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.


30 December 2014

Nice literary joke from Facebook this morning...

Joyce drank only white wine and disdained red, saying it reminded him of blood. Beckett was a red-wine stalwart, with no time for white because of its supposed resemblance to lymphatic fluid (only Beckett....). But they drank together often, in Beckett's apprentice years. In silence, mostly, but for the occasional "Another...?"
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26 December 2014

Putin makes a fool of himself commenting on the French language

Ha! Ha! Another ignorant politician spouts off saloon bar style.
Putin wants more "language nationalism" but gets it all a bit mixed up...
"The French won't change 'bistro' to 'cafe' just like that. There are some words that are just settled," Putin was cited as saying.
The fact is that "cafe" was the original French word, which was replaced by "bistro" in 1814 when Russian officers sat in them shouting "Бистро! бистро!" at the waitresses who seemed to be working too slowly for their superior tastes. So the French changed. But Russians are to prevented from having free choice about their language.
Older readers will remember that George W. Bush made a similar idiot of himself when he said, "The French don't even have a word for 'entrepreneur'!"

18 December 2014

How the English (not all English-speakers) say one thing when they mean another. Very accurate, I'd say


10 December 2014

Merciful spell-checker

I was sending an important message to someone and did not notice, until my beloved spell-checker did, that I had misplaced a space - a simple mistake which had potentially unpleasant consequences.
     Where I had meant to write "an album", I had in fact written "anal bum" -- as in "I have received your photos and will put them up in anal bum".
     Thank you for your errand of grammatical mercy, Mr Gates.

09 December 2014

A nose for language: the difference between dung and crap, and one important similarity

Yesterday, my dear friend Andy Wightman published an angry article on his blog with this headline:
BLOG A Dung Heap of Unadulterated, Fabricated Crap
This morning, I commented as follows:
You can't "fabricate" crap, any more than you can "assemble" a turd. They do not have components, only materials. And a dung heap is composed of dung, not crap which, I think most people would consider a different substance as crap is produced by humans and dung by vegetarian animals. Meant-eating animals produce "excrement".
May I suggest a better, though less pungent, headline: "Extremely inaccurate article by extremely ill-informed journalist on extremely important subject"?

06 December 2014

A nice email from a distinguished lawyer

Interesting email about my book, The Justice Factory, from Lord Hope, ex-Lord President of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and until recently Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. 

At the end of a long series of largely complimentary comments, including some about my references to him (which are numerous), he wrote: “All in all a very interesting, although rather mischievous, book.  Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

I must say I feel rather chuffed, and hope that it will help draw the attention of more people in Scotland who think, especially in the light of the on-going constitutional debate, that it is important that we understand what sort of people we have as judges, and how they think, including about the constitutional question.

It is, OF COURSE, a perfect Christmas present for the thoughtful, discerning reader!

More details here:


How write like Winston Churchill...

Here is a fascinating clip describing Winston Churchill’s approach to language on paper, which should be noted by all who want to write clear, simple English – note also that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the book under discussion.

Listen from minute 23.00 to 25.00 – two minutes which will change your writing life!

10 November 2014

I should now change the name of the blog to "English Language Etiquette for Britons"

See this horrifying link:


05 November 2014

Language question for readers - answers please!

Can any of the many readers of this blog supply us all (comments for publication) with a clear definition between the two modal verbs: "lock up" and "lock down"?

It is clearly not the same as the difference between "shut up" and "shut down"; much less "cut up" and "cut down", or even "sit up" and "sit down", which is obvious. So what is it?

I look forward to publishing the answers, and being enlightened at the same time!

23 October 2014

English humour about English manners

Here is a wonderful piece of recently-rediscovered pre-Monty Python footage that illustrates тонкий английский юмор as well as old-fashioned English etiquette in public places. It is also very funny!
John Cleese & Marty Feldman in a sketch from the pre-Python show "At Last The 1948 Show"....

19 October 2014

Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and the surpises of which the English language is capable

I still do not understand why my good Welsh friend Gentleman Gethin Gunworthy does not like Dylan Thomas, but I think this programme below is absolutely wonderful. The other night I was discussing with some Russian friends the sound of English. I think this is an extraordinary example of it, which I recommend to anyone interested in the Celtic contribution to the language of the Saxons - the two strands alongside each other being part of what has made English so varied, flexible, surprising and so often, to me, poetic:


10 October 2014

English humour part 2 - wonderful!


