A bunch of cheer-leaders for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently took to task a larger bunch of academics who wrote a letter objecting to Gove’s attempts to move education forward into the 1950s. Under the aegis of the Idler Academy Bad Grammar awards, they (the smaller bunch) dissected the letter and concluded it was ‘simply illiterate’.
In particular, they didn’t like the sentence ‘Much of it demands too much too young.’ Their baffled comment runs: “Presumably they [the academics] mean something like ‘demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much.’” I guess that they (the cheer-leaders) don’t mean ‘presumably’ any more than I mean ‘baffled’. The first sentence is clear enough. It’s rather clunking, perhaps, but has the advantage of being only eight words long as against the fourteen of the rephrased version, which is scarcely less clumsy.
Clarity is important but it’s not usually obscured by what is called bad English. In support of correct punctuation, a small stall of old chestnuts is regularly wheeled out. One appeared yesterday in the Observer. It’s ‘Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.’ Nonsense, isn’t it, unless you believe in ghosts? To make ‘sense’ of the sentence you need to insert a break, ideally a semi-colon in the middle, and perhaps a comma too: ‘Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.’ Ah, now I understand. The problem is that this sentence actually sounds better, more interesting and twice as natural in its uncorrected state.
Similarly for other comic and contrived examples like ‘I enjoy cooking my family and running fast.’ Or Eats, Shoots and Leaves, come to that.
The death of Mrs Thatcher – difficult to think of her as Lady or Baroness, for various reasons – has brought back the supposed gains and the real pains of the 1980s, as well as reigniting arguments over what she leaves behind.
Linguistically, it’s a limited if potent legacy. There’s Thatcherism for the doctrine as well as Thatcherite for the supporters. Both these terms emerge in 1976-7, proof that she set her stamp on the Conservative Party well before she became Prime Minister in 1979. To give rise to a political -ism, and so early, is an indication of one kind of success. By contrast, Blairism always sounded a bit contrived while Bushism usually referred not to the policies but to the verbal blunders of George W Bush.
Then there’s TINA, an acronym for ‘There is no alternative’ used about her economic policies and sometimes applied as a nickname to her. She actually said ‘There is no real alternative’ but TINRA doesn’t work as well. Combining with TINA was her most famous (and scripted) remark about a U-turn: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ A few in the audience at the 1984 party conference might have recognised the reference to a 1948 play by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning), although it apparently passed over the head of Mrs T herself.
There are words and phrases that obviously predate her, like ‘wets’ to disparage opponents or that sentry’s challenge: ‘Is he one of us?’ And then there’s the tone of current political discourse, with its shirkers and strivers and its aspiration nation, all of which are reminiscent of the Thatcher worldview.
A feature in Atlantic magazine is cock-a-hoop at the decline of ‘whom’. The only problem for the writer, Megan Garber, is that it’s dying too slowly. The gist of the article is not only that the who/whom distinction seems made for confusion but that ‘whom’ is a fiddly and pretentious term in itself.
Fair enough. In conversation ‘whom’ tends to stick out like a well-bred thumb. In writing, at least of the formal kind, the moment when the road forks and you have to decide whether to go for ‘who’ or ‘whom’ can cause unease almost equal to apostrophe anxiety. The mistake of putting it in where it’s not needed – usually along the lines of ‘…the person whom the police believe committed the offence…’ – is somehow worse than mistakenly leaving it out, as in ‘…the person who the police arrested yesterday.’ Maybe this is because the writer has tried to get it right in the first and failed, while the writer of second seems either ignorant or unbothered.
Yet there is a distinction worth preserving between who and whom, between subject and object. For Lenin, the key question was ‘Who whom?’ Who is the doer, who is being done? Who wins, who loses? Vladimir Ilyich may be discredited but his question stands.
As inescapable as death and taxes is the regular fuss about the apostrophe. The news that a local authority in Devon is going to discuss removing the apostrophe from its street signs to avoid ‘confusion’ was greeted with predictable outrage.
You have to admire the campaigning vigour of 89-year-old John Richards, chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, who proclaimed the potential move as ‘appalling, disgusting and pointless.’ More measured was the response from a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign: ’There is no need to murder the apostrophe. It is very much needed in the English language.’
