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Diane Nicholls

Diane Nicholls

Friday, 30 March 2012

Kindly stop, for me!

Kindly, when used as an adverb, is a tricky word for learners of English, but seems to pose a problem for native speakers, too.

Here are a couple of dictionary definitions:

1 in a kind way

‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said kindly.

2 (formal) used for asking someone to do something, especially when you are trying to hide the fact that you are annoyed: 'Would you kindly stop making that noise?'

2a used for making a polite request: 'Kindly return one copy of the letter to me'

CD-ROM © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2007.

in a way that pleases or is agreeable to the recipient. Now chiefly in polite requests and (iron.) in demands. J.K. Toole Will you kindly go away. A. MacLean If not, kindly refrain from sending pointless signals.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2002

You only have to travel on a plane to be repeatedly kindly asked /requested to return to your seat, fasten your seat belt, switch off your mobile phone etc., etc. But if you are badly in need of the loo, find your seat belt uncomfortable, or are hoping to receive an important last-minute call, the kindness is in your compliance (though it probably is in your interest to comply), not in the announcer's request.

Stay in a hotel or guest house, or eat in a restaurant and you'll see more of the same:

Guests are kindly asked to refrain from smoking inside the property.

Early Bird diners are kindly asked to vacate their tables by 8.30pm

Please note that check in time is from 2.00pm onwards and guests are kindly requested to vacate their room by 10.30am.

What they're asking you to do is to abstain from an addictive habit, eat your dinner quickly and leave, and get up early, pack your bags and get out. Is this kind? Does being asked to do these things please you? Is it agreeable to you as the recipient of the request? No. And in any case, isn't the requestee the best judge of whether a request is kind or not? Claiming that your own request is kind seems rather presumptuous to me.

What they mean is that they (though the passive construction handily allows them not to name themselves) are asking *you* to be so kind as to do all those things you'd rather not do. But would you be so kind as to is a bit of a mouthful, very formal, and doesn't work in the passive construction generally used for these 'kind' requests.

So why don't requesters put their kindlies where they belong? Some do, and I, personally, feel far more inclined to comply with their requests:

We ask guests to kindly check out of the hotel by 10.30am to allow us time to prepare the rooms for the next guests.

Customers are requested to kindly refrain from drinking alcohol in the queue outside the venue.

There, that's much nicer, isn't it? Your kindness in complying is being acknowledged.

So, why all these premature and misplaced kindlies? A few thoughts:

Could it be the spectre of the age-old split-infinitive proscription that makes people hesitate to confidently put the kindly firmly where it belongs, i.e. in between the 'to' and the 'infinitive'? Is to kindly do something another casualty?

Politeness is a huge and fascinating area of English usage, or pragmatics, which has recently been discussed by Stan Carey, Michael Rundell, Orin Hargraves and others on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog Macmillan Dictionary Blog. I wonder whether people are putting their kindlies where they aren't appropriate because they feel the need for an appropriate politeness marker for the grammatical context of their requests? How do you ask somebody to do something in the passive and at the same time signpost that you are being polite? In active requests, we have the wonderfully versatile pleasePlease refrain from enjoying yourself. But if you're using the passive and want to make sure your requestee is aware that you're a nice person really and not really a kill-joy, where is the word that fits? Politely is sometimes used – Visitors are politely asked to observe this request. But, again, isn't politeness something that the requestee should be the judge of, and is using the word politely the same as being polite? For me, it doesn't quite do the job. Rather like those 'Polite Notice: No Parking' signs you see in highly inviting parking spaces – it rankles. Saying it's polite, doesn't necessarily make it so. Are kindly-displacers, in particular in announcements and notices, trying to fill a troublesome lexical gap?

If the gap is the problem and that gap isn't filled soon, this intriguing usage will gain ground – it's catching! I wonder whether dictionary editors will need to include a new sense for kindly in their next editions? If so, what would it say?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

You lost me at knickers!


What lies between paraffin and knickers?

I like to think I'm a fairly easy-going linguist, when I'm off duty. I don't much care what Waterstone's does with their apostrophe, a green grocer's apostrophe will usually raise a wry smile from me if written in chalk or on a piece of cardboard, though less so if I see it in print, and I long ago learnt to turn a blind eye to if instead of whether if it doesn't create ambiguity. But what does really get my goat is when someone says or writes something that leaves me wondering 'what on earth do they mean?'.

