88 – Some little light relief with spelling (From my satirical book: Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?)

This is also from my political – and linguistic – satire, Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?

 

Chapter 14

ET

It had been a hectic time since our ill-fated team-building event, with all the SPs busily working on their priority deliverables. Having got over my concussion, I immersed myself in FART’s policies, procedures, standards, visions, priorities, tenets, agendas, regulations, principles, doctrines, prescriptions, proscriptions, instructions, rules, precepts, commands, conventions, codes, protocols, directives, decrees, orders, schedules, exclusions, guidelines, recommendations, suggestions and advice. Oh, and process maps and process flow charts, of course. Among all this spiritual nourishment were also the writings of my more established colleagues.

Imagine the extent of my discombobulation when I discovered that I couldn’t rely on my powers of comprehension as reliably as I had – undoubtedly naively – assumed I would. My perplexity desperately needed an outlet, but there was only Crystal around, for our Cluster was having another action-packed day: Greg was attending a meeting of the Current Government Thinking Committee, Morag was attending a meeting of the Shared Vision Committee, Duncan was attending a meeting of the Common Purpose Committee, Ant was attending a meeting of the Information Technology Advisory Forum, Violet was attending a meeting of the Inter-Divisional Liaison Group and Trace was attending a meeting of the House, Lift and Stairwell Committee.

By now, I had been through my own baptism of committee fire, having attended my very first meeting of the Big CORPSE. Before the meeting, Morag had e-mailed us the agenda accompanied by the following message: “Blackberries will be needed”.

“Won’t the hotel supply them? That’s what usually happens.”

“Too expensive, Ali.”

“You mean because they are out of season?”

“Uh? Rewind.”

“Well, blackberries usually ripen in September.”

By now, Crystal, who had been giggling fairly quietly, was laughing so hard she could barely draw breath for all the gasps. “She … ha, ha, ha … she means … our … ha, ha, ha … smartphones … ha, ha, ha.”

“O-o-o-o.”

“‘Course I’m meaning our smartphones – what else did you think I was meaning?”

“But that’s not how you spell BlackBerrys.”

“‘Course it is, Ali.”

“No, no: you use ‘y’ – not ‘i’. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Look, Ali, I know for a fact – for a fact – that you write ‘two ladies, three baddies, four ditties’, eksetera, eksetera, eksetera – with an ‘i’. The ET have told us that you have to change ‘y’ to ‘i’.”

“Absolutely, Morag, but proper nouns are an exception.”

“No offence, Ali, but all our words are proper, aren’t they, Greg?”

“Indeed they are, indeed they are. You might have some improper ones in Polish, Ali, but, in English, everything is proper.”

“No, no, no, proper nouns are names of people, places, organisations, gadgets, things like that – it’s a grammatical term.”

“Not your grammar again – go and get a life!”

“But Morag’s rule does not apply to names, Greg. For example, if you had more than one person called Kerry or Perry, you’d write Kerrys and Perrys – with a ‘y’ – not Kerries and Perries – with an ‘i’. Where you do have to use ‘i’ is with plural forms of common nouns.”

Greg and Morag exchanged their usual look, to which I have, by now, become quite accustomed, and Greg terminated the exchange with a stern, “Basically, we don’t do common, you know what I’m saying.”

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87 – Grammar shot: Faulty Coordination (From my satirical book: Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?)

Here comes another grammatical sketch from my political satire, Who’s Put Rat into Bureaucrat?

Chapter 10           SOD

“Ha, ha, ha, read this.”

“Which one, Crystal?”

“The last one.”

The e-mail, from Greg, went like this, “Trace phoned earlier today. Her granddad died and won’t be in the office today.”

We were both duly seized by an attack of giggles – slightly unseemly, given the circumstances. Seeing as Greg was in another meeting – possibly Information Technology Implementation Committee or the Marketing and Market Penetration Issues Focus Group – I spotted an opportunity for another little grammatical session with Violet.

“Violet, why don’t you sit next to me for a bit?”

The girl nodded, came over and parked herself in Greg’s chair.

“Have you seen Greg’s e-mail about Trace’s granddad? May he rest in peace.”

“I have; poor Trace.”

“Yes, it’s awfully sad. But have you noticed that Greg actually attempted to resurrect him?”

“He did?”

“He did: he should have written that she wouldn’t be in the office, of course. I call this type of error faulty coordination.”

“What’s coordination?”

“When we link words, phrases and clauses with the coordinating conjunctions and, or or but, for example: ‘We must and will persevere’, ‘Sink or swim’, ‘We are bloodied but unbowed’ – constructions like this.”

“So coordination is not hard?”

“Of course it isn’t – we use it all the time. But as soon as you put a label on it, people panic and think, ‘It’s grammar – I don’t do grammar’. But the point is that we ‘do’ grammar every time we say or write something.”

“Do we?”

“Absolutely. Because grammar is simply about how we arrange words in phrases, clauses and sentences.”

“Is that all?”

“That is all. But there are lots and lots of principles organising language, and we all need to be aware of them. Coordination is one example – it sounds innocuous but can be a minefield.”

“It can?”

“Well, take Greg’s e-mail for a start. Coordination does trip people up all over the place. And, when it goes wrong, it can be quite funny.”

“Do you remember any examples?”

“Lots; many are blunders made by educated adults. Take this: ‘She made friends at school, but never a boyfriend’ – what’s gone wrong there?”

“Hmm, she can’t have made a boyfriend – can she?”

“Of course not. So?”

“But never had a boyfriend?”

“Absolutely! Or this: ‘Thirty years ago, students received full grants and no tuition fees.’”

