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An Irishman’s Diary: On grammar and The Stylebook of Leviticus

Use ye not the word 'fulsome' when ye mean 'full', for that is unclean

A reading from the Stylebook of Leviticus: Use ye not the word “fulsome” when ye mean “full”, for that is unclean. Avoid also the word “epicentre” when ye mean “centre”, that too is unclean. 

Use “decimate” as a posh version of “devastate” if ye must, but use it sparingly, for 10 per cent of grammarians believe that unclean, and, verily, they are the ones who write letters to the Editor. 

It is not its

Use not an apostrophe in the possessive “its”, that is unclean to ye. 

But drop not the “s” after the possessive apostrophe in a singular noun ending in “s” (eg Guinness’s brewery), for that is a latter-day custom of the Americanites and they are unclean.

 Include not an apostrophe in the title of the book Finnegans Wake, that is an abomination in the eyes of the chief subeditor. 

Shun too all apostrophes in plural words, for that is the greatest abomination of all, and causeth the righteous to weep bitter tears.

 He who referreth to a “stabbing incident” or a “shooting incident” or indeed a “mugging incident” committeth the sin of tautology, for we know that if there hath been a shooting or stabbing, or mugging, it followeth that an incident hath occurred. 

Likewise, she who telleth of a building “razed to the ground” useth too many words, for where else but to the ground may a building be razed?

Touch not the word “iconic”, for except in a small number of cases, it is as unclean as a sheep’s buttocks.

These things ye may call iconic: religious statues, some church windows and holy pictures made by the Russianites.

These thing ye may not call iconic: buildings, cars, designer shoes, handbags, celebrity hairdressers, Lady Gaga.  

The raven is not iconic, nor the grasshopper, nor anything that flyeth in the air or creepeth on the face of the earth, or swimmeth in the deep.

They are not iconic; they will never be iconic and he who claimeth otherwise reduceth a once-noble adjective to the value of a two-shekel note.


Use not the word “hopefully” to mean “I hope”, for it meaneth only “with hope” so that if thou sayeth “Hopefully it will rain today”, thou implieth that it will certainly rain today and that it is the rain-filled sky that is hopeful, not thee.

Avoid also the “hanging participle”, as in: “Driving home in a storm, a tree fell on my car.” For although the reader knoweth it was thee who was driving, the sentence implieth that it was the tree. And if a tree was driving, it could not also have fallen on the car. That would be absurd.

Confuse ye not the transitive verb “lay” with the intransitive “lie”. 

For if ye do, ye shall surely go the way of the false prophet Bob Dylan, who urgeth his woman to Lay Lady Lay, as if she be a hen or a goose or any other fowl after its kind. That is an abomination and he that committeth it must be punished. For did not the Bobdylanites themselves say: “Everybody must get stoned?” And in this case, at least, they spake the truth.


Great is the mercy of the chief subeditor, however, and he rarely stoneth those who transgress against his laws. 

Lesser sins may be cleansed by burnt offerings (on indeed “burned” offerings – both are acceptable). But he who hath committed great iniquities, such as using the term “going forward”, requireth great atonement. His clothes shall be rent, his head shaved, he shall put a covering upon his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, Unclean.” 

He shall then be cast forth into the desert (but not the dessert, unless it be baked Alaska), where he shall wander seven days and nights.

At the end of seven days and nights, he shall be asked to spell the unrelated phrase “just deserts”.


And if he spelleth it correctly, he will be indeed just, and admitted again among the righteous. For as it sayeth in the Old Testament (Lev 18:27): “All these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before ye, and the land is defiled.”  

But if one speaketh strictly, that passage too is unclean. For in the interests of clarity, the phrase “which were before ye”, referring as it doth to the “men of the land” should be immediately after the word “land”. 

And of course then, since it’s a defining rather than informing clause, the “which” should be a “that”.