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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-06-21)

Even experienced writers seem to come over all queer when they are writing about death and they say some pretty odd things. A regular columnist in our morning newspaper wrote about a truly tragic event – a graduation ceremony at which one of the graduands was absent: he had been murdered shortly before. The writer’s theme was that he was present in spirit, in the memories of his fellow students and, as she put it, “in the gushing blood of his parents” who were indeed present. How does one explain that “gushing blood” is normally understood to be gushing out of the body it belongs in, and that her expression irresistibly suggests a multiple murder?

A London journalist wrote movingly about the funeral of the late, and much-lamented, Harry Secombe of Goon Show fame. He reported solemnly that Harry’s widow had walked into the church “arm in arm with her four children.” One can’t help wondering what the Goons would have made of that.

Our third contributor apparently works for Reuters and wrote about the untimely death, at 49, of Douglas Adams, a gifted writer who managed against all the odds to write humorous science fiction: his Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sold 14 million copies. This is what our writer said: “It was turned into a best-selling novel, a TV series, record album, computer game and was adapted for the stage”.

This sentence is clear enough, but it limps along like a three-legged turtle. Why?

The first flaw is that a convention is established at once, by which the nouns in a list will be preceded by “a” or “an” – “a best-selling novel, a TV series”. If they have an article, then all the nouns in the list should have one: a novel, a series, an album and a game. Furthermore, the last two items in the list should be linked by that “and”.

But (I hear you cry) if he does that, there will be two “ands” in the sentence, and you can’t have that! Or can you?

Of course you can. This is one of those dreaded “rules” that linger on from our schooldays: It’s quite a useful guide for very young children who string all their sentences together with “ands”. But for grown-ups it is pernicious nonsense. Sometimes you must use “and” more than once, and the sentence we’re looking at is a perfect example. The two “ands” have different functions, which we should be able to detect. The first one links a series of nouns (and tells us that the list is ending) and the next links two sentences, of which the second is “(It) was adapted for the stage”. If the first “and” is left out, the second sentence is dragged awkwardly into the list of nouns before it, where it doesn’t belong.

What went wrong? Grammar? Syntax? Perhaps it’s just a failure in style – the first casualty when a language is under stress.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online




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