Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

King Arthur, coda confusion, the butler and TV

with 20 comments

Wordwatch Towers officially reopens tomorrow.“The Death of King Arthur”

In the meantime, I’m sorry to report that the butler has installed a TV in his pantry without permission. I know this because he rushed upstairs the other evening to tell me that during a documentary about King Arthur, the presenter, poet Simon Armitage, explained that Malory had ‘included a coda at the end of the book’. The book being Le Mort d’Arthur.

As the butler rightly pointed out (in not so many words), one meaning of ‘coda’ is ‘the concluding part of a literary or dramatic work’. (See Merriam-Webster.) Therefore, Armitage did not need to add the redundant (and tautological) words ‘at the end of the book’. ‘Malory included a coda’ would have sufficed.

This tale’s coda is that the butler is now paying a regular contribution from his wages towards the TV licence.

King Arthur: the ‘facts’


20 Responses

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  1. Can’t argue with that, though I’m sure someone will.

    Welcome back!


    11/09/2010 at 12:05 pm

    • Hi, Ron — thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated. Hope you’re doing OK.


      11/09/2010 at 12:08 pm

  2. I’m glad you are back, too. I guess this tautology results from someone being really desperate to use the Latin word but being aware that many modern people won’t know what it means.
    I am reminded of the condition when the Normans brought their language to England. Everyone ended up bilingual and tautological terms such as “will & testament” and “aid & abet” came into the English language.
    Keep up the good work!


    11/09/2010 at 12:19 pm

    • Hi, and thanks very much for your kind words. It’s lovely to hear from you. Yes, I think you’re probably right about needing to communicate the meaning of ‘coda’. Thanks for your very interesting observations about ‘will and testament’ and ‘aid and abet’. I hadn’t thought about those before.

      I also meant to mention in this post something you will already know: ‘coda’ is originally from the Latin ‘cauda’ meaning ‘tail’.

      Thanks again! I hope you continue to enjoy Wordwatch.


      11/09/2010 at 12:41 pm

  3. “Assault and battery” is often added to the tautological pairs list – but wrongly.

    Assault can be anything from poking someone in the chest with a finger upwards, with or without sexual connotations. Battery is an actual beating.


    11/09/2010 at 1:17 pm

    • Yes, that’s an interesting one. Thanks, Ron. To be absolutely correct in case anyone’s interested:

      Assault and Battery are two different offences of common law.

      Assault: Any act which causes someone to fear immediate and unlawful violence.

      Battery: The actual infliction of unlawful violence.


      11/09/2010 at 1:18 pm

  4. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Daily Telegraph article, which noted:

    King Arthur: the ‘facts’ about the legendary figure
    Historians claim to have finally located the site of King Arthur’s Round Table. Below are ten “facts” about the legendary figure.

    Interesting use the first time round of single quotes around ‘facts’ and the eecond time double quotes. It’s a shame that they didn’t chose to add an explanatory paragraph at the end; not all Telegraph readers are bright enough to take the hint of the quotation marks. Of course there is not a single fact in the list. Unfortunately there is a host of factoidal historical clap-trap circulating the world, sometimes even among academics, and it’s a shame that the Daily Telegraph (presumably in the name of ‘humour’) chooses to behave like this, helping to perpetuate these factoids in its own silly little way.


    11/09/2010 at 1:56 pm

    • Hello, Dai — I’m glad to see you here again. Hope you’re OK. I didn’t notice the inconsistent quote marks, and you’re right to pick up on it (bad subbing). But the King Arthur stuff is just a bit of fun? Speaking of which, I really like this blog which (slightly off-topic, but your comment reminded me of it) picks up on the unnecessary use of quote marks. Thanks, Dai.


      11/09/2010 at 2:09 pm

  5. Looking at the Telegraph page, it says “Source: Wiki answers”.

    Doesn’t that just fill you with confidence?

    Wiki Answers is one of the main repositories of drivel, and plain, old fashioned, stupidity, on the Web.

    The problem with the Wiki format is that any cretin with an Internet connection can over-write the most erudite academic. Or me! And they do, with such great regularity that I just don’t bother any longer.

    It’s certainly not a source any journalist should be using.


    11/09/2010 at 4:21 pm

    • Oh, I dunno. A lot of erudite academics talk drivel as well, I find.


      11/09/2010 at 4:30 pm

  6. I’ll assume that Simon knew what “coda” meant. If he thought his listeners were too dense to know what it meant, he should have stuck with “concluding section” or something in plainer English.