The destructive effects on literary creativity of "creative writing" courses

This man is TOTALLY right. His thoughts were even better put by Philip Larkin in his essay: "Subsidising Poetry", which had the theme: No Shakespeare Prize for Shakespeare. Everyone in the arts industry (which is as destructive of real creativity as the semi-fraudulent conservation industry is for human contact with real nature) should read that and ponder. Horace Engdahl clearly has done so...
Grants cut off writers from society, whereas past greats worked as ‘taxi drivers and waiters’ to feed their imaginations, says Horace Engdahl. Alison Flood reports

06 October 2014

English humour at its best... a lesson for all culture-vultures!

Any Russian who wants to understand what тонкий английский юмор is all about has TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY got to listen to this program, possibly the funniest I have ever heard, about the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which was known in the 1970s as "the word's worst orchestra"....


01 August 2014

Creative mistakes

I have often written about how some of the mistakes Russians make with English actually ADD to the interest of what they are saying. I had one today from a very beautiful lady who wrote this: "also very qurious".

23 July 2014

A new approach to short story delivery

A Facebook post today:

For the price of a third of a pint of Guinness at Katie's you can get a short story, on your Kindle (no waiting at the bar) which will last longer than THREE pints of Guinness (800% leverage). This is the launch of a new series. Be the first kid on the block to read the amazing memoirs of the famous Lord Armadoodle (tittilation guaranteed):


17 July 2014

Words and law: etiquette and communication in one of the most important spheres of public life

