What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

Remember: all pictures can be expanded to full page size by clicking on them.


25 December 2012

A Christmas feast for all lovers of books, language and the written word

From Vanity Fair: this image featured in its collection of the best pictures from the magazine this year. It is not of some inaccessible Oxford college, or of the stolovia at Downton Abbey, or even the language laboratory at the Higher Technical School in Khimki.
     It is, wait for it: the main reading room of the central branch of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue. It is open to you, me and Joe Citizen, which is what real culture is all about: complete freedom of inquiry, thought and expression.
     Who needs Santa when the North Pole is all around you, its contents catalogued on the Dewy Decimal system? (well, er.... hem!)

Note, as with all pictures in this blog, you can click on it to expand to full screen

21 December 2012

“No podarki for Putin!”: two more words the upholder of the Constitution appears not to understand: “democracy” and “law”

Perhaps a more subtle riposte to the Magnistky Act would be for
President Putin to give Obama a ZiL for Christmas
A final note on yesterday’s presidential press conference, which was almost as long as one of Leonid Eyebrows Brezhnev’s speeches to the party faithful in the days when détente meant the Soviet President receiving another Cadillac from the American President.
     (On that subject, one wonders if “re-set” means the Russian President being humiliated by being forced to drive a BMW or Mercedes. As the Moscow Times reported yesterday, not even the pseudo-Cadillac recently offered by the ZiL factory seems to be good enough a man accustomed to world-standard luxury. How the mighty have fallen!)
     Getting back to the grubby present: the Moscow Times today reported the President’s response to the Isvestia question about authoritarianism slightly differently from the BBC (see yesterday’s post).
A reporter from Izvestia, widely regarded as one of the city’s most Kremlin-friendly dailies, accused Putin of building a totalitarian regime of personal power over the past 12 years. “Don’t you think that this hinders Russia’s development?” he asked.
     Putin rebuffed the question by saying his decision to heed the Constitution instead of changing it in 2008 and serving as prime minister for four years was ample proof that he was not authoritarian. “I consciously moved to a second post to guarantee the continuity of power,” he said, adding that “democracy is to observe the law.”
     Leaving aside the breathtaking, Nixonian arrogance of a President who is effectively saying he will obey the Constitution only as long as it suits him (see yesterday’s post), the statement that “democracy is to obey the law” needs to be noted. Even making every allowance for the shades of meaning lost in translation, it a complete travesty of language.
     Democracy is a system of government in which the people are ultimately in charge of those who rule them. Law is a system of rules by which society is supposed to operate and, in particular, to resolve conflicts without violence. The observance of rules has nothing whatsoever to do, either logically or factually, with the system of choosing rulers.
     If Mr Putin does not understand that law and democracy are completely different concepts, describing totally different things, which have no more in common than potatoes and wallpaper, then Russia is heading for an uncomfortable future. This is especially so as he appears to see no obligation to abide by the country’s Constitution, saying that he did so in 2008 not because he felt he had no choice, but because he personally took the “decision to”.
     In the modern world, a civilised country is more or less defined by saying that it is one in which the constitution is where law and democracy meet. Few countries are perfect in that (or any other) respect, but most people understand that definition and broadly accept it. If Russia is a bit of an outcast, as Putin is constantly saying it is, then perhaps part of the reason for that is the perception is that its President does not appear to understand the three key words of that definition as well as perhaps he might. 
     No wonder he has to buy his own automobiles. I can see just see Mr Obama sitting is his sweats, puffing and panting at the edge of the Executive Office Building basketball court, and saying to his Chief of Staff for the International Leader Christmas Present Procurement Program, who is sitting beside him in his shirt-sleeves, scribbling ostentatiously on a yellow legal pad: “No podarki for Putin.”

President Putin, Kamikaze pilots and the obligations of the logic of language

This man has accepted an obligation to die.
So what is the logic in the fact that he
appears to be wearing a life-jacket?
Does the act of tying a flag round your hat
destroy the capacity for logical thinking?
Many would say it does!
Further to the piece I wrote yesterday about a BBC report on President Putin’s marathon press conference on Thursday, the Moscow Times published several articles today about the same meeting. One of them reported the President discussing the Russian tiff (contemporary translation: “spat”; likely result: “bitch slap”—see post: 18 September) with the Republic of Georgia. The President seemed not to understand either the word “logic” or the word “obligation” since he used the two together in a way which offends the linguistic obligations of general logic:
The president also promised that Russia would lift the ban on importing Georgian wine and mineral water if doing so is required by WTO rules. The ban was introduced in 2006 amid a surge of political tension between Russia and Georgia.
     Since Georgia, which was blocking Russia’s accession to the trade organization, withdrew its objections, “we must be logical and fulfill our obligations,” he said in answer to a question from Georgian journalist David Akhvlediani about opening Russia’s market to the Georgian goods.
     You do not have to be “logical” to “fulfill obligations” since an obligation is a requirement to act imposed by private law (in this case, WTO law) or etiquette. However derived, an obligation generally implies reciprocity. It does not arise from the application of logic, which does not usually require reciprocity.
     If the house is on fire, it is logic that dictates that you go outside as soon as possible. You have no obligation to leave. Self-preservation is logical but it is not obligatory. Indeed sometimes the opposite is the case.
     An example of that might be the Japanese naval pilot in early 1945 who found himself in a Kamikaze squadron. He was under an “obligation” to crash his plane directly onto the flight-deck of an American aircraft carrier, thereby killing himself and destroying his plane, but without any realistic hope of imposing serious damage on a 30,000-ton armoured ship.
     There was no logic to such acts. They were done out of a sense of obligation which was so strong that it required the senseless sacrifice of a life and a plane. It would be like an artillery battery deciding to throw their gun at the enemy than to continue firing it.
     A civilised Western equivalent of the Kamikaze pilot might be the person who feels he has an obligation to finish all the food on his plate, since to waste food is to behave arrogantly in a world in which so many people are starving—or so his parents have told him since he was a boy. When the fire alarm sounds during dinner, he starts eating more quickly, but still not quickly enough. The flames are already licking the other end of the table and the flowers in the vase in the middle have wilted. But he still has three roast potatoes on his plate, two slices of lamb and a pile of peas, which always take time to eat politely.
     The Kamikaze diner is faced with a dilemma: does he behave logically and leave the house before the fire engulfs him, or does he respect the obligations of moral etiquette and express his respect for those in poverty by never getting up from the table while there is still food on his plate? Out of such situations are many profitable dramas and amusing comedies made.
     These Kamikaze examples may seem extreme, but they spring to mind because a friend of mine this morning paid me a handsome compliment on his blog on LiveJournal. He is a doctoral student of international naval policy and recent naval history. I feel an obligation to reciprocate. Anyone interested in the logic of maritime conflict and the obligations international naval co-operation should consult his blog (in Russian) at this link.

20 December 2012

Bye, bye Russia, hello Putinia!

A boy who turned out to have more power
than Harry Potter
President Putin does not appear to understand what the word “constitution” means. Alternatively he enjoys a level of power which surpasses that of the tsars, and verges on the magical. What is your reading of the quote below?
     A story on the BBC website today about his response to the Magnitsky Act in the United States ended with these three paragraphs:
A questioner from the Izvestiya newspaper asked him about his “authoritarian style”.
     Mr Putin denied that his system was authoritarian, saying that if that were the case he would have made changes to the constitution. He pointed out that he had taken on the role of prime minister after two presidential terms.
     “I cannot call this system authoritarian, I cannot agree with this,” he said. “If I considered a totalitarian or authoritarian system preferable, I would simply have changed the constitution, it was easy enough to do.”
     So, the situation is that the only reason we do not have a “totalitarian or authoritarian system” in Russia is because Mr Putin does not want one. If he did, he would, he says, simply change the Constitution.
     But a constitution is a basic law which exists in order that major changes cannot be made to the general governmental system by politicians without wide consultation and general, informed consent. So Russia appears not to have a constitution in the accepted meaning of the term. Therefore the country is, if not totalitarian or authoritarian, at least autocratic. The basic law is not the Constitution but Mr Putin’s ideas of what is “preferable”. The will of the Tsar is, once again, the only law. Even Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort to contend with. But Lord Vladimir Vladimirovich has nobody, not even the Russian electorate, to worry about!
     Bye, bye Russia, hello Putinia!

11 December 2012

Why won’t the English teach their scenario planners how to speak (or write)?

