Friday, 17 October 2014

Some absolutely pointless Friday questions.

I stand down by the shed, with the red mare’s head on my shoulder, talking of life and complicated families and the odd twists of human psychology. The sun thinks about coming out, and then changes its mind and goes sullenly away. The mare is covered in mud and growing her teddy bear coat for winter. She is content. I love her very much.

I think about the oddities of the things that make one human happy, and the things that make another human sad. I think particularly about the small things. Poor Matthew Parris just wrote an article about what a furious mass of crowd rage he had uncovered when he dared to write something disobliging about UKIP. He is an old school, one-nation Tory, rather courteous and thoughtful, and the intemperance of the Kippers made him despair. Underneath his article, all the furious people came out and were ruder than ever. It’s all ad hominem with them, although they could not see the irony. This fury on the internet gets a lot of press, and there is an odd herd mind which takes hold on message boards. I don’t know why it astonishes me that the readers of those two old grand ladies, the Speccie and the Telegraph, leave by far the rudest comments. They are much more polite over at the Staggers, and much funnier at the Guardian.

I do mind the rudeness very much, but just at the moment I find myself fixated on the absurdities of the unimportant. I really do mind about the absolute lack of spelling and grammar. It’s not just on news sites, where some of the crosser comments use English which looks as if it were randomly selected by a bot. It’s on every forum I visit. Breaks for brakes, should of for should have, you’re for your. I like playing with the language, and will merrily split an infinitive so it damn well stays split. I will rashly end a sentence with a preposition, and sometimes invent new words. (I do not think that wibbly is found in any dictionary, although it is the only satisfactory adjective for the soft lower lip of the glorious mare.) I make typos and sometimes completely forget how to spell.

I know I’m a writer, and it is my job to use the English language. I know that I am a nerd, and it is my obsession. But it’s so easy to write simple, clear English. Anyone can use a full stop, or put a capital letter at the start of a sentence, or understand the apostrophe. I find the trashing of such a beautiful resource almost physically painful.

Once I’ve got onto this hobby horse, and galloped off in all directions in the manner of a Daisy Ashford hero, I become fixated on tiny expressions which drive me batshit nuts in the head. It used to be jargon which had this effect. For no known reason, I grind my teeth every time someone says they are going to grow a business, rather than a pot of mint. Now, it is growing wider than dead management-speak. Today, a government minister said that the world needed to ‘wake up to’ the problem of Ebola, and instead of fretting about a fatal pandemic, which would have been the correct reaction, I grew furious over that unlovely phrase. In a similar manner, I want to throw things every time a person says ‘it’s down to you’. It used to be ‘up to you’. Where did this awful ‘down’ come from? Even Lord Fellowes has smuggled it into Downton Abbey. Don’t even get me started on ‘end of’, or ‘TB’ for thoroughbred, or ‘hun’ as an abbreviation of ‘honey’. They fly like stinging arrows to my idiot mind.

My old dad always said that once you got the irritation there was nothing you could do about it. Some poor hapless person would annoy you in some way, and, after that, they could say nothing right. They could be the nicest person in the world, but every word out of their kind mouths would be nails on the blackboard from then on.

It’s so irrational. How on earth can it matter, when the world is so oppressed, whether someone chooses to say end of, or TB, or use he as the universal pronoun? (I get particularly livid when people do this with horses, as if they are writing off ALL THE MARES.) Talking of generalisations, I find the universal we even more distressing, particularly when it comes to women. We all want to lose half a stone; we all obsess over shoes; we all crave the latest must-have. What is this we of whom you speak? And while I’m on the subject, ‘must-have’ causes me daily offence. It is wrong on about eight different levels.

On the other hand, there are lazy tropes and worn phrases of which I am fond. I rather like ‘back in the day’, which drives one person I love demented. I use ‘old-school’ far too much. Almost every single one of my metaphors has an equine aspect. (There is a lot of galloping, and many, many prairies.) My skies are almost always the colour of some pigeon or other – doleful, despairing, or desperate. Practically everything is dear and old – Scotland, the weather, Blighty, TS Eliot, the hills. I’m always ransacking the most obvious parts of Shakespeare – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sorrows not in single spies but in battalions, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. When I was editing the manuscript of the book, I found myself shamingly unable to kill all the darlings that should have died. I have developed awful little tics and twitches, and indulge them far too often.

