There was a pithy little snippet cropped up during the Scottish referendum campaign, where an observer commented on a pro-independence demand: ‘Freedom!’ The comment was, ‘from what?’ The answer would have been instructive, no doubt…but it’s that word freedom which was in my mind today. This morning I made myself a cooked breakfast…a rare weekend treat for me. I included a ‘free range’ egg. That reminded me of an American asking what ‘range eggs’ were? Nobody, I think, expected a small plastic effigy when they saw the slogan ‘Free Nelson Madela,’ but I wonder how many have asked, as Kowalski did once in a story that foundered, ‘what’s he in for?’ when they saw the sign I saw once that exhorted us to ‘Free Buxton Water!’ (Ever since, I’ve harboured a desire to write a story with a character called Buxton Water, but I haven’t yet managed it – feel free to. We could compare notes, stories!)

We’re back, of course, to an old favourite of mine: ‘the fat policeman’s wife’ game. I’ve played this with students and writing workshop members before now, but it originates in a Grammar of Modern English, published in the seventies by a Professor Mittins. It’s a great little grammar, making an almost computer-like analysis of how English works. Prime among the mechanisms is that of proximity: we associate the meaning of words with those of the words they are nearest to. Thus, in the phrase ‘the fat policeman’s wife’ we have no way of knowing which is fat – of course, neither of them would be today! Mittins calls the error ‘squinting’, where the middle word could relate to either of the ones beside it, which is where my American friend was caught. The other two examples are slightly different, but you don’t need me to tell you in what way!

English! Doancha luv it!

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