Upon Couches and Sofas

August 26, 2011

We went out on Sunday to the mall to buy some socks. I don’t know what happens to them, but for some reason about every five years I have to buy more of the damn things as their predecessors go AWOL one by one. I bought seven pairs in a pack, very nifty ones made in China with colour coded heel and toe inserts which means each sock can be reunited with its correct mate when they come out of the washing machine. But this post isn’t about socks. On our way out of the mall we dropped in to the House and Home to look at microwaves, and emerged about twenty minutes later the proud owners of a new leather lounge suite. This was a spur-of-the-moment purchase, but still necessary–the old cane suite has become increasingly rickety and lumpy for some time and is now the property of the dog.

Sofas


Now this has caused words to be exchanged between myself and the owner of my heart, Scallywag. There have been no recriminations as to cost, or the tastefulness or otherwise of the colour or design, the problem is that I call the two elements of the suite that seat more than one person sofas, and she calls them couches.
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English Patient

June 14, 2010

I think that what I think is worth sharing. In order to share my thoughts I must express them with as much precision and as clearly as possible, which means I must care about the language I use. I must think about things like spelling and punctuation, and how to set out the words in a way that will make the ideas they express easily accessible to the person reading them. I am not a natural stylist like Anthony Burgess or Bernard Levin, but I work hard to make things easy for my readers.

William Shakespeare


Alas, it seems I am a member of a fast-disappearing minority. Almost no one cares about how they present themselves on paper (or, and this may be part of the problem, electronically). I read emails, blogs, cell phone text messages, online forums and even professionally produced writing in newspapers and online that show that the writer has scant regard for the language which is his medium of communication. Here are some of the things that annoy me most.

Capitalization. This isn’t hard to do. Just press the shift key at the same time as an alphabetic character and it comes out as a capital letter. It is conventional to start a sentence with a capital letter, because the full stop that ends the preceding sentence is very small, and is easily missed. The capital letter provides a visual marker to the beginning of a sentence; reading text that omits capitals is harder to do. If you are too lazy to use the shift key on your keyboard, I’m too lazy to bother to read what you have written—it’s far easier for me to hit the “delete” key.

Apostrophes. Whence comes the insane compulsion to put apostrophes almost anywhere where they aren’t required? A beautifully framed sign in the ablution facilities of a former employer of mine reads: “Please remember to wash you’re hands.” A sign expensively printed and presumably displayed in all News Café franchises tells of festivities in which women will be dressed in bikini’s. The Compass group have a world cup competition in which contestants can win flat screen TV’s. Could these organizations not have had their copy proofread by someone literate before going to the expense of having them printed? Plurals seem to be where these horrible apostrophes show up most. Apart from the examples above, in the last week I’ve seen trolley’s for trolleys, Tory’s for Tories, even kitchen’s for kitchens. One candidate’s C.V. informed me that she had passed matric math’s. Needless to say, she wasn’t invited for an interview. Please, please, stop it.

Punctuation. Do not use multiple punctuation marks!!! Unless you really want your readers to think you are a moron??? This is the sort of thing perpetrated by adolescent schoolgirls and should be done by no one else. My email spam filter is set up to scan for this sort of nonsense and delete any mail that transgresses without my even seeing it. (By the way, those stupid animated bunnies, pussies and smileys you put in your mail aren’t seen by me either—I automatically convert all emails to UTF-encoded text only.)

Spelling. Deliberate misspelling is one of the most irritating abuses of language, and is becoming extremely common. I boycott such businesses as SellFone Warehouse, Cameraz, Shatterprufe, Shoprite and so on just because they annoy me and I hope that by taking my business elsewhere they will disappear. Spelling mistakes should not occur where a spell checker is available. Not checking text for spelling mistakes is laziness, and should be rewarded with the “delete” key. That said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any piece of writing that contains a complaint about spelling mistakes will itself contain at least one spelling mistake. To forestall any triumphalist crowing occasioned by the mistake’s discovery, I must tell you that I have deliberately introduced a certain number of mistakes into this post. There are no prizes for finding it or them.

