83 – A Different Frolic: Beyond the Misty Fells

I have been quite busy contributing to, as well as copy editing, typesetting and publishing, a book by Skiddaw Writers, of whom I am one. The book, entitled Beyond the Misty Fells, is a kaleidoscope of travels and personal journeys; it explores landscapes, adventures, discoveries – and language, the last bit reflecting my own contribution. The paperback is out now (link below); the e-book will be published next week. Below is quoted one of my humorous chapters.

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An alien’s English odyssey

“I’ll pay for the cruise if it’s the last thing I do!” declared my mother, an ardent Anglophile, rather effusively. The cold war was on, the iron curtain was down, communism was in full swing and the free world was out of reach to us Poles. But she was head over heels in passion with the English language and worshipped a small island hanging off the western edge of Europe and, somewhat confusingly, concealing its greatness behind the white cliffs of Dover. Seeing as we were firmly in the grip of communism’s tentacles and couldn’t wriggle free to travel to the West, my mother hatched a cunning plan: she would send me on a cruise taking in the English Channel so that I would at least be able to catch a glimpse of the famous cliffs, which, to her, symbolised Britain. Granted, I wouldn’t be allowed to disembark, but my simply feasting on the sight of the island so revered by her would, she decided, be enough.

Although I never did go on that cruise, I nevertheless studiously devoured English and its grammar and, like my mother, fell hopelessly in love with the language, which would become the great passion of my life that would eventually lead me to Britain – and to this book.

Getting to this juncture had been a long, circuitous and bumpy ride, though. The English textbooks of yore, which were a veritable font of knowledge about those faraway islands, depicted a baffling but oh-so-tantalising world inhabited by moustachioed gentlemen invariably called Mr Black or Mr Brown, who always wore bowler-hats and pinstripe suits and carried umbrellas. I remember wondering whether these umbrellas offered adequate protection against the cats and dogs which were apparently always raining down on them. The sugar-coated ladies in frilly pinnies were continually rustling up heavenly delights, and the beaming and well-scrubbed kiddies at their knee were, without exception, referred to as ‘merry and gay’. I couldn’t quite understand why, when I finally made it to Britain in the early Eighties, I’d get filthy looks off blithe young gentlemen, otherwise perfectly agreeable, whenever I complimented them on their exuberance with the entirely fitting – or so I thought – “My, you are so gay!”, but that’s by the by.

But even such wholesome-looking people as those depicted in my English textbooks would evidently get peeved from time to time, and I formed the impression that they would then let off steam by kicking either the bucket or themselves. Oh, and they’d also kick the habit. I wasn’t thus in the least surprised that their dialogue was peppered with the interjections “My foot!”, as foot injury must have been an inevitable consequence of such outbursts. If you discounted those who didn’t have a leg to stand on, that is. And, judging by how often they would spill the beans, they seemed to me rather clumsy. On the other hand, they’d get on their high horse without falling off, so I failed to reach a definite conclusion one way or the other.

I also wondered why they were so fond of expressing themselves cryptically: you see, while they would say “Come through”, they would never explain through what exactly. Or whenever they announced they had fallen over, they kept you guessing as to over what exactly they had fallen. And why did they never give you a straight answer to “How do you do?” Such a perfectly straightforward question, you would think, yet they never actually explained how they did. But that’s not all – far from it.

Apparently, everybody in Britain always talked about the weather. And they had some very interesting national dishes incorporating cool cucumbers, keen mustard and red herring. Why, when they had such delicacies, they’d also eat their hats seemed entirely unfathomable. Then again, they appeared to harbour a strange dislike of the old hat, so maybe that’s why. And, of course, they drove on the wrong side of the road, which – to them – was right, although it was actually left. Another unsolved mystery was why they would stuff their fish into kettles. Confronted by such eccentricities, I felt I had no option but to try to read between the lines. Imagine my relief when I realised that, despite their frequent references to pet hate, they didn’t really hate pets all that much – certainly not the top dog or mother hen. On the other hand, they did chase wild geese and seem strangely reluctant to be sold a pup. And I must admit that their practice of skinning the cat appeared to me thoroughly repugnant, but they made up for that somehow by organising parties for stags and hens.

