Howlers, Bloopers, and Gaffes

Glaring Mistakes in English Usage That Even Smart Writers Make

Howler   –   ‘A stupid or glaring mistake, especially an amusing one.’
Blooper  –   ‘An embarrassing error.’

Gaffe     –   ‘An unintentional remark causing embarrassment to its originator.’

 

A red spot on Marilyn Monroe’s dress

‘There is one collector who claims to own the lion’s share of Monroe memorabilia…Investment banker and collector David Gainsborough Roberts… Roberts’ collection may be extensive, but the jewel in the crown for him would be the billowing white dress worn by Monroe in 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”
Owned by film star Debbie Reynolds, Roberts said that it is going up for sale in Las Vegas this summer. ‘Every time I talk to Debbie, she mentions millions’, said Roberts.’   CNN article, ‘Why gentlemen still prefer Marilyn Monroe’.

There’s a ‘dangler’ in the second paragraph. A dangler is a sentence that leaves the first part of its statement dangling in the air. CNN first states, ‘Owned by film star Debbie Reynolds’, and the next thing it mentions is Roberts, leaving the white dress dangling in limbo. The undangled sentence would read:

‘Owned by film star Debbie Reynolds, the dress is going up for sale in Las Vegas this summer, said Roberts.’

But that’s not the only slip in that CNN article. The way “The Seven Year Itch.” is punctuated really itches sensible writers. The unquote (”) is meant for the Itch, not for the whole sentence. The period is meant for the whole sentence, not for the Itch alone. But now it seems that the title of the movie includes the period, and the sentence is left without an end. The sensible way to punctuate:

‘Roberts’ collection may be extensive, but the jewel in the crown for him would be the billowing white dress worn by Monroe in 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch”.’

 

Never slip on your commitments

‘We are committed to continuously widen the association with Indian academic institutions in international higher education. TECOM Education Cluster is confident our partnership with institutions of higher learning from India – inspired by our common mission to deliver quality education – will continue to open promising academic avenues for the UAE and the regional student community.’   Dr Ayoub Kazim, Managing Director, TECOM Investments’ Education Cluster, Dubai, at the annual conference Emerging Directions in Global Education held in New Delhi.

When someone I newly employ tells me, ‘I am committed to fulfill all the job responsibilities you give me to your total satisfaction’, I may not doubt his sincerity, but I certainly question his ability to speak and write in the way I want my professionals to communicate. Dubai’s prestigious TECOM Education Cluster comprises the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) and Dubai Knowledge Village. DIAC is, in their words, ‘the premier destination for higher education in the region’, and its campus is host to over 18,000 students of more than 100 nationalities. These students have access to over 300 higher education programmes, but one vital programme seems to be missing – on professional English usage. Any student graduating with the highest distinction from DIAC, and then going around using sentences such as the one Dr Ayoub Kazim used at the global conference, is certainly going to put a slight blotch on TECOM’s reputation as a ‘premier destination for higher education’. Be careful when you use the word ‘commit’ with the preposition ‘to’. The verb that these two words correctly uses is the one that has ‘ing’ in the end. Examples:

‘When a man marries, he is committing himself to providing his wife all her needs and wants.’
‘The firm has committed itself to completing the project with its present workforce.’

So, Dr Ayoub Kazim should have said:

‘We are committed to continuously widening the association with Indian academic institutions in international higher education.’

 

English Usage aboard the Enterprise

I was watching my favorite tv serial, Star Trek. The episode that was being shown was ‘Half A Lie’, in The Next Generation series. A female member of the starship community had fallen in love with an alien who is a visitor on the Enterprise. Towards the end of the serial, the visitor tells the woman that back on his planet when a person reaches the age of 60, they kill themselves before they become a burden to their relatives and to society. The lover had reached his time to die. When the day came for the visitor to return to his planet and end his life, the woman mourns the impending suicide of her lover, and plans to go with her lover. The woman’s daughter, an officer of the starship, tries to comfort her with the words:

‘You’ll never be one of those who dies before they die’.

