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English is a living language that is constantly evolving


Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

Have you ever been watching TV, listening to the radio or reading your newspaper when you came across something which sets your teeth on edge?

It isn’t just the mispronunciation of words or misspellings (accidental “typos” of mistakes made through ignorance), though these are annoying enough. But what about the poor use of language? 

Allowing for the fact that English is a living language  and constantly evolving, we need to remember that words are important and the way we use them, equally so. It’s as easy to write good English as bad English.

The creative element is essential, but it doesn’t require dispensing with the basic rules of writing. Here are examples of some of the more common abuses of grammar, syntax, and my personal bete noir, the increasing use of “Americanisms”.

1. Unique: This is an ‘absolute’ being the only one of its kind, so it cannot be ‘quite unique’ or ‘very unique’!

2. Affect and Effect: The former is a verb meaning to exert an influence on something/someone or to touch emotionally: eg. ‘The strike will affect the general public.’ ‘She was visibly affected by the news.’ The latter is a noun which means a state of affairs that is produced by a cause: eg. ‘The effect of the bombing was that there were many casualties.’ Effect can also be used as a verb, meaning to achieve a final result: eg. ‘The Senate hopes to effect change.’

3. Fulsome: This adjective is regularly misapplied, being often mistakenly applied when used with the verb praise, to suggest that the praise was lavish. In actual fact, ‘fulsome praise’ means flattering or complimentary to an excessive or exaggerated degree: eg. ‘He is not only the best singer in Ireland but is surely the best singer in the entire universe!’

4. Begs the question: To beg the question means to presume that the conclusion of an argument is proven in the initial premise: eg. ‘Why is the Pope infallible? He’s infallible because he’s the Pope!’ All too frequently, the expression is used incorrectly when what is intended is ‘raises the question’: eg. ‘The improving economy raises (not begs) the question about the future of the Coalition.’

5. Each other/One another: The former applies to two; the latter to more than two: eg. ‘John and Mary were talking to each other.’ ‘John, Mary and Paul were talking to one another.’

6. Alternative/s: An alternative means one of two, so the noun ‘option’ is more appropriate for more than two: eg. ‘The students chose the technological approach because the alternative was far too slow.’ ‘The following three options (not alternatives) are now open to the Government.’

7. Got/Gotten: The past participle of the verb get is got, not gotten: eg. ‘He has got (not gotten) away with murder.’ (The Americans use gotten, which is not acceptable in British English).

8. Speak to: The preposition to is used with the verb ‘speak’ in British English. Americans use the preposition with, but since we speak British English, there should be no need to use the American form: eg. ‘I was speaking to (not with) my friend.’

9. Mr, Dr, Mrs: Since the first and last letters of Mister, Doctor, Missus are apparent in the abbreviated forms, Mr, Dr, Mrs, there is no need for a full stop, as in the American version Mr. Dr. Mrs. A full stop is needed, however, in the case of Reverend (Rev.) or Thursday (Thurs.) to indicate that the full word has been abbreviated.

10. Your/You’re: These are frequently confused. The former is a possessive adjective meaning something belonging to you and it should never be confused with the contraction you’re (you are).

11. Practice/Practise: The former is a noun: eg. ‘The practice of binge drinking is a problem.’ The latter is a verb: ‘You must practise every day if you want to master that piano piece.’ Once more, the Americans have thrown a spanner in the works by using practice as a verb!

12. Adapt/Adopt: These verbs are regularly confused. The former means to change to suit a given situation: eg. ‘We must adapt to the new timetable.’ The latter means to choose or to follow: eg. ‘He adopted a new persona.’

13. It’s/ Its: The former is a contraction of ‘it is’: eg. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary.’ The latter is a possessive adjective: eg. ‘The cat lost its tail.’

14. Good/well: In recent years, the American expression ‘I’m good,’ when what is meant is ‘I’m well,’ has crept into common use in Ireland. ‘Good’ is an adjective; ‘well’ is an adverb.

15. Big ask! This ridiculous American expression is now being used with slavish frequency today. ‘Ask’ is a verb so, using it as a noun, is as ludicrous as the ‘Friends Speak’ expression ‘You’re so not a size 10!’ It is surely possible to convey the sense of ‘big ask’ in such standard English as ‘That’s a lot to expect’ etc.

16. Going forward: This corporate, idiotic expression apparently means ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’. Many people rightly find it pretentious and annoying. It is a superfluous expression which can just as easily be left out in a sentence: eg. ‘Going forward we need to create more jobs.’ The sentence would make perfect sense with the first two offending words deleted!

17. Appraise/Apprise: These verbs are regularly confused. The former means to assess/evaluate, etc: eg. ‘The apprentice’s work was appraised by his supervisor.’ The latter means to inform/give information: eg. ‘The Taoiseach apprised his staff of the current developments.’

18. Typos: The following words are very commonly misspelt: accommodate/accommodation; tranquillity; focused/focusing; councillor/counsellor; accept/except; quiet/quite etc.

19. Fewer/Less: A simple way to distinguish between the two is to use fewer for plural nouns and less for singular nouns (or fewer for things that can be counted and less for things that cannot be counted): eg. ‘There were fewer potatoes on the market this year.’ ‘There will be less butter available next year.’

20. Lastly, The Split Infinitive! Ever since the Star Trek voiceover mentioned ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before,’ infinitives have been split relentlessly: ‘You really need to work’ surely reads better than ‘You need to really work.’ The jury is out, however, on just how obscene the split infinitive can be!

Dr Declan Collinge, a bilingual poet and former English teacher/lecturer, is the author of over 20 textbooks.

To contact the Sunday Independent about the use of language, please email spotted@independent.ie

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