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Like a Cretan


Newspaper subeditors generally have a better command of grammar and punctuation than the writers whose copy they render printworthy, but they are not immune to human error. For example, they will sometimes insert a comma where it is not needed, as well as remove a comma where it is needed. I fear something of the former ilk may have befallen Catherine Bennett in the Observer, under whose byline appears the following sentence:

But like a Cretan, who thinks it worth adding, “just ask my wife” to the line “all Cretans are liars”, Brown accepts that the public might, occasionally, feel the need for corroboration.

Unfortunately, the rogue comma after the first “Cretan” has here changed the sense. Bennett is made to be saying that all Cretans will add “just ask my wife” to the declaration “all Cretans are liars”, when she clearly intended to indicate only a peculiar subset of Cretans with the noun phrase a Cretan who thinks it worth…. “Like a Cretan, who…” (as printed) introduces further description of the generic Cretan, whereas “Like a Cretan who…” (as intended) modifies the kind of Cretan we are talking about. ((One may imagine the violence that would be done to an analogous sentence, say: “Like a sheep whose coat is drenched, Maximilian was shivering”. To insert a comma after sheep here would be to risk implying that all sheep at all times have drenched coats and shiver.))

Meanwhile, the second comma of the sentence (after adding) is also rogue — at a pinch, you could balance it with another comma after “wife”; but it is plainly unnecessary. This case does not change the sense: it just looks clumsy. Still, two defective commas in one sentence is particularly annoying.

Do you feel an urge to insert supererogatory commas into other people’s writing, readers?



Virtually social

Deborah Orr in the Guardian:

An astonishing number of news outlets have reported that poor Ashleigh Hall (above) “met” her rapist and murderer Peter Chapman on a social networking site. It’s rather like saying that you “met” someone by letter, “met” them on the telephone, or “met” them by carrier pigeon. Had the teenager “met” the serial sex offender only on the internet, then she would not have suffered her terrible fate.

This might seem like a petty semantic point, but as discussion rages about how to make social networking sites more safe, it might be worth looking at the language used to describe virtual encounters […] Electronic contacts are not meetings, and they should not routinely be described as if they are.

One can see the point, but I fear this is a losing usage battle. People do routinely say, for example, that they met on a dating site or a forum, in that their initial communications occurred there; and this is now part of what meeting means, to the extent that people often feel the need to add something extra in order to specify only the old meaning: eg, a face-to-face meeting, or a meet-up. And OED gives for sense 4 of meet (v.) the following:

To come (whether by accident or design) into the company of, or into personal intercourse with; to ‘come across’ (a person) in the intercourse of society or business.

Is there some sense in which to exchange messages on Facebook or the like is not to come into “personal intercourse” with someone? Perhaps, but this would need to be argued rather than asserted.

In the mean time, one might as well complain that a message delivered electronically is not mail; yet the same process that is happening to meet has already irrevocably happened with that word — you now need to say something like snail-mail or physical mail to be sure of being understood to mean actual paper letters.

If we try to abide by Orr’s proscription and avoid saying that people met online, what exactly should we say instead?


A miracle

Mysterious ways

David Aaronovitch thinks that the election in Iraq is a miracle, ((Thanks to organic cheeseboard.)) and he wishes people would stop talking about the war, because by God, after all, it’s been seven years already? This combination of views is entirely logical, in that only if you forget the war and its aftermath — as Aaronovitch wishes so desperately to do that he now, remarkably, considers any and all “casualty figures” to be “implausible” — can you think of the recent election as a miracle, ie:

A marvellous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or of some supernatural being; chiefly, an act (e.g. of healing) exhibiting control over the laws of nature, and serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or is specially favoured by God. ((OED Miracle 1.))

Indeed, so painful have the last seven years apparently been for Aaronovitch that his new defensive fantasy is to self-hypnotize himself into believing it has all been a bad dream; or so one might infer from the way the article begins:

Imagine for a moment that you’ve woken up to the election results from North Korea.

Of course, if you’ve just woken up to something and have no idea about, or have successfully repressed the memory of, what preceded it, it is probably easier to take it as a miracle — or even as, in Aaronovitch’s words, a bloody miracle. Perhaps the phrase bloody miracle makes you think of God smiting the enemies of the righteous with inexplicable sanguinary violence, but I am sure that cannot be what Aaronovitch really means.



You spin me right round

It used to be that a revolution was a very important kind of change, ((OED Revolution III. 6. b. An instance of great change or alteration in affairs or in some particular thing (from c.1450); 7. A complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it; a forcible subsitution of a new ruler or form of government (from 1600).)) but now the term can be applied to any old way of trying to persuade “consumers” to buy a new version of something they already bought a new version of a couple of years ago: right now, for instance, a 3D TV. Personally, I have never owned a television that was not three-dimensional? But a breathless Samsung press release, apparently published by mistake as a news item in the Guardian, puts me right with quotes in the epic register from media-industry titans:

“It’s quite simply the entertainment revolution of our time,” said DreamWorks’ chief executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg. ((I note with chagrin that the American publishers of my first book insisted on a subtitle that also contained this phrase entertainment revolution, and I still don’t know what it means.)) […] Samsung’s president of visual display products, Boo Keun Yoon, told the Guardian that […] “I believe 2010 will be the year of the 3D television revolution.”