Lord Johnston (see below) is the man on the left
One of the worst offences against etiquette which a writer can commit in the public, as opposed to the private, sphere it to write without regard to the reader. When writers start, in effect, talking to themselves then the basic purpose of putting finger to keyboard, which is to communicate, is lost.
I wrote on 5 December 2013 about the difference between the language used by the President of the Constitutional Court of Russia, Professor Valery Zorkin, and the famous English judge and obstrepulist (that is a word I have just made up to define someone who enjoys being obstreperous) of the 1960s-80s, Lord Denning. See this link. Professor Zorkin reveals by his language his legal elitism, while Lord Denning parades (perhaps a little ostentatiously) his “common man” approach.
Legal elitism of the sort Professor Zorkin displays lies at the heart of most systems of non-military authoritarianism. The state and its senior officers have a language that the common people do not understand. They depend for their power on their ability to keep the people mute in the forum where it counts: the law. One of the reasons for the state of governance in Russia today is the lack of pubic participation, and one of the reasons for that is that law is in the hands of legal elitists. One of the reasons for that is the unreasoning admiration which Russian legal scholars have had for the last hundred and fifty years or so for German legal scholarship. I write all this because I recently came across a staggering example of what I mean: a German who managed to make Professor Zorkin look positively lucid.
Call me sad, but I spend most of my mornings in bed with a huge mug of Earl Grey tea reading stuff like the Boston College Law Review and the Harvard Law Review. Yesterday morning I was enjoying a long article in the former journal, by one Mathias Reimann, entitled “Nineteenth Century German Legal Science” (Vol. 31, 1990, p. 837 if anyone wants to read the rest). On page 863 I came upon a quote from Rudolf von Jhering, one the greatest German legal scientists of that century, after von Savigny. It is taken from his book Geist des Römischen Rechts (The Spirit of Roman Law) volume 2, published in 1865. This passage was considered so important by Mr Reimann that he quoted it as an example of “organic” trend in mid-nineteenth century, academic jurisprudence in Germany. If anyone can make any sense at all out of this, I will be surprised. I give it to you as an example of how NOT to write!
“[The essence of law] does not lie in the fact that the law cannot be under­stood without its systematic coherence, because this is the case with any object of knowledge. In law, the distinctive characteristic of the systematic task is that the particular is not only, as in any other science, put in its right place, but that this formal process has a sub­stantive effect on the subject matter, that this procedure causes an internal transubstantiation of the maxims of law. The maxims of law take on an elevated condition, they strip off their quality as commands and prohibitions and form themselves into the elements and qualities of legal institutions. A layman would hardly deem it possible how in the legal concepts, classifications, etc., in short, in the dogmatic logic, there can be a practical meaning more intensive than in the maxims of law. This logic of the law is, so to speak, the blossom, the praecipitat (sic) of the maxims of law; in one single, correctly stated con­cept there lies perhaps the substantive contents of ten prior maxims of law.”
This morning, I read a shorter article in the Harvard Law Review (Vol 9, 1895, p. 27) entitled “Judicial Precedents – a Short Study in Comparative Jurisprudence”. The author, one John Chipman Grey, explained how German law in the middle ages had many features of the common law system. It was based on ancient custom and therefore relied heavily on precedent. It also made use of juries and therefore could not have been elitist since ordinary people sitting on those juries had to be able to understand what went on in court. But all that started to change at the end of the eighteenth century when jurists like von Savigy decided the law had to be “purified”. Customary procedure was considered rustic and embarrassing—what Russians like Professor Zorkin would call провинциальный (provincial). In order for the country to be respectable, this had to be replaced by something closer to the classical Roman “ideal”.
Mr Grey’s point was that the people who destroyed the customary law in Germany were able to do so only because the tradition of allowing non-lawyers, including law professors, to sit in high legal forums. This allowed the busy-body, self-promoting professors to gain control of the court organization. They used their resulting control to exclude other lay people and promote the idea that the only people who ought to be taken seriously were academic jurists like themselves. (This echoes the way conservationists in Britain today have elbowed farmers and other country people out of the business of caring for nature—see my book Isles of the West.) Judges were relegated to the lower function of merely applying the law which had been worked out in academia by the likes of Herr Jhering. That is how law lost contact with the people. This is what Mr Gray has to say about the subject:
“The introduction of the Roman law into Germany and its driving out of the ancient law were mainly due mainly to doctors of civil law acquiring judicial positions. This seems to be the conclusion reached by all the late writers. But the modern German civilians [i.e. proponents of Roman law] have rather ungratefully kicked down the ladder by which they themselves climbed, and exhibit a great repugnance to recognize judicial decisions or Gerichtsgebrauch [i.e. precedent] in any form as a source of law.”
Whatever else may be said about all this, I think it would be fair to remark that Mr Grey’s prose is more comprehensible than Herr Jhering’s. A jury would be more likely to understand it. In one sense, it is anti-elitist simply in its lucidity.
The importance of all this lies in the fact that the European Union has, like Russia today, a legal tradition that is very much influenced by the German approach to jurisprudence. It is wordy and elitist. The dark heart of this elitism lies in the dead language of both European Union Directives and European Court of justice judgments.
Let me contrast that with a scene I witnessed in a Scottish court about fifteen years ago. Two European Directives, the Habitats and the Birds Directives, were being considered in relation to the issue of shooting geese which eat the grass farmers have grown to feed their sheep and cattle. The issue had arisen on the isle of Islay, where I used to live. I quote from an article I wrote in The Ileach about the case. It concerns the judge who is at the front of the procession which is pictured on the cover of my book, The Justice Factory (see above). Though sadly now dead, he was a wonderful man, called Lord Johnston, who was commonly thought to have a feel for the just solution to any case which came before him, and he permitted himself to use the law to achieve an equitable outcome to all disputes he was called upon to decide.
In this case, he also displayed a thorough disdain for the language of modern European legal drafting. In the exchange below, he is being addressed by the advocate, Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, who was representing a pharisaic bird protection society, the RSPB, which thought that farmers ought to be compelled to buy hay to feed their livestock while they allowed the geese to eat the grass which they had grown to feed their animals. That is typical of the logic of modern conservationism—the birds come first. But my point here is about language. This is my record of what Lord Johnston had to say on the matter (the case is described briefly on p. 257 of The Justice Factory):
            “What My Lord will have to construe,” Sir Crispin said to the Judge, “is the meaning of ‘satisfactory solution’.”
            The reason was that whereas the Habitats Directive talks about satisfactory solutions, the Birds Directive refers to satisfactory alternatives.
            “I would submit that alternative is wider than solution,” Sir Crispin continued.
            Lord Johnston took off his spectacles, and swung them round by the legs while gazing up at one of the patches of paint flaking off the ceiling. He could have been construing, but he looked to me as if he was thinking about lunch.            Paying farmers to buy in hay to replace the grass eaten by the geese would represent a “satisfactory alternative”, Sir Crispin went on, and therefore render any shooting illegal. The Judge put his specs back on, looked closely at his copy of the two Directives and said to no-one in particular, “Who writes this stuff?”

10 July 2014

Law in Russia is not about words on paper but personalities on high

The truest words I have ever read about the Russian legal system today come from the article linked below:
"Russia’s legal system is not a guidebook that defines the rules of the game for all of the players, but a large club with which the government silently threatens everyone, coercing companies to ask what is permitted in order to avoid getting hit. This approach is effective because it is flexible, allowing leaders to change how the law is implemented any time they want."

