Fuel Prices

The posts which make up this blog are not linked in any obvious way, although I guess some themes may develop.  So there is quite a jump from the previous note about commentators’ sayings to a view of petrol on sale down the road. [Ok, so that other post was a while ago – sorry. This one was written early on, but I put it in another blog by mistake.]

ImageThe odd thing for me here is the fact that (uniquely in terms of retail in the UK) petrol is always sold  with a decimal point of a penny.  For heaven’s sake, we did away with the half-penny way back, early eighties at latest, yet now we have this theoretical precision.  (By the way, don’t imagine that against decimals – on the contrary, I’m a huge fan.)  It’s just that this obsession with pricing things as £999, or £9.99, or 99p seems pretty daft, especially when it introduces a whole new unit that you can’t even pay.

Oh, and I also realise that occasionally you come across places like Asda where they sell petrol at something like 126.7 pence, which is at least getting away from the “.9” syndrome, but still seems really arbitrary.  It does at least make you look harder – like that car showroom I saw the other day where the cars had prices like £9,981 or £11,482 –  values that look real, instead of the formulaic £11,499, etc.

Anyway, what is odd here, apart from the use of a non-existent unit of currency, is the idea that there is any real saving attached.  Let’s say that our local garage (picture) sold petrol at 131 pence.  Someone who put 40 litres in their car would pay 4 pence more, on a bill that is already £52.36.  Would they really worry about the 4p? (Think of a ten-thousandth of the bill, and rejoice in saving 7 of those!).

Petrol prices are always a source of irritation or outrage, depending on how combustible a person you are.  Sure, they can seem high. But to satisfy curiosity, I did some sums to work out what proportion of salary a fill-up would have cost me when I started work back in 1972, as opposed to now (using an equivalent post on the salary scale for the modern version).  And the answer was that whereas my monthly salary back then would have bought about 40 fill-ups, my modern equivalent would get about 38.  It’s within any sensible margin of error, isn’t it, to say that things haven’t changed very much.  Though the price in my own town, with just one service-station holding an obvious monopoly for miles around, is coincidentally at least 3p per litre more than it is in most outlets 20 miles away. Strange, isn’t it?


Logic, Grammar and Sports Reports

Exploring my new laptop the other night, I looked up the sports app to find out more details of my team’s performance on Sunday.  It looked like this:

ImageNow, depending on where you are in the world you will find the headline either totally natural or very strange.

“Swansea wins…”  Yes, ok, it’s a singular noun and therefore a singular verb, but for anyone in the UK it will jar.  Here we say “Swansea [or whoever] win”.  And it is odd to see the phrase “Swansea doubled its lead”, as opposed to “their”.  The idea is that we are talking about the team, as represented by eleven players – in other words, people).  The same oddity is seen in this report with “Sunderland, which only [recently] secured its place in the top flight…”: despite the accurate idiom of the final phrase, the “which” here is particularly odd, as it removes the idea of people altogether – British people would be bound to say “who”.  One could imagine a sentence like “Sunderland, which has the most beautiful beaches in Europe” (ok, a slight exaggeration), but that clearly refers to the city and geographical entity that is Sunderland.

Obviously (from the use of the phrase “soccer match”) this is an American site.  That is not a criticism – I know that in Australia too they take this extremely grammatical approach to sports reports.  So the Australian press will report that “England collapses”, which to us here looks more like a political headline from wartime than a cricket headline. Saying this reminds me that the final straw in making me give up umpiring squash was a new rule, instigated by Australia, that the opposite of “No let” was no longer to be “Let” or “Let ball” but “Yes let”.

This grammatical logic also appears in other languages like French, where there is a strict need to make words agree in terms of number – so they would say “La France a gagné”, using the singular.  It would be impossible to use the plural form of the verb, parallel to the UK English method. In my blog on the French language I stress how important this is in French (or Italian, etc). In other words, I’m very much aware that the British way of expressing this is actually very much in a minority – even though I think it is the natural and sensible way to do things. To quote a headline I read two minutes ago: “Italy take a chance on Cassani, but France say ‘non’ to Nasri”. And I guess this shows why we do it this way: if it were a politician being elected it might be “Italy takes a chance…”, but here there is a kind of code that the (strictly) ungrammatical form indicates that we are not dealing with the country, but with a small group of sportsmen who represent the country.

Anyway, I was glad of the Bing update, and shall no doubt continue to use the site.  But here’s the odd thing: there is such a massive strangeness about the grammar that it really gets in the way of the content. That is, you are immediately aware that it’s being produced far away, in language that is a little strange, that you feel an emotional distance from the report, too.  And if there’s one thing you need in sports reports, it’s emotional closeness!

Zeroing in on Postcodes

On a recent visit my brother-in-law complained to me that he had had terrible  problems with an insurance company which refused to acknowledge his existence.  At first I shared his puzzlement – especially as he was sitting in front of me – but as he recounted the conversation I suddenly realised the problem.

He had been trying to access his records online, but was consistently denied access, being told that he could not possibly live where he did. When he finally rang up to resolve the issue he repeated the postcode and was immediately able to access his records via an agent. And it was at this point that it was pointed out to him what you too may by now have realised :when trying to access his account he was using an “O” instead of a zero (0).  And computer say no!

This set me thinking how odd it is that the admirable postcode system used in this country includes the zero anyway.  For anyone not familiar with our system I should explain that we (broadly) use a six or seven-digit code, with the first half made up of two letters to denote a town or city plus one or two digits to indicate districts in that area: so someone in the centre of Newcastle would be NE1, whereas out in the country here, 20 miles out, we are NE46.  Then after that the system is rather more arbitrary, but almost always has three characters, a numeral plus two letters, which allows sorting offices, advertisers and satnavs to drill down and identify particular streets or indeed parts of streets.  It’s great.

But since there are so many permutations for that second section of the code, why use the potentially ambiguous zero?  (The reason it’s ambiguous is because for some strange reason British people don’t say”zero”, but o as in “oh” when it comes to phone numbers, and then postcodes.)  However, I believe most districts use only a few numbers anyway, and rely on the letters to indicate location. My brother-in-law’s case can’t be unique.  On the one hand it’s quite alarming that there are still people out there who don’t know how their postcode is made up, but equally it wouldn’t have taken much to avoid the confusion.  It’s too late to change things now – it creates havoc with bank accounts, passport applications, proof of identity, etc – so maybe a little investment in an advertising programme would help.  Along the lines of: “When is an ‘o’ not an ‘o’?”…