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.


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.