Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 8 April 2012





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

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 or play.

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!

Half-baked teachers

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 author of
Great Expectations

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'.

Preloved motorcycle

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!”



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