Sometimes weather is news

For example, on this occasion.
 
It’s been some time since we saw both sunshine and blue sky in Chengdu. But after a fairly awful week which culminated in yesterday’s insistent precipitation, the clouds have thinned enough to reveal that the sky is blue and the sun is yellow. There’s sunlight coming through my kitchen window, which I’m sure my pot plant appreciates.
 
I’m not normally inclined to blog about the climate, but the prolonged absence of clement weather, sunshine and blue sky makes the day worthy of mention. Perhaps I should’ve had a ‘Fair weather’ section for such entries, though there’d be few posts in there.
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Anywhere else

Rain would disrupt play.
 
Because of the utterly vile weather, which started last night and has been less or more awful ever since, I got up rather earlier this morning than I would like to have and went over to school expecting to have class. Instead, I found kids standing around the running track with their umbrellas up and the sports day continuing as if the inclement weather was merely imaginary.
 
Things lightened up at lunchtime and the rain became very slight drizzle, but by mid afternoon, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It’s been a little variable since, but there’s no sign that the clouds are going to clear away and Apollo will brighten our lives with his refulgent beams.
 
As for tomorrow, I’ll have to wait and see. I’m expecting that the weather will be much the same and that we’ll probably have class.
 
Speaking of dreadful, what was Simon Callow thinking when he signed up for Chemical Wedding? I thought it might have some slight merit, but where Sheridan le Fanu or M.R. James might’ve done something decent with a Gothic horror story about the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley, this was cheap crap. From his fee, Callow probably bought himself a recent second-hand Vauxhall Astra and had just enough change left for a pint at his local.

The Irony Awards

“And the award for Most Ironic Book Purchase goes to…”

With the sports days starting this afternoon, I thought I’d use the free time to go DVD shopping. Actually, I was only shopping for one DVD, but because I only had ¥100 notes on me,[1] I bought several besides.

I also went to the Foreign Languages Bookshop at the north end of 科华北路 [in Chengdu] because I was trying to find an English dictionary of the normal variety. I know I can use English dictionaries online. Firefox comes with a link to Chambers, but I’m not always online or necessarily in a pos­i­t­ion to go there. Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic for the days when my copy of the Concise Oxford was handy on the bookshelf for those occasions when I’d forgotten how to spell a word. Yes, such occasions exist in my world.

But I didn’t find a suitable dictionary. Those which are of the common or garden variety are usually learner’s dictionaries of a sort – beginner; inter­mediate; advanced. There are, after that, few choices for native speakers, and having surveyed the dictionaries, I went and had a look through the IELTS section where I spotted Mark Morgan’s Writing Skills for the IELTS Test.

When I first started teaching IELTS about four years ago, I had his IELTS reading book, which was definitely the best book of its kind I had. But his writing book was out of print, and in spite of periodic searches, I’ve never seen it in all this time – until today. I bought it because I may have a use for it in the future, but I probably won’t during the course of this academic year; hence, the purchase was ironic if, as it seems, I’m not going to be working for the programme beyond June next year. Also ironic was the absence of Morgan’s IELTS reading book from the shelves. I bet it’s out of print.

I also went to the other Foreign Languages Bookshop, but their selection of dictionaries was even more limited than the first place. I did buy The Collected Short Stories of Saki by H.H. Munro as some light relief from all the horror I’ve read recently, and I continue to note the inflated prices of some of the Wordsworth Classics volumes. ¥60 (£5.45) for a volume as thin as Thomas More’s Utopia is utterly ridiculous at a time when the exchange rate is just below ¥11 to £1.

Notes

1. That hasn’t happened to me in a while, but it’s annoying when it does. You either have ¥100 notes or mere 角 and nothing in between for minor purchases.

Time for some domestic relief

News from the kitchen sink.
 
demolition001 After several rather exciting entries recently, it’s time to calm the audience with some domestic trivia. I was woken at about 7.30am this morning by a lot of banging and crashing which initially I thought was very heavy rain or a thunderstorm. I’d already been hearing clattering from over the fence, but it was only today that I found the target was the old building next to the primary school. The workers were busy knocking the tiles off the roof and I fear that my coming five-day weekend may be disturbed as the building is demolished manually.
 
