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Grumbles

Basic English grammar for wargames writers/editors

I bought Wargames Illustrated again yesterday, for a variety of pieces, not least the one on British cruiser tanks, for my interest in 1940.  There’s also a nice piece on Verneuil (1424) too, and a rather silly one on Sven Forkbeard.* But it is none of these that makes me write my first post for months.

No, for that I need to don my Tory back-bencher’s hat.  I always thought that the standard of editorial English took a bit of a nose-dive in WI after Duncan ‘the librarian’ MacFarlane stopped being in charge.  In this issue actually the contributors generally write fairly well; the slips mostly come in editorial interventions.  Nonetheless, these are some very common grammatical errors that, over the years, I have noticed in wargames magazines.  I hope this is of use to would-be contributors.  I have added a number of ‘old favourites’ that are not attested in this month’s WI.

1:  Two commonly confused homophones (words that sound the same):

  • lead = heavy metal (plumbum) once frequently used in pipes and often used to refer to metal wargames figures
  • led = past tense of the verb ‘to lead’.  Thus the caption to the photo on WI p.25 – “Lead by an improvised gun-truck…” is wrong, and should have been “Led by an improvised gun-truck…” (the articles’ authors get this right throughout; ironically it appears to have taken the magazine’s editor to make the slip…)

2: The verb ‘to comprise’

Things comprise other things.  In spite of years of grammatical abuse by estate agents, things do not comprise of other things and are not comprised of other things.  In other words, ‘comprise’ does not work like ‘consist’.

Simon Chick gets it right on p.72 of WI 286: “The French army comprised around 12-18,000, including at least 6,000 Scottish troops…”

Victrix Ltd get it wrong in their advert on p.61: “Comprising of 48 infantry in marching poses, …”  This should have read “Comprising 48 infantry in marching poses, …”

3. However

‘However’ cannot be used as a conjunction in the same way as ‘but’.  It has evolved to mean two things:

  • ‘In whatever way’.  As in ‘however possible’.
  • A sort of contraction of ‘however that might have been’, used to mean ‘on the other hand’.  I believe that this is technically incorrect but it has been sanctified by about two centuries of use.

Using ‘however’ to mean ‘but’ in the middle of a sentence usually conveys the quite the opposite meaning from that intended.

Thus on page 115 of the current WI, Mark Freeth writes this:

The battle was over; the French held the field, however the Prussians were still in good order and the cream of the allied army would live to fight another day.

What Mark meant was this: “The battle was over; the French held the field, but the Prussians were still in good order and the cream of the allied army would live to fight another day.”  In other words, although the French held the field the good order of the Prussians and the survival of the best allied units modified or qualified the extent of their victory.  What he actually wrote, though, conveys quite the opposite meaning because what he wrote means this: “The battle was over; the French held the field, in whatever way that (or no matter that) the Prussians may have still been in good order and the cream of the allied army may still have lived to fight another day.”  In other words, there was no meaningful qualification of the extent of the French victory!

4. Apostrophes (the bane of my life and that of anyone else who has to try and teach people how to write good English)

Apostrophes denote one of two (and only two) things:

  • Contraction or abbreviation
  • Possession

An apostrophe never ever denotes a plural, even if the word looks odd.  The plural of shako (contra the Victrix ad on p.61) is shakos.  ‘Shako’s’ means that something belongs to the shako, as in ‘the shako’s front plate became detached.’

I suspect that the word ‘photo’s’ on p.80 is an error.  The plural of photo is photos.  However, this is a bit of a grey area as the word ‘photo’s’ could be correct if the apostrophe denoted the contraction of the word ‘photographs’.  Since in WI the word ‘photo’ never has an apostrophe at the end (photo’), indicating its contraction from ‘photograph’ (which would be archaic-looking) , I suspect it is just a mistake.  On p.8, the subscription info makes the mistake in the opposite direction by leaving the apostrophe out of “this month’s release”…  *sigh*

  • Generals = more than one general
  • General’s = belonging to the general
  • Generals’ = belonging to the generals

An evident error appears on p.73, column 1, para 2: “The Lombard’s charge…”  This would mean a charge by a single Lombard or a reference to ‘the Lombard’, this being used metonymically (I’ll leave metonymy to one side for now…) to refer to his contingent of the army.  As the authors of this article usually get these things right, though, I think this was just a typo.

The exceptions to all of the above – which throw writers who normally get the ‘no apostrophes in plurals’ rule correct – are ‘its’, ‘ours’, ‘yours’ and ‘theirs’.

Thus: “The shako is in good condition but its front plate has become detached.”

‘It’s’ is a contraction of ‘it is’.  “It’s in good condition but its front plate has become detached.”

5: Sentences

A sentence generally makes a single statement, with a subject and a main verb.  It ends with a full stop, not a comma.  If you are joining two statements within a sentence, then you need a conjunction (and, but, so, etc.) depending on how you want to relate the two statements.

This is correct (if not very stylish):

“Napoleon raised an army.  He marched to Waterloo.  He was defeated.”

This is also correct:

“Napoleon raised an army, he marched to Waterloo, and he was defeated.’

This would be better:

“Napoleon raised an army and marched to Waterloo, where [or but] he was defeated.”

This, however, would be wrong:

‘Napoleon raised an army, he marched to Waterloo, he was defeated.”

6: While

While I’m about it, here is one that doesn’t (as far as I can see) appear in WI 286 but has cropped up many times in the history of wargames writing.  ‘While’ (or its older form ‘whilst’) is a coordinating conjunction.  That is to say it coordinates one part of a sentence vis-a-vis the other/s.  While this was happening, that other thing took place.  This means that it can only introduce a subordinate clause – a clause, in other words that cannot stand alone as a sentence because it is dependant upon (or subordinate to) the main clause.

This, therefore is not a sentence:

“While Prince Rupert commanded the left wing.”

While Prince Rupert commanded the left wing … what?  This makes no sense (and a sentence is literally something that makes sense or has meaning: sententia).

***

Well, that’s all for now.  OK – this looks like pedantry, but it isn’t really.  If you want people to understand what it is you are arguing, then grammar does make a difference.  At the very least using good grammar stops you looking like a dumb-ass, and if you don’t look like a dumb-ass then people are more likely to take what you are saying seriously.

*  What is it about these ex-GW types and their wearisome use of the word ‘cool’?  Illustrative sentence (WI 286, p.62): “It’s no secret, I am easily excited by toy soldiers and cool historical events.  Be it WWII, great Roman battles…”  WWII – cool?  Millions of people getting killed!  Cool!  Half-wit.

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