Pardon me, lady officer, you certainly arent talking just about your mom who is going to die before she dies, but about all the other people as well who die in the same unnatural way. Pull up your slip, ma’am, or your reputation is going to slip down on the sleek starship floor.

‘You’ll never be one of those who die before they die’.

English Smarties & Beauties

Words and Phrases Used Smartly in Beautiful Sentences

 

commas
They tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashes up squirming in commas.   Lewis Thomas

 

exciting as
as nailbitingly exciting as a race between tortoises

 

getting worse
Things are not improving but we can celebrate that things are getting worse more slowly.

 

like an acorn
like an acorn that must become an oak, a spore that must become a mushroom, a space vehicle that must stick out its spidery legs and start collecting geological samples.   Peter Goodchild

 

obstinate
as obstinate as a demented octogenarian

 

pratfall
Comedian Rowan Atkinson, more famously known as Mr Bean, is described as a close friend of the Prince of Wales. No doubt the prince and his bride will be hoping he doesn’t initiate any Bean-style pratfalls in the Abbey.   CNN

pratfall – a fall in which one lands on the buttocks, often regarded as comical or humiliating; a humiliating blunder or defeat.

 

reliable as
as reliable as a guide dog with acute astigmatism

 

the continuum
the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between man and ‘the other’.     George Steiner

 

velocity
The retribution came with such velocity and ferocity.

 

If you come across words and phrases which are used smartly in beautiful sentences, please contribute them to this site. Thank you!

Doodling About Noodles in Malaysia

There is so much to see and slurp around in this happy, yummy land.

‘Noodles.’

The word piped in from the cubicle adjacent to mine. And that is one item in the English vocabulary that perks up my ears, props up my seat, and peps up my limbs without fail whenever I hear it. I stood on my chair and peered over the partition. Mrs Hanson looked up and smiled.

‘Slick noodles oozing dark soy sauce’, effused my neighbor. ‘I will go to Malaysia again just to slurp them once more.’

Mrs Hanson had visited Southeast Asia a few months earlier, and of all the impressions that she carried back home the strongest was the one that had smacked her tastebuds and sensory glands with a mighty wallop of stringy flavors. Never had she encountered a gastronomic experience such as the one that swamped her senses when she was served the oozy noodles in the alleys of Malaysia’s several chinatowns.

Knowing that I would be heading towards the same region in the next few weeks, she gave me a few tips on how best to enjoy my visit. I told her I would not miss the noodles at any cost, and got down from my chair.

By the time I landed in Kuala Lumpur and was heading toward my hotel, my resolution to savor at first opportunity the dish that had swept Mrs Hanson off her tongue was shoved to the back of my mind. I was here to have a good time, and my first wish now was to visit one of the 200 charming islets I had read so much about, and to plunge into the waters around them, splash about till my limps grew weary, and then go lie on the sparkling white sands under a swaying palm (no risk of a coconut falling on my nut – there were nets tied directly under the bunch of coconuts on every tree.)

What’s unique about some of these islets is that they are still mostly virgin territory, a rare treat in a world where almost all the beautiful natural spots in a country are overtrodden by lascivious tourists.

Malaysia’s tiny blobs of land a few miles off the main coastland are an explorer’s dream of Eden recreated. They seem like they came into being when a cosmic splash broke up a huge paradise into little green gems bobbing in blue waters.

The beaches on these islets are fringed with gently swaying palms leaning toward the mighty sea in obeisance – a sight which attracts tourists on passing-by cruiseliners with more alluring power than that of a half-naked siren on whaleback in the middle of the ocean. These beaches that nature had so generously overlaid with pristine soft sand are a pleasure to walk and play on and be half-buried in.

The azure waters lapping over soft coral reefs about 50 meters away are a splish-splashy delight for swimmers and snorkelers. Got the picturecard image in your mind? Now add a quaint fishing hamlet of thatched dwellings to that image, and you have visualized an idyllic destination that is probably unsurpassed in its natural attractions by any other spot in the Far East.

