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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24 March 2014

My mistake: not knowing how jobs are valued in Russia

While proof-reading a report today, I made a comment about the following sentence which concerned a man who was until recently the Minister of Energy in Armenia, and who I will call “X”:
“In the winter of 2013, the media reported that X might be dismissed soon and appointed ambassador to Iran.”
     My editing comment concerned the use of the word “dismissed”. To me, it carries the implication of disfavour and demotion, whereas an appointment as ambassador to a major country like Iran is a promotion. I said, “Surely you are not ‘dismissed’ from one post to a more important one, like senior ambassador?”
     “But it’s less profitable,” the charming Russia author of the report I was correcting said, as quick as a flash and in a tone of voice which implied that I was rather dense.
     That was me taught.

23 March 2014

Joke of the day: The Catholic Church’s “obligatory pre-marital curses”

Reading Communist Ideology, Law and Crime in bed this morning with my tea (as one does), I came upon a hilarious misprint. Writing of the 1970-80s in the eastern bloc, Maria Los says:
“Sex education is practically non-existent in the Soviet Union and extremely limited in Poland where, however, the Catholic Church makes some attempt to convey, through obligatory pre-marital curses, the dignity and humanity of a sexual union.”

          But perhaps one shouldn’t laugh. I was reading last night an article in the journal Russian Politics and Law (vol 33, 1995, page 69 for those who want to check) an article by Lora Velikanova entitled: “Women are Being Beaten”. Professor Velikanova starts by making an observation about the “dignity and humanity” of “sexual unions” in Russia today which might explain a lot of what puzzles Western Europeans about this country, for example the high number of Western men who marry Russian women compared with the very low number of Western women who marry Russian men. 
     When reading Prof. Velikanova's figures below, it should be remembered that the total of all murders in Britain runs at about 800 per year, of which about 150 are wives murdered by their husbands:
“Not only are they beaten but they are killed, mutilated, and maimed, and not by highway bandits, nor by sex maniacs in dark alleyways—but by husbands. According to Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) family statistics, 14,500 women were killed by their husbands last year, and 54,500 were seriously injured and incapacitated. In mentioning these not insignificant figures one must bear in mind… [that] women who run to the local police station crying, ‘Help, he’s killing me!’ usually get a flippant brush-off: ‘So? If he kills you, come and see us.’”
     Perhaps if the Catholic Church were able to deliver more “obligatory pre-marital curses” to Russians, brides might be more wary of their grooms, and thus safer.

19 March 2014

Common mistakes No. 9 (yet again): “fell by 350%”

Comrade Mugabe, who is 90, scratching his head
at Ms Latynina's mathematics
The readership of this blog continues to rise, yet the number of mistakes in published English from people who ought to know better does not seem to fall.
     In today’s Moscow Times, Yulia Latynina has a sensible and intelligent article about the psychology of psychopathic political rulers. It is entitled The Ideology of Losers and it deserves a wide readership. But how wide will that readership be when the author makes absurd statements like the one below?  
“Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has ruled for more than 33 years. Even while the country's population rose from 7 million to 12 million during his reign, the gross domestic product fell by 350 percent.” 
     No such indicator can fall by 350%. This is not an issue of translation. It is one of logic. I have written about several times, most recently on 7 February last year. 
     If the Zimbabwean economy 33 years ago was the size it was, then it was 100% of itself, obviously. How can it contract by more than its total size? There can be no such thing as a negative-sized economy. I have no idea what Ms Latynina wants us to understand by this nonsensical statement. Any reader who can suggest a meaning should send a comment. Better still, they should pass this post on to Ms Latynina herself, copying it to the head Comrade so he can stop scratching his nonagenarian head about it.

17 March 2014

Can Mr Putin’s cousin really walk on water?

