Post 7: Britain’s dramatic move

Area: grammar
Topic: word order (careless)

“Is it very much terrible?” enquired Nartay. Having recently decamped at ours for a fortnight’s residential course in Executive English (at least that’s what Waverley insisted we call it), he’s already endeared himself to me with not only his courteous manner but also his thirst for knowledge.
“The EU?”
“Terrible? No, I don’t think the European Union is terrible at all. After all, I’m Po … ” Ooops, I bit my tongue at the very last moment, Waverley having impressed upon me the imperative not to reveal to my students that I’m Polish on the pain of death.
“Them foreign execs, they only wan’ native speakers, hon. Natural, like. All them immigrants, they don’ speak proper like what we do.” It must have been the expression on my face that made her attempt to minimise the impact of her insult. “Nuffink personal, hon, I know you was a teacher and that. Anyroad, they won’ co’on on; you just don’ let on, and we’ll be sor’ed.”
I did swear to her I wouldn’t reveal my shameful secret to any of the students she sent my way; after all, a writer needs to eat.
“What I mean is that the EU is like one big happy family, Nartay. Well, maybe not all that happy … ”
Nartay’s eyebrows shot up. “No? Family is very much important.”
“Yes, I know, I know, but our European family is a bit different, and some people don’t like it. Take Nigel Farage, for example.”
“Who is Nigel Farage?”
“A British politician. Of UKIP.”
“What what?”
“You keep what?”
“No, no, UKIP stands for the UK Independence Party. It is led by Nigel Farage, who thinks that Britain should leave the EU.”
“This Friday?”
“This Friday? No, no, no! The mills of politics grind much more slowly than that.”
“But they were saying.”
“Who was saying what?”
“The radio; about this Friday.”
It was clear that I had missed another revelation while I was busying myself in the kitchen preparing our dinner, the time coinciding with the News Hour on BBC Radio Cumbria, which is our excellent local radio station. Now, I must digress for a moment. Somewhat ignorant of the Kazakhstani cuisine, I had anxiously enquired into Nartay’s culinary preferences, only to be told all about Kazakhstan’s national dish, beshbarmak, which, apparently, consists of boiled mutton or horse meat and to which Nartay seemed to be especially partial. This, I must admit, sent me into a panic. True, our lovely mountains are practically covered in sheep, but to serve up a boiled sheep’s head was definitely a step too far. This left horses. Having pondered my unfortunate predicament for a little while, I recalled what I thought might provide the badly needed solution, namely the recent horse-meat scandal, when it was revealed that horse meat had been discovered in processed beef products. If I bought ready-made beef lasagne from Tesco’s or other implicated supermarkets, might there be a chance that it would still contain at least some horse meat? Clinging to that hope, I had purchased what I thought would be a sufficient supply of the product and was, that evening, shoving a tray into the oven while Nartay was listening to the radio.
“So what exactly did they say, Nartay?”

We will hear why we should leave the EU this Friday.

“Ha, ha, ha, it’s just misleading word order, Nartay; it’s another classic.”
The young man shot me an investigative look.
“You see, people often get careless with the order of phrases and clauses and end up with a garbled message. But it’s easily remedied: you just move the offending phrase or clause to a more appropriate position, and Bob’s your uncle.”
“I am frightened he is Beksultan.”
“Afraid, Nartay, but it’s just a saying.” As I was proffering my elucidation, I was making a mental note to stop using this expression, which only seemed to confuse my pupils. “What they were trying to say is this.”

This Friday, we will hear why we should leave the EU.

“A-a-a-a, so you yet are not leaving.”
“Not leaving yet. No, not just yet. Careless word order often results in genuine ambiguity. What do you think about this?”

Madeleine Vigar explains what she did to Geoff Barton.

“What did she do to him?”
“No, no, that’s the whole point: she didn’t do anything to him – she explained to him. I have amassed a huge collection of similar examples; this one was from The Times Educational Supplement. How about this? It’s from The Sunday Times; listen.”

Major is due to speak on terrorism at Miami University.

“My father very much wanted me to study at Miami University; it is superlative. You do not … you are not … ”
“Don’t worry, Nartay, I’m sure Miami University does not suffer from terrorism – any more than the University of Amsterdam is plagued by the problem of socialisation.”
“I do not know about this problem.”
“No, no, there is no problem – unless you believe The Times Educational Supplement. That’s what they wrote.”

Earlier this year, I gave a lecture on the problem of socialisation at the University of Amsterdam.

“You see, Nartay, careless word order may not only be misleading but also unintentionally funny. Listen to this; it’s from The Independent.”

He was said to be “totally worn out” by a doctor who visited him in prison.

“Are you … do you …?”
“Don’t worry, Nartay, he wasn’t actually worn out by a doctor – it was the doctor who said he was worn out. I’ll give you two more examples – both from Daily Mail.”


The liver had already been given to the seriously ill woman whose own liver was failing at another hospital.

Her mutilated body was later found by her 14-year-old daughter hidden under the bed.


“Bolder dash,” agreed Nartay, who now seemed to have grasped the point.
“So you see how careless word order can play havoc with the meaning you are trying to convey, Nartay. Actually, I’ve written a little ditty about it.”


What’s a source of great disorder?
Being careless with word order.
So you need to be aware
That it needs tremendous care,
And, not wanting to look dense,
You must check your bumf for sense;
Then, to show that you are bright,
You must edit and re-write.

“Thank you, Nartay.”


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