The tropical climate ensures a weather that ranges from comfortably warm to bearably hot all year round; at the same time it also means you can be caught wet any time by a sudden short burst of the frequent showers. But if you wish, when the weather seems to be getting too sultry for your skin’s liking, you can quickly head for one of the several mist-shrouded hills.

There you can hire a bungalow located in the midst of a dense rainforest. From within its safe confines you can often enjoy the sight of wildlife foraging with their own kind, and sometimes, feeding on other kind. The foraging kind include bears, tapirs, orangutans, elephants, pangolins, mousedeers, and more, while the preying ones usually are the tigers and leopards. At least one overcurious bungalow denizen has gone missing in big cat territory. So don’t trek alone in the forest.

Where it is safe to trek with a guide, take along a machete…not to protect yourself. On many of the jungle paths you will have to cut your passage through dense creepers and undergrowth. If you trek in the right places, you may even come across one of nature’s most amazing sights – the world’s largest, and stinkiest, flower – the rafflesia. In full bloom it measures three feet in diameter!

Another of Malaysia’s attractions are its limestone hills and caves. If you are not claustrophobic, and not allergic to bat droppings, I would strongly urge you to peep into a few of these caves. They are treasure chambers of mystery and natural wonders. The stalagmites and stalactites here are reputed to grow at such monstrous pace that if you watch their tips carefully, you can actually see them growing before your eyes!

Some of these caves have never yet been fully explored to its full depth. A few contain sculptures and other evidences of ancient human habitation. In one of the caves that I went in, I saw a packet of shelled peanuts alongside some incense sticks. Being somewhat hungry, and assuming some earlier tourist had dropped it, I picked the packet up and started munching the nuts as I continued to explore the dark cavern.

After my return to the UAE, when I told Mrs Hanson about my nutty cave discovery, she gasped. ‘You took the food offered to the ancestors of some Chinese tourist! There is a strong belief that one who desecrates the food of the gods will go hungry for the next seven days. Did you?’ she asked. ‘Nope’, I said. I suppose a religious gaffe committed in a twinge of hunger in a foreign land is something no ancestor can take offense at.

No, I did not starve for the next seven days. Instead, for more than a week, I enjoyed the world’s most succulent, the most slippery, and the most slurp-worthy dish in gastronomical history, or at least in my gastrointestinal history – the truly authentic Hakka noodles prepared by the verily genuine Chinese chefs whose ancestors really came from the actual shanty avenues of Canton. I suppose no noodles anywhere else can match this height of authenticity and sheer flavor. More of that a little later.

Malaysia’s attraction is enhanced by its three main ethnic groups, Malay, Chinese, Indian, each providing visitors with its own entertainment, history, culture and cuisine. Experiencing the different cuisines is a trek through adventurous culinary woods where you encounter sweet, sour, salty, spicy and fiery surprises and shockers. Here are a few your senses should not be deprived of:

Malay – nasi goring (fried rice), ayam goring (with chicken), nasi lemak (coconut rice with anchovies, peanuts and curry); Chinese – local soups, hainan (chicken), and especially mee (wheat and rice noodles) served in various choices of thickness, lengths and flavors; Indian – rice on a banana leaf, with your choice of curries and chutneys, masala dosai (a kind of rolled pancake), biriyani (spiced rice with chicken or mutton), tandooris (oven baked flat bread).

As for choice of setting, you may dine out at the open-air stalls of the night hawkers, where, under a softly humming petromax lantern, you can sit and enjoy the freshly cooked chowmeins and chopsueys, and keep on ordering and eating them, if you wish, till the mee hours of the morning, which is a couple of hours before sunrise.

On another day or night, you may opt for a sidewalk Chinese café. And it is here in one of those cafes that I suddenly remembered my colleague’s words…when the first sauce-dripping string slid down my esophagus, and the stunning flavor and aroma awoke every sensory bud in my body to a glorious chorus of ‘hurrah!’ She was right. I think I too would make another trip to Malaysia even if it is solely for the purpose of savoring again what I just did.

