Monthly Archives: November 2011

Language books wanted

With Christmas coming up, I’d like your recommendations for books about language. I’m looking for something more substantial and engaging than, say, Lynne Truss but not as demanding as a full-blown academic linguistics textbook.

Three books I’ve heard encouraging things about are:

  • Strictly English by Simon Heffer
  • The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings
  • The King’s English by Kingsley Amis

Are they any good? Are any others any good?

Jokes are barred

At McSweeney’s, Eric K Auld has some good bar jokes involving grammar and punctuation.

Here are some of my own, stretching the concept to cover language more broadly:

  1. A subject and a verb disagrees about which bar to walk into.
  2. An Oxford comma hops, skips, and jumps into a bar.
  3. A pleonasm enters into a bar.
  4. The subjunctive would walk into a bar, were it in the mood.
  5. A hyphen, drunk after leaving the bar, mistakenly walks-into a phrasal verb.
  6. A colon and a semicolon walk into a bar: the colon has a gutful; the semicolon orders a half.
  7. A syllepsis walks out on its wife and into a bar.
  8. A gang of commas walk into a bar and order everything on the menu.
  9. A prescriptivist walks into a tavern, because of course ‘bar’ means the counter at which drink is served rather than the establishment itself. He wonders why nobody else is there.
  10. A meaning walks into a bar and orders a double.
  11. A portmanteau walks into a barmaid.

Large Cliché Collider

According to the Guardian recently, “the Treasury select committee is on a collision course with the Bank of England”, some Egyptian campaign groups are “on a guaranteed collision course with the ruling generals”, Boris Johnson is “on collision course with unions over tube plans” as well as being “on a collision course with two Tory councils”, “Siri and Kinect could be on a collision course if Microsoft does manage to up its game”, and “Westminster is now on a collision course with Mr Salmond’s SNP administration in Edinburgh”.

According to the Telegraph, the expansion of Scope’s retail arm “will set it on a collision course with Mary Portas”, “Nick Clegg has set himself on a collision course with David Cameron over EU policy”, the head of the UK Border Agency has “set himself on a collision course with ministers” and “transport minister Justine Greening is on a collision course with lobbyist Malcolm Ginsberg”.

You can see the thinking. It’s a physical metaphor of dramatic, determined movement that will surely lead to danger – just the sort of thing to enliven a piece of prose when all that’s meant is usually “someone disagrees with someone else” or “someone has done something that someone else won’t like”.

But it’s now one of Orwell’s dying metaphors: the phrase hasn’t ‘died’ to acquire a wholly figurative usage and, given the handiness of its literal sense, it probably never will. Nor, though, is it likely to strike the reader with its freshness or convey a clear and helpful mental image (are Boris’s “tube plans” to drive a train down a tunnel towards the one that the unions are on?).

It’s a stale cliché, overused by the political and media class, that no normal person would use in conversation. Let’s find some other poor figure of speech to torment for a few years. Maybe “Nick Clegg has put an unexpected item in David Cameron’s bagging area”.

If for no other reason, we should stop using it because when the day comes that we have to phone up Bruce Willis to beg for help with a massive asteroid that’s on a collision course with Earth, he might misunderstand and issue a statement praising our planet and deploring the asteroid’s irresponsible views.

And if he does that, we’ll have to rely on Elijah Wood to save us. And I don’t think anybody wants that.