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Jane Austen’s errors again

In honour of Jane Austen appearing on our ten-pound notes today, I am re-posting a comment I made some time ago about her word-choice and grammar. I don’t want my nit-picking here to suggest that I do not appreciate Jane Austen. I do. I am a thoroughgoing Janeite.  I think she invented the modern novel, with her innovation of writing through the character’s thoughts and impressions (see John Mullins’ excellent What Matters in Jane Austen, particularly the chapter, ‘How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?’). I frequently re-read her novels, and have just now started on Persuasion for the fourth or fifth time. At the time I wrote this post originally, however,I had just finished re-reading Emma. See below. 

I’ve just been re-reading Emma. It is of course one of the most brilliant English novels of the nineteenth century; but I couldn’t help but notice that Jane Austen commits two of my most unfavourite solecisms.

One, she uses refute to mean deny. I’ve been trying to locate the passage, not having noted it when when I came across it, but although I’m fairly sure it was on the left-hand page, a quick riffle through didn’t turn it up, and brilliant though the novel is I don’t want to read all the way through it again. But it was in a scene where Emma disagrees with Mr Knightley about something and “refutes” an idea he presents. But no refutation takes place; Mr Knghtley turned out to be in the right, so Emma could not have refuted him. Odd to think of so pure a stylist making this mistake. (She also uses infer instead of imply, though not in this novel.)

Another mistake is that she confuses sank (past tense) with sunk (past participle). Or was that distinction not established in 1815?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . 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.


Dr Lucy Worsley’s grammar

I see this morning that there’s a Twitter squall going on with regard to Lucy Worsley’s grammar. Today’s the day that the new Jane Austen tenners come into circulation, and Dr Worsley tweeted that “she and me” would be on television talking about it (Worsley doing most of the talking, one assumes). Giles Coren tweeted a rebuke; it should of course be “she and I”. At which point Times journalist Oliver Kamm weighed in to say that Worsley’s grammar was fine because “Pronoun is free to take either case in a co-ordinate phrase”. And then Giles tweeted to Oliver Kamm that he couldn’t be more wrong.

I feel impelled at this point  to stick my oar in. Giles is obviously right: it has to be “she and I”. Here are my reasons. First, the pronoun for Dr Worsley ought to be in the nominative because she is the subject, the person going on television. No one, except maybe a three-year-old child, would say “Me is going on television today”. It just sounds silly, and no less silly when “she and” is added. Second, Worsley has mixed up her pronouns anyway, with one subject pronoun and one object pronoun; one ought at least to be consistent. Third, Kamm’s formulation that pronouns are “free” to take either case is just a way of saying that in practice people do indeed mix them up. Now that is clearly true, and in informal speech it’s allowable, but in other contexts it doesn’t sound right; and I submit that a famous historian talking about a major figure of English literature with reference to a public television broadcast regarding a historic change to the currency is one of those contexts.

I favour the very simple rule that if it would sound right to say ‘I’, then one should say “X and I”; and if it would sound right to say “me” then one should say “X and me”. You need a good reason for breaking this rule and I don’t think Lucy Worsley had one.

When ‘no’ means ‘yes’

Watching the post-match interview on Match of the Day last night, after Tottenham Hotspur’s fine win over Everton, I was struck by a curious response Harry Kane said in response to a question from Gary Lineker, viz:

LINEKER: It must be a relief to get your first goal of the season.

KANE: No, definitely, it’s good to get off the mark…

I quote from memory but the first two words of Kane’s response are exact. He was agreeing with the proposition put by Lineker, and signalled this by saying no. As stand-up comedians like to say, what’s that all about?

In fact Kane used no in this way several times during the interview, and I began to realise I’ve actually heard it quite a lot, without being consciously aware of it. Certainly I had no problem understanding what Kane meant by it. But why use no to mean yeah, that’s right? Perhaps it is a way of suggesting modesty or diffidence?

Evolutionary theory revisited

It’s a few years since I put up this post about evolutionary theory, but I am recycling it in response to coverage of AN Wilson’s recent biography of Darwin. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen reviews of it; if they are accurate it’s a character assassination of Darwin and (much more seriously) claims that his theory of evolution by natural selection is wrong. Well, it’s not wrong, of course, according to what evolutionary biologists have to say on the matter. It both baffles and infuriates me that non-scientists feel free to pontificate on evolution. What makes them think they’re qualified?  They would not dare to announce that other scientific theories are wrong. Or come to think of it, maybe they would; there are plenty of non-scientists who deny global warming. Perhaps ideology will always trump evidence, outside of the scientific community. But I do not think that is a good thing. Anyway, here is my original post:


A news item on BBC Radio 2 at 8 a.m. last week was about an interesting new scientific idea. Apparently aggression was a bigger factor in human development than was previously thought, and the evidence for this is to be found in the human hand, which is much easier to ball into a fist and use as a weapon than the hands of other apes. So far so good, and I was rather enjoying the rare experience of listening to a news item that was actually about an advance in knowledge, as opposed to a piece of celebrity gossip or report of some disgusting atrocity. But then the newsreader ruined it. Human thumbs, she said came to be longer and stronger than those of ‘the apes from which evolutionary theory maintains we descended’.

