Tuesday, 31 January 2012

bbc english #3: more or less

There are many ‘rules’ governing the ‘correct’ use of English that seem unnecessarily fussy and serve no useful purpose. The prohibition on splitting infinitives is a good example. In fact, this so-called ‘rule’ was the invention of nineteenth-century pedants, and there are no good grounds for its continued survival, especially now that it has been effectively torpedoed by the statement of the five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek:
…to boldly go where no man has gone before.
I always thought that this sounded rather contrived, but not on the grounds that the infinitive ‘to go’ was being wantonly split. I would have moved the adverb ‘boldly’ so that it preceded the adverbial clause that is the meat of the statement:
…to go boldly where no man has gone before.
Notice that there is no change in meaning, but there is a subtle change of emphasis, so which version you prefer is not a matter of correctness, merely a pointer to what you consider is important in the statement.

At first glance, the distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, that ‘less’ should be used for uncountable nouns and ‘fewer’ for countable nouns, would seem to fall into the same category. After all, you may offend a few pedants if you get it ‘wrong’, but the meaning is unaffected. If this is your assessment, then you may want to consider the following sentence, which I encountered on the BBC Sport website earlier this month:
Does the trend for less positive tests during competition reflect how sport is getting cleaner?
By using ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, the corporation’s sports editor, who committed this howler in a discussion on drug tests at the 2012 Olympic Games, ended up modifying ‘positive’ instead of ‘tests’. The problem is that ‘less’ can be used in other contexts, and the sentence is ambiguous because ‘less positive’ is automatically read as not quite as positive as previously thought. The ambiguity could have been avoided by following the rule:
Does the trend for fewer positive tests during competition reflect how sport is getting cleaner?
‘Fewer’ cannot modify an adjective, only the noun ‘tests’, so the intended meaning is clear. The moral, which BBC journalists seem to have forgotten, is that if you break a rule, you should be aware that you have done so and of the possible consequences for your message.

other posts in this series
1. BBC English.
2. Grand Slam.
4. Making an Impression.
5. Explaining Science.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

enter the dragon

If you’ve been following the news, you will be aware that, according to the Chinese calendar, yesterday marked the start of the ‘year of the dragon’. If you’ve been following this blog, you will also be aware that I do not believe that the year you are born, however it is calculated, has any bearing on personality. At least the Chinese system is not easily falsifiable; it is merely irrational, unlike the Western zodiac, which is palpable nonsense (the constellations on which astrology is based are chance line-of-sight effects that will not exist in 10,000 years time). I was asked recently what I thought was the difference between astrology and astronomy. I replied that astronomy can predict the positions of stars and planets thousands of years into the future; astrology cannot.

It often surprises Westerners to learn that dragons, the embodiment of evil in their own cultures, are highly favoured in Chinese mythology. This explains the prediction that the Chinese birthrate is set to rise by 10 percent during this most propitious of years, which strikes me as a very poor reproductive strategy, because children born in such a boom year face stiffer competition within their age cohort. I’d be far more likely to aim to have children in a less favoured year, such as that of the rat, although I’d be even more likely to ignore this tosh altogether.

I’m still seriously incapacitated following my accident, but I couldn’t miss our village’s annual lion dance yesterday to welcome the new year. I know that the firecrackers are meant to scare away demons and other evil spirits, but I think the real reason for their use at this time of year is that the Chinese like making a noise. And we certainly had plenty of noise from the longest string of firecrackers I’ve ever seen. It took more than three minutes for the cacophony to end, which more than made up for the disappointing complete absence of firecrackers last year. Some photos follow, and A New Year provides more pictures and an explanation of some of the rituals associated with the lion dance.

Dotting the eyes with ink brings the lion to life.

Lion and firecrackers.

The all-percussion accompaniment to the dance, which is invariably very loud….

…but the firecrackers are louder….

…especially the ‘big bang’ at the end.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

bbc english #2: grand slam

In his landmark essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that people who misuse metaphors rarely have a mental image of the thing they are attempting to describe, because if they did have such an image, they wouldn’t misuse the metaphor in the first place. Although the essay is concerned primarily with the use of worn-out metaphors and turns of phrase, he did point out that the purpose of using a metaphor in the first place is to provide an image that enables the reader or listener to grasp the point being made more easily.