Later, I tried to have a repeat of the experience in a starred hotel, but nothing happened. The noodles there tasted like any you get in a good Chinese restaurant in other countries – it’s ok, but nothing to salivate about. Something was missing in the slithery stuff you get in the grand hotels and posh eateries. Perhaps it’s the tincture of the sweat of the humble cooks in the sidewalk cafes, whose one aim in life seems to be to give you the very best they can concoct with all their heart for your mouth’s ecstasy.

Now I consider myself something of a connoisseur when it comes to noodles. Wherever in the world I travel to, I make sure I visit at least one Chinese restaurant in the city I am in. I have had noodles prepared in Dubai by ‘Chinese’ chefs from Lebanon, in Cairo by Cantonese ‘natives’ who strangely looked very natively Egyptian to me, in Calcutta’s Chinatown by genuine fourth-generation Chinese cooks who, in their homes, daily have chapattis for lunch, speak Bengali as their mother-tongue and couldn’t even count upto 10 in their great-grandfather’s language. The noodles they prepare has little in common with the noodles you get in the sidewalks of Malaysia. In Chinese restaurants in India, for example, noodles is invariably served with a lavish proportion of carrots, cabbage and lentils, all of which are anathema to any authentic dish of noodles. In Dubai and Cairo, noodles is arabized with kebabs, which camouflages the taste for which you ordered the noodles in the first place.

So, now I know, if anytime I am overwhelmed by a desire to savor noodles in all its true flavors, there is only one place in the universe I need to book a flight to.

After one has wallowed in noodles to his gut’s content, there are three other lesser, but unforgettable, sensory encounters in Malaysia he shouldnt miss – two for the palate and one for the soles. Along with noodles, nowhere else in the world can you enjoy these encounters in the intensity of the gustatory, olfactory and tactile sensations as they are offered in this peninsula.

The first is a drink I used to enjoy to the utmost in my boyhood days in Malaysia. It is called ‘chendoul’ – a glassful of greenish brown milky liquid with green strings of vermicelli floating in it. You wouldnt find it in any restaurant, but only in the side alleys of the older parts of the town. Nothing in liquid form has so delighted the nerve endings from the tip of my tongue down to the bottom of my belly like chendoul. There are a couple of corollary drinks available with the chendoul vendor, and you should attempt to try them all at different times, but you may find none as deliciously titillating as the greenish elixir.

Then, of course, there is the durian. Nobody I know who has encountered the durian has a passive view of it. They either hate it with all the might of their nostrils, or they love it enough to cross oceans for it. To the former, the smell of durian is shockingly very close to that of hydrogen sulphide seeping through a crack in a rotten egg. To the latter, the durian’s whiff is enough to make them drop every other activity they were engrossed in, and rush to the source of the seducing aroma. The taste is even more potent – toxic to the durian hater, tonic to the lover.

Don’t try to rip open a durian yourself; get a native to do it for you, because the fruit, no matter how delicious inside, has the most dangerously spiked skin among nature’s conceptions.

I cannot close my thoughts on Malaysia without mentioning the third encounter, which, in the area of tactile sensation, is undoubtedly the most soul satisfying and sole soothing experience you can ever get as a traveler anywhere on good earth.

As you stroll on some of the busy sidewalks of Kuala Lumpur, especially in Jalan Ismail or Jalan Bukit Bintang, keep an eye out for rows of stools and people sitting on the pavement beside them. If you can find a vacant stool, go quickly and sit on it. And here, for about US$ 2 or 3, a local practitioner will begin his one-hour session on your tired soles. Each pressure of the practitioner’s finger on a vital point on the bare bottom of your limb sends an out-of-this-world sensation shooting all the way down to the depths of your soul and up to the top of your scalp and out from the tips of your ear lopes. The hour often includes a little shoulder time, too.