Sunter, Sunter on the veld!
Who’ll be getting all the geld?
(Note for Russians: “veld” is pronounced фелт and is the name for the type of countryside round Johannesburg. And “geld”, which is Afrikaans for “money”, is pronounced хелт)
I am writing a last piece about Mr Clem Sunter (see the two preceding posts) because his peculiar brand of linguistic voodoo is widely credited in otherwise intelligent business circles these days. But, from a language point of view, it seems to me to have a lot in common with astrology, which always gives the impression of saying something while usually saying nothing concrete, like the long-range weather forecast.
     If any reader can provide a better summary of this passage than my fair copy at the end, her or she will be invited to the next Glenfiddich tasting. Sunter writes about himself and his partner as follows (for the full document see this link), (the wording analysed is underlined):
In 2007, Clem Sunter’s new book, “Socrates and the Fox: A strategic dialogue”, co-authored with Chantel Ilbury, was released. By its very nature Socratic dialogue transforms the strategic conversation from the normal, dreary type of superficial analysis that companies go through nowadays to a full-blooded, back-to-basics debate. Clem and Chantell (sic) have developed a unique and independently crafted methodology which integrates scenario planning into the mainstream process of strategic planning and decision-making. Their version of the Socratic method has come about through rigorous application, re-evaluation and fine-tuning in the course of facilitating countless sessions with a diverse portfolio of companies throughout the world – from giant multinationals to family-run businesses.
Clem Sunter continues to be one of the country's favourite speakers ... his presentation style is both thought provoking and entertaining.

Taken in order in the text, here are some of the main points:
  • How is a five-year old book “new”?
  • What “strategic conversation” is being referred to? This sounds like something Tony Blair might have had scripted for him: empty but appealing. However, I want to know: what strategy; what conversation? There is no clue in the whole text.
  • Why do companies “nowadays” go through a “normal, dreary type of superficial analysis”? Was their analysis better in the past? Why is superficial analysis normal and dreary? Or does Sunter want to say that normal analysis is dreary and superficial? That’s pretty insulting to analysts other than himself, because:
  • The only alternative is said to be a “full-blooded, back-to-basics debate”.  This implies that if the analysis is not to be superficial it must be back-to-basics. Why? What is wrong with sophisticated analysis? That is what most of the developed world actually operates by. This sounds to me like saloon bar (or stoep talk) populism, offering easy-to-understand solutions to complex problems for those unsophisticated enough to pay money to hear them said with apparent authority.
  • How does “Socratic dialogue” change superficial analysis into back-to-basics debate? Or just transform analysis into debate? Those are two different processes.
  • And if Socrates is responsible for the change, why is Mr Sunter claiming credit? Because he applied Socrates? Is he the first to have done so (in 2,500 years)?
  • If a method is unique then it must have been crafted independently because anything repeatable is not unique. (see post 5 May)
  • Sunter has developed a method rather than a “methodology”, as he claims. That word means “the study of method”, rather as “hydrology” is the study of water or “anthropology” the study of, as it were, the “anthropos”. The word methodology is longer than method and sounds more learned to the unlearned, which is presumably why it is so often misused in this way.
  • And does anyone know what is really meant by integrating “scenario planning into the mainstream process of strategic planning”? And what is non-mainstream strategic planning?
  • “Has come about” should have been “has been developed” since it was a deliberate not an accidental process (one assumes, as Sunter is claiming credit for it).
  • And “rigorous application, re-evaluation and fine-tuning” should not all be applied together in this way. If you apply an approach, you are doing something completely different from, indeed arguably the opposite of, re-evaluating and fine-tuning it, which implies change rather than  application which implies no change.
  • Also, the way this sentence is written it could be read as giving the impression that Sunter and Ilbury think they have  been fine-tuning Socrates. I am sure the great Athenian would be chuffed to know that these two Jo’burgers have taken his thought forward in this unexpected way, but I am not sure if that is what the two “scenario planners” really intended to say.
  • Finally, in the last paragraph, it is illuminating that Sunter claims to have a “thought-provoking” “style”. A style can be entertaining, but thought-provoking? It is content that normally provokes thought, not style.

Here is my version of Mr Sunter’s piece:
In 2007, Clem Sunter and Chantel Ilbury published, “Socrates and the Fox: A Strategic Dialogue”. In their book they argue that the Socratic method can be applied to contemporary commercial analysis to make it more profound by grounding it in first principles. Since then, they have developed and refined their particular approach in the course of numerous strategic planning sessions in a wide range of companies, from giant multinationals to family-run businesses.
Clem Sunter continues to be one of the country’s favourite speakers as he combines thought-provoking content with an entertaining style.
I think that “covers all the bases”, as Mr Sunter might put it, and is clearer. It is certainly a lot shorter. Can any reader do better? 

29 November 2012

Clem Sunter, scenario planner, shows Russians how NOT to write English

Part of the work I do here in Moscow is teaching a couple of small, select groups of Russians how to write English. I say repeatedly that speaking is one thing; writing quite another. Speaking English with your own accent and idiosyncratic usage is rarely a problem as far as communication goes, and is often positively attractive. Who would have wished to “correct” the speech of Françoise Hardy or Agnetha Fälskog? But writing poor English cold on the page, with no personal warmth radiating across the table or bed, can be damaging. Hence the importance of style on paper.
     There are a few basic rules which I have noticed make a vast difference to the quality of written English coming from non-native speakers. I won’t repeat them all here, but short sentences is probably the most important one, and it is closely followed by the avoidance of clichés and idiomatic expressions. You need a lot of cultural background to be sure you are using informal language correctly. It is much better to write without colourful effects than to use them inappropriately. At best that can be misleading; at worst it makes you a laughing stock.
     And laughing is what many of the Russians I teach have done when I have drawn their attention to the passage highlighted in the post before this, “Crystal Balls and Chandeliers”. That prompted me to investigate further. I discovered that the author was a senior executive in Anglo-American, a huge mining company based, despite its name, in South Africa. I had previously assumed that he was a modest private citizen who circulated forecasts quietly to friends, and whose inept use of English, though educative on the perils of business-world clichés misapplied, warranted anonymity. So I did not mention his name.
Clem Sunter: "scenario planner"
     But now I see that the man is a serious self-publicist. He has written fourteen books, has an immense website devoted to his thinking about life and lucre, and is a serial columnist on a South African news site. He wants to be noticed. So let me help him: his name is Clem Sunter.
     But I wonder if he really is so wise in wanting to publicise his writing. He says somewhere in his massive output that he is “one of the country’s favourite speakers” and that “his presentation style is both thought-provoking and entertaining.” That may well be true. Clichés of the sort he specialises in have a habit of blending into one another over the course of a “presentation”, especially if after lunch or dinner, losing all definition and becoming little more than mood music. In print, however, they reveal a frightening absence of intellectual precision for one who claims to have run an important company.
     Mr Sunter’s entire output seems to be written in the sort of language that I quoted in the previous post, and it is worrying that a person who appears to be taken seriously by large sections of the South African business community cannot write clearly. I believe that clarity of thought leads to clarity of language (or should do in people who have written fourteen books) and that chaotic language is usually in indicator of unresolved thought.
     Einstein did not change the world by writing: “The Positive Energy Scenario is at a Constant Tipping Point with a Diverse Portfolio of Mainstream Mass and the Speed with which a Perfect Storm Scenario of Light can Travel from any given Chandelier to the Sand on the Ballroom Floor beneath it when Incremented by its own Value.” If he had, Max Plank and the boys would not have been able to take things much further and we would still be living in a world of high explosives, mustard gas and continual super-power conflict.
     The fog gets even thicker when Citizen Sunter describes himself as a “scenario planner”. This in itself is misleading as he is really a “forecaster”—sort of. Perhaps that sounds too ordinary, or too clear for comfort since it might imply measurable outcomes which his words could one day be tested against. Scenarios are possibilities, and that implies uncertainty, especially when several competing ones are present. But you cannot plan uncertainty. Scenario planning is an oxymoron.
     I am going to offer a free invitation to the next Glenfiddich whisky tasting to the clearest re-write of the following quotes from Mr Sunter’s website. Each one includes the word “scenario”:

“…much of the future is beyond your control and uncertain. The only way to handle it is to play different scenarios, examine their probability and impact and look at the options to seize the opportunities offered in each scenario and counter the threats.”