    Michael Farrell

    11/09/2010 at 4:54 pm

    • I think his script should have been edited to either use ‘coda’ on its own, or, as you suggest, to just say the same thing in plain language. As a writer, he could have considered his words more carefully, I think. Thanks, Michael.


      11/09/2010 at 5:08 pm

      • Nope – I’d go with coda. If viewers don’t know what it means, let them look it up. Let’s really not dumb down TV any further.

        Though, of course, they did.


        11/09/2010 at 8:39 pm

        • On the whole, I think I’d go with coda in this particular case. I think its meaning could probably be understood from the context of what Armitage was saying.It’s an interesting conundrum, though, from a script writing point of view.


          11/09/2010 at 8:45 pm

          • My personal view is that scriptwriters should do the audience the courtesy of assuming a decent level of education and intelligence. After all, University Challenge, in Bamber Gascoigne’s day, at least, was immensely popular across a very wide spectrum, not just with university types. (I think I might have mentioned, I was a member of the world’s first pub quiz team (according to the Guinness BoWR), and throughout the quiz community – almost entirely working-class men – UC was compulsory viewing.)

            There is nothing at all wrong with stretching an audience, especially when the alternative would be, for many, a diet of intellectual pabulum. I offer you, as an example, Big Brother and its ilk – entertainment ground down to the lowest, dumbest, common denominator.

            I don’t know if you remember when James Clavell’s “Shogun” was serialised on TV – almost the whole of the dialogue was in Japanese. A very brave move and, after the initial surprise, well-received, because it was perfectly possible, by actually paying attention, to figure out the Japanese meaning from context and response, even without being able to understand more than a very few words.

            Anyone pitching that idea to a production company today would be laughed out of the room.

            Taking Lisa’s point, I think most Brits would be baffled by “coda” too. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s what dictionaries are for. Even as adults, we don’t stop learning.


            12/09/2010 at 12:50 pm

            • Hi Ron — I didn’t see Shogun, but I know what you mean about how things change. I’ve recently been looking at reprints of old Eagle annuals — the comic then aimed at boys that was published during the 1950s and 1960s. The level of detail and sheer amount of text packed into each issue provides a sobering contrast to the text-light, picture-led publications available today. The Eagle contained more information per square inch about often quite technical subjects than the BBC’s current day scientific magazine Focus — which is aimed at adults.

              ‘Pabulum’ is a word I haven’t previously come across. Had to look that one up!


              12/09/2010 at 3:18 pm

              • Make that compulsive viewing, not compulsory!

                Yep, I remember the Eagle – I was there!

                The thing is – you might have stumbled across in on my blog – when I was a kid, learning to read, and read well, was a natural process.

                We had the normal little kids’ comics they have now, which were followed by two titles, the Sun and the Comet, which were illustrated to a much more sophisticated level, and each pane had its own text/dialogue box (instead of speech bubbles), plus sections that were entirely text.

                After those we graduated to the the Wizard, the Hotspur and the Adventure, which were entirely text with each tale having one illustration on the first page. And everybody I knew, girls as well as boys, went quite naturally through the same progression.

                The Eagle, of course, was in there as well, in a class of its own, and with the progressive levels of difficulty of each of the other publication, we learned to read by being forced to progress if we wanted to know what was going on (not that we were aware of that at the time), and the Eagle presented no difficulties at all.

                And with the Eagle, we learned a whole load of other stuff as well. I remember one issue that had a highly-detailed, cutaway illustration of a ZETA fusion reactor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero_Energy_Thermonuclear_Assembly#Zeta ).

                I was about 10, maybe 12 at most – the very age group it was aimed at.

                Anyone whose spirit of enquiry wasn’t stimulated by the Eagle was probably dead. By the time I was 14 I was raiding the library for whatever they had on nuclear physics, aeronautics, and the like.

                It wasn’t just comics, either. Weetabix boxes sported equally detailed cut out and assemble models of pretty much anything that moved, from a milk float to a main battle tank.

                The world, I’m afraid, really has become a much dumber place.


                12/09/2010 at 5:49 pm

                • I can sense your enthusiasm, Ron! Thanks for the link.


                  12/09/2010 at 5:55 pm

  7. Us Americans would be at a loss as to the meaning I’m afraid. It isn’t in our vernacular much. Glad to see you back!


    12/09/2010 at 6:21 am

    • Hi, Lisa — thank you very much for your kind words. It’s always good to see you here.


      12/09/2010 at 9:44 am

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