Category Archives: Writing

In Tune with the Times

One of my courses is on the historical aspects of musicals: the context in which they are written, the intentions of the composers, the historical background to the events depicted. Many musicals have important features that reflect the conditions of society at the time they are set or written or both. One good example is Show Boat, which has much to say about the segregation of blacks and whites in America in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of slavery, but importantly also at the time the musical was written in the late 1920s. Not much had changed by then, and in writing the musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were consciously criticising the discrimination against the black minority in America, particularly in the Southern States. They believed their show could change minds, enhance perceptions, and hopefully even help bring new federal legislation to prevent such treatment of human beings just on the grounds of race. One aspect of this was the central story of Julie and Steve, whose marriage is illegal because she is of mixed race and he is white; sexual relationships between different races were forbidden in many of the United States. While the show boat is moored in one Southern town on the Mississippi, the sheriff arrives to arrest the couple – something that he would indeed have been entitled to do in reality.

Kern and Hammerstein both had Jewish backgrounds – Kern’s parents were both Jewish and Hammerstein’s father was, and Edna Ferber, the writer of the book Show Boat, was also Jewish. As such, they were victims of racial prejudice too, although not to the extent of the institutional racism against African Americans. Thus their motivation was partly from personal experiences: they could identify with some of the experiences of the black minority, both directly and through their family backgrounds. Edna Ferber was quite used to prejudice, both anti-Semitism and the misogynistic attitudes of some of her male colleagues in journalism. And many Jewish families in America were only living in the country because they had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. This treatment of Jews was later to form the background to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. But soon Jews were to experience an even worse form of persecution and murder in Eastern Europe with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and its system of concentration and extermination camps. The Holocaust is hardly ideal material for a musical, but some musicals of more recent years have at least addressed the issue of the Nazi control of Germany and its domination of Europe in the early 1940s.

Cabaret looked at the darker side of Germany in the 1920s, showing the undercurrent of anti-Semitic, nationalistic sentiment that pervaded society and how it clashed with the cosmopolitan decadence found in Berlin at that time. Arguably this is more historically accurate than the depiction of the Nazis in that eternal favourite the Sound of Music. In the latter, the Nazis are caricatured as an unfeeling brainwashed automatons who persecute a wholesome family and force them to flee their country. But as a historical document, the Sound of Music fails in so many other areas. Rodgers and HaTrapp_Family_Singers_1941mmerstein based the musical on a film made in West Germany in 1955 called the Trapp Family, which drew on Maria von Trapp’s own book from 1949, the Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Maria von Trapp’s account seems to be have been embellished to the point of fiction, and through the “Chinese Whispers” of transfer to German film, to stage musical, to film musical, the story became even more a distortion of truth. Perhaps the most striking disregard for the facts is the supposed escape of the family over the mountains to Switzerland following a concert where the Nazis had tried to arrest them. Escape from the country in this way was impossible, as the Swiss border is actually about 250 miles from Salzburg, so it would have been a long walk: in reality, they left Austria by train for Italy (by a quirk of the redrawing of national boundaries after the First World War, Captain von Trapp was an Italian citizen) and the Nazis made no attempt to stop them.

There is much to learn about history from musicals but you have to be careful. As with all forms of art, facts are sometimes manipulated to satisfy contemporary tastes. But how those facts are manipulated can also be interesting. In the late 1950s and 1960s, memories of the Nazis were strong and many people in the United States and Britain saw all Germans as potential Nazis. They also had clichéd views of the Nazis from their depictions in countless war films. But the situation today is somewhat different, and thus the Nazi threat in the Sound of Music can be viewed as more like a comic book version. Although also a product of the 1960s,  is a different matter and has much more to offer as a reflection of social history. The song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” still has the power to shock – but I think only because of what we know now. At the time, the Nazis were viewed by many Germans as the answer to the country’s economic and political problems in the 1920s and early 30s and few of those people could have anticipated the horrors that were to come.