This would be, then, one of those revolutions instigated from above: it’s the people attempting to hawk 3D TV products who are predicting revolution, rather than the pixel-addled masses who are agitating for it.

The worlds of marketing, management and politics no doubt teem with revolutions even less consequential than this one, and I must sadly conclude that the word revolution is pretty much clapped out through excessive hyperbolic use. In the mean time, if ever we feel the need to refer to a change of really considerable magnitude and import, what word should we use instead?


The future of its own permanence

Arrows of time

On the occasion of Joe Biden’s visit to the middle east, Benjamin Netanyahu let fly a corker:

“I very much appreciate the efforts of President Obama and the American government to lead the international community to place tough sanctions on Iran,” he said.
“The stronger those sanctions are, the more likely it is that the Iranian regime will have to chose between advancing its nuclear programme, and advancing the future of its own permanence.”

An reader comments:

Surely the most roundabout way of threatening another government like ever? ((Thanks to Seeds.))

It’s right up there. I for one am not even sure whether Netanyahu was saying that merely “sanctions” against Iran the Iranian régime would threaten the future of its own permanence — rather than, presumably, the present of its permanence, which is assured, but somehow fails to guarantee even so that it will exist indefinitely — or whether he meant to incorporate an additional threat that Iran might get, oh, I don’t know, nuked to smithereens for good measure; after all, sanctions alone don’t normally have the effect of actually making a country disappear from the pages of chronology. ((Or even just a country’s government, which (rather than Iran itself) is, as per Ricardo in comments, the target of the threat.)) I wouldn’t be surprised, indeed, if exactly this ambiguity were intended — but in any case, as, um, existential threats go, it’s an impressively macho mouthful.


The deal

Constitutional plutocracy

Political chatter in Britain is much exercised over the issue of Michael Ashcroft’s hitherto secret status as a non-dom, despite his promise to take up permanent residence in the UK as a condition of his being made a “lord”:

“Hague told Tony that Ashcroft would pay huge amounts of tax,” said a source. “That was the deal. That was what we all understood at the time.”

That was the deal, complains the Guardian source indignantly, as though the fact that someone allegedly reneged on a deal is more objectionable than the fact that such a deal could ever have been made in the first place. All parties in this row, indeed, seem to have agreed not to question the assumption that it is entirely normal and unobjectionable that one should be able to buy a peerage, with whatever combination of massive political donations and vague undertakings to pay tax like the little people do seems most appealing to the aspiring “lord”.

At the time of Ashcroft’s “elevation”, it is true, there were some dissenting voices:

[F]ormer Tory MP Sir Anthony Grant said: “This is a mistake. It looks very bad. I think we want to detach ourselves from this notion that people only have to give money and then they can waltz into what is, after all, part of the legislature.”

Yet criticism of Ashcroft now focuses on an alleged broken promise, rather than the fact that the very possibility of making and accepting such a promise was already an index of deep constitutional corruption — corruption of such long-standing pervasiveness and gravity that it makes the MPs’ expenses scandal look like the trivial sideshow it was; corruption so familiar, perhaps, as to be almost invisible. But it would be in no leading politician’s interest to point this out: why endanger a convenient way of rewarding wealthy friends for giving you money?


The Journey

Bon voyage

So, Tony Blair’s memoir is to be entitled The Journey. The claim to have gone on a journey, of course, is contemporary pop-pseudopsychology’s favourite way of rationalizing the dreadful or valorizing the pointless. Any idiot who has managed to stay alive between one date and another can be said to have gone on a journey in the interim. So, of course, can anyone who hasn’t managed to stay alive, but has become a traveller to an undiscover’d country, etc. No doubt meditation on this latter fact explains Blair’s suit of solemn black on the front cover. I don’t know what explains the eyes and partly bared teeth.

What do you think Blair’s booky-wook ought to be called, readers?



A bear of Liddle brain

Further to our discussion of constructions using the suffix –tard, Rod Liddle offers:

By God, The Guardian is a loathsome newspaper; a local north London morning daily for Stalinist metro libtards, perpetually arrogant, snobbish, self-righteous, humourless, dull, relentlessly middle class, cowardly and cheap.

Tragically, libtards is not an original coinage: it already boasts 136,000 google hits, but I must admit it has a certain brio. (Interesting that it is instantly comprehensible even with the attenuated prefix: you don’t have to say liberaltards.) I note without comment here that Charlie Brooker has described Liddle as looking like “a failed Womble who’s just been shaken awake in a shop doorway”.

What is the right epithet for a Rod Liddle, readers?


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