Incoherent English? Yes, another bee in the Pedantique-Ryter bonnet.
Radio 4 Today programme in the dock for incoherent speech
In a short interval between my summer educational tours, I happened to be listening to what the pundits maintain is the UK’s “must-listen” political programme — BBC Radio 4’s Today. I heard an interviewer ask a question that was incoherent.
To save that interviewer’s blushes, I shall not repeat the actual words used. The question was roughly along these lines:
“As a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, I’m sure our listeners will want to know whether you would support policy X.”
Question: who is the supporter of the RIP?
[Note: As far as I know, no political party admits to that name. Perhaps one of them should?]
Is the RIP supporter:
(a) the interviewer (“I’m sure”)
(b) the listeners (“our listeners”)
(c) the interviewee (“you”)
Regular readers of Pedantique-Ryter rants will know the answer. And why. You do, don’t you?
What the English means versus what the speaker intended to say
What the English actually means is that the interviewer is the supporter of the RIP. That’s because a descriptive phrase beginning with “as” describes the first thing (noun, pronoun etc) following that phrase.
What the interviewer intended is different, of course. The question was meant to underline that the politician being interviewed was a supporter of the RIP. The interviewer was trying to discover what the RIP’s policy was and, specifically, whether that individual politician supported it.
I’m sure that most of the listeners knew what the interviewer was trying to ask, even if they (the listeners) abhorred the way the question was phrased.
So how should we phrase the question in correct English?
And the answer is…
There are two obvious options, both correct:
1) As a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, do you support policy X?
2) I’m sure our listeners will want to know whether you, as a supporter of the Rational Incoherence Party, would support policy X.
We need a slight diversion here.
Interviewers — and also letter writers, as we shall see — tend to avoid option 1) because it’s blunt and could be viewed as impertinent. It makes the questioning sound more like an inquisition than a political conversation. So, in an attempt to soften the bluntness of the question they want to ask, interviewers wrap their real point in linguistic cotton wool — “as” phrases, “I’m sure” phrases, and the like.
Interviewers learn not to use fillers like “er” and “well” and “you know” while they’re thinking up the next question. As a result, they often trot out pretty meaningless “as” phrases instead.
They could, of course, get it right by using option 2) above. But that kind of sentence construction doesn’t trip easily off the tongue, especially when the interviewer is feeling the pressure of working live and against the clock. So perhaps even pedants should forgive them?
Incoherent written material
I am not happy to forgive that same mistake in written communications, however. How often have you received a marketing letter on the lines of the following:
“As one of our most valued customers, we are writing to draw your attention to our wonderful new service.”
(Probably at vast extra cost — Ed.)
So who is the “valued customer” here? The letter’s writer?
That’s what that incoherent English sentence actually says.
Sadly, (pedant-infuriating) letters on this model seem to be breeding like the proverbial rabbits. I reckon I receive at least a couple every month. [Would I ever buy a service from an organisation that writes English like that? Not a chance. For at least some readers, incorrect English like this Is A Complete Turn-Off. Got it?]
Why do marketing people do it?
I think it’s because they are desperate to put the potential client at the beginning of the letter. They want to stroke the reader’s ego. They think it’s a more friendly approach than starting their letter with a simple sentence of correct English, such as: “We are writing to tell you about our new service…”
Pedantique-Ryter Tip: how to avoid incoherent “as” phrases
#1 Don’t use them at all 😉
#2 Make sure the “as” phrase ends right next to the person or thing it’s referring to.
Tip #1 is foolproof.
Tip #2 can still trip you up if you’re not careful. So, if you begin a sentence with “As you…”, make sure the main part of your statement starts with “you” as well.
As you are a regular leader of Pedantique-Ryter rants, you will know when it’s important to follow the rules of English.
Since I’m off on my educational travels again, I won’t be available to respond to any comments. However, Joanna has kindly offered to reply on my behalf, to the best of her ability. She’s begun to do her own rants about language, I see, so it seems fair to check whether she has what it takes to assume the Pedantique-Ryter mantle. I shall be watching to see how she does.
I’ve seen this error in book descriptions. Needless to say, I don’t buy the books concerned.
Dame Isadora would be proud of you, April, I’m sure, and she’d tell you to spread the word.
I see this all the time. Even so, I trip over it, more because it confuses me than outrage at the grammatical misplacement, to be fair.
And then, of course, there are the somewhat menacing clauses, from which some dubious piece of research or opinion are suspended: “As I need not remind you, pigs fly south in the winter,” or “As you are aware, the Rational Incoherence Party has been very clear on its policy on this.”
That’s not ungrammatical, is it? But it IS a real politician’s use of language. Makes my skin crawl. A word to be treated with great respect, I think.
I’m sure the Dame would appreciate your additional examples, Sophie. I agree that they do sound menacing. Language can be such a dangerous weapon, can’t it? And daily becoming more so.
I often see the same mistake made in French and it makes me cringe. However, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss a (quality) product or service I may need simply on the basis of the company’s bad writing.
You are perhaps more pragmatic than Dame Isadora, Mark. She tends to take a purist approach.