persnickety

Early in P.D. James’ mystery Death in Holy Orders (2001), she establishes that her characters will speak formal, allusive, complex English of the type that an average reader could never master in real speech. Here, for example, a divinity teacher is addressing his student:

“You might as well take your essay. It’s on the desk. Evelyn Waugh wrote in one of his travel books that he saw theology as the science of simplification whereby nebulous and elusive ideas are made intelligible and exact. Your essay is neither. And you misuse the word ’emulate.’ It is not synonymous with ‘imitate.'”

“Of course not. Sorry, Father. I can imitate you but I cannot hope to emulate you.”

A few pages earlier, in discussing an anonymous letter, another character says, “And the writer is educated, I’d say. He–or she–has got the punctuation right. In this under-educated age I’d say that means someone middle-aged rather than young.”

I think this is a relatively easy game to play. In the quiet of her study, the author composes careful sentences that incorporate quotes from books she happens to have at hand. In the text, she explicitly mentions the difference between educated, erudite speech and ordinary talk. She thereby creates an air of superiority that some readers seem to enjoy.

Thus I have to admit I was pleased to encounter the following sentence of narration early in the novel: “In addition to its size, Father Sebastian’s office contained some of the most valuable objects bequeathed to the college by Miss Arbuthnot.” This is a howler–the room doesn’t contain its own size. The Baroness James has committed a basic grammatical error. Ha! I only hope the plot turns out to be good.

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