If this sounds interesting and you would like to take my course In Tune With the Times, please contact me and I can let you have some details.

The most famous Cancan dancer

Poster created by Toulouse-Lautrec for La Goulue in 1891
Poster created by Toulouse-Lautrec for La Goulue in 1891

Undeniably the most famous cancan dancer of 1890s Paris was Louise Weber, better known by her nickname “La Goulue’ (the glutton). She was born in 1866 in Clichy-la-Garenne just outside Paris and brought up by her mother, who was a laundress. At school, she was taught by Roman Catholic nuns, which was quite normal in those days before the state took over the French education system, and she always retained a certain respect for the Church. But her public behaviour no doubt caused many churchgoers to be shocked. It is said that she offended the priest at her local church by attending her first communion in a ballet skirt and shoes.

In her teenage years, Louise helped her mother in the laundry business and sometimes borrowed the fine clothes and underwear brought in for washing and went out for the evening. Some of her mother’s clients were quite rich and Louise must have seemed so very sophisticated when she took the floor at the dance halls where she spent a lot of her time! She became known for her lively dancing, not only in the cancan but many of the other dances popular in those days amongst the working classes.

The cancan was originally a ballroom dance for couples, and this was still notionally how it was danced, although by the 1880s it had become largely improvised and allowed each performer to react to the music in whatever way that came into their head. It was around this time that the female dancers began to make use of their long skirts and underwear, showing off the layers and layers of frills and lace that were now in fashion. It seems Louise Weber led the way in this, quite possibly because her borrowed underwear was even more extravagant than that of many of the other girls. There are a number of cartoons in magazines from the time showing her at the Elysée-Montmartre and Moulin de la Galette dance halls, provocatively flaunting her lacy petticoats and drawers. One of her trademark gestures was to bend over, throw her skirts over her back and flaunt her backside – there was an embroidered heart on the seat of her drawers which all her fans hoped to catch sight of!

In 1889, the Moulin Rouge opened. This was a different kind of entertainment venue from the others in Montmartre, being a showcase of Parisian nightlife deliberately targeted at the many foreign tourists coming to Paris at this time: 1889 had also been the year of a Great Exhibition, which had attracted visitors from all over Europe and beyond. The proprietor of the Moulin Rouge, Joseph Oller, decided to bring together a range of popular entertainers in one location, with a dance floor for the cancan dancers of Montmartre and various stages where singers, acrobats, magicians and illusionists, and other cabaret performers could appear. There was also an outdoor garden with a small stage.

La Goulue on the dance floor of the Moulin Rouge
La Goulue on the dance floor of the Moulin Rouge

Oller paid his employees very well, but the tourists were given the impression that the cancan dancers were just working-class girls enjoying their leisure time. La Goulue was paid a huge amount for her performances. She was undoubtedly very popular as an amateur dancer and this reputation influenced Oller in turning her into a salaried superstar of the times. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters helped to promote her and she was photographed hundreds of times, sometimes in familiar guise as a cancan dancer, by herself or with fellow dancers, at other times semi- or completely nude. One of her partners was the enigmatic Valentin-le-Désossé, whose profile can be seen in Lautrec’s poster for her debut at the Moulin Rouge in 1891.

Sadly, La Goulue’s career at the top of her profession was very short-lived. In 1895 she left the Moulin Rouge, partly because she had become pregnant but also because she had hopes of capitalising on her reputation and opening her own theatre where her talents could be showcased. She was supported in this venture by Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the panels of her fairground-based Théâtre de la Goulue, but unfortunately the crowds stayed away. It was mistake to substitute a starring role at one of Parisian nightlife’s premier entertainment centres with what was essentially a fairground novelty act. She lost all her considerable savings in this venture and by 1929, when she died, she had been reduced to living in poverty in a squalid caravan on the outskirts of the city. One of her last jobs was selling matches on the streets around the Moulin Rouge. Most people had now forgotten her completely.

Today, she is probably much better known than she was in the 1920s and in the 1990s her body was reburied in the cemetery in Montmartre.