09 July 2014

One reason why everyone in Moscow should attend the Edinburgh Book Festival this year

A Russian acquaintance phoned me yesterday about sundowner time because she wanted to tell me that World War Three was going to break out soon.
    “My grandfather is in hospital,” she said, “and in the ward there is a Russian Colonel and he says his son, who is serving in the Army, told him that there is a strip of Ukrainian land which the people in Donetsk are going to have to cross to get back to Russia.”
     “I see,” I said cautiously, not knowing where this was leading but aware of the basic geography of the region.
     “That means war,” she continued breathlessly.
     “Between whom: Russia and Ukraine?”
     “Russia and America,” she said as if I was stupid. “I don’t know where to go, to the mountains perhaps, in Georgia. You should go to your Scotland.”
     “As it happens I have already booked my ticket as I will be attending the Edinburgh Book Festival, which runs from 9th to 25th of August.”
     This is convenient because another Russia friend who suspects that we haven’t seen the worst in the Ukraine yet tells me that all bad things in Russia happen in August. He cites the 1998 bank crash, the Gorbachev kidnapping, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and, if I remember correctly, the Great August Socialist Revolution. I presume the Decembrist Revolt in 1825 was given that name due to the confusing relationship between the Julian, the Gregorian and the Ivanovine calendars.
     At any event, I hope I will be able to bask in non-radioactive sunshine in Charlotte Square Gardens for those parts of August when I will not be either in Campbeltown working on my secret tunnel into the Springbank Distillery warehouse, or out on the beautiful isle of Barra visiting my delightful, Gaelic-speaking friend, Kirsty. But if I am wrong, then what better than to be drinking a lazy evening beer on the terrace above the wide sands of Kintangaval beach while the sound of the Atlantic surf drowns the thunder of the bombs in far-away Moscow. The sights of both Kirsty and refulgent nature will go some way towards soothing the painful thought that my precious library in Vodny Stadion is being incinerated in order to make the world safe for something that some people mistakenly think is more important than books.

     See: www.edbookfest.co.uk

07 July 2014

The BBC boobs again

Saltwater crocodile in Queensland, Australia
According to the BBC, if you were to grab this animal by the tail,
you would be wrapping your tail around it - which would be difficult
if you were a human being and did not have a tail.
The BBC continues to amaze me with its sloppy proof-reading or illiterate editors—I am not sure which is dominant. I wish I had more time to write about its mistakes, as it might be quite instructive. The Corporation used to be so pedantic and correct it was known as “Aunty”. Not any more.
     In a story today about an attack on a zoo-keeper in Australia by a crocodile, the great Corporation wrote this:
A zookeeper has been attacked by a crocodile during a feeding show at a zoo in the Australian state of New South Wales. Trent Burton managed to break free after the 3.7m (12ft) male reptile grabbed him by the teeth and dragged him into the water. Mr Burton was being treated for minor puncture injuries to both hands. (emphasis added)
     The words in italics are complete nonsense if the last sentence is true. 
     They imply that when you “take somebody by the scruff of the neck”, that person finds him or herself restrained by part of your neck. Is it possible that when you grab someone by the throat, you still have your hands free to, for example, stroke their hair or riffle through their wallet? 
     I don’t think so, Aunty. What you should have written was that the crocodile “grabbed him in (or with) its teeth.”

22 May 2014

Wrong word, Chris!

In today’s Moscow Times, one of the paper’s best and most civilized columnists, Chris Weafer (who writes about economics), makes an uncharacteristic mistake. In the course of an interesting article about the long-run primacy of economics over politics for politicians who wish to stay popular, he writes:
“The IMF has so far dispersed $3.2 billion of the promised $17 billion aid deal [to the Ukraine], with the balance to be dispersed over the next two years on the condition that the Kiev government meets the austerity measures agreed.
     “Dispersed”? Ouch! It should have been “disbursed”. You disperse your forces in order to avoid undue concentration; and a team disperses after the season ends, when everyone goes home to celebrate the triumphs of the summer.
     Money, however, is disbursed when it is handed out, just as when it is wrongly disbursed the payer might ask that he or she be reimbursed by the payees.
     A small point, but a surprise. Because I know him slightly, I am prepared to credit Chris with the suspicion that this was a mistake by the often less-than-expert proof-readers at the Moscow Times, and that he remains blameless. 
     Slainte, old boy!


02 May 2014

The Queen knights a historian (after Philip hands her the sword)

