Monday, 29 August 2011

Language pollution

In the paper this morning, I noticed a comment from a police superintendent about the problem with gangs in Kelowna:

Gang activity is huge in this area right now and we have capacity issues in being able to deal with it... (Globe and Mail on August 29, 2011).

Why do people talk like that? Why not say:

Gangs are very active right now and we don't have enough people to deal with the problem.

Recently I read under the headline "Navy submarine's rust repair to restrict diving depths":

Materiel safety of the submarine would be maintained through a depth limitation caveat on the Windsor submarine's safety register (Globe and Mail, August 1, 2011).

What does that mean? Fortunately, the headline explains the incomprehensible jargon of the navy spokesman.

We encounter this kind of language pollution everywhere. On BC Ferries I'm told what to do "in the event of an emergency situation", and where to find "the washroom facility".  We read about "rain events", "flood events", "shower activity". Why all these unnecessary words?

And unnecessarily long ones. When I take my dog for a walk I pass a sign which reads:

Dog owners are required to remove excrement left by their dogs,

instead of

Please pick up after your dog,

and, believe it or not, instead of being simply told to close a gate, I am asked politely, to

Please preserve the integrity of the fence.

It is bewildering that people use language like this when they really want their reader to understand. I remember seeing as a young child the intriguing sign on a Western Australian railway station: Expectoration Prohibited. Perhaps it was considered impolite to say, Don't Spit. More recently I noticed in a New Zealand airport a notice which said Disabled Egress. And on the seat in front of me on a West Jet flight: Seat bottom usable as flotation device. It's just too bad if you find yourself in a predicament and you don't have the vocabulary to get yourself out.

Why do people write or talk like this? To make the subject seem more important? To make themselves seem more important? In some cases, perhaps.

George Orwell, in his essay "Politics and the English Language", had another explanation. He said that we write like this because it's easy. We don't have to think. The words are already in our head in prefabricated strips, and as we open our mouth or take up our pen, they just spew out. It is harder to write simply and clearly because we have to think about what we really want to say and choose the words carefully.

Or as Mark Twain is supposed to have written to a friend:

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Orwell ended his essay with a set of of rules for good writing. Two of them say it all:

Never use a long word when a short one will do.
If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Fortuitous and fortunate

"Fortuitous" does not mean "fortunate". It means "by chance". In the latest edition of my wine magazine, I read:

It was truly fortuitous that the immigrants who came and made their home on this continent brought with them recipes along with wine, beer and spirit-making skills.

Clearly, this didn't happen by chance, and it was to our benefit that they brought these recipes and skills with them. I would make another correction to the sentence as well, assuming that the writer is referring to  their wine-making and beer-making skills, along with their spirit-making ones.

It was truly fortunate that the immigrants who came and made their home on this continent brought with them recipes along with wine-, beer- and spirit-making skills.

Here's an example of the correct usage of "fortuitous" taken from the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage:

Hennessy's involvement with the musical was fortuitous rather than planned.

Licence and license

"Licence" is the noun; "license" is the verb. And the same is true of "practice" and "practise". These are the British spellings, and the Canadian ones.

Pull out your driver's licence and check the spelling. License your dog. Do your piano practice. Practise meditation.

I'm sure the Globe's stylebook follows this distinction as well, so in the following error the writer's American spellcheck must have prevailed.

Unlike health cards, which usually aren't sent out for a few weeks after a replacement request has been fulfilled, a temporary driver's license can be issued after the forms have been processed. (August 23, 2011)

If you are ever in doubt as to which spelling is the noun and which the verb, think of "device" and "devise" to remind yourself that the nouns end in "ce" and the verbs end in "se".

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Fit, fitted, fitted

Recently in a post, I explained that many people mistakenly think that the verb "to cast" has a different past tense. It doesn't. The reverse is true of the verb "to fit". They think that it doesn't change. But it does:

Today the shoe fits; yesterday it fitted; in the past it has fitted.

In the Life section of today's Globe and Mail, we read:

The dress looked great on the hanger. It even fit.

This should read:

The dress looked great on the hanger. It even fitted.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Like or As

Today's error is usually made by people with less formal education than the editors of the Globe and Mail. In an editorial in the weekend edition (August 20, 2011) on the crackdown by the Syrian authorities on their people, they write:

Like in Egypt, they (the police) may soon tire of killing the innocent.

