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.


25 April 2013

The European way of seduction – so different from the American, apparently

Richard Davenport-Hines
One of the best writers of modern history in England today is Richard Davenport-Hines. He has written all sorts of unembarrassed exposés of the British way of hypocrisy and self-advertisement. 
     His most recent book was about the sinking of the  Titanic, so his review of a book about an even greater disaster, the sinking of a Nazi cruise liner-turned-military transport off Gotenhafen in the gulf of Danzig in 1945 carries particular weight. 9,500 people drowned in the greatest maritime tragedy in history. So one should perhaps not make light of the subject. You can read Davenport-Hines's review at this link in this week’s Spectator.
     But still life goes on, and must. Davenport-Hines makes the point that the book, called Death in the Baltic, is written by an American journalist (called Cathryn Prince). The following three paragraphs are the last in Mr Davenport-Hines’s excellent, literate and informed review. The last one contains such a beautiful observation about the difference between European and American writing and thought, that I could not resist copying it for all readers of this blog:

People in the lifeboats saw the imploring eyes of people in the icy sea or heard their screams: ‘I have that always in my ears,’ said a survivor 60 years later. In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to ‘ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times’ — and does so with scrupulous empathy.
     Nevertheless, Death in the Baltic is a very American book. It is based on interviews conducted across the continent from Tecumseh, Ontario, to Las Vegas. It is written with an artless simplicity that can be touching, but sometimes resembles the faux naïveté of an annoying child. The clumsy innocence is apparent from the first page, where Prince notes the paucity of news report of the sinking and asks: ‘Was it because there were no Americans aboard?’

     The book also has a page of acknowledgments sploshed with outlandish emotional effusions such as ‘Perched upon my soul, you are my laughter and my light.’ Perhaps Americans are sincere when they talk like this, but Europeans only murmur such nonsense when they are young, drunk and trying to wheedle their way into having sex with someone who is feeling tired.

20 April 2013

Politics, literature and the absence of George Orwell: a good essay to go with your Saturday breakfast

May I recommend another press article, published this time in today’s Financial Times? It is about political literature and its decline in Britain. The question asked is why we do not have a modern George Orwell. That seems to me a question more about political writing than literature, because Orwell’s novels were not, in my view, especially good as novels. They were often fine  polemics, and entertainingly didactic. But novels? Ho hum.  
     Anyway, you might have a different view. Either way, the story of the rise and fall of political writing in Britain is well told in this interesting piece. Enjoy! 

PS: See my post about Orwell on 22 February.
     I recommended the reading of Orwell’s article about the life of a book-reviewer. It is no longer available on the BBC website. However, I downloaded it, and any reader who would like to listen can mail me and I will send you the download. I am not clever enough to know how to put it on this site. If any brainy reader can help me with that, I would be very grateful. 

17 April 2013

How to make people laugh using the radio

May I recommend this excellent programme about one of the greatest comic talents of the late twentieth century, in my opinion? He was a man who worked as a radio DJ, but he did humour too, and what humour!
      Everyone in Britain of a certain age will remember Kenny Everett, from Liverpool, hero of the pirate radio movement and general all round audio-linguistic genius.
     Everyone in Moscow will enjoy hearing about him too, I think, and hope.
     So tune in to this episode in the Great Lives series, with Matthew Parris and learn some new angles on the English language.

11 April 2013

What's the difference between the English language and Anarchy?

A good friend of mine, John Oehrlein (the Tiger Woods of Nakhabino, not only do they both play golf, but...) posted the text below on Farcebook last night. I am simply re-posting it, so to speak, since it is such a wonderful illustration of my message about the English language, which is that you cannot learn it, only practice it. It is pure anarchy, which is why it is so vital and alive. 
     See what you make of the sentences below and the comments that follow. And remember Mitchell's Law: English has no rules only conventions. Thank you, John, for reminding us.

John at the nineteenth hole, so to speak.
He enjoys the odd beer occasionally, like once in every twenty-four hours.

This is John's text:

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce 
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let's face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig..

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

PS. - Why doesn't 'Buick' rhyme with 'quick' ?

