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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27 May 2013

Mistakes to avoid in English #1: writing like a Russian professor

Einstein: five words that changed the world
It has become fairly widely accepted that if Russia wants one of its universities to break into the world’s top 200, its academics will have to get used to communicating in the international language of scholarship, which is English. In Einstein’s day it was German, at least in the scientific world, but the combined efforts of Hitler and Henry Ford, respectively, destroyed German science and made the English-speaking world both rich and mobile. Though that happened three-quarters of a century ago, nothing has happened since to change the situation that resulted. So English it is—if you want to get ahead in academia.
     But this is not just a question of being able to write the language well, it is also a question of being able to think in an English-speaking way on paper. That means three main things: (1) subject, verb, object, generally in that order; (2) short sentences with as few subordinate clauses as possible; (3) a preference for practical examples over theoretical word-equation building.
     I came across an outstanding example of the problem the other day when editing a document for a major European publication which gives space to many senior Russians who have something intelligent and interesting to say about current problems of economic management. This is part of what a very distinguished public officer wrote about energy saving solutions for industry (after I had corrected the basic grammar):
“There is a set of common solutions and tools for savings that are relevant and useful for most industrial plants, and particularly beneficial for Russian manufacturing due to the high age of most of the manufacturing assets: electrical energy savings by optimisation of load scheduling, variable speed drives and more efficient electric motors, reducing harmonics and improving the power factor, burning optimisation by reducing the fuel demand and fuel mix while implementing alternative fuels, recovery of waste heat, air, steam, heat distribution control, loss prevention monitoring, technology analyses and process optimisation, which could be the most important one.”
     And if your eyes have not glazed over and closed yet, try this example which, though shorter, is even more constipated, syntactically-speaking:
“Definition of the strategic role on the normative level of private investments and focused work aimed at the creation of comfortable and effective mechanisms for the successful activities of Russian and foreign investors in Russia demonstrates the priority policy of the Russian Government to create all necessary conditions for attracting private investments to the Russian economy.”
     I read these two sentences to a Russian friend whose opinions I respect about many things, and his immediate reaction was: “That is the way my professor at MGU used to write. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of my PhD thesis, and I tried to put it in clear, simple language, he rejected it saying nobody will think you are worth reading if you write like that. These examples are exactly how he used to write. Every sentence was a paragraph.”
     This is nothing to do with the Russian language, which is quite capable of being concise and clear when it wants to be. It is a problem that has resulted from a habit of thinking which is designed to conceal real thought—a combination of socialist deceit, imperialist bombast, and the sort of inferiority complex which, in a different context, provokes short men to drive big cars.
     It could be called Potemkin prose, in that it gives the appearance of being the result of profound ratiocination, when in fact the writer has not been able to organise his or her thoughts with sufficient rigour to be able to say something which the averagely intelligent reader might be able to understand. (See my post about the head of MGIMO, 7 April 2013.) Clear thinking and clarity of expression go hand-in-hand. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” as Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16). It is the same with language. By their ability to communicate, ye shall know them.
     If this blog has any over-riding message it is that the first aim of writing is to make yourself understood, and the best way to do that is to write simply but thoughtfully—but above all, simply. The single sentence which changed the world more than any other in the last couple of centuries only had five words in it, and was written by a man who never even went to university, much less got a PhD.
     “Ee,” he said, with an impish grin on his hairy German face, “equals em cee squared.” 
     Russian academics and bureaucrats would do well to remember that you cannot get much simpler than Einstein’s famous theoretical word-equation.

22 May 2013

Sergei Lavrov, the English language and the Eurovision International Farting Competition