This happens often with the very simple and handy construction from x to y.

It's used to describe a range of things or the distance in time or space between two points and is, of course, not always intended to be taken entirely literally. When we say from John O'Groats to Land's End we might be describing the actual route on a map of a charity bike ride, or more generally the whole of the area of Britain, but just about any native English speaker will understand our meaning. This construction can be used rather poetically, as in from the cradle to the grave, and alliteration can come in handy too, as in from rags to riches. In US English everything from soup to nuts is commonly used to refer to 'just about everything'. This puzzled me for a moment, but once I deduced that it referred to the opening and closing courses of a meal, I was happy. I could fill in the gaps – soup and nuts existed on a continuum and I could more or less imagine everything that might come in between. Similarly, if someone says they are plunged from ecstasy to despair, I'm quite comfortable filling in the various stopping off points on that particular emotional journey in my own imagination if necessary, and it rarely is – I get the point.

Often, users of this construction use the extremes of the alphabet to define the boundaries of their category:

Our creative team have brought to life everything from Aardvarks to Zebras.

Musical taste covers everything from ABBA to ZZ Top.


Well presented and arranged, the site takes in everything from Aerospace to Zoology and lots in between.

I'm OK with these. They do, at least, seem to define a clear category membership with logical borders. I can imagine what is likely to come in between.

I do start to get a little impatient when alliteration is used to define the boundaries, รก la from rags to riches, but with a complete absence of logic or recognisable imagery. It makes for some very nice-sounding sentences, admittedly, but leaves me scratching my head as if I need to crack some obscure code:

In the back of my mind, I'd expected the show to fall into that vast category corralled by everything from bingo to Big Brother.


They play everything from bluegrass to Buddy Holly, The Eagles to The Everlys.


Nowadays you can get everything from burgers to boxty, pizzas to pakoras, gumbo to guacamole.

I'm trying to imagine what a 'vast category corralled by everything from bingo to Big Brother' might contain. Or is it just me? Ultimately, I can live with these by taking the whole construction with a pinch of salt. And that is how I cope with this:

She persuaded them to invest in ten rolls of wallpaper bought from a corner shop that sold everything from paraffin to knickers. Tiller's Girls, Doremy Vernon, 1988

Any attempt to apply any sort of logic or analysis to that one is clearly unlikely to lead anywhere and was presumably not the intention of the author, who, I assume, was just having a bit of fun with the construction. And why not? She's not encouraging her readers to shop there.

But my blood does begin to bubble when I suspect I'm supposed to read something into the boundaries set on some strange, qualified everything. For instance:


He reads anything and everything from Alexander Solzhenitzyn to Sue Townsend and Ian Banks.

Is there some value judgment implied here? For example, suggesting a trajectory of literariness that has Solzhenitzyn at one extreme and Sue Townsend and Ian Banks (together?) at the other? Which authors lie outside of these extremes and which authors lie between? Did literature begin with Solzhenitzyn and end with Ian Banks? Or is the message that he reads all genres of literature of which grim realism and science fiction are the extremes, and the gaps I need to fill in are all the others? In which case, wouldn't the strangely tautologous anything and everything have sufficed? It bothers me. But, ultimately, does it matter? Well, sometimes. It matters in contexts where I actually want or need to know what a range of things includes. Then my goat is well and truly got!

Which professions are included here?

These people work in vastly different roles - everything from accountants to anaesthetists.

The British Library's collection is described as having:

... a range of subjects covering everything from art to accountancy and literature to law.

So, does that include linguistics?

Lancaster University has been awarded ...


hundreds of extra foundation degree places in vocational subjects ranging from criminology to computing.

Well, that's great news, but it tells me only that there are degree places in criminology and computing and some other unnamed everything that may or may not begin with 'c'.


They have a comprehensive range of fitness equipment for you to choose from and if you need any other sports equipment they sell everything from Cricket Bats to Tennis Rackets.

Thanks, but will I be making a wasted journey if go to their shop assuming that this everything includes golf clubs, for example?

And now that I've charted my course from delight to flummoxed frustration, will somebody please tell me what could possibly lie between boredom and the ironing?!

Give me a break http://www.givemeabreak.org Recommends books to give you a break from everything from boredom to the ironing.