Monday, 31 August 2015

The Pedants' Revolt - led by Which Tyler ... Or Why the March Hare was right

"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do,"Alice hastily replied; "at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know."

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No, it's not.

When we were little, my siblings and I constantly annoyed each other:
     "Can you put the kettle on?" 
     "It won't suit me." 
Oh yes, ha ha. Our parents were fond of correcting us, too, but it was only when a film star did the same thing that I cringed.

Once, and I'm unashamedly name-dropping here, I met my hero, Donald Sutherland. He was filming scenes from Revolution in my home town and I lurked nearby until someone shouted "Cut," whereupon I rushed up to the great man and asked, "Can I have my photo taken with you?" 

     He replied, "I don't know, can you? You may ..."  
     Oh, the horror; it was as though my Dad were speaking to me!!

People make mistakes. It's a fact. And sometimes it's funny: I had a colleague at work who remained at a fairly constant level of disgruntlement during the working week, complaining often and loudly about the bosses, who treated her as if she were one of their 'dominions'. Years later, I wonder if she has any thoughts about the little yellow creatures who are currently dominating the cinematic world. Does she think they're incorrectly named?

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A lovely notice on our school hall wall explains what to do at playtime if there's been a prolonged spell of wet weather which might render the grassy area unusable: "If it has been raining, test the ground for hardness with a teacher." Now, would that be head first, or feet first?

I recently worked alongside a qualified teacher who thought Emily Bronte wrote a book called Withering Heights. Yes, it's funny, and no harm done. Although I struggled when she began telling me about a great TV show which helped children understand about consolations. We had a strange conversation during which I told her how I used puppets to help my pre-schoolers get to grips with the more complex emotions that they struggle to define. She looked confused. Turns out she was talking about a science programme which talked about constellations.

Errors in speech are one thing, and possibly derive from mishearing. They can also be used for great comic effect - hence the expressions Malapropism and Spoonerism. But should we be so forgiving when we see these errors written down?

Far be it for me? What does this even mean? We know, of course, and does it matter? The original phrase, Far be it from me, is a form of self-deprecation, as in: God forbid that I ...  

Is the change of word so terrible? 
I think so.

During the election campaign, Chuka Umunna was described as "Making all these media appearances off his own back". How do you do something off your own back, exactly? The expression comes from cricket, and is used to distinguish between runs 'gained' by extras, and byes, and those gained by the batsman's own efforts; literally 'off his own bat'. When children ask where these expressions come from and the history is lost, what will we tell them?

A small piece in a newspaper a while ago caught my attention for the wrong reason. It concerned Bill Gates, and it reported that "The Microsoft founder and his wife Melinda also said Africa would be able to feed itself by 2030 and that diseases such as polio would be eradicated in their charity's annual letter." How, I wondered, does one eradicate disease in a newsletter? Do newsletters routinely suffer from such afflictions?

A current 'earworm' is a song that exhorts us to "Marvin Gaye and Get it On" as if to Marvin Gaye is a verb. But that's not my only gripe. The song contains the lyrics, "We got a kingsize to ourselves, don't need to share with no-one else."  As opposed to on a normal day, presumably, when you share the bed with a family of five from St Neots?

(My mother once objected to some song lyrics which proclaimed that "Everyone knew everyone, and everybody else as well," on the grounds that there's nobody left after 'everyone'.)

Now, objecting to nonsensical stuff just makes me  a grumpy old woman though, doesn't it? No; I think this stuff matters.

Jeanette Kupfermann, a respected and experienced journalist, wrote in a daily newspaper: "I am not overstating the case to say that the thought quite literally breaks my heart." Double pedantry penalty points here; something can't be quite literal. It either is, or isn't. And if you're not overstating the case to say your heart is literally broken, then you're dead. But the trouble is that the gaze skips over such lazy cliché-ridden writing and such phrases become meaningless. 

If we don't stop to think about how ludicrous it would be to hone in on something or harp back - and yes, I've heard and read both of these on BBC News items and in national newspapers - we begin to lose the richness of our language.

A TV preview for an episode of The Graham Norton Show bewailed the inclusion of the actor Harrison Ford. "Notoriously taciturn, perhaps fellow guest Jack Whitehall can bring the brooding veteran out of his shell." What this actually says is that Jack Whitehall is taciturn and as such might bring Harrison Ford out of his shell. So now people will not understand what taciturn means!

Yet another newspaper howler had Boris Johnson backing "A ban on veils in the classroom yesterday after being confronted by a Muslim woman who wears a burka on a radio phone-in". Does the woman only wear a burka on radio phone-ins? In which case, how do we know?  

I'm not a stickler for rules. Whilst the following can all be remembered by one simple rule which is that "A is Accurate", I'm not too concerned if people get it wrong and say:

  • crushing bore when they should say crashing bore
  • stomping ground when it's actually stamping ground
  • or even that they are chomping at the bit instead of champing at the bit.

I don't mind these so much, mainly because meaning, if anything, is strengthened by these errors, but ...

If one describes a card sharp as a card shark, or a damp squib as a damp squid, it actually becomes meaningless. Squids are, usually, damp. So, it's not really describing a disappointment is it? 

I'm a big fan of the author Sarah Waters and - another shameless name-drop here - I've met her and she's a lovely person. Her latest book, The Paying Guests, received, it's fair to say, mixed reviews. But this one annoyed me. 

