. The analogy is where one looks for similar pictures in areas that are different. Something is described using images from a completely different area. A good example of this term can be found in the video http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_cox_on_cern_s_supercollider where the attraction provided by the Higgs Boson is compared to a VIP walking through a room and attracting the attention of almost everyone else in the room.

Where I often look for answers to questions about English

I’m often either asking myself questions about English or being asked questions and having no answer. The latest question I asked myself was whether one could refer to a “contagious” laugh or an “infectious” laugh. I would choose the latter, but to be sure, I looked it up on
I’ve often found myself consulting this website before, and I find the answers usually understandable and, from my point of view correct, or at least more correct than many other websites.
The answer to my question above was that it didn’t seem to matter since I was writing about something positive (a laugh). If I was writing about something negative (e.g. panic), I should be using “contagious”, and of course, when you write about “diseases”, then there is a difference.
The only answer I couldn’t find on the stackexchange website was why English can be so confusing!

On the topic of commas

I have just seen a quote by Oscar Wilde that I liked and thought I’d share it with you:

“I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” — Oscar Wilde

I have a lot of sympathy with him, especially as I am currently proofreading a socological book that, for better or for worse,  includes lots of commas.

My question of the day – types of …

Inspired by a participant at one of my workshops, I have looked up today whether I should write:
There are three types of muscle:
There are three types of muscles:
Once again, although I hate to admit it, google has provided me with an answer I can understand and identify with. You will find that answer here.
Basically what the website told me was that I should be writing
There are three types of muscle:
The reasoning behind the answer was that I am thinking about muscle as an idea and not about individual muscles.Perhaps you would like to come to one of my workshops and put my knowledge to the test. My next open workshop on academic writing is for DAAD in Bonn in June. You’ll find further information here.

Singular or plural?

I’ve been away for a while re-vamping my family network – almost a full-time job with a family as large as mine – so I haven’t had much to write about. However, back at proofreading today I had to investigate whether “dynamics” took a singular or plural word (e.g. “is” or “are”). My investigations took me to a website at The Economist that I did know about as a book but didn’t realise it was also on the web – the style guide -.
The answer to the question above: it depends on the context. You’ll have to go and investigate yourself.

Getting your prepositions right

Have you ever had a problem deciding what preposition to use in English? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Even I, as a native speaker, are sometimes unsure what preposition I should be using e.g. should I write “an example of …” or “an example for …“?
My answer to this problem is to look up the main word (e.g. example) in a dictionary that might provide me with sample sentences e.g. www.learnersdictionary.com or www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. Specifically designed for non-native speakers, these sources will provide you with example English sentences where you can be fairly sure the grammar is correct – unlike many English sentences on the Internet.
If you can’t find the answer to your question there, then there are other websites you can use – but I’ll go into those some other time.
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