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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22 February 2013

How to write clearly: a classic example

Speaking of text books as I was in the last post (see immediately below), readers might like to listen to one of the best writers of English to have put finger to typewriter key in the last hundred years or so. I am thinking of George Orwell. Of course there have been many masters of style—a few of the best known are Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler and, in a slightly different way, Philip Larkin. But Orwell was the master of prose-as-pane-of-glass (his analogy). It should, he said, interpose no distorting lens between the reader and the mind of the writer.
     Followers of this blog might like to listen to some of the programmes being broadcast in the current series on BBC Radio 4 about George Orwell. I have listened to every one and they are all interesting. But of particular relevance to this blog is the issue of clarity of writing. That comes out most clearly in Orwell’s journalism. I never thought of his novels as all that great. They certainly had a stylistic clarity, but fiction requires more than that. 
     However, if readers want to listen to a fantastic example, which is also extremely funny, of Orwell’s journalism at its extraordinary best, I recommend the programme which is devoted to reading his article about the life of a book reviewer. That is journalism of the highest order. I doubt if anyone has ever written  a better description of what Orwell wanted to describe—which, being Orwell, was more than mere book-reviewing, of course, closer to the then current state of English literary civilisation. Try it!

20 February 2013

English Language and Etiquette for Russians

Given that the тираж is pretty скромный,
 I would advise rushing out to get your copy сразу.
A friend of mine, Professor Oksana Danchevskaya of the Moscow Pedagogical University, has recently published a book which I think will be of great interest to every Russian who follows this blog. It is called English for Cross-Cultural and Professional Communication.
     The format is unusual for Russian books of this sort in that it is not a text-book with lists of rules to be memorised. Rather it follows my ideas about learning English—maybe other languages require different approaches—in that it works by examples. English, as I cannot repeat often enough, is a language with customs rather than rules, and so requires practice rather than drill to master it.
     Oksana’s book is organised around thirteen texts, which are all taken from the real world—advertising brochures, newspaper articles, and so on—and are accompanied by exercises, vocabulary lists and some specialised translations into Russian of unusual words or phrases. 
     The choice of subjects is unconventional too. One covers cheating in university exams, another the etiquette of office life and a third the cultural value of language in general. This is very different from the drivelling artificiality of the general run of books (usually at ten times the price of this one) which purport to teach so-called business English.
     At the end of the book, Oksana even describes the “correct” way to lay tables for formal and informal dining. This will be useful to students who intend entertaining Americans of the more prescriptively Protestant sort, or those with particular social insecurities. In Britain, etiquette is, like the English language, a matter of custom rather than rules and, as such, varies from home to home.
     A CD is included with the book, and this will be highly useful for all who wish to improve their pronunciation, and to practice listening to a variety of different accents in English, which due to the lack of rules of speech can be a matter of serious difficulty to foreigners, especially in places like Glasgow, Belfast or Brixton. I myself, as a native Scot who once had relatives in the Northern Isles, remember visiting Shetland ten years ago and not being able to understand more than half of what the deck-hand on the Yell ferry said to me while we chatted on the twenty-minute crossing. So Russians should not комплексовать on this matter.
     Oksana’s book was published just a month ago and should be available in all the main bookshops in Moscow, or through Ozon.ru. For advanced level students who wish to get to know something of the cultural environment of English while learning the language, this book is a must.

15 February 2013

May I recommend this video?


The language point is that what we call “action” in English is rather different from what is called “акция” in Russia—officially, this is. The former has a positive sense, while the latter is negative in official circles though arguably positive in others. It all goes to illustrate that language is less a question of rules than conventions, which can vary from place to place, time to time, person to person and situation to situation. It is a living thing.

14 February 2013

Conservation of chickens

While cooking the St Valentine's Day feast tonight, a roast chicken with a sauce of historic qualities and  an international reputation, I was taking a wee dram on the side, with a beer (Ochakovo originalno, the best), and listening to Atlantic FM, as I regularly do on the Internet radio.
     I heard an advertisement  for the station and for a new programme they are introducing, the details of which escape me. At the end of the advertisement, the announcer lowered his voice and speeded up his delivery, in a "Terms and Conditions apply" way. He put on a hunky American '50s advertiser voice and said this:
"No chickens were harmed during the making of this programme, only eaten."
     Pip! pip!

