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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23 July 2013

End of term prizes: the Hot Air awards

English Language Etiquette for Russians:
helping those in linguistic need avoid
making arses of themselves
in print
A final post before I go on holiday to Scotland where I will be taking in, amongst many other things both reputable and disreputable, the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is one of the great events in the literary world. I will be posting occasional pieces about interesting authors I have seen. Beyond that, posts will have a more Scottish than a Russian flavour until the beginning of September.
     Before I set off, I want to stress one thought (not for the first time!). It is this: a high level of skill at written English is of vital importance in the modern world. Let me recommend two internet items that are relevant here. The first one is entitled: “How your grammar skills affect your salary”. The second one makes much the same point, in a different way, and carries with it the plutological authority (that means they are rich, or does now that I have coined the word!) of Forbes magazine. It is called: “How grammar influences your income.”
     Why do I stress this? Because a friend has sent me two outstanding examples of the linguistic mush which far too many Russian academics put out because they do not write English well (which is no sin) and are not prepared to get their work put into acceptable English by a specialist, like me (which is a sin!). People who spout guff and try to pass it off as clever discourse are said in colloquial English to be “talking a lot of hot air”. The picture on the right illustrates the process. 
     It is important to be clear that it is not only incoherent language which gets in the way of clear communication, it is  confused thinking too. Just because the authors of the two pieces below are high-level academics, does not mean they do not need help with their thought processes as much as their language. My point, really, is that the latter reflects the former. Confused, opaque, over-complicated English is a sure sign of sloppy thinking.
     The prize in this year’s ELERussians Hot Air Awards goes to the a Professor of English at one of Moscow’s leading universities. He has written an abstract for a paper to be submitted to a learned journal with the following title (which is in itself incomprehensible to me): “Metaphorical Potential of Phraseological Units in English Business Discourse”.
     If the title is beyond understanding, what chance is there of a coherent text? This is an extract:
“The author also states that the use of metaphors is a natural way of studying the world. The specificity of perception with the help of some metaphors reflects traditions, and the special features of national character of the native speaker. Phraseological units have both impact and educational functions. The author states that Russian and Western scientists are working on different schemes of metaphoric transformation and methods of classification, which are based on the transparency of the internal form of expressive vocabulary. However, the scientists were not able to reach full agreement, so ‘the last phase of the transformation of the metaphors core is also broadly disputed’. The author also discusses some of the reasons why figurative language is so intensively used in modern business discourse and argues that the criterion of idiomaticity is found to be an inadequate guide in distinguishing between metaphors and phraseological units. The article concludes that the ideological significance of figurative language should not be underestimated.”
     If any reader is able to extract a concrete meaning from that, then I will buy him or her a large drink at the next ELERussians whisky tasting. 
     The problem is not confined to academics. This next piece was written by a distinguished lawyer and is the abstract of an article, also intended for publication in a learned journal. The subject is Russian “atomic legislation”, which is itself a nonsense, since it is not the legislation that is atomic but the industry which is the subject of the legislation. It is runner-up in the Hot Air Awards for the blog year 2012-2013.
     Can any reader make any sense from these words beyond the statement of the obvious that Russian policy on the peaceful use of nuclear power needs to be revisited because of the new economic union with Kazakhstan and Belorussia?
“Furthermore, Russia is going to establish a single economic space with Kazakhstan and Belorussia, so the norms of all parties are to be synchronized. The author states that the development of the normative legal acts is made by different federal executive government bodies and some collectives. The existing bunch of normative acts should be reconsidered, rethought, analyzed and systemized; a monitoring of the use of nuclear energy legislation should be made. It is worth noticing that the systematization of the nuclear energy legislation needs a complex plan of preparing law drafts and normative acts in this sphere. In this connection the work on the systematization are going to allow legal activity for the satisfaction of innovative development of nuclear energy in Russia and gives a broad approach for the regulation of social relations in such potentially dangerous field, as the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
     Since I might be bumping into Edward Snowden in the departure lounge at Sheremetyevo airport this afternoon, it occurs to me that I could usefully suggest to him that the best way to defeat the American global mail-spying programme would be to persuade everyone to write like the two award-winners above. His friends in Langley, Virginia, would never be able to decode that.

13 July 2013

Another rule of language etiquette: swear if you really have to!

