marcel barang

(Pen)ultimate

In English on 10/07/2009 at 11:58 am

Could somebody tell Bernard Trink that ‘penultimate’ does not mean ‘last’ but ‘one before last’? In the potboilers he reviews, the mystery or murder conundrum is solved in the penultimate chapter, never in the last one. Again today: ‘In the penultimate chapter, we learn who survives…’ So what happens in ‘ultimate’ chapters? Post mortems? And what’s wrong with the word ‘last’ anyway?

More generally, couldn’t this pathetic prose be properly edited? Or does its author benefit from editorial immunity due to age and service record? Already two decades ago, when Trink’s ‘Nite Owl’ weekly column in the Bangkok Post resulted in readers’ hoots the next morn’, one of my subs (Hi, Nick!) used to say ‘that man deserves to be hanged for grievous bodily harm to the English language’.

Now, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, or the Earth might get depopulated pretty fast, starting with me perhaps, and all things considered, the fellow is good at what he does so long as he confines himself to reviewing low and middleonchesilbeach brow brews. Unfortunately, he occasionally tackles high brow stuff and shows himself hopelessly out of his depth: a few months back, he butchered Ian McEwan’s wonderful On Chesil Beach, the ultimate outrage for those who care not just for neat prose but literature at its subtlest. But then, what could a former reviewer of flesh spots understand to a comical horror story of manners about a couple of virgins on their wedding night? You might as well ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you for a ride in an Aston Martin.

Mind you, talking about high brow, in the same page Michiko Kakutani – yes, la Kakutani of NYT, the one with the discerning mind and usually elegant pen – reviewing an Iranian novel, lets out a ‘while at the same time’ – a redundancy even some of the best stylists (John Updike for one, and so many others) have never learned to correct to either ‘while’ or ‘and at the same time’. Ah, well.

Next time, I’ll go ranting about ‘following behind’ and a few more of my pet peeves.

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