Malaysia is not a nation as plentiful and diverse in its natural attractions as China or India, but it proves the far more attractive destination on several counts, of which noodles is numero uno.

Pappa Joseph

An Imperial Legacy of Idiotic English

 

One of the starting motivators for writing my book ‘Idiotic English and Idiomatic English’ – the first little pebble that rolled from the mountaintop of my musings, which set off bigger pieces until the avalanche of boulders was unstoppable till I reached the last word of this book – was a signboard I saw in my once British governed hometown. Ever since I read what was written on it – ‘Sewing Machines – All Are Repairing Here’ – I have been suffering, for 25 years now, from sporadic attacks of imagery in which a dozen or so sewing machines, each bent over an abused portion from one of their own kith, are busily repairing it, all the while exchanging naughty jokes among themselves, as most clumps of workers in confined workshops in my part of the world are prone to do.

Since then, I have seen far greater evidence of my people’s colonial legacy of idiotic English that only unempathetic imperialist teachers could have been responsible for – they to whom idiomatic English flowed out of their mouths as easily as mother milk flowed in once, while they themselves amused one another with ever newer creations of idiosyncratic expressions which eventually was officially enforced as ‘idiomatic’ English in the curriculum of the colonial schools, but which only served to further confound, confuse and contort the tender language sensibilities of obliging local learners of the language. Idiomatic English is but idiotic English widely impressed on impressionable minds.

But patience was shown its limits at least on some rare occasions of bold resistance. I recall my mother proudly narrating the story of how the Maharaja of Cochin (who reigned during my grandparents’ days) once hired the services of a sahib (‘white man’) tutor. The lessons went smoothly enough, until the tutor unwisely taught his majesty that ‘put’ was pronounced as it is still pronounced today and ‘cut’ was pronounced as it is still idiotically pronounced today. No way, insisted the maharaja. If p-u-t is poot, then c-u-t is coot, he rightly reasoned. The sahib kept insisting it was not so…until the king lost his patience and the tutor…oh no, the tutor didn’t lose his head, that decision could be made only by the British governor of the state; moreover, kings in our land were not as prone to take people’s heads off as the kings of England enjoyed doing to their subjects, and the subjects of France enjoyed doing to their kings, as our school history books say. The tutor was just hustled out of the royal court and forbidden to enter the palace from that day on.

Kerala Varma Maharaja of Kochi (1870 – July 1948), popularly known as Aikya Keralam Thampuran or Kerala Varma VII was the Maharaja of Cochin who ruled between 1946 and 1947. He made a clarion call and through his patriotism defied the diktats of the imperialist rulers, even at the threat of dethronement.

Sometimes idiotic expressions are put to perpetual desolation by indignant locals. One white colonial teacher told his rows of gibbering adult students that they could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Donkeys were not in the same divine class as brahmin heifers, but donkeys were a venerated genre nevertheless. One or two village idiots scratched their heads. Then the gibbering stopped, replaced by a menacing calm. For many of the recruited learners of the King’s English, attending the night classes on the incentive of being eligible for extra rations of the whiteman’s roti, had reached the grade where they could sufficiently understand what ‘hind legs’ and what ‘off’ and what ‘donkey’ meant. Pandemonium ensued, and it was only the intervention of the farmer who supplied his goat’s milk to the teacher every morning that saved the King’s English user from having at least his hind limbs torn off him.

In this living stream of communications, it’s time we took up the sieving pans for ourselves, probe through the murky waters and fling the ugly verbal lumps of dead algae gently over the fence back into the Englishman’s compound, while pocketing the glowing nuggets. If we do that we will within a generation or so be left with a clarified and crystal pure stream of language flowing through our own lands, and from which we can gurgle and gulp living waters of delight any time we want.

 

Are You Afraid of the Fourice?

My former company driver was also our mailman. He communicated with his colleagues in a language that was half pidgin English and half what sounded like pigeon talk. That day he had been extra busy taking bundles of magazines to the post office.

‘How many times did you go to the post office today to mail the magazines?’ I asked him at the end of the day. ‘Twice? Thrice?’