Ein malenki shitstorm...
I was amused to read recently that the German “Anglicism of the Year" in 2012 (the most popular word taken from English last year) was “shitstorm”. A German linguist explained that the word conveyed “a new kind of protest, different in kind and degree from what could be expected in the past.”
     That was cool enough. But then I read that no less a personage than Angela Merkel had used it in connection with the current financial crisis, and I was put in mind of Comrade Zhirinovsky and his attempt to ban words of foreign origin from the Russian language (see post 14 January 2013). How would he react to Шитсторм? Might he protest so loudly that respectable German ladies of a certain age would be tempted to describe it as a schitshtorm?
     Then there is Mr Hoji Takahashi, the 71-year old Japanese television viewer who wants to rid his own language of words like “terebi” (TV), “konpuraiansu” (compliance) and “taoru” (towel). He seems to have a somewhat politer approach than Mr Zhirinovsky, so no shitustolmu in Tokyo.
     But what do we make of the very prim Russian friend of mine who hates swearing in any form? Once, when discussing the Soviet education system with her, in Russian, she said to me, “Тогда было много рабфаков.”  She was saying that there were many “rabochi fakulteti”, or workers educational institutes, which were important and numerous in the industrializing 1930s. They became known by the abbreviated name of rabfak which, in the genitive plural after mnogo, is rabfakoff.
     The reader will easily imagine how shocked I was to hear a very proper lady saying fakoff without apparent shame. Her only excuse was that she was speaking Russian. Had I not known her so well, there might have been a little, local shitstorm. If she had complained at that, I could have said I was speaking German.

Emotion recollected in tempestousness

Mary Ure, with Richard Burton, in the film version of
Look Back in Anger. An excellent, modern BBC TV version,
starring Kenneth Branagh, is available on YouTube.
I am currently reading the autobiography of the playwright, John Osborne, and I came across a good and pleasantly concise description of the problem writers face when living with “normal” women.
     Soon after Osborne shot to fame with his ground-breaking kitchen-sink drama, Look Back in Anger (1956), he found himself rather unenthusiastically marrying the attractive and friendly but not hugely talented Scottish actress Mary Ure (who died twenty years later of alcoholism).
     I quote part of his description of Mary below because it is so poetically apt, and uses word fearlessly, as they should be used. But I should perhaps say first that it is mild by comparison with what Osborne said about a subsequent wife, Jill Bennett. 
     Unlike Mary whom he liked but did not love, Bennett he hated with a passion that is rare in people who stay married for as long as seven months, much less, as in his case, seven years. He said of her that she was “so demonically possessed by Avarice that she died of it”, which was “one of the few original or spontaneous gestures in her loveless life”. She was, Osborne said, so mean that “she never bought a bar of soap in all the time she lived with me”. And none of this was mitigated by professional skill. As an actress, her voice sounded “like a puppy with a mouthful of lavatory paper.”
     By contract, Osborne is kind to Mary Ure, though still pointed and unblinkingly truthful in the manner that projected him to world fame as the first “angry young man” in the late 1950s.
“Like most actors, she was hysterical when unemployed and resentful when appearing every night to full houses. She also entertained the common belief that a writer is only working when he can be seen head down at his desk. Why are you drinking/dreaming/farting/fornicating instead of making typewriter noises?”
     Is there any writer who has not suffered such barbs from the lady of their perhaps unwise choice?


Another rule of literary etiquette: respect the meaning of words

You don’t “cut” with an axe, you “chop”.
You could certainly shatter bone like this,
but the careful removal of fat would be impossible.
Better to use a tiny adze for that, or a knife,
neither of which would “cut into bone”.
On 26 June the Financial Times, normally a relatively literate newspaper, published an article about the approach to economic management of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The FT commented that the depth of the cuts the Chancellor was making was arguably excessive. “This may now be cutting not only through fat but into the bone.”
     So you go from fat to bone without anything in between? What about muscle? And cutting into bone? Surely not? You can saw bone, or shatter it with something like an axe (see right). But I think cutting such a hard substance with the same instrument—economic austerity—that you cut fat with is physically impossible.
     The problem with clichés, especially sloppily used ones, is that they very often have comic or unintended effects. Best to avoid them and respect the literal meaning of words if you want your reader to be informed rather than confused or, in some cases, amused.