07 February 2013

Common mistakes #9 (again): “51 times fewer”

Does no-one ever listen to what I say? Or would it be more precise to ask if anyone at the Moscow Times copy-editing department reads this blog? Probably not—too busy editing copy. They have my sympathy.
     So if anyone happens to catch one of them in the street, or relaxing in Papa’s after a long night at the VDU in that strange ex-furniture factory where the MT—an excellent paper, I should add for completeness—is produced, then they might explain to them once again that you should not use negative multiples when you wish to imply fractions.
     Today’s paper has another example. (I pointed this out as recently as 26 January – see post.)

     Note: “The Labor and Social Services Ministry reported an overall natural population decline of 2,573 people last year, or 51 times fewer than in 2011.”
     What on earth does that mean? Of course I can work it out. I presume they mean that the population decline in 2011 was 2,573 x 51, which equals 131,233. But why should I have read the sentence two or there times, then get out my calculator in order to decode the text? Why could the paper not have said:
“The Labour and Social Services Ministry reported that the natural population decline slowed, in round figures, from 131,000 in 2011 to 2,500 last year.”
     On the other hand if they wanted to make a point only about the relationship between the two totals, they could have written:
“The Labour and Social Services Ministry reported that the natural population decline decreased by 98% to 2,573 last year, compared with 2011.”
     And I’ll say this again, too: clarity if the first rule of good writing.

02 February 2013

Anniversary of the Battle of Stealingrad

Twenty-one years ago, Russia was invaded by financial wizards, not all of them foreign. The man above apparently proposed to hand out cheques for 00,000 roubles. If so, he was one of the few who did what he said he would do as nobody got anything, or almost nobody. He, himself, appears to have been an exception. Today, he looks sleek and healthy, though with less hair and better-fitting suits. One is forced to the conclusion that he received a couple of roubles, at least, somewhere along the line. (For a recent sighting, see Mitchell's Moscow on the Gaidar Forum)
     The invasion was code-named Operation Приватизация. The pincers and thrusts and assaults of the invader took a terrible toll on the defenders. All the years of socialist construction were as nothing, and the people's achievements largely cast down in the dust. The result was that, two decades later, the productive economy was in ruins (see below).

     Russia has suffered other ruinous battles, like that whose end, in February 1943, is being commemorated today. However, Stalingrad could be rebuilt, and has been. But what about Stealingrad? It is harder to restore trust in government than it is to erect new apartment houses.
     The linguistic point is that words are not entities independent of life. They are only representations of reality and, as such, they depend on the listeners as much as the talkers. If someone says Privatisation and means Theft, that only becomes a trick if the people listening give the speaker the respect of one speaking honestly. Orwellian language is as much the fault of those who refuse to call speakers to account for the words they use as it is of those who use the misleading words.
     Ultimately, language is democratic. But democracy works only if people exercise their rights: use 'em or lose 'em. It has been said before that if people act like sheep, they will get a government of wolves. The integrity of a language is the responsibility of every individual who uses it. 

01 February 2013

Advice-points on written English #1 (repeated): Clarity

I can see I am going to have to go on saying this. I first made the point on 4 April (see post), but it cannot be stressed enough. The first rule of good writing is clarity. In the light of that, I was distressed to see the headline above.
     Having read it, are you confident that you know what it is that Chuck Hagel actually supports?
  • Does he support cuts in knives, daggers and other sharp weapons in the sense of wanting to reduce their numbers?
  • Does he support sharp cuts in weapons generally, from knives to bombs?
  • Does he support cuts with sharp weapons, as opposed to blunt ones which can make such a mess in delicate surgery?
 What, in God’s name, does Mr Hagel actually support?
       This headline, in today’s Moscow Times, is so loosely worded that you have to read the paragraph beneath it to find out what it is actually trying to say, which turns out to be none of the above! (see below).
     I suggest it would have been better written like this: “Hagel Supports Deep Nuclear Cuts”. It is not that difficult to be clear.