And why is a five-day weekend coming? Because it’s time once again for the annual school sports days. They been extended by half a day because there are more classes at school this year. As usual, the pupils are busy practising their marching routines, but don’t seem to be practising for the events themselves. I didn’t teach Class 13 this morning because their form teacher had them out on the running track and was getting them to practise their routine which involved umbrellas and gloves – one black, the other white.
 
Our usual little darlings have a test this afternoon. I’ve lengthened it so that it will, I hope, take the full forty minutes to complete. A lot of the kids rushed through the first two tests and the results were correspondingly mediocre. Admittedly, my version of the Progress Test is a little more challenging than the one in the book, but unlike the tests Ian and I devised when I first did this sort of thing, I have a much better idea of what to do. Those tests were designed to be almost impossible to pass; these ones can be passed, but I apply the criteria for IELTS to the writing so that the results don’t produce an inflated sense of success. With the Progress Tests in the book, it’s hard not to give good marks even for the most dreadful writing. I wanted the marks to be a little more realistic
 
So now I’m hoping that the rain which plagued us for well over twenty-four hours has receded. The forecast (I use the term loosely; neither Google nor The Guardian seem to have accurate forecasts for Chengdu) is claiming there’s a 66% chance of rain tomorrow, but that there should be sunny spells on Thursday and Friday. I’ve been lucky with sports days. The weather is almost always bad at this time of year. I can’t recall a single sports day that wasn’t threatened by rain; but apart from a delayed start last year, the weather has never forced a cancellation. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
 
That’s enough domestic trivia, I think. [You lost me at the title. –ed.]

Things that come out of the DVD player

The Middleman.
From what I could find out about it, the series is based on a comic book, which shows not only in its campy style, but also in its very low budget. Wendy Watson (aka Dub Dub or Dubby) is recruited by the Middleman organisation which deals with crimes of an extraordinary nature. Unlike her boss, she has a life outside of work, which often complicates matters. The Middleman himself is one of those clean-cut, square-jawed, naïve types, and quite possibly older than he seems with his old-fashioned exclamations and interest in Westerns.
Not, I thought, a series with much longevity. In fact, there appears to be no likelihood of a second series from what I can tell. The Middleman seems to be more like a starter piece for the two stars than a long-term career move. Natalie Morales seems to have talent and a better role as Wendy Watson; Matt Keesler was less fortunate with the role of the rather two-dimensional Middleman.

Pushing Daisies.
Ned discovers he can raise the dead, but at a price: he either touches them a second time to kill them permanently or someone else has to die in their place. He accidentally kills the father of the girl next door when he resurrects his mother who then dies when she kisses him goodnight. Ned grows up to become a pie maker, but his secret becomes known to a PI and they go into business together to solve murders and collect the reward. He revives the former girl next door, Charlotte Charles, after she’s murdered, but doesn’t touch her a second time. They live together, but can never touch.
Ned spends a lot of time looking like someone’s shoved a live ferret up his arse; he knows they have, but can’t decide what to do about it.
The accompanying commentary describes this as a fairy tale, which explains the narrative style, the look (Fifties-punk) and the irritatingly saccharine music. Too sugary for my taste. This is the first series; one’s enough. [02.08.14. One series was about all it got.]

From the ignorance of others…

Mr Bamboo discovers something odd about English.
 
At some time in the past, I acquired a copy of the BBC News Styleguide, probably when I started teaching IELTS writing and had began to wonder whether I was as competent a writer as I believed I was. Actually, it was for my benefit in two ways: personal for the reason I’ve just stated, and professional because I wanted to do something about the quality of writing of the IELTS class. Unfortunately, IELTS writing gives you precious little time to deal with the basics of style and rhetoric. Indeed, it might seem a little odd to try and teach style and rhetoric to a class whose IELTS level was bumping along at about a 4.0 from one week to the next, but my two concerns were expansion and sentence complexity. A typical offering for IELTS writing was short of the required word count, and your average paragraph was made of SVO or SV sentences with little else apart from the occasional use of and or but joining clauses, and that perennial error "SV(O). Because SV(O)".
 