Another rule of literary etiquette: respect logic

There is nothing so apt to deceive
as a confidently expressed piece of
logical absurdity
The Moscow Times published an article in late June about resource exploitation in the Arctic. This is an interesting and important subject, but no-one’s understanding of it was assisted by this sentence: “The Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas.”
    I do not care what the experts consider the word “undiscovered” to mean—if indeed it is a term of art among oilmen—because this article was written for the general public. 
     To you, me and Ivan in the Metro, “undiscovered” means that is has not been discovered. That means that nobody knows whether it is there or not. If nobody knows it is there, how can anyone know how much there is of it? And if nobody knows how much there is of it, how can anyone say that it represents a specific proportion of any total quantity of undiscovered material which must, by definition, be of unknown size?
     Logic, gentlemen, please! Logic!

How much would it have cost to have got this sign right? One pint? Two? Three tops! Any more and I might have got it wrong myself.

This picture comes from my recent trip by train to Siberia (see http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3048496 ) and continues the theme in the previous post. This was part of the wonderful, expensively modernised station at Kazan, though it could have been a dozen other places, as Russian Railways have spent a lot of money smartening up their main stations in recent years.
       It was thoughtful of the management to try to provide signs in English, perhaps with a view to the forthcoming football championship which I gather from friends who take an interest in that sort of thing is partly to be held Kazan. But why not ask me how to phrase the sign properly? This is such a silly translation, it makes Russia a laughing stock, quite unnecessarily and, in some senses, unfairly.
       Will someone please tell the RZhD management, whoever and wherever they are, that I am just an email away!

First rule of literary etiquette: respect the reader

If you find this difficult to read,
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This blogger has been not blogging recently as I have been finishing a novel, which will shortly amaze the world. But while working on my manuscript I have been assiduously collecting examples of misused English and am now going to post a lot of short entries describing them. Soon after that I shall be going on holiday to Scotland for five weeks, where the demands of family, friends, fun and frolics will no doubt mean that my entry-per-month rate will drop.
     The first piece comes from the War Museum at Poklonny Gori where I went with some interesting friends on 22 June to mark the date of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There were all sorts of explanatory notices around the exhibition, many of them in English. Not for the first time, I remarked to one of the friends I went with (who is Russian but speaks flawless English) how odd it is that Russians spend so much money on displays like that at Poklonny Gori but then skimp on the texts. From a public relations point of view, nothing could be more silly than having badly-written foreign language material. When will Russia start to spend the trivial amounts money needed to have proper foreign language experts, like me(!), check their texts for public consumption?
     I will come to the language in a minute, but the first point to note is that most of the material at Poklonny Gori was also historically inaccurate. The piece pictured above, which I have chosen simply because my photograph of it produced the most legible image, starts with the bizarre assertion (second paragraph) that: “From the very start [of the war “against the axis”] the Soviet Union exerted significant efforts to achieve a wide military and political co-operation with all countries in the state of war against Germany.”
     Huh! From the start? Do Russians not know that the war against Germany started in September 1939, nearly two years before Hitler decided to force the Soviet Union to fight against him rather than help him? Do they not know that Stalin twice asked to join the Axis (in 1940) and speculated in smirking tones about how they would be able to carve up the British Empire “like an estate in bankruptcy” once Britain had been beaten? Do they not know that in the battle of Britain—as much a turning point in the war as the Battle of Stalingrad was—the German air force was flying on fuel largely supplied by the Soviet Union and using rubber, a key material, which it could obtain only buy getting the USSR to buy it from (British) India pretending it was for its own consumption?
     Stalin did everything he could to help Hitler defeat the British Empire (remember the United States w as not in the war until December 1941). To say that “from the very start” the USSR tried to defeat Hitler is such a gross distortion of history that it renders the whole monument at Poklonny Gori decidedly questionable, to me at any rate. Why does Russia feel it needs to lie about its own military history?
     The first rule of etiquette in writing in English, as in any other language, is to respect truth, and therefore the reader by not treating him or her as an idiot, which this kind of historical nonsense does.
     A secondary rule which is rather amusingly broken in the piece is to get names and other obviously checkable material right. Towards the end, reference is made to the Dumbarton Oaks conference in 1944 at which the first proposals were discussed for the establishment of what became the United Nations. This document refers to a “conference in Dumbarton-Ox”, which I thought rather funny.