The fact is that, while it’s nice to have the thing (and nicer still to know how to use it), the apostrophe isn’t actually needed. I would be amazed if the meaning of any phrase or sentence had ever been obscured - really and truly obscured, with deleterious results - by an absent or misplaced apostrophe. The Times, from which the quotes above are taken, refers to Bakers View, an address in Devon whose meaning is changed by the presence/absence of an apostrophe (Baker’s signifies one baker or possibly a person called Baker while Bakers’ signifies two or more bakers or Bakers). If this is the extent of the angst caused by a missing apostrophe, then we could probably afford to dispense with it altogether.
We won’t give it up though. If employing the apostrophe properly gives some of us some pleasure, pointing out other people’s mistakes is even better.
The horsemeat-in-burgers-and-plenty-else scandal is rippling out nicely, more than a month after it kicked off. It’s been an opportunity to attack suppliers, meat producers, Euro regulations, lack of Euro regulations, governments, shadowy criminal conspiracies, and (at the start) East Europeans who had too many horses on their roads. Oh, and those who want cheap food.
Now is the time for regret, reassurance and promises to behave better in future, at least on the part of the supermarkets. The corporate apology is a nicely judged exercise. It will occupy a full page, sometimes a double-page spread, in the papers. It tends to begin with an eye-catching statement, like Tesco’s ‘What burgers have taught us’, even if this particular one suggests that the company is sitting round listening to a lump of processed meat.
The opening declaration is followed by a page of text, sparsely set in a field of white. Usually composed of short sentences. Sometimes not real sentences at all.
And often given separate lines.
To show they mean business.
There are rarely any pictures. That would be frivolous. Only the logo is visible, discreetly positioned at the bottom of the page. The whole thing is meant to convey a manly shouldering of obligations, a gritted-teeth pledge to make sure things are done better in future, but it somehow seems more of a sham than the most florid over-the-top advertising..
The apparatchik at Conservative Towers who came up with the ‘strivers v shirkers’ campaign tag must have thought he was on to something. It alliterates! It rhymes, sort of! And if you replace ‘shirkers’ with ‘skyvers’, it rhymes perfectly. It sets one portion of the country against another, the latest strategy of the one-time one-nation Tory party. If we need confirmation of this we can go back to Chancellor Osborne’s curious remark at the 2012 party conference about ‘the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits.’ A curious remark partly because of the specificity of those closed blinds. Perhaps Osborne was thinking of his father, who co-founded an upmarket wallpaper and fabric business.
Linguistically, it’s handy that the frequently interchanged skyver and scrounger begin with the same grating sc/sk- sound, while shirker suggests someone shrinking away from responsibilities, even though the word is actually related to shark (ie, one who preys like a shark, or who lives ‘by shifts and stratagems’).
The word ‘striver’ is much older. It’s always had a rather patronising air, at least as a noun. You can strive to achieve something, and that’s all right because you may achieve it, but being a striver full-time suggests a lot of effort probably without much result. It’s no coincidence that one of Charles Dickens’s more dubious characters, a lawyer, is called Stryver.
Two economic metaphors dominated the news towards the end of last year. One was the fiscal cliff, over which the US plunged for a few hours at the beginning of 2013 but which seemed to have about as much effect on the country as it does on a cartoon character cycling on air after going over the edge. The other was about kicking the can down the road, a metaphor applied to both the US deficit and the Euro crisis, and representing tough decisions deferred out of a reluctance to take them. The alternative to kicking the can is to pick it up. To carry it, perhaps. The first suggests shirking while the second implies responsibility.
But we’re really talking different cans here. The original ‘carry the can’ can is most likely to have been a container for drink. A soldier or sailor would be ‘chosen’ to get a can of beer for his mates. Any spillages on the way would be his fault. So carrying the can means assuming responsibility or, more often, taking the blame. The ‘kicking the can down the road’ can is different. For one thing, it’s the object in a game, while the carried can is for holding drink. For another, the road-can is surely empty. It has to be if it is to make a satisfying clatter, to say nothing of avoiding damage to toes.
This is where the road-can metaphor falls down, financially speaking. What are you supposed to do with it when you’ve picked it up? Carry it? But it’s empty. Recycyle it or bin it? Environmentally responsible, maybe, but hard to translate into fiscal terms. Better to go on kicking.