This misuse of the preposition "like" is often heard on sports programs as players make statements such as,

Like I said, we have to give 110% 

instead of 

As I said, we have to give 110%

"Like" is a preposition here, and as such should be followed by a noun or noun equivalent. "I said" is a clause, and should be joined to the rest of the sentence by the conjunction "as". 

The editors can correct their mistake either by replacing the phrase "in Egypt" with a noun, or using the conjunction "as" to join the phrase to the rest of the sentence.

Like the security police in Egypt, they may soon tire of killing the innocent.


As in Egypt, they may soon tire of killing the innocent.

Update, August 24, 2011

Here's another example from an article on the decline of Canada's health-care system:

This kind of rhetoric  is so commonplace that we have become largely inured to it. At first blush, it's another medicare-is-doomed pronouncement like we've heard seemingly every day for the past half century or so.

This should read:

This kind of rhetoric  is so commonplace that we have become largely inured to it. At first blush, it's another medicare-is-doomed pronouncement as we've heard seemingly every day for the past half century or so.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Forecast and Broadcast

"Forecast" and "broadcast" are compounds of that marvellous old English verb, to cast, which occurs so many times in the King James Bible. People were always casting seeds on stony ground, or casting stones at each other, or casting someone out into the stony wilderness. Importantly, it's one of those verbs that doesn't change in its different tenses:

Today I cast a stone; yesterday I cast a stone; in the past I have cast a stone.

And the same is true of its compounds, yet some writers persist in adding a cacophonous "ed" to form the past tense or the past participle. An example of this incorrect practice is seen the Globe and Mail of 19 August, 2011. But it's not their error this time: they are quoting verbatim from a report advocating cuts to the military establishment.

... [S]upport to the front-line deployable units is cut far more than originally forecasted.

This should read:

... [S]upport to the front-line deployable units is cut far more then originally forecast.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Commas and Periods inside or outside Quotation Marks? A Plea for Common Sense

Here’s an extract from today's edition of the London newspaper The Telegraph:

The Spanish government is to request help from the Vatican to transform the polemic site of  the tomb of fascist dictator Gen Francisco Franko into "a place of reconciliation".

And here’s one from this morning’s Globe and Mail:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses,” “a meeting at sunrise,” or "walking along uninhabited streets.”

What do you notice about the punctuation of the quotations?

The first extract follows the British practice of putting the quotation marks around the quoted words, of including the comma or period only if it is part of the quotation.

The second follows the American practice of always putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks, whether it belongs to the quotation or not.

The first is a matter of common sense; the second is illogical and results from an early American typesetting practice of always including the periods and commas simply because it looked neater that way. All English-speaking countries outside North America follow the British system.

In Canada, all newspapers follow the American practice, as specified in the Canadian Press Stylebook. In official documents, the practice varies. Many Canadians punctuate the British way simply because it is logical. In this, they are supported by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the corresponding Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage.

At writing workshops, I always ask participants how they would punctuate such sentences. While university graduates usually follow the American practice according to the style guides they have used, a majority of participants punctuate them the British way. People who don’t know, opt for this because it seems the obvious way to do it.

So here’s my plea for common sense. Let logic prevail! Abandon the American practice. Follow your instinct, knowing that you have the venerable Canadian Oxford Dictionary on your side. Write to your local newspapers and urge them to punctuate their stories like this:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses”, “a meeting at sunrise”, or "walking along uninhabited streets”. In Lithuania, it’s “wading in the marshes during a warm rain”, “the tranquility of a cigarette”, or “wet stars”, whatever those are. And in the United States, it’s "a warm fuzzy feeling".

In case you are more interested in the substance than the style of this extract, these are all expressions about love. And not only is love blind, so is the American practice of putting a comma or period inside quotation marks when it belongs not to the quotation, but the sentence. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

Pronouns: I or me, the genteel error

Recently at a writing workshop, I corrected a sentence in a participant's business letter. She had written: Please call Barry or I. I changed it to Please call Barry or me

"No," she said, "It's Please call Barry or I. That's what I was taught."

"Well," I said, "would you say, Please call I"?

"No," she admitted.

This is a very common error. Even some of my friends and family have made this genteel pronoun error in such statements such as Keep a couple of tickets for Wayne and I or Come to dinner with Jenny and I or This is a gift from Murray and I.

In all these cases, "me" is the correct pronoun, as the ear will confirm if we leave out the other person so that the pronoun is next to the verb or the preposition. Keep a ticket for (Wayne and) me or Come to dinner with (Jenny and) me or This is a gift from (Murray and) me.

