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misplaced emphasis

This summer I have been regularly commuting to Greenwich on the Docklands Light Railway, a scenic route with spectacular buildings and great river-views; but my enjoyment of the journey has been a little spoilt by the recorded voice which announces the stations. She consistently gets the stress wrong, putting undue emphasis on the word is: “The next station is Bow Church… The next station is Heron Quays… The next station is Mudchute” etc etc. Every time I hear it I want to reply “I never said it wasn’t!”

The verb to be is not usually stressed, unless one is responding to a contrary view. Indeed it can often be elided: “The next station’s Canary Wharf” would sound just fine. I can’t understand why the recording gets it so wrong, especially since they could have done as many takes as they wanted. It reminds me of that awful quiz show with Anne Robinson where she used to say “You are the weakest link”, as if the contestant had been insisting they weren’t. I never understood why the producer didn’t say to her, “Look, Anne, you can emphasise any other word except that one”.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

sprang or sprung?

I was reading a news story in The Times yesterday, about a prisoner who escaped from jail by faking illness and losing four stone, when I was brought up short by the following: “ Walmsley, 28, is believed to have fled overseas after two men sprung him from custody…”

What? What did they do?

“They sprung him.”

But surely you mean sprang him?

“Er…”

I don’t mind ordinary people making grammar mistakes in ordinary conversations; but it never ceases to mystify me how professional writers, who earn a living from their facility with words, don’t know simple rules of English grammar. And the culprit, Fiona Hamilton, isn’t just any old hack but the crime editor of The Times. It seems to me that she needs an editor herself.

Spring is not an unusual word and many other verbs follow the same pattern. At the risk of being tedious let me explain. English verbs have a past tense, and also a past participle, which is used in perfect tenses with have/has/had. In most cases the past tense and the past participle are the same (I worked/ I have worked); but there is a large number of irregular verbs which change form (I ate/ I have eaten, I went/ I have gone etc). Now there is a fair-sized group of verbs where the middle vowel changes, and always in the same way: sing/sang/have sung; swim/swam/have swum; ring/rang/have rung; sink/sank/ have sunk; begin/began/have begun; and many more. Spring belongs in this group, as Ms Hamilton jolly well ought to know.

In the same edition of The Times, another report, about a rock-climbing exploit, included the line “attaching a rope… and pulling it taught (sic)”.

Give me strength. Don’t they have sub-editors at The Times? I’d be happy to help. I’d do it for nothing.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Britain or UK?

A couple of weeks ago Donald Trump remarked that he seldom heard the word Britain used now; everybody says the UK instead. I don’t normally find myself in agreement with Trump and I have no idea what the context of his remark was, but I have to say that he got this one right. I’m teaching English to a group of Chinese students at the University of Greenwich this summer, and whenever they refer to our beloved land they call it the UK. And when one has the tiresome task of scrolling down on websites to enter one’s country, the option is invariably given as United Kingdom, not as Britain or Great Britain.

There has been uncertainty about what we should call our nation for a long time. George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn (1940) that we have six different names for it: “England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”. Of course these names don’t all mean exactly the same thing. England is only part of the whole; Great Britain is England, Wales and Scotland; the United Kingdom is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland; the British Isles is a geographical entity which includes the whole of Ireland. Albion (although I’ve never actually heard this one used seriously) refers to England alone; the name supposedly derives from the white cliffs of Dover (albus being Latin for “white”).

My favourite term is Britain. “Britain” doesn’t really exist as a political or a geographical entity, but I like the fact that it is inclusive without being too strictly defined. I am happy to describe myself as British, as I’m half-English and half-Welsh.  Sadly one does hear Britain less often now. I don’t particularly like the term UK, and especially not in the ghastly phrase “UK plc”, but it seems to be winning.

North of Watford Gap

We drove up to Preston at the weekend (nephew’s wedding, very enjoyable) and I noted, as we went up the M1, the Watford Gap service station. People used to say that the North began at this service station; or at least southerners were often accused of thinking that. In fact Watford Gap is not really very far north, being in Northamptonshire, barely the Midlands – but you have to pass it if you’re driving up the M1, hence the expression. What’s interesting, though, is that that expression quickly became corrupted to “north of Watford”. The town of Watford is a completely different place, in Hertfordshire, even less far north. It’s only just outside London. So this mistake intensified the meaning of the expression, making southerners, and Londoners in particular, seem even more metrocentric. The mistake became entrenched, to the extent that in the 1980s there was a TV show called North of Watford; and that’s the version that almost everybody uses now. But I thought it worth recalling the original expression.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

More terrible song lyrics

A couple of days ago I promised to put up more posts about terrible song lyrics. I’m keeping my promise by pouncing on Elton John’s 1972 singalong number, Rocket Man. It is a song about an astronaut going off to his job up in space, and it contrives to make that job sound both completely banal and totally unrealistic at the same time.

Consider: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/ In fact it’s cold as hell/ And there’s no one there to raise them if you did”. This simply does not make sense. If you were raising your kids on Mars then by definition there would be someone there to raise them, ie you.

Further on we get: “And all the science stuff, I don’t understand/ It’s just my job five days a week”. In the first place it seems very unlikely that you’d get a job as an astronaut if you understood nothing about science. And “five days a week”? What sort of astronaut is he? One who comes home every weekend? Then how did he ever get as far as Mars?

Moreover, he keeps insisting in the refrain that he thinks “it’s gonna be a long long time” before he comes home again. But I don’t see how that can be true, if he’s only ever away for five days at a stretch.

Perhaps I am giving the impression that I don’t like this song. I actually do. I think it has a lovely, plaintive melody, suggesting loneliness and melancholy. But the words just don’t match up. Understandable, perhaps, had the song been dashed off by a talented musician who wasn’t much of a wordsmith. Yet the lyrics were written, not by EJ himself, but by Bernie Taupin, whose job is writing the words. That’s all he does. He’s a professional lyricist, who wrote the words for all of Elton John’s songs in the 70s, and made a fortune from so doing. Sorry, Bernie, but I think you had a bad day at the office with this one.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Terrible song lyrics

I was listening to a Billy Joel song on the radio in the car today, and was brought up short by one of the silliest song lyrics I’ve ever heard. The song was She’s Always a Woman to Me (a pretty silly title to start with, one might note in passing – what’s it supposed to mean?). Most of the lyrics are either trite or nonsensical, but for me the stand-out moment of shit was the couplet: “She’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden/ Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’”.

Say what? Just run that past me again, Billy. “She’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’”. This is a song about a psychopath, right? She casually severs one of your arteries with a breadknife and then giggles about it as your life-blood drains away. So the message would be to stay well away from her? But no, the general impression one gets is that it is supposed to be a love song. The singer actually likes this dangerous and unpleasant person because – despite her callous disregard for others’ pain – she’s “always a woman” to him. So that’s all right, then…

I’ll be back with more on terrible song lyrics soon.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Thoughts occasioned by a drive home from Norwich

I happened to be driving back from Norwich along the A11 at the weekend and noticed a sign for the village of Chippenham. That’s funny, I thought. Isn’t Chippenham much further west? Well, it is of course; the larger and better-known market town of Chippenham is in Wiltshire. Yet here was another one, in Cambridgeshire: and I then reflected that lots of English towns have the prefix Chipp- in their names. There is also Chipperfield, and Chippings Norton, Ongar and Sodbury.

The reason is that Chipping is an old English word for market; so you can be sure that any place with that prefix has or once had a regular market. That’s also where the word cheap comes from (I’m surmising that Cheapside in London was next to a market); and the words shop and shopping are also related to it. So that’s all quite interesting, isn’t it?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.