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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21 March 2013

Cop and robber: the etiquette of polite writing in English assumes that we are all, ultimately, parts of a single community

The picture below, published in today’s Guardian, seems to me to illustrate something very important about etiquette which should be reflected in the way language is used. Too often in Russia, I have seen writing which is designed to distance the reader from the writer, frequently by making simple thoughts complicated or by stressing unnecessarily the superior importance of the writer in relation to the reader. Even newspapers can be written like this, and it is the general rule in academic writing.
     I do not like or admire this style, which strikes me as pompous and conceited, and therefore unmannerly. I think it is more courteous to make your thoughts as easily understood as possible, and to ignore your status (if any) vis à vis the reader. The point is that we are all, ultimately, part of the same community, or should be treated as such by polite writers.

John Wooley, left, one of the policemen who caught Bruce Reynolds, right (who died last week), one of the Great Train Robbers.
 They are enjoying a pint and a laugh together on the 40th anniversary of what was one of the most famous crimes in
 recent British history. (Photo: Justin McManus/Rex Features)

     The picture I have reproduced above illustrates this principle for British life rather well, I think. It shows two people centrally involved in one of the most famous crimes ever committed in Britain, the so-called Great Train Robbery, which took place on 8 August 1983, almost exactly fifty years ago. The occasion for publishing the photograph was the funeral of the man pictured right above who was one of those robbers. He was caught and sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in stealing £2.8 million (close to £100 million in today’s money) from a mail train carrying used banknotes from Glasgow to London. He served ten years, and, after release, wrote a successful book called The Autobiography of a Thief. He died last week and was buried yesterday.
     The man pictured left above was one of the police detectives involved in catching the train robbers. Policeman and thief are seen enjoying a beer together on the 40th anniversary of the robbery, ten years ago. Can you imagine such a scene in Russia?
     One of the basic arts of good writing in English is to treat the reader as an equal, indeed a friend (but without being over-familiar). We are all, in the end, parts of the single community of those who use English. That in itself is a good enough excuse for a beer and a laugh. Anyone for another pint?

19 March 2013

The Cypriot banking crisis and an old Scottish country saying

Cypriot banking regulator
When I had stopped laughing at the crocodile tears—a useful expression implying hypocritical emotion—of protest from Russian offshorniki at the “unfairness” of the levy which the EU proposes to force Cyprus to impose on deposits in its sinisterly “haven”-like banking system, I remembered a good old saying that is common amongst Scottish gamekeepers and refers to the plight of ordinary birds which are mistaken for vermin, like crows, that most keepers shoot on sight.
     The point is that the near 10% levy on large deposits (over Euro 100,00) will hurt not only those whose money was, in essence, stolen from the Russian “commonwealth” by the rigged privatisations in the 1990s, and who therefore cannot justifiably complain if someone else steals some of it from them. It will also hurt other, presumably small, but still significant, savers. 
Russian moneygarch
     They appear to have hoped to follow the lead of those who stole so much of Russia’s capital and wanted to park it somewhere outside the reach of the feeble Russian legal system. The smaller savers’ money might not be ill-gotten, but their motives seem to me to be as venal as those of their oligarch role-models. I am not sure many people feel a great deal of sympathy with them in their unexpected plight. They had hoped to increase their already moderate wealth, but they got shafted. I expect the common reaction will be: so what?
     In Scotland, as I say, there is a good expression which is used as a warning to people who may not be bad in themselves but who keep bad company and who therefore risk becoming the victims of rough justice on the part of the authorities. It seems to me to be directly applicable to the smaller Russian savers in the Cyprus bailout situation: 
“If you fly with the crows, you’ll get shot with the crows.”