‘Fourice’, he answered without batting a hair of his brow.

I was speechless for a few seconds – first, at the crassness of his usage, secondly, at the novelty of the word, and then suddenly at the wonderful discovery of a usage that opened up to me a whole new and limitless set of beneficial words.

Photo of the actual person who first used the word ‘fourice’ and who thereby introduced me to a whole new series of English words.

English usage is one of the most sensitive subjects on this planet. Nothing on earth, for example, will ever persuade the British to sacrifice their u’s in their colours and their parlours, and the Americans would recoil at the thought of doubling the l’s in their traveling and labeling. But to accommodate their cousins across the Atlantic Ocean, the British, on the initiative of the Oxford editors, agreed among themselves to have at least one word in their vocabulary changed from a double ‘l’ to a single ‘l’. So, they chose ‘enroll’ and made its official spelling with one ‘l’: enrol. It was a most generous concession – considering the British’s affection for the extraneous letter – a friendly gesture to the concise-minded Americans.

Now, the goodwill vibes somehow traversed the ocean and reached the American shores. So around the same time the British were thinking about sacrificing an ‘l’ for their cousins, the Americans were having the same accommodative thoughts about the British.

The lexicographers, led by Noah Webster, gathered together and decided to dedicate one word in honor of their cousins. And from among the hundreds of thousands of choices before them, guess which word they finally agreed upon? Enrol. So the Americans, as a token of honor to their highly-lettered cousins across the ocean, accepted to carry the burden of an extra ‘l’ in their enroll.

It was only when the latest editions of the Webster and Oxford dictionaries appeared in the market did both the nations realize their O Henry kind of situation. Too late to recall their national lexicographs from the market, they let the words remain as they were in their respective dictionaries to this very day.

Which is why in the United Arab Emirates new students have to enroll in the American schools while in the institutions that follow the British curriculum they need to just enrol. (Maybe someone could make a film out of this episode in Anglo-American relations, and title it ‘American History XL’.*)

Noah Webster

I have digressed a lot. Coming back to fourice, many a time in my writing life I have been stumped by the deficiency in the English vocabulary and the inefficiency in English usage. Consider this sentence, for example:

‘Parenting begins long before your precious child is conceived in the womb of his or her mother. And the kind of parent you have been to him or her long before he or she was born affects your child long after his/her birth.’

Have the British or the American grammarians, lexicographers, etymologists and linguists ever found a solution to their ugly language usages typified by the example above. They haven’t in the last half a millennium, and they arent going to for many centuries more.

It is not just deformed usages that our language authorities are guilty of overlooking. Superfluity is another of their lapses.

‘A good portion of the grain stacked in the public godowns are socked with rat urine. Every time you cook rice, you should take extra care to rinse it, not the usual twice or thrice recommended in the cookbooks, but at least four or five times to be assured it’s thoroughly cleansed of the vermin’s nuisance.’

Until my encounter with the pidgin English user, I would have let that sentence leave my editorial desk unchanged. Now, if I were to edit or write a similar sentence I would boldly do away with the prosaic word ‘times’ and just ‘ice’ the numbers. Efficient, sensible, logical, and economical – less two superfluous words.

Recently, I went for a prostate checkup. When the urologist asked me how many times I visited the bathroom in the night, I answered him, ‘at least thrice or fourice’.

‘What?’ uttered the befuddled doctor.

‘I mean, three or four times’. I knew from the look on his face the doctor wasnt ready for the ice thing yet.

‘I think you are going to need a prostate operation’, he answered.

Today, as I write this, I am minus a big chunk of my prostate, but I have been compensated with a much bigger hunk of an addition in my English usage – fourice, fivice, sixice…ad infinitice.

 

* American History X is one of the most unforgettable films produced in that country, depicting the chain-reaction of violence spawned by racism.

 

 

Do You Use ‘Their’ to Refer to ‘He’? Superb!

 

Which one of the following constructions would you use in your communications?