Their eccentricity notwithstanding, most of them seemed kindly, polite (it was only their health that was rude) and beguiling, so I grew up with the notion of a genial, though decidedly quirky, people who spoke a difficult but fascinating language which was hard to write and even harder to pronounce and where every rule had umpteen exceptions. Little wonder that, to me, Britain was mysterious, intriguing and alluring; it was also tantalisingly out of reach.

But, finally, when your border guards happened to be on a fag break, I managed to sneak into this great country (that your border controls were lax even then is incontrovertible). Imagine my delight when, at long last, I was able to delve deeply into the British psyche. Take the writing on the wall, for example. Since the lovely natives always uttered this phrase in grave tones, I was able to deduce that, like me, they didn’t approve of graffiti. And when you heard that they were always getting a third degree, you couldn’t help but be awed by their putting such great store by higher education. Needless to say, I was deeply touched by their enthusiastic “You can say that again”, with which they were always letting me know that they simply couldn’t get enough of my exotic accent. Charming people! And very, very helpful when it came to giving directions: they were always telling you where to get off. And what amazing generosity: they would even lend you their ear!

Anyway, lady luck had undoubtedly smiled on me, allowing me to put down roots in this wonderful country and to indulge my all-consuming passion for English with utter abandon. After a spell as a teacher of English and broadcaster at the Polish Section of the BBC, I enjoyed many adrenaline-charged years running public examinations, developing different types of qualifications for both English and Scottish authorities, carrying out linguistic research, copy editing and penning articles and books on English grammar, punctuation and usage. The sketches which form my section of this book are representative of my frolicsome style, offering a glimpse into my weird inner world, where humour and grammar blend into a whimsical mix.

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81 – Midi-rant: The Education Secretary in a comma tangle

“It says here that Nicky Morgan is your Education Secretary.”

“She is indeed.”

“Goodness me!”

“No, no, they say she is quite good.”

“It’s not that!”

“What do you mean it’s not that? You wouldn’t want cabinet ministers to be incompetent, would you?”

“No, no, it’s how she was quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. She is supposed to have been speaking about changing her mind on gay marriage.”

“Oh yes, yes, she used to be against. I mean, honestly – in this day and age …”

“No, no, NO: it’s not THAT!”

“So what is it then?”

“How they put it.”

“How did they put it?”

“What changed my mind was talking to same-sex couples.”

“So? All credit to her, I’d say. Not everyone would publicly admit to changing their mind – and on such a sensitive issue at that.”

“No, no, no, it’s this idiotic comma!”

“What idiotic comma?”

“The one they plonked after ‘mind’. Look at this!”

And, indeed, there is was, leaping off page 5.

 “What changed my mind, was talking to same-sex couples.”

“Oh yes, yes, it’s not all that uncommon, the comma separating the subject from its verb.”

“How come? Isn’t that a basic punctuation principle? I mean that you don’t separate those bits of the sentence that are closely related?”

“Of course it is. But I don’t think British schools used to be bothered. They may be now, but they weren’t for a long time.”

“Good grief!”

“I know, I know. So many folk are in the dark.”

“Including newspaper sub-editors?”

“Including newspaper sub-editors. And, of course, to avoid this error in all contexts you need to be taught that the subject needn’t be a noun phrase and may be a nominal clause such as this.”

“I wonder what your Education Secretary would make of that.”

“‘Must try harder,’ I should imagine.”