“Options can be divided broadly into two categories: adapting your own strategies and tactics as regards your own future in light of the changing odds of the scenario; or rolling up your sleeves and taking action—however big or small it may be—to reduce the odds of the scenario itself.”

“Recently, I had a discussion with a group from MIT in the US who tried to convince me that you can mathematically link the raising of flags on our scenarios to their probabilities.”

     Those sentences are written here exactly as in the website. If you doubt that, feel free to check this link: www.mindofafox.com/latest-scenarios.php You will see many similar examples of this sort of stream-of-consciousness prose.
     In the next, and final, post on this subject, I will analyse another passage of Mr Sunter’s with a view to making some positive suggestions about how he might improve his style on paper. In the meantime, my Russian students, and many others too, can congratulate themselves on their superior ability to write the language of Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Chandler when compared with a native-speaking product of Oxford University (and Winchester College!).

22 November 2012

Crystal Balls and Chandeliers

The picture above is part of  a strange message that I was recently sent containing rating agency-style predictions for the future for the South African economy. It was written by a soi disant pundit who runs a crystal-ball-gazing opration at an address in, of all places, Boksburg, of which it might be said that, in terms of Standard and Poor, it is more Poor than Standard.
     Though the Boksburg Seer’s analysis is not worth discussing, his grammar is, or to be more precise his extravagant mangling of metaphors. In particular, taking the highlighted sentences in turn:

  • How can a change of mood cause wheels to fall off? Surely wheels are attached by wheel-nuts or something similar? “Moods”, even “ugly moods”, are non-mechanical.
  • Why does one need “scenarios” in order to detect trembling in chandeliers? Surely it is eyesight that is required?
  • Who is “programmed” to “stick [their] heads in the sand”? I don’t feel that way. Do the readers of this analysis think of themselves like that?
  • How can you “go on enjoying the party” when you have your head buried in sand? Humans need to kneel down, with bottoms in the air, in order to get their heads below ground level. How can you enjoy a party in that uncomfortable posture? And even if you managed that, how could you eat and drink, or speak to other guests, if your mouth was liable to fill with sand every time you opened it? And since sand is not translucent, how would you know when “the lights go out”?
  • A separate point is that if the party is being held in the ballroom with the chandeliers, where is the sand likely to be? You need a smooth and preferably slightly springy floor to dance on. Sand has neither quality. 
  • Finally, the statement that “the purpose of flags is to take emotion out of our judgement” is a mixed metaphor too far. I simply do not understand what the author might have been trying to say. In any event, you cannot pass emotional “judgments”. You can have emotional “responses” but a judgement is, by definition, to some extent rational—but perhaps not so in Boksburg.

Solzhenitsyn re-visited

In the light of the tremendous response (more than any post that I can remember) to my reminder of the contrary view of Solzhenitsyn (see previous post), I thought I might print extracts from some of the more interesting mails I received. It might illuminate in a small way how opinion is moving on this subject. Other views are published in the Comments section underneath that post.

Electra Clifton Smith, from Long Island and now Leith, wrote: “I am not familiar with Auberon Waugh, only Evelyn. My feelings about the piece (fair or not?): It told me a great deal more about Solzhenitsyn than the flowery Mr Waugh. Solzhenitsyn, was just trying to say to man, ‘There is serious SHIT going on on this planet. STOP SMILING and FAFFING ABOUT!!! Start DOING SOMETHING!!!’ I find I say the same thing to people all the time. They look at me with the bland eyes of sheep chewing some remnant of cud at the back of their toothless gobs. Or I turn on the telly and see everybody shopping or these fat matrons cooking up a storm with some celebrity chef—planning a dinner party—as if everything is just hunky dory and they can hang around stuffing their fat gobs and SOMEHOW, the PLANET is not on FIRE!! I guess they won't know it, until it comes to their neighbourhood and cooks them up!!!!! (Sometimes I just beg for an asteroid.)”
A well-known anti-Putin journalist wrote: “Entertaining nonsense.”
My brother wrote: “Auberon Waugh uses ‘each other’ (which ought to be reserved for an interaction between two people) instead of ‘one another’ (interactions amongst more than two), which is the same distinction as between ‘between’ and ‘amongst’ (themselves).”
An old friend, and man of the world, wrote: “I think Waugh is quite right. Solzhenitsyn was not the only guy stuck in a Gulag. Though he can be forgiven for his own lugubriousness, he should not inflict it on others. We love the innocent laughter of children happily oblivious to the horrors of the adult world. But being victimised doesn't make you morally superior. Certainly in the UK in my experience, most of those bullied that I knew of were improved by a bit of bog-washing, even if it is true that in cases where no physical brutality was applied perhaps no benefit was gained.”
Another friend, who had long taken a serious interest in Russia, wrote: “I tried to re-read Solzhenitsyn a year ago, having lapped him up in my 20s. I started with The First Circle and got to page 40. Then I tried The Red Wheel and gave up at a similar point. I was able to read Ivan D. with pleasure. And I enjoy (is that the right word?) dipping into the Gulag Archipelago. Auberon Waugh was correct about Solzhenitsyn's return, but his Great Russian chauvinism was out of favour back then (although Vladimir Putin might enjoy it now) and his writing powers had certainly withered away in New England. Perhaps the Gulag Archipelago, which was a collaborative effort, is his monument.  Shalamov read Ivan D and commented: ‘That camp would have seemed like paradise to me...’  Kolyma Tales is still readable.”
The Director of Poetry Ireland wrote: “Hilarious! Your message came in the other day, and almost immediately I got a call from an old friend, Paddy Dillon, who has just relocated to Saragossa in Spain, and who happens to be a nephew of Bron (as Auberon used to be known). Coincidences like that are always happening in this office! Anyhow he was amused.”
And finally, readers might be interested to check out a relevant blog entry from a friend in the Scottish borders who runs a sort of unofficial, informal Russian cultural centre, in Moffatt. 

20 November 2012

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a contrary opinion

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, when even the BBC is remembering the event, I think it might be appropriate to remind readers of one of the most important rules of language etiquette—indeed all etiquette—which is to respect the freedom of civilised people to express honestly held opinions without fear that they might be beaten senseless with metal bars, sent to jail for a couple of years, or cut in Bond Street or on the Tverskaya.
     In that spirit I would like to reproduce a diary entry about Solzhenitsyn from Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited etc.) which was published in Private Eye, the English satirical magazine, thirty years ago. I think it is self-explanatory: 

     With hindsight, dear reader, do you think that is (or was) fair?

16 November 2012

Xi Loves You, Yah, Yah, Yah

Xi shows his hand, the one that will now be on the levers of power and the books of wisdom

     The problem with nineteenth century economic superstitions like socialism and communism was that they were supposed to bring “happiness”, but never seemed quite able to manage it over the long haul. Perhaps that is why everyone but Xi is looking so glum in the picture above. Everyone but the Вожд has to pretend to read waffle of the sort that is quoted in the passage below.
     It was written by a Russian academic in Soviet times, and published in the journal Canadian Slavic Studies (1971, p. 347). The fact that the writer was a dissident of sorts makes no difference. The spiritual poison affects anyone who takes an interest, whether positive or negative, in the socialist way of thinking. Remember that Tony Benn, Britain's only world-standard lefty, ended up drinking so much tea that he started hallucinating and had to be forced by his doctors to go around in slippers.
     If any reader can tell me what the paragraph below means, they will win an invite to the first Chinese whisky tasting ELERussians organises in the Year of the Haggis:
“The moral pathos of socialism is focused on the idea of distributive justice and is exhausted by it. This morality too has its roots in the mechanistic, rationalistic theory of happiness, in the conviction that on the whole there is no need to create the conditions of happiness, since they can simply be seized or grabbed from those who illicitly usurped them for their own benefit. The socialist faith is not the source of this exaggerated idolatry of the principle of distribution. On the contrary, it is supported by it like a sociological fruit borne by the metaphysical tree of mechanistic ethics.”
     Have you just lost the will to live? I have, or at least to live without a wee dram. Pass me the Glenfiddich, if you don't mind, and remember that the first rule of good writing is to have something interesting to say.

