English Patient

June 14, 2010

I think that what I think is worth sharing. In order to share my thoughts I must express them with as much precision and as clearly as possible, which means I must care about the language I use. I must think about things like spelling and punctuation, and how to set out the words in a way that will make the ideas they express easily accessible to the person reading them. I am not a natural stylist like Anthony Burgess or Bernard Levin, but I work hard to make things easy for my readers.

William Shakespeare

Alas, it seems I am a member of a fast-disappearing minority. Almost no one cares about how they present themselves on paper (or, and this may be part of the problem, electronically). I read emails, blogs, cell phone text messages, online forums and even professionally produced writing in newspapers and online that show that the writer has scant regard for the language which is his medium of communication. Here are some of the things that annoy me most.

Capitalization. This isn’t hard to do. Just press the shift key at the same time as an alphabetic character and it comes out as a capital letter. It is conventional to start a sentence with a capital letter, because the full stop that ends the preceding sentence is very small, and is easily missed. The capital letter provides a visual marker to the beginning of a sentence; reading text that omits capitals is harder to do. If you are too lazy to use the shift key on your keyboard, I’m too lazy to bother to read what you have written—it’s far easier for me to hit the “delete” key.

Apostrophes. Whence comes the insane compulsion to put apostrophes almost anywhere where they aren’t required? A beautifully framed sign in the ablution facilities of a former employer of mine reads: “Please remember to wash you’re hands.” A sign expensively printed and presumably displayed in all News Café franchises tells of festivities in which women will be dressed in bikini’s. The Compass group have a world cup competition in which contestants can win flat screen TV’s. Could these organizations not have had their copy proofread by someone literate before going to the expense of having them printed? Plurals seem to be where these horrible apostrophes show up most. Apart from the examples above, in the last week I’ve seen trolley’s for trolleys, Tory’s for Tories, even kitchen’s for kitchens. One candidate’s C.V. informed me that she had passed matric math’s. Needless to say, she wasn’t invited for an interview. Please, please, stop it.

Punctuation. Do not use multiple punctuation marks!!! Unless you really want your readers to think you are a moron??? This is the sort of thing perpetrated by adolescent schoolgirls and should be done by no one else. My email spam filter is set up to scan for this sort of nonsense and delete any mail that transgresses without my even seeing it. (By the way, those stupid animated bunnies, pussies and smileys you put in your mail aren’t seen by me either—I automatically convert all emails to UTF-encoded text only.)

Spelling. Deliberate misspelling is one of the most irritating abuses of language, and is becoming extremely common. I boycott such businesses as SellFone Warehouse, Cameraz, Shatterprufe, Shoprite and so on just because they annoy me and I hope that by taking my business elsewhere they will disappear. Spelling mistakes should not occur where a spell checker is available. Not checking text for spelling mistakes is laziness, and should be rewarded with the “delete” key. That said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any piece of writing that contains a complaint about spelling mistakes will itself contain at least one spelling mistake. To forestall any triumphalist crowing occasioned by the mistake’s discovery, I must tell you that I have deliberately introduced a certain number of mistakes into this post. There are no prizes for finding it or them.

Fad words, jargon and clichés. A problem is never a problem down at my office, it is an “issue”. Anything large must be described as “massive”, even if it is a lighter-than-air hot air balloon or a massless strike action. All dimensions must be given in units of tennis courts or football fields. A long time ago is always “time immemorial” and there was always a “primordial soup”. I hate the ugly word “functionality” to describe what a computer program does. What’s wrong with “features”?

Abbreviations. Don’t use them if at all possible. Acronyms and biological generic names should be spelled out when they are used the first time—never assume that your readers already know what they mean. Mr, Mrs and Dr are not followed by full stops in English, Prof. is. The rule is that if the first and last letters of the abbreviation are the same as the first and last letters of the abbreviated word, then no full stop is used. Americans use a full stop always.

Plurals. Apart from the apostrophe problem mentioned above, I have noticed that often mistakes are made with words of Latin and Greek provenance. The plural of virus is viruses, not virii. Also octopuses, platypuses and so on. On technical forums a lot of people refer to the plural of box as boxen. I have no idea why except that it sounds vaguely German. I have made myself quite unpopular for pointing out that in English the plural is boxes.

Netisms. Space does not permit me to treat of this here; it can be the subject of a future post. A good rule of thumb if you are thinking of including a netism in general communication is to think of what the Bible has to say on the subject of having sex with your sister: don’t.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.


August 21, 2009

There is a phenomenon known as sensitisation whereby a person who has previously had no problem with, say, eating shellfish suddenly experiences a severe allergic reaction to it. The same thing is happening to me, but with a word rather than anything I eat. The word is “massive”. I hear it all the time, almost always used inappropriately. Listening to radio news this morning, I learned how a former senior politician had suffered a massive heart attack, there are massive fires putting residences at risk, there is massive relief now that the massive transport strike is over. Between the news and the weather came a commercial for Cape Union Mart where, apparently, massive savings are to be had, then we were informed of a massive cold front due to make landfall tomorrow. Is this a “fad” word that has just come into vogue and is being flogged to death, or has it always been so misused and I have only recently started to notice it? I have news for any media person who reads this: massive does not mean big. Look it up.


Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

Caster Semenya winning the 800m Gold Medal in Berlin

The controversy over poor Caster Semenya’s sex has shone the spotlight on an elephant (well, perhaps not an elephant, but at least a medium-sized rhino) in the room. Caster is an eighteen year old South African athlete who won the world championship gold medal for the womens 800m yesterday. She has a deep voice, some facial hair and a well-developed musculature, so she is being accused of not being a proper woman by some, others baldly state that she is a man. This, of course, is nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the media confuse sex and gender. What is at issue here is Caster’s sex, not her gender. She may exhibit some masculine attributes, but her sex is female and she is therefore eligible to compete as a woman. Take a look at the accompanying photo. I, for one, would not like to meet any of these women in a dark alley, but that does not alter the fact that they are, nonetheless, women. Caster’s mom, Dorkus, is even more masculine than her daughter; in fact she makes Arnold Schwartzenegger look slightly pansyish. Sex is a binary variable, either male or female, gender is more a continuum, a mixture of masculine and feminine attributes. The media confuse these two things because they are so coy they blush to their roots even to think about sex, much less say the actual word.


Talking about binary variables: either something is unique (one of a kind) or it isn’t. Please, please stop saying that so-and-so is “very unique”, it makes no sense because it is nonsense. Have you ever heard of anyone being “slightly dead”?

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.