A crossword in your ear

Photo: Not at all relevant, but one of my better sunset photos from 2016

I lashed out this week and shouted* myself a new crossword book as the old one was (more or less) completed and someone had (a) left melted chocolate fingerprints on pages 19 and 20 and (b) the cover and edges of several pages were festooned with the squashed remains of a cockroach which dared to stray too close to the late-night toast and marmalade.

After a bit of trial and error, I settled for an A5 sized book with 65, large-type crosswords. At just $4.60 that’s astonishing value compared to buying a daily newspaper, about eight cents per crossword compared with paying $3.50 for a weekend newspaper which might have two crosswords, if you’re lucky. Let’s be clear – I don’t do cryptic crosswords because my brain does not work like that. I mean, who can work with clues like this one from a weekend newspaper:

“A cradle of land left after a big bang?”

Oh, I hear some of you crypto fans cry – any dunderhead knows that! We’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s Sunshine Coast Daily to be sure.

One of my readers, closer to 80 than 70, does the cryptic crossword in the weekend newspaper, Macquarie Dictionary opened on a reading stand.

“It might take me all week,” he said, when the subject came up, “but I get it done.”

Newspaper crosswords don’t let you know the solutions until the following day or week, so there cannot be, ahem, cheating, as there is with crossword books, which have the answers in the back. Never let it be said that I sneak a peek. That would be defeating the purpose, which is to keep the mind sharp, test one’s accrued general knowledge, learn new words and whittle away at the cockroach population.

I place a cross next to a word I’ve never come across before, and there are more than a few crosses in my tattered copy of Crosswords for Pleasure, which is being recycled as we speak. Fantail, for example (the overhanging part of a ship’s stern), or deists (believers in God). Grammarians and sub editors might know this one – cedilla (the diacritic put under a c in some languages).

Anyroad (northern English dialect for ‘anyway’), this is not really about crosswords, or even well-tempered words; no, this is about our shared love of the English language and its many foibles. I was telling a reader this week that when I post FOMM to my WordPress website, invariably the Readability program button flashes red. Too many long sentences, it grumbles. Too much use of the passive voice. Last week I did better, apparently, scoring only 9% use of passive voice (below the maximum recommended use of 10%).

I did not fare so well with a recent essay about racism in Australia (hard to sum up in 1,200 words, but I gave it a bash).

Apparently, 45.9% of sentences contained more than 20 words, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 25%. Also, 27% of sentences contained passive voice. But worse, the essay scored only 52.3% in the Flesch Reading Ease Test. Perhaps you don’t remember that one?

To be or not to be (Shakespeare) to be, to be, doo (Sinatra)

William Shakespeare was better known for his use of the subjunctive and prepositions but this is cited when grammarians give examples of passive voice: “Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare (passive) instead use “William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” (active) although there is a lively debate whereby some scholars claim he did not write the play.

Charles Dickens didn’t mind a long-winded sentence – so much so his critics claimed (wrongly) he was being paid by the word. George Orwell ran on a bit too. I tested the first chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London with my website’s readability tool to find that 29.2% of sentences contained more than 20 words and 22% of sentences contained passive voice. While Orwell’s first chapter scored 69.9% in the reading test (considered ‘OK’), the programme chided him for starting three consecutive sentences with the same word.

“Try to mix things up,” the programme suggested.

Blogger Stroppy Editor says Orwell complained about the passive voice while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint.

The opening chapter of Bleak House by Dickens begins four consecutive sentences with the same word, but also packs 150 words or more into a paragraph (which he does six times) and 35.6% of sentences in chapter one contain more than 20 words.

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” 33 words.

What writers love about the Internet is that, having had an idea, one can always find someone out there who has touched on the subject. The Huffington Post compiled a list of famous authors who made it OK to commit grammaticide. Of these, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often used the passive voice, because unclear writing is a mystery, and Arthur loved a good mystery.

The girl had been murdered’ is more gut-wrenching that ‘someone murdered the girl’ because it puts the focus on the girl without revealing who murdered her.

Or: “No, your boy had been observed, and that gave me a guide where to look.” (Hound of the Baskervilles).

Journalist Constance Hales wrote in the New York Times blog Opinionator: ‘the most pilloried use of the passive voice might be that famous expression of presidents and press secretaries, “mistakes were made”.

Politicians have long used the passive voice to spin the news, avoid responsibility or hide the truth. One political guru even dubbed this usage “the past exonerative”.

Stroppy Editor says one obvious thing you can do with the passive (but not the active), is to omit the agent.

“This is very handy if the agent is unknown, irrelevant, too obvious to mention or too contentious to mention. This technique can also make a passive sentence much shorter and punchier than any active equivalent.”

“Yesterday I got dumped, fired, burgled and urinated on.

Yesterday, armed with an active-voice shopping list and a high school drop-out’s notion of grammar, I went to the butcher shop to pick up the Christmas ham.

“Mate,” I said. “Is there a ham here to be picked up by me?”

The kindly butcher, used to the eccentricities of the locals, called out to his off-sider “If the ham for Mr Wilson be ready, it is to be picked up by him now”.

You’ll be delighted to find, despite the provocative, 66-word opening sentence, that this essay scored 71.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. And I only used one cliché. A handy tool, but don’t let it fence you in.

We wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday. Friday on My Mind returns on January 6.

*In Australia, to ‘shout’ is to buy (a beer, a meal or a crossword book) for a mate.


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December 23, 2016 4:32 pm

I deliberately kept the sentences short in the book what I wrote with Shashi Sharma – a non-native English writer. At one point he achieved a sentence that filled five lines of 12 point text. He involved me because I once had to rewrite scientific papers to publication standard for him and 100 or so other NNEWs. Different in other languages – French is OK, even though they slip in the odd cedilla (never written the work before: thanks for the heads up). It is also is more compact than English, in that there are fewer words. German? – it… Read more »

Madeline Percy
Madeline Percy
December 26, 2016 10:32 am

The “past exonerative” sounds like a Keating witticism – is it?

Pam Urquhart
Pam Urquhart
December 26, 2016 10:34 am

Have a good break Robert. I don’t know how you keep up the quality week in week out but we’ll miss FOMM on December 30.