1.  The person who excels in his/her work shall rise above the ranks of the mediocre.

2.  Somebody has left behind his or her umbrella in the hall.

3.  The ordinary user of English has no clue about their use of pronouns.

It’s not enough that a professional uses English with grammar textbook correctness. They must adapt their language to changing trends in usage. Sadly, we see examples of outdated usages, ineffective construction, and outright grammatical timidity on websites and in printed literature – in newspapers, in press releases, company communications, corporate brochures, etc.

The chairman of a globally renowned organization, with which I was once closely associated, was publicly annoyed when one of his employees announced over the public address system:

‘Somebody has left their car lights on in the basement parking’.

Being in charge of an organization that took exceptional pride in its quality consciousness in all facets of its activities, the chairman rebuked the employee for his sloppy English usage and told him to stick to the accepted pronoun ‘his’ or ‘her’ the next time he made such announcements.

J.C. Nesfield, Wren and Martin, Roger Fowler and other august grammarians long diseased, I mean, deceased, also would have frowned in their graves if such usage had reached their ears.

But what the chairman didnt know was that reputable writers have used ‘they, them, themselves, their’ to refer to singular nouns and pronouns such as ‘someone, person, individual, he’ since the 1300s! For example, in 1759, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote, ‘If a person is born of a gloomy temper, they cannot help it’. Since then, many great writers, including George Bernard Shaw, have also used this construction, much to the chagrin of traditional highbrow English purists. The practice can be found in such respected publications as The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

But when writers still shy away from using ‘they’ to refer to a singular antecedent, it is usually out of unthinking obeisance to what they have been taught in school concerning agreement of pronouns.

Compounding their sense of timidity is the powerful influence upon their consciences of authoritative panels on language usage set up by Oxford and other universities. According to one report I read, one such official English Usage Panel rejected the use of ‘they’ with singular antecedents as ungrammatical. 82 percent of the panel found the sentence

‘The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work’

as unacceptable.

Interestingly enough, panel members seem to make a distinction between singular nouns (such as the typical student and a person) and pronouns that are grammatically singular but semantically plural (such as anyone, everyone, no one). 64 percent of the panel members accept the sentence ‘No one is willing to work for those wages anymore, are they?’

There’s one other consideration, one which the earlier mentioned chairman might have overlooked. His employee, not knowing whether the car belonged to a male or female colleague, might have wisely decided to neuter the construction.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote,

‘It’s not enough that a professional uses English fluently. They must adapt their language to…’

not only because I consider it semantically plural, but because I didnt want to risk annoying my female readers. Until such time the English language gives birth to a neutral pronoun which can be used with ‘manager, businessperson, somebody’, etc, I am going to play it safe and stick to ‘they’ and ‘their’ in such constructions.

Here are a few examples of differing usages relating to antecedents such as ‘person, customer, child’ etc, taken from a random selection of newspapers and magazines in the region. I can understand if a writer prefers one or the other of the usages, but what is unprofessional about some of them is that they are plainly inconsistent in their usage.

‘This is why an average investment consultation is likely to take more than an hour, to enable me to find out exactly what the client wants and, perhaps more importantly, what are his/her views with regard to risk.’   Arabian Business

The writer has played it safe, but ‘his/her’ ugly use of the slash has made his/her sentence stick out like a sore thumb/toe.

‘A person may not offer car driving lessons unless he/she is qualified and licensed by the Traffic Department’.   Gulf News

But then in the same column, the writer switches sides:

‘The reader should demand his dues before they lapse after the period of limitation of one year’.

Here’s an gender insensitive piece of writing:

‘This would also strengthen the relationship between parent and child without having the parent assume the youngster’s responsibilities, thereby denying him or her the chance to grow.’   Friday Magazine

So far so good for all relationships. But on the next page, the writer alienates all parents whose only child is a daughter by writing:

‘One reason why a child likes to test his parents’ rules is for the child to get what he wants.’

