Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A moment of pedantry

I did a terrible thing the other day.

I was mooching about on Facebook (obviously not looking for horse pictures) when I came across something someone had posted for a friend. It was an advertisement for a Writers’ Retreat, in the lovely Umbrian hills. The virtual flyer was beautifully produced, with a picture of verdant Italy. One could almost smell the pines and imagine the coruscating literary conversation.

The only problem was that the headline said:


I pondered this for a while. I attempted to employ restraint. In the end, I could not help myself.

I left a little comment, with a mitigating smiley face at the end of it to indicate that I was not shaking my finger in a maiden aunt-ish way, but coming in peace. I pointed out, as politely as I could, that WRITERS RETREAT should have an apostrophe in it. Otherwise, I said helpfully, it actually meant a lot of writers going backwards. I had a sudden vision of a cohort of bespectacled scribblers running away from Moscow. Did they learn nothing from Napoleon?

There was, of course, no reply. I could imagine the author and her friend tutting and grumbling about ghastly interfering know-bests on the horrid internet. It was none of my business, after all.

Just this morning, I found a rather brilliant video which had text running over it. I counted at least three grocer’s apostrophes. I shuddered a little, but said nothing. It was a video about horsemanship, not writing, so I felt that the errors were not egregious. They did not take away from the professionalism of the thing, since the profession was not literary. Who cares if they referred to horses in the plural as horse’s?

Even good, professional writers can slip mistakes past the subs. I saw Douglas Murray dangle a modifier in this week’s Speccie. I’m afraid to say that even dear old Auntie is prone to this. I remember a terrible moment on the News At Ten when the newsreader said, of Beryl Bainbridge: ‘Nominated five times, the Booker Prize continued to elude her.’ Which of course means the Booker was nominated five times, not the brilliant Miss Beryl.

Oddly, I mind about modifiers almost more than I mind about misplaced apostrophes. A dangler is so ugly and clumsy; it arrests the eye, and drags the reader to a screaming halt. The worst ones muddy or even entirely obliterate the sense of the thing. Often one must go back and read the sentence again to see what it really means.

The reason that pedants get so grumpy is not, I think, because they are twitchy fusspots, always looking for something over which to chunter. I think it is because they love clarity. That is certainly why I get cross. Whenever sense is lost, a little piece of my writer’s heart dies.

Of course, I sit in the middle of the most shattery of glass houses on this one. I have blind spots over the spelling of certain words. Because I write this blog quite fast, and do not have time for endless editing, there are often typing mistakes. (Sometimes the Dear Readers kindly correct, saving me from shame.) I use far too many semi-colons. I start sentences with conjunctions; sometimes whole paragraphs too. I dare to end a sentence with a preposition, when the to whoms and of whiches sound a little too pompous. I throw words in the air and watch them fall. In this post alone there has been ‘aunt-ish’ which is not a word at all.

Still, even though people may pick up their brickbats and hurl them right at me, I stand by my principle. Clarity is queen, and I shall serve her all my days. Even if that service shall sometimes be a little imperfect.


Today’s pictures:

Horrid, dour, shivery sort of day, with angry low skies and sloppy snow. So the only answer was the close-up, for beauty:

12 Feb 1

12 Feb 2

12 Feb 3

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12 Feb 6

12 Feb 7

Myfanwy is very pleased with her smart blue rug, to keep her cosy as tonight’s blizzards roar in:

12 Feb 10-001

Red and Autumn having a quiet girls’ moment:

12 Feb 11

Before this happens:

12 Feb 12

It’s a big moment, the first schooling in full Western saddle. Annoyingly, I take Red to the other side of the field to do some sedate standing exercises. HOW long do I have to stay here?:

12 Feb 13

Because there is something REALLY interesting going on over there:

12 Feb 14

Like THAT:

12 Feb 15

Oh, all right:

12 Feb 16

She stood, stock still, for ten minutes, whilst Autumn had a little bronco moment, and I wandered across the paddock, faffing about with the camera. It’s one of those exercises that a lot of people would think perfectly nuts. I like it. It teaches trust and attention and manners. I like these small building blocks; I like working from the ground up. It’s no fun having an unsettled, barging, pushy horse. Sometimes I think, as we do leading and standing and backing, the simplest, most honest things, that everything I am doing with her is about stillness. She may be an ex-racing thoroughbred mare, but she has a real talent for stillness. It’s one of the things about her that touches my heart the most.

Prettiest, most demure face:

12 Feb 17

And from Stanley the Dog, most serious Sit and Stay face:

12 Feb 10

There is a big stick at his feet and he is counting the seconds until he is allowed to chase it again.


12 Feb 30-001


  1. I (and, might I add proudly, my 32-year-old daughter, who is also an English graduate) shout FEWER at the radio/TV whenever even Auntie Beeb opts for the wrong choice between the two words that mean the opposite of MORE, and say LESS + people/times/options etc. If Auntie Beeb gets it wrong we must be fighting a rearguard action, but it is by now a reflex to yell out the correction into the unresponsive ether.

    But I don't correct mistakes in print on th'interweb as we cannot know if there is a learning problem, such as dyslexia, or the person was in a huge class in an indifferent school where the importance of clarity and accuracy was never expressed by teachers in a way that fired up the students' motivation to endeavour always to get it right. Such as not spliting infinitives, like I didn't just then. That's another grammatical foible that seems to bother hardly anyone any more.

    I think your blog writing is conversational, and is more like an utterance than a written statement, so you are looser and more lenient with yourself. Which is all right and proper, with the Dear Readers, I suspect.

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    1. Just spotted "spliting infinitives", above. Hysterical, a typo just there! As for your WRITERS RETREAT, their web designer might be to blame there. Web design is very technical. It demands an extraordinary level of accuracy in computer language such as HTML to achieve even a simple website, but even this punctiliousness doesn't always go hand-in-hand with grammatical accuracy, oddly.

  3. Hear, hear! I am sick to death of the indiscriminate use of apostrophes (mentally I hear the writer saying, "I should be applauded for getting it on the page! Who cares if it should be there in the first place?"). And don't even start me on less/fewer.

    As you say, clarity is the object. Your, as Goldenoldenlady calls it, conversational tone in the blog and the occasional considered breaking of a rule are nothing. The problem with dangling modifiers and misplaced apostrophes and the like is that apparently those writers don't care or don't know any better.

    Be a pedant all you want. ;-)


  4. Agree with Goldenoldenlady and Bird - you write as if we're all sitting around the table having a wonderful conversation. :)

    Stanley's portrait has set the bar high. What a handsome boy. x

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  6. Thanks to my mother's influence on my young mind, I am completely unable to enjoy reading anything that's got misplaced apostrophes, poor spelling, and the like. I will avoid going into places of business whose signage contains errors. I know I'm being maiden aunt-ish, but I just can't help it. I also point out errors to people, because HOW CAN THEY NOT KNOW THIS STUFF AND CONTINUE TO EXIST. Keep calm, and do it right.

  7. I'm laughing right now because I'm not the only one who left a comment before I was properly awake, caught a mistake, deleted it, and tried again. HA!

    P.S. The question mark at the end of that hyper-capitalized sentence was intentionally left off. Colloquialism. Yassssssss.


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