Three shiny spinning discs

Ironman 3.

Once again Tony Stark dons his tin trousers and jacket to give villainy a damned good drubbing. This time his opponents are genetically engineered humans who can blow themselves up and regenerate afterwards. They are led by the Mandarin. “I gonna kick yo’ ass,” says Tony on TV. The Mandarin, not one to back down from a challenge, destroys Stark’s home.

“He’s missing something,” said one studio exec. “A youthful sidekick.”

“It’s all about the money,” muttered Robert Downey Jr.

“And panic attacks,” said another exec. “Audiences love flawed heroes.”

“I know! I know!” said one of the younger execs, who was prone to excited outbursts. “The Mandarin is a drug addict.”

“A failed actor who’s a drug addict,” added an older, wiser head. There were nods of approval. “A comic turn.”

“Who would play him?” asked the first exec.

“Ben Kingsley. He’s been whining about being cast as a villain ever since he arrived in Hollywood. And he’ll pull in British audiences.”

“But what about the real villain?”

“Mel Gibson.” Laughter shook the room. “Guy Pearce – if he can lose the weight.”

“I think that’s Val Kilmer.”

Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Wrath of Khan remake. Er, well… That’s it!

The Day of the Doctor.

Matt Smith and David Tennant team up with John Hurt (as a younger incarnation of the Doctor) as he prepares to destroy Gallifrey and end the Time War against the daleks. In the meantime, the zygons have been embedding themselves in 3D oil paintings in the 16th century so that they can invade Earth in the 21st. They’re forced to the negotiating table and quietly forgotten. The Doctor solves the Gallifrey problem by having all the incarnations of himself freeze Gallifrey in time, thus saving himself a great deal of angst. There was also a cameo by Tom Baker, and Billie Piper played the avatar of the ultimate weapon.

As for the other Doctors, three of the actors are dead, Christopher Ecclestone isn’t interested, and Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy have all vanished from the face of the Earth. It might’ve been nice to have had the Master in the mix.

The Day of the Doctor was a small step above the usual Christmas special fare, which typically stretches some already skinny plot to its limits. On the other hand, the zygon subplot could easily have been removed without hurting the overall story.


After some frost giants try to recover a stolen artefact from Asgard at the very moment Thor is about to become king, he and his friends got to Jotunheim to teach the giants a lesson.

It all goes a bit wrong, and it’s only Odin’s intervention that saves the day. Thor is banished to Earth and will only be able to wield his hammer, Mjölnir, again when he proves himself worthy. In the meantime, he’s just going to have to tolerate Natalie Portman drooling all over him.

Back in Asgard, Loki confirms that he’s actually a frost giant. Odin falls into a coma, and Loki becomes king, but makes a secret pact with the frost giants, offering them a way into Asgard so that they can kill Odin. In fact, it’s so that he can kill them to make himself look heroic. Loki also dispatches a robot to kill Thor.

Thor’s friends head to Earth to help him. The robot arrives. There’s a big fight and the robot kills Thor, who sacrifices himself, and thus proves himself worthy of Mjölnir, a device which can resurrect the dead.

With his hammer back in his possession, Thor jets off to Asgard, defeats Loki, and smashes Bifrost, thus cutting off the link to Earth.

What’s the deal with Thor’s weird accent? Is this how the Americans think Scandinavians (excluding the Finns, who speak a Uralic language) speak? He also turns up like some muscle-bound Jesus, dies for someone’s sins and gets raised from the dead (which, in Norse mythology, is kind of what Odin does, but for far creepier reasons).

And with Thor, I believe I’ve seen all of the Marvel-based films to date. Like others in the series, I’m shrugging indifferently. Possibly if I was to watch them in order, I would get some epic cinematic sequence of films, although that would not necessarily make them any better. If anything, Thor reminds me of antique Flash Gordon films, but future generations won’t be muttering, “Wires.”

Cinnamon and Gunpowder: a novel

By Eli Brown.

Hannah Mabbot is a fearsome pirate, who gatecrashes Lord Ramsey’s dinner party, kills him, and abducts his chef, Owen Wedgwood. The terms of Wedgwood’s captivity are that he has to make Mabbot dinner once a week or he’ll end up sleeping with the fishes. Conditions on the ship, the Flying Rose, are not ideal for cordon bleu cookery, but Wedgwood achieves culinary magic every week, and is asked to dine with Mabbot on each occasion.

