Sic Burn!

If you’ve read enough, you’ve probably come across sic. And you probably also have a good idea of how it’s used. If you’re not familiar with it, or you’ve seen it used but aren’t sure what it means, no worries. It’s not something that’s taught much in schools, and it’s not something most of us ever need to use in our lives. It might be mentioned in a style guide at university, especially on a course with a strong focus on writing, such as journalism. But generally, it’s not talked about much. Which is a bit of a pity, as it can be quite a powerful weapon. Continue reading

Hallowe’en Reads: M.R James – Collected Ghost Stories

Like humour, horror doesn’t always age well. What we find scary can change over time, largely because surprise is usually one of the main elements of horror. If something comes out of nowhere, and we don’t understand it and could never expect it, it’s scary. The first time we hear of a vampire, and read about them or see them, it’s a terrifying idea. But with repetition, it becomes known. We know what vampires do, know all the rules. So either you need to play around with people’s expectations about vampires, or you do something else.

You can this effect with lots of older ghost stories. I remember quite a few years ago buying an anthology of Victorian ghost stories, and giving up on it after a while. Some of the stories were interesting and undoubtedly well-written, but none of them was scary. Usually they involved someone staying at an old house reading about some old murder, or seeing someone they don’t recognise around the house. Then at the end they see a ghost and that’s it! Just featuring a ghost was novelty enough to shock readers, especially because most of the stories wouldn’t have been initially presented as ghost stories.

So when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of M.R James’ Collected Ghost Stories, I wasn’t expecting too much from them. Mostly written in the first 25 years of the 20th century, I thought they would simply be far too polite and gentle to be scary. And beginning the first story, my assumption seemed to be confirmed. Most of his stories involved awkward academics puttering around quaint English villages, searching for old ecclesiastical manuscripts. And yet… Continue reading

Hallowe’en Reads: “Gramma”

Any list of recommendations for Hallowe’en reading would seem incomplete without an entry from Stephen King. I’ll forego some of the more obvious choices from among his novels though, and instead choose one of his shorter short stories: “Gramma.”

The premise is very simple: 10-year old George Bruckner lives with his 14-year old brother Buddy and their single mother Ruth. Staying with them is Ruth’s ancient, senile, bedridden grandmother. When Buddy breaks his leg playing baseball, Ruth goes to the hospital out of town to see him, leaving George alone to look after Gramma. Continue reading


Where would the English language be without this simple two-letter word? Without it we wouldn’t be able to refer to an object that isn’t clearly male or female for a second time, without repeating the whole word. Like any pronoun it makes speech and writing simpler and more fluid.

But it also has its little quirks. Like when we say:

It’s raining.

What’s raining?

Just, it, you know? It’s raining!

See also it’s cold, it’s quiet, it’s five o’clock etc.

The meaning of these sentences wouldn’t cause much difficulty for any students, beyond absolute beginners. Yet some people still get confused by them because they expect it to refer to something concrete. This is another classic case of confusion caused by thinking about what grammatical rules would seem to demand, as opposed to looking at the practical use of language. It might not seem to make sense to use it when it doesn’t refer to a clear object, yet, every English sentence needs a subject, and impersonal verb phrases don’t have an agent doing the action, so let’s just stick It at the beginning of the sentence and not think too much about it. Continue reading