The pupils I’ve been teaching over the past seven years would all be about IELTS 4.0 on average. The ones in 奔牛 were a little bit better; the ones in 福州 much worse. As I’ve said in the past, Chinese pupils think that foreign teacher = oral English; for them, reading and writing aren’t within our purview, but, rather, tortures for their Chinese English classes. But I digress from the topic which is the BBC News Styleguide.
 
I haven’t looked at this particular document in some time and immediately noticed a section entitled Active & Passive. Yeah, my antennae started twitching and with good reason it turns out:

Compare these examples. The first is in the passive, the second active:

  • There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.
  • Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
Er, no. I’d call the first sentence existential (I don’t know whether this is the designation de jour these days), but it’s certainly not passive and, therefore, can’t be made active because clash here is intransitive. You’d have to say

Youths threw stones in clashes with police during riots etc. (active)
Stones were thrown (by youths) in clashes with police during riots etc. (passive)

and then you could argue that the active sentence is stylistically better on this occasion.
 
In fact, I’d say that the first sentence from the Beeb’s style guide is the better one, having a more objective tone. Also, I’d judge the story to be the riots (and their cause) rather than the youths, but there’s nothing like whipping up hysteria about youth crime in the media.
 
Guardianstyle (2007), The Guardian’s style guide, says

passive voice strive for active verbs, especially in headlines:
compare “the mat was sat upon by the cat” with “the cat sat on the mat”

Two things. One, to be pedantic, it should be the active or passive voice. To me, an active verb contrasts with a stative verb, which is a different matter. Two, the example is peculiar – really peculiar. The passive is formed by making the dO of a transitive verb the subject of the verb, while the actual subject is omitted or introduced by prepositions such as by or with (e.g. The cat saw the dog → The dog was seen by the cat). But what, pray, is going on here?
 
Although The mat was sat upon by the cat sounds odd, it doesn’t sound completely wrong. It’s as if the active form is [The cat]S [sat upon]V [the mat]dO, rather than [The cat]S [sat]V [upon the mat]A. In other words, my grammar is treating sit (up)on like a transitive verb. There’s a parallel of a sort in Old English (OE). In OE, the verb onsittan "to occupy" was transitive beside the intransitive sittan "to sit".[1] Unlike OE[2], MnE has prepositional prefixes as a historical relic from the days when it was an OV language, hence sit (up)on is the modern counterpart of the prefixed verb; indeed, sit (up)on appears to have the sense "occupy". Is the low-stress preposition ending up as a clitic to the verb?
 
Is this phenomenon true of all intransitive verbs in English? Can a corresponding transitive verb be found for all combinations of intransitive verb + preposition? Is this most likely to affect intransitive verbs which are implicitly reflexive? Or intransitive verbs which can also be used transitively in other senses?

The thief ran through the park → The park was run through by the thief. (=traversed)
The pigeons were standing on the ledge → The ledge was being stood on by the pigeons. (=occupied)
The same people waited at the bus stop every day → ??The bus stop was waited at by the same people every day. (=?)
The teacher was waiting for the pupils → The pupils were being waited for by the teacher. (=awaited)

The passive form of the third sentence seems to be the most marginal to me; or should I regard "for the bus" missing by ellipsis? That is, the verb isn’t actually wait at, but wait for because at is introducing a locative PP rather than a pseudo-dO.[3],[4]
 
I’m not sure whether it’d be possible to get hold of a decent reference grammar of English to see whether this phenomenon has been noted before. One foreign language bookshop or the other might have one I could consult.
 
I’m sure that I would probably never form any of the sentences above consciously or otherwise. I’m sure that most other people wouldn’t either, but it does seem a little strange that I don’t find the sentence from The Guardian’s style guide horribly ungrammatical.
 