13 November 2012

Mistakes and invention in connection with Moscow FM

Today’s Moscow Times carries a story about a new English-language radio station which the Moscow city council has started, I presume, as one small step towards the giant step of making the city an international financial centre.
     Obviously this is a good idea, even if the station fails to live up to expectations and does not, as some commentators have argued, represent money well spent. The point has been made that bi-lingual signs in public places would be more useful for visitors. But anything is better than nothing, and we may come to bilingual signs yet, ’ere the century is out.
     However, the interesting part of today’s report is the language of some of the native-speakers quoted. This is the first of two examples:
Jeff Owings, a humanities teacher at the Moscow Economic School, said the station was a great resource for English-language learners. “The biggest weakness that Russians generally have, once they reach a certain level of English, is being able to effectively listen and respond back. I think this radio station’s going to be very good for that,” he said by phone on Monday.
     “The biggest weakness … is being able to effectively listen.” How is it a weakness to be able to do something positive? The weakness Mr Owings was trying to describe, surely, is the inability “to effectively listen”. And what is “effective” listening? I presume he means listen and understand?
     But perhaps that sentence was intended to suggest that Russians find it difficult to “listen and respond”, which would have been reasonable. But the next one calls that into question. Since when does listening to the radio help you talk? Of course it helps people listen, but folk who talk to the radio—well, let’s just say: few sane citizens do that as a way of improving their interactive skills, not least because the radio does not pause to hear to its listeners’ replies. This makes conversation impossible. And even if the radio were able to hear, and answer each of its listeners' responses individually, there would be a problem with numbers. Only a station with a single listener could hold a proper conversation with its listener. Perhaps this is where the Voice of Russia could move ahead of the pack?
     I will pass over the split infinitive (“to effectively listen”—better to write: “to listen effectively”), since that is increasingly a matter of taste. But I cannot avoid the redundancy in the phrase: “respond back”. Mr Owings should simply have said “respond”. “Back” in that context is unnecessary.
     Taking it all together, I suggest that Mr Owings's first sentence would have been clearer if he had said:
“The biggest difficulty Russians generally have, once they have reached a reasonable proficiency in English, is to be able to understand conversations and participate in them.”
     The second example is a more positive one. The article quotes someone called Pete Cato, a barman at Booze Bub, a pub. He works part-time at the new radio station, but does not plan to give up his night job. He thinks he can do both because the skills are similar. “At both jobs,” he said, “I basically get to sit around and run my mouth.”
     Now, “run my mouth” is not a phrase I have heard before, but it is a good one, along the lines of “run some money”. Being inventive with the English language is not the same as making mistakes. And it is interesting in these examples that it is the barman who adds to the expressive range of the language while it is the teacher who mangles it.

12 November 2012

New words in Russian

Can you figure this out?

Russian evolves, or should I say: Рашан евольвз?

06 November 2012

“Fond membership”

Two members of the BBC Advisory Board:
Sir David Morley and Major Gethin-Jones of Abershotgun.
Both are highly literate gentlemen who either did not see
the letter before dispatch or, more likely,
were as amused by the joke as I was
The other day, I received an emailed letter from my favourite Moscow club. Cutting out the business part in the middle, this is how it read:

Dear Ian Mitchell

It is time to renew your British Business Club Membership for the coming year. Will you please make arrangements to make payment as per your details below.....

We hope that you have fond membership of the BBC fun and enjoyable and trust that you will come again next year.

Best regards

Advisory Board
The British Business Club

in Russia

     “Fond membership”, indeed! And “fond membership of the fun and enjoyable”, is even better. Due to the punctuation (the lack of a comma after “enjoyable”) I also have “fond membership of the fun and enjoyable and trust”—or did have until I get to the end of the sentence and had an opportunity to go back and re-read it with a view to sorting out the real meaning, which had been so well camouflaged by the chaotic grammar.
     At first I thought “membership” was a misprint for “memories” as that is the natural word to follow “fond” in such a context: “We hope you have fond memories of the BBC fun.” But then I encountered “enjoyable” and had to revise that theory. Nonetheless, I rather liked the idea of “fond membership”. It has a ring to it. I also liked the idea of “membership of the BBC fun”. Join the fun; become a member of the fun. Who's quibbling?
     I know what it means. But do you?
     If not, there are better times ahead! I urge all readers who might be interested in the sort of entertainment which derails grammar on Club nights to consider joining this excellent little organisation.
     See www.britishclub.ru  for details.

Prince Charles in Oz

Crocodile Dundeeside?

Words fail me... Can any reader help? 
The wittiest suggested caption will receive an invite to the next celebrity tasting of 
Old Crotchscratcher's Turbocharged Sheepdip.
All text to observe the appropriate etiquette, of course

26 October 2012

Lady beyond a blue sleeve...

Who could this be, and where?
And what might have caught the attention of 
this still unravish'd bride of quietness,
this foster child of stillness and slow time?
Could it have been the Uilleann pipes, played by Kevin Rowsome?
And could it have been at the Irish Embassy,
while listening to him accompany Philip McDonagh 
as he read some of his stunning new poems?
You have all got a copy of The Song the Oriole Sang, of course?
If not, you can buy it now in parallel English and Russian texts 
in all good bookshops in Moscow.
I could not recommend it too highly.

Sir Richard Branson at Skolkovo last Tuesday

The Loneliness of the Long-Haired Megastar

The Virgin billionaire mingles with the crowd before going on stage, to be interviewed by Vladimir Pozner and tell us all how you can make lots and lots of money by being nice to folk. If the Russian state wishes to improve its image internationally, it should consider taking lessons from Sir Richard. A carefully presented hairstyle is worth a thousand words; a toothy smile many more.

The event was sponsored by Лайф финансовая грурра.
(Remember all pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

15 October 2012

Brief boobs #9: Felix Baumgartner “goes through” the sound barrier, and reminds me of the importance of word-order in English

Reading today about Felix Baumgartner’s amazing free-fall skydiving record and that fact that he “went through” the sound barrier doing so, reminded me of a strange school-master I once had. He was a young, charming, neatly-dressed, mannerly and wealthy but curiously unmarried German immigrant from South-West Africa called Peter Baumgartner. Though he taught us history, his English was none too good, and I am ashamed to say his pupils mocked him unmercifully for it. His pronunciation could be suspect too. I remember wondering for many minutes what “Peppls in a drort” meant. It was, in fact: “People in a drought.”
     In connection with the Baumgartners and their love of going through things, I well remember the occasion when he made one of the classic mistakes in English of not associating a subordinate clause clearly enough with the noun he wished it to qualify. (In Russian this is hard to do as case endings signify what applies to what. In English it is position in the sentence that is usually crucial.)
     One day, he took up his stick of chalk and wrote on the blackboard a brief chronology of something I can no longer remember. Naturally, while he had his back to us, chaos broke out in the room. When he had finished writing, he turned to face the class and in his usual pleading, reasonable way asked us to settle down. Once we had done so, he pointed to what he had written and said more confidently, “Now, boys! Votch ze board vile I go through it.”
     Chaos again, this time in the form of hysterical laughter. Herr Baumgartner looked round the room, bewildered in his polite German way by the appalling manners of fifteen scions of the local Anglo-Saxon plutocracy. Such can be the price of disrespect for the rules about word-order in English!

14 October 2012

Native speakers misusing English #3: gay marriage and grammatical guff

In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins famously asked: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” Although his point related primarily to accent (which is supposed to be passé today in “classless” Britain) the point is equally applicable to grammar. The placard pictured on the right was on display outside the Conservative Party conference  in Birmingham last week.
     What do you think “backwards views” are?  “Backward views” are fine—indeed often very sensible since the past has in many ways more to recommend it than the present (or so it seems when you get to my age). But “backwards” views really means—if it means anything—that the views are reversed. For example, instead of being opposed to gay marriage, you might be in favour of compulsory marriage for all gays.
     Views “older than the dinosaurs” means that the views in question have been held since before dinosaurs evolved. That is thought to have been about 230 million years ago. Was the writer of this неграмотный placard really arguing that people have been lobbying against gay marriage for 230 million years?
     But that is impossible since the human race has only existed for about 40,000 years (in Australia; less elsewhere). It is not known when the institution of marriage took root, but it can only have been after humans evolved. Marriage is not known in other species—companionship, yes; but “marriage”, no: that is a contractual arrangement which requires speech, writing, legal limits on behaviour and stable social institutions, none of which are found amongst, say, the chimpanzees who live entirely without lawyers, priests or policemen. Nobody in the Conservative Party is proposing to stop gay people living together on companionable terms. The point the placard-holder is trying to make is that the gay community should be allowed to evolve beyond the chimpanzee stage so that its members can marry in the formal, legal sense of the word.
     Exaggeration is pardonable in advertising, a rhetorical context or when a joke is implied. This is not an advertisement (except for the inadequacy of the Birmingham educational system). It is not rhetoric either, as that requires a connected series of statements, while here there is only one. And I see no joke, only sadness at the thought that Professor Higgins’s point still holds.
     By the way, the best joke at the Conservative Party conference on the subject of human evolution was made, perhaps predictably, by Boris Johnson.
     “Can your incompetency be learned or is it genetic?” someone asked him.
     “Ask an evolutionary biologist,” he shot back.

