More from ‘Is it good English’ (1924)

Jot 101 Is it Good English cover‘Case’.

Today, one of the commonest colloquial uses of the word ‘ case ‘, as in ‘This not the case’ is, according to one writer on correct grammar, an incorrect use of the word. Nearly a hundred years ago John O’London made his case, as it were, but this use of the word is still common. Let Mr O’London explain:-

‘The word ‘ case’ is a capital example of the words which, rightly used, mean something, but, wrongly, nothing at all. Mr R. W. Chapman, in…The Portrait of a Scholar and Other Essays writes: ‘ Case and instance are the commonest and most dangerous of a number of parasitic growths which are the dry rot of syntax’.

‘The word case implies a conjunction of affairs, an opposition of interests, a relation of circumstances to one another. Thus you may write of ‘ a case of conscience.’ But we are not to write, ‘ That is not the case, when all we mean is’ That is not so’; for a case is a position of things, relative to the things themselves or to the way in which they affect men. We shall find the word correctly used in the tenth verse of the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, ‘ His disciples say unto Him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.’ The word is used with correctness by the Friar in ‘ Much Ado about Nothing ‘ when he is advising Leonato how to act for the vindication of his daughter: ‘ Pause awhile and let my counsel sway in this case.’ But, as Mr Chapman points out, it is wrong to write, ‘ It is not the case that Napoleon died of a broken heart,’ because no case has been stated.’

Up and down.

Today we casually use the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ in conjunction with a destination without really being aware of why we choose one or the other of these two words. In 1924 a reader asked Mr O’ London what was the significance of this choice of word. ‘ Should ‘up’ be used when one is going to a larger town or is it geographically used—i.e. if the place be north or south of your position?’ Here is Mr O’ London’s reply:-

‘I do not think that ‘ up’ or ‘down have any original association with north or south. These terms originated in railway, or coaching parlance, and are governed by the relative and conventional importance of the two ends of a journey. Thus in railway speech, a Manchester man would say ‘up to London’, and a London man ‘ down to Manchester.’ But whether a Manchester man would say, in practice, ‘ up ‘ to Birmingham may be a solemn question. Personally, I should not say ( in London) that I was going ‘ down to Liverpool’, but ‘ up to Liverpool.’ ‘ Down to Liverpool’, though correct in railway language, seems a thought glib and pompous. I should consider it an impertinence to announce to a Scot my intention to go ‘ down to Edinburgh,’ even though Edinburgh is on the ‘ down’ line from London.’ Continue reading

ABC of Plain Words Revisited

Plain Words cover pic 001When some BBC journalists don’t know the difference between reticent and reluctant, and use the word enormity to mean an enormous event, popular grammarians, such as Liz Truss or Ernest Gowers, who was her equivalent in the 1950s, are needed more than ever. That’s if these pisspoor journalists can be bothered to read their books.

Sir Ernest Gowers was a senior civil servant whose best-selling popular grammar Plain Words (1948), was devised to help his fellow civil servants write clear and correct English. In 1951, admitting that its format could be improved, Gowers brought out ABC of Plain Words.Nearly 70 years on this guide can still be used alongside other more recent grammars, such as Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Most of the advice proferred by Gowers still applies, but some might raise a few eyebrows among the journalists of today. Here are a few words and their definitions that might provoke discussion today.

Deadline.This is a word known to all hacks, but  Gowers chooses to define deadline conventionally as ‘ a line drawn round a military prison beyond which a prisoner may be shot down’. I don’t know which dictionary Mr Gowers was using, but the Chambers dictionary we use here at Jot HQ gives two definitions besides this one—1) ‘ the time that newspapers, books etc going to press’ 2) ‘a fixed time or date terminating something’. Gowers doesn’t even mention what ninety percent of people nowadays (and probably in 1951 too) would recognise as the most common definition of deadline.

Decimate.Gowers is right about the word decimate, however. He defines it as meaning to reduce by one tenth, not to one tenth. No writer today should get away with saying that troops were decimated, mainly because no-one would possibly know that soldiers in a battle could be reduced by exactly one tenth !

Dilemma.This is another word of precise meaning. It does not mean that someone has a number of difficult courses of action. He or she has exactly two. Continue reading

Errors of the educated

Speeches and toasts 001Found in Speeches and Toasts by Leslie F Stemp ( 1952) is a chapter on ‘’certain besetting carelessnesses of dictum from which even our high-brows are not immune”.

Although none of the speeches or toasts in the book are as funny as Reginald Perrin’s alcohol induced peroration at the National Fruit Convention, or Hugh Grant’s best man speech In ‘Four Weddings’, Mr Stemp, a barrister for the Gas Board, does provide both mildly amusing and serious examples of speeches for most occasions. And although many remain hopelessly dated, as his use of the word ‘high-brow’ suggests, the advice he offers on grammatical errors remains useful today. Here are some of my favourite examples:

“That” and “which”.

It is wrong to use the relative pronouns” that” and ”which” as if they were interchangeable, and to be varied to meet the demands of euphony. Their provinces are distinct; the boundaries between them well marked. Every defining clause whose antecedent is not a person should be introduced that that, every such clause that adds new matter by which. The test of defining new clauses is: would the suppression of them render the statement untrue? If so it is a defining clause. “We have rejected all the cases that arrived sea-damaged”. Omit the clause and what remains ios a falsehood: all the cases were not rejected: the sound were accepted.” We have received your statement, which is receiving our attention.” Even if this sentence were cut short after “statement”, if would be true. The first sentence, therefore, contained a defining clause, properly introduced by “that” , and the second an added clause , preceded, correctly, by “which”. Continue reading