What's the point(s)?
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has made a cod of himself (as we say in Scotland) today by making a diplomatic issue out of the fact that Azerbaijan gave no votes to the Russian entry in the Eurovision International Farting Competition held in Sweden last weekend. The idea that a serious country concerns itself officially with the results of something so idiotic, so trivial and so irrelevant to public life in general, is extraordinary. It makes Russia a laughing-stock and displays, in all its embarrassing nakedness, the inferiority complex which so-many Soviet-era Russians still retain from the days of being part of a super-power that could not feed itself or make anything that the world market wanted.
     However, having no wish to see Gospodin Lavrov laughed at in public, I have a consoling suggestion to make about the reason why Azerbaijan gave the Russian entry no points. The idea occurred to me when I watched the video to see what all the fuss was about (see here). To my surprise, I noticed that it was sung in English. Then it dawned upon me that the Azerbaijanis probably did not understand a word of it.
     If the Soviet Union had been more attentive towards teaching the international language to its subject nationalities, and had had less of an inferiority complex about speaking English, then those judges down in Baku or wherever might have got the message and been able to sympathise with the words of the Russian crooner.
     But then again, listening to the words, I wonder. I felt as if I was watching to someone on “Russia’s Got Talent” auditioning for an understudy in a 1980s musical about Jennifer Rush. I am not sure I’d’ve given the song many votes, even I had known that doing so might have risked making Mr Lavrov burst into tears at the humiliation of it all. One has, after all, one’s moral integrity to consider, even when it comes to International Farting Competitions.
     But a final, positive, point: Russian is a much more attractive-sounding a language for crooning than English. It can convey a sense of mystification with especial force outside the former Soviet Union, because we in the English-speaking world were (and are) so much worse at languages than even the Russians (who are not that great). I think the song would have done much better both inside and outside Azerbaijan  if it had been sung in Russian. The time for linguistic inferiority complexes is long past. Modern up, Sergei old chap! Who wants to hear Nezhnost, or even Podmoskovnye Vechera, sung in English, after all (except, perhaps, in a “creative” way by Bob Dylan, say, or Sid Vicious, two inferior singers who refused to accept their vocal limitations)?

14 May 2013

Sex and the single grammarian

What is more important: correct grammar
or brightly painted toenails?
The BBC website today carries a story about a new emphasis on grammar which is to be introduced into schools in England in a revised curriculum. In today’s semi-incoherent world—in which a teetotal President of the United States used to talk sometimes as if he were drunk—this seems to me a good thing. Apart from anything else, it might help to encourage clear thinking.
     But how far should one take grammatical correctness? There is nothing so silly as people who mangle sentences in order, for example, to avoid splitting infinitives. So what, dear readers, do you make of this quotation from the BBC article?
Twist Phelan, an American writer who went on 100 online dates in 100 days and later married someone she met online, says grammar is a vital "filter system". It shows care has been taken when sentences are grammatically correct. "If you're trying to date a woman, I don't expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren't you trying to put your best foot forward?"
     But there is a grammatical mistake in Ms Phelan's quotation. It is a basic rule of English that the degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative (for: one thing, two things and more than two), are expressed as “good”, “better” and “best”. Of two objects, one is “better” than the other, not “best”. You can only have the “best” of three or more things.
     So when Ms Phelan wants a man who puts his “best foot forward”, we have to assume that she is looking for one with three (or more) feet. In homo sapiens sapiens this constitutes a deformity.
     Could that be why Ms Phelan felt she needed to go online to find a date, where the choice is so much wider? In libraries, dramming competitions, tennis matches or even in the offices of oligarchs you rarely meet people with three feet. You sometime meet ones with two left feet (as the saying goes). But those people generally do not have a right foot as well.
     So, to be grammatical herself, Ms Phelan really ought to have said that she wants a man who put his “better” foot forward. But of course, the old saying is: to put your “best” foot forward, as in the picture above. So what do we do when custom offends the rules of grammar? I know what I think. What do you think?

12 May 2013

Expressive mistakes in English: "clittirous"?

The ladies toilet in the smart steak-house in Biisk
Thank you, readers, for your patience. I have been away to the Altai for a fortnight and have not been posting. I do not take my computer on holiday with me, as I like to have holidays rather than distance working breaks. Yet you have continued reading this blog in large numbers, despite the absence of new posts. I am flattered.
     The Altai was such a wonderful experience (including six days on the train) that I have decided to change the top picture on this blog. I will write about this all somewhere else shortly, and post a link here. In the meantime, I have put up a couple of pics and a bit of narrative on my daily diary page on blipfoto. You can access it here.
      I got back a day ago to a huge mountain in my in-tray, amongst which was a sex novel which I have been editing for a Russian lady friend of mine. I am trying to remove those mistakes which detract from the text, but leave in the style and tone, which is far from standard English but which is often all the more expressive for that.
     Just now, I came across the following sentence with a misspelled word in it. I would normally change something like that, but I think the mistake is actually a revealing and artistically suggestive one and so am reluctant. This is what my friend wrote:
He puts his hand into my underwear and reaches my clittirous.
     Should I correct the spelling of the last work or leave it as a weirdly expressive mistake, which seems to me to carry  suggestions of the word “desirous? What do readers think?