07 April 2013

The head of MGIMO can’t write

Professor Anatoly Torkunov, Rector of MGIMO
The purpose of writing is to communicate. To do this you need to do two things beyond simply using
intelligible English. You need to say something your readership does not know, and you need to say something that is true (unless it is funny or interesting in some other way).
     One of the most prestigious academics in Russia, Professor Anatoly Torkunov, appears not to have learned either of these lessons very well. Prof. Torkunov is the Rector of MGIMO, possibly the most respected of Russia’s institutions of higher learning. He is also a member of the Russian Academy of Science and is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary—whatever that means. He holds the Order of Merit for the Fatherland (only 3rd class, admittedly), the Order of Honour, the Order of Friendship the Order of St Sergio’s (2nd class) and the Order of Holy Prince Daniel of Moscow (3rd class again).
     But can he be depended upon to write an informative and accurate paragraph on his special area of expertise? Apparently not.
     Take the following text, for example. These are the first and fourth paragraphs of an article by Professor Torkunov which was published on the Russian International Affairs Council website, on 6 March this year, under the heading Education as a Soft Power Instrument of Russia’s ForeignPolicy. See if you can find any statements which are both informative and accurate (the words I will discuss are underlined):
A New Leadership Resource in Today’s World
Any nation in its foreign policy focuses on strengthening its international positions and image, as well as creating a favorable external environment for its country’s long-term socioeconomic growth. And while the foreign policy toolkit used to accomplish this objective may change from epoch to epoch, in the 20th century’s bipolar world, the dominant trend was for states to concentrate on building up their hard power and their military and economic might….
Today, political leadership in the world is increasingly dependent on a nation’s ability to “nurture purposefully” its neighbours or competitors. In times of transition in the global political system, nations are fighting more and more over their right to define the values and rules of this world order.
Looking at this in detail:

“Any nation in its foreign policy focuses on strengthening its international positions and image, as well as creating a favorable external environment for its country’s long-term socioeconomic growth.”
     This sentence is a statement of the obvious, so obvious indeed that every nation does what Torkunov says. So why does he need to tell us?

“And while the foreign policy toolkit used to accomplish this objective may change from epoch to epoch…”
     Leaving aside the unattractively slangy use of the word “toolkit” in such a context, these things change from year to year, or decade to decade, but not from “epoch to epoch”. An epoch is a reference date not a period of time. It is the first moment of a period, not the whole period. The break-up of the Soviet Union was an epochal moment. It was the end of the Soviet “era” and the beginning of the post-Soviet period, perhaps, but it was an event without duration. Foreign policy “toolkits” do not change only at epochal moments, but continuously as diplomatic relationships evolve.

“…the 20th century’s bipolar world…”
     The 20th century was only “bi-polar” for forty-six years, from 1945 to 1991, for the majority of the time it was either multi-polar or uni-polar, even on the crudest understanding of the term. And if you think of poles of attraction, the attraction of the Soviet Union was much more short-lived than that. It started around 1943 when everyone realised how many Germans the Soviets were killing, and ended in 1956 when most people came to realise how many Hungarians they were prepared to kill to sustain the illusion of equality with the West. The subsequent killing of so many Czechs, Poles, Aghanistanis and dissident Russians drove that lesson home in even the least imaginative minds.

“…building up their hard power and their military and economic might…”
     What is the difference between “hard power” and “military and economic might”? The whole of Professor Torkunov’s article suggests he defines hard power as military and economic might. So one or other is redundant.

“…political leadership in the world is increasingly dependent on a nation’s ability to “nurture purposefully” its neighbours or competitors…”
     There is something madly illusional about this. Which country is exercising “political leadership” in the way the rest of the sentence implies? How do countries “nurture purposefully their neighbours or competitors”?  Is Russia “nurturing purposefully” Kazakhstan, for example, or Georgia, or China? Is France “nurturing” Germany, or Belgium or Spain? Is China “nurturing purposefully” Japan or Mongolia, or North Korea? What is the good professor talking about?

“In times of transition in the global political system…”
     Whenever was the world political “system” not in a time of transition? When have international political relations been fixed in the sort of stasis which Professor Torkunov seems to think is their normal state? And why does he use the word “system” about a set of relationships that are in constant flux, without any organising principle which might render them predictable? That is what a system is. And that is what global politics is not.

“…fighting more and more over their right to define the values and rules of this world order…”
     Which countries, exactly, are “fighting” to define values, etc., other than, arguably, North Korea? There is something wearyingly old-fashioned about the way so many Russians who achieved eminence under Communism describe international relationships as having a military or violent character. Have they learned nothing from the collapse of their own system of militarism and violence? And what “world order” does Professor Torkunov see? I see only a set of relationships of greater or lesser stability, but no “world order”, which is another way of saying “system”. In the context of diplomatic analysis, reference to methods of threat and aggression seem to me little more than the atavistic fantasies of bombastic neo-Eurasianists of near-pensionable age who don’t appear to understand that not even the United States is an autonomous political entity any more—if ever it was.

So let me try to translate Professor Torkunov’s two windy paragraphs into something accurate and more succinct:
Today, the foreign policy of most nations is evolving from a twentieth century emphasis on the crude assertion of military and economic power into an approach which emphasises constructive interaction between countries based on competitive cultural self-promotion.
     That may be shorter, but I don’t think I have left anything out.