You can read more about La Goulue in my book Cancan!

Heading into the Future with Confidence

Everyone takes stock at New Year and views the future with a whole range of feelings. Resolutions are a significant part of this: even if often they are fairly trivial, they do indicate a determination to behave differently, for the sake of health and wellbeing. I had a difficult year last year but feel I can look forward to the coming year with a fair amount of optimism. I didn’t make a resolution as such but I am determined to face the future in a more positive way. In many ways, my life is better than it was at this time last year.

At the beginnProfile picing of last year, I was starting the process of separating from and divorcing my wife. The separation as it turned out involved leading separate lives but still living in the same house: never an easy option but not uncommon. Now I am in my own flat in a new town and in the process of making my flat my home. I have my two cats with me, which helps – although they are a responsibility too!

In a way, this is just one more instance of reinventing myself. I have had a number of career changes in the last 40 years, including the best decision I ever made: to leave my dull job in 1983 and go and study for the degree I should have taken when I left school. This also gave me the opportunity to study Russian and visit the Soviet Union at a very exciting time, just after Mikhail Gorbachëv had become Party leader and had begun the process of reform that eventually led to the abandonment of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. And I have now created a course looking at the social history of Eastern Europe after the Second World War and how internal issues contributed to the huge changes that happened in 1989.

This is described as the “failure of communism” but as I tell my students, what was attempted in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not what Karl Marx originally envisaged. The imposition of an ideology and forcing the people to accept it is turning upside down his original concept. We don’t really know whether Marxism as an ideology or an analysis of history “works” because a true revolution from below overthrowing the capitalist oppressors hasn’t actually happened. But of course, perhaps it never will.

But my students often counter with the “human nature” argument, saying that human nature is to be competitive and not cooperate. I still maintain that we don’t know; we don’t know whether in the distant future, everyone will recognise that the best course of action is to cooperate, with no one in control, giving orders and trying to dominate. Surely progress implies a better system of human interaction, not only the creation of electronic gadgets or tackling dangerous diseases.

Of course, there are a number of science fiction stories – books, films and TV series – that describe a dystopian future when the hopes for technology have been dashed and what has emerged is a disturbing distortion of human interaction. Some of these works are clearly satirical, using such visions to comment on today’s society, or on the aspirations of some in society for a better world – hence Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But it’s important to recognise that these stories are often written as a warning that, human nature being what it is, the scenarios described could develop.

Fear of the future can be used as an excuse to try to put the clock back, with the explanation that we’ve gone to far and we need to go back to old values and traditions. Forms of extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism are symptoms of this fear. If people can truly feel a sense of comfort from these positions, I suppose they have some value – but mostly they promote intolerance and even extreme violence.

I’ve always believed that we should try to understand points of view that differ from our own, or political ideas and systems that differ from the one we live in. I wanted to learn Russian in the 1980s following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, an event that prompted many to predict a very gloomy future indeed. I wanted to be able to talk to Russians and find out their take on this. In the event, my Russian was never good enough to cope with complex arguments and I soon became aware that Soviet citizens would be unlikely to express their opinions freely. But my position remains valid. We still need to strive to find common ground with people and the only way to do this is to listen to their points of view. I believe that if we do this, the future will be better – and more importantly, I believe we can do this.

So I look forward to the future not just for myself as an individual, but also for the world in general.

What is History?

Television documentaries can be a wonderful way of learning about history but sometimes you need to be careful about assuming you are being given the facts. A documentary is often angled to suit a particular premise and anything that doesn’t quite fit is missed out or glossed over. Still, that’s not simply a practice of television documentary makers. I think we all do it!


A while back during the lead-up to the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, a programme appeared on TV about the “royal cousins” who it was claimed might have prevented war breaking out. The cousins were of course the British king, George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The word “cousins” was stressed at every available opportunity in the commentary and the impression you had was that the close family relationship between these men could and should have stopped the world sinking in the abyss.


