English as she is spoke

Grammer Rd

GBS would have conniptions

The information technology world has introduced many new problems in dealing with the vagaries of American and British English. On either side of the Atlantic are “two nations divided by a common language”, England and America: two countries separated by a common languagea quotation variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Irishman George Bernard Shaw. Who knows who plagiarized whom?

We in the Southern Hemisphere, and most other Commonwealth folk, cling stubbornly to British English, albeit somewhat bastardized, but the spread of MacImperialism has given an American slant to English speakers in many other nations where it’s not the first language, particularly in Asia.

Before computers took over the world the division was quite clear—except for the Canadians, who had a “bob each way”—but the steamroller effect of US dominated computer-speak has dealt a severe blow to that tradition.

It’s a worry…

I now switch mental gears so often from both sides of the vocabular Atlantic that I struggle to remember what’s what. I’m verbally schizophrenic: out of sync with whether I’m synchronised, synchronized, or just mixed up. Spellings like disc and programme are fading fast. Colour is in mortal danger and the pronunciation of router is a moral quandary to many sensitive souls.

For we Antipodeans, with our own set of colloquialisms and hijacked indigenous languages, there’s yet another layer of complexity. E hoa? Coming the raw prawn aside, the confusion wrought by IT usage shouldn’t be an excuse for those for whom words are a professional tool to massacre their language.

The complexity of English gives it richness. Its structure is such that it “mangled can be without much meaning losing”. Such flexibility—not possible in most languages—has helped to make it the international tongue because, despite the complexity, it’s relatively easy to learn sufficiently well to communicate. Albeit imperfectly. That doesn’t make the use fractured English acceptable for those whose tool of trade it is and who should know better.

Language can legitimately ebb and flow with the tide…

…but it still needs an anchor. It’s bad enough that poor grammar and syntax are pandemic in the media. Even worse is the inability of incompetent presenters and writers to understand basic word meanings and usage. (I’m not a journalist, so no snarky comments about my own syntactical and lexical failings thank you.)
Between You and I, James Cochrane
Here’s a selection of examples of the many manglings which I encounter constantly and which offend my sensitive ear:

A mangled mother-tongue

  • The word media is plural, medium is singular. In every medium, the media are responsible for constant misuse of these words.
  • There may be many criteria, but there is only one criterion. The main criterion is: don’t get these criteria confused.
  • Data is also a plural word. Its singular is datum. These data are correct. So is this datum. You can back up one datum or all of your data. “Your data is now backed up” is wrong.OK, I may not win that one. It’s been cast in the cement of overwhelming common usage.
  • There are myriad reasons for not having a myriad of reasons. According to Oxford, myriad is acceptable as a noun. It’s not acceptable to me. Why use three words where one adjective will, with elegance, suffice? Use plethora instead.
  • Tonne is pronounced just like ton and—if you need a precedent—Donne. Go on, ask a Parisian.
  • Decimate means literally to cull one in ten. It doesn’t have to be that specific but it implies a significant reduction. It doesn’t mean to wipe out almost everything. That’s dealt with by the perfectly good word massacre and a rich lode of other synonyms.

Boldly go where no infinitive has been before…

You can invent words to your heart’s content. You may split as many infinitives as you wish. Captain Kirk could “boldly go” and you can too. That’s language evolution. The linguists who decry the splitting of infinitives are pedantic snobs haunted by the ghosts of their 1940s Latin lessons. In Latin it was necessary (so I’m told). In English it’s not even slightly necessary.


Mother tongue, Bill Bryson
Strangling the usage of valuable words which lend subtlety to our language is not evolution. It’s destruction. It’s sacrilege. The last straw for me was hearing a prominent Kiwi radio sports journalist (and ex-schoolteacher!) complaining in similar vein. He was particularly concerned about something called “pronounciation”. Don’t worry Murray, I won’t name names. (Editor’s note. I’ve since discovered that the excellent broadcaster in question is dyslexic. He’s forgiven. Marginally.)

Great reads

I recommend these two funny, informative, and brilliantly written books about the English language:

The Mother Tongue” by one of my all time favorite authors and the best non-fiction writer in the known universe, Bill Bryson. A droll and fascinating look at the roots and quirks of the English language.

Between You and I” by James Cochrane looks at how we mangle it.