Tag Archives: bad English

The Party of Dulness

Some people cannot brain today; others cannot brain at all.

I ran into Academics chastised for bad grammar in letter attacking Michael Gove on the Guardian by chance this afternoon. There’s actually a second (meta) article about it, which has all the amateur linguists crawling out of the woodwork and making pronouncements about language which, with a few exceptions, reveal once again that the amateurs need to keep their cake holes shut and leave language to the professionals.

It all began with an open letter to Michael Gove, the nation’s Schoolboy-in-Chief, back in March about standards in education and teaching, which has been criticised for its bad grammar. One passage came in for particular excoriation:

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Quite, quite dreadful. Really?

Much was made of the opening sentence by Nevile Gwynne, who was one of the judges in their dubious competition. To quote directly from the Guardian article (since I don’t have the wit to paraphrase this level of genius):

Presumably they mean something like ‘demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much’, but, as worded, it simply is not English,” he said. “In that sentence as worded, ‘too young’ can only be two adverbs, ‘too’ qualifying the adverb ‘young’, and ‘young’ qualifying the verb ‘demands’, as would, for instance, ‘soon’ or ‘early’. But ‘young’ is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb. And it certainly is not doing the work of an adjective in that sentence, because there is no noun that could be ‘understood’ and which would turn that sentence into English.

Let’s have a look at that sentence again with a few simple function labels.

[Much of it]S [demands]V [too much]dO [too young.]A

Let’s then ask Gwynne whether he has any problems with a sentence such as

[Gwynne]S [read]V [a new book]dO [every day.]A

According to his reasoning, this isn’t a possible sentence either because “every day” is an NP, and just as adjectives cannot function as adverbs, so NPs shouldn’t be able to function in the same way.

At worst, the sentence is stylistically clumsy with the doubling of “much”, but there’s nothing wrong with the grammar.

What about

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Well, at most Gwynne can smack them for their rhetorical lapse by not paralleling the grammar of the clauses dependent on “Little account is taken of”, but such lapses aren’t exactly unusual, and when you have to deal with someone as annoying as Michael Gove, you are inclined to yell angrily first and think afterwards.

You could also argue that the that-clause is in apposition to “little account”. I often find I use a similar construction with “reason” where I use a that-clause to state the reason, but feel vaguely uncomfortable about it. If I had to make an educated guess, I’m generalising “that” a complementiser.

Probably CGEL (if you can afford it or find it in your local library [assuming they can afford it]) will have sensible explanation for what’s happening here.

I cannot help but quote Pope yet again:

A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

If you just open a little wider

You can get your other foot in your mouth as well.

The news from the BBC is that the creator of Captain Pugwash has died at the age of 88. I’m pretty certain that I saw Captain Pugwash on TV when I was very young, but I barely have any recollection of it. Series such as Captain Scarlet and The Clangers fall into the same category: seen ’em, know the name, recall nothing about ’em otherwise. 

But we’re not here to reminisce over telly programmes from my childhood about which I can remember nothing. No, we’re here because of the English language. I quote:

Ms Gregory added: “They’re all now republished and they’re hugely successful – partly because all the parents and, indeed, grandparents now, remember the delight of Captain Pugwash.
“Grandparents bought them for their parents and their parents are now buying them for their kids.”

It’s that second part of the quote which caught my eye, which is another instance of Cynewulf and Cyneheard Syndrome in English. The pronoun references (their… their… their…) are obvious once you get to the end of the sentence, but because they’re being used anaphorically, the result is curiously messy.

Indeed, the sentence seems to become almost circular in one possible reading:

Grandparents bought them for their parents (i.e., great-grandparents).
Their parents (er, great-great-grandparents?) are buying them for their kids (i.e., great-grandparents).

I ought to make a note of this sentence and ask my students to explain to me exactly what it means. Perhaps I should tell them that it’s only when they’ve mastered the sentence that they will’ve mastered the English language and need not have another lesson in it ever again.

[22.08.13. Edited for formatting. As much as I like the current theme, the rendering of the <blockquote> element is ghastly, but WP gets all quirky when I try to use <p> tags as containers with internal line breaks. A <div> tag works better, but imperfectly.]

You’ve been warned

More than just the product got distorted.