Taste is so odd. Why do I love green but hate yellow? Why does it drive me mad that everyone has started using the redundant So to start every single sentence? Where did my adoration of Scott Fitzgerald come from, when I cannot wear Nabokov? (This is particularly wrong, since Nabokov is supposed to be the ultimate writer’s writer.) Why do I worship Nina Simone, but find myself left cold by Michael Jackson?

Those are my Friday questions.

Now I’m going to watch the racing. It has not only the great beauty of the thoroughbred, but also a glittering language all its own. I love every single racing expression. Racing has a lingua franca which stretches across nationalities and cultures. It is tribal but not exclusive. It is the sound of my childhood, the voice of my father, and it never ceases to thrill me.


Still no time for the camera. Just this dear old face:

17 Oct 1

As I have made the complaint about bad English, the irony gods will ensure that there shall be at least three howlers in this post. I’ve read it through twice, but my eyes have gone squinty. I rely on the Dear Readers to point them out and save me from myself.

Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are.


  1. Thank you -- I needed this on a Friday. Laughed so hard at 'English which looks as if it were randomly selected by a bot' that I nearly spit tea on the computer screen.

    In the U.S., English language education is no longer emphasized, on the theory that if one knows the computer and either science or math, schooling in the language is unnecessary. The disturbing part is that no one seems to care -- your observation that you find 'the trashing of such a beautiful resource almost physically painful' covers it all. Thankfully, some companies and colleges are beginning to see the light that those who can’t write decently (there actually is a point in much of the precision) often can’t think very clearly either, and that translates to efficiency. There is hope.

    H’m … one wonders at the subliminal power of words. ‘Up to you’: we look to you for your wisdom. ‘Down to you’: oh, god, no hope; we have only you, moron.

    'Wibbly.' The sister of 'wobbly,' as in, Frankel's lip might be wobbly, but Red's would be wibbly?


  2. In my issue this week of The New Yorker, a full-page review of Nora Webster's book Colm Toibin, the blurb by a member of America's esteemed National Public Radio"

    "More thoughtful THEN Emma Bovary and less self-destructive. . .blah, blah"

    I read this twice, thinking No! No!
    There, happy to get this off my chest.

  3. I live in Australia and I hate the term "Team Australia" used by our PM - just loathsome in every way. And he was going to "shirt-front" Vladimir Putin - much debate about what that term meant.

    Language and grammar can reveal so much about a person.


  4. I'm a teacher, and so many of the parents I meet are personable, thoughtful, and witty. Then I receive the disappointment of a handwritten note, full of her's and it's when they do not mean it is...and so on.. I don't want to be judgmental, but I can't help the little pang disappointment upon reading them.

    i haven't been around for a while, and it's so good to read your thoughtful, gently humorous musings and to see the lovely mare again.

  5. I couldn't help but comment on your wonderful blog. In the US, particularly in California we have watched the word "anyway" turn into a strange plural form --- anyways. People will often acknowledge the incorrectness, but hardly anyone bothers to change. Interesting how fixated parents are to get children into the right schools, sign them up for the right activities, dress them in the most expensive clothes, but fail completely in having their children use proper English.

  6. @Margaret - You just hit on one of my largest pet peeves. (Where would a collection of pet peeves live? A peevary? Well, whatever it's called, I have one.)

    @Tania - The answer to every single one of your questions is this: Variety is the spice of life! Including people like you, Margaret, all the other literate people in the world, and me, who are driven crazy by the abuse of grammar, punctuation, and language in general.

    I'm glad that there are people in the world who love the foods I hate, who hate the foods I love, who wear their hair in styles I consider ridiculous, who say and do things I would never do, who do the things I only wish I could do. It provides a lovely, multi-hued backdrop to what would be a completely bland world, if everyone did everything the same way.

    P.S. Some of my least favorites: "over the moon", people who use "weary" when they mean "leery", "so-and-so is rocking a purple tie" instead of "wearing a purple tie", "axe" instead of "ask", and "Can I ask you a question?"... You just did. Sorry, limit one per customer. 8-)


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