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Review, the Guardian, Saturday, 16/8/14

I usually read all the stuff about fiction in the Guardian’s Saturday Review as well as some of the non-fiction reviews.

Last week’s contained three items of particular interest to me.

The cover piece, Steven Pinker’s An Anti-stickler’s Manifesto was about ten “grammar rules” he thinks it’s okay to break sometimes. He says that some of them aren’t actually rules at all and others aren’t rules in English. You may be surprised to read that by and large I agree with him. But I do believe it is important to know what the rules are. This is in order that when you break them it is for a purpose.

Then there was an article about Martin Amis. In this Amis was quoted as saying, “Prose is foremost, and ‘if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.’” Secondary interests? Psychological insight is a secondary interest? Story is a secondary interest? Characterisation is a secondary interest? Is this last not what certain purveyors of genre (no names, no pack drill) are pilloried for not providing?

The final piece was an interview with George R R Martin, in London for the Science Fiction Worldcon after first appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Self-destruct

Speaking of Mission Impossible (previous post) I always hated that catchphrase, “This tape will self-destruct in ten seconds.” What on Earth was “destruct” supposed to mean? The verb is “to destroy,” not “to destruct.” (Fair enough, my dictionary defines destruct in terms of blowing up rockets. Not tape machines you will note, though, but rockets.)

Self-destruct sounds to me the invention of someone with a tin ear. What is wrong with, “This tape will destroy itself in ten seconds?” The worst that really makes sense is, “This tape will self-destroy in ten seconds.”

Language, Timothy!1

I meant to say when I mentioned the film Austenland that the classification certificate displayed on screen before its start said “Contains one example2 of moderate language.”

I admit I perked up a bit at that as I immediately therefore expected all the rest of the language to be immoderate. That it wasn’t (the extent of the “moderate” language was one “Wankers!” in the whole film!) might help explain my odd sense of dissatisfaction with it.

1This was the catch-phrase retort of the father in the sit-com Sorry! which starred Ronnie Corbett and featured an overbearing mother.

2The noun may have been instance rather than example. Whatever, it implied only one.

Grounds for Complaint

I was in St Andrews last week and spotted this notice in a cafe’s window.

Coffee Grounds to Sit in

Sit in coffee?

I’d rather not.

The Criterion for Phenomena

I’ve just watched the third of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy’s television series Precision: The Measure of All Things on BBC 4.

There’s a lot been going on at Son of the Rock Towers over the past week or two (details may be forthcoming in due course) so I missed the first two episodes, Time and Distance and Mass and Moles – which is a pity as the second at least will have been about Chemistry – and I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to catch up on them.

Tonight’s last in the series was titled Heat, Light and Electricity and discussed how ways to measure these phenomena have been developed and extended over time.

du Sautoy irritated me though by using the word phenomena as if it were singular. I now quote Wikipedia:-

Phenomena are observable events, particularly when they are special.

A single observable event is of course a phenomenon.

The same distinction applies to the word criterion – like phenomenon, based on Greek – and its plural where too many people, especially news reporters, refer to a criteria. It makes me cringe.

In sum, the only criterion for using the word phenomena is that more than one event is involved. If there’s only a single event then it’s a phenomenon.

Eton Trifles

This week, talking about the EU budget, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, (aka Mr Irresponsible) used the phrase, “times it by.”

In today’s Guardian, on page 43, in the puzzle section (there doesn’t seem to be a webpage with this content) it claims he said on Newsnight that the Stafford hospital scandal was caused by “a serious failure on behalf of the trust board.”

He’s supposed to have been educated – expensively educated – at one of the best schools in the country. It would claim to be the best, I’m sure.

Yet it has unaccountably failed to teach him to speak English.

So much for Eton as a beacon of excellence.

Mill

I caught Lorraine Pascale in passing on the TV a week or so ago and was pleased to hear her say “100 mill” (or whatever the volume was) when she was referring to adding in some liquid to a recipe.

Quite often when reading out or quoting a measurement others – particularly medics – will say instead, “mills” – which really grates on me.

I would have no argument if they spoke out the unit in full and said millilitres but mills is just innumerate (and illiterate.)

A unit’s abbreviation subsumes the plural – it is singular or plural depending on the measurement’s value and is always written as singular.

For instance 0C stands for degrees Celsius whether or not the temperature is 10C (1 degree Celsius,) 250C (25 degrees Celsius,) 4500C (450 degrees Celsius,) or even 00C (0 degrees Celsius.) Note the plural in that last one. Only values of 1 or -1 have the unit pronounced in the singular when read out or written in full.

Hence 1ml (one millilitre) but 20 ml (20 millilitres) etc.

100 ml ought to be pronounced 100 mill as Pascale did; not 100 mills.

Mills are where wheat is ground into flour, or else factories of one sort or another (but checkout the Wiki page for a full list!).

Enormity

I noticed quite a few commentators/pundits on the Olympics talking about the “enormity” of what some or other athlete had managed to do.

Well, the first definiton of enormity you’ll came across in most dictionaries is as “a great crime” or “monstrous wickedness.”

I don’t think any of the athletes were guilty of those (even any drug cheats about.)

It is only as the fourth definition that one of my dictionaries offers “hugeness” and the other “enormousness” – either of which words would have adequately suited the commentators’ purposes.

For myself I would prefer it if the word enormity were reserved for acts of extreme outrage; otherwise we will lose that sense (and perhaps even the sensibility) of it.

Not Or

A useful little word has been languishing of late, disappearing even.

Maybe you can spot its omission/replacement in the following sentence I came across in Tuesday’s guardian. (That lower case g is still really, really annoying, by the way.)

“Stalwarts are noticeable by their absence: there is no John Terry, perhaps conveniently, or Rio Ferdinand in the ranks.”

Since Rio Ferdinand was not in the England squad for the game concerned, that “or” ought, of course, to be “nor.”

I have noticed frequently of late many lists of negative choices/options which have “or” inserted between them. I picked the above quote only as the most recent.

If a choice or option following a negative is also “not” then “nor” is more appropriate than “or.”

The negative is not or, it is nor.

John Christopher

I see from the guardian (that recent lower case ‘g’ is a pain) that John Christopher has died.

He was a prominent SF writer from my youth when I devoured the SF shelves on my local library. As a result of reading them then I do not have any of his books on my shelves though I particularly remember The Death of Grass (which was always a title I thought cried out for parody) – a catastrophe novel which was much grittier than most.

He had a swathe of pseudonyms but, as John Christopher, is most well-known for his series of books featuring the Tripods (a full list, along with his other John Christopher novels, is on Fantastic Fiction) which were made into a BBC TV series.

John Christopher (Christopher Samuel Youd):- 16/4/1922- 3/2/2012. So it goes.

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