Roman Putin: walking on water?
This morning’s Moscow Times carries a story with the headline: “Putin’s Relative Promises ‘Special Protection’ for Firm’s Foreign Clients”. It seems that Mr Putin’s “first cousin, once removed” understands the realities of the Russian business environment.  His website, Putin Consulting, makes this revealing assertion:
It is a well known fact that investors in Russia often face corruption, aggressive bureaucracy, extortion from local and municipal authorities, and the unfair games of competitors.”
     Roman Putin (for that is his name) goes on to say:
The nature of business management in Russia implies close interaction with the state authorities. When treading uncharted waters, accurate guidance must be provided.  Therefore, it is vital to have a consultant who has influence within the state authorities, ranging from the Government and Office of the President to the leading banks and State Corporations.”
     I wrote offering to correct the grammar in this website. I wonder if I will get a reply? I have in mind such solecisms as “treading uncharterd waters”. Only Christ claimed to be able to walk on, or “tread” water, charted or uncharted.
     An alternative reading might be the meaning applied to swimming, in which “treading water” means simply staying afloat without moving in any direction. On reflection, maybe that  is better and the site needs no correction. In which case, we can all relax and get back into bed alongside Mr Oblomov—as it were!

15 March 2014

When to use the word "awesome"

County Sligo as the traditional tourist has never seen it: “awesome”.
Note the surfer at the bottom of the wave, beneath the letter V.
Bear in mind that every cubic metre of the substance 
that is about to crash down on him weighs 1 tonne.
In the normal course of events, you should never use the word “awesome” as it has been flogged to death by Los Angeles people wanting to impress the world with an exaggerated sense of the drama of their often sad, politically-correct lives. 
     The word translates into Russian as грозный (grozny, as in Ivan IV) and used to mean something that was “awe-inspiring”, which is rather different from the sense “amazing”, which is how it is used in its degraded, modern, Californianised form.
     However I write this post partly because I saw a film last night which had footage in it that could truly be described as “awesome” in the original sense. These were the “big wave” surfing scenes shot off the west coast of Ireland in Waveriders. 
     Anyone who has any interest in the sea, or surfing or, indeed, life should go and see this film. It is about the newish sport of surfing in Ireland, but is almost as much about Ireland as it is about surfing. The linking concept is “wild nature”, with the emphasis on the “wild”. The Irish surfing footage cannot be properly described without using the word “awesome”.
     For readers who live in Moscow, I should say that I saw the film at the excellent Irish Film Week which is being staged at the at the central House of Artists on Krymsky Val (New Tretyakov). Waveriders is on again for a second and last time tomorrow night (Sunday) at 9 p.m. The film was so “amazing” (it was the surfing scenes which were “awesome”) that I am going again. You can buy the DVD but Russians will surely have trouble understanding much of the Irish dialogue—as indeed I did in places. So the Russian sub-titles, which were occasionally useful to me would, I suspect, be essential for most Russians. Therefore, tomorrow night is the only opportunity you will have to enjoy the film properly. 
     Plus there is a wee dram awaiting you, compliments of the Tullamore distillery, in the temporary Irish Pub in the foyer beforehand... See you there!

14 March 2014

One of the two greatest diarists in recent British history died today

Just read that Tony Benn has died. Very sad. A wonderful man who managed to combine weirdness, ostentatious eccentricity with a strangely compelling skill as a diarist. I found his books compulsive reading. 
     I once reviewed Against the Tide, the volume dealing with 1973-76. He wrote half a million words about three years, and apparently the manuscript was edited down from ten times that length!
     Here is a passage I quoted as an example of Mr Benn’s gossipy way of writing. It was immediately after Harold Wilson had resigned as Prime Minister and some of the left-wing members of the Labour party, which was then in power, were pressing Benn to stand for election to replace him.
Everyone had left except Frances, Francis and Joe and Joe said, “You must stand. You’ll get a lot of votes.” Frances and Francis agreed.
     Political gossip does not come much more exciting than that. But the odd thing is, however much he droned on and on about the minutiae of yesterday’s politics, he rarely got boring. That is a tremendous skill.
     And on a more serious note, he did write one of the greatest truths about government in Britain today (unfortunately I cannot give a reference from memory): “Whitehall governs Britain like the last colony in the Empire.” 
     The other great British political diarist of modern times was Alan Clarke. No two men could have been more different. Yet Clarke makes essentially the same point in his books: how impotent politicians are in the face of the bureaucracy. Both had been Ministers. Both knew. We should all take notice.
     RIP Tone the Drone. You will be missed.

The poetry of mistakes

I have written before about the way in which Russians often misuse English in a way which actually adds to the sense rather than detracts from it.
     I was gratified, therefore, to read the following sentence in an academic paper I was editing recently. Though there are half a dozen grammatical errors in fewer than a dozen words, the whole effect is so successfully descriptive that it almost rises to the level of poetry.
“Dachas quality is her seasonal nature and hot/green time destination.”
     Correction would ruin that.