Grand Central Station
It was north American railways which undermined
the fortunes of the family of one of the Queen's
most powerful enemies, Lady Diana Spencer
Let me recommend a programme to listen to over the holiday from one of my favourite historians, the great Sir David Cannadine, who is talking on Radio 4 tonight about Grand Central Station, New York. Dont miss it.  
     And look out for anything else by Professor Cannadine, husband of another great historian, Linda Colley. He is the author of The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and many other fine works. He is an expert and unconventional researcher and a good story-teller with the dry wit that is one of the essential qualities needed for a great historian. Life is bizarre, and history should reflect that. If the material is not enjoyable to read, there is little point in writing it downand none at all in publishing it. I presume that is why he was knighted in 2009. 
     I presume from that gesture that Her Majesty now understands the causes of the agricultural crisis in the 1870s which undermined aristocratic finance in Britain and therefore the fortunes of most landowners, except a lucky few who had coal under their ground or factories on top of it, or who owned large parts of London, like the Duke of Westminster.
     I picture the Queen sitting in the sunlit upstairs sitting-room at Balmoral on a clear autumn evening, a tiny, dry sherry at her elbow, when in walks Prince Philip, sweaty and peat-covered from the hill, with mud on his brogues and stags blood on his tweed jacket. 
     She looks up and says, “Did you realise, Philip, that it was north American railways bringing cheap grain to the Atlantic trade, and refrigerated shipping conveying Argentine beef to this country, that were the main factors in the impoverishment of families like the Spensers?”
     “No my dear, I did not. The bloody Spensers, eh! Serves em right!”
     “Well this Professor Cannadine says so, and he sounds awfully plausible. Comes from Birmingham, according to the dust-jacket. Funny place to come from, but at least he has no Spenser blood in him. Pass me my sword, will you, the ceremonial one hanging there over the mantelpiece. I think Im going to give him the tap!”  
     Russians may be surprised to learn that that is how things are done in all countries in which the rulers still understand the true value of history to their eternal war with powerful competitors for the loyalty of the people.


22 April 2014

BBC language and the cause of Peaches Geldof's death

This clip from the BBC about Peaches Geldof's funeral, ends by saying, “Her cause of death remains unexplained.”
     No cause can be “unexplained”. It is the death which is “unexplained”. The “cause” is unknown. An unexplained cause is one which you know, but which you do not understand. That is not the case in this instance. 
     What help is there for civilised society if the BBC cannot use English properly?

20 April 2014

What's the difference between fakes, forgeries and counterfeits in the worlds of European art, African drugs and Chinese painting production?

“The healer is a feeler” - a definition of an African tribal healer from this fascinating programme about the difference between these three words: fake, forgery and counterfeit.
     You will hear the authenticity of fetishes discussed from the moral, practical, aesthetic and commercial points of view in the same breath as art—including an account of a Chinese village where art students mass produce Van Goghs, before proceeding to Matisse, who is the second easiest artist to counterfeit, forge or fake—depending on your definition of the terms. Listen to The Forum. I would be surprised if you are disappointed.

19 April 2014

Best joke in the book: Bertrand Russell splits a side

Bertrand Russell: never judge a wit by his moustache
Judging by what I was told when I worked in the editorial department of Ведомости, where I tried to persuade the staff to write in way which readers might find more appealing, jokes are not considered good form in serious writing in Russia. That is not the case in Britain. There, any writing that is completely devoid of wit is suspect. And the occasional open joke is welcomed, even in books like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (see previous two posts).
     I was not going to add to what I had said about that marvellous book, but I could not resist making a point about the desirability of wit when writing in English as a result of what I read with this morning’s tea in connection with Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution and natural selection. 
     In a chapter on the currents of thought in the nineteenth century, Russell describes the lingering influence of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosopher, Helvetius, who believed that genius was often a matter of pure chance. “If Shakespeare had not been caught poaching, he would have been a wool merchant,” Russell writes, with reference to the story that Shakespeare went to London only after having been convicted of killing deer on the local squire’s estate at Stratford. 
     Darwin, naturally, came to disagree with Helvetius since evolution was a matter not of chance but of continual, though unconscious, adaptation to circumstance. Russell says, “Thus from age to age deer run more swiftly, cats stalk their prey more silently, and giraffes’ necks become longer.”
     He then proceeds to describe the illogicality at the heart of Darwin’s otherwise conventional Victorian liberalism due to its egalitarianism. Darwin lived in an age when the vote was being given to working men. But he knew that nature is not egalitarian so, referring to Piltdown Man who was then believed to have been the “missing evolutionary link” between apes and humans, Russell wittily stretches logic to its extreme and makes his point in a way which few readers are likely to forget:

“The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that the differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with Darwin’s emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same [animal] species… There is a further consequence of the theory of evolution, which is independent of the particular mechanism suggested by Darwin. If men and animals have a common ancestry, and if men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal? Would Pithecanthropus erectus, if he had been properly educated, have done work as good as Newton’s? Would the Piltdown Man have written Shakespeare’s poetry if there had been anybody to convict him of poaching? A resolute egalitarian who answers these questions in the affirmative will find himself forced to regard apes as the equals of human beings. And why stop with apes? I do not see how he is to resist an argument in favour of Votes for Oysters.”