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When Barbie Met Action Man

I’ve opened a new WordPress site to share my comedy YA novel, When Barbie Met Action Man (Or The Young Person’s Guide to Existentialism). It’s here: https://whenbarbiemetactionman.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/when-barbie-met-action-man-chapter-one/

The first chapter is up, and over the next few weeks I will post the whole thing – for free. Go there now. If you like it, please share/retweet/tell people about it.

An interesting crossword clue

Here’s an interesting little thing. Yesterday I was doing the crossword in the Times and there was a clue which went something like: “Bread, with two articles placed end to end (4)”. I gazed at it for a bit and tapped my pen against my teeth and finally light dawned: the answer was naan, which is a type of bread, and which is formed from two instances of the article an, spelt first backwards and then forwards. Neat. And that was the right answer. But then I realised there was another right answer.

If you’d placed the articles end to end the other way round, you’d get anna – which is an Indian coin. And a common slang term for money is… bread!

That’s quite unusual, isn’t it? Two completely different answers which both fit the definition, the cryptic clue and have the right number of letters. What’s more, if the clue had been more specific and said “Indian bread, with two articles placed end to end”, both answers would still have fitted.

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.

The Oxford comma

I see that the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, has been in the news. (I must thank Karen Brown for alerting me to this story.) A group of delivery drivers in Maine, USA, won a tribunal to claim for more overtime pay from the dairy company they worked for; and this was because their written list of duties ended with ‘freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [various goods]”. But is distribution a separate activity from packing for shipment? An Oxford comma – “packing for shipment, or distribution” – would have made this clear. The point is that the drivers did distribute but didn’t pack. The court ruled that the rules were ambiguous for want of a comma, and could be interpreted in the drivers’ favour; and so they got their overtime.

Well, that’s very good news. I like this story. I like the way it demonstrates the importance of accurate punctuation; and I like the fact that the Oxford comma is the hero of the story. I’m aware that some people don’t like the Oxford comma, but I have never understood why. I think it may be just that they’ve got a rule lodged in their brains from their schooldays – Never use a comma before ‘and’ – and feel superstitious about breaking it.

Personally I use the Oxford comma whenever I feel it aids clarity, and always feel quite smug about it afterwards. As chance would have it I needed to use it just the other day. I was sending an email to a group of Open University students to whom I teach a one-year course which is an introduction to all the arts disciplines, and I was informing them of courses they could progress to next year: “There are single-discipline, second-level courses available in literature, history, art history, music, classics, philosophy, and religious studies”. I had to use an Oxford comma there, or they have might assumed that “philosophy and religious studies” was one subject.

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.

Hard or soft Brexit?

Has anyone else noticed that there are two rival schools of thought when it comes to pronouncing Brexit? Some say it with a hard consonant cluster in the middle (with voiced consonants, to get technical): Breggzit. Other say it with a soft (or unvoiced) sound: Brecksit. Which is right? On the basis that I’d normally pronounce exit as eggzit rather than ecksit, I go for Breggzit. But I also have a hypothesis that offers a different explanation. My hypothesis is that those who are not altogether happy with the fact of Brexit – which would include me – are more likely to use the harder sound, Breggzit; while those who think it’s a good idea say the softer Brecksit. Does anyone have any evidence either for or against this hypothesis?

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.

an historic occasion (sic)

Watching University Challenge last night, I winced as Jeremy Paxman referred in a question to “an historic occasion” – pronouncing the h in historic. I hate this mistake. It’s surprisingly popular, especially amongst people who would normally pride themselves on the accuracy of their spoken English. This is how it came about: the word history comes to us via the French histoire, which of course has a silent H. And so for a while it was pronounced without the H, just like hour, honest and honour, which also come to us through French. So we said an historic occasion, just as we say an hour, an honest man, an honourable defeat etc.

But then – for what whatever reasons – the H in history made a return. Yet (some) people carried on using an with it; perhaps because they had seen it in writing. And these people seem to think it sounds cool. But it really doesn’t. We should either say an ‘istoric occasion or a historic occasion.

The same confusion occurs with regard to hotel; some would-be pedants say an hotel, when it should be either an ‘otel or a hotel.

If Mr Paxman chances to read this, I hope he will mend his ways and repudiate this annoying error.

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.

thunder-stealing

I’ve always thought the expression ‘to steal someone’s thunder’ was rather picturesque, but had never stopped to wonder where it came from. Today I came across a tweet by Susie Dent, retweeted by Andy Pandini, which claimed it originated when a London theatrical company stole another theatrical company’s thunder machine in 1709. Isn’t that a great story? But is it true? I did a bit of googling and found confirmation – courtesy of an excellent website called The Phrase Finder, a sort of online Brewer’s Dictionary – that the story is indeed true; at least, it is well-attested. In 1709 a playwright called John Dennis put on a production of his own play, Appius and Virginia, at Drury Lane Theatre. The production featured a new kind of thunder machine, which is thought to have been a large metal bowl with lots of iron balls rolling around in it. But the play wasn’t well-received and closed after a short run. The next thing Dennis knows, another company is putting on a production of Macbeth in another theatre round the corner, and using his thunder machine! At which (this according to the literary scholar Joseph Spence) Dennis bitterly complained: “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”

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.

Vainful?

I was reading a report (by Henry Winter) in the Times today about Tottenham Hotspurs’ fine victory over Everton at the weekend, when the following sentence brought me up short: “Ronald Koeman, Everton’s manager, even changed his tactics in a vainful attempt to cope with Kane”. Vainful? Vainful? What on earth was Mr Winter thinking of? How did it even get past his spellcheck (mine is giving it an instantaneous squiggly red underlining)? Not only is there no such word, but usage suggests there never was, would be or could be: the rule is that adjectives ending in -ful are formed by adding a noun to the suffix (hopeful, merciful, joyful, tearful etc); and vain is not a noun but already an adjective. Vainful is as redundant as happiful or sadful.

My theory is that Winter succumbed to the usual sports-writer’s lure of choosing a longer word because the short one seemed too workaday. Sports-writers are the most likely of all journalists to mis-use words in an attempt to sound impressive, maybe because they are uncomfortably aware that they are not writing in the most intellectual part of the newspaper. And possibly Winter had in the back of his mind the adjective painful, and vainful was suggested to him by the rhyme?

But Henry Winter is the Chief Football writer on the Times. The Chief! Imagine what the junior football writers are getting up to.

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.