Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language as it is written

I am not a linguist, but I did study linguistics in University. I am not a native English, but I believe I have attained some degree of proficiency in this foreigner's language, though at the expense of my native Chinese language. I hardly write Chinese anymore, except only on occasions when I do need to write my Chinese name for identification purposes (well that's strictly not true. While I do not write the Chinese script, I do 'write' it using my computer).

For some time now, I have been rather uncomfortable with how English is written, especially those that appear in public media (e.g. newspapers and advertisements) and trade flyers. I can understand when trade flyers contain grammatical mistakes because anybody in the office is 'qualified' to put out a flyer, including designing and printing it. But in a mainstream newspaper, ads and formal (official) reports /communications? Copywriters are not what they used to be. For example, many ads routinely misuse the verb 'spend' in the following manner:

" gifts for a minimum spend of $50..."

The correct construct should be '' gifts for a minimum of $50 spent...", or better yet, why not add that personal touch by phrasing it this way: " gifts when you spend $50 or more...". You still use 8 words in these two examples, no more nor less than the erroneous expression.

Then there are cases of 'pluralizing' uncountable nouns such as 'effort' and 'experience'. Granted, there may be certain contexts in which the 's' in these words may be valid. But you shouldn't write:

"...the good results where due to the efforts put in by the team...", or "...the students' experiences from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

Both words are uncountable abstract nouns (not that anything abstract can be counted anyway). As such, an 's' is not necessary, nor meaningful. This is the same with uncountable discrete nouns such as rice and flour. One does not write "rices" nor "flours" to express the plural. Whether it is a grain of rice, or an 'atom' of flour (if there is such a thing), these things are considered as single entities where the 's' is superfluous. Therefore, the right way to write these sentences is:

"...the good performance was due to the effort put in by the team...", and

"...the students' experience from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

I just felt I had to get this off my chest because with the prevalence of this erroneous expressions in mainstream media (heck, even people in the education business routinely commit these mistakes nowadays), I was beginning to question my grammar. Fortunately, I am not too old to remember the English grammar that I learnt in Primary school oh so many years ago, and which I imbibed through my voracious reading appetite ever since.

p.s. I can hear my professors telling me again that there are no rights or wrongs in language...;-)

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more.

My personal pet peeve is the misuse of the word "matured".

Like, "wah! Ah lian is more matured in her thinking. She's all grown up!" It should be mature, not "matured". I feel like throttling these people. It's a verb, not an adj (unless you're describing cheese).