Language note: Even the question was неграмотный: “Incompetency” in this context is the wrong word. It should have been “incompetence”.

10 October 2012

Voice of Russia - the comedy continues: “Russian aviation is no longer than great”

I was recently told that the average “click rate” for the Voice of Russia English language website is 40 pageviews per article.  I had no idea the site was so popular. In a world where about a billion people speak English, that means that each article is read by 0.000004% of the target market. That may not be a lot when compared with CNN, the BBC or Facebook, but it is nearly 3% of the pageview average of this blog.
     As of today, I have made 142 posts and the blog has recorded 51,806 pageviews. That works out at 365 “clicks” per pageview. As each pageview has about four entries (it varies with length), that means that each entry is seen by nearly 1,500 readers. Since not every viewer will look at every entry on the page accessed, the figure is lower. But even if it only 1,000, it is still around 40 times the Voice of Russia average.
     Why should this be? I don’t know for sure, though I suspect that there is a little too much money-counting and not enough viewer-research being done at VoR. Too many Executive Producers and not enough actual producers, perhaps, those that produce programmes. But my main point would be that the language puts people off, which is the whole point of this blog—to try to help Russian understand how not to alienate their potential readership by clunky and/or misleading text in English.
     Let me illustrate my point with the article below, which I reproduce in full so that every reader can judge for him or her self whether my criticisms are justified. (The original is at this link.) In the body of the text, I have inserted figures in square brackets. These refer to notes below where I draw attention to some of the more obvious lapses in grammar or linguistic taste.
     The predictably puffing headline—where is the actual news?—was “Zhukovsky air show: Russian aviation potential on the rise”. This was the text:

The Soviet Air Force went up tiddly-up-pup, after which
its Russian successor went down tiddly-owm-powm.
According to the Voice of Russia it is now starting
to go up tiddly-up-pup  again.
On August 12 Russia marked the centenary of its Air Force. A magnificent air show began in the town of Zhukovsky outside Moscow on Saturday to celebrate the event. [1]
     During a two-day show tens of thousands of visitors could watch both vehicles made in the early 20th century and the latest aircrafts. [2] Now that a century has passed since the Russian Air Force came to existence, Russia is recognized as a country having one of the strongest air forces across the world. [3] The very first flights the Russian Air Force performed onboard foreign aircraft [4], aviation historian Georgy Kumanev comments: “In the very beginning the Russian aviation [5] relied on aircraft made abroad and produced Farman and Duke-class models. [6] But it was clear then that planes should be used for military purposes.”
     Aviation played a crucial role in WW II. It was then decided to use aircraft in military operations [7], chief editor for the National Defense magazine Igor Korotchenko says:
“This had to do with both reconnaissance and bombing, as well as with air battles. We know that first Russian pilots earned their acclaim during WW I. We remember Russia’s first Ilya Muromets bombers which were the most advanced vehicles [8] to be used in aerial warfare at the time.”
     The war against Nazi Germany is another landmark historic period [9] for the Russian Air Force. Fierce fights that lasted for nearly four years [10] left the German air forces destroyed by Soviet pilots, although luck was not on our side when the war broke out [11]. Despite huge damage suffered by the Russian aviation the crucial Moscow and Stalingrad battles marked the beginning of positive changes in the history of the national air force. Many factories and design bureaus evacuated to the Urals would come up with new models of aircraft, thus helping to compensate the damages. [12] In 1943 the Soviet aviation grew stronger than that of the enemy. New aircraft produced to replace the models of the 1930s – La-5, Yak-3, Il-2 jets took the burden of WW II. [13] It means that achievements made by the national aircraft building industry to a great extent predetermined Russia’s success in WW II. When the war was over, the Soviet Air Force started using jet aircraft. [14] In April of 1946 Yak-15 and MiG-9 with jet engines performed their maiden flights and soon were adopted by the Air Force and also became a part of an anti-missile defence system. Drastic changes happened to the national air force after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although some claim that the Russian aviation is no longer than great [15], Igor Korotchenko insists that such claims are ungrounded: [16]
“New aviation training centers are being set up now, the one already operating in Voronezh, where Russia’s future aviation engineers are offered everything they could ever need to succeed in their profession. The federal arms-related program suggests adopting 1,200 helicopters and over 500 planes by the year 2020.” [17]
     Mr. Korotchenko stressed that the way the national aviation is developing now cannot even be compared to how it was in the 1990s. Since the early 2000s the Russian army has adopted 92 Su-34 bombers, 48 multi-purpose Su-35 jets and over 100 fifth generation jets.
     The Sukhoi T-50 5th generation jet fighter is what the future of the Russian aviation is about. This is a unique aircraft which performed a demonstration flight during the air show in Zhukovsky. The jet’s radar system can spot and identify targets at the distance up to 400 km. [18] Experts believe that T-50 will surpass America’s the F - 22 Raptor fighter jet. [19] It means that the Russian military aviation is growing even stronger.

  1. The show “began”, which means that at the time of writing of the article it was still in progress. One wonders if it has finished yet?
  2. Since when are aircraft “vehicles”? And the plural of “aircraft” is “aircraft”, not “aircrafts”. 
  3. An air force comes “into existence”, not “to existence”. Existence is a state of being, not a location. And it is: air forces “in the world” not “across the world”.
  4. If the Russian air force performed its first flights “onboard foreign aircraft”, they must have been very big foreign aircraft, perhaps the size of a Jumbo jet, or an A380, in order to accommodate Russians flying around inside them. But such planes were not manufactured a hundred years ago. I think the Voice of Russia meant “using” foreign aircraft. By the way, it is “on board” not “onboard”. You can have “onboard systems” but you get “on board your flight” before take off (one hopes).
  5. It is “Russian aviation”, not “the Russian aviation”.
  6. How could they rely on aircraft made abroad while also producing “Farman and Duke-class models”? Were they relying on imports or producing themselves? Who knows? Certainly not the Voice of Russia, it would seem. (If they had been doing both, they would not have been relying on the foreign planes.)
  7. “Aviation played a crucial role in WW II. It was then decided to use aircraft in military operations”. This means that the Russians decided to use aircraft for military operations after they had played a crucial role in WWII. Even if it is allowed that this is a mistake for WWI—which I take it to be from the wider context—this still is nonsensical. You take decision to use things for specific purposes before they are used for those purposes, not afterwards. Otherwise it is not a decision, but a process of recognising historical fact.
  8. Flying traffic again?
  9. “Landmark historic period”! “Landmark”, yes; even “historic landmark”. “Historic period”, yes too. But all three: no! This is the usual over-egging of the pudding that is such an uncool feature of Soviet and Voice of Russia propaganda. Why this constant straining for effect? It conveys an impression of lack of self-confidence, which in turn suggests that the claims are exaggerated. Does the world really not realise yet that every battle in world history that was worth winning was won by Russians?
  10. “Fierce fights that lasted for nearly four years”: this implies that the airmen were up in the sky, furiously dog-fighting with the wicked Narzis (as Churchill used to call them) for years at a stretch. The Russian air force must therefore have been the first to enable its fliers to eat, sleep, go to the lavatory, wash the dishes, relax and take holidays while still fighting Germans using their (presumably) inexhaustible supplies of ammunition, fuel and food. Impressive—especially as it is only going to take six months to travel to Mars.
  11. To say that “luck was not on our side when war broke out” is another self-congratulatory historical fiction. The fact was that due to Stalin’s policy of assisting the Germans to try to defeat Britain, he refused to allow the Soviet air force to defend itself in the first hours of the attack and so hundreds of planes were destroyed on the ground. That was not luck, just the price doing business with Hitler as enthusiastically as the Soviet Union did, when it ought to have been opening a second front against the hysterical Austrian vegetarian.
  12. New aircraft do not “compensate the damages”. That is what you do when you crash into someone’s car and you pay the owner to have his back bumper straightened, and even then you “pay compensation for the damage”. What the Voice of Russia was trying to say was that these new aircraft “made up the losses”, which is quite a different thing. 
  13. The “Il-2 jet” did not fight in World War II,  a war in which no Soviet jets flew. The first one was the MiG-9 which did not take off until 1946, as it has to wait for the Rolls-Royce engine Britain gave the USSR to be reverse engineered. Boasting is unappealing in all writing, but boasting based on incorrect facts is even less attractive.
  14. How does this correct statement square with the opposite assertion in the previous sentence but one (see note 13)? Did anyone edit this piece? 
  15. Russian aviation “is no longer than great”? This is comparing apples with oranges. Length and greatness are not comparable qualities. It is like saying “his hair is no greyer than short”, or “Voice of Russia is no louder than clean.”
  16. Claims may be “unfounded”, but not “ungrounded”. People who do not “have their feet on the ground” are said not to be “grounded”—or vice versa. Also, pilots who disobey instructions can be “grounded”. But when they take off again, that does not mean they are “ungrounded”. Statements based on solid foundations of fact are “well founded”. This article is not in that category.
  17. Who has ever heard of air forces “adopting” helicopters, as if they are lonely machines, sitting out at the edge of the airfield with no-one to take them home at nights for a square meal and a cup of Ovaltine. True, you can “adopt-a-whale” if you are green-minded, but the relationship in that case is so distant that it bears little relationship to that between an air force and its “vehicles”. Later in the piece, the Russian air force is also said to have adopted “bombers”, which is something no safety-conscious society should do while the War on Terror is still being fought.
  18. Should be “at a distance of up to 400 kms”, not “at the distance up to 400 km.”
  19. Should be “will surpass the American F-22 Raptor”, not “will surpass America’s the F - 22 Raptor.”