17 March 2013

The importance of punctuation, an example from Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh as a younger man
One of the hardest aspects of written English to explain to Russians is punctuation because the two languages have completely different conventions. Essentially, in English it is about preserving the rhythm of the sentence and paragraph, whereas in Russian there are a lot of rigid rules (e.g. it is always потему, что) which I frankly do not see the need for, and which no Russian seems to be able to justify.
     In English, punctuation is also useful as an aid to clarity. I am still thoroughly enjoying Evenly Waugh’s Diaries (see last post and 9 March), and now getting sadly close to the end. This afternoon, reading languidly in bed while recovering from the excitement of the Emerald Ball (St Patrick’s Day) last night, with its Guinness, wine, Tullamore Dew whisky, Coole Swan liqueur and many other delights, including a dark, exotic lady in a long black dress, I came across the following passage, in which the last sentence is ambiguous purely due to the inadequate punctuation, specifically the lack of commas.
Monday 16 December 1946
“At 5 o’clock there was the Beefsteak committee meeting…. During the meeting I drank a lot of whisky and went rather drunk to a cocktail party given by John Murray [publisher] where I got very drunk. Rose Macaulay attempted a serious conversation in which I did not shine. I spent most of the time with Hermione Ranfurly jeering at people who were introduced to me and ended by bearing off a diminutive man called Gibbings to White’s [Club] for champagne cocktails. From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.”
     Due to the lack of any commas in the last sentence, the reader is left wondering whether Waugh was in doubt about the time he went to bed or the place.
     To be clear, he should have written either:
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed, early I think, at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about time)
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early, I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about place)
     One wonders what else he might have been uncertain about if he had been at so lavish an event as the Emerald Ball. However, if he had jeered at the dark, exotic lady in my presence, I would have been compelled to have had words with him that should have had a sobering effect.

14 March 2013

The importance of precision: Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill’s “coughing and farting”

Randolph Churchill, Winston's son
Further to my post on 9 March, I am getting on with Evelyn Waugh’s Diaries (available from the British Council Library when I have finished) and thoroughly enjoying it. He is a witty writer and a great stylist.
     In the bath tonight, I came across a wonderful example of his caustic wit, which I reproduce below as an illustration of the value of precise observation for comic effect (and other effects too). I invite readers to take a look at it and say why they think this passage works as an example of amusing prose. 
     Waugh is in Jugoslavia, in the autumn of 1944, on a military liaison mission to Tito’s Partisans. His commanding officer is Major Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son and a boring drinker. Randolph's great pal was Freddie Birkenhead, the son of one of Winston’s chums, Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith, who died of drink). It rained almost continuously, keeping them indoors in their off-duty hours, all cooped up together.
     This is part of Waugh's  entry for Monday 23 October:
“At luncheon Randolph and Freddy became jocular. They do not make new jests or even гереаt their own. Of conversation as I love it - а fantasy growing in the telling, aрt repartee, argument based on accepted postulates, spontaneous reminiscences and quotation - they know nothing. Аll their noise and laughter is in the retelling of memorable sayings of their respective fathers or other public figures; even with this vast гереrtoire they гереаt themselves every day ог two - sometimes within an hour. They also recite with great zest the more hackneyed passages of Macaulay, the poems of John Веtjeman, Веllос, and other classics. I remarked how boring it was to be obliged to tell Randolph everything twice - once when he was drunk, once when he was sober. Two hours later, in а fuddled state, with а glass of rakija in his hand, he came to my room to expostulate with me for unkindness. Later he cooked kidneys for Zora, the cook, making loud appreciative kisses and whistles when the dish appeared - these, his American slang, his coughing and farting make him а роог companion in wet weather.”
     So why do you think that is funny? Don't read on until you have made up your mind.
     I suggest, that it is the last three words. Without those, the whole passage would be merely interesting. With them, it is extremely funny.
     But perhaps you disagree.

Hoigh toime we had an Oirish Pope!

Don't the Cardinals know that it is St Patrick's week?

The linguistic point is that the new Papa has decided that he should be called “Francis I”. Why, the “I”? Isn't that a little presumptuous?
     How does he know there will be a Francis II or III? The Papacy might cease to exist next year, when the world ends following the nuclear war between China and Japan +America. Alternatively, fashions in names might change and we find the Vatican occupied for the next few peaceful millennia by people who prefer titles like Pope Luc, Pope Elvis, Pope Uhuru or, as was once suggested in Private Eye, by Pope John Paul George and Ringo.
     Logically, the new Pontiff should be referred to simply as Pope Francis until another Holy Father of that name comes along. Or am I being too Protestant in my thinking here?
     Likewise, but outside the religious sphere, I am always mystified as to why Russians talk about Paul I, who was Tsar for four years after Catherine II, until he was murdered with the connivance of his son, Alexander I. There has never been a second Tsar Paul, so why is the much vilified military martinet and right-on enemy of Napoleon still be referred to as “Pavel I”?
     Can any Russian historian help me on this ticklish point?

