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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 January 2013

The English-speaking world of educated India, the benefits and extreme benefits of speaking good English, as the Indians see it

Russian students of English will, I am sure, be fascinated to listen to this programme, The Goddess of English, which was broadcast recently on BBC Radio 4. It is about the status and usefulness of English in India today.
     The narrator is an Indian and the programme makes it clear why British people and Indians feel so much at home in each other's company (at least the estimated 12% of the Indian population - 140 million - who speak English). Language really is one of the most important “hands across the water, hands across the sea”. Indians have got that message as far as English is concerned. Let's hope Russians get it too, pace Zhirinovsky (see post 24 January).  I'll say no more, except that the programme amazed, fascinated and charmed me.
     Try it!

26 January 2013

Common mistakes #9: “220% times less” – the American academic who speaks Russian and English, but who cannot speak Arithmetic

It is often as important to be numerate as literate, especially in a digital world.
     One of the most infuriating aspects of innumeracy is the habit of saying things like “The total is two times less than last year.” It is meaningless. “Two times as much as last year” is fine, as it means that the total has been multiplied by two. It would perhaps be clearer to say, “The total is double last year’s”, or “It is twice as much as last year’s”, but if a fraction or percentage is involved, it is fine to say, “The total is 220% of last year’s”. That means, to take a specific example, that if last year’s total was 66,000 then this year’s was 144,000, or thereabouts.
     But this cannot be done the other way round without violating every rule of sense.
     This morning, while lounging in bed with my tea, I read, in the Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law (2008), a long paper entitled “Vladimir Putin and the Rule of Law in Russia” by Professor Jeffrey Kahn. In the course of it, Prof. Kahn says of the beneficial effects of the new procedure officially operating in criminal cases in Russia:
“In addition to stripping prosecutors of the power to order pre-trial detention, amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Criminal Code, in March 2001 and October 2002, respectively, limited the types of crimes for which someone could be detained. Cases in which investigators requested pre-trial detention decreased from 144,000 in the first half of 2000 to 66,000 in the first half of 2003 - an almost 220% decrease.”
     That last sentence is nonsense.
     How can one figure be 2.2 times less than another if it not to be a negative number? The absolute minimum quantity of people held in pre-trial detention is 0. There cannot be a minus person,  as it were, unlike with temperature, say, which is -16C today in Khimki.
     What Professor Kahn ought to have said was that the number of pre-trial detention cases decreased between 2000 and 2003 by 54%. The decrease was 78,000 (i.e. 144,000 – 66,000), which is 54% of 144,000. It is not, and never can or could be on basic logical grounds, a decrease of 220%. To repeat: you cannot have a negative number of people, even—or perhaps especially—in a Russian pre-trial detention centre, which is another name for jail.
     The general rule should be: increases can be described as either fractions or multiples, but decreases can only be described correctly as fractions. 
     This is part of Arithmetic Etiquette for Americans, Russians, Britons, Brazilians, Burundians, Falkland Islanders, people in space, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and All.

24 January 2013

Vladimir Zhirinovsky to host a party at Butyrki prison with Mr Putin and me, and a hundred thousand others (minimum)