     Overall verdict: Pathetic, if you ask me.
     And the article comes from a country which is using text like this to try to persuade the world to take it seriously! Better 40 strokes with the house-master’s cane than 40 clicks from a surfer's mouse. As a way of inviting the English-speaking community to warm to Russia and its people, this effort is colder than crap.

24 September 2012

Food for thought: a readers' challenge

To celebrate the fact that this blog has just passed 50,000 unique pageviews since it started seven months ago, I thought a meal would be the right thing to have since, if music is the food of love, then food is the love of the blogger.
     But food terms, like most others in English, can have double meanings. Russians should be aware that the word “vegetable” can be applied to a mentally subnormal (or “challenged”) individual, one who is not capable of rational responses to life. For that reason, it can also be used as an insult.
     The best-known example of that was in the television comedy, Spitting Image, when Mrs Thacher was seen entertaining the members of her Cabinet to dinner.

     “Would you like to order, sir?” the waitress says to the Iron Lady, who is dressed in a suit.
     “Yes, I’ll have the steak.”
     “How would you like it?”
     “Oh, raw, please,” the Prime Minister says.
     “And what about the vegetables?”
     “They’ll have the same as me.”

So today's question is this: Can you spot the vegetable in the picture below:

You can see the clip in question by clicking here.

YOU can win a invitation to our next whisky tasting for the most amusing application of this slang use of the word vegetable to current affairs, within Russia or without - to the usual email address.

21 September 2012

Cleggy Riot: if love means never having to say you’re sorry, what does this clip tell us about truth and beauty?

Who would you rather vote for?
Are apologies becoming a disguised form of electioneering?
Do you think the guy performing in the unsanctioned musical demonstration featured in this revealing clip should get two years in jail for his blasphemous song? He takes the sacred word “sorry” and makes a mockery of the ritual of repentance (which alone can bring absolution). Should he be sent to prison? What verdict might Mr Justice Patriarch Kirrill hand down?
     Equally important is the question: Why did young Nick not brush his hair before going on television? Do you think he would have looked more trustworthy if he had been wearing an orange bag over his head?
     For Russians, I should explain that Nick Clegg is the leader of the Liberal-Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He therefore occupies a position of public trust. Despite this, he says, “When we’re wrong, we hold our hands up. And when we’re right we hold our heads up”, while carefully omitting the rider: “When the next election comes, we’ll go tits up.”
     What do you think of the performance? Does it reveal a criminal misuse of language? Is it essentially, in the natural and ordinary meaning of the word, deceptive? Would two years in Butyrki prison cure Mr Clegg of his habit, and enable him to repay his debt to the society that trusted him once?
     Trust is one of the most important issues in language etiquette. Apologies should be genuine. These days, in the political world, sorry seems to be the easiest word. It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd, not least because the real question Gospodin Clegg is asking, but which he is too dishonest to articulate openly, is the one that lies at the heart of democracy: What have I got to do to make you love me?

18 September 2012

Etiquette issues #6: slang and humour. How Mr Putin and Michael Dell once had a full and frank exchange of slightly patronising views, and how they were creatively misreported by the specialist press

A reader from Washington DC has written to query my comment on slang in American journalism in the post on 4 September (about the way the Financial Times reported the Berezovsky-Abramovich trial). Let me therefore clarify things by saying that, in my view, slang is fine in polite writing so long as it contains an element of humour. Without that, it merely looks cheap and, well, slangy! So, far from criticising the American approach, I think it works well because it is so often suffused with a cheeky “democratic” type of wit.
     Last week I came across a wonderful example of this in a news story which has a Russian angle and which I hope will make my point. It might also help Russians to understand why slang (and swearing, even more so) has to be used very carefully if it not to sound off-key. This is hard for a non-native speaker to get exactly right and therefore it should be avoided in most situations.
     The story in question concerns Mr Putin—is there any story about Russia which does not?—and an exchange of views he had with Michael Dell of Dell Computers, which happened at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland in January 2009. I missed it at the time, but was interested to read about it when the issue was revived recently in the scholarly publication, Russian Review, which has devoted a whole edition to papers about Soviet science (including a fascinating study of the official misinformation surrounding the Soviet space programme).
     The introductory article is headlined: Technology Defines Everything, a reference to Stalin’s famous human resources slogan, Кадры решают всё – cadres decide everything. In it, the editor makes a post-Soviet parallel, which begins by describing the spat at Davos.
     Given that this ends up as a media issue, the public images of the dramatis personae are important. The American computer press sees Mr Dell as having few outstanding attributes beyond being a multi-millionaire super-nerd, unlike Mr Putin, whose personal qualities are legendary and widely publicised. As Russian television audiences know, he flies tanks, scuba-dives for ancient Lada parts under the Black Sea, teaches navigation to cranes and rides rare Siberian tigers with his shirt off—all while running the largest country on earth almost single-handedly, equipped with nothing more than a tranquillising dart-gun and cupboard full of spare voting papers. If there is a shadow in this glowing portrait, it is that he does not suffer fools gladly, nor gentry like Mr Dell.
     What happened at Davos was that, at a public forum, Gospodin Dell asked Superman a  “rambling and confused” question, as the Russian Review put it, which started with a lot of nice-to-know-you flannel, and ended with this: “How can we, as an IT sector, help you broaden the economy as you move out of the crisis and take advantage of that great scientific talent that you have?”
“You know, the trick is, we don’t need any help,” Putin replied, according to the simultaneous translator. “We are not invalids. We do not have any limited capacity. People with limited capacities and abilities should be helped. Pensioners should be helped. Developing countries should be helped…” and so on for five minutes. (The interview can be seen here, and a transcript of Putin’s actual reply, in Russian, here.)
     The simultaneous translation is not very accurate. It looks to me as if Putin was talking more politely than he sometimes does and being relatively constructive, though still trying subtly to deflate what he perceived as Mr Dell’s pretence of being king of the IT world. But  Putin’s problem is that he is not accustomed to the sort of debate in which it is often better to say less rather than more. A politician with wider experience of the waffle-sphere would probably have replied briefly: “If you really want to help, Michael, it’s very simple. You set up in Skolkovo.”
     That would have left Mr Dell’s “rambling and confused” question hanging in the sweaty conference air, embarrassing him.  But instead, Mr Putin gave the opportunity for the American press to embarrass him by misinterpreting his words, and focusing on his comment that Russia has great strengths in mathematics and a high reputation for software production. Even though Putin said nothing derogatory about Dell, we suddenly had the germ of a Hollywood situation. With a bit of creative script development, we could have one speaker attacking another. Action! Circulation! Cash!
     So that is what the American press did. And because its comment was witty and “street” sounding, it carried conviction—however misleading it might have been in actual fact. The examples that follow show the art of deploying slang to maximum effect.
     Business Insider, for example, headlined its report of the meeting thus:
     Putin to Michael Dell: Any Moron Can Build a PC
     The paper concluded by commenting: “Touchy, touchy. Especially considering how we can’t recall using Russian software for anything since Tetris.”
     Since Dell’s headquarters are in Dallas, the Dallas News got in on the act, and headlined its report:
     Vladimir Putin puts the smackdown on Michael Dell at Davos
     The piece started: “Note to self. Do not ever offer to help Russia with building their IT structure.” The writer commented that Mr Dell’s question was “apparently the equivalent of insulting Putin’s mother.” He ended by saying, “It’s hard to tell from the video how much of the insult was intended and how much was lost in translation, but Putin clearly isn’t inviting Dell to open a factory on Volgograd.”
     Wired disagreed with the last point and headlined its article:
     Putin Smacks Down Dell: Nothing Lost in Translation
     CruchGear went one better:
     Russian PM Putin Punks Michael Dell at Davos re: Russian IT
     The humour really kicked in with CNET News, which headlined its report:
     Dude, Putin is so not getting a Dell
     Which rather nicely captured the almost camp nature of the way in which both men were, to an extent, posing. But Channel Register won the prize for the most off-the-wall headline:
     Vladimir Putin bitchslaps Dell-boy: “We don’t need any help. We’re not invalids.”
     I have nothing to add to any of that, except that this blog is entered from a computer called an IRBIS, which I think is a Russian brand. I am not bothered either way. It was cheaper than the other offerings in the Khimki Mega mall when my old системиый блок got terminal stomach cramp two years ago and died on me. My IRBIS has been a trouble-free electronic serf ever since. And the software inside it, of course, is largely American.
     So it’s Putin back to front, really. But that’s life, innit dude?

