Friday February 10, 2012
WRITING to the papers is not a hobby of mine. So, may I shoot three birds with one stone, please?
The most gentlest cut
In his response to a reader’s comment on his article some time ago, Dr Lim Chin Lam pointed out Shakespeare’s “This was the most unkindest cut of all” as an example of quirks in the English language which broke grammar rules.
In “Strange ways of adjectives” (Dec 23), Dr Lim told us that the Bard’s using of double superlatives was made under creative licence, to maintain the structure and cadence of his (the Bard’s) iambic pentameter.
I am only still a learner of English, but may I be so bold as to say that it seems Dr Lim has erred.
In his 55-page overview of Shakespeare, which write-up served as the preface to The Merchant Of Venice published by Signet, Sylvan Barnet of Tufts University informed us that grammar during the Bard’s time was different from that of the present.
Then, using double superlatives, double comparatives and double negatives was normal.
Furthermore, almost any part of speech could be used as any other part of speech; a noun could be used as a verb, a verb as a noun, and an adverb as an adjective.
Hence we find such usage as “he childed as I fathered”, “she hath made compare”, and “a seldom pleasure” in the Bard’s creations.
If the grammar then was different, the Bard also occasionally made up his own (playwrights, as do copywriters, have the creative licence to coin words).
The Oxford comma has nothing to do with snobbish writing
I share Dr Lim’s view of Mr Mount’s pronouncement on using the so-called Oxford comma (“Punctuation please”, Nov 25). How it can obfuscate and uglify prose is quite unfathomable.
I was taught that one of the instances when we use the Oxford comma is if we want to emphasise the items listed out by causing our readers to pause at that particular punctuation mark.
Unfortunately, I have no idea of Oxford’s rules on the using of the particular comma, but Mr Mount may be so incensed as to explode if he were told that Webster has provided no fewer than 20 examples of how the punctuation mark is applied correctly and another five of when it is misused and unnecessarily used.
The absence, instead, of the Oxford comma can slow down comprehension and make for ugliness. Witness the example immediately below.
“I had orange juice, coffee, toast, bacon and ham and eggs for breakfast.”
Of course, if we think it is enough as long as our readers can guess at what we are trying to say, then there are very many rules we can ignore; as for the, er, pesky Oxford comma, we can get the Dark Blues to throw it to the bottom of the Thames Tideway at their next boat race.
Rendition of numbers
A few of my fellow-learners have asked when to write numbers in figures and when to spell them out. I hope this will help.
1. Numbers that can be expressed in one or two words are spelled out. Those that have to be expressed in more than two words are written in the numeral form.
So, twelve, seventy-two, ten million but 208.
News-report writing, however, seems to have a different rule. In that genre, numbers from one to nine are spelled out. Those from 10 and above are written in the numeral form.
2. Use figures (numerals) to express dates, hours, street numbers, decimals, measures, percentages, and volume, chapter, and page numbers. Here are a few examples:
17 March, 2011
Chapter VI or Chapter 6
3.12 A.M. or a.m.
45° or 45 degrees
8, Jalan Good Luck
23% or 23 per cent
Vol. IX or Vol. 9
That 0·112 is a decimal, and so the dot mark is positioned one-half of the height of the numerals above the base line.
3. Use figures to write down uneven sums of money.
“I paid $3.19 for my shirt” but “She paid thirty dollars for her blouse”.
This rule also does not apply in news-report writing.
4. Ordinal numbers are usually spelled out.
Twenty-First Century, the Fifth Column, the Second Commandment, First Avenue, etc.
5. We do not begin a sentence with a figure. If spelling out the numbers will be awkward, we recast our sentence.
Instead of “184 pupils were given free milk”, we write “Milk was given free to 184 pupils.”
Editors usually take the writers’ side. They will forgive us if we render numbers incorrectly. However, we must be consistent even if we do it wrongly.
What can alienate them from us is our inconsistency, because the defect suggests carelessness. – Kik Jitab