When the chef is not cooking or trying to escape, he tries to teach the deaf cabin boy, Joshua, to read and write.

The captain herself is pursuing the Brass Fox, who seems to have supernatural abilities and who, as Wedgwood finds out during the course of a failed escape attempt, is Mabbot’s son by Lord Ramsey. The target of mother and son is the Pendleton Trading Company, which is importing opium into China. (There’s a lot of “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”, and Mabbot punishes one sailor very severely for getting high.) At the same time, they are being pursued by Captain Laroche, whose ship is equipped with all manner of hi-tech gadgets.

But it turns out that the Brass Fox (whose actual name is Leighton) wants to take Pendleton over where his mother wants to destroy it. There’s a fight and the Brass Fox is killed by a stray bullet while his mother is badly wounded and subsequently nursed back to health by Wedgwood with whom she forms a personal bond.

Once Mabbot has recovered, she decides to use the cache of explosives stored in secret tunnels beneath Pendleton’s HQ to blow the place to smithereens.

In the escape, the Flying Rose has to run the gauntlet of a typhoon and the Royal Navy, and just as it seems it may be safe, Laroche captures it. However, in his moment of triumph, it turns out that Mabbot wasn’t quite as mortally wounded as it seemed, and she kills him before falling into a watery grave. The rest of the crew manage to seize Laroche’s ship and turn the tables on their attackers.

Finally, Wedgwood is deposited on the east coast of the US where Joshua is returned to his family.

At first I thought that Brown was going to avoid Americanisms because the story is about English characters, but inappropriate words, which no 19th-century Englishman probably ever used, kept sneaking in. The culminated in the neologism, “repurpose”, which (to the best of my knowledge) is a wholly 21st-century creature, and which got used three times in short, grating succession.

Just as the vocabulary was American at times, the characters were contemporary Americans pretending to be 19th-century Britons. Mabbot kept referring to Wedgwood as “Wedge” and he typically addressed her as “Hannah”. For reasons which were never wholly clear (because Wedgwood didn’t seem to be a romantic lead), the captain fell for her chef. although when they did kiss, a cannonball interrupted them and tragedy followed.

This Hollywood moment characterises a lot of the book. While large swathes would make for a dull, dull film, there is plenty of swashbuckling, and it’s hard not to suspect that Brown was writing with an eye on Hollywood. Mabbot and Wedgwood’s moment of happiness is promptly ruined; the crew of the Flying Rose is captured, but manages to escape about ten minutes later and take control of Laroche’s ship; and there’s the ending in which Wedgwood doesn’t make his way home to England, but rather to America (in red, white and blue letters).The steampunk element, Laroche’s ship, also lends itself to Hollywood with all the spectacle of pseudo-lasers and AWACS balloons.

What’s the book really about? At a guess, this is some sort of satire on corporate America and capitalism.

Brown is a decent writer and overall Cinnamon and Gunpowder is not a badly written book, but he seems to be unable to write plausible non-American characters. American readers who want pirates and romance will probably enjoy the book, but for anyone in the English-speaking world who has the slightest sense of how English people behaved in the 19th century, the tone will feel odd.

‘King of Gore’ joins T rex family tree | Science | The Guardian

‘King of Gore’ joins T rex family tree | Science | The Guardian.

The King of Gore also highlights ignorance of Classical Greek and word formation among palaeontologists. λύθρον (neuter, which can also be λύθρος [masculine]) has a stem λύθρ(ο)-, the final vowel of which is elided when the following element begins with a vowel. My first thought was that the word was an n-stem, but it is actually a neuter o-stem.

The sole recorded compound is λυθρ-ώδης “defiled with gore”, with the stem vowel duly elided.

The noun ἄναξ “lord, master; king” is an interesting case because it was Ϝάναξ [wanax] at the time The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed. It explains why word-final VC-syllables are sometimes scanned as heavy before a word which otherwise seems to begin with a vowel.

When Homer was composing his poems, the presence of digamma would have resulted in the retention of the stem vowel, and the compound would presumably have ended up as λυθροάναξ in Classical Greek because of this lost consonant. Even if later speakers of Greek were unaware of the digamma, the compound would have been λυθράναξ with the stem vowel of the first element elided, not the initial vowel of the following element.

Although I cannot speak for all languages on this particular point of morphology, the principle in Greek was obviously that the root remains intact or, OT-like terms, Root » Stem Vowel.