Mr Fatty needs either bigger shirts or a prison diet
(Photo: Moscow Times)
When I was a boy, which was not that recently, in fact at a time closer to the days when the Kaiser was still on the throne of the Second Reich than it is to the present, we used to think that the only regular users of long words were clever people and Germans.
     That should not be interpreted too freely as some sort of disguised compliment to our Teutonic cousins, beloved thought they were and are. Rather it reflected an article of faith in British culture of the time which held that most clever people were actually rather stupid, especially if they paraded their cleverness by making a noise in public. We called them “fat-heads”. They would do fat-headed things like come up with theories, and we all knew what damage theories could do. Just look at Communism. We saw ourselves as sturdy pragmatists who gloried in short words, short sentences and long lunches in City chophouses.
     So it comes as no surprise to see that Russia’s version of the Clever German Syndrome has been President Putin’s theory about the benefits of  “deoffshorization”. Forgetting the theory part, this is what in English is known as a “portmanteau word”, as it is assembled from several words or ideas, as the German language customarily does.
     However, long as it may be, it is not so long a word as “floccinaucinihilipilifcation” which, when I was a lad, was thought by every grubby-fingered school-boy to be the Longest Word in the English Language. It means “the act of estimating as worthless”.
     Whether that was indeed the longest word or not, I could not say. I am sure it is not any more, and that today the record is held by the word which some half-German conservation scientist working for the RSPB has invented, meaning “the act of estimating as worthy of protection with public money so that I can have a permanent job with a copper-bottomed pension spending that money, mostly on myself”.
     As I see it, Mr Putin runs two risks when using words like deoffshorization, only the less dangerous of which is being thought of as a closet German. The bigger danger is, believe it or not, prison—at least if Vladimir Zhirinovsky has his way. Yesterday’s Moscow Times reports that Mr Zhirinovsky is preparing legislation aimed at banning the use of English words on Russian territory if they have a Russian equivalent. The Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party says his country is “tormented by Americanisms and Briticisms” (sic – an ugly word which I have not heard before). So the liberal thing to do, and the democratic one I presume, is to ban them.
     The article quotes him as saying that, for example, Russians should use the word лавка instead of “boutique”. He appears unaware that boutique is a French word which was adopted by English-speaking lovers of linguistic torment because it sounded cooler than “shop”. In that regard, Zhirinovsky reminds me of President Bush 2.0, who famously tried to ridicule our Gallic cousins for their supposed lack of business acumen by saying, “The French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.” Of course, it was the English language which lacked such a concept, which is why the word was borrowed from French in the first place.
     But Zhirinovsky would do well to ponder the larger problem, which is that if his new Bill is passed, he is likely to land himself in jail too. And it gets worse. It will not just be Mr Putin with whom he will be sharing гречка and watery уха in the dining hall at Butyrki prison, it will be all the members of his own Liberal Democratic Party. The reason is simple. Only one of the four words in its name, Либерально-Демократическая Партия России, is of Russian origin. “Liberalno” comes from “liberal”, “Democraticheskaya” comes from “democratic” and “Partiya” comes from “party”. 
     But then it gets better. Since almost every Westernised person in Russia today, whether native or foreign, exercises their democratic right to make liberal use of words which derive from English or other non-Slavic languages, I suspect that the party in Butyrki might turn out to be rather crowded. I’d like to join the fun. It could be quite a blast. But I want to attend the party without joining the Party, if you see what I mean. So how does a scrupulous grammarian get an invite? Without one, I doubt I would get past face-control at Butyrki.
     Having given the matter some thought, I have come to the conclusion that the best strategy will be to get myself arrested for turning a Russian name into an English one. The name I have in mind is, in fact, Zhirinovsky. Since жир (zhir, which means “fat”) looks like the root of “Zhirinovsky”, I propose to stop using the Russian form but instead calling our host Господин Фатти, (Mr Fatty). This would be doubly appropriate since I notice he has put on  a bit of weight recently—so much so that, as the photograph in the Moscow Times shows (see above), he is unable to do up the top button of his shirt.
     No respectable politician—респектабельный политик, two more soon-to-be illegal words—dresses like that in public. I hope that the diet in Butyrki will cure him of this problem and, at the same time, prevent anyone thinking our friend might be on the way to becoming a fat-head. We have enough Germans running the country as it is, with all their strange theories, like деоффшоризация.

22 January 2013

Confusing words #6: “kollaps” / “collapse”

A good friend in Moscow, who does not speak fluent English, asked me the other day, what the English word for “коллапс” is.
     My answer was “распад” as I at first thought she was speaking English. I could not understand why she wanted me to translate an English word into English. Perhaps she was so confused by the beauty of my presence that she had got her languages mixed up? To give her time to sort her emotions out, I added, “As in ‘распад Советского Союза’.”
     That was unsatisfactory. She started gesturing in a way which I took as symbolising the result of amorous emotions carried to their logical and physical limit. Intrigued, though still baffled, I said that was what collapse is in Russian, as far as I know. She said she wanted it in English. So I repeated my answer.
     After a lot of too-ing and fro-ing, I decided to look коллапс up in my dictionary. Nothing—in either the big “desk” one or the smaller one I carry about in my bag, either with that spelling or something similar.
     The only thing I did discover was that распад is given as “disintegration”, which is a subtly different meaning, when applied to the end of the Soviet Union, than “collapse”. But I was still no nearer to understanding what concept the Russian word коллапс referred to if it wasn’t “collapse”.
     Then my friend gave me a verbal explanation, which was much clearer than the one involving fingers and thumbs. I suddenly understood that she was talking about the way the city had ground to a halt with the weekend snow. Admittedly, life was restored to normal within a day or so, but for a while there was what I now know Russians call a коллапс.
     “Aha!” I said triumphantly. “The answer is: ‘gridlock’!”
     “Aah!” she said, smiling.
     Then I remarked that actually the phrase, “the gridlock of the Soviet Union” was rather apt, in the sense that until Yegor Gaidar and his chums liberated prices, goods did not flow through the economy, much like the Moscow traffic in heavy snow (or rush hour, or after an accident etc.).
     I saw my friend’s eyes glaze over with boredom in the normal Russian manner at the introduction of a subject like economic history. Collapse of stout party, as we say in English. No gridlock today, at least not in the sense than hands had expressed it.