One inconvenient fact cleverly avoided in the discussion was that Nicholas II was not a first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II; they were only distantly related. Yes, George V was a first cousin of both of them, but one through his father, Edward VII, the other through his mother, Queen Alexandra. Edward VII’s sister was the mother of Wilhelm, and the Danish Queen Alexandra was the sister of Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna.


However, the Tsar’s wife, Alexandra was a first cousin of Wilhelm II. The Russian people had always disliked her because she was “German”, even though her mother was English and she had spent a lot of time in England after her mother died. She had found life difficult as Tsarina – in part because the hostility of her mother-in-law – and she despised Russian culture, which did little to improve her popularity. However, she was absolutely devoted to her husband, the Tsar, and supported him as absolute monarch, ruling by divine right.


Tsarina Alexandra’s cousin Wilhelm, but not her husband’s cousin

Nicholas may have been all-powerful as a ruler, although he was considered rather a weak man, but the same could not be said of the two other “cousins”. George V was a constitutional monarch and reigned but did not rule, and Wilhelm II was certainly not as powerful as might have liked to think he was. When the ambassador of Austria-Hungary asked him if Germany would support Austria-Hungary if it declared war on Serbia, he replied in the affirmative but added that he would have to consult his Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg. George V could not say anything at all without consulting his ministers.


So even if they had been all first cousins, or Tsarina Alexandra had been more friendly towards her first cousin, Wilhelm II, it’s unlikely they would have been able to prevent war breaking out. In any case, there was a complicated series of alliances in force that pitted the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, against France and Russia. That Britain would be drawn in was certainly considered a possibility, even likely. The First World War was a terrible event and we tend to view it as a tragedy that could have been avoided if the main players in the conflict had had more foresight. But it’s fair to say that few people realised it would be so devastating or else perhaps those threatening positions might not have been adopted.


Germany’s Schlieffen Plan to defeat France had existed for a number of years by the time it was put into operation at the beginning of the War. It was activated when France declared war on Germany in support of Russia, with which it had an alliance. But the Plan had clearly envisaged war with France, arguably a defensive one, on the principle that attack is the best form of defence. The German leadership was aware that the French had always been motivated by re-taking the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany in 1870. The Germans thought a surprise attack as envisaged by the Schlieffen Plan would be mean a quick defeat for France and then they could concentrate on Russia.


But the details of this Plan are immaterial. What’s clear is that nobody expected the war to drag on like it did. There was a general belief that it was possible to inflict a decisive blow on another country and thus defeat it in a relatively short time. Germany may have been alone in having a plan like the Schlieffen Plan but similar viewpoints existed in other countries. We view the War now with the benefit of hindsight and think that somebody or some people – the royal “cousins” or whoever – would have wanted to stop it. This is far from true. The Socialist leader in France, Jean Jaurès, was a pacifist and wanted to prevent war but in doing so, he was viewed as unpatriotic and assassinated for his trouble. His was a voice in the wilderness.


There had been a huge military build-up in the years preceding the War. If nobody had intended to use the weapons, what were they for? It was a matter of competition, an arms race, but it certainly suggested considerable belligerence. It seems they were all spoiling for a fight, or at least they wanted to test out their military capability. And yet when the War actually broke out, nothing quite worked out as had been anticipated. Germany did not decisively defeat France, and Austria-Hungary probably even more surprisingly suffered considerable reverses against Serbia. If they had known this, perhaps war could have been avoided. But the point is, nobody did know how things were going to develop over the four years. So there’s little point in speculating about who could have or would have prevented the War.


The cancan – the most filmed dance

I give many talks on the history of the cancan and the reaction of audiences is often: “I never knew there was so much to it!” The cancan is one of those things that most people think just exists and they never really question its history too much. Of course, I’ve made a special effort to find out all about it – and written my book about the dance Cancan! (see, so I am rather particular about these things, and I appreciate that nobody else is likely to be as obsessive. But I do think the evolution of the dance is fascinating and to some extent it’s a shame that our impressions of it have often been confused over the years by the numerous feature films that include it. It’s easy to accept a depiction of the cancan in a film without actually thinking about whether it’s accurate historically. But in fact, I’ve yet to come across a film that really shows the cancan as it was at any time in its history and when public speaking, I sometimes use a few film clips more to show how the cancan didn’t look!

