Post 2: Murder on Radio 4

Area: grammar
Topic: coordination (the error exposed below being faulty coordination)

 

“What is cindererra?” enquired my young Japanese pupil Akito, who was staying with me for a few weeks to improve his English (and whom I had introduced in my first blog post).

“Who.”

“Me.”

“You what?”

“I ristened.”

“What did you listen to?”

“Radio.”

“Well, we have both been listening to the radio, Akito. What exactly do you mean?”

“I want know about cindererra, prease.”

“No, no, Akito, Cinderella is a who – a person. Well, not a real person.”

“Not rear?”

Could I detect a trace of incredulity in Akito’s voice? “No, she’s just a character. From a fairy story – like a fantasy.”

“Is raw fantasy?”

“No, no, no, Akito: law is not a fantasy. Well, it can be sometimes. Take tax law, for example: in theory, everybody has to pay tax – above a certain threshold, obviously – but, if you are a powerful corporation or a very wealthy individual, you may end up paying astonishingly little.”

“Astonishingry rittre,” pondered Akito.

“That’s right. Uhrm … what I meant is … I mean it’s not right, but that’s how it is.”

Akito gave me a slightly puzzled look and rubbed his chin in a gesture to which I was becoming accustomed. This particular exchange had been precipitated by another one of Radio 4’s superb Today programmes, which are a soundtrack to all breakfasts in my household and to which I am keen to expose each of my students. After all, there are not many programmes which equal Today in terms of the quality of both content and language, are there? That morning, John Humphrys was interviewing one of the listeners about a proposal to introduce the so-called Cinderella law, the purpose of which would be to outlaw emotional cruelty.

“Emotionar cruerty is terribre,” concurred Akito.

“It is indeed, Akito. But do you realise what he’d actually said?”

“I rearise: he said raw difficurt.”

“No, no, I mean yes, but which bit of the law would be difficult?”

A further rubbing of the chin signalled a certain degree of discombobulation on Akito’s part.

“Listen again, Akito: what he said was this.”

 

It would be very difficult to prove and abuse.

 

“Which bit is balderdash, then?”

“What is barderdash?”

“Nonsense.”

The young man shot me another one of his hesitant looks.

“Think about it, Akito. Emotional cruelty is, indeed, very difficult to prove, no question about that, but the law outlawing it would not be difficult to abuse at all; quite the opposite, in fact. You see, what he was attempting to say was this.”

 

The offence would be very difficult to prove and the law easy to abuse.

 

While Akito was pondering the revelation, I pressed on with my grammatical elucidation. “The thing is that, when we speak, we are rarely that precise, Akito, but he could still have said something like this.”

 

It would be very difficult to prove and easy to abuse.

 

Having now evidently grasped the point, Akito broke into a broad smile and nodded. “Ranguage brunder!”

“It is, Akito. I call this type of error faulty coordination.”

“Faurty coordination?”

“Yep. We use coordination all the time, of course.”

“We use?”

“Absolutely: whenever we link words, phrases and clauses with the coordinating conjunctions and, or or but. But the point is thatwe often omit the bits which are understood.”

“Exampre, prease.”

“Of course, of course.”

I have tea, cereal and toast for breakfast.

Describe your mother orfather.

She may be old but is still agile.

 

“You see, coordination allows our sentences to be nice and compact; without it, we would have to say things like this.”

 

I have tea for breakfast, I have cereal for breakfast and I have toast for breakfast.

 

“Wouldn’t that be ghastly?”

“What is ghastry?”

“Awful.”

“Awfur,” concurred the young man.

“But coordination is very easy to get wrong. In fact, faulty coordination is a classic blunder.”

“Crassic?”

“Absolutely: people fall into this trap all the time – and often murder sense. Just as John Humphrys did on Radio 4. I have so many examples you wouldn’t believe; some are genuinely misleading. How about this one? It’s from my local newspaper.”

 

A fox bolted five times and killed late in the afternoon.

 

“What did fox kirred?”

“Kill, Akito, kill. No, the fox didn’t kill anything – it was the fox itself that got killed. Sometimes, coordination can be unintentionally funny. I remember this example – from The Sunday Times.”

 

I shaved and brushed my teeth.

 

“He shaved teeth?”

“You got it, Akito! With similar statements, you just change the order of the coordinated components, and Bob’s you uncle.”

“My uncre is Hitoshi.”

“No, no, it’s just a saying, Akito. What I mean is this.”

 

I brushed my teeth and shaved.

 

“But, mostly, faulty coordination is just clumsy. Listen to this – from The Times Educational Supplement.”

 

We are seeking to recruit two graduates or equivalent qualification.

 

“What is equivarent?”

“Equal. But they were not trying to recruit a qualification – clearly.”

“Crearry,” concurred Akito.

“Yep: they were looking for graduates or those with equivalent qualifications. I’ve collected hundreds and hundreds of similar examples. Whether faulty coordination is genuinely misleading, unintentionally funny or simply clumsy, it usually kills sense.”

“Usuarry.”

“I have written a little verse to alert people to this error; you know I write little verses, don’t you, Akito?”

“I know.”

 

Coordination should not be too hard,

But it is a minefield, so be on your guard;

The scope for mistakes is simply immense,

With things being said which often lack sense.

 

“Excerrent.”

“Thank you, Akito.”

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