Notes

1. The transitive form corresponding to sittan is settan "to set, place".
2. To a certain extent; OE was really in transition between being an OV and a VO language. I don’t know whether prepositional prefixes were still a productive element of the morphology of OE, but I have my unfounded doubts.
3. As for phrases such as wait a turn, wait a moment etc., I’d classify the NPs as adverbial accusatives (like accusatives of extent of time or space) rather than dOs.
4. In OE, bīdan "wait for" took a dO in the genitive (e.g. bīdaþ Dryhtnes dōmes "They waited the Lord’s judgement"; bād sōþra gehāta "He waited for the faithful promises").

Great Ghost Stories

Selected and arranged by John Grafton.

This is an anthology with ten short ghost stories from the latter half of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th published by Dover. Three of them I’ve already read. The other seven are Dickon the Devil by Sheridan le Fanu about a man who’s frightened witless by an evil ghost; The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker in which a student trying to find a quiet place to study has a fatal encounter with the spirit of a hanging judge; in Jerome K. Jerome’s Ghost Story, a scientist is murdered by the skeleton of a wronged man who died in a cathedral; The Moonlit Road is, I believe, the second story I’ve read by Ambrose Bierce, and the second one I didn’t like the style of; The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs (which I know from one of those green-covered bilingual readers you can get here in China) is a tale about being careful what you wish for; Bone to his Bone by E.G. Swain is about the ghost of a priest who directs the current occupant of his former residence to find and reunite a missing bone with the rest of his skeleton; the final story is The Confession of Charles Linkworth by E.F. Benson, which is about the spirit of a man who was executed for murdering his mother confessing to his crime after death.

It’s pointless; it’s low budget; it came out of the DVD player

The Lazarus Project.

Petty criminal: Finally, my parole’s over.

Petty criminal’s brother: I’ve got a job for you.

Petty criminal: No thanks. I’ve already got a job.

Petty criminal’s boss: You’re fired for being a former petty criminal.

Petty criminal: OK, I’ll do the job.

During the crime, there’s a shoot-out, although the Petty Criminal didn’t kill anyone. Unfortunately, this is Texas.

Judge: You’ll be executed after a fair trial.

After the execution, the Petty Criminal has somehow survived.

Psycho criminal: You’re just like me!

Petty criminal: Something’s not right.

Evil priest: You’re making things up to cope with your tragic past.

Petty criminal: Hang on a mo’. Here’s my frisbee; here’s my dog. You guys are rubbish at covering things up. And your computer security is lame. I managed to get all the evidence from your computer without raising a sweat. I’m going home.

The Petty Criminal leaves.

Petty criminal’s wife: What were you doing there?

Petty criminal: F_cked if I know.


Dirt, Series 2.
I don’t know whether this is the entirety of the second series or the entirety as far as the writers’ strike. There are only eight episodes on the disc. The storylines are based, by and large, on the antics of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears last year. Meanwhile, Lucy Spiller is bonking one boy, but prefers another. Don Konky (spelling?) is taking his medicine and feeling normal. Not enough material to really develop anything or end on a cliff-hanger.

Some Observations on Antique Grammars of English

To which is appended a Short Note about an Antique Grammar of Italian.
 
As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you limit Google Books to full works only, you’re likely to get a lot of books published in the 19th century or earlier. I went after and found a copy of Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar with Critical Notes. Lowth has always been presented as the godfather of (hysterical) prescriptivism. I’ve never actually seen a copy of his grammar before, of which Google Books yields at least two: one published in 1775, the other in 1794. The two are substantially the same, but the former has page 157 three times (all identical) and has been bound with additional pages on which former owners have written various notes and comments; the latter, I discovered, lacks pages 44 and 45, and may have other faults I’ve yet to discover.
 
Lowth opens the preface by noting how much English has improved over the previous two centuries.[1] "[B]ut, whatever other improvements it may have received, it hath made no advances in Grammatical Accuracy." I assume that by "Grammatical Accuracy", Lowth means the same errors keep appearing time and again.[2] And he continues with the assertion that "the writings of our most approved authors often [offend] against every part of Grammar". Although I’m here to be less censorious of Lowth, this is clearly utter nonsense; nor do I have much time for a later assertion that "Grammar is very much neglected among us", or the subsequent declarations in the preface for which he has deservedly attracted such opprobrium.
 