80 – Punctuation shot: Common misuses of the comma

Although there is considerable flexibility in the use of the comma, there are some contexts where this punctuation mark is obligatory; I wrote about this in my previous post. But the comma often puts in an appearance where it’s decidedly unwelcome, some of its common misuses being illustrated below. First, though, a quick summary. Many people assume that the comma corresponds to pauses in speech, but this happens only occasionally. In essence, punctuation is governed largely by grammar. As far as clauses are concerned, those clause elements which ‘belong together’ don’t get separated from each other with the comma, while those elements which are more peripheral to the rest of the sentence do get marked off by the comma – or commas. By the way, clause elements are: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.

For example, we don’t separate the subject from its verb – simply because they are buddies: they ‘go together’. But what seems to confuse people is that the subject (as well as the object, complement and adverbial) can be a very long noun phrase. In the sentence: “The lady who arrived early this morning and has since been patiently waiting at the front of what has now become quite a lengthy queue must be retired”, the bit before the verb ‘must be’ is the subject and should not be separated from the verb by the comma because both parts belong together. Needless to say, a sentence can contain even longer noun phrases, and punctuation depends primarily on what function those phrases perform in the sentence – NOT on where we need to draw breath. But, in order to determine the function, one needs to be familiar with at least basic grammatical principles, and this is where problems arise.

In the brief overview below of some common misuses of the comma, the asterisk signals faulty usage.

Before pre-modifying adjective(s) having a closer relationship with the noun being modified than the preceding one(s):

*All students are entitled to broad, general education. (‘General’ is more integral to ‘education’ than ‘broad’, which is why this comma, which would translate into ‘and’, is inadmissible.)

*Virgin Trains offer fast, wireless internet access. (‘Wireless’ is more integral to ‘internet’ than ‘fast’, which is why this comma is inadmissible.)

Between central clause elements (subject, verb, object and complement) – both phrases and clauses:

*Additional copies of this specification, can be purchased from SQA. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Information about developing skills, is given in all our documents. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)

*Teachers should remember, that teaching grammar is terribly important. (Inadmissible comma between verb and object)

*It is difficult to obtain from food alone, enough Vitamin E. (Inadmissible comma between verb – followed by an adjunct – and object)

*This slide gives writers, a brief overview of where not to use commas. (Inadmissible comma between two objects)

*Beautiful landscape is, only a part of Cumbria’s appeal. (Inadmissible comma between verb and complement)

With many types of subordinate causes (adjuncts) following the main clause:

*They can go out and play, after they have finished their homework.

*She would help him out, if she could.

*You must tell me, where you two met.

*You should abide by school rules, while you are at school.

*Students will improve their writing, through learning grammar.

*Teachers will have many opportunities, to observe students.

Before adverbial phrases in the final position:

*You should indicate where essential skills are present, across the whole qualification.

*I will call you, from my mobile.

With defining (restrictive) relative clauses:

*The girl, who used to work with me, has moved to Rome.

*Snakes, which are poisonous, are best avoided.

With defining (restrictive) post-modification:

*The lady, standing in the doorway, is our neighbour.

*The procedure, to be followed, is outlined in this manual.

With defining (restrictive) apposition (both phrases and clauses):

*Our friend, Ted, is always ready to help. (Inadmissible commas – provided Ted isn’t our only friend)

*The fact, that this school selects by ability, is widely known.

With defining (restrictive) amplification:

*Languages, such as Polish, are considered difficult by the British.

*The literacy strategy wants methods, such as looking at books, to be used when appropriate.

Needless to say, there are many more ways in which writers misuse commas, but, if I were to list, and exemplify, them all, I would end up with a sizeable tome!

79 – Punctuation shot: The main uses of the comma

Having witnessed much uncertainty, and even helplessness, around the uses of the comma, I have decided to devote this (overdue – apologies) post to this punctuation mark. Those who have read my books will recognise the list below, but I’m sure most of you won’t have come across it, so here it is.

The comma is used:

1  To separate pre-modifying adjectives having a similar relationship with the noun being pre-modified (such commas usually translate into ‘and’):

  • He now eats regular, healthy, substantial meals.
  • They were locked up in a small, cold, damp, dark cell.