Fad words, jargon and clichés. A problem is never a problem down at my office, it is an “issue”. Anything large must be described as “massive”, even if it is a lighter-than-air hot air balloon or a massless strike action. All dimensions must be given in units of tennis courts or football fields. A long time ago is always “time immemorial” and there was always a “primordial soup”. I hate the ugly word “functionality” to describe what a computer program does. What’s wrong with “features”?

Abbreviations. Don’t use them if at all possible. Acronyms and biological generic names should be spelled out when they are used the first time—never assume that your readers already know what they mean. Mr, Mrs and Dr are not followed by full stops in English, Prof. is. The rule is that if the first and last letters of the abbreviation are the same as the first and last letters of the abbreviated word, then no full stop is used. Americans use a full stop always.

Plurals. Apart from the apostrophe problem mentioned above, I have noticed that often mistakes are made with words of Latin and Greek provenance. The plural of virus is viruses, not virii. Also octopuses, platypuses and so on. On technical forums a lot of people refer to the plural of box as boxen. I have no idea why except that it sounds vaguely German. I have made myself quite unpopular for pointing out that in English the plural is boxes.

Netisms. Space does not permit me to treat of this here; it can be the subject of a future post. A good rule of thumb if you are thinking of including a netism in general communication is to think of what the Bible has to say on the subject of having sex with your sister: don’t.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Grave Doubts

March 10, 2010

How should an atheist go to his grave? Since I don’t believe in any afterlife, it really doesn’t matter to me one way or another, but I would like to make some sort of statement that would make an impression on those left behind.

Seeing as I don’t believe in any sort of immortal soul, I figured survival of the body (though dead) was my best chance of making a lasting posthumous statement. To further this end, I wrote thus to the South African Museum:-

from Mark Widdicombe Sent at 09:42 (GMT+02:00). ✆
to
date 8 March 2010 09:42
subject Specimen donation

Dear Dr Stynder,

Since I have entered my 6th decade on this planet, I have been thinking more and more about questions of mortality. One question that has been excercising me is what to do about the final disposition of my mortal remains. I am not a religious person, so there is no requirement to follow any specific ritual as regards burial; I am entirely free to have done with my remains whatever I wish.

After long thought I have decided that I would like to donate my corpse to the South African Museum. I reached this decision for two reasons: firstly, many informed persons have passed comment to the effect that I am a particularly fine specimen of humanity (I attach a photograph to prove that they were not exaggerating), and that it would be a shame were my inspiring physique to disappear upon my death; and secondly, because of my age, there is little value to be had from harvesting my organs for medical purposes.

So what better solution than to have my body stuffed and placed on display in your museum where it may inspire the constant stream of slack-jawed, tik-addled juvenile delinquents who pass daily through your doors? It would probably be best if I were placed in a macho yet tasteful pose (with a spear, perhaps?) somewhere near the main entrance where I would be most visible and thus most inspirational. But I leave such details to you.

I do need to know, however, whether you would like my body delivered fresh or packed in dry ice, and should it come to the museum or be delivered direct to your taxidermists. Please let me know as soon as possible so that I may instruct my executors accordingly and incorporate your instructions in my will.

Kind regards,
Mark Widdicombe

I honestly didn’t expect wholehearted agreement to my proposal, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the sensitive response I received:-

from Hamish Robertson
sender time Sent at 18:02 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:37. ✆
to markwiddicombe
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 8 March 2010 18:02
subject RE: Specimen donation

Dear Mark

My colleague passed your e-mail on to me and I tried passing it on to someone else to answer but it got deflected back to me, so I guess the buck has stopped with me. It is unlikely that I am going to get this right because if I take you completely seriously my answer will sound a big joke if you were joking and if I take your letter as a joke and you were actually deadly serious, you would, quite rightly, be offended by my flippant answer.