One of the examples he used was the phrase ‘to toe the line’, meaning to conform, to avoid stepping beyond accepted norms and conventions. He pointed out that it was often written ‘to tow the line’, which is possible, given that ‘line’ is a synonym for ‘rope’, which can be towed, but the perverted version sows confusion rather than providing clarity.

The latest specimen of careless usage from BBC journalists is not quite so blatant, but it is clear that those who use it are not thinking about what they are saying. Sports fans will be aware that the Australian Open tennis championship started this week. It is being billed as the season’s ‘first grand slam’. In contract bridge, a grand slam is a commitment in advance to take all thirteen tricks, so I think that it is reasonable to assume that a grand slam in tennis would be winning this championship, plus the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, preferably in the same year, these being the four major championships in tennis. This feat may be impossible in the modern era, given the small differences in skill between the top players; nevertheless, it is ludicrous to describe individual championships as ‘grand slams’. Each of the four should be described as ‘a grand slam event’, although perhaps tennis, and tennis commentators, would do better to copy golf and refer to the four national championships mentioned as ‘the four majors’ and thus avoid the hyperbole.

other posts in this series
1. BBC English.
3. More or Less.
4. Making an Impression.
5. Explaining Science.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

bbc english

Do you shout at the television set? I certainly do. Almost the only programmes I watch nowadays are the news bulletins, so you might guess that I’m upset about the bias being shown. The BBC is frequently accused of bias, but this isn’t what annoys me. Bias, if it exists, is easily seen through. My gorge rises in response to sloppy, imprecise use of language, which is all but ubiquitous in the modern era.

‘BBC English’ used to be touted as an exemplar of how my native language should be spoken, but if it still is then something is seriously wrong. The BBC is as guilty of shoddy use of language as every other media outlet providing news coverage. The standard of its journalism has slipped alarmingly in the last two decades, which probably reflects the abandonment of the teaching of English grammar in the UK that began with the introduction of ‘comprehensive’ education in the 1960s (for non-British readers, ‘comprehensive’ here refers to the heterogeneity of a school’s student population, not to the breadth of the curriculum).

The item that caught my attention on the BBC World News last night was not an especially egregious example of this trend, but it is entirely typical of the state of play. According to the newsreader, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist had been killed by a ‘car bomb’ in Tehran. This sounds reasonable enough, and you may be wondering why I took exception to it. However, a car bomb is a car used as a bomb, while the unfortunate nuclear scientist was actually killed by a bomb attached to his car. To compound the error, the newsreader continued by stating that the bomb had been attached to the underside of the car. This part of the report was voiced over footage of the scientist’s car, the top of which was covered by a blue tarpaulin. The underside of the car was clearly undamaged, but despite the tarpaulin it was possible to see that the passenger cabin had been severely damaged. The bomb was in fact a high-tech magnetic device attached to the side of the car.

The error was repeated this morning on the BBC News website:
The US condemns the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in a car bomb attack in north Tehran.
Is this pedantry? I think not. It is merely my reasonable expectation that when someone speaks, or writes, they set out their thoughts in a clear, precise and unambiguous manner. Pedantry is insisting that a word like ‘agenda’ is plural (technically it is, but it would be pedantic to labour the point).

Because, as I outlined above, the BBC’s use of English is now so lamentably poor, I propose to highlight particularly egregious examples from time to time. In fact, I’ve just found myself guilty of what I accuse the BBC of doing: its use of English is not merely poor, as I’ve suggested; it’s a-bomb-inable.

other posts in this series
2. Grand Slam.
3. More or Less.
4. Making an Impression.
5. Explaining Science.

Friday, 6 January 2012

a momentary lapse of concentration

Whenever I make a mistake, I always try to work out why I made the mistake and how I can avoid making the same mistake in future. This is especially important with those activities that require a measure of physical and mental skill, such as driving. It’s the only road to improvement, because constant practice is pointless if you’re not aware of any errors being made (and most errors are trivial, most of the time).

With this in mind, and with nothing else to do for five days but lie on my back in the local hospital following the unfortunately premature end to our last Saturday morning adventure of 2011, I spent quite some time trying to work out why I fell off my bike while negotiating a bend that I’ve negotiated hundreds of times in the past without mishap.