2  To separate short items in lists, although usually not before the last one (longer items are best separated with semi-colons):

  • He bought bread, butter, cheese, eggs and coffee. (A comma before ‘and’ would be the so-called Oxford, or serial, comma. Unless it prevents genuine ambiguity, the Oxford comma is usually redundant.)
  • Their march through the jungle was slow, arduous and terrifying. (Ditto)

3  To mark off extra information in non-defining (non-restrictive) relative clauses:

  • Their house, which stands by the river, has been flooded. (Don’t forget to use both correlative commas – some writers do.)
  • She looked at the trembling boy, whose head was bowed.

4  To mark off extra information in other non-defining (non-restrictive) modifying clauses:

  • The year 1979, when he was born, was difficult for the whole family.
  • Poland, where they now live, has avoided sliding into a recession.
  • She gave the little girl, looking frightened, a reassuring hug.  

5  To mark off non-defining (non-restrictive) amplification:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, contain important fatty acids.
  • Soap operas, such as Coronation Street, are quite popular in Britain.

6  To mark off extra information in non-defining (non-restrictive) modifying phrases (apposition):

  • Warsaw, my home town, was badly bombed during the war.
  • We’ve just seen David, our new neighbour.

7  To mark off other included units – both phrases and clauses:

  • The protest, I was convinced, had now become essential.
  • All students, during many hours of testing, considerably expanded their powers of recall.

8  To mark off conjuncts = connecting adverbials (adverbials linking sentences, e.g. to begin with, secondly, likewise, furthermore, moreover, besides, in other words, consequently, therefore, however, nevertheless, until then, in those days):

  • I don’t feel like going out. Besides, I have too much reading to catch up on.
  • Extra information is always marked off by commas. In other words, we put commas around those details which are not essential to understanding the sentence.

9  To mark off sentence adverbials (both phrases and clauses):

  • Frankly, I don’t give a damn.
  • Personally speaking, the Lake District is breathtakingly beautiful.

10  To separate coordinated clauses (remove those commas and you’ll see their importance immediately):

  • Teachers valued the guidance of individual officers, and inspectors found their performance satisfactory.  
  • He sold the premises, and the office had to relocate.

11 To mark off subordinate clauses (be that finite, as in [a] and [b]; non-finite, as in [c] and [d]; or verbless, as in [e]) preceding main clauses:

  • Although they tried hard, they didn’t win.
  • If you had asked me, I would have helped you.
  • Having failed her repeatedly, he was unable to regain her trust.
  • To be a good writer, you have to know how language works.
  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

12  To mark off phrases in the initial position (particularly where the absence of the comma would result in ambiguity, as in [a] and [b]):

  • In all, 5,000 schools were affected.
  • The day after, it was dumped.
  • In schools throughout the country, discontent was beginning to take hold.

13  To mark off some types of subordinate causes (disjuncts) following the main clause (although many subordinate clauses in non-initial positions are not preceded by a comma):

  • His work is highly acclaimed, for it has revolutionised our thinking about the issue.
  • Her poems are becoming popular, since they have struck a real chord with readers.
  • I managed to meet the deadline, although it certainly wasn’t easy.

14  With direct speech (although some writers use a colon to introduce direct speech):

  • Everybody shouted, “Get out now!”
  • “If you give up now,” she said to them, “you’ll regret it later.”

15 When addressing living creatures (see what happens when you remove each comma):

  • These are good, folk.
  • Don’t blame them, guys.
  • They are attacking, Ant.
  • Fetch, Rex!

16 With entreaties:

  • No dogs, please. (On this comma hangs the reputation of a man’s best friend.)
  • Desist, I beseech you.

17 With interjections:

  • Wow, that’s a lot of committees.
  • Well, how about it? 

Needless to say, the comma has also other uses. Important though it is, however, it often pops up in most unexpected places, in many of which it is decidedly unwelcome. But that’s the subject for another day.

