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

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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