Plumb compote? Bring on the lead poisoning *

God help me, it may define me as an old git – as though any more evidence was needed – but I do like a nice piece of grammar.

Yes, thanks, I’ll have half a pound of that juicy grammar, lean please. Just wrap it up in brown paper. And here’s some old pence in exchange. (Don’t think I can stretch the analogy to realistic amounts of half crowns, shillings and sixpences. I’m not that old a git.)

The most important thing about good grammar is that it aids clarity. Usually.

I used to enjoy writing grammatically correct sentences for certain broadcasters. When scanning the scripts they would pause, smile, look round and nod. It would only work with a few. And it was so unusual they’d immediately realise it was my hand.

Social snobbery: A gerund 'cuts' a gerundive

At this point any Swiss readers will be scratching their heads, bewildered. So for their benefit, let me remind them that no native English speaker knows what a gerund is. Except Cultural Snow perhaps. And a few teachers. And they’re clearly foreign agents masquerading as natives, who have just given themselves away. Ha ha – not so secret now, you smug spy!

So I have news from that one small Gaulish village – lets call it Grammarix – still holding out against the Roman invaders, that one of the warriors has hung up his sword. (See village on map top left.)

He’s Simon Heffrix Heffer, Daily Telegraph columnist, associate editor and “ever vigilant scourge of style guide transgressions”, who is leaving the paper to do other things.

Here are some highlights from his internal communication with other newspaper staff.

There have been so many literals this week that I suspect some of you either never could spell, or have given up trying. Perhaps my favourite was ‘hocky mom’, followed by ‘plumb compote’ (bring on the lead poisoning). One reader, having spotted the words “Chrsitmas” and “adminsitration” in the same story wondered whether our newsroom was now being run by ‘mnokeys’.

Please remember that nouns take adjectives and verbs take adverbs. A pair of shoes could be easier to walk in, but they are walked in more easily. We allowed the phrase ‘me and my colleagues’ to appear in the paper the other day, and not in quotes, which was close to unforgiveable. As for where ‘a man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leaving his repossessed home’ came from, I cannot begin to fathom.

The style book also reminds us that our readers tend to eat Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner; this is not the Daily Star. Unless we are referring to a repast that is specifically to be held in the evening, be careful to refer to Christmas lunch in all those mouth-watering articles you are preparing about festive food. Somebody actually allowed a piece of copy through this week with the adjective ‘posh’ in it (it was not a reference to Mrs Beckham, and nor was it being used satirically). It was lucky this was spotted and removed before a nasty accident occurred. I repeat: we are not the Daily Star.

There are many reasons to avoid using long sentences when writing. An obvious one is that the message is transmitted to the readers most easily when it is concise. Another is that an array of clauses can sometimes cause confusion. When we wrote that ‘on Thursday, the body of 45-year-old darts fan Philip Hughes, from Slough, was recovered from beneath ice in a frozen lake in Fimley Green, Surrey, where he had been watching the BDO darts world championships’ we reported something not only tragic but also remarkable.

Lay is a transitive verb (I lay down a case of claret every month; she laid the table), lie an intransitive one (he lies over there; she lay in bed until noon). Do not confuse them.” More colloquially, lay is also a transitive verb as in “She laid one on him for being sexist.

I would not normally note literals but there have been some horrors lately… The ‘Large Hardon Collider’ was taken off the web quickly, thank God: but describing the murdered toddler James Bulger as James Bugler was around much longer, and was exceptionally embarrassing.

One of our journalists aged dramatically overnight when writing the sentence: ‘Although now 80, I hear that she…’, making himself the subject of the sentence in which he actually meant to describe an octogenarian. He should have written ‘I hear that she, although 80…’ We wrote a piece laughing at Birmingham city council for spelling ‘its own name wrong’. Fortunately, the council does not seem to have retaliated by laughing at us for not knowing when to use the adverb ‘wrongly’ instead of the adjective ‘wrong’.

He’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Big fan of Enoch Powell, for instance. You can find more of Simon Heffer’s style notes here. A few years ago he sent a long email to colleague berating them for falling standards. It’s available in book form too. (You can look it up yourself. I’m linked out.)
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I realise that by adopting what could be (completely misinterpreted as) a holier than thou attitude on grammar, I have laid myself open – and deserve – to have all my errors highlighted and ridiculed. I’d just like to say, those weren’t mistakes. I did it them on purpose.
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(* “Plumb compote? Bring on the lead poisoning.” – was not the original title of this post. I was going to call it something like – Gauleiter of the Grammar Gestapo hangs up his gun. But following on from the Why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin? post, I though it might be an awkward or inappropriate juxtaposition. What do you think?)

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Plumb compote? Bring on the lead poisoning *

  1. This is a well post. You wrote it good. A while back a retired English teacher found 137 grammatical errors and imprecise wording in one day’s Miami Herald.

  2. I do indeed know what a gerund is. Strangely enough, the first time I became aware of the word was when I saw that very same picture (think it’s from How To Be Topp, may be wrong) and the joke went way over my head. I worked it out eventually.

    I am also a spy.

  3. Paul – Thank you for the laugh as I enjoyed my morning cup of tea! Always a great way to start the day.

  4. You don’t do errors, you make them. Tch tch.
    Happily, my grammar and spelling has always been excellent. Can’t say the same for my cooking skills.

  5. Or should I say my grammar and spelling have….
    For excellent read slightly less than excellent.

  6. You have given me a laugh Paul and I’m grateful. Bring on the lead poisoning…

    YOU, holier than thou … never.

  7. Juxtaposition sums it up nicely thank you. I could not help taking a dig at your holiness in response to your response to my comment yesterday! Now that is the problem with modern English language usage, or abusage?

  8. Barbara

    Oh my – this was very funny! It grates on my nerves when people say, “Me and him went to the store…” Grrrr….

  9. I is well impressed with ya finely blog and me is smiling profusely 🙂 Me bestest go a checkin’ out me spellin’ and grammerisation in case me’s made the odd grammatical and spellin’ errors 😉

  10. Bad grammar bugs me, too. And bad punctuation. I get really annoyed when people don’t use enough commas. I definitely don’t know what a gerund is. It sounds like a strange type of animal or vegetable.

  11. God my grammar’s tragic. Seriously flawed for one who likes to write and that is something up with which I shall not put. Dammit, need to do a course. Apparently I’m a commaphile as well. Thank God for friends who proofread.

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