15 September 2012

Urgent! Everyone should go to the Moscow Village Fete this afternoon

I received this notice on Facebook five minutes ago:

David Morley posted in The 7th Annual Moscow Village Fete
 David Morley 15 September 12:10  
I have 5 kgs. (minus a bit) of aged GOUDA cheese to go with the wine today (only for grown-ups!). Brilliant. Tastes a bit like a mature cheddar. Made in the Moscow region specially for the event by our very own British Business Club cheese-maker, Jay Robert Close, from his own milk, from his own cow. You can taste and then buy a chunk! Bring a bag! 

I recommend everyone get over there immediately (see Facebook page for details) since it is real British weather forecast for this afternoon.

But there is a language point: is the cheese really made by Jay Close "from his own milk". He is, after all male. Perhaps Sir David really meant to say that Jay's was made "from the milk of his own cow."
     I sincerely hope so, because the last time I tasted the cheese it was excellent and I ate a lot of it. I would not like to think I was eating something made with, shall we say, unexpected raw materials.

10 September 2012

Lord of the Wings?

VladVlad Baggins goes east, soaring with Gandalf and the cranes as he seeks the Undying Lands in order to find Peace in Our Time

09 September 2012

Statements of the obvious #9: Ivan Lendl on golf

So Ivan Lendl (Andy Murray’s coach, and ex-world tennis Number 1) is “having a ball playing golf”, as the Independent in London tells us in the middle paragraph pictured above.
     What is so amazing about that? Everyone who plays golf “has a ball”. Indeed it is hard to imagine playing the game without a ball. How might that work? You step up on the first tee, select the appropriate club and address the space where the ball would normally be sitting on its peg, waiting patiently for onward transmission down the centre of the fairway. Then what? Do you hit an air shot? Or pretend you are playing virtual golf, or head for the 19th for a well-earned pint of beer without bothering with the intervening eighteen holes?
     No, when heading out to the golf course you just make sure you “have a ball”.
     The same is true of rugby. Try playing that without a ball. Likewise with tennis, croquet or billiards—or even sex, as Goebbels presumably discovered from personal experience (unless, of course, he was actually female). As every British schoolboy who has spent time in the locker room after games knows (but perhaps Russians don’t, since they seem to prefer sport to games, so I will repeat it):

     Hitler had only one big ball.
     Rommel had two but very small.
     Himmler had something similar,
     But poor, old Go-balls had no balls at all.

(To be sung loudly and in company to the tune of Colonel Bogey)

06 September 2012

Homeless animals and hopeless editors: do YOU care?

Homeless impala in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Just out of shot, to the right, crouching behind a bottle of 15-year old
Glenfiddich, is a lion (well camouflaged by the colour of the drink)
which is about to euthanize the most lunchworthy of them.
Would these beautiful animals not be better off
 in a Shelter for the Homeless?
(Photo. Paul Allen)
Anyone who wants a laugh on a grey day in Moscow, when there’s no-one smiling in your Metro carriage, should go online and look up the Voice of Russia. There you are sure to find something to amuse you. My “blogger’s pick” of the recent output is a piece about International Homeless Animals Day.
     We start with the customary criticism of the United States: “America standing by itself has an estimated 5 to 7 million animals that are brought into shelters, and unfortunately 3 to 4 million of those are euthanized.” America “standing by itself”, eh! And animals “euthanized”?! Knowing the Voice of Russia, I expect that word soon to be used in a different context as a synonym for “rejuvenated”.
     But to show balance we have: “On the other end of the globe, the number of stray animals in Moscow, Russia is horrendous. Up to 100,000 dogs and 200,000 cats are left to fend for themselves, often hunting one another in the process to stay alive.” Since when do spherical objects like globes have “ends”, as see-saws, lines or stories do? And what is a “process to stay alive”?
     Further down we read: “Numbers though are not needed to confirm this, only a set of eyes.” A “set” of eyes? Most people have a pair, but perhaps the Comrades at Novokuznetskaya are talking to higher beings in possession of a third eye, like Hindus, Gnostics and Rosicrucians. It is supposed to be a station with international appeal, after all.
     “Dozens of video footage can be found on youtube.com…” Dozens of footage? Not “lots of footage”, “dozens of feet” or even “thousands of coverage”? More amazing still, many of these animals are “known for their street smarts”.
     Reading on, we learn that “In the Ukraine, stray dogs are also a problem, yet report after report has shown that they are being poisoned to death.” Yes, poisoned to death. That’s real, Ukrainian-style poisoning for you, none of the namby-pamby sort of poisoning we go in for in the soft and sentimental West, where the dogs wake up the next morning with a hangover and a desperate desire for a bowl of water.
     The last paragraph is more of a sermon than anything else. “As advanced as we have come to be, giving animals the treatment they need, no matter where they are from is one key to this day of recognition and awakening. Giving to an animal in turmoil can be seen as a stroke of luck... Taking tiny steps to assist with the overpopulation may just be the perfect dose of medicine for society as a whole.”
     Gosh! At all ends of the globe, national radio stations employ people with functioning sets of eyes to euthanize any text which is in turmoil with dozens of unreadability. Not here, it would seem. This, perhaps, is the real meaning of Russian exceptionalism. Standing by itself, Russia is the only country whose international radio station uses a language with 100,000 words from which it is able to make 200,000 mistakes, despite copy-editors, style managers and Executive Producers hunting each others’ street smarts all over Novokuznetskaya in order to stay alive.
     What should the caring lingua-blogger do to help save the country we like from the broadcasters we have? My “tiny step” will be to throw open the doors of the Ian Mitchell Shelter for Hopeless Editors and offer a few lessons in basic English. It may not be “the perfect dose of medicine for society as a whole” but it might help to reduce the damage to Russia’s international reputation which the Voice of Russia inflicts every day of the week.

05 September 2012

Pussy Riot

I have now been asked by so many people what I think about the Pussy Riot case that I feel I ought to comment. As this is a language rather than a political blog, I will concentrate on the linguistic aspect of the matter. The first and most important point in that respect is that I am not even sure what the name means.
     What actually is a pussy riot?
     Perhaps the most polite way of explaining my question would be to ask: what is the opposite of that type of riot?
     Is it a puppy riot or a cocky riot?
     What do readers think?

