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.
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.
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.
Happy New Year! I have decided to introduce yet another type of post, namely a grammar shot. While I will aim to keep such posts light-hearted, the emphasis will be on grammar.
“How right they are.”
“What about it?”
“You either have it, or you don’t.”
“Either you have it, or you don’t.”
“No, no, I mean asymmetry.”
“But I was talking about charm.”
“No, yes, what I mean is that you’ve got asymmetry there.”
“Where, where? Pass me the mirror, will you?”
“No, no, not your appearance.”
“Thank goodness! You know what they say about beauty: the more regular your features …”
“No, no, no! I’m talking about grammar.”
“Grammar? What has grammar got to do with charm?”
“No, no, not with charm. But you said: ‘You either have it, or you don’t’.”
“You see, ‘either/or’ are correlative conjunctions.”
“Are they really?”
“Yep. Or correlatives – for short.”
“Well, people often misplace them, and what results is asymmetry. It’s a very common error.”
“Yep; you’ve just made it.”
“Aha. Just bracket off what comes after each of the correlative conjunctions, and you will see.”
“How do you mean?”
You either [have it], or [you don’t].
“Now extract the bracketed stuff and put it side by side, like this.”
First bracketed unit: have it
Second bracketed unit: you don’t
“Well, how does it look?”
“No, no, that’s not the point.”
“So what’s the point?”
“Would you say that these two bracketed constituents do an equivalent job or have an equivalent status?”
“I don’t know; are they meant to?”
“Absolutely. Look what happens when I do this to my version.”
Either [you have it], or [you don’t].
First bracketed unit: you have it
Second bracketed unit: you don’t
“Are the bracketed constituents equivalent now?”
“I suppose; but does it really matter? As long as you can get what the stuff’s about …”
“Oh yes, yes, the famous proclamation.”
“What famous proclamation?”
“We know what we mean – the less you know, the more often you trot it out. I mean … I don’t mean … not you, obviously. But asymmetry is asymmetry: while some instances can be barely perceptible, others are more striking.”
“Yep. Take this; it’s from The Sunday Times.”
“She’s either criticised for being too fat or too thin.”
“Never mind who; just bracket off what comes after either and or.”
“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean that what they should have written is this?”
She’s criticised for being either too fat or too thin.
“Absolutely. But that was easy. Just look at this – from The Evening Standard.”
“Nick should either be able to carry on investing via his Personal Equity Plan (PEP) or by using the tax shelter within the new Individual Savings Account (ISA).”
“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean this?”
Nick should be able to carry on investing either via his PEP or by using the tax shelter within the new ISA.
“That’s it, that’s it! And this is from The Times Educational Supplement.”
“Teachers would either be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.”
“You mean this?”
Either teachers would be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.
“By Jove, you’ve got it! But such asymmetry is extremely common; even professors of English stumble over their correlatives.”
“Professors of English?”
“Yep; and all sorts of other luminaries. And it’s not only ‘either/or’ that are problematic.”
“No, no, I’m serious. Other correlatives notorious for being misplaced are ‘neither/nor’, ‘both/and’, ‘not/but’, ‘not only/but also’ and ‘whether/or’.”
“So mind how you go and, when in doubt, just use brackets.”
“Hmm, I think I’d better.”
My Dear Readers,
I fervently hope it’s not a farewell, but if you never hear from me again, this might be because I’m locked away in the Tower of London. And this is why …
“Your Queen …”
“Elizabeth 2nd …”
“Yes, yes – why?”
“Isn’t she’s widely respected?”
“Absolutely – even by the Scots.”
“Even by the Scots?”
“And by the Commonwealth?”
“And by the Commonwealth.”
“And by Canada?”
“You numpty: Canada is in the Commonwealth. Come to think of it, so is Britain.”
“Oh … well … anyway, I’ve been thinking …”
“No, seriously, I can’t get my head round it, but I think there is a plot …”
“A plot? What sort of plot?”
“To undermine your Queen.”
“You must be joking! She is a national treasure – nobody would dare.”
“That’s what I thought, but … but … you had this independence referendum, didn’t you?”
“We didn’t – the Scots did.”
“Same country, same thing.”
“Just don’t say this in Scotland. So what about the referendum?”
“Well, some people were very happy – weren’t they?”
“They were indeed.”
“Including the Queen?”
“And then she spoke on 19th September.”
“She did indeed.”
“But I think somebody had interfered with her speech.”
“How do you mean?”
“You said she had people to write her speeches, didn’t you?”
“All important people do.”
“That’s it, that’s it – they must have interfered with it.”
“I don’t know why, but they must have done; I heard it on the radio.”
“What exactly did you hear?”
“Your Queen said this.”
“Now, as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”
“‘Things that HELPS’ – she said this?”
“She did. If you don’t believe me, just Google ‘Queen’s Speech 19 September 2014’ – it’s all over the internet.”
“I do believe you, actually – it’s a classic.”
“Is that why they chose this error?”
“The plotters: the people in charge of her speech.”
“Look, there was no plot!”
“But, but … she must … they must … I mean she can’t …”
“Look, I really don’t want to discuss this: as they say, walls have ears.”
“What yours have is peeling wallpaper – that’s for sure.”
“No, I mean it. You’ve heard of the Tower of London?”
“Well, I’d rather be outside than inside.”
“Why? I think you should definitely go inside: it’s very interesting; we went on this tour, and …”
“No, no, I don’t mean a tour. Look, you know I write a blog, don’t you?”
“You write a blog?”
“Yep – about common errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, stuff like that. I try to make it funny, but it doesn’t always work.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t.”
“What? Oh forget it. Anyway, I wrote about this mistake in my very first post.”
“Yep. We had this Secretary of State for Education; his name was Michael Gove – well, still is. That’s what he said.”
“I am not one of those people who HAS an instant answer.”
“The Secretary of State for Education?”
“Yep; and Kenneth Clarke, another former Secretary of State for Education, said this.”
“I am one of the few people who HAS met Jean-Claude Juncker.”
“You are kidding!”
“Nope; it’s a common pattern. You see, many people get awfully confused by this ‘one’ – awfully – and think that they need a singular verb. But they don’t: the verb has to agree with THINGS and PEOPLE – not with ‘one’ – so it has to be plural.”
“But you said that number agreement was basic grammar.”
“So how come …”
“Look, they don’t like grammar here – or, at least, didn’t use to.”
“Why? Grammar is simply about how we construct sentences, isn’t it?”
“Yep, but many reckon native speakers don’t need it.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am, sadly. Look, just read my post.”
“I will, I will. Shall we contact the Palace then?”
“And say what?”
One of the things that HELP [NOT helps]
One of the people who HAVE [NOT has]
“Go right ahead; just leave me out of it.”
I apologise for revisiting the subject, the trigger being the Queen’s speech of 19th September 2014. The jocular post in which I wrote about this error for the first time, Accordant Waverleys and Discordant Secretaries of State (Post 1), can be found in the archives under May 2014. I actually published it on April 25th but as a page rather than a post (at the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing technology-wise – no, please don’t tell me I still don’t) and twigged only on May 9th, which is why it appears under that date.