When English fringes on the pedantic

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Grey Matter Column
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Itook a trip to Edinburgh on Friday just to get a flavour of the International Festival, or, more properly, the Fringe.

Part of the Royal Mile is closed to traffic and given over to entertainers who each year provide an eclectic display of free performances that vary from the magical and marvellous to the bizarre and bawdy.

I witnessed men in funny dress doing amazing things with spinning tops and string under the watchful eye of the Duke of Buccleuch in statue form. And I gazed upon statues that weren’t statues, but humans doing a fantastic job of pretending to be statues.

This part of the Royal Mile, like most of Edinburgh, was thronging – almost too busy for comfort, but worth putting up with slight discomfort.

Flyers were handed out every few yards ascribed with endless quotes from reviews of previous performances. I do wonder about some of them, but never mind if it helps put bums on seats, because putting on performances at the Fringe – never mind the Festival proper – is not a cheap exercise.

I took in a 55-minute show downstairs in the Royal Oak by a comedian and poet (sorry, I left the flyer in the house and can’t recall his name) which was entitled That’s Not How You Spell Pedantic. It was fantastic. He ripped apart those who put apostrophe’s in the wrong place and those who went through life splitting continually their infinitives.

My first editor way back in 1967 had a thing about splitting infinitives. He was a true pedantic when it came to the English language and infinitives were definitely not for splitting.

I nodded regularly in agreement but, confess I must, the mystery of the infinitive and the splitting of it had somehow passed me by during my days at Galashiels Academy where I have to say English, alongside history, was one of my favourite subjects.

At TheSouthern we have an editorial rule that no first paragraph of a main story should exceed five lines – that’s about 20 to 25 words.

That first editor of mine – his name was John McMurtrie and he was a fine man who played the kirk organ and grew fine apples which I, at one time, had been known to plunder – would have struggled with the 25-word intro.

In the caseroom of the Border Telegraph there hanged for many years a galley proof of a single sentence of his – it was 165 words long.

It was studied and examined by many and found to be grammatically perfect – commas, colons, semi-colons and hyphens were all there – and every apostrophe in the correct place and not a split infinitive to be observed.

Back to Edinburgh – a truly cosmopolitan city where I met travellers from Denholm, Innerleithen and Hawick – and to a pub at the top of the Royal Mile where I was instructed, having purchased a pint, to move two feet away from the bar because there was cutlery on it which could be used as a weapon.

I queried this with the manager and was told it was because customers might spread infection upon the said cutlery.

I may have split an infinitive in my reply.