Among many pleasures for those who enjoy eavesdropping on American elections has been the melt-down in the more unhinged parts of the right as they realised that the victory which should have been given to them on a plate - their ‘entitlement’ (not a word which the right likes) - has instead gone once more to that crypto-commie with the funny name. It’s been a riveting period all the way from the Republican primary debates, with its parade of clowns, to a cliff-hanger of an election. The whinging on the right - see Mark Steyn et al - has been reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s comment about how the people, having let the government down, should be dissolved. On the linguistic front, the election did not throw up any genuinely new expressions but it did provide variations on old ones and, in particular, three rather ugly portmanteau terms. Mittmentum was the momentum towards Mitt Romney, supposedly growing through the year and accelerating as the race went ‘down to the wire’, another universal phrase. After Obama’s listless performance in the first debate, he began to fight back and coined the term Romnesia to describe a condition in which the afflicted person (Mitt) says one thing one month and then reverses himself the next. Both word and joke sounded forced but the point was valid enough. The only portmanteau term which may stick is Obamacare to describe the new federal health care law. Republican opponents used it to link the President personally with what they believed was an unpopular measure. As the new programme takes effect, though, what was a piece of negative branding may turn into yet another asset for Obama.
The mega-storm which is about to hit the North-East US has been christened a Frankenstorm. It’s an example of the hand-me-down convenience of a little word which can be attached to another word, and so save further explanation (the suffix -gate is an uber-example of this tendency). Originating with the scientist-creator in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), Franken- suggests something which is monstrous or unnatural or out of control. The survival of the term almost two centuries after its invention by a 19-year old author is testament to the power of an idea which, according to Shelley, first came to her in a dream. In the original story, Victor Frankenstein takes on the god-like function of creating life by animating a body composed out of the bits of corpses. When the monster, who’s never named, finds the whole world shrinking from him in horror, he turns on his creator before disappearing into the arctic wastes to destroy himself. Frankenstein has been seen as a straightforward horror story, an allegory of creation, a disturbing parable of parenthood, and as a warning of the effects of uncontrolled ‘tampering’ with nature. It’s not surprising the expression should come to the fore again in the era of GM crops, cloning and designer babies. The reference is so familiar that ‘frankenfoods’ make regular appearances in the headlines. By a useful bit of blurring the Franken- prefix evokes both the irresponsible creator and the alien monster. But why has it been attached to a storm which would have been regarded once as the product of nature working alone? Is it an unconscious acknowledgement that there is a man-made contribution to the weather, a tacit rebuke to the climate-change sceptics?
Help! There’s a new social problem to deal with. Because we have so much information instantly available, the temptation to check up on that elusive fact becomes all but irresistible. And also disruptive of social life. Amit Singhal, a Google vice-president, explains: “You have to pull out your phone. You have to unlock the phone. You have to type. Already you have lost valuable seconds and the conversation has become unnatural and awkward.” Of course Google is looking at ways round the problem, like devices which respond to spoken commands. But Amit Singhal has a warning: machines can’t always follow conversations. He gives the example of a football discussion with someone asking, “How are they doing?” A computer would be baffled while people would catch the reference to the team.
Now, there’s a whole debate here about whether we want - need? - to have information literally at our fingertips. Getting up from your seat, going across to the bookcase, laying hands on that dictionary/encyclopedia/atlas/timetable, finding the right place in it before discovering the answer (or not) is more laborious than popping out your phone or ipad. But maybe something of the spirit of discovery is lost. And Singhal’s comment about machines not understanding the finer points is valid. The same newspaper that reported the Google story also had this sentence on another page: ‘Other tales, much more grizzly and far less touching, are bandied about at the graveside during the day … ’ Here’s a confusion which wouldn’t have been picked up by an automatic spell-checker though a human one (aka a sub-editor) ought to have done so. The word the writer meant for terrible or gruesome was ‘grisly’. By contrast, ‘grizzly’ describes a greyish colour and as a noun refers to the Rocky Mountain bear, scientifically ursus horribilis. Only a human being is alert to this kind of distinction. Even if a computer could be programmed contextually to link, say, the mention of ‘graveyard’ and ‘grisly’ and so correct a ‘grizzly’ error, it’s still possible to imagine a scene in which a grizzly (bear) runs amok in a graveyard. That would throw even the most advanced spell-checker.