The importance of minding your tongue

FR MICHAEL COMMANE

Published 20/12/2012 | 20:50

A DOMINICAN colleague called me last week to point out that I had misused the word 'pious' in something I had written for a national newspaper. I think I can call him a friend so there was a bit of banter between the two of us. I immediately made for the dictionary.

The sentence he was quibbling about ran: ' That's why so much pious talk is cant and humbug.' He argued that I was pious. As so often is the case with English words, the word has many meanings. My Collins dictionary gives two meanings for pious: 1, religious or devout, 2, insincerely reverent; sanctimonious. Now, does that not make the word meaningless as both those meanings seem to express opposite or at least mutually exclusive ideas?

In my job working in a press office I am regularly using the dictionary and I am amazed at how confusing the English language is. Is bi-monthly twice a month or does it mean every two months? My dictionary says: 1, every two months, 2, twice a month. But a bi-monthly publication is published every two months.

Did you know that flammable means readily combustible? But that's exactly what inflammable means too. Are you confused? I certainly am. And before I write another word, and still on the letter 'f ', did you know that ' fulsome' means excessive in an offensive or distasteful way? But it has a second meaning, 'extremely complimentary'. Can it get more confusing than that?

I spotted that horrible redundant apostrophe on Sunday – 'Christmas tree's for sale'. For the life of me, I do not understand how someone can make that mistake. Why throw in an apostrophe just because the word is plural?

It seems 'it's' is a bogey word with many people. When is it 'its' and when is it 'it's'? I know a priest who never gets it right. But he developed a clever compromise and decided to put the apostrophe after the 's', so he writes its'. He has a penchant for boxing clever (or should that be 'cleverly'?). And it has done him no harm at all.

It's almost impossible to go into a supermarket without spotting '1000's of items...' Why in heaven's name an apostrophe? It should not be there. It is plural. End of story.

And then there are those who write 'He lived in the 1960's'. Can anyone explain to me the reason for that apostrophe? The late Con Houlihan once quipped that a man who will misuse an apostrophe is capable of doing anything.

And then whether it is 'me' or 'I'. 'It's me' has become so widespread that it now seems to be the norm. A new book on the shelves this month has the title 'Catholicism and me'. Why the use of the accusative case when it is clearly the nominative case?

May by all grammar is in process and changes with use. I'm not too sure about that. It is now becoming more and more common for RTÉ journalists to mix up the past participle of the verb with the simple past tense – some weeks ago I heard a reporter say ' They done it'.

Okay, I can hear you say, 'so what, who cares?'. And there might well be a point to that. But how would you react if someone came along to you and said, 'Me am going to town today'? You'd be puzzled.

But there is more to it than that, surely. How many people are inclined to make judgements on people the moment they hear their accents? And when those same people intersperse their sentences with 'I done this and I done that' people quickly form opinions, right or wrong. Is language, accent, the words we use, a giveaway?

It's my last column here before Christmas, so a happy and holy Christmas to all readers. And a prosperous new year too.

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