Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The War against Grammar

dad ginetto

That’s my Dad and his mate Ginetto and no, this picture
has nothing to do with the post. It works like that sometimes
(I believe that Ginetto is Italian for 'Little Gino' - funny uh?)

When I was at school English lessons used to bore me rigid. Abstract nouns? Concrete nouns? Rules of capitalisation? Who cares?

Maybe if the lessons had been a little more real world I would have paid more attention. For example, if Father Collins, my old English teacher had ever said to me…

‘Abstract nouns are intangible and therefore quite resistant to cruise missiles or the 82nd Airborne Division’


‘Abstract nouns are intangible and generally shouldn’t be capitalised, unless you’re looking to ham things up a little for dramatic effect or pretend something physically exists when it doesn't really’

Maybe I would have paid more attention.

The differences between abstract and concrete nouns can be quite subtle. Schizophrenia is presumably an abstract noun, AIDS is not. You could go to war against AIDS and seek to eradicate the virus in a way that you couldn’t with schizophrenia. An interesting difference worth some consideration.

Colonel Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now refers to ‘The Horror! The Horror!’. The implied capitalisation indicating that he was referring to a unique Horror rather than horror in general. But Marlon Brando was always prone to hammy over-acting.

Anyway, as a general principle, abstract nouns are indestructible and unsuited to capitalisation. The prospect of anyone eradicating, say, Childhood or Jealousy from the face of the Earth, such that we can refer to them exclusively in the past tense, seems, at best, improbable.

Unfortunately, the grammar checkers that come with word processor packages don’t pick up on this.

How else can I explain the fact that my country is currently engaged in a War on Terror? How else can I account for my country’s police force looking for a connection between the London bombings and Al Qaeda, described a few days ago by Tony Blair as ‘not an organisation … but a way of working’?

Think of all that trouble we all could have been saved if Microsoft had issued an updated version of Word a few years ago …

‘Sorry Tony. You appear to have made an error in this document and repeatedly confuse the tangible with the intangible. You must be out of your tits. As it stands, this sounds like complete bollocks. Please try again’


One thing current versions of Word do sometimes pick up on is passive sentences.

I spent much of my pre-unemployed life writing reports about the ways companies and units within companies operated. Usually, my reports contained criticisms and recommendations.

Human nature being what it is, there were frequently good reasons for not wanting to be too specific about what you were writing; maybe you liked the people you were reporting on, maybe you wanted to shag one of them, maybe you knew your recommendations were lame rubbish, maybe you were being used as a tool in some kind of corporate hatchet job, maybe you were operating in a corrupt third world country and wanted to make it to the airport alive.

Lots of reasons.

The easiest technique available to avoid people knowing where the observations or recommendations came from, and consequently being upset with you, killing you or not shagging you, was to use sentences with no discernible subject …

‘It’ was always to blame. Not you.


‘It was observed that she was absolutely useless at her job, even if she is well-cute’

‘It is recommended that everyone is sacked’

Much more sensible than putting your name at the front of the sentence.

Why am I sharing this small biographical anecdote? Have you been listening to the news recently? I mean really listening? 'It' is being a really busy boy at the moment.


Anonymous said...

New word spotted at Watford:

My current favourite from my workplace (one workmate to another)

'Yeah, he shoowed me it'


Noel said...

I like business speak. Best this week is a new buzz phrase from North America. "human user interface options"

Stef said...

@andy: no surprises there, after all Watford is a powerhouse of cultural change and linguisitic creativity

@noel: so much has happened in this country since you were last here. Everyone speaks like that now. We were watching an item on neglect of old people in an NHS hospital tonight. The Chief Executive was interviewed at the end of the piece and kept talking about 'systems and procedures for delivering dignity to the point of need' and referring to 'Excellence' as it were a tangible thing in itself.


Here The Artist... said...

Great picture!