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English - the language

Easy communication.

English is now the world's lingua franca (much to the annoyance of many francophones). For most of us, we speak our language without really having to think very hard, or at all, about how we are communicating--it's a little like riding a bike or driving a car: once we have learned these skills, it just becomes second nature and we can forget the mechanics. This seems a useful analogy, but not in all respects. We learn to communicate verbally mainly by hearing others and adopting their style. This starts very early, and continues for all of our life, but at one stage for most of us there comes a time and place when and where we are made to re-think how we talk--SCHOOL. School also tries to teach us how to communicate in English in writing.

Unfortunately, not all schooling has been sufficiently effective for a number of us, and we leave for a working life without the benefit of the basics of the language solidly embedded in our consciousness. Our language is absorbed from those around us with whom we are constantly communicating--in speech and in writing--and we hardly ever need to think how we are speaking or writing because it generally just flows naturally, coming from our sub-conscious. Like riding a bicycle: once we get the hang of it, it's unnecessary to think closely how we are doing it. However, if we lack care, we can easily fall off our bicycle. In using the English language we could also metaphorically fall off should we have failed to understand the best way to use its pedals and handle bars, or if we have copied the poor riding style of others.

English is often taught as sets of rules and this may be appropriate in early school. I prefer just to take the structure of the language simply as an acceptable framework and have no misgivings if in speech (often) or in writing (less so) I choose to break any of the rules dictated to me in my youth. However, it is so much better to know that you are breaking a "rule" and indeed deliberately doing so than to do it unknowingly. The knowing of it is the best way of learning our idiom: idiom is the mixture of the language as a structure and the way we convert it for particular purposes.

There is nothing monstrous, for instance, in using an adjective where an adverb is normally called for--it's not a criminal offence--and sometimes it may sound more harmonious to the ears of the listener who, after all, is the person with whom you are trying to communicate. Similarly, it may sound just silly to say "It is I" rather than just "It's me" which idiomatically breaks the rule of the complement being in the subjective case.

What to be wary of, however, is the use of phrases which follow no recognised structure and which seem unacceptable or ugly even if one hides behind the excuse that they are idiomatic exceptions. There is no point in saying something like "He done it good" which can only be expressed by and reflects adversely on a speaker who obviously lacks an understanding of our language.

Once we know what the "rules" are, we should have more confidence when we choose to break them. The greater use of idiomatic communication in our language can and does over time change the structure itself. The language is evolving not just by the introduction of new words in our vocabulary or new meanings given to existing words, but also by changes, usually gradual, to the structure itself. So, may we all feel free to experiment—once we fairly know what's what!

But there are a few pet hates I have:

  • The confusion of the verbs "lie" (= assume a horizontal position, as against tell a fib) and "lay" (= place something on something else). The former is an intransitive verb, it does not take a direct object. It has a past tense of "I lay", "you lay", "he lay" etc, but it is not the same as the other verb "lay" which is transitive. That produces a sentence such as "I shall lay the book on the table" and "the hen lays an egg". In the past tense, this verb becomes "laid". Many people misuse these two "homophones" with incorrect expressions such as "I shall lay down."

  • The word "either" when it is used in the sense of "each". Although the OED says otherwise, "either" for me only indicates a choice: either this or that. So often it is used in phrases such as "the trees lined either side of the avenue" when what is meant is that the trees lined each side or both sides of the avenue. When "either" is used, it conjures up for me the absurd picture of the trees deciding which side to line ("OK chaps, which side of the avenue shall we line today?").

  • This one I suspect has been introduced by the advertising world: it is now the fashion to say that something may be supplied "for free". Perhaps it is intended to give more weight to the sound of the offer but it's an idiom I dislike. Something may be given and if so, it is supplied "for nothing" or is just "free" but it ain't "for free" ("free" is not a noun).

  • Using "infer" when we really mean to "imply" something. If something is implied, ie not explicity expressed, then we may "infer" what that implication may be.

  • "He got beat", using the present (or past tense) as a past participle. I am not too unhappy with the word "got" although the expression would be more elegant as "he was beaten".

  • "He hit the (snooker) ball thick", using an adjective instead of an adverb, a failing I hear frequently from sports commentators on TV.

  • "Leave them dishes in the sink." "Them" is a pronoun and is so often used incorrectly instead of "these" or "those".

  • "This is rather (very, more, exceedingly etc) unique." The word "unique", like a number of others, indicates an absolute quality, and something is either unique or it is not - it cannot be anything in between. One may say "nearly unique" or "close to being unique" but not "rather unique." That is a little like saying someone is "rather dead"!

  • "I shall try and climb the mountain." or some such. This is one of the commonest of expressions but it's meaningless. The speaker suggests he/she is about to do two things: 1. "try" (one wonders: what?) and 2. "climb the mountain" but what he/she really means is "I shall try to climb the mountain."

  • "It's a tad too small." There's nothing wrong with this grammatically, but it grates whenever I hear the word "tad". As a word presently in mode, it seems to be used grandiloquently. No doubt, there are many expressions I use which others may find similarly objectionable (like "grandiloquently")!

  • "Methinks." This is another of those annoying archaic expressions used by persons trying to impress with their scholarship.

  • "Bloggs' soap actually removes the stains." This is beloved by advertisers, trying to emphasize a product. In most cases, "actually" is unnecessary - it's verbiage. Either the soap removes the stain or it doesn't. When someone includes the "actually" word, I suspect that in fact it does not do as is suggested!

  • "To be honest, ..." If anybody starts a sentence with that, it makes me wonder whether the speaker is honest only when he/she uses that expression.

  • "Proactive"! This recent neologism seems to be meant as the complement of "reactive" but of course that is not so - we already have the word "active" which fills that function. The idea seems to be to get over the meaning of instigating some action but it's simply a duplication of "active" and is redundant in consequence. One might take it further and consider other forms of "proactive" - have you ever heard of the noun "proaction" or the verb "proact"? I hope not.

  • "... recent neologism ..." - see above. The word "recent" is redundant because a neologism already conveys the meaning of something new or recent. So often, we decorate nouns with adjectives which are similarly repetitious and therefore meaningless. It appears this is done mainly in an effort to apply more emphasis on the message being communicated but I find that so often less is more. One who frequently offends me in this way is Prince Charles, who in my hearing finds the need to qualify every noun with an adjective and modify every adjective with an adverb. In speech, be wary of over-egging the pudding, and in writing it's a worthwhile exercise to review any draft in order to eliminate as many adjectives as possible!

  • "Me and my mate are going to the football". A common form of expression but patently wrong, wrong, wrong! If we remember that it is only polite to list more than one of a number of persons in the order of "third person" (someone else), "second person" (you, the person I am addressing) and lastly "first person" (oneself), then we shall more likely not fall into the trap of using the wrong case. The sentence should obviously be expressed as: "My mate and I are going to the football."


Any brickbats: by e-mail E-mail HMT.