One of Lowth’s few sensible statements is that English is "reducible to a System of rules".[3] Basically, the belief was that English, having few inflections, had little grammar. It would’ve been quite fun to have shown the boys that the language has rather a lot of grammar, certainly enough for a volume so usefully thick that it would enable those of diminutive stature to comfortably reach items on the top shelf.
 
But once you get past the preface, the grammar is amateur rather than exceptionally dogmatic. In one or two places, Lowth admits that general usage of some new-ish construction makes it acceptable. He also makes one or two references to Anglo-Saxon, noting that the assumption that the genitive ending is a contraction of his was a misinterpretation. "But the direct derivation of this Case from the Saxon Genitive Case is sufficient of itself to decide this matter" (1775:42fn. 2). On the other hand, he doesn’t appear to realise that ic wylle gan on fixoþ is not exactly equivalent to the archaic "I go a fishing".
 
He doesn’t have any major issues with prepositions being separated from some associated relative pronoun, although recommends that in (formal) written English they should be kept together (1775:163).
 
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On the other hand, Lowth loses marks when he says, "In general, the omission of the Relative seems to be too much indulged in the familiar style; it is ungraceful in the solemn; and, of whatever kind the style be, it is apt to be attended with obscurity and ambiguity" (1775:176fn. 2). There are other matters where Lowth is less forgiving such as the use of the past tense of a verb as a past participle. I’ve long suspected that this would be the modern usage if it hadn’t been artificially arrested. I suppose that the conflation of the past tense and past participle of weak verbs may have led to a similar conflation among the strong. talked:has talked::wrote:has x, where x = wrote.
 
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In other places, Lowth’s examples are interesting because the slips of the goose quill then are often the slips of the ballpoint pen today. Nonetheless a comment such as "[The imitation of the Latin ablative absolute] comes of forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language, with which it has little concern" sounds faintly ironic.
 
Lowth’s preface deserves its infamy, but his grammar is a product of its age. The one feature that I was most interested in, the so-called Split Infinitive, doesn’t even get mentioned. According to wikipedia, that doesn’t seem to have reared its ugly head before the early 1830s.
 
The Rudiments of English (1772) by Joseph Priestley is, in part, a colloquy. Like Lowth, he criticises the use of terms from Latin to describe English, and dismisses such notions as the future tense because the construction is analytic rather than synthetic. He also notes the primacy of speech as the arbiter of usage, although I’m not sure what he means by analogies when he says

We see, in all grammars, that [speech] is sufficient to establish a rule, even contrary to the strongest analogies of the language with itself. (1772:ix; my italics)

In a patriotic vein, Priestley declares

If I have done any essential service to my native tongue, I think it will arise from my detecting a great number of gallicisims, which have insinuated themselves into the style of many of our most justly admired writers. (1772:x; Priestley’s italics)

But he thinks the Gallicisms are inadvertent. Priestley also prefers to use contemporary authors rather than Swift or Addison. "By this means we may see what is the real character and turn of our language at present".[4] Priestley also thinks that books which might be regarded as light reading are good sources for observing the natural propensity and general custom of the language.

It is not from the writings of the grammarians and the critics that we can form a judgment of the real present state of any language, even as it is spoken in polite conversation. (1772:xii)

Priestley also notes that English written by Scots doesn’t preclude it from being a source of good style; by which he probably means David Hume among others.
 
Unlike Lowth, he is unimpressed by attempts to ascertain (i.e., finalise) the grammar of English, preferring to note rather than pass some judgement on this form or that. Priestley’s view is that if analogy cannot decide between "two contrary practices, the thing must remain undecided, till all-governing custom shall declare in favour of one or the other." (1772:xix; Priestley’s italics) Similarly, this means should be preferred to the pronouncements of a public Academy. Tempus uincit omnia.
 
