Whither the niceties of language?
When Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are
looking at the stars,” he was referring to life. By extension, however,
Wilde's saying applies to English as well. Since the day English was
dethroned, some schools, colleges, universities and private institutions
have been teaching it without paying any attention to the niceties of
language. The end result is that we are left with a generation that uses
a kind of English which is dry as dust.
Today it is not possible to read a newspaper or a magazine which is
immune to mistakes and lapses. Even drafting of letters, writing essays,
reports and advertising are not up to the mark. A recent book review in
a newspaper referred to “main protagonists”. Can there be more than one
protagonist in a novel or play? This is a double-barrelled error because
“main” is redundant and there is only one protagonist in a given novel
Some of the modern advertisements show nothing but rock-bottom
illiteracy. A recent advertisement in a Sunday newspaper announced
“Walking interviews” for a certain post. We really do not know whether
the interview was held at the Galle Face Green! Another display
advertisement called applications for “Hotel staffs”. The word “staff”
always refers to a group of people working in an establishment. It does
not have a plural form with ‘s'. Half the population seems to think that
they can add “s” to any word and make it plural. The tragedy is that the
other half stands idly without squirming!
Most teachers do not take the trouble to update their knowledge of
English and teach the same old lessons until they retire. Niceties of
the language are difficult to master. However, should we destroy a
beautiful old building simply because it has decorative elements on its
facade? It is true that some people tear down architectural masterpieces
to see whether there is any treasure in them. We can only call them
vandals, nay barbarians.
Charles Dickens, the
There is a morality of language. The users of the language have an
obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties and fine distinctions
handed down to us by grammarians and literary men such as H.W. Fowler,
William Shakespeare, G.B. Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Some of the name-boards appearing in the city and the suburbs show
the sheer inadequacy of language skills. For instance, one name-board
proudly displays the words “honest opticians”. The question is whether
there are dishonest opticians! Another name-board had the following line
in bold type: “Enter from the back”. What the establishment really
wanted to say was “Use the rear entrance”.
Give up teaching
One day a fashionable young woman was talking loudly over the phone.
She said, “My sister has decided to leave teaching”. You can leave a
house or school, but can anyone leave teaching or any other profession?
What she probably wanted to say was “My sister has decided to give up
teaching”. When you decide to stop doing something, it is better to use
the phrasal verb “give up” rather than “leave”.
With the influx of tourists in large numbers, we can listen to their
conversation. One day, a foreigner using a mobile phone, asked the
person at the other end, “Who the dickens are you?” Most Sri Lankans are
familiar with the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens of Great
Expectations fame. The foreigner was not referring to Charles Dickens.
He was simply asking, “Who the devil are you?” In the good old days,
people refrained from using words such as “hell, devil” and “Satan” in
their speech. So, they coined a new word “Dickens”. According to some
scholars, “Dickens” refers to Satan.
If you happen to read the obituaries in any newspaper, you will not
miss another howler. Many people use “late” when they want to refer to a
dead person. Only living people come late to various functions. If you
want to refer to someone who is no more, you should use “the late”. 'The
late President R. Premadasa had a sense of humour'.
Most writers are quite satisfied with using cliches or worn-out
phrases. However, a bright spark in an international school once wrote,
“I'm planning to buy a preloved motorcycle”. It is said that even his
teacher did not know the meaning of “preloved”. The student who had
exposure to modern English had to explain the meaning of the word,
“preloved means second hand.” Today you can buy preloved books, cars,
radios and what not.
Once a mobile phone user dialled a number. He immediately heard a
sweet voice: “The number you are dialling is switched off.” Can anyone
switch off a number? It is not the number that is switched off but the
phone! By the way, “switch off” means “stop paying attention or stop
listening”. When a lecture is boring, we switch off after a few minutes.
Similarly, if you are annoyed by unnecessary noise, you can switch off.
Then you will not hear any unwanted noise.
Being a living language English is in the melting pot. Certain
expressions and meanings of words are constantly undergoing changes. For
instance, in the good old days, if somebody asked, “Who is it?” you
would say, “It's I.”
If you use this answer today, people will think that you have learned
the language from old grammar books.
“It's I” has become old fashioned. Nowadays, the standard response is
“It's me” or just “Me!”