'Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong'
One of the shibboleths addressed in the article is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition, which they trace to the rule of Latin grammar – mindlessly imposed by early English grammarians. But this omits a point that is perhaps too obvious to be noticed. Look at the word 'pre-positions'; they come before things. It is simply a logical impossibility to end a sentence with a word that necessarily comes before something – unless it were a 'pre-full-stop'.
But what happens when you force this rule onto English, with all its phrasal verbs? Any phrasal verb in a subordinate clause risks its particle, apparently a preposition, falling last: to use that Exaudi example, 'This is the prayer that I hope God will listen out for.'
As I said at the beginning though, the writers' hearts are in the right place. The message is right on; shame about the medium. The last point (made by Orwell‡ many years ago) is worth underlining:
There’s a simple test that usually exposes a phony rule of grammar: If it makes your English stilted and unnatural, it’s probably a fraud.
*In the mid '70s I was studying the idea of myth in the work of Borges, and with the self-assurance of a 23-year-old I thought myself the sole custodian of the word 'myth'. Sorry, old bean
† Update 2013.01.28: Fauré made the elementary mistake of not making this a solo – though it is a sweet and angelic-sounding tune sung by the sopranos. Apologies for this lapse ( – he was only young!)
‡ Update 2013.01.29: January 2013 was the occasion of several programmes about Orwell on BBC Radio 4. I expect - or have missed - the traditional trotting out of David Crystal, who never misses an opportunity to put the boot in. There are 5 mentions of Orwell in the index of The Stories of English, one of which points to a two-page salvo. I have a pretty good idea he does the same at least once in The Story of English in 100 Words. The problem is that Orwell made a mistake that offended Crystal's linguistic sensitivities.
OK, the man got it wrong. But he's wise and perceptive; lay off, Crystal – you're bigger than him (in this respect). Orwell's article is thought-provoking, perceptive, and witty. At one point (the parody of Ecclesiastes in modern business English) it's hilarious. It should be required reading for anyone who tries to communicate in writing; it might avoid such painfully jargon-ridden, obscure, and pleonastic signs as the one I saw recently in a municipal building: 'Due to the Council's Green Practices initiative this hand-dryer is non-functional. Visitors are hereby requested to use alternative disposable paper products.'
Orwell's Ecclesiastes spoof inspired my teaching resource based on Churchill's memo to the War Cabinet. In my TESconnect description of it I say:
This handout looks at a memo written by Churchill to his wartime cabinet on the subject of plain writing. Opposite Churchill's original there is a parody breaking all the rules he mentions (and a few more). On the reverse, there is a textual analysis done by the tool available at http://www.usingenglish.com/resources/text-statistics.php, showing the quantifiable effects of using woolly language. This could be a basis for web research into writing skills.
As – regrettably, but inevitably – they say, enjoy!
Tales from the word-face
After the shenanigans mentioned here, I have just reinstalled HoTMeTal Pro. But bearing in mind the fears I expressed there of new software, I stopped (after installing V5,0) and didn't install the V6.0 upgrade. Let's see if it works any better...
Update 2013.07.15: 'Tempus', as my old maths master used to say as we neared the end of another lesson, 'has fugitted'. See below for the latest.
Update 2013.07.24: Various tweaks and bits of esprit de l'escalier.
Update 2015.01.16.10:30 – Added autobiographical note in red and updated footer.
Update 2015.01.16.16:45 – Added this note:
†† Not all believers would recognize this as a call to prayer exactly, but the name 'Angelus' is the first word of the prescribed prayer.
Update 2017.09.02.18:05 – Added PS
PS: Much of this post, brushed up, reordered, tweaked, and with added esprit d‘escalier here and there, appears in my forthcoming (perhaps that should be F O R T H C O M I N G – that is, don‘t hold your breath) Words and Music.
In the meantime there is this sampler (which will be free to download from time to time: follow @WandMbook on Twitter for announcements).