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Heavy Plant Crossing

January 13, 2012

CactusI have been enjoying a frivolous series of letters in the Independent which rely on the kind of play on words which tends to be easier in English than other European languages.

The common road sign ‘heavy plant crossing’ brings a picture into my mind of a large and clumsy cactus plodding across the road very slowly, causing motorists to shake their fists and shout abuse. This morning’s letter referred to an Australian sign ‘Lyre birds cross’; the writer was glad to report that he had managed to escape their wrath. Crossings for zebras and humped pelicans led one reader to ask whether it might not be kinder to provide an underpass for these poor creatures. What about ‘dead slow children’ – surely they need a patient teacher rather than a crossing?

My favourite so far came from a reader from Cardiff where the sign outside the local steelworks reads ‘Danger – hot slag crossing’.

Simple humour: timeless, harmless and fun.

Pandas – the shocking truth

December 12, 2011

David Thomas: The world’s most useless creatures

I love this article!

It made me laugh several times, makes a strong point without being pompous about it and uses words in a surprising way. Like all the best writing, it is aimed at a specific audience and would certainly displease some people.

It starts ‘Bloody pandas.’ Immediately you are with the writer or against him. If you object to all swear words and refuse to hear a word against pandas, you may not read any further. But you are up for a bit of contrarian thinking and find directness refreshing, you will happily set aside the next few minutes in anticipation of a rewarding read. You won’t be disappointed.

I recommend reading the article of course, but if you are disinclined to do that, let me at least share these comments on pandas.

Essentially, they are the WAGs of the animal kingdom: superficially attractive in an obvious sort of way, but entirely lacking in any genuine accomplishment.

Their rise to global triumph, as a symbol of all things furry, is a telling commentary on our obsession with appearance over substance.

All through the brutally repressive years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao was lobbing pandas at Western zoos.

Refreshing? Amusing? I think so.

The UK is grown-up now.

December 6, 2011

Mary Dejevsky GrowthI have stopped buying things except to replace worn-out or used-up ones. I am grown-up and have all that I need. Instinctively, this seems to me to apply to the UK economy, but I know so little about economics that I assumed there was some obscure reason why it could never grow up.

It is for this reason that I say ‘well done’ to Mary Dejevsky who questions the need for growth using facts and credible arguments.

I recommend that you read ‘Why this Obsession with Growth?‘ for two reasons. I find it well structured and clearly written so it qualifies on the ‘read good stuff’ criterion. It is interesting too because it expresses a point of view that runs counter to the one that is normally taken for granted.

Let me know what you think.


Do Four Negatives make a Positive?

October 25, 2011

Some words have a built-in negative meaning, so you can write in a negative way without using words like ‘not’ and ‘no’. You probably knew that, but it was worth saying because the rest of this blog would be very confusing if you didn’t. I mean words like ‘deny’ which means ‘not agree’, and ‘refuse’ which means ‘not accept’. The following sentence in this morning’s Independent contained so many that I had to read it with and without my glasses several times before I understood it.

“More than 80 of his MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against the Government over its refusal to allow a referendum on EU withdrawal.”

So run that past me one more time. Who wants what again?

There was a three-line whip to vote against the Government.  No that can’t be right. Let’s take this one step at a time.

More than 80 of Cameron’s MPs did NOT follow the whip. (Which suggests that  they voted the way the Government did NOT want them to.) The Government does NOT want a referendum. The referendum (which we aren’t going to have even though 80 MPs didn’t say they didn’t want it) was to ask people if they want NOT to be in Europe.

Good. I am glad we have got that sorted out. And we haven’t even mentioned the politics.

I am a great fan of the Independent, but the Guardian definitely wins on clarity this time:

“…nearly half of Cameron’s backbenchers defied a three-line whip and voted in favour of a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU on current terms, whether to leave or whether to renegotiate Britain’s membership.”

A fraction of the meaning

October 6, 2011

Have you noticed how often the expression ‘a fraction of’ is used, to mean ‘a very small fraction of’? Here are some headlines:

Oxi: Twice as powerful as crack cocaine at just a fraction of the price

Royal living at a fraction of the cost

Holiday homes with a fraction of the hassle

I know headlines need to be short, so maybe they are forgiven, but I notice it all over the place. A fraction could be ninety-nine one-hundredths, or even closer to one than that. I guess nine-eighths is a fraction too – that’s more than one!

What interests me is that when I read the headline about the holiday homes, I register immediately that these holiday homes are far far less hassle than some other holiday homes, which is what the writer wanted me to do. But what does the headline actually say? Nothing really.

Clever or misleading?

The reader (and me)

October 5, 2011

A previous comment on one of the Freshword blogs (on punctuation and bullets) suggested that some things are not critical since ‘…it all washes over the reader’. I was struck by this comment because of how important this is.

Readers as experts

We might not be great writers, but we are great readers. That is, we notice everything – every last missing full stop, every misplaced comma, every repeated word, every failure to completely make sense; we notice everything. And we are not tolerant and easy-going as readers. We are demanding, impatient and highly reactive. We might indulge the first typo, flinch at the second, be indignant at the third and frustrated by the fourth; our mistakes steadily devalue the credibility and authority of the writer.  This means that as writers, our presentation, word choices, and punctuation have to be spot on in order for our readers ‘not to notice’ our writing. That is why we agonise over correct usage and convention.

Control them – or they’ll control you

To communicate effectively (that is, the reader understands what we want to say, first time) we cannot put a step wrong. If we do that we give up the one thing that makes us effective as writers – control. The reader can find lots of excuses for not reading; it is not the writer’s job to provide them. By wielding words well we control and manipulate the reader, making the reading experience as easy and trouble-free as possible. If your writing starts to wash over readers, then you have lost them and failed as a writer. It’s as simple as that.


September 26, 2011

‘And now for something completely different.’

Thank you, Monty Python, for the gift of this sentence, perfectly illustrating how we can start a sentence with a conjunction. For many this is an affront as it breaks a treasured rule of grammar: never start sentences with an ‘and’.

However, the only thing we cannot start a sentence with is a numeral. Yet we do this far more often.  ‘2011 saw the beginning of a new phase in our organisation’s development.’  Years cannot ‘see’ (not having eyes). It is better to avoid this by using such expressions as ‘January of 2011 marked the start of…’  This is also more precise since a year is twelve months.  We can write ‘Ten years later…’, but not ’10 years later…’

I recently checked the Times Educational Supplement for the prevalence of sentences and paragraphs starting with a conjunction, and found that nearly ten per cent began in this way. And these are established and respected journals. It is so common that it is unremarkable. We do not notice these conjunctions because they work in context and, as ever, good writing is transparent. And so we dispense with another myth.