Customer insensitive:

‘To the customer, a programme is of no value if he can’t get what he wants from points earned.’   Gulf Business

Perhaps that company doesn’t have many female customers.

However, some other publications in the region put their pronouns to fair use.

‘Our main endeavor is to provide a first class customer experience at value for money prices to encourage the customer to return to us for their future rental requirements.’   Fleet Auto Middle East

‘It is important to do this, so you can control the options the user gets and hide the functions that they do not need.’   Arabian Computer News

‘This however puts everyone in the same bag, whether they don’t inflate their circulation at all or they multiply their actual print-run by 10 or more.’   Gulf Marketing Review

 

 

If We Stick Too Hard to the Rules of English Usage

 

I have always been critical of my English miss who insisted in my school days that a singular pronoun such as ‘everyone’ cannot be the antecedent of a plural possessive pronoun such as ‘their’. I would get a big red cross if, for example, I wrote, ‘The teacher asked every student in the classroom to raise their right hand’.The correct usage according to Nesfield or Wren & Martin, she would crossly remind me, is ‘The teacher asked every student in the classroom to raise his right hand’, or ‘The teacher asked all the students in the classroom to raise their right hands’.

‘But, miss’, I would protest, ‘what about the girls in this classroom…and also, miss, all the students here have only one right hand’.

‘Don’t be impudent with me, kid, and just do as the grammar books show you how’, she would retort, and then swagger back to her blackboard.1

When I became a magazine writer, my chief editor, of true vintage breeding from Eton, was adamant that the correct way to punctuate a sentence was to put the unquote mark invariably after the period. Look at this strange specimen:

 The accountant’s name is John, but his colleagues call him ‘Frog.’

That is how the chief editor wanted me to punctuate it. I told him it was illogical, because the period was not meant for Frog but as a full stop for the whole sentence. The chief editor wouldn’t budge a dot.

‘Respect the King’s English’, he reminded me.

I raised my eyes towards the ceiling and said ‘Long live the King!’

The chief wasnt amused at my gesture of exasperation.

‘When you’, he boomed, ‘become the chief editor, you may mutate your sentences any way you want. For now, do it the way I want’.

And so, suppressing my deep sense of irrationality, I continued to write many sentences the way he wanted, until I made my escape from that publishing company and finally landed at a spot where I am finally the chief editor…heh, heh, now I can write the way I want and who can stop me.

Only one party, though – the majority of my readers. I am writing for them. Only they will decide what’s the best usage for them. So far nobody has complained. If 51 percent of my readers say that I can only bat an eyelid, and not the hair on my brow, or complain about the way I use my commas, or, insist that I should never split the infinitive – I promise to immediately change…I mean, I promise immediately to change.

When tradition is adhered to merely for tradition’s sake, we get a whole lot of stagnated and ossified structures – in language, in fashion, in product design, in teaching methods, in management.

I have before me a book written a few generations ago in the English that was the correct and modern usage then, and deviation from which by any student at that time would have been met with the sternest reprimand from his teachers. Here is a sentence from that book:

‘So, if we building upon their foundation that went before vs, and being holpen by their labours, doe endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike vs.’2

We can make some sense of it if we struggle to decipher the meaning. But it was the best English in the sight of our forefathers.

My point is, the English that we speak and write today would appear as quaint as the sentence above if we keep insisting that the language rules we inherited from our teachers are always the best and the correct ones.

If you are a teacher reading this, try some new unconventional ways to use the English language in your classes. If you are a student, go on and create something fresh in your language usage, but keep such innovations outside your test papers – your examiners may not be as experimental-minded as you are.

So, if we, building on the good foundation that our teachers left us, being helped by what they taught us with much labor, endeavor to make it even better, no one, we can be sure, would have cause to dislike us.

 

1Despite the teacher’s stern rebuke about the use of ‘their’ with a singular pronoun, it is now officially accepted and even recommended by many English language authorities, including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (see entry ‘everybody’; can be viewed online).
2The old English quote is by the translators of the King James Bible in their introduction to this version.