     "Until the first kiss, the novel remains fairly stationery, percolating for a bit too long." 
     Well, I'm glad about that! A book that's not stationery is what - a kindle edition? But what happens to it afterwards; does it liquefy, become pulp? It's been percolating, so perhaps it delivers an espresso? Again, knowledge of a simple rule might have helped the hapless reviewer: stationery has an e for envelope. Stationary has an a for ain't moving!

Another reviewer, Deborah Ross, told us in March that she had someone praying on her mind. What an excellent service! Is that like a superior Jiminy Cricket? I presume it was a typo not picked up by spell-checker, nor by some short-trousered acne-chinned editor who has only just left school and has therefore never seen a proper, i.e. not online, dictionary.

Sometimes rules are just there to be ignored. It's widely debated whether Churchill ever exclaimed that "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put" and I'll gloss over whether he should have said will or shall. The whole "Never use a preposition to end a sentence with" admonition can produce ludicrously cumbersome sentences just like Churchill's. As I said, it's possibly apocryphal, or at the very least, misquoted. But it serves to make a point. I used to get irritated with authors using loath instead of loth, but the new spelling is so often used that the original just looks wrong. I even get a red line under it typing here! 

Such words have made the transition into common and accepted usage. I don't like people saying arguably when they mean probably and I'm not a fan of reading that people have been convinced to do something when in fact they have been persuaded. I'll even keep quiet when people anticipate instead of waiting or expecting. But some words are still in the transition phase and the other day I heard someone use disinterested in the correct way, as in impartial, and I had to stop for a moment and assess whether I'd inferred the meaning correctly. I accept that access and impact are now verbs. But I don't like it, and I hope I never read about anyone accessing anything in a novel set earlier than the 21st century!

My mother deplored the split infinitive at the beginning of every Star Trek episode, but resolutely to adhere to such rules can make for quite stilted prose. It just wouldn't have sounded as good if they announced that their mission was boldly to go. So, breaking the rules is sometimes okay. But there should never be an ambiguous meaning; writers need to make themselves clear. I might actively avoid words like disinterested because my meaning might be misconstrued.

On facebook and twitter recently there has been a proliferation of posts telling writers how to write, and setting out 'rules': 

Many of these are misleading, because more of these adjectives listed here can be followed by more than one preposition. Whilst this table isn't wrong, it's not exhaustive, and if one were to stick rigidly to its formula, clarity would be lost. 

Lots of 'letters to the editor' are truncated so that subject and object get confused, and meaning can still be correctly inferred -  

"As a child in the 50s, the bus used to come down our road" - 

but this form of confused sentence structure can become silly: 

"Next day, aged precisely 31 hours and 46 minutes, Simon put on some trunks, then dunked his new-born son in the hydro-therapy pool," 

or confusing: 

"Raised in Wyoming, her parents were from India and Canada". I think that means that the subject of the interview was raised in Wyoming, and not that her parents were, but it's not clear. 

Carried to the nth degree, this kind of sloppy writing becomes ridiculous. 

Recently, the journalist and columnist Liz Jones wrote: "When as a child, at the Odeon in Chelmsford, an ancient crone would limp round in the interval with a tray at her waist featuring tubs of ice cream, today there is a temptress with a groaning trolley of food." So, how can a child be an ancient crone? The two bits of the sentence don't even go together. If it starts with a when, I expect a different ending. The one I got should have started with a whereas. I don't even know what I'm talking about here - is it clauses, sub-clauses? Is it a comparative? I'm not sure, but I know it's wrong, and that the sentence doesn't fit together properly. So no, grammar is not just for those who know their gerunds from their elbows.

So, my pedantry is not so much about bad grammar (we've seen above how sticking rigidly to the rules of grammar can produce clunky sentences). It's not about bad spelling per se, because spelling is simply non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned. But I'm a stickler for spelling because correct spelling helps to convey correct meaning. And that's what it's all about - saying what you mean, meaning what you say. Sorry, but if I read that "His eyes followed her down the road," I'm going to envisage a pair of eyeballs bouncing along the cobbles.

Not everyone is a pedant. But lots of people are. If you produce prose with an unclear meaning, non-pedants won't notice. Pedants will. Is it worth the risk of alienating a proportion of your audience? I think not.

And yes, I have spent an inordinate amount of time checking this piece over and over again, just in case I've made any mistakes. If I have, I apologise, and I'm sure someone will tell me where, but rest assured, this is not first-draft, unedited, unthinking stream-of-consciousness stuff. You deserve more than that.


  1. Hi Annie - just discovered your blog via your comment on Hastings Battleaxe. It is nice to discover a fellow grammar pedant! It's not a grammar mistake exactly but I always remember my ex-boss talking earnestly about 'the sacred cows coming home to roost'....

  2. Hi Stephanie - it's nice to see you here! Glad you enjoyed the piece. So many people just don't seem to think before they speak, which can be, as in the case you mention, amusing. But when it comes to writing, I think it's so important not to give your readers any reason to stop in the wrong places for the wrong reasons while they try to work out what you really meant, or while they try to get a weird image out of their heads!

  3. Really enjoyed this. May and can were my grandmother's bugaboos.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it - it's probably a losing battle, but I find myself correcting my own kids in the same ways!