“Why would students receive tuition fees?”

“Spot on – so?”

“And didn’t have to pay tuition fees?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes, faulty coordination can be genuinely misleading. I’ve just found this in my local newspaper: ‘A wheelie bin was found to be on fire in a passageway and was quickly put out.’”

“The bin?”

“No, the fire. So?”

“And the fire was quickly put out?”

“Absolutely. And that funny notice in our kitchenette: ‘After the tea break, staff should empty the teapot and stand upside down on the draining board’ – it’s a classic. There’s lots of mangled coordination in FART’s bumf as well.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely; listen to this: ‘Students should identify, solve and apply solutions to problems’ – what’s wrong here?”

“You don’t solve solutions?”

“Absolutely. So?”

“Students should identify and solve problems?”

“Spot on. And this: ‘Students should gather, evaluate and present information in the form of a plan’ – what’s gone wrong here?”

“The plan is only about presenting information.”

“Exactly. So?”

“Students should gather and evaluate information and present it in the form of a plan?”

“Absolutely! But there is also pseudo-coordination.”

“Pseudo-coordination?”

“Yes, when people say ‘Try and do’ when they mean ‘Try to do’.”

“That’s what Morag always says,” whispered Violet.

“How about we try and do some work, girls,” said Morag, who had stopped tapping away and was peering at Violet and me over the top of her computer.

 

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.

67 – Maxi-rant: Moving sheds, the comma splice and interpolated coordination

“Wow, what a feat!”

“What feat?”

“Of engineering. I’ve read that Britain is famous for its engineering. They’ve had this … this famous Brunel, if I remember correctly.”

“Isambard Kingdom.”

“Yes, yes, that’s what I mean: in your kingdom.”

“No, no, it was his name: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

“His name? Wasn’t it rather unusual?”

“Very. But it was simply an amalgamation of his parents’ names.”

“I see. Anyway, what your Duke of Westminster has achieved here is surely worthy of this Isam … Isam … this Brunel.”

“And what is that?”

“Constructing moving sheds.”

“Moving sheds? You mean like … like on wheels?”

“Not sure; they weren’t all that specific.”

“Who wasn’t?”

“This week’s Sunday Times.”

“What exactly did they write?”

“This.”

 “The sheds are large and airy, they can move around.”

 “But this makes no sense; let’s have a look. Ha, ha, ha! They didn’t mean it like this!”

“But that’s what they …”

“I know that’s what they wrote, but you can’t use pronouns like this.”

“You can’t?”

“Nope; pronouns are useful if you want to achieve textual cohesion or to avoid repetition, but you have to be careful to make them refer to the right nouns.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean they meant cows – not sheds.”

“They meant cows?”

“Yep: this was about this farm, set up by the Duke of Westminster, where dairy cows were kept indoors all the time. And the farm’s director was trying to defend the practice, you see.”

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

“That’s exactly what the late Mandy Rice-Davies said to the judge. But the point is that a pronoun will usually latch onto the nearest preceding noun agreeing with it in person and number.”

“It will?”

“Absolutely. And, in this sentence, the nearest congruous noun is ‘sheds’ – hence the confusion.”

“I s-e-e-e-e. So are you saying … you mean that … what exactly do you mean?”

“This; let me write it down for you.”

 The sheds are large and airy; the cows can move around.

 “A-a-a-a-a.”

“It’s an absolute minefield, I’m telling you. It’s very easy to end up with pronouns whose reference is, at best, unclear and, at worst, completely misleading. And, often, you have unintentional hilarity to boot.”

“What boot?”

“No, no, it’s just a saying. And, of course, they had the comma splice in there.”

“The comma splice?”

“Yep: the one after ‘airy’. You can’t just plonk a comma between individual sentences like this.”

“Why not?”

“Because this weakens both sentences. If you don’t want to divide them with a full stop, you’d usually use either a semi-colon or a connective.”

“Or a connective? How …”

“Look, look, I have three different connectives for you here.”

 The sheds are large and airy, and the cows can move around.

The sheds are large and airy, which is why the cows can move around.

Because the sheds are large and airy, the cows can move around.

 “I s-e-e-e; so you wouldn’t use a comma on its own there?”

“You certainly wouldn’t use a comma on its own there. But people often do. There is this myth that it’s a mistake made largely by kids, but the comma splice is quite common among adults – including professional writers.”

“Blimey.”

“And look what they wrote further on.”

“What?”

 “If the facilities are good and the cows are well managed, the welfare of cows kept inside can be as good and in some cases better than they would be outside.”

 “So? Maybe it can.”

“No, no: can’t you see the mangled interpolated coordination?”

“Inter-what?”

“Interpolated coordination; it often gets mangled – particularly if you don’t use commas.”

“How do you …”

“Look, what they should have written is this.”

 (…) the welfare of the cows kept inside can be as good as, and in some cases better than, that of those kept outside.

 “‘As good as, and in some cases better than, something’ is called interpolated coordination. If you use both commas – as you should – it will be easier to see that you need ‘as’ after ‘good’.”

“It will?”

“Well, it should. And, of course, the cows’ welfare won’t be better than they. The whole sentence is an almighty mess.”

“But I thought you said it was this farm manager, didn’t you? I mean, you’d expect him to know about cows and that, but this intercol … interbol … interpol …”

“Sure, but you’d think The Sunday Times could stretch to a sub-editor, wouldn’t you?”

“But aren’t you supposed to be having this standard-of-living crisis? The one that your Labour Party is always banging on about?  Maybe your press can’t afford a sub-editor these days?”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”