PS

I’m sorry for not having been able to standardise line spacing in this post. While some people have problems with the comma, I struggle with formatting. Oh well, we all have our cross to bear!

78 – Frolic: When editors fall asleep on the job

Finally, they have cracked it! The venerable Oldie has just provided an answer to the question which has been vexing us for ages.

“The overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept that climate change is occurring thanks to factual evidence gathered over decades and more.”

So that is why climate change is occurring – fancy that! And what length of time is more than decades? Some more decades? Careless word order is at the root of many a misunderstanding, yet a moment of reflection (aka editing, a concept which seems alien to some) is all it is likely to take to prevent similar slip-ups. Usually, moving an unfortunately placed phrase or clause does the trick.

Thanks to factual evidence gathered over decades, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept that climate change is occurring.

Meanwhile, the editor of Your Money section of The Daily Telegraph had me utterly baffled with this sentence.

“You battled long and hard to get redress without success.”

I imagine getting redress without success would be nigh on impossible. Yet all it takes to make this oxymoron disappear is one, judiciously positioned, comma.

You battled long and hard to get redress, without success.

Alternatively:

You battled long and hard, albeit without success, to get redress.

Not a Guardian devotee, I was nevertheless hooked by an article on multiculturalism. Having been appointed professor of public policy at Stanford University, the author, originally from Canada, was waxing lyrical about becoming an American citizen. And not only did the professor expose the abject failure of multiculturalism in Western Europe – he also made a ground-breaking anthropological discovery. The latter went like this:

“The judge actually told us we now had equal rights to anyone in the country who had lived there for 3,000 years.”

Where the US leads, the rest of the world follows, so I rejoiced at the prospect of such phenomenal longevity. Alas, I quickly realised that what the professor must have been trying to say is this:

The judge told us we now had the same rights as anyone whose ancestry in the country went back 3,000 years.

Even so, one needs to plan for one’s retirement, which is why I devour articles on pensions. Imagine the extent of my discombobulation when I read this in The Daily Telegraph.

“Annuities provide a guaranteed income for the rest of someone’s life in retirement, but when they die the pension dies with them.”

So what is one supposed to do when one’s annuity dies? Having been diligently saving into a private pension, I began to panic – only to remind myself that pronouns are often used in ways which obscure their reference. Phew!

Annuities provide a guaranteed retirement income for the rest of someone’s life, but, when the person dies, the pension dies with them.

Finally, in an interview to The Sunday Telegraph an Italian chef goes a boast too far with a description of his six-acre kitchen.

“My villa has eight bedrooms, a cinema room, outside kitchen and inside kitchen set in six acres with a vineyard and private lake.”

Why such nonsense should ever be allowed to slip the editorial net is hard to fathom.

My villa has eight bedrooms, a cinema room and not only an inside but also an outside kitchen and is set in six acres with a vineyard and private lake.

This is what happens when sub-editors fall asleep on the job.

77 – Punctuation shot: Commas with relative clauses

Although I have already exemplified the importance of commas with relative clauses, I did so jokingly. This post is a more sober take on the subject, which causes much confusion among writers. Relative clauses, which post-modify nouns and do the job of an adjective, begin with relative pronouns which, that, who, whom and whose. Such post-modification can be restrictive (aka defining) or non-restrictive (aka non-defining). Both types are exemplified below.

Restrictive (defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 The girl who used to live next door has moved away.

This is the photograph that we took in Spain.

Snakes which are poisonous should be avoided.

The chap whose ladder I have borrowed must be out.

The couple whom we met last week are coming to tea.

Restrictive relative clauses are essential to the meaning of the noun (or nouns) they modify. This is why they are NEVER set off by a comma – or commas.

 Non-restrictive (non-defining) post-modification by relative clauses (italicised)

 Susan, who used to live next door, has moved away.

Rattlesnakes, which are poisonous, should be avoided.