Although often anachronistic, the cancan is phenomenal as it must be the most filmed dance ever (feel free to correct me if you can think of another one!). It’s very often used as a device to fix the action in 19th-century Paris, in the Victorian music hall, in the Wild West, and it also crops up in films based on operettas and musicals that feature the dance – The Merry Widow (1934) and Can-Can are obvious examples. It also, perhaps surprisingly, appears in a number of classic horror films – try House of Wax (1953), The Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), The Lodger (1944) or Jack the Ripper (1959). I did a quick check of the Christmas Radio Times and came up with a few more examples on (British) TV over the coming two weeks. Sometimes they’re only a “blink and you’ll miss it” but you get the effect. In some cases, I know much more footage was filmed but it ended up on the cutting room floor. Here they are anyway:

Oklahoma! (1955) – the rather sinister dance-hall girls that feature in the heroine Laurey’s dream. (23 December, Channel 5, 3.10 pm)

An American in Paris (1951) – a stylised, balletic version performed by Leslie Caron. (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 10.15 am)

The Red Shoes (1948) – a quick snatch of the ballet La Boutique Fantasque depicting life-size cancan-dancing dolls. (Christmas Day, BBC2, 8.50 am)

Gone with the Wind (1939) – during Rhett and Scarlett’s honeymoon on a Mississippi river boat. (Christmas Day, Channel 5, 10.15 am)

Carry on Cowboy (1966) – the movie that began my fascination (at the age of 10) with the cancan: once seen never forgotten. Sid James says the performance by the Stodge City saloon girls is “educational”, and so it is. (Boxing Day, ITV3, 1.25 pm)

Those are the ones I spotted – and there may be more. Unfortunately, I don’t think some of the best films containing a cancan are being shown this Christmas. Without doubt, THE best is Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954) – supposedly the story of the creation of the Moulin Rouge and climaxing with the opening night’s cancan performance. Historically, it’s nonsense and the cancan never looked like that at the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century, but nevertheless it’s a wonderfully costumed, brilliantly choreographed and superbly staged show.

A poster for John Huston's Moulin Rouge
A poster for John Huston’s Moulin Rouge

Another film that attempts to capture the atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Parisian nightlife is John Huston’s Moulin Rouge from 1952. Again, not historically accurate, it does depict the famous dancer La Goulue in a quadrille performance – but despite showing off frothy underwear, it’s not an exciting cancan but a rather restrained affair and doesn’t convey anything of what made the dance such a popular draw for the tourists. Later in the film comes a more lively, but (anachronistically) choreographed cancan (the actual cancan was much more improvised and individualistic) featuring six dancers performing a chorus-line routine. The dancing may not be right but the costumes are pretty accurate: Victorian blouses, long skirts with frilly petticoats and bloomers, and black stockings.

One show that often gets repeated at this time of year is the Two Ronnies Old-Fashioned Christmas Mystery from 1973. It’s set in a Victorian country house and about halfway through, the maids all get together and perform a “spontaneous” cancan. Somehow I missed this when it was first shown so we can be grateful that today’s multimedia environment is able to provide us with a taste of Victorian naughtiness – well, OK, not quite Victorian, as the underwear isn’t authentic. But who cares?