"I" is the nominative (subjective) and "me" the accusative (objective) case of the pronoun. The latter is required after a verb (the direct object) or a preposition (the indirect object). Please call me, come with me, etc. 

I suspect that the myth has somehow arisen that "me" is incorrect, impolite, uneducated, and in the old sense of the word, common. Teachers strived to prevent their pupils from saying, Me and Tom will go, Miss, and perhaps the pupils learned not wisely but too well that "me" was wrong, and inferred that it was always to be avoided if possible. The extreme case of this is seen in Barry Humphrey's comic character, the social climbing Edna Everedge, who would shriek in a piercing falsetto voice, "Excuse I." 

Update, August 18, 1011.

And from Adrian Chamberlain's column in my favourite provincial newspaper, Victoria's Times Colonist:

She also browbeat my daughter and I into attending a children's performance of the musical Grease.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Lie and Lay

In an article in the travel section on August 11, 2011, the writer describes one of the deals of the day:

Travelling at highway speeds in a wind-powered go-cart.... Who’s it for? Those who would rather careen down a sandy beach than lay on it.

This is a double whammy for the Globe and Mail.

Now the second fault is a common but a serious one: the confusion of the verbs "to lie" and "to lay". The first verb is intransitive; the second, transitive. The first doesn't take a direct object; the second does. I lie on the beach, but I lay my towel on the sand. In other words, you have to lay something, even if it's an egg. When we speak of hens laying, the egg is the understood object.

Every English teacher has spent time on these verbs, and the lesson should have been learned by the writers and the editors of our national newspaper. 

The principal parts of these verbs are as follows: Today I lie on the beach, yesterday I lay on the beach, in the past I have lain on the beach; and, Today I lay my towel on the sand, yesterday I laid my towel on the sand, in the past I have laid my towel on the sand. Confusion has probably arisen because the past tense of “to lie” is the same as the present tense of “to lay”. You hear the mistake almost every day: “Go and lay down” instead of “Go and lie down.

The verb “to lie” i.e., "to tell a lie” is a different verb altogether: Today I lie, yeserday I lied, in the past I have lied.

Careen and Career
In the same sentence, the writer has confused two other verbs as well: “to careen” and “to career”.

The verb "careen" comes from the Latin word for "keel". Captain Cook careened his ship on the beach after striking the Great Barrier Reef, i.e., he laid it on its side, and exposed the keel in order to repair the hull. Or, in a related sense, a drunken man might careen from side to side, almost keeling over.

The verb “to career” means to move swiftly in an uncontrolled way as in "The car went careering off down the track", and comes originally from a Latin word meaning  “a wheeled carriage”.  This is surely the meaning intended in the sentence, and so it should read:

 “Who’s it for? Those who would rather career down a sandy beach than lie on it."

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Errors peculiar to servers in restaurants

Invariably when I eat at a restaurant, the server takes my wife's order first, and then turns to me and says: "And yourself?"

I refrain from responding that "yourself", like "myself", "herself", etc., is an emphatic or reflexive pronoun, as in,

You, yourself, must fill in the form.


Did you hurt yourself?

What the server should say is, "And you?"

Not too much later she (more often than not, the server is a woman, so I'll continue with the feminine pronoun) returns with the meal, puts it down, and says, Enjoy!"

"Enjoy" is a transitive verb, I stop myself from shouting. It needs an object. Enjoy what? The ambience, the wine, the food?

She probably means "Enjoy your food!" because 15 minutes later, she comes back and says, "How's your meal going so far?

Now this is a little worrying. Why does she want a progress report? Are there some unpleasant surprises ahead?  Did the chef lose a filling in the food and she's wondering who's going to find it?

But all seems to be going well. We have almost finished our meal, and are deep in conversation, when, noticing only a few chips left on my plate, she interrupts to say, "Are you done?"

Here is some advice to servers. It's really common sense, but must be quite different from the training that many restaurants offer.

  • Greet your diners politely. Cut the small talk, such as "How's your day going so far?" or, as I've heard in Australia, "How are yous going, all right?"
  • Bring our drinks right away.
  • Interrupt us only to take orders. Dispense with the customary mid-meal check. We would rather be left alone.
  • Don't take away our plates prematurely.
  • Above all, be grammatically correct.

I  always leave an extra tip for grammatically correct servers.