It’s as though the concept of evolution has to be handled with tongs. It beggars belief that a newsreader would distance herself from any other scientific theory in so conspicuous a way. One can’t imagine an announcer referring to gravity as ‘the force which gravitational theory maintains attracts bodies to the earth’; or to the sun as ‘the star which the heliocentric theory maintains our planet orbits’. Why didn’t the newsreader just say ‘the apes from which we descended’? What could have been the purpose of that phrase, evolutionary theory maintains?

The question is rhetorical, of course. The purpose of the distancing phrase was to protect the sensibilities of those who choose not to believe in the well-attested fact of evolution by natural selection. Two key words are clearly designed to give comfort to the creationist. One is maintains. You can maintain anything, even the most absurd and wrong-headed notions, if you are sufficiently dogged.

The other word is theory. In everyday parlance, a theory is conditional and unsubstantiated. You can take it or leave it. It’s just a theory, and theories are often proved wrong. This is quite unlike the concept of a theory in science. In science a theory is considerably stronger than a hypothesis: it has evidence from experiment and/or observation in its favour. The evidence will have been tested mercilessly, in an attempt to falsify the theory. Ultimately, of course, most scientific theories end up being falsified in some particular or other, but that seldom means they are completely overturned. What happens is that a more complete, more refined version of the theory replaces it, which accounts for the evidence even better, and has better predictive power. Then that new theory, too, is tested to destruction, and so it goes on. This is completely unlike the lay-person’s idea of a theory, as being one among a collection of equally suitable possibilities, like a rail of garments in a shop – something you can try on to see if you like it and discard if you don’t.

Of course the theory of evolution by natural selection in its present form could one day be falsified. But only when a better theory comes along, which better explains the fossil record, the DNA evidence and actual observed instances of evolution (eg the way bacteria have evolved to resist antibiotics). It will be a refined, extended, improved theory of evolution, not a crude denial of it. I don’t think it’s tendentious to say that such a theory is not going to be found in the Bible or the Koran.

Which brings us back to where we started. Creationists don’t disbelieve in evolution by natural selection because they have a better theory. They don’t have a theory at all. Their belief is dictated by what it says in an ancient book. Evidence doesn’t come into it; the driver of belief is the impiety of doubting what the ancient book says.

The BBC newsreader, or whoever wrote her script, was clearly bending over backwards not to give offence. But why should it be offensive to state that we descended from apes? This is current scientific knowledge. Not a single practising scientists doubts it. It couldn’t be overturned without overturning the whole of biology, zoology, geology and chemistry as we know them. Obviously people can believe what they like – actually, I can’t, personally, but often find myself having to believe things I wish were not true – but anyway, lots of people can believe what they like, and they are welcome to do so. But they shouldn’t expect others to respect their irrational beliefs. The BBC’s mealy-mouthed form of words was a small victory for the forces of unreason.

When dinosaurs roamed the Earth

I’m watching Gardener’s World on BBC2 right now. I don’t like gardening at all but I do like gardens. And I rather like Monty Don. Anyway I don’t need to explain or defend myself, I just felt like watching it, OK? The point is that one of the presenters just said (on the subject of ferns) “a plant that thrived back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth”. Two things immediately occurred to me. The first was to note that regularised past tense, thrived. This verb used to have a mutated past tense form, throve. But you rarely hear it now. A similar thing has happened with the past tense of strive; one is much more likely to hear strived than strove these days. As for the past tense of dive, it is now always dived in British English, though Americans still stick to dove. There seems to be a pull to make past tense forms regular, especially when the word is seldom used; the more common irregular past forms are kept in good repair because they are used daily.

The second thing was that expression, “when dinosaurs roamed the Earth”. There seem to be no alternatives to this over-used idiom. Didn’t dinosaurs do anything other than roam? Is there no other way to refer to their reign? When I hear a particularly well-worn expression I always itch to think of a fresher way of saying it, but I’m drawing a blank here…

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . 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.

On the up, or on the uppers?