So the cancan has the record as the most filmed dance, but it also holds another record – or rather the music to which it is performed does. Surely Offenbach’s famous cancan theme from the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, first performed in 1858, is the most well-known piece of music in the world? Does anybody want to challenge this statement? Of course, you can dance the cancan to a lot of quick pieces of music in 2/4 time, but Offenbach’s galop is just so perfect for the dance. He also wrote a number of other tunes for the cancan, but this one has stood the test of time, and most people would recognise it if you played it to them and say: “That’s the cancan!” Incidentally, he called it the galop infernal – a nickname for the dance at that time, the galop being the 1820s dance that the cancan was actually based on. The word infernal means “hellish”, and many people in respectable society certainly thought the cancan came from hell, but of course in Offenbach’s operetta the phrase was particularly appropriate – because it is actually performed in the infernal regions, the Underworld or Hades.

Spelling can be fun

Stephen Fry’s BBC radio series on the English language have provided some fascinating background to the development of English in this country and around the world. What particularly interested me was how English came to have such a simple grammar but such a confusing spelling system – in fact, it hardly seems that there’s a system at all. The grammar was simplified many centuries ago to help the Norman French who were ruling the country and needed to understand the locals. At that time, English looked like this:

Eadward forðferde on Twelfts mæsse æfen 7 hine mann bebyrgede on Twelftan mæssedæg innan þære niwa halgodre circean on Westmyntre 7 Harold eorl feng to Englalandes cynerice swa swa se cyng hit him geuðe 7 eac men hine þærto gecuron 7 wæs gebletsod to cynge on Twelftan mæssedæg 7 þa ylcan geare þe he cyng wæs he for ut mid sciphere togeanes Willelme  (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

It was related to German and had a similar system of grammar. So we certainly have something to thank the Normans for!

But the spelling after the reform was a bit haphazard and there were no hard and fast rules. In Shakespeare’s time, people spelt the playwright’s name in all sorts of different ways. So if you remember your English teacher at school telling you off for forgetting the “e” at the end of Shakespeare’s name, you could have said to him or her: “But that’s how they spelt it in his lifetime!” Unless you’re still at school, it’s perhaps a bit late to be thinking along these lines though. Time to move on…

David Crystal, an expert on the development of English, explained on one programme how different spellings came to be adopted and fixed as “the correct spelling”. There are a number of reasons why we have such a range of different spellings today, like the infamous “-ough” that can be pronounced so many ways depending on the word. Apparently, William Caxton, pioneer of printing in this country, was one of the culprits – because he used typesetters from the Netherlands, who thought we should spell things the Dutch way.

According to Fowler’s English Usage, we also owe some of our spellings to French influences – the “-ise” ending on so many words, like “organise” is how the French would do it. The Oxford English Dictionary always used to spell such words with an “-ize” ending – something that many people in Britain think is American. The latest version of the dictionary offers “organise” only as an alternative to “organize”.  Collins dictionary does the same thing, although Chambers has it the other way round.

With the advent of mobile phones and texting, so-called TextSpeak appeared. I remember hearing discussion (in a pub) between people who confidently stated that the old ways of spelling, or even worrying about spelling, were gone and that English now needed to be completely changed – rationalised because of this new mode of communication. But now we have smart phones that correct your spelling as you go along, and hence don’t tolerate TextSpeak. Now you may really feel that you don’t have to worry about spelling any longer because your phone is there to help (but you need to be aware of what you’re writing as your phone is not a mind reader and will sometimes assume a word or phrase that you hadn’t meant at all – this can be misleading or even embarrassing).

The Dunes beachI attempted to join the TextSpeak generation a few years ago when on holiday in Tunisia. I sent a message back to my family in England saying that I was relaxing on the beach, reading a book: “RDNG A BK”. My family were surprised to hear that I was riding a bike on the beach.

Grammar for Kids

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wants to introduce a grammar test for 10-year-olds, a proposal that has annoyed many academics. I’m in favour of anything that helps people understand each other more and grammar can certainly be important in this – but only up to a point. The most important thing is to convey what you want to say accurately and unambiguously. This generally comes naturally for the most part and it’s often not really significant how or why a sentence or phrase fulfils this function.

