Death and syntaxes – An Irishman’s Diary about grammar

A man who will misuse an apostrophe is capable of anything, as Con Houlihan knew

The Marquis de Favra

The Marquis de Favra

 

Reading the preface of a new book about Flann O’Brien this week, I was reminded of a famous comment by another Irish newspaper columnist of old, Con Houlihan, on the subject of grammar. “A man who will misuse an apostrophe is capable of anything,” Houlihan wrote. But there, in the aforementioned book on a writer also notoriously fastidious about English, was an egregious example of the genre, apparently committed by O’Brien himself.

It was from an article he wrote under the pseudonym George Knowall, for the Carlow-based Nationalist and Leinster Times. And it’s all the more notable because it occurred while he was giving a definition of what admirers consider his own defining quality – humour at the expense of authority figures.

On which theme, the preface quotes him saying this: “If you have a man who has a certain arrogance of manner and who is impeccably dressed, it is very funny to pour a bucket of dirty water over him, preferably from an upstair’s [sic] window.” That “[sic]” was added by the editors of the new book, Flann O’Brien: Problems With Authority. And right enough, the apostrophe is wrong.  

Myles na gCopaleen aka Flann O’Brien aka Brian O’Nolan. File photograph: The Irish Times
Myles na gCopaleen aka Flann O’Brien, aka George Knowall, aka Brian O’Nolan. File photograph: The Irish Times

But the question is whether it was perpetrated by the master satirist himself, or added by someone in Carlow who thought it an improvement. If the latter, imagine the wrath it must have induced in a man whose objections to being miscorrected left several Irish Times sub-editors mentally scarred for life.

I’m sure he would have liked to kick the offending editor upstairs, in the non-metaphorical sense, and arrange a hard landing when he got there

I’m reminded of the related but odd expression – to “kick [someone] upstairs”. This is usually a metaphor for disciplinary promotion, when incompetent people are elevated to positions where they can do less harm. The difficulty of inflicting such a punishment in literal terms was recognised by the phrase’s coiner, a 17th-century aristocrat who, after a bungling political rival had been thus promoted, quipped that he had seen many people kicked downstairs in his time but that this was the first man he had seen kicked in the other direction.

Maybe the misplaced apostrophe was Flann O’Brien’s own work. If not, and if the opportunity had been available, I’m sure he would have liked to kick the offending editor upstairs, in the non-metaphorical sense, and arrange a hard landing when he got there.  

As for the book, the reason I’ve been reading it is that I have to speak at the launch next week. And in which well-known Dublin literary outlet is that event taking place? Yes, as (I swear) I’ve just noticed when re-reading the invitation, Books Upstairs.

Some grammatical errors will elude even the best journalists, of course. Take for example the faux pas called the “hanging participle”, aka the “dangling modifier”, wherein a qualifying phrase is divorced by bad syntax from its intended target. Among the prize exhibits listed in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is one from Richard Ingrams, long-time editor of Private Eye magazine and later the Oldie. Back in 1987, it seems, describing the house he grew up in, he wrote this: “Now demolished, I can call it to mind in almost perfect detail.”

But contrary to what is implied there, Ingrams had not been demolished in 1987. On the contrary, he must have been listed for preservation then, because he’s still standing today. He turned 80 last month.

In those (pre-guillotine) times, the last privilege of errant aristocrats was to be dispatched by an axe-man

Anyway, you can take correct usage too far sometimes. The cautionary tale is the Marquis de Favras, a French nobleman who, scrutinising a legal document once, commented: “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes”. These were also his last words, because the document was his death sentence.  

There’s a time and place for pedantry, and a gallows at the Place du Grève, circa 1790, probably wasn’t it. Even the marquis’s (death) sentence construction – he was to be hanged – flouted normal rules. 

In those (pre-guillotine) times, the last privilege of errant aristocrats was to be dispatched by an axe-man.  

Hanging was for common criminals. So this proud pedant made history as the worst kind of dangling modifier.

The only consolation in the manner of his demise was that death by hatchet did not always deliver the quick end it promised. That depended on the executioner’s skill. And as an unfortunate Hiberno-French nobleman, Comte de Lally, had demonstrated 30 years earlier, when unwittingly advancing the cause for more humane executions, it was never guaranteed. De Lally was given the honour of beheading. But far from being short and clean, his sentence was grimly protracted: the clumsy hatchet man inserting a number of commas, none strictly necessary, before the full stop.

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