Admittedly, the bend in question is quite sharp, but I certainly wasn’t going too fast, even though the bend is at the bottom of a long downslope on the cycle track from road level. One likely clue is that the crash was precipitated by scraping my right-hand pedal on the ground. I was sprawled in a heap on the ground within a small fraction of a second of this happening, with no chance of regaining control.

But why would I allow my pedal to scrape the ground? I learned long ago that it is prudent to freewheel around tight bends to avoid precisely this fate, although on the odd occasion when it had happened in the past there had been no dangerous repercussions. Still, freewheeling is the safe option.

However, the bend leads into a short subway, beyond which the track continues back up to road level. And the upslope begins at the bend. It was at this point that I remembered I’d found myself in too high a gear and foolishly decided to change down as I rounded the bend. But in order to change gear, it is necessary to pedal. Ooops! You can be sure I’ll be checking which gear I’m in the next time I have to tackle this bend.

Unfortunately, that next time will not be before March. Although I was banged a bit about the head, that’s what helmets are for, and mine performed according to its job specification. However, my left knee took the full force of my downward momentum, and I ended up with a fractured patella and a plaster cast from ankle to groin, which I shall have to put up with for the next six weeks.

This also means that I probably won’t be posting much for a few weeks, because sitting at a computer for any length of time is rather uncomfortable. On the other hand, I do have at least a dozen posts at various stages of completion, so once the discomfort has eased, you can expect quite a lot from me within a short period, including the real reason for the 2008 financial crisis, a complete overview of black music in the 1960s, the psychology of law-breaking, and why the Saturday morning adventure is so much fun, as long as concentration is never allowed to become anything less than total. The consequences of any lapse can be painful.

Monday, 2 January 2012

wounded knee

a special piece of thought from paula
Cycling has become a part of life in the past seven or eight years for my husband and me as we have found so much joy and challenges, despite how many times we do the same route. As Dennis described our favourite route, going to Sham Chung in previous blog post, we enjoyed every trip to the place as we enjoyed both the food and the chat with Tom. This Saturday, the last day of 2011, we repeated the same route and had a very special treat by Tom, who served us a fantastic combination of seafood, including scallops, shrimps and clams, with broccoli and crispy pan-fried noodles. As we had finished the noodle of the town, we headed back with a full stomach thinking that it was another wonderful experience before the end of 2011.
Pan-fried noodles with seafood combination

On the 22-mile homeward journey, we passed many cycling groups and did not encounter any hazards, which can happen on weekend afternoons in the cycling lanes. After one and half hours of cycling heading back to Fanling, Dennis fell off his bike as he approached the end of a downward slope while making a sharp right-hand turn into a subway. He felt a heavy impact on his knee. I was right behind him and saw the accident but could not help to stop it.

My immediate response was to call 999. As I was waiting for the ambulance, I immediately moved his bike aside in case there were cyclists passing the corner. When the ambulance staff arrived, they made a speedy examination. Dennis could not straighten his left leg, and it was taped to his right leg. Meanwhile, I had our bikes locked up first, knowing that I would be accompanying Dennis to the nearby hospital, and I noticed that the chain of Dennis’s bike had come off when I tried to push it.

As we were in the ambulance, Dennis’s blood pressure and pulse were being monitored. The ambulance staff were quite surprised how fit Dennis was as a result of the regular cycling, with a pulse of 56 and blood pressure readings of 110 and 68. It did not take too long to reach the hospital. After taking an X-ray, the pain was caused by the direct impact and the patella was cracked. So, Dennis had to be hospitalized; there was no other choice.

Arriving at the orthopaedic ward, Dennis was set to a bed next to a window. A doctor on duty came and assessed the condition of Dennis’s knee. As he did some twist and turn to the knee, I saw a growing mushroom as some internal tissues were ruptured, causing swelling above the knee. I could hear Dennis making excruciating noises and see him expressing pain on his face when the doctor asked him to keep the left leg extended in an elevated position. Not long afterwards, two staff members came with a trolley with stuff to prepare a temporary cast for Dennis. It did not take too long to have the left leg wrapped with bandages and the cast. This was how Dennis experienced the last day of 2011 and he misses the live contact with the world. However, he has been told that he will need an operation to repair the damage and will be out of action for at least six weeks.

Dennis in hospital