Neville Gwynne
Nevile Gwynne

Mr Gove praises the book Gwynne’s Grammar, described as “The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English”. The book’s author, Nevile Gwynne, has devised a grammar test for the Daily Telegraph – try it and see how you do:

The majority of questions are about parts of speech, which is fair enough, but I wonder how much knowing whether a word is an “adverb qualifying an adverb” or an “adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase” really helps you write “good English”. Two questions I found irrelevant for different reasons. One asked whether either or both of the names “Amanda” and “Miranda” were examples of the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported into English directly from Latin. This is etymology and about Latin grammar, not English grammar. The other concerned this sentence:

“I should like to introduce you to my sister Amanda, who lives in New York, to Mark, my brother who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Evelyn.”

You’re probably thinking: “Ha! The nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported directly into English from Latin!”, but please concentrate. The question actually concerns whether or not you can tell from the sentence the sex of Evelyn. Apparently you can because no comma exists after “my brother”, meaning that Mark is the brother who doesn’t live in New York, and consequently that Evelyn is the brother who does. But who on earth would ever ask a convoluted question like this? It has the same quality as a lateral thinking teaser that is fun to work out if you’re in the mood but certainly not the kind of thing that people say in the normal course of conversation. As I said earlier, accuracy and avoiding ambiguity are the most important things in communication between people.

In a letter to the Independent newspaper in March a group of 100 academics criticized Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum. Nevile Gwynne later analysed this letter and singled out one particular paragraph to highlight the academics’ own grammar failure. This is the paragraph concerned:

“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.”

Gwynne didn’t like the first sentence because it doesn’t follow strict grammar rules, and that’s true. But it’s well-known colloquial usage and I can see nothing wrong with it here.

He also pointed out the incorrect structure of the last sentence. I’m more in agreement on this: it sounds clumsy and if you take out the end of the first clause, you end up with “Little account is taken that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.” It doesn’t sound right and I wouldn’t be happy with it in a piece of written work – not even a letter to a newspaper, especially a letter concerning educational standards!

The points the academics were trying to make were, unfortunately, somewhat undermined by their failure to write “good English”. So it’s clear that correct grammar is important sometimes!


The Reluctant Apostrophe

Apostrophe mistakes What do you think of apostrophes? Earlier this year, a local council in the UK decided that  all street signs should in future be rendered without apostrophes, even if they would be grammatically correct. The official reason for this was that it would avoid “confusion”. But possibly it was to prevent the misuse of apostrophes, which for proofreaders like me is often worse than leaving them out! I was in my local gym a few years ago and noticed an advertisement on the wall from a local supplier of “Conservatory’s”. Luckily I had a pen in my pocket and helpfully crossed out the offensive ending of this word and replaced it with the correct plural “-ies”. You’ll probably say, “Oh, get a life!”, and you would be right that there are more important things to worry about. Nevertheless, punctuation can be very important and it is very likely that incorrect punctuation will cause confusion.

The author and journalist Lynne Truss scored an unexpected hit a few years ago with her book entitled using the old joke about a panda in a bar: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. The one comma after the word “Eats” makes all the difference to the meaning of the phrase, turning the nouns “Shoots” and “Leaves” into verbs and making the panda into a vicious gangster-type figure rather than a gentle animal that sits all day eating the shoots and leaves of bamboo. Lynne Truss’s book was an attempt to defend the correct use of punctuation and show how necessary it is for clarity. Another notorious example of an unfortunate misconception caused by missing out a comma is in the phrase: “Let’s eat Grandma”. If you speak the words, the comma is understood by a pause after “eat” – you’re talking to Grandma, and saying “Let’s eat”. If Grandma were used to texting and saw “Let’s eat Grandma” come through on her phone, she might be rather worried.

Getting back to the apostrophe, it may be that the council is trying to avoid mistakes like those in the American sign shown above and it’s true that removing apostrophes from street signs is hardly going to cause major misunderstanding. It’s probably best for proofreaders just to relax a little and accept that this doesn’t signal a general, catastrophic breakdown in the use of English. Let’s hope so, anyway!