Mr Jones, who is our GP, is retiring soon.

Tom, whose ladder I have borrowed, is obviously out.

The Browns, whom we met last week, are coming to tea.

Unlike restrictive relative clauses, non-restrictive ones are always set off by commas. Why? Because we don’t need them to understand the rest of the sentence. In other words, whatever you can cut out of a sentence without changing its meaning you should separate by commas. Whether a clause is restrictive or non-restrictive has thus a direct bearing on sentence punctuation. This principle, fundamental though it is, is widely misunderstood, and blunders abound – some with seriously misleading, or unintentionally hilarious, consequences. Do you think any parent in their right mind would send their darling child to a school making this statement in its prospectus?

We will punish all children, who are disruptive.

No, me neither. But remove the comma, and the school might find itself oversubscribed.

We will punish all children who are disruptive.

And do you think our poorer senior citizens would vote for a party putting forward this proposal?

Pensioners, who don’t need free bus passes, should be deprived of this perk.

But they may well back a party if its manifesto declared this:

Pensioners who don’t need free bus passes should be deprived of this perk.

Punctuation blunders with relative clauses crop up all over the place. This is what I found in The Times Educational Supplement.

“Children are owed a duty of care by schools which are ‘in loco parentis’.”

Are they really suggesting that some schools are not responsible for children in their care? No, of course not; thus:

Children are owed a duty of care by schools, which are ‘in loco parentis’.

More examples can be found in Maxi-rant 12: Another elusive comma, published on 15 October 2014. Finally, I have a handy tip for you: whenever a relative clause post-modifies a name (which will, of course, be capitalised), you will need to put a comma after it because names are usually self-defining: whatever modification follows will merely supply additional details. This, again, is an area where writers often blunder. The sentence below comes from The Sunday Times.

“I like Theresa May who is tough.”

But what about all the other Theresa Mays? They may also be likeable. But, of course, this venerable newspaper did not mean what it said. Thus:

I like Theresa May, who is tough.

My final two examples come courtesy of The Economist.

INCORRECT

“This [rescuing a mortgage lender] from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.

CORRECT

This from the Socialist administration of President Francois Hollande, who regards the financial sector to be his “real enemy”.

INCORRECT

“Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.”

CORRECT

Such details do not detain Ms Le Pen, who, with the swagger of a politician on the rise, predicts that she will be in the Elysee within a decade.

76 – Grammar shot: Tautology

It is said that Britain’s middle class starts the day against the soundtrack of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the most influential early-morning purveyor of news and current- affairs reportage. If I’m sentient at that time of day, and not otherwise engaged, I also tune in. A few days ago, the commentary covered the ill-fated American adventure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, with the presenter hitting us with this:

“The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco that failed.”

Now, have you ever heard of a fiasco that succeeded? No, me neither – simply because a fiasco means ‘a complete failure’. This is why this statement is tautological.  Tautology is the use of a word or words which repeat an idea unnecessarily. It is thus a stylistic fault involving redundancy. What the presenter should have said was this:

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a complete fiasco.

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a venture that failed.

Tautology is surprisingly common – even among educated adults. Let me give you an example from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by four professors of English, for whom it is an uncharacteristic lapse, their sizeable Grammar being probably the most authoritative source of information about how the English language is organised.

“The wording should not be misunderstood in some sense not intended by the speaker.”

How often do we actually intend to misunderstand messages? Well, it does happen, but that’s not what was meant by the four linguistic luminaries, who should have written this:

The wording should not be interpreted in some sense not intended by the speaker.

Tautology may also result from using adjectives alongside their synonyms. This is usually done to amplify a characteristic but always backfires. The four examples given below come from reputable sources, including the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). In each quote, one of the two highlighted adjectives is tautological and should, therefore, be removed.