Let’s put it this way. It is beyond dispute that you have a very impressive body and I have no doubt that it would be an immensely popular attraction if we were to mount it for display in the museum (holding the strategically placed piece of firewood would be more interesting than the spear and perhaps you could be holding a piece of boerewors in the other hand). HOWEVER,

1. I am pretty sure it is illegal for us to accept human bodies – we are not registered for this sort of thing.

2. You still strike me as being still young and strong and you could still be alive and well 40 years or so hence, by which time our circumstances could have changed substantially – we can’t take on a commitment of this importance so far in advance.

3. While the idea of getting stuffed after you have died might appeal to you, you need to be much more hairy for this type of mounting procedure to look good. Humans are generally portrayed in museums through casting of individuals from moulds that are taken while alive although this in itself is controversial and rarely done these days.

So, while I am grateful to you for considering the generous donation of your body to the museum, we cannot possibly accept and I am afraid you will probably need to consider some of the more conventional options for the disposal of your body that are not nearly so interesting.

Regards
Hamish

Hamish G. Robertson
Director Natural History Collections
Iziko Museums of Cape Town
25 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town
P O Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 4813849
Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 4813993
Mobile: 083 4629561
Email:
Website: http://www.iziko.org.za
http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org

So, with hopes dashed, I could only bravely hide my disappointment:-

sender time Sent at 13:08 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:58. ✆
to Hamish Robertson
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 9 March 2010 13:08
subject Re: Specimen donation
mailed-by gmail.com

hide details 9 Mar (1 day ago)

Dear Hamish,

Thank you for your response. I do understand your concerns regarding the legality of accepting bodies; I thought you might have special dispensation because of your research on bodies, albeit ones not recently deceased.

We shall have to fall back on plan B, which entails dropping the corpse from an aeroplane or helicopter into a region of the Kruger Park bountifully furnished with scavengers like hyenas and vultures. In this way I can make a posthumous contribution to the natural economy.

Kind regards,

Mark Widdicombe

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


Words

August 21, 2009

There is a phenomenon known as sensitisation whereby a person who has previously had no problem with, say, eating shellfish suddenly experiences a severe allergic reaction to it. The same thing is happening to me, but with a word rather than anything I eat. The word is “massive”. I hear it all the time, almost always used inappropriately. Listening to radio news this morning, I learned how a former senior politician had suffered a massive heart attack, there are massive fires putting residences at risk, there is massive relief now that the massive transport strike is over. Between the news and the weather came a commercial for Cape Union Mart where, apparently, massive savings are to be had, then we were informed of a massive cold front due to make landfall tomorrow. Is this a “fad” word that has just come into vogue and is being flogged to death, or has it always been so misused and I have only recently started to notice it? I have news for any media person who reads this: massive does not mean big. Look it up.

__________________________________________________________

Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

The controversy over poor Caster Semenya’s sex has shone the spotlight on an elephant (well, perhaps not an elephant, but at least a medium-sized rhino) in the room. Caster is an eighteen year old South African athlete who won the world championship gold medal for the womens 800m yesterday. She has a deep voice, some facial hair and a well-developed musculature, so she is being accused of not being a proper woman by some, others baldly state that she is a man. This, of course, is nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the media confuse sex and gender. What is at issue here is Caster’s sex, not her gender. She may exhibit some masculine attributes, but her sex is female and she is therefore eligible to compete as a woman. Take a look at the accompanying photo. I, for one, would not like to meet any of these women in a dark alley, but that does not alter the fact that they are, nonetheless, women. Caster’s mom, Dorkus, is even more masculine than her daughter; in fact she makes Arnold Schwartzenegger look slightly pansyish. Sex is a binary variable, either male or female, gender is more a continuum, a mixture of masculine and feminine attributes. The media confuse these two things because they are so coy they blush to their roots even to think about sex, much less say the actual word.

___________________________________________________________

Talking about binary variables: either something is unique (one of a kind) or it isn’t. Please, please stop saying that so-and-so is “very unique”, it makes no sense because it is nonsense. Have you ever heard of anyone being “slightly dead”?

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.