04 September 2012

Back in the New SSR (Slightly Smaller Russia), pursued in print by my old friends Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich

Lady Gloster (right) showing the Queen round the court building
 in which the Berezovsky-Abramovich case was heard last year.
(Photo: Paris-Match)
After three weeks in Scotland and three in Spain (of which more later), I am back in a rainy but always intriguing Moscow with some good news for Russians struggling to write English to an acceptable standard. You should never forget that most of the English-speaking world cannot write English perfectly either. You are not alone!
     A good example comes from one of the most respectable, and usually well-written, newspapers in Britain, the Financial Times. The main news last weekend was the judgement in the Berezovsky-Abramovich case. I have followed this story closely ever since I spent a fascinating two days in the Commercial Court in London last October listening to Abramovich giving evidence. I described this experience in an article in Passport magazine in January (see pages 27-9). One of the main points I made concerned the amount of money to be made by the London legal community doing the work that the Russian courts do not seem to be trusted to do for some of the wealthier citizens of this country, and that all this is happening at a time when the Legal Aid budget for ordinary English litigants is being squeezed.
     It was therefore nice to see the Financial Times making the same point in an article last Friday, entitled “Exporting Integrity”. It was less nice to see how badly written the piece was. There are many language lessons to be learned so I am reproducing the article below, and beneath it drawing attention to some of the more obvious mistakes and examples of sloppy logic and inelegant style. The shame of it is that the FT was making a very good point: why should billionaires take advantage of state support for the court system? (I have italicised the words I draw attention to below.)

Exporting integrity     
In England, as a 19th-century judge once observed, justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel. It is an analogy that might strike a chord with some of the world’s richest men, who have taken to availing themselves of the English courts rather as visiting plutocrats might a luxury hotel. Boris Berezovsky’s High Court feud with Roman Abramovich, which ended this week, set new records for litigants’ largesse. The two Russian oligarchs ran up costs of £100m, making this the most expensive lawsuit ever brought in Britain.
     Some argue that these cases should not be heard in England in the first place. Often they have only a tenuous connection to the UK, involving events that took place in third countries. Mr Berezovsky’s case, for instance, involved a tortuous dispute about the proceeds of assets acquired in the notorious Russian “loans for shares” deals in the 1990s.
     But at a time when demand for Britain’s other big service industry – the City – is waning, we should welcome the chance to adjudicate such vendettas, this is not just for their value to historians of post-Soviet turmoil or as pure public theatre. London’s status as the favoured destination for the litigious super-rich is a big money-spinner. Estimates suggest that more than 60 per cent of the case load of the High Court’s commercial division now comes from Russia and eastern Europe. And while it is true that a large chunk of the earnings that this generates goes to a few lucky lawyers, they do at least pay tax.
     There is a caveat, however. At a time when fiscal austerity is squeezing legal aid, foreign litigants must be seen to pay their way and not drain resources from an already overstretched court system. Providing Mr Berezovsky with a Ritz-style service should not condemn the average Englishman or woman to the legal equivalent of a flop house.
     At present, court fees in high-value commercial cases do not cover the cost of the service – especially in the High Court and Court of Appeal, where hearings are generally longer and judges more senior. The government should press ahead with plans to raise fees for those making the biggest financial claims – which would include much of the international commercial litigation in London. The legal industry complains that higher fees could drive business to other jurisdictions, but for the Berezovskys and their like, they are a fraction of the total bill.
     Just as the UK expects foreign students to pay full whack for access to its universities and hospitals, so it should demand a fair price for access to a professional and transparent legal system that many countries view with envy. Justice must be blind. It should not, however, be blind to the value of the service it offers.

Taking the italicised points in order:

  •      “High Court feud”: a feud is a long-running dispute which is not resolved by a single event like a court judgement. The whole point of the word is to suggest that there is an irrational quality to it, and the whole point of proper court proceedings is that they draw a dispute to a conclusion on purely rational grounds. It should have been “High Court dispute”, or possibly “battle”.
  •      “litigants’ largesse”: the litigants in this case spent a lot on lawyers, but it was not “largesse”. That word implies generosity, like tipping the shoe-shine boy $100. I am sure that neither Berezovsky nor Abramovich added to their costs by tipping their barristers or solicitors. The correct word should have been “extravagance”, which expresses the idea of liberal expenditure without the connotation of careless celebration which “largesse” carries.
  •      “costs of £100m”: how does the FT know? It should have written: “costs which have been estimated at £100m”.
  •      “events that took place in third countries”: what “third” country was involved? There was only Russia and England. It should have been “other” countries.
  •      “‘loans for shares’ deals”: the deals came as a result of the loans for shares scheme. This point is, I accept, arguable. But I think it would have been more accurate to have written: “deals resulting from the loans for shares scheme”, especially as the point at issue in Berezovsky’s case was not any deal with the government so much as his deal with Abramovich after the two of them had taken advantage of the staggeringly inept scheme (from a public finance point of view) by which the Yeltsin government tried to raise money in the mid-1990s.
  •      “adjudicate such vendettas”: courts in Britain do not deal with “vendettas” which, like feuds (see above) are conflicts which survive all attempts at resolution. Courts adjudicate “claims”, which is a completely different, and strictly limited, matter. Doubtless Berezovsky and Abramovich will continue their feud, and Berezovsky will pursue his vendetta, long after this case has been resolved.
  •      “pure public theatre”: why “pure” public theatre? Why is a court more “purely” theatrical than, for example, a theatre? And how can a court case have, as the first part of the sentence says, “value” when entry to the court is free, as is all public reporting of it?
  •      “Estimates suggest”: “estimates” cannot “suggest”. “Experts” can suggest, or estimate. The FT would have been better to have written: “It has been estimated that more than 60%…”
  •      “caveat”: though caveat is a verb, as in “caveat emptor” (buyer beware!), it is commonly used as a noun these days, as in “There are several caveats”, meaning there are several warnings about problems likely to arise. The point about oligarchs getting full-service courts at less than full cost is a criticism, not a warning. The word “caveat” is wrongly used here.
  •      “large chunk”: this is an inappropriate colloquialism in an article of this nature. It would have been better to have written “most of the earnings…”
  •      Taking the second colloquialism next, out of sequence: the same is true, lower down, of “flop house”, which in any case is not the opposite of “the Ritz hotel”, as the context suggests the writer thought it to be. “Holiday Inn” might have been better counterpoint since “flop house”, as Russian readers might not realise, is an old-fashioned slang term for a brothel. If English magistrates run brothel-like operations, what does that imply about Lady Gloster’s court? Nothing very flattering, I fear, which would be totally unfair to an excellent judge. I doubt the FT, especially in its leader columns, which is where this article appeared, would want to be associated with such an impolite innuendo.
  •      And finally on colloquialisms: “full whack” in the last paragraph: why not “the full cost”? Is this sort of thing an attempt to imitate American journalism, which is often even in respectable publications, more colloquial than its English equivalent? If so, it is not very successful because American colloquialisms tend to be amusing as well as “democratic”.
  •      “they are a fraction”: “higher fees”, which the writer proposes for the future are not “a fraction of the total bill” for “the Berezovskys and their like” since a proposal cannot be described in the present tense. Proposals are, by their nature, future events, not current ones. This should have been written: “higher fees… would still be a fraction of the total bill.”
  •      “it should demand a fair price”: what is a “fair” price for court services, or indeed anything? What the writer was trying to say, in his or her not very articulate way, was that the UK should charge all litigants the “full cost” of access to English courts, especially in complex commercial cases. 
  •      Finally, what on earth is a “transparent legal system” in the context of “blind” justice? It would seem the writer wanted to say this: the international “view” of “blind” justice is that it is “transparent”. But on what possible view can blindness be transparent? We all know that panes of glass cannot see, but what has that got to do with court fees for foreign oligarchs? If I had been the sub-editor on duty last Friday evening at Canary Wharf, and in possession of a stout ruler or cane, I would have given the writer of this disgracefully illiterate piece a full whacking, of the sort he might have enjoyed in the local flop house.
     Before leaving the subject of this fascinating case, I suggest that any readers interested should read Lady Gloster’s Executive Summary of her judgement, which is posted (transparently?) on the Court website. You will notice that Berezovsky claims he pays tax in Russia (and therefore presumably does not pay it in Britain). Oh yeah? Pull the other one, Boris!
     You will also read, at paragraph 34, just what her Ladyship thought of the diminutive plaintiff. In a long career of reading legal judgement, I have never come across so coruscating a description of a litigant as this. And, unlike the FT, Lady Gloster writes as elegantly as she looks. My only regret is that I shall never be a fly on the wall when she gets Berezovsky alone in her room, equipped with a stout ruler or cane, and gives wee Boris a full-service flop-house whacking, as I am sure she thinks he deserves. That’d be something to tell the grandchildren!