09 March 2013

Etiquette, Evelyn Waugh and on being rude to underlings

The young translator (left) putting Ms Sviblova's
hour-long speech into French
I recently witnessed one of the most outstanding displays of rudeness which it has been my misfortune to see. I was at a press conference for the Moscow International Photography exhibition which opened recently.
     The main organiser is a woman called Olga Sviblova, who seemed rather full of herself. First, she published a press release which was so long I did not have time to read it—she might have saved the ink. Secondly, she spoke at the beginning of the press conference for a hour. A whole hour! It would have been better if she had confined her remarks to a few headline observations and then introduced the other speakers. Five minutes would have been ideal; ten the maximum. But sixty was so excessive as to make one wonder whether she was doing this for our benefit or her own.
     But that paled beside her treatment of the young Russian lady who had been brought in to translate to and from French for the representative of the Pompidou Centre who was there as his museum was supporting the event. Eventually, she handed the microphone to the Frenchman who spoke in French, and whose words the Russian the translated into Russian for the benefit of the reporters present. 
     But she had hardly started when Sviblova told her to hand her the microphone. Saying she was speaking too slowly, Sviblova proceeded to do all the translating herself. It was such an obvious, public and deliberate slap in the face that the young translator, humiliated in a way I would not have expected outside the Russian Army, could not control her tears.
The same translator after Sviblova
had so rudely shut her up
     The whole audience was shocked, so much so that at the end of the speeches not a single question was asked by any of the press representatives present. I have never seen that in all my years of attending these sorts of events. It rather confirmed Mitchell’s Rule, which states that, with few exceptions, the higher you go in Russians society, the ruder the people get. The highest treat their subordinates like dirt, which is why democracy is such a threat to them, and why the country has to be ruled by deception and force.
     Mulling this over a night or two later, I happened to come across the following paragraph in The Diaries of Evenly Waugh which I have been reading recently. Waugh was still at school when he wrote this:
Friday 31 October 1919 
Parade was quite pleasant; the inspecting general was quite а gentleman, ог аt any гаtе knew how tо behave as such. At the band practice afterwards the bandmaster appears tо have called Cordner-James а ‘bugger’ and he at опсе retaliated bу calling him ‘а bloody fool’. The bandmaster rushed off tо Bоnd and had him degraded tо the ranks and put on defaulters nехt Monday. It seems rather unfair, but it is rather bad form tо swear at one’s social inferiors.
     Anyone who wants to hear a fascinating programme devoted entirely to analysis of Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel, should listen to this broadcast from the BBC's In Our Time series. 

01 March 2013

The dead politics of dead clichés: Voice of Russia gets it wrong (again)

President Rafael Correa: can you spot the cross-hairs?
It is noticeable how people whose minds are full of loathing for something or somebody often write in a confused way. Anger seems to disturb style.
     On 8 May last year, I drew attention to an example of this in the strange maunderings of a propagandist from the Voice of Russia, John Robles. Now Robles has done it again with an article predicting the death of the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.
     On 8 January, Robles wrote an article entitled “Correa was to be assassinated by CIA before elections”. The headline should have been “Correa is to be assassinated…” since the article was a prediction. But that is a small point. The larger one is that Robles, who bears an unlikeable, bilious animus against the West, and the United States in particular, said that “it is almost a given” that Correa will be “targeted for assassination” by the CIA before the Ecuadorian elections, which were to be held in five weeks’ time (i.e. a fortnight ago). The man is “walking around with cross-hairs on his head”.
     The reason is that Correa has “become a pain in the neck for the US”. “Ecuador’s societal model,” Robles says, “can not be allowed to stand as it contradicts US propaganda and capitalist interests… So the reasons for the CIA assassinating Correa are many and obvious.”
     The elections before which Correa was to be killed took place on 17 February. Correa is still alive and running Ecuador in his unconventional but not irrational way. Life goes on.
     The whole article is a useful illustration of the linguistic point that people who write in clichés tend to think in clichés. One of the people who made that point most forcefully was George Orwell (see previous post). Señor Robles (who comes from Latin America himself) would do worse than to spend the weekend reading some of his beautifully-written essays, especially “Politics and the English Language”, which I highly recommend. It is available on the web at this link.
     Orwell ends with a sentence which applies with painful exactness to Robles’s text. Accepting that a single individual cannot change the whole English language, Orwell nevertheless concludes with a message of hope for all victims of Roblasian prose (if I may coin a word):
“One can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin, where it belongs.”
     Mmmmm: “verbal refuse”, an apt phrase indeed for “almost a given”, “cross-hairs on his head” “societal model”, “capitalist interests”, and “pain in the neck”. Into the dustbin with all of them!