Errors & Omissions: Rhythmic writing and the grammatical flourish
Saturday 26 December 2009
On Boxing Day morning, you don't want this column's usual nit-picking about things that went wrong in the past week's issues of the paper. So this week we change into festive attire and offer instead a celebration of some particular felicities.
Effortless: Amy Jenkins is a writer who makes a lot out of a little; indeed, sometimes out of virtually nothing. One item in her column last Saturday, for instance, quoted a couple of reviews of Keira Knightley's West End stage debut and offered the reflection that while most men find Knightley attractive, most women don't, the reason being that she lacks warmth and does not seem to be on the side of women. That was it, more or less. Jenkins even cheerfully admitted that she had not seen the play.
The piece was carried off, though, by beautiful writing. Notice the rhythm of this: "She's one of those actresses whose looks carry all before them – all men, that is. Personally, I don't know any woman who likes her as an actress or relates to her or finds her life enhanced by what Knightley brings to the roles she plays."
The first sentence is a conjuring trick; it looks ordinary until the rabbit comes out of the hat with "– all men, that is". The second is a cascade, its three steps marked by the repeated "or". That triple structure sweeps the reader happily past what might be a fatal flaw in a less well constructed sentence: "her" is first Knightley and then "any woman". But even here things are not as bald as they seem. Where "her" means Knightley – "likes her ... relates to her" it is a personal pronoun: the "her" that means "any woman" who "finds her life enhanced", is possessive. The grammatical difference helps to set the two apart.
High crimes: Moving from a feminine to masculine style of rhetoric, here is Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford University, arguing, in last Friday's paper, that reckless risk-taking by bankers should be made a criminal offence: "The reason why this is important is not the delightful frisson of vengeance at the spectacle of some elderly gent being dragged off the golf course. It is that had a crime for reckless management of a financial institution been on the books, Northern Rock and RBS would not have blown up".
That came as light relief at the end of a fairly bracing assault course of economic reasoning. In the first sentence the argument takes flight to a fanciful little comic vignette. Then it comes back down to the facts of history with a satisfying bump.
Negative waves: In Monday's media section, Matthew Norman, master of invective, turned his attention once more to the columnist Melanie Phillips, known to Norman's faithful readers as Mad Mel. This time Mad Mel has been blogging against the recent Supreme Court judgment about the Jewish Free School's admissions criteria. Norman recommends Mad Mel's diatribe against the judges as a tonic for anyone who is feeling low.
"Try to read 'An illiberal and ignorant judgment' if you can. As I never tire of repeating, no sky is so grey, no raincloud so black, no heart so heavy that a few minutes in MM's company could fail to banish the gloom."
Effects that depend on multiple negatives are notoriously difficult to handle. Leave one negative out and you end up saying the opposite of what you intend. Here the twice-repeated "no" cancels out the implied negative of "fail", leaving the message that MM's company will banish the rainclouds and the rest of it. Nicely done.
Toys for boys: On a business page last Saturday, Sean O'Grady commented on the demise of Saab: "Those seeing their own reflections in the gleaming gold coachwork of the new Bentley Mulsanne, a £200,000-plus limo, or the striking corvette stingray concept, complete with 'scissor' doors and military-style night vision, could be forgiven for thinking that there has never been a recession."
Two points to note here. It is possible to write a very long sentence without losing the reader. And "those seeing their own reflections in the gleaming gold coachwork" is a terrific image, expressing the almost insane pride, or envy, of ownership provoked by absurdly wonderful motor cars.
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