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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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24 December 2013

Jeremy Clarkson and the Russians

To celebrate the season of good cheer, it is worth remembering that that sort of cheer is not something that Russians are famous for. Although perfectly normal people in private, most Russians appear to like affecting a public expression which is either po-faced or clownish—and the latter usually just on Pervy Kanal (the kanal for pervs, presumably). 
     I have been told more than once when making a joke in public, or a silly gesture, or even singing quietly to myself, to stop because otherwise people will think I am drunk. As it happened on some of those occasions, they would have been semi-right(-ish). But what about the others? What is wrong with trying to bring a bit of good cheer into all those shades of grey that is life in Moscow?
     It is the same with ordinary politeness, which many people think Russians place less emphasis upon than other people. I notice that a restaurant in Nice, France, has introduced differential pricing for polite customers. The BBC reports that: “A blackboard outside the cafe advertises ‘Un café’ for seven euros - but ‘Bonjour, un cafe, s’il vous plait’ costs just 1.40 euros.” That seems to me the way to do it. Introduce an incentive for good behaviour. Most people would be cheerful if they knew they were getting coffee at a fifth of the price the average Russian would have to pay.
     In his latest book, The World According to Clarkson, every motorists’ friend, Jeremy Clarkson, has an article about Russian conversational manners. He visited the country in February this year, and wrote about it rather amusingly in his Sunday Times column. It is the last piece in the book.
     Clarkson’s point was that Russians are very curt—in the seven euro category. Hotel receptionists, for example, speak in monosyllables rather than with the hand-wringing politeness of the servile British. That may be true in that case, but he should not generalise. He clearly hasn’t read the prose of Professor Zorkin, Chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court (see post 5 December “The Rule of Language”), much less the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary activist whose statue stands in so many of Russia’s less prosperous cities. But then, Clarkson does not strike me as a great reader.
     The interesting thing is that, though most of what Clarkson says about Russia is wrong (sample: “Queuing is much easier in Russia—because no one bothers”), the overall impression he gives is not so far off the mark. 
     However, he is on much firmer ground when talking about his own private fantasies. So here is my quote for the festive season (this is from a piece entitled “Forget about the cat and the pension, wrinklies, a gap year beckons” – 27 January 2013):
“At sixty-five you’re show-room fresh. You can play tennis and ski and scuba-dive. So why don’t you just bugger off and spend twelve months doing what you can while it’s all still possible?”
     Merry Christmas to all readers of this blog, and a happy New Year too when it comes. Remember to sing in public so people think you are drunk and assume therefore that you are cheerful. Russia demands no less.

10 December 2013

Mr Putin reads this blog - official

Mr Putin reading, with the aid of an aide, the blog:
English Language Etiquette for Presidents
After two years of hope and frustration, it is nice to have it confirmed that Mr Putin reads this blog. 
     I have written no fewer than 25 posts (out of 201 to date) which mention the awfulness of the Voice of Russia, this country’s answer to the BBC World Service, Radio Botswana and the Voice of Washington. I have been trying to illustrate the inappropriate nature of the language that the Voice of Russia (Golos Rossii) English service uses to try to persuade the Anglophone world that this country is cool, powerful, a military threat, happy, cultured, sober, tolerant, better than America, livelier than London, richer than Croesus, etc. [delete as applicable]. Even more than the Kremlin’s other official “soft power projection tools”, the Voice of Russia projects its views in such clumsy English that nobody takes it seriously.
     In my posts I was trying to describe the problems in detail, hoping that things might change for the better. But nothing did change. Nobody seemed to be listening. I thought I was a voice crying in the wilderness. Now I know that Mr Putin was secretly listening to me somewhere within his own opulent, heavily-guarded, kitch-intensive wilderness. Wilderness spoke unto wilderness, and lo! on the Feast of the Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos by St. Anne—that is “yesterday” to you, me and all other Protestants—Mr Putin announced that the Voice of Russia was to be abolished as an independent entity.
     In both Khimki, where I keyboard, and on Pyatnitskaya, where the ten-storey brick “throat” containing that Voice is situated, there was joy unbounded. Glass clinked unto glass. Blogging, I thought it fair to conclude in my hour of triumph, is not a wholly useless activity. It is more than the mere entertainment which the knockers, the sceptics and the e-atheists claim it to be. It is, I now know, a subtle way of influencing Presidents of large countries and, in so doing, exerting a private but subversive form of “soft power”.
     The only question I have concerns the entity which is to take over the Voice. It is to be known rather weirdly as “Russia Segodnya”. I always thought Segodnya was a Spanish classical guitarist, but perhaps I was wrong. Or maybe “Russia Segodnya” is his cousin who plays the balalaika?
     In any event, I see from the news reports that Sergei Ivanov, the Head of the Presidential Administration in the Kremlin, said to the press yesterday, “We must tell the truth, make it accessible to the most people possible [he should have said: “as many people as possible”] and use modern language.”
     If the Kremlin wants to use language which normal people will understand, it has made a good start by abolishing the Voice of Russia. It should now follow that up by studying this blog to learn how to write clearly, simply and elegantly in English. 
     Russia сегодня demands, or should demand, no less. 

09 December 2013

Soft power goes limp

A very interesting article on today’s BBC website about the problems facing French publishing, book-selling and general literary culture. To my mind, the situation has much in common with that in Russia.

     Do readers agree with some or all of the Russian parallels, or not?

05 December 2013

The Rule of Language: one reason why law in Russia is incoherent

Read the first sentence in the last paragraph and see if you can tell me what it means.
(Beginning: "The methodological aspect...")
This was written by Professor Zorkin, the most highly placed judge in Russia, Chairman of the Constitutional Court.
Is it any wonder that law in Russia is meaningless, if the most senior judge cannot write in a way
which the ordinarily intelligent reader can understand?

Then read the page below, from the late Lord Denning, once one of England's most distinguished judges.
This is the beginning of the first chapter of his book entitled "The Discipline of Law".
I especially draw your attention to the second paragraph, beginning "The reason why words are so important..." and ending with the sentence which exactly describes Professor Zorkin's problem:
"Obscurity in thought inevitably leads to obscurity in language."