In 1803, George Neville Ussher (The Elements of English Grammar) began his section on Rhetoric with "Grammar teaches us the proper arrangement and connection of words, and shews how they are united in a sentence." Thirty-four years later, the Rhetorick [sic] section of Kirkham’s English Grammar (1837) began, "Grammar instructs us how to express our thoughts correctly." I’ve always said I’m never wrong. Clearly I was right. The two statements go to prove that humanity grows more stupid as time passes. [Is that irony? I can never tell. –ed.]
 
"Avoid concluding a sentence with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word, unless it be emphatical," says Kirkham a little further on. This is a paradoxical phrase, being grammatical yet not, in spite of that, a correct expression. Besides, doesn’t "The dog was barking loudly" sound better than "The dog was loudly barking" even although loudly isn’t really emphatic?
 
But to return to Ussher, he has a section of improprieties some of which may be of linguistic interest such as "bates for beets" (Great Vowel Shift?), "clargy for clergy" (a pronunciation which is still found with clerk and sergeant), "dreen for drain" (curious) etc.; others are curiosities such as "cotton wool for cotton" (cotton wool = cotton thread?), or "improved for occupied" (huh?).
 
It’s a pity that Priestley’s philosophy never won general support, because the Age of Prescriptive Grammar might never have happened. On rare occasions I’m puzzled over some point of grammar, I’d want to know what the prevailing usage is; and if there was none, know that either choice was acceptable.

Appendix.
 
The Opinions of Mr Baretti, a forthright Grammarian.
A Grammar of the Italian Language by Joseph Baretti (1778) includes "A copious Praxis of Moral Sentences". While searching for these, I found this comment:

[N]o body can read [Apostolo Zeno’s] dramas without wishing that his gift of invention had been the lot of a man furnished with an harmonious soul. (p. 106)

And this one on a translation of Paradise Lost into Italian by Paolo Rolli:

These verses Rolli called Catullian endecasyllables. A pox on them! (p. 109)

The endecasyllable sdrucciolo is translated as the "slippery endecasyllable", and there are subsequent references to slippery verses. A pox on them!
 
Notes
1. In other words, the effects of the Renaissance and the expanded use of the vernacular in place of Latin; the effects of the introduction of printed books late in the Middle English period.
2. This gets me wondering what counts as grammar which is misunderstood as an error (and therefore wrongly censured) and a slip of the pen. I often omit inflectional endings or the enclitic –n’t by accident. Such omissions are in no way a reflection of my grammar since I never do such things when I’m speaking. I don’t know why I sometimes muddle up there, their and they’re unless it’s because I’m being inattentive. Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, as Horace said.
3. Remember this was the 18th century. Rules were the new black and white.
4. This sentence is interesting in another way in that you get subject-verb inversion in an indirect question in an age which might’ve been wary of such things. I do such things by accident rather than design so that although it’s a grammatical construction, it’s a stylistic faux pas.

The Atheist Bus

Sending out a strong message – probably.
 
Back in June, Ariane Sherine expressed her dismay on seeing a couple of buses festooned with religious advertising (Atheists – gimme five). She proposed that if there was a sufficient number of atheists reading and they donated a fiver each, it’d be possible to pull the same stunt for atheism. Yesterday saw the launch of the atheist bus (All aboard the atheist bus campaign) with its feel-the-punch slogan "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It seems that probably was included on the basis of Carlsberg’s famous slogan, "Probably the best lager in the world". It’s been suggested that by using probably, the company avoids charges of false advertising. Some of the suggestions for slogans proposed in the comments thread of Sherine’s original post were better. A message which is a little clever (it flatters our intellectual vanity to know we understand it) and witty will be more effective than something bland like this.
 
The probable problem for the slogan isn’t the avoidance of something which might offend the sensibilities of the religious, but rather the avoidance of something which might offend the Advertising Standards Authority. And if the ASA has such control over religious and secular advertising, it must be a higher authority than any god. [More impeachable logic, I see. –ed.]
 
Sherine’s latest commentisfree post has attracted 1036 comments. I don’t know whether that’s a record, but I’ve never seen that many before for any post there.
 
It strikes me that if you put this slogan on the side of a bus in Chengdu, the second part would be ironic. Most buses I see are packed, which makes me doubt whether anyone’s enjoying life on them.