“There is evidence of effective action on the main key issues.”  (Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools by OFSTED)

“(…) to understand features of formal official language (…). “ (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“(…) children spend introductory time with the reception class on a regular weekly basis.” (OFSTED inspection report)

“We think it is inconceivable that Spain should demand our sovereignty as the trade-off for having decent civilised relations.” (The Guardian)

Another type of tautology is when people use adjectives which express characteristics inherent in the nouns they modify. Examples include positive benefits (are there negative benefits?), a new innovation (is there an old innovation?), an unexpected surprise (is there an expected surprise?) and a negative prejudice (is there a positive prejudice?) Such tautological usage is just as common as the deployment of synonymous adjectives. The examples quoted below also come courtesy of educated adults.

“He is then ready to return to reality, and welcome its positive benefits [WRITE: benefits].” (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“Oramo said yesterday that his appointment had come as ‘an unexpected surprise[WRITE: complete surprise].” (The Daily Telegraph)

“Cut research and you slow new drug innovation [WRITE: innovation].” (The Sunday Times)

“One misconception is that positive self-esteem [WRITE: EITHER self-esteem OR positive self-image] exists independently of skills and abilities.” (The Independent)

So mind how you go: tautology is a trap ensnaring even those whom we might reasonably expect to be able to spot and avoid it.

75 – Grammar shot: The possessive myth

This post has been inspired by my friend who questioned the apostrophe in sunglasses’ fans. And who could blame him? Britain’s schools teach their pupils that such apostrophes indicate possession, so he, not at all unreasonably, asked whether the fans actually belonged to the sunglasses, which, of course, they didn’t. This, however, does not make this apostrophe incorrect. And this is why.

English nouns have two cases: the common case (boy/boys) and the genitive case (of the boy = boy’s and of the boys = boys’). The common case is the base form – the one we see in a dictionary: apple(s), compassion, grammar, house(s), London, Manhattan, police, Tuesday(s), war(s). The genitive case is more nuanced because it conveys a range of meanings.

Admittedly, one of the functions of the genitive case is to indicate possession – but it’s far from the only one. But, because of the indoctrination – albeit unwitting – by British schools, some people use the terms genitive and possessive interchangeably; others seem unaware of the former altogether. However, equating the genitive case with possession is an oversimplification because, as I’ve mentioned, the genitive conveys also other meanings. Those meanings are listed below.

  • Possessive genitive: John’s book (the book belongs to John)

  • Subjective genitive: John’s application (John made an application = the application was made by John)

  • Objective genitive: John’s release (John was released = they released John)

  • Genitive of origin: John’s story (John told a story)

  • Descriptive genitive: a boys’ school (a school for boys)

  • Genitive of measure: ten days’ leave (the leave lasted ten days)

  • Genitive of attribute: John’s courage (John is/was courageous)

  • Partitive genitive: the house’s roof (the roof is a part of a/the house)

As for the noun classes with which the genitive frequently appears, they are as follows:

  • Personal names: the Robinsons’ family house, Obama’s reforms
  • Personal nouns: the twins’ older brother, my mother’s cooking
  • Animal nouns: the cat’s tail, this dog’s collar
  • Collective nouns: the nation’s resources, the committee’s decision

The genitive is further used with certain kinds of inanimate nouns:

  • Geographical names: Africa’s future, China’s growth, California’s climate, London’s inhabitants, Harvard’s alumni
  • Locative nouns (for regions, institutions, heavenly bodies, etc.; some can be similar to geographical names): the world’s population, the hotel’s entrance, the club’s pianist, the church’s mission, the school’s history
  • Temporal nouns: a day’s work, yesterday’s news, this year’s sales
  • Other nouns relevant to human activity: mind’s eye, my life’s goal, love’s young dream, the novel’s structure, the play’s philosophy, science’s influence, the treaty’s ratification

So that’s the genitive case in a nutshell. Needless to say, this exposition is going straight into my book on grammar, which, I hope, will dispel many myths surrounding the subject.