I can only hope that palaeontologists have some official naming body and that it’s not too late to correct this faux pas.

Splice me main clause, Mr Christian

I think there’s some grammar in there.

I generally avoid teaching grammar,1 which is, in my view, the domain of Chinese English teachers. I do occasionally deal with word formation to test and enhance the vocabulary of students, but I don’t have much to say about the rest. Syntax mostly gets dealt with in feedback on writing tasks, and phonology when students start referring to Scout Finch as Scott.

This year we have a departmental grammar initiative according to which we cover a different aspect of grammar with which students typically have problems. I’m dealing with comma splices, fused sentences, and sentence fragments

Comma splices are sentences which are ended with a comma instead of a full stop. Fused sentences are adjacent sentences which lack any mediating punctuation. Sentence fragments are standalone  phrases or subordinate clauses.2

I trawled the Internet for exercises in these things, but was dismayed to find that many of the exercises for comma splices were little more than a matter of replacing the comma with a full stop, and those for fused sentences were solved by adding a full stop in the right place. A few exercises were a little more sophisticated, requiring students to combine sentences with an appropriate conjunction. By and large, though, this wasn’t a matter of grammar, but, in fact, punctuation.

Punctuation is not part of grammar even if such marks have a system of use. Like writing with which it is associated, it is artificial and doesn’t affect how English grammar is described.

Where native speakers might butcher punctuation, this is not to say that their actual sentences are ungrammatical. The omission of the comma in the previous sentence doesn’t make it ungrammatical; nor does the omission of the full stop; nor the presence of a comma in place of the full stop. The presence or absence of such marks depends on the situation. In the sort of writing my pupils do for me, I insist on the conventions to be correctly applied whether the style of writing is formal or informal. If they were on some online forum, punctuating every sentence with commas, it is of no concern to me.3 In other words, what is appropriate in the context?

In the case of comma splices etc., has punctuation been mistaken for syntactic failings? Possibly not.

I recalled something I had read about the limited scope of use of Chinese words for “and”, and after a little investigation, I found that they can only be used to join NPs.4 Thus the comma splices which occur with depressing regularity in students’ writing may be a consequence of this. While it’s possible to say “The cat and the dog” in Chinese, it’s not possible to say “The cat saw the dog, and the postman saw the cat”. Many of my students would write

The cat saw the dog, the postman saw the cat.
The cat saw the dog. And the postman saw the cat.

The second sentence is probably more advanced than the first in that the student knows that there should be a conjunction there, but still doesn’t understand properly that the two clauses can be joined directly together.5

Thus this would appear to be a matter of syntax, namely the use of “and” in English.

Fused sentences, as described above, are actually quite rare in the writing of Chinese students, but they do write sentences which are fused in that two main verbs occur in the same clause. I ought to keep a running record of these things because I strongly suspect they are Chinglish. Some may be 的 or 得 constructions; quite a lot could probably be fixed with a relative pronoun. This, too, is a matter of syntax.

Sentence fragments, on the other hand, do seem to be a matter of punctuation, the worst of which is the all too frequent abuse of “because”. Where I can understand how differences in Chinese and English grammar can lead to errors in the use of “and”, I find the misuse of “because” puzzling.

There are differences in the use of “because” and 因为. For example, Chinese conjunctions are often in correlative constructions which sometimes spill over into English so that I get “Although…, but…” constructions following 虽然… 可是… constructions in Chinese. However, I can’t recall seeing “Because…, therefore…” (因为… 所以… in Chinese) in any piece of English writing. I wonder whether 因为… 所以… is more common than “[main clause], 因为…” in Chinese, and thus it’s a habit for Chinese students to treat “because” as the start of a new sentence in English regardless of its relationship to any adjacent clause; but I have no definitive explanation for this perpetual and plaguesome error.


  1. By “grammar” I mean the whole system and not just “syntax”.
  2. This may be true in some cases, where the clause appears to be a well-formed sentence in its own right. In other cases, the main clause is adjacent, but the wrong punctuation has been used.
  3. All right, it’d annoy me because it would be a display of ignorance and casual indifference.
  4. Words for “and” in Chinese are 和 (hé), 跟 (gēn; also a preposition), 同 (tóng; used in southern China), and 与 (traditional 與; yǔ; literary). I surmise that these were perhaps all prepositions, which would account for them being restricted to co-ordinating NPs.
  5. It’s also found quite often when “but” is used, and quite probably for the same reason.