10 January 2013

Cliff Richard and the dogs of love

"I'm not gay," says Sir Cliff Richard, 72
Today I was trying to explain to a small group of lively and interesting students who work at a major multi-national company in Khimki how the word “bachelor” is used.
     I said that if you were talking of a 70-year old man and described him as “unmarried” that would be taken as a purely factual, morally neutral statement, whereas if you said he was “a bachelor” you might be thought to be implying that he had, shall we say, question marks over his sexuality.
      The liveliest and most intelligent of these people is a sparky woman who, like most Russians of her sort, is extremely interested in the subject of rich men, marriage and, if it can be managed too, romance. I was getting the feeling that she was not entirely following me on the subject of elderly, wealthy bachelors, despite the fact that her English is excellent.
     I decided to give an example. Had they heard of Sir Cliff Richard, I asked? Yes, of course. I tried them with the song “Bachelor Boy”, but that rang no bells.
Sue Barker, 56, the "dog" he rejected thirty years ago
     So I described the way in which millionaire “Move It” man, Cliff, was rumoured to have started dating Sue Barker, the attractive tennis commentator, some years after she had won the French Open in 1975, at a time when Cliff was still an eligible 40.
     She was said to have been keen, but when he seemed to want to be “just good friends” with someone as “fit” as Sue Barker many people took that to mean that he was not so much “unmarried” as a “bachelor”.
     “Do you see the difference?” I asked.
     “I don’t understand,” said my bright student, who had been paying close attention. “Why he wanted to marry a dog?”
     “A dog?” I said, aghast. “I never said he wanted to marry a dog. What are you talking about?”
     “You said he wanted he wanted to marry sobaka.”
     “Ahhhh! Sue Barker – sobaka!”
     (Собака, pronounced sabaaka, is Russian for “dog”, and I had pronounced Sue as Su rather than Syu as a Russian-speaker naturally would have.)
     The whole room collapsed into helpless laughter. Even before we had all quietened down, my student asked me with a sly grin if there was any chance that I could get hold of Sir Cliff’s telephone number for her.

05 January 2013

New Year quiz: how many moustaches in the Rue de Poussy?

Eow menni mustashis does
Inspector Clouseau av?
A Happy New year to all readers of this blog.
      A good British tradition is to pass the time over the holiday by having little domestic quizzes. Conforming to the accepted etiquette, this blog is going to pose a couple of silly questions to readers which they might like to mull over during the long hours of productive indolence which is our reward for a year’s diligent study of English language etiquette. 
     A news story published this week on the BBC website about Naomi Campbell's having been mugged recently in Paris contained the following passage:
A police source quoted by the UK's Press Association said: On November 21, two people [moustache] attempted to steal Ms Campbell's handbag as she sat in a vehicle on the Rue de Poussy.”
     The questions for the blog readership are about the word in brackets in that quote, namely “moustache”.
  • Should that be: “Two people with a moustache attempted...”, which could be taken to mean that there were two people sharing the same moustache?
  • Or should it be: “Two people with moustaches attempted...”, which could be taken to mean that they both had more than one moustache?
  • Or is there a way of re-writing the sentence to avoid the problem?
     What do you think? 
     This being the season of goodwill, there will be a special prize of a Glenfiddich tasting invitation to the rebellious reader who comes up with an argument that totally destroys the basis of my questions. All clues necessary to find that argument are already in this post.
     And since it is New Year, a final, non-linguistic point: I always thought Rue de Poussy was a street in Paris—until I discovered Christ the Saviour at Kropotkinskaya.