Reading Middlemarch

Reading Middlemarch: March 2006

I’ve been so busy this week I haven’t had much time to browse around the blog world, sphere, cornucopia, whatever it is called. So I’ve been bookmarking items on Bloglines to return to "at my leisure" (ha ha). Gmail is down just now so I have just been to have a look at this charming blog, to which I was alerted by a piece on Chekhov’s Mistress. (That is, CM the blog, not CM herself.)

Reading Middlemarch is exactly that, a collection of people who are all reading Middlemarch, a book which I think is wonderful. But long — would I ever have time to read it again and blog about it at the same time, on top of everything else? But it is a book I enjoyed so much, for the character and attitudes of Dorothea and for the wonderful portrait of a crank (Chasaubon) — people like him exist today! I have spent years being written to by people like him, convinced they have a better theory of evolution or have solved Fermat’s Last Theorem*, and it was such a shock of recognition and humour to read about him in this book.

Back to "Reading Middlemarch": Isabella wrote the opening post on 4 March, asking "Is Middlemarch a women’s book?" She points out that it scores high as "women’s fiction" but less well on general "male-dominated ‘best novels’ lists" (oh? news to me.) . There is some preamble about rule-setting and editions, and then they are off – with side-tracks on the way, often on feminist issues. What a great blog, I shall enjoy reading it.

*When someone really did solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, it must have been a great disappointment to these people, and a great relief to the postman. (These guys don’t believe in email but in registered, signed-for-on-receipt packages.)

Grammatical episodes

mediabistro.com: Articles: Excerpt: Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies

Despite the somewhat off-putting title, there is some useful advice in this excerpt from a new book, which explains when to use "that" and "which", a distinction that is meat and drink to subeditors (copyeditors to US readers) and like-minded people. I haven’t looked it up in Hart’s Rules but if I did I imagine it would be one of those typical Hart’s entries that says, in effect, everyone disagrees and so latitude is allowed. (Such entries enrage the type of person who is insistent that one should never split an infinitive, for example.)

Here is June Casagrande, author of the strangely titled book, on that/which:

"Which" sets off what are called "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses. (It’s the same principle as the one we learned about in chapter 10 regarding how to use commas.) In simpler English, "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" clauses are simply clauses that can be lifted right out of a sentence without changing its primary point. The college, which you are attending, admits anyone who can spell her own name. The main point of the sentence is that the college admits just about anyone. The fact that you are currently attending it is an extra bit of information, an aside. Everything in between the commas can be surgically removed from the sentence without changing the simple point that the college admits flunkies.

More of the same at the link, which I found via Booksquare.

Incidentally, note that I did not hyphenate "strangely titled book". Another grammatical point is that you don’t need to hyphenate a noun qualified by an adverb and an adjective, becuase there is no ambiguity. You do need to hyphenate a noun qualified by two adjectives only if there is an ambiguity, for example the red-nosed reindeer.

Here is a web article by Richard Mason entitled "Isn’t it painful to see "they" used in the singular?" I always thought that the answer is "yes", and frequently tie myself up in editing knots on this point. But according to Richard, the answer is "no". He says: "You should not feel any pain from the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, for instance to refer to a person of unknown or unspecified sex, since it is perfectly correct English." I am going to seek advice on this one, it seems a bit radical at first glance — but there does seem to be plenty of blue-chip support (note hyphen) for the usage, not least from Jane Austen.

Dr Ian Hocking said…

Thanks for your comment, Maxine. I think instinct isn’t a bad way to go. Still, it would take a long time to convince that a third-person plural can used in the singular, even if English does suffer from a lack of a gender-neutral pronoun…

8:45 PM

Maxine said…

Yes, I am surprised to read that it is apparently OK to use "they" as a singular gender-neuter pronoun. I will report back if I find out anything authoritative about this usage.

11:25 AM

Maxine said…

I meant to type gender-neutral!

11:26 AM

Honesty again

Two stories from today’s Times. One reports that various attractions (zoos, theme parks) in the UK have withdrawn free entry for holders of "Blue Peter" badges, after it has emerged over the past few days that people are selling them on e-Bay, with the sellers specifically mentioning the free entry perk. "Blue Peter" is a children’s TV programme which rewards viewers with a badge if they have done a good deed or created a piece of artwork. The article states: "On Sunday there were 20 Blue Peter badges up for sale for between 99p and £30 but yesterday there were 275 badges for sale and the top price was £130 — including an authentic letter from the programme". The amount you would save on a child’s ticket to an attraction cannot be more than about £20.

Another story in the same issue is entitled "Honest man hands in $1m bag". John Surhoff found a Louis Vuitton bag in Sausalito, California, containing a 12-carat diamond ring, Cartier jewellery and other items to the value of $1 million. He handed the bag in to the local police station. It belonged to a Canadian who was in town for a wedding, and has now been returned to the owner. "Every person I know or associate with would have done the same", Mr Surhoff is quoted as saying.

Funny old world.