74 – Midi-rant: Accented moustache and suspect soundness

What on earth was I doing reading about a chap who got off on owning Rolls-Royces? A non-driver, I’m completely impervious to the delights of any automobile, so this must have been one of those temporary aberrations to which I fall prey on occasion. Anyway, here I am, deeply buried in The Sunday Times and feeling mildly bemused by this journalist waxing lyrical about how a Rolls-Royce “carries a greater weight of association, assumption and prejudice”, when I get walloped with this revelation.

“I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache with a strong Midlands accent.”

While I would agree that having an accented moustache is no more than any man selling second-hand Rolls-Royces deserves, I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not what the hack, hailed as the paper’s most brilliant writer, meant – unless it was a tortuous attempt at hilarity (which I doubt). So what is an inveterate editor to do? How about this?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache and has [OR speaks with] a strong Midlands accent.

Or might a shorter version be better?

I got it from a nice man called Alan, with a moustache and strong Midlands accent.

In either case, the solution lies in deploying coordination, that is linking units of text by means of a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, or or but).

Having overdosed on the unparalleled virtues of Rolls-Royces and the author’s verbal dexterity, I turned my attention to BBC Radio 4. To those reading this outside Britain, BBC Radio 4 is a beacon of broadcasting excellence, so I was slightly taken aback by this statement.

“She begins to suspect the soundness of her own mind.”

Had she been of unsound mind before, I wondered. But the context categorically precluded that interpretation, although it was the only one allowed by this sentence. It didn’t take me long, though, to work out what the broadcaster was attempting to say, which was this.

She begins to doubt the soundness of her own mind.

Careless word choice is at the root of many a misunderstanding, my file literally bursting with similar examples. But, since I’m trying not to be over-indulgent with this rant, I’m saving these quotes for later; I hope you will bear with me.

 

 

73 – Grammar shot: ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’

I keep meaning to entertain you with another frolic, but the serious stuff keeps getting in the way. I’m currently having a whale of a time writing a grammar book – albeit one which pays particular attention to usage. The book will be aimed at a non-specialist audience, and I’m trying my damnedest to make it as accessible as possible. I have just written a short usage tip on an error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. Even if you are not familiar with the label, you are likely to have come across the error itself. What is interesting is that, although the blunder is attributed to poor greengrocers, even educated folk stumble. I have thus illustrated this section with authentic examples taken from rather unexpected sources, and it is learning who the perpetrators are that will probably be of the greatest interest to readers. Then again, I might be wrong – what do you think? Here comes my piece.

 

Since the plural forms of nouns do not incorporate the apostrophe, those who use it with regular (i.e. s) plurals make a relatively common error referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. The name of this mistake reflects the frequency with which such wrongly spelt plurals advertise produce – especially fruit and vegetables – sold in shops. Examples include: *apple’s for apples, *pear’s for pears, *carrot’s for carrots, *orange’s for oranges, etc.

REMEMBER

We do not use the apostrophe with the plural forms of nouns in the common case.

The six examples below illustrate the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ erroneously used by educated adults, the final one being particularly striking.

“Czech schools offer secondary education in a range of vocational *specialisation’s [SPECIALISATIONS].” (British government department)

“The body has responsibilities ranging from the *under-five’s [UNDER-FIVES] to higher level vocational qualifications.” (British government department)

“Almost half of all *traveller’s [TRAVELLERS] suffer diarrhoea.” (The Sunday Times)

“She is one of the class *teacher’s [TEACHERS] under the microscope.” (The Independent)

“Our *youngster’s [YOUNGSTERS] will benefit greatly.” (An election campaign leaflet by a British Member of Parliament)

“All national governing *body’s [BODIES] encourage safety.” (An examination syllabus produced by a major British examination board)

PS

I have just added my little greengrocer’s apostrophe verse, which can be found also under my English-related ditties.

 Yesterday, I saw an ad

Which was really, really bad;

I stood gawping in a trance:

“Car valeting – cars and van’s”!