Having recently felt the want of a ruler at school, I went and bought one from the shop across the road. It came with an advisory notice:

This product was easy to burning. Aloof the high temperature, please, because may-be beget any danger and the product’s definition distort.
The product only befit measure and study, unable to doother definition’s measure.
Needed the pate-rfamilias accompany, if the children haven’t3 years.

I love “Aloof the high temperature”, which has a poetic quality about it.


Purveyors of fine, educational comedy.

I was trying to find a little background information about Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and was directed to the SparkNotes site where I find

If we were walking through the dessert and stumbled upon a watch we would never once doubt that it was created by human intelligence.

I’d hope that I’d be eating the dessert sooner than walking through it.

Do stuff for free!

Do stuff you don’t pay for. It’s FREE!

So I’m over on Penny Arcade just now where Tycho’s talking about a game called Bookworm Adventures. Being a language nerd [How could we have missed that? –ed.], I thought I’d check out the link. So I get to the site and it says



Download Free!


Download the Deluxe game and play the FREE trial now!

Huh? So which is it? If I download this thing, do I get, say, a time-limited version of the full game? Or do I get the full game, but can only play a limited version of it forever, if I so desire?

I definitely don’t like the sound of this:

Our Deluxe games are ad-free and packed with lots of special effects and updated features.

For one thing, does this mean a bunch of adverts in the trial version saying

“Give your money away and get stuff in return – for FREE!”

For another, does the the trial version not include “lots of special effects and updated features”? How does it not? After all, if you’re downloading the complete game, and want to risk in-game adverts (“Danger, Will Robinson!”), surely you must be getting the whole deal.

Bookworm Adventures is probably quite an entertaining game, and the sort of thing that might be good to play with my classes as a fun way to learn some new vocab (although there’s a good chance it’s full of words like “marsupial” and “preternatural” which, as you can imagine, don’t get much mileage here), but whoever did the words on the page for it is an utter dick.

A this-and-that entry

Genitives as antecedents.

I noticed this in an article about the biography of Ted Hughes’ mistress, Assia Wevill, in The Guardian, that journal of grammatical agreement.

The book also reveals that Hughes and Wevill starting sharing Plath’s bed in the London flat where she died within two days of her suicide.

The problem with the sentence is like my recent observation about the dangling participle in the translation of the sentence in Sicilian. “She” refers back to “Plath’s”, but English isn’t fond of genitive antecedents to pronouns. I naturally read “she” as “Wevill”. I’m not sure the sentence can be satisfactorily rewritten without running into some variation on this problem. You have

  1. Hughes and Wevill started sharing Plath’s bed.
  2. It was in the London flat where Plath died.
  3. They started sharing it within two days of Plath’s suicide.

Plath is the common factor in all three parts of the sentence, but she mostly wants to be in the genitive.

This is stupid.

From Oblivion, we have the following condition for joining the Fighters Guild:

You must have a clean criminal record to join.

Huh? A clean criminal record? In Cyrodiil, it appears that everyone’s guilty of something until proven innocent. Actually, I stick my criminal record in the wash to clean it, but I hear that taking it down to a river and beating it on a stone can be quite effective. I’m also informed by knowledgeable sources that the police in China find this method to be effective with suspects as well.

Examination moments

Sounds we like to hear.

This is from the FCE-level writing exam my little darlings have just done.

The air was flesh … you could hear the birds sings, the sheep bleeding.

Remind me not to go there.

Off the rack, or tailored?

You know, this course aims at learning about Shakespeare’s life and work in a town where he was worn.

Was he machine washable or dry-clean only?

The shorter it gets, the longer it grows

You can’t hurry these things.

Meanwhile, another gaff from the Civilization IV manual. This is under several entries in the Advanced Rules section.

Construction Speed Halved

Of course, it should be “Construction Time Halved” or “Construction Speed Doubled”. But if you look at the section on Wonders, you’ll find “Production time halved by:” or “Production cost halved by:”. But both phrases have the same meaning (namely, the latter), and thus I stumble across another inconsistency.

Quite a few times on the Q3W LEM forum, newbies learning to use gtkradiant have been advised to RTFM, but it seems that we should be giving Firaxis this advice, too.