Order, word order!

A writer owes a debt to his readers, and they are within their rights to demand repayment.

Paris, circa 2019

The readers agree to offer the writer their time and, in some cases, mental effort. But this is a loan, not a gift.

To repay it, the writer undertakes to offer his readers something worth their time and, in some cases, mental effort. The loan is made up of the principal and accrued interest.

These days, most readers are generous enough, or perhaps realistic enough, to forgo the interest: elegance, verve, refined style, wit, erudition, depth.

But they still must demand a prompt repayment of the principal: lucid, comprehensible communication.

A reader may at times have to make an effort to grasp a complex idea, but he shouldn’t have to make any effort at all trying to force his way through the thicket of turgid, involute style, bad grammar and careless word order.

In other words, a writer is allowed to make his readers stop and think because of what he writes, but not because of how he writes it. If that’s what he does, he’s in default.

In that vein, earlier today I felt cheated by this headline in a daily paper: “Holocaust survivor reveals how the French held thousands of doomed Jews in Paris prison camp and followed Nazi orders with ‘chilling efficiency’ on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.”

I knew that the French, like our own Labour Party, may incline to anti-Semitism, but the headline still gave me a start. For that anniversary is just about now. So, just about now, the French are still running a prison camp in Paris, in which they hold thousands of doomed Jews on Nazi orders.

Fine, some writers do derive the EU’s genealogy from the Third Reich, but surely it’s outrageous to suppose that, 75 years after the liberation of Paris, the French are still following Nazi diktats. I’ve heard of EU tyranny, but this is just too much to absorb.

The two paragraphs above are written in jest. The headline in question actually testifies not to French monstrosity, but to English illiteracy: to make the headline unequivocal, the phrase “on the 75th anniversary of Paris liberation” should have come either at the beginning of the sentence or else after the verb “reveals”.

It took me a few seconds to figure this out, but these were the few seconds I, the reader, shouldn’t have been expected to waste trying to decipher the sentence. The writer cheated me of my time – his loan is thereby foreclosed, and he’s declared professionally bankrupt.

Also, that and another paper used “on his behalf” when they meant “on his part” twice in the same issue. Chaps, when a mistake is made on a person’s behalf, he isn’t to blame, at least not wholly. When it’s a mistake on his part, he is – it’s his own bloody fault.

If you don’t know the difference, you should really look for a different line of work – writing for a living isn’t for you. The same goes for those who use ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’.

‘Imply’ is what you put in; ‘infer’ is what somebody else takes out. Thus I’ve implied throughout this piece that basic standards of literacy are no longer enforced at our mainstream papers, while you may or may not infer that this is a symptom of a general cultural malaise.

Reasonably clear, isn’t it? Not to some hacks, by the looks of it.

Oh well, I could go on and on, but I can’t wait to get back to my volume of Chesterton’s articles and essays – just to remind myself what a splendid tool English can be, when wielded by a masterly hand.

By the way, confusion between ‘masterly’ and ‘masterful’ is another bugbear of mine, mainly because the former word is regrettably disappearing. That proves yet again that modern vandalism in language and elsewhere is reductive.

Just for the benefit of those professional hacks: ‘masterly’ and ‘masterful’ are cognates but not synonyms. The former means virtuosically skilful; the latter, imperious. And writers who don’t know the difference are neither.

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