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Subordinating Stringfellow

13/05/2012

A profile in yesterday’s Times begins:

Peter Stringfellow hits the silver bell on his desk – ding! – to signal the start of our interview. This immediately tickles him, and triggers the kind of hearty laughter he will go on to employ regularly over the next few hours as he talks with, what I gradually realise, is impressive stamina.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. <fx: smacks forehead> Was it the journalist or (more likely) the subs who butchered that into illiterate dreck?

Step 1: When confronted with a subordinate clause – in this case, “, what I gradually realise,” – you take it out and see if the rest of the sentence stands up as coherent English. This results in: “… as he talks with is impressive stamina”. No, sorry chaps, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Step 2: take out all the punctuation and try again. So:  “as he talks with what I gradually realise is impressive stamina”. Well, unmolested that would certainly make sense, but we can do better.

Try this – “as he talks with what, I gradually realise, is impressive stamina.” Put this to the Step 1 test: take out the subordinate clause and you have “as he talks with what is impressive stamina”. Do you see? Stringfellow is already talking with impressive stamina, which the journalist gradually comes to appreciate over the extended interview.

I’m not pillorying The Times to the exclusion of other rags. It’s simply the paper (along with the FT online) that I read – and scrutinise. I wish it were better, but it’s better than most. I expect many of you will remember this exchange from Yes, Prime Minister:

How prescient of Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (men who would never abuse a subordinate clause) that, even way back then in 1987, they realised that The Daily Express and its grunting, Neanderthal readership were not worth mentioning.

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