08 March 2014

The Justice Factory: "Show me the judge and I'll tell you the law"

A major apology to all blog readers that I have not been posting recently. The reason is simple: I have been in the final stages of completing my book about the Scottish judges, called The Justice Factory, and subtitled: “Show me the judge and I’ll tell you the law”.
     Naturally I commend this fascinating book to all blog readers! It is available both in print form from Amazon and in electronic form on Kindle. Readers interested in the English language might find something useful in it too because I have devoted quite a bit of space to considering the language of law. 
     As you will see from Lord Denning’s quotation below (see 5 December post), law in one sense is nothing more than language. But few people understand how it can be that the phrase “all men” can have had so many totally different meanings in the United States courts from time it was used in the Declaration of Independence until today. This is just one example, and it is explored in depth in Chapter 7.
     Below I give a very brief outline of the contents of the book. To the right, is a picture of the cover.
I hope some of you will think it worth reading. If so, I look forward to hearing your reaction by email.

The Justice Factory: Content Guide

The Introduction explains the purpose of the book, which is to present a picture of the personality and character of the senior judges in Scotland while comparing them to judges in England and the United States. Where judges have scope for making independent decisions, the character of the judge is both important and, in a democracy, a subject of legitimate public concern.

Also explained is the attempt by the most senior judge in Scotland, the Lord President of the Court of Session, to prevent the author getting access to judges. He failed, with the result that this is the first book to be published in English which describers the business of judging, from both a practical and a jurisprudential point of view, in the words of the judges themselves.

Chapter One (“The Law as Guardian”) describes the best of judging, US v Nixon (1974) the “Watergate” case, in which a body of judges managed to defeat an attempt to frustrate the rule of law by the assertion of unlimited executive privilege on the part of the then President, Richard Nixon.

Chapter Two (“The Law as Theatre”) describes the worst of judging, telling the story of the Engineers’ Trial in Moscow in 1933, which was controlled by the Stalin in order to defeat the ends of justice and play politics with the liberty of six Britons and twenty Russians accused of “wrecking”.

Chapter Three (“The Law as Codified Custom”) tells the story of two Scottish cases of interest to the theme of the character of judges being relevant to the way in which judicial power is exercised in a humane jurisdiction. The first case concerns a disputed flower garden on a croft in Shetland, and the second one the presence of a lamb which was alleged to be infringing the rights of the millionaire owner of a 200,000-acre estate in the Highlands by nibbling the grass which he required for the deer he wanted to be able to hunt.

Chapter Four (“Judging as it Was”) tells the story of four interesting Scottish judges, Lord Braxfield in the eighteenth century (Scotland’s “hanging judge”), Lord Cockburn in the nineteenth (the first architectural conservator of Edinburgh), and, in the twentieth, Sheriff Bill Hook (how he reacted to being called “a fucking bastard” in his court) and Lord Murray (who believes that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is deployed unlawfully).

Chapter Five (“The Business of Judging”) describes in the words of the judges themselves what life is like on a day-to-day basis for judges in Scotland, the pressures they are under, both from the heavy work-load and a civil service which seems uncomfortable with an independent judiciary, and raises the fashionable cry of “accountability”, which would be in direct conflict with judicial independence.

Chapter Six (“Perception of Judging”) examines some common but inaccurate ideas of how the judiciary operates, taking one of Ian Rankin’s “Rebus” novels as the source for the popular attitude. This is set next to an author interview with Mr Rankin in which these prejudices are discussed, and more interviews with judges in which Inspector Rebus’s allegations are answered, and some questions raised about the honesty of the police.

Chapter Seven (“Judging and the Letter of the Law”) explores public misconceptions about legal certainty. Words mean what we take them to mean, and that must change over time otherwise life in an evolving world would grind to a halt. The example used is the shifting definition of “all men” in the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution over two centuries of social and political change.

Chapter Eight (“The Future of Judging”) explores the vexed question of how we choose our judges. If they are genuinely independent they cannot be controlled, so the choice of candidate is vital. How is this done in Scotland and the United States? What does the fu8ture hold for the Scottish Bench?

Chapter Nine (“Passing Sentence”) describes what happens to criminals when they go to jail, and wraps up the argument that it is the judges who, in practice, define the law—which is why the character of the men and women on the Bench is such an important issue.