Archives » Linguistic Annoyances

King Richards

Ever heard of him?

No. Me neither.

Yet he was the answer to one of the questions in the Guardian Weekend Section’s quiz on Saturday 24/6/17.

The question was, “What links Oxford, 1157; Bordeaux, 1367 and Fotheringhay Castle, 1452?”

The answer given was, “Birthplaces of King Richards.”

I emailed them, “I believe the answer to question 15 in Thomas Eaton’s Quiz in the Weekend, 24/6/17, contains (i) a logical impossibility and (ii) an inaccuracy.

To take them in order:-
(i) How can a King have been born in more than one place?
(ii) There has never been a King Richards of England. (Nor one of France.)

I do note, however, that England has had three Kings Richard.”

They seem to have ignored this.

The Colour of Television

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

What do you make of the above sentence?*

Pyrotechnic? Emblematic? Iconic? Redolent of a new sensibility? A clarion call for the new digital age?

Or did it perhaps elicit a bemused, “Eh, what? Come again?”

It is of course the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer which thrust cyberpunk onto the novel-reading SF public all those years ago now and to which I alluded in my review of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream Paris.

Many saw it as the perfect embodiment of the new style of SF Gibson was promulgating. Yet to me it’s not quite in the league of the wake up calls that “Come on and hear!” or “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” were in musical terms. It’s not as pithy for a start. And when you begin to parse it any meaning it might contain slips away.

The sentence has been taken to mean descriptive of an oppressive, lowering sky, deep grey, I assume. (The colour of battleships, painted for action?)

Its first six words are unexceptional. But what, pray, is the colour of television?
I have no difficulty visualising the colour of a (or the) television (which word is still in the back of my mind suffixed by “set”.) Nowadays they’re nearly all black but back when Neuromancer came out in 1984, they could be all sorts, white, blue, pink, yellow. Some even had wood on them; or if it was plasticky, what I used to call pseud wood.

But television, with no defining article, is an abstract noun. Used in this way the word usually means the industry which produces the programmes it displays, not the apparatus they are shown on. And how can an abstract noun have colour? (Another possibility would be the band called Television, also fairly abstract, but that is spelled with a capital T.) It’s not even the apparatus’s screen that could be implied. Nowadays they’re uniformly blackish when the set is switched off; back in the day they were a deep olive green colour. That would be a sky too odd even for Science Fiction – except perhaps off Earth (which this sky wasn’t.)

Then there is that “dead channel”. I don’t suppose the young things these days know what that could possibly look like, when is a channel ever dead now? But then if the channel wasn’t broadcasting (the only possible interpretation of “dead”) the screen wasn’t even a uniform colour. It was spitty and specky, flecked with black and white, displaying what physicists call white noise; not a particular coherent signal as it was designed to do, but any signal – and every signal – picked up in the absence of a modulated transmission. Have you ever seen a flecked, spitty, specky sky? I haven’t. Not then, not now.

That sentence destroyed Neuromancer for me. From that point on I could not trust the author or what he attempted to describe. (I know about unreliable narrators but this was of a different order, it was in the omniscient third person for a start.) I didn’t have quite the same negative response to Gibson’s next novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive but still couldn’t really warm to him.

Ballantyne gave us, “The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key,” which makes a bit more sense, but only a bit, and he did have the grace to come back to it at the end.

*For myself I think the sky was the colour of an author, straining, unsuccessfully, for effect.

Live It Up 33: (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang

I wasn’t one for dance music (and we’ll forget the outrageous but intentional misspelling in the song’s title for the moment) but the title of this has become very to the point this month.

As has the lyric. Just replace “Reagan’s” with “Trump is” and “Generals tell him what to do” with “white supremacists tell him what to do”.

This is Heaven 17 in a live performance from a few years ago of their 1981 hit.

Heaven 17: (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang

“A” One Hundred?

The formulation 100 means “one hundred” in the same way 20 means “twenty”. 100 does not stand in for “hundred”.

So why do some people write “a 100” when they mean “a hundred”?

Would they write “a twenty”? (Granted they could say “a score” instead – but, in the same way that a dozen when written as a numeral is read as “twelve”, “a score” can’t be written as a numeral. If it is, it is read as “twenty”. I can not remember ever seeing “a 12” when “a dozen” was meant.)

So why do we get this nonsense with “a 100”?

Still less should “100s” be used to represent “hundreds”. The word “hundreds” ought always to be written out. If it means anything “100s” means “one hundreds” not “hundreds”. There may be a subtle difference between the two usages but usually hundreds is sufficient to the purpose.

This folly reached a new depth for me when I recently read the phrase “a 120 miles an hour”. That would be “120 miles an hour” then, (a hundred and twenty miles an hour); not “a” one hundred and twenty miles an hour. There can’t be more than one such velocity after all.

I suspect this foolery has come in as people have drifted into the habit of writing the numeral instead of spelling out the number fully when writing prose. I was always taught that it was bad practice to write the numeral in such a circumstance.

Libraries Now Doomed

Fife Council has decided to go ahead with the closure of sixteen libraries in the county. This includes three of those closest to me and which I use regularly.

(I note in the newspaper article in the first link above the occurence of the spelling calamatous. Did the author by any chance mean calamitous? Did no one in an editorial capacity notice?)

To be or…. ?

I was listening to the car radio on Friday at a changeover of DJ. Said DJ found his controls weren’t working properly, none of his opening jingles fired and then they all went off at once. After the first song he then complained about when buttons start “to not work”.

Why did he not say “start not to work”? This construction is (or was,) after all, the standard way in English to negate an infinitive.

I have however noticed over the past few years the usage of “to not” creeping into public discourse from news reporters and the like. I’ve even seen it in newspaper articles. I can’t say I’ve heard it in everyday speech though.

I realise in some situations there may be a case for saying “to not” do something or other, when it is the not doing that is the point of the sentence. Otherwise not to do something remains perfectly adequate.

I suppose this solecism is really a special case of the split infinitive (as in “to boldly go”) but for all my life up till a couple of years ago the standard way “to not do” something was always “not to do” it.

I might wonder what Shakespeare would have said. Except I know.

So. To be or to not be?

That is not the question.

Reelin’ In the Years 108: Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More

More Steely Dan.

Pity about the poor grammar in the title.

Steely Dan: Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More

Compassionate Conservatism?

This is something that has been bugging me for a long time.

Welfare [wel-fair] noun: the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being.

Why has this word become transformed into meaning something derogatory? Something of which those people who need it are supposed to feel ashamed? (Rather than it being to society’s shame that such people don’t have it.)

Spot the Spelling Mistake

I took the photo below well before our trip to The Netherlands. It’s of a poster advertising a production of Sunset Song at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy.

Spot the spelling mistake.

I notice the “schools £9 age 12+” concession rate. I hope that in future exams none of the scholars attribute the book incorrectly.

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.

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