The Torbay Mayoral Election: Who Would a Writer Have Picked?

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May 9, 2011

Image licensed under CC-SA 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license by Laura H. (Wikipedia: Parpan05)

My heart is sinking. And not only because Torbay now has a mayor with a background in property development and real estate; my gripe is far more basic than that. Call me old-fashioned, anally retentive or whatever, but I was led to believe that if you wanted to get on in life you needed a very good standard of literacy. Now, in terms of ‘getting on in life’, surely becoming a mayor ranks pretty highly. Why then does the level of grammar on display in the candidates’ statements (note, Paul Clifford, the correct use of a plural possessive apostrophe), fall below, sometimes well below, my own modest expectations for good grammar?

To get my irritation off my chest I decided to rank the nine candidates, not on political acumen, experience, or appearance, but on use of grammar and, to a lesser extent, presentation. Here is a writer’s view on who should have been mayor of Torbay (and it ain’t Gordon ‘get it built’ Oliver).

9. PAUL E CLIFFORD (INDEPENDENT)

Needs to go back to basics (6/20)

Bottom, by a Totnes Road mile, is Mr Clifford. When his statement switched from third to first person in the first paragraph it didn’t bode well and things just nosedived from there.

First, we have the dreaded apostrophe abuse. Your English teacher should have told you all about possessive apostrophes but it’s always good to have a refresher. To indicate possession of something, we introduce an apostrophe and an ‘s’: the milk belonging to the cat is the cat’s milk.

But say you have three cats and need to leave a note out to remind your partner to pick up the milk; you add the apostrophe to the plural word, cats, and write: ‘please would you get the cats’ milk, honeybunch’.

So what on earth is supposed to be possessing what in the following howler from Mr Clifford:

‘national political parties’ and central government should keep out of day to day running of local government’.

Yes, and apostrophes should keep out of the way of plural nouns when they’re not needed!

There are a few redundant commas and some inefficient sentences but I don’t want to spend this whole post on one candidate. However, I will take the opportunity to point out how you should use commas to indicate subordinate clauses in a sentence.

A subordinate clause is a part of a sentence that adds useful information but does not affect its grammatical sense. Therefore, it should be possible to take out the clause and leave a perfectly intelligible sentence behind. Indicating a subordinate clause is achieved by way of parentheses such as brackets or a pair of commas (brackets tend to indicate less important clauses than commas).

Here is a sentence from Mr Clifford’s statement that attempts to make use of commas to set aside a clause:

‘ I will strive to reduce, and in some cases, remove car parking charges’.

Can you remove the clause, ‘and in some cases’, and still be left with an intelligible sentence? No. The solution? Simply move the comma to the other side of remove. Now we can see that the important message, that Mr Clifford will work to reduce charges, is left intact.

8. FIONA MCPHAIL (INDEPENDENT)

Heading in the wrong direction (8/20)
To be fair, there was not a lot wrong with the grammar in Fiona McPhail’s statement. There is a bit of confusion over the semi-colon and I did spot a comma splice (where two separate sentences are joined by a comma instead of a semi-colon or conjunction) but nothing too elementary. However, I found her style and layout to be haphazard and amateurish.
Her use of headings seemed arbitrary and confusing. First, we had odd-looking single word sentence pairs (e.g. ‘Governance.Deliver:’) which seemed to materialise out of thin air with nothing to introduce them. The third of these sections was split between two pages and, since the second page had a logo and heading of its own, it wasn’t obvious that I was reading the same section. This was followed by a complete change of style (longer headings, one with a dash, and one with a colon) so that it appeared as if a completely new writer had taken over.
Dashes are a stylistic device that, used carefully, can add a punch to a sentence. Fiona McPhail simply overuses them; using six in one sentence (besides, two were actually hyphens!) is definitely overkill.

7. GORDON OLIVER (CONSERVATIVE)

King of confusion (10/20)
Mr Oliver’s statement reminded me of the time I went to a fish and chip shop in Scarborough: I was presented with a pile of chips and a sheet of newspaper and left to work out how to wrap it up myself. In his statement, it’s as if Mr Oliver is saying, ‘there you go, some words and some punctuation marks; you know what I mean; you make sense of it!’
Have a read of this!
‘The key to Torbay’s all round success is a thriving economy; with a well-educated workforce including our children, sustaining a clean environment; having safe and prosperous towns; a fit and healthy population and support for vulnerable and elderly people.’
What language is this? It’s certainly not the English I was taught at school. I hope Torbay’s residents realise they have elected a mayor who supports child labour because that’s what he seems to be saying in part of the nonsense above. But we know what he means so that must be OK then. I hope he spent more time carefully considering the environmental impact of the Kingskerswell bypass than he has proofreading his statement. Oh, and by the way it’s not by-pass, Mr Oliver, nor by pass, Mr Bye!)

6. MARTIN BROOK (INDEPENDENT)

Slap on those semi-colons (12/20)
Top marks for Mr Brook’s willingness to step outside the conventional and opt for a statement which looks and sounds unique, stylish and modern (there’s even a Facebook icon you could click – if it wasn’t printed on a paper booklet). Unfortunately, he has decided to reinvent the use of the semi-colon and proceeded to slap them all over the place as if they were in danger of running out.
I came across some grammatical advice recently: if you have any doubts about using a semi-colon, then don’t use it. Some people seem to get caught up in the myth that a semi-colon is a kind of compromise between a comma and full stop. It’s not. A semi-colon basically has two uses: to separate complex lists (where commas would cause confusion) and to join two sentences which are deemed to be closely related. The definitive test for the correct use of a semi-colon is to replace it with a full stop and see if you are still left with complete sentences. Mr Brook, Mr Oliver and Ms McPhail would all benefit from following that advice.

5. NICK BYE (INDEPENDENT)

A capital effort (13/20)
I must admit to a bit of nit-picking with the previous mayor’s statement which is, on the whole, well-presented and grammatically sound. Rebuilt and bypass, as mentioned earlier, are single words, and there is a clumsy sentence at the very beginning.

=2. DENNIS BREWER (LIBERAL)

Falling at the final hurdle (14/20)

PATRICK CANAVAN (LABOUR)

Almost plain sailing (14/20)

SUSIE COLLEY (INDEPENDENT)

Needed fine tuning (14/20)
I couldn’t separate the three runners-up in my grammarian’s mayoral race:

Mr Brewer’s eye-catching effort was heading for gold until he decided to throw in the most ludicrously long sentence at the end. Not only is it 55 words long but he also revealed that he spent some of his working life as an animal food-box (unless he meant to write ‘manager’).
Mr Canavan opted for a plain, no frills statement but omitted the apostrophe on consultants’ fees and could have done with an extra comma or two.
Ms Colley’s language seemed a bit on the ‘flowery’ side and some of her sentences felt clumsy.

1. SAM MOSS (GREEN)

Green and grammatical (15/20)
I’m sure it will be little consolation to the candidate who finished 9th in the election (though I suspect he was a few people’s second choice), but Dr Moss has, in my opinion, come up with the most stylish and grammatically sound piece of writing. His writing approach is engaging and coherent and his presentation is eye-catching and aesthetically balanced. Well done.
Still, there are one or two grammatical points to make: there is a redundant word (most) in the fourth paragraph, an ambiguous sentence in the fifth (a comma after Chiropractor would have solved it), ‘low-carbon’ should carry a hyphen and the last paragraph contains a colon followed by a capital letter – not necessary unless you are starting a new sentence.

Please feel free to contribute your own comments and point out any grammatical faux pas I have made. Do you think literacy is important in politics? Are you shocked by the standard of the mayoral statements?