A recent idiom mash-up has been brought to my attention by my old friend Bruce Dessau. Kezia Dugdale, interviewed by the BBC shortly after her resignation from the Scottish Labour Party earlier this week, claimed that the Labour Party was on its uppers. (I have to take this one on trust because I didn’t hear the interview and the section I found on Youtube does not include that bit.) The context apparently made clear that she meant the Labour Party was in a flourishing state, so she couldn’t really have meant it was on its uppers, an expression signifying desperate poverty – the idea being that the soles of one’s shoes have completely worn away, leaving only the uppers. Presumably she meant on the up. A curious mix-up: was it a malapropism, or a Freudian slip?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . 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.

Who will edit the editors (again)?

I’ve just been reading Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Greenwich for £2. It’s an interesting collection of stories about life in India under the Raj – a detailed, vivid picture of an expatriate community of generals and subalterns, viceroys and secretaries, civil servants and their wives, clubmen and coquettes, as well as vignettes of Indians themselves. I feel sure it influenced Forster’s A Passage to India; and the quality and style of the storytelling, short, conversational, pointed and pithy, seem to have had a strong influence on Somerset Maugham. Amazingly, Kipling wrote all the stories by the age of twenty-one. It’s well worth reading; but for me the pleasure has been marred by Andrew Rutherford’s over-intrusive editing.

Those who have followed this blog for a long time will remember that back in 2012 I wrote a post about an over-edited version of Peter Pan. I’m going to make many of the same points here, because my complaint is identical: Rutherford has edited this book to within an inch of its life. On every page asterisks hover, beckoning you towards the notes at the back. So you flip to the back after seeing an asterisk appended to, for instance, the word ‘Clink’, to discover that it is slang for ‘prison’. No, really, Andrew? A story called ‘The Three Musketeers’ comes with a note that the title is an allusion to Dumas the elder’s famous novel Les Trois Mousquetaires. Well, blow me down. Another note, glossing the phrase “cow-devourer”, informs us that Hindus don’t eat beef because they regard the cow as sacred. What is the point of telling the reader this? It’s a sufficiently well-known fact that you might think any reader of Kipling’s stories would know it already; but if they didn’t – well, they could look it up in any encyclopaedia, or simply google ‘Hindus and cows’. It’s not an editor’s job to repair gaps in readers’ general knowledge. (A later note, by the way, obligingly informs us that Muslims don’t eat pork.)

And so it goes on. ‘Stewards’ is glossed as ‘officials responsible for the proper conduct of races’; the word ‘aphasia’ is explained as ‘loss of speech’; the difficult Latin phrase ‘magnum opusis translated as ‘great work’. If a reader was confused by any of these, all they’d have to do is look them up. It’s not an editor’s job to be a dictionary, either.

To be fair, not all the notes state the obvious. Quite a few translate Hindi or Urdu phrases, or bits of Anglo-Indian slang that would be unknown to the general reader. But many, many more tell us things that we either know already, or really don’t need to know. A reference in one story to ‘a Virgil in the shades’ comes with a gloss telling us that the Roman poet Virgil was Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divina Commedia. What’s the purpose of this note? To let the reader know how well-read Andrew Rutherford is? No doubt he is – but that’s not the point. The point is that his job as an editor is to unobtrusively help the reader appreciate the book; and you don’t do that by putting in multiple asterisks on every page. Trying to read a book under these conditions is like trying to watch a film with someone sitting beside you constantly nudging you in the ribs, explaining the plot, passing on unwanted snippets of information about the careers of the actors and the director, paraphrasing bits of the dialogue they imagine you won’t understand, and thoughtfully pointing out instances of irony for you.

Ah, but you could always ignore the notes, someone might say. But even if you don’t look them up, their very presence is an irritant, hovering between you and the text like a swarm of midges. And in practice, a kind of exasperated curiosity often impels you to look them up. Is he really going to patronise me by explaining that ‘Kismet’ means ‘Fate’? (Yup.)

The role of an editor is to elucidate and illuminate the text: something which Rutherford does well in his more genuinely explanatory notes. Editors should be discreet, sensitive, self-effacing. They are handmaids to literature. But Rutherford, as well as the pages and pages of Explanatory Notes at the back, has also included a General Preface, an Introduction, a Note on the Text, a Select Bibliography, and a Chronology of Kipling’s Life. Andrew Rutherford was one of the world’s foremost experts on Kipling; but, as Mike Skinner would say, my gosh doesn’t he know it. It’s like the Andrew Rutherford Show, with special guest appearance from Rudyard Kipling.

Perhaps it’s not quite fair to pick on Rutherford in this way, as he’s far from being the only culprit. A few years ago I wrote an article about the Penguin edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, which had more pages devoted to introduction and notes than there were pages in the novel itself; and I recall as an undergraduate reading an edition of Moby Dick where the notes ran to literally hundreds of pages, making a parallel text in their own right